Turning up the Heat
A surprising consensus is transforming the complex politics of global warming
US News & World Report, April 10, 2006
It's a group you'd be hard pressed to find sharing the same table, much less a point of view. Evangelicals and the Union of Concerned Scientists. Greenpeace and DuPont. Even some Republicans and Democrats are growing flirtatious. It's still no lovefest, but a number of strange bedfellows are cozying up on a subject that was once all but taboo in Washington: global warming.
America belches up more greenhouse gases than any other country: 5.8 billion metric tons of carbon dioxide in 2003 alone, thanks mostly to autos burning gasoline and power plants consuming coal. But the Bush administration and the U.S. Senate have refused to join almost 160 nations in signing the Kyoto Protocol, the landmark treaty that went into effect last year and hopes to curb the growth of greenhouse gas emissions. In the States, global warming skeptics and pro-business politicians argue that mandatory restrictions would drag down the economy and provide a boon for unregulated rivals like China and India.
But for reasons that range from economics to ethics, a confluence of Christian leaders, corporations, and investors are turning up the heat for legislative action. "If you said [a few years ago] that the development of climate-change policy would be where it is today, somebody would say you're smoking something," says Ray Kopp, a senior fellow at Resources for the Future. Driving the discussion is an emerging consensus on global warming, fed by a stream of recent scientific reports. If that consensus view is correct, the results could be devastating: rising oceans, ferocious hurricanes, and prolonged droughts. A poll released last month by the Opinion Research Corp. showed public concern increasing markedly in the past two years. The public mood has some politicians listening, most notably Sen. Pete Domenici, the powerful chair of the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources. After seeing a number of climate-change-related bills shot down or stalled in recent years, the New Mexico Republican is trying to broaden the debate; this week he'll host a high-level forum of scientists, businesses, and public-interest groups that will argue the fine points of how to curb emissions without breaking the economy. The complexity of the issue and resistance of many in Congress make passage of a bill unlikely this year. And Democrats have no plans to make hay of climate change in this year's midterm elections.
Nevertheless, experts say a tipping point has been reached--in both the real-life effects of global warming and the determination to do something about it. For the first time, federal legislation curbing greenhouse gas emissions is starting to feel like a case of when, not if.
The National Academy of Sciences, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, and even, grudgingly, the Bush administration now believe Earth is warming. The roots of this emerging consensus go back to 1998, when climatologist Michael Mann used tree ring, ice core, and coral reef data to show relatively stable temperatures over the past millenniums, with a sharp spike in the 20th century. Called the "hockey stick" graph because of its shape, Mann's research concluded that human-generated greenhouse gases--such as carbon dioxide and methane--were the primary culprits. While the shape of the hockey stick has changed somewhat, numerous studies have largely vindicated Mann. "All the new data are in the same direction, showing that warming is continuing," says Ralph Cicerone, an atmospheric scientist and president of the National Academy of Sciences. Average surface temperatures have climbed about 1.4 degrees Fahrenheit since the early 20th century, coinciding with spiking atmospheric levels of carbon dioxide, which have ballooned 35 percent over the same period. Levels of methane, a far more potent heat-trapping gas, have jumped 152 percent since the preindustrial age. Last year was the hottest on record, and model projections show temperatures jumping anywhere from 2.7 to 10.7 degrees Fahrenheit over the next 100 years.
Last month, scientists from the University of Colorado-Boulder were startled to discover that Antarctica is losing up to 36 cubic miles of ice annually. Glaciers on Greenland are melting so rapidly that scientists are predicting sea levels will rise 3 feet by 2100, enough to soak cities along the eastern seaboard. The loss of solar-reflective ice means that bare ground is soaking up more heat--and melting more ice. In Canada's Hudson Bay, Ian Sterling, a research scientist with the Canadian Wildlife Service, is seeing ice melt three weeks earlier than when he first arrived on the job 25 years ago. Polar bears, which cross the ice to hunt in deeper waters, are forced ashore early--losing weight and having fewer cubs. The early arrival of spring is also triggering swarms of mosquitoes along the Hudson Bay, interrupting the nesting cycle of birds. The swarms have caused some birds to desert their eggs. Meanwhile, a team of researchers at the Georgia Institute of Technology says warmer waters have nearly doubled the number of Category 4 and 5 hurricanes in the past 35 years, though some scientists blame the natural storm cycle rather than warmer water.
Not everyone is convinced that man is to blame or that warming will have catastrophic effects. One of the most vocal skeptics, Pat Michaels, a meteorologist and a fellow at the libertarian-minded Cato Institute, has argued that climate models dramatically overstate the effects of man-made greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. He has dismissed global warming as "a beast that feeds on public fears." But a greater number of scientists say global warming is not only real; it's already here. "I used to tell people this will affect your kids," says oceanographer Tim Barnett, "but the problem is now."
