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Commentary: Global Warming Needs More Than Just Another Study


On the eve of his first trip to Europe as President, George W. Bush unleashed a torrent of anger from environmentalists and Europeans by digging in his heels on global warming. When a much-anticipated scientific report ordered by the White House confirmed the global-warming threat, Bush responded only with a call for "more research." That was hardly what environmentalists or Europeans--plagued by foot-and-mouth disease, mad cows, and unprecedented storms--wanted to hear. To the contrary, of the subjects Bush planned to address in Europe, "the environment is the big issue" a senior French official said. "Missile defense is years away, but people are already feeling threatened by environmental problems."

Still, Bush did make an important concession in his June 11 Rose Garden speech. For the first time, he accepted the scientific consensus on global warming--a consensus that doubters on the right, not to mention Bush himself, have questioned. "We know the surface temperature of the earth is rising," Bush now says. "Concentrations of greenhouse gases, especially carbon dioxide, have increased substantially since the beginning of the Industrial Revolution. Andthe increase is due in large part to human activity." That's as clear a statement of the problem as any politician has provided, and it's all the more surprising from an Administration with closer ties to business interests than to environmental groups.

UNFAIR. What's less clear is whether Bush is serious about realistic solutions that would address the problem. Even as he embraced the science of global warming, he reiterated his opposition to the 1997 Kyoto Protocol. He believes that its emission limits cannot be met without damage to the American or global economy. What he didn't do is come up with any alternatives, causing critics in Europe and elsewhere to charge that he is just stalling.

Rather than propose an alternative to Kyoto, Bush has instead created the U.S. Climate Change Research Initiative, to be headed by the business and trade-oriented Secretary of Commerce, ex-oilman Donald L. Evans. The initiative's charge is to boost research on global warming during the next five years and work with allies to do the same. The problem is it sets no timetable for putting policies into action.

No one disagrees that scientists still have a lot to learn. Respected critics such as Richard S. Lindzen, a climatologist at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, point to uncertainties in predictions of future warming. Computer analyses estimate that temperatures could rise by 2.5F to 10.4F by 2100. This spread suggests how much scientists still do not know. They don't fully understand, for example, how changes in humidity, ice cover, and cloud formation could speed up or ease the temperature rise. And even the best climate predictions are limited by other uncertainties, such as population growth, energy use, and unforeseen tech gains.

But Bush already has plenty of the answers needed to craft a policy. He referred in his speech to a 28-page guide to global warming prepared by the National Academy of Sciences at the request of the White House and released on June 6. The report summarized what is known about global warming, and, equally important, it noted where the uncertainties lie.

Here is what scientists generally agree on: Greenhouse gases are accumulating in the atmosphere as a result of human activity. Carbon dioxide has increased beyond levels seen before the Industrial Age. Typically, levels of carbon dioxide range from 190 to 280 parts per million by volume (ppmv) during so-called interglacial periods, such as the period we're in now. By 1958, however, atmospheric carbon dioxide had risen to 315 ppmv. It is now about 370 ppmv and climbing at 1.5 ppmv per year. Human use of coal, oil, and gas is the primary cause.

Together, these and other substances trap heat in the atmosphere, just as car windows trap heat in a sunny parking lot--the so-called greenhouse effect. Temperatures have risen 0.7F to 1.5F in the past century. According to the report, most warming during the past 50 years "is likely to have been due to the increase in greenhouse gas concentrations."

None of this constitutes absolute proof that greenhouse gases caused the temperature rise. But the science does tell a compelling story. And many scientists, environmentalists, and business leaders have concluded that it is time to act: If current predictions are roughly correct, the warming could lead to changes in growing seasons, widespread droughts, coastal flooding, and even catastrophic changes in weather.

EXEMPTIONS. Nor does the report necessarily suggest that the Kyoto pact, unchanged, is the best route forward. Even supporters acknowledge that Kyoto is a far more problematic and costly solution than envisioned when negotiated. For one, it exempts developing countries such as India and China from binding emissions limits, a compromise adopted with the understanding that such limits would be added later. Without them, the pact appears to put an unfair burden on industrialized countries. And Kyoto does not provide for emissions trading--giving the U.S. or European countries emissions "credits," for example, for building clean power plants in developing countries.

What can be done? Bush is not likely to drop his opposition to the Kyoto accord, but Europeans believe it is an important first step and can be used to fashion an effective treaty. And publicly, they remain fully behind it. "The European Union and its members will fulfill the obligations we have undertaken with Kyoto," says Jurgen Trittin, the German Environment Minister. Still, no European country has ratified the treaty either, and some may be pleased to see Bush receive all the criticism for rejecting a treaty they too would have difficulty implementing.

The question now is whether Bush, through his new task force, will develop policies that begin to address these issues. One possibility would be to suggest ways to refashion the treaty to improve it, rather than to abandon it altogether. Even Treasury Secretary Paul H. O'Neill has urged Bush to develop "a catalogue of possible options" to address global warming. Those could include taking steps to boost energy efficiency, a move that could have benefits elsewhere in the economy while it reduced emissions. A proposed bill to raise fuel-efficiency standards for sport-utility vehicles, approved by the House Appropriations Committee on June 12, would fit squarely into such a strategy.

To restore U.S. credibility on the issue, Bush needs a comprehensive set of proposals to deal with global warming. If he lets the new research task force drag on for more than a few months without answers, it will be clear that he is merely stalling. In the Rose Garden speech, Bush said, "While scientific uncertainties remain, we can begin now to address the factors that contribute to climate change." Many of his critics agree. What, then, will the U.S. begin to do? That's what the President did not say. By Paul Raeburn

With Lorraine Woellert in Washington and bureau reports


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