News: News Archives
Speakers at AAAS Co-Sponsored Panel Urge National Commitment on Climate Change
Edward J. Markey
[Photos courtesy Harvey Leifert]
Americans must begin to mitigate the effects of climate change, not simply adapt to them, "because there are no emergency rooms for planets and our planet is getting sicker by the day," U.S. Rep. Edward J. Markey said at panel discussion at AAAS. The nation must take preventative care right now, Markey said, because adaptation later will be prohibitively expensive, especially in the poorest parts of the world.
"We need to be realistic about the harm that has already been done," said Markey, a Massachusetts Democrat who chairs the House Select Committee on Energy Independence and Global Warming. The United States cannot just blame China and India, where industrialization is rather recent, while America already has been pumping carbon dioxide into the atmosphere for two centuries.
Markey told an audience of more than 200 that climate change already has contributed to armed conflicts in such places as Somalia and Darfur. He suggested that a National Intelligence Estimate be prepared to assess the long-term national security implications for the U.S. of climate catastrophes in far-off lands, and legislation to this effect, drafted by Markey, is currently being considered in Congress.
The panel discussion on climate change was the first in a four-part series on "Science and Society: Grand Challenges," sponsored by the AAAS Center for Science, Technology and Security Policy; Georgetown University's Program on Science in the Public Interest; and the Smithsonian Institution's Lemelson Center for the Study of Invention and Innovation. The other panelists were William H. Hooke, an atmospheric scientist and director of Policy Programs at the American Meteorological Society, and economist Joseph E. Aldy, co-director of the Harvard Project on International Climate Agreements and a fellow at Resources for the Future. The discussion was moderated by Richard Harris, National Public Radio's lead reporter on climate change.
Hooke opened the dialogue by stating three propositions: (1) It is very likely going to get warmer, globally; (2) Earth is "resolutely variable," its climate having varied for millions of years prior to the industrial era; and (3) climate is significantly shaped by extreme events, including heat and cold, flood and drought, and storm tracks, all of which affect climate averages in addition to the effects of human activity. There will be winners and losers as the global climate changes, with probably more of the latter, he said, but the specifics are difficult to foresee.
Joseph E. Aldy and William H. Hooke
Hooke chided the scientific community for allowing the argument about whether climate change is real to go on for 20 years. "The real issue is what to do about it," he said, "and that problem is far more complex and challenging, far more nuanced, far more threaded through every decision we make than this question: Is it real and are humans the cause?"
Nature will present humanity with a whole series of local, regional, and global challenges, Hooke said. How soon we recognize particular challenges depends to a great degree on how perceptive we are. Some challenges already are evident, he said, and there are more to come.
Moderator Harris noted that the Kyoto Protocol, which sets greenhouse gas emissions caps for participating countries, is approaching its 10th anniversary. Kyoto's benefits, if they are in fact realized, will be felt far in the future. But, Harris asked, what happens to the climate in the near term, even if we cap missions today? Hooke responded that we are increasingly moving into a "zero-margin world," one that is finely tuned to the current climate, with little room to accommodate the effects of change. In the developed world, Hooke suggested, many people equate margin with waste, so a typical attitude is: "I'm always going to be pushing things, right to the point where there's zero margin." In the developing world, he continued, zero margin is the normal state; people enjoy fewer options to begin with.
Aldy observed that some people use uncertainty about the specific impacts of future climate change as an excuse to avoid taking action now. In fact, he said, in our own lives, when we face uncertainty, we buy insurance. Uncertainty about climate change is the reason we must take some actions now.
The essence of climate change is too subtle for many people to comprehend, particularly when the projected rise over the current century is in the neighborhood of two degrees Celsius (four degrees Fahrenheit), Aldy said. In cold climates, like New England in winter, that doesn't sound bad at all, he added, to laughter from the audience. He contrasted the widespread lack of comprehension of the dangers of climate change with other environmental issues that are easier to grasp. Acid rain sounds like a bad thing, period, he said, and as for the ozone hole, all one needs to hear is that it can lead to cancer, so it would be best to close up the hole.
We must make climate-related investments starting now and over 30 to 40 years to have an impact. During that period, we can expect significant technological advances that will help achieve the goal. Think back 40 to 50 years, he suggested, and see how much technology has advanced since then.
Markey noted that the head of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency had never appeared before the House Energy and Environment Committee while the Republicans controlled it, from 2001 trough 2006. Few American even know who the EPA administrator is, he said, unlike in other countries, where ministers of the environment are key members of their governments. "This," he quipped, "is a very successful witness-protection program."
But Markey said the paradigm has begun to shift this year: Democratic control of both houses of Congress has brought increased attention to environmental issues, including climate change. The U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has issued an authoritative series of new reports, expressing the clear and urgent consensus of thousands of scientists and most of the world's governments. And, he said, "who would have bet in January of this year that Al Gore would win an Oscar and the Nobel Peace Prize—for a slide show?"
In fact, Markey said, the U.S. government is just now starting to catch up to the public, which has for years favored action on climate change.
From left to right: Richard Harris, Joseph E. Aldy, William H. Hooke, and Edward J. Markey
19 November 2007