The Climate Divide

Science  21 Mar 2003:
Vol. 299, Issue 5614, pp. 1813
DOI: 10.1126/science.299.5614.1813

Several weeks ago on this page, I vented some complaints about the Bush administration's draft Climate Change Science Plan (CCSP). That plan was, and is, a complicated hybrid creature consisting of the preexisting Global Change Research Program begun by Bush père, along with a modest Climate Change Research Initiative added by the incumbents. The latter is aimed at helping managers (for example, those responsible for water resources) adapt to climate change, an objective that certainly makes some sense. The older program contains some potentially useful long-range research elements and has received to date about $20 billion in support. Taken as a whole, however, the draft report was remarkable in that it included no recommendations for emissions limitation or other forms of mitigation. The current climate change policy depends entirely on voluntary reduction targets, which, even if met, would allow U.S. emission rates to continue to grow at around 14% per decade.

On balance, it looked like a very disappointing report. That led us to plead that the National Research Council (NRC) committee appointed to review the program should please look hard at what wasn't there, as well as what was. So far, the NRC draft (Science, 7 March, p. 1494) looks as though it has done half the job. It is sharply critical of the report's lack of vision, calls attention to the lack of adequate funding, and expresses concern about the lack of coordination. That's well-deserved criticism, but how about what's missing from the CCSP report? Does it make sense to offer a plan that lays out some ways of dealing with climate change but has no program for risk reduction? James Mahoney, the director of the CCSP project, promises that the final version will be different from the draft we've seen. One can always hope, but our experience to date has not been encouraging.

The failure to act promptly on climate change carries heavy prospective penalties. The administration's plans to date have studiously ignored the need to front-load the reductions in emissions of greenhouse gases (GHGs). Their strategy has been to delay these limits, on the assumption that what matters is the final atmospheric concentration of GHGs achieved at some future date, rather than the rate at which they are accumulating in the meantime. But a growing body of evidence disfavors this “slow ramp” hypothesis of global warming, with its emphasis on gradual change followed by societal adaptation to the altered climate regime. Instead, it now appears equally likely that warming events will trigger an abrupt nonlinear process, producing dramatic regional temperature decreases, especially in the temperate Northern Hemisphere. Recently analyzed records of historic climate change show that just such sudden alterations have happened in the past, preceded by radically revised patterns of oceanic circulation. Thus, the “business-as-usual” alternative that defers emission reductions may be a dangerous one.

A refreshing counterpoint to the U.S. effort is offered by the British plan announced on 24 February by Prime Minister Tony Blair (www.dti.gov.uk/energy/whitepaper/index.shtml). It provides for aggressive short-term emission reduction targets for GHGs; these would actually reduce emissions by 60% by 2050, even without nuclear power. That achievement would, by a large margin, beat the targets established by the Kyoto Protocol—targets that the United States wouldn't even talk about. Moreover, the British plan provides research commitments toward the development of renewables and other alternatives to fossil fuels, and sets industry incentives aimed at eventual energy independence. In all these respects, it is a vast improvement on the U.S. plan.

How different things might have been had the United States chosen to participate actively in the post-Kyoto climate framework process after the 2000 elections. Instead, the Bush administration took a contemptuous pass on multilateral engagement with the global warming problem, a stance that began the long, continuing process of eroding its friendships in Europe. Had it chosen to be a player instead of a critical spectator, it might have learned something about the importance of the issue, as the British did. And it might not have generated the kind of smoldering resentment that is currently creating a coalition of the unwilling with respect to the Iraq problem. Actions, after all, do have consequences.

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