Science &Technology in Congress
In 1995, the Parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change agreed to begin negotiations to establish binding restrictions on greenhouse gas emissions. The Parties have met twice since then to hammer out the nature and scope of regulations. The negotiations are scheduled to conclude this December with the Third Conference of the Parties in Kyoto, Japan. In Kyoto, the Parties will finalize a new treaty for adoption by the nations of the world which will establish legally binding emissions standards for developed nations.
With the December conference rapidly approaching, members of Congress are turning their attention to global climate change and the prospect of implementing potentially costly new environmental regulations. Both the House and the Senate held hearings in July to examine the issue.
Global climate change is a very contentious issue because it is shrouded in uncertainty. For decades, environmental scientists have been calling attention to the rise in atmospheric concentrations of greenhouse gases produced by modern industry, most notably carbon dioxide, methane, and nitrous oxides. This led to the theory that the artificially increased greenhouse gas levels could trap more of the suns radiation in the earth's atmosphere, a process which could eventually cause the global temperature to increase. Climatological data does seem to indicate a global warming trend, lending empirical support for the theory. However, it is extremely difficult to determine the precise impact of human greenhouse gas contribution, and, therefore, it is extremely difficult to predict the usefulness of emissions restrictions. The picture is further clouded by the natural variability of the earth's climate. The average global temperature fluctuates over time, even without man's influence, and the current warming trend may be due in part to purely natural forces.
This uncertainty has aroused much consternation on Capitol Hill. On July 10, a panel of scientists testifying before the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee confronted the uncertainty problem head-on. The witnesses discussed the natural variability inherent in the global climate, and pointed out the lack of continuity and consistency of environmental measurements. The panel was unanimous in asserting the need for more research. When asked by Sen. James Inhofe (R-OK) if the scientific uncertainties could possibly be resolved by December, the panelists admitted that there probably would not be any good answers. Some of the panelists were quick to make the case, though, that the existence of uncertainty does not mean that there is an insufficient basis for good decision-making. "Sound science doesn't mean certain science," stated Stephen Schneider of Stanford University.
On July 15, the House Commerce Committee Subcommittee on Energy and Power heard testimony from two representatives of the Administration, Timothy Wirth, Under Secretary of State for Global Affairs, and Dr. Janet Yellen, chair of the President's Council of Economic Advisors. Chairman of the subcommittee, Rep. Dan Schaefer (R-CO), was quick to ask the witnesses to state the Administration's position of global climate change. Dr. Yellen responded by explaining that no position had been taken yet. Needless to say, this left many subcommittee members unsatisfied, including Rep. John Dingell (D-MI), Commerce Committee ranking minority member. Rep. Dingell expressed strong concern over the possibility that developing nations, such as China, could be exempted from any binding emissions restrictions adopted in Kyoto. The Administration, said Mr. Wirth, is advocating a system by which in the future, developing nations could adopt the international emissions restrictions as their economies "evolve."
In a statement to the United Nations last month, President Clinton voiced his intention to examine the implications of climate change and emissions restrictions. He also expressed his desire to involve all of the interested constituencies, including scientists, industry leaders, and environmentalists, as well as members of Congress. This dialogue will form the basis for the Administration's position when the U.S. delegation sits down at the negotiating table in Kyoto. Any treaty agreed to in Kyoto must be ratified by the U.S. Senate, and then implemented through regulatory legislation.