The fact that many scientists believe global warming may be rapidly approaching the point of no return has motivated a cast of unlikely players. In February, 86 Evangelical leaders signed on to a major initiative that accepted the reality of human-related global warming and called for federal legislation to reduce carbon dioxide emissions. The movement has fallen short of a full endorsement by the
National Association of Evangelicals, but the group's chief lobbyist in Washington, the Rev. Richard Cizik, is one of the initiative's biggest boosters. A former skeptic, he was swayed after attending a three-day climate-change conference in 2002. "I had a conversion [that was] characteristic of my conversion to Christ," he says. Cizik cites the biblical call to be good stewards of the Earth, but the crusade is largely driven by the potential human toll from global-warming-induced disasters. The group has begun running ads on CNN and the Fox News Channel. It's even turning up the pressure on one of the religious right's staunchest supporters, Sen. Sam Brownback, by airing television ads in Kansas urging him to take a tougher stand on the issue.
Meanwhile, a growing number of investors are pushing for change from the business community--for reasons of conscience and good old capitalism. A network of climate-focused institutional investors called Ceres, which includes major pension funds, is using its nearly $3 trillion in assets not only to sway businesses to cut emissions but to persuade companies to plan for a future in which the effects of climate change and/or federal restrictions on greenhouse gas emissions could hurt profit margins. That's why Ceres has embraced firms like Cinergy, a coal-fired utility company in Ohio (which is being sold to Duke Energy of Charlotte, N.C.). Cinergy--with some prodding from Ceres investors--has taken the lead in lobbying for mandatory curbs in emissions and supports Domenici's efforts to craft legislation. "It's really a risk-management issue for us," says Kevin Leahy, Cinergy's general manager of environmental economics. "We feel [carbon emissions] will be regulated at some point. We want to be involved in crafting a policy that is workable." Companies are also feeling the pain of operating in a patchwork quilt of state emissions standards that have sprung up in the absence of federal legislation. For companies in the forefront of reducing greenhouse gas emissions, like DuPont, which has already saved billions by making its plants more energy efficient, mandatory restrictions would give them a competitive edge. Others are seeing new markets and PR opportunities. British Petroleum is trumpeting its cuts in emissions while promoting its slate of alternative energy solutions. And many multinationals are facing emissions restrictions in Europe, where the Kyoto Protocol is already in effect.
The changing dynamic of the issue has cracked open an unexpected fissure in the Republican Party. Some prominent GOP players, like Tucker Eskew, a former deputy communications director for President Bush, is supervising a joint campaign with the Ad Council and the group Environmental Defense to educate the public on the global
warming threat. But getting any sort of reaction out of Congress may take a while. A conservative House of Representatives has been loath to deal with the issue, and President Bush's Clear Skies Act has been deadlocked in the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee since 2002. Moderate Republican Sen. Lincoln Chafee of Rhode Island is siding with Democrats who are pushing to add carbon dioxide to the bill's list of restricted emissions, but the committee chairman is Sen. James Inhofe of Oklahoma, a steadfast skeptic who has called the idea of catastrophic global warming a "hoax." Inhofe isn't budging, and neither--so far--is Bush, who favors voluntary reductions. Sen. John McCain and Sen. Joe Lieberman have twice tried to pass legislation that would establish tough mandatory federal caps on greenhouse gases. After the first one failed in 2003 by a 12-vote margin, they actually lost Democratic support when they reintroduced it last year with the addition of a provision supporting nuclear power.
Amid the bickering over what a climate-change bill might look like, 53 senators passed a nonbinding sense of the Senate resolution last summer, stating that, at the very least, climate change is real and mandatory restrictions on greenhouse gases are needed. The resolution has bolstered hope that action is on the horizon, but there'll be no legislation until Congress agrees on a climate-change bill that limits harm to the economy. Sparking a turf battle with Inhofe, Domenici has taken up the question in his own committee. "Frankly, I don't know how to write [the bill]," he told reporters in March. "And I don't think anybody does." He'll be looking for answers in this week's conference; 160 organizations, individuals, and businesses
have submitted proposals that range from straight caps on emissions to a program in which large polluters could buy credits from low polluters.
Despite the ongoing ferment, not even Domenici believes legislation is likely this year. And that's alarming to the growing portion of the scientific community that believes the clock is ticking. NASA scientist James Hansen, who made headlines after saying the White House was censoring his comments, argues that if greenhouse gases aren't reduced within 10 years, the warming process may be irreversible. Plenty of scientists, including Mann, also believe that even if emissions were immediately halted, existing greenhouse gases would continue to warm the Earth for decades.
The forecast may be grim, but supporters of legislation to curb greenhouse gases see a potential silver lining. "We know how to pass bills, and we've shown we can do it," says Cizik of the National Association of Evangelicals. "The end result here is that Washington will change."