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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Global Admission on Worldwide Warming

Air Date: Week of

Not much is likely to be done before the 1996 U.S. Presidential election is over, but if President Clinton is re-elected, new signals from his cabinet are that the U.S. will work to have legal solutions to global greenhouse gas pollution emissions. Dan Grossman reports on Washington’s possible policy shift.


NUNLEY: This is Living on Earth. I'm Jan Nunley in this week for Steve Curwood. The United States has called on the world community to take bold new steps to combat global warming by reducing emissions of greenhouse gases. The announcement is being praised by environmentalists and assailed by many captains of industry. But the details of the proposal have yet to be worked out. And as Living on Earth's Dan Grossman reports, the devil is in those details.

GROSSMAN: For decades, scientists have been looking for evidence that pollution is altering the atmosphere and heating up the planet. Late last year an international group of scientists completed the most comprehensive report on the subject yet. The conclusion was unequivocal.

WIRTH: Two thousand of the leading scientists around the world are saying that the imprint of man on the climate of the world can now be seen and recommending very strongly that it is time for nations in the world to take steps.

GROSSMAN: Timothy Wirth is the Undersecretary of State for World Affairs. In mid-July, at a high-level meeting in Geneva, he officially acknowledged on behalf of the US that global warming is happening and must be slowed. He also said the US wants to fix a serious problem in the 1992 Global Warming Treaty negotiated in Rio de Janeiro. That treaty called for modest cutbacks in carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases, but few countries are on target. The problem is the treaty is not binding. Undersecretary Wirth says the US wants to change that.

WIRTH: We're proposing a legally binding program in which targets will be set internationally, and in which nations will have obligations to meet those targets.

GROSSMAN: The Bush Administration had opposed binding commitments in Rio. Former Environmental Protection Agency Administrator William Reilly, who negotiated the Rio agreement, says that meeting these goals would have required new taxes on energy, which President Bush opposed. But Mr. Reilly was never completely happy with the treaty and would be pleased to see it fixed.

REILLY: The Administration has made an important statement in Geneva. The statement almost explicitly says look, a lot of us have been making commitments, at least since we signed the climate treaty, that we have not seriously set out to achieve.

GROSSMAN: The Administration has yet to announce what targets it will propose the nations meet. These will be discussed at an international meeting next year. The specific means for reaching these targets would come later. Michael Oppenheimer, Chief Scientist at the Environmental Defense Fund, says it's likely that substantial cuts will be needed to prevent serious climate disruption.

OPPENHEIMER: To keep the warming at a moderate rate of, say, a couple of degrees Fahrenheit over the next century would require that emissions of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases come down eventually to around half current levels.

GROSSMAN: But Dr. Oppenheimer says that some steps to meet these goals would be relatively painless.

OPPENHEIMER: People, oh, 10 years from now could be driving cars that are 45 or 50 miles per gallon. Electric utilities would become more and more dependent on natural gas, and eventually, where possible, on solar energy, and people would be buying the highest efficiency light bulbs and the high efficiency appliances.

GROSSMAN: The real question is how to get Americans to buy these products. Former EPA Chief William Reilly expects the Clinton Administration will have to turn to the approach so anathema to President Bush.

REILLY: I think the implication in Secretary Wirth's statement in Geneva is that the United States will contemplate energy taxes.

GROSSMAN: An energy tax would encourage conservation technologies by making fuel more expensive. It's an idea that gives some business leaders fits.

PALMER: Our economy and our society has been built on affordable energy. It is a competitive advantage we have in the United States. Oil, natural gas, and coal.

GROSSMAN: Fred Palmer is the CEO of the Western Fuels Association, which supplies coal to utilities. Coal is one of the worst greenhouse offenders. Mr. Palmer believes a faction of apocalyptic Chicken Littles, including Tim Wirth and Vice President Al Gore, has taken over the Administration's energy policies. When it comes to predicting the impact, Mr. Palmer himself sounds like a prophet of doom.

PALMER: If they have their way and we are forced to move more and more to renewable energy sources in the US, there will be major adverse consequences caused for our economy that are not foreseen by those who promote these policies.

GROSSMAN: But the corporate community is not uniformly opposed to policies to slow global warming. For instance, the insurance industry, concerned that climate change will alter weather patterns and increase property damage, is beginning to argue for prompt and substantial cuts in greenhouse gases. Kevin Fay heads a coalition of corporations, including chemical companies like DuPont, that is lining up behind the Administration's plan.

FAY: It's certainly going to require us to use our energy more efficiently. But it's also probably going to require in the longer-term revolutionary technological change. I don't think anybody can, just as at the turn of the last century, could identify what technologies we would be using today. It's difficult to predict what that might be, say, 50 to 70 years from now.

GROSSMAN: While anyone who contemplates climate change must think long-term, the Administration is for now focusing on the coming months. The State Department says the first details of the new proposal won't be ready until next year. That's safely on the far side of the Presidential election. While the American public supports environmental protection, the candidates know conservation measures, especially ones requiring new taxes, could be campaign poison. Jimmy Carter's unpopular conservation policies in the 1970s are believed partly to blame for the failure of his 1980 re-election bid. For his part Western Fuels CEO Fred Palmer doesn't care about the particulars of the Administration's plan, because he doesn't believe global warming is a problem. But he says the die isn't cast yet, and it's not too late to influence the President.

PALMER: I know who holds suasion now in the Administration. I can read, I understand that. But I've also seen the President react in ways different from what he said he might do earlier. I don't think that's a vice in a politician, by the way. I think it, that's the definition of a politician; I think it's a virtue.

GROSSMAN: Mr. Palmer says the last time Western Fuels locked horns with the Administration was the last time the President proposed an energy tax in 1993. That proposal was defeated in the Senate. For Living on Earth, this is Daniel Grossman reporting.



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