Global climate change should be a U.S. priority

Last week, more than 1,000 scientists and stakeholders gathered in Washington, D.C., to review and comment on the George W. Bush administration’s strategic plan for climate-change research. What emerged from the conference was a five-year research plan that focuses on providing better information on the economic ramifications of climate change and coordinating federal agency climate change research. Unfortunately, the research plan is short on much-needed climate policy action. The Bush administration also seems to be relying on an uncertain deus ex machina to save the globe from the damages caused by climate change.

It is true the economic ramifications of climate change could be relatively negligible; economic catastrophe due to climate change is not inevitable as some environmentalists would have us believe. Via human ingenuity, agricultural systems could adapt to intensified storm and drought cycles and temperature changes caused by global climate change. Technological advances and better social planning could respond to the spread of infectious diseases correlated with warmer temperatures. However, climate change could also court extreme disaster. The breaking-off of the West Antarctic Ice Sheet would raise sea levels 15 feet and inundate New York, Boston and Miami with sea water. Some small island countries could wind up completely underwater. The disruption of Atlantic Ocean currents could make Europe’s climate similar to Canada’s. This seemingly innocuous change in Europe’s climate would, most experts agree, result in mass starvation throughout the developed world.

Unlike the socioeconomic effects of climate change, scientists have a much better understanding of how climate change will affect ecological systems. As reported in The New York Times, most climate change experts agree that certain global changes are already probable despite any future action to reduce emissions, “including the dwindling of snow-dependent water supplies and global die-offs of vulnerable ecosystems like coral reefs, alpine meadows” and accelerated extinction of biodiversity. Continued inaction on carbon emission reduction will only endanger more of Earth’s natural systems.

The only action the Bush administration has taken on climate change policy is to ask U.S. industry to voluntarily reduce carbon emissions. It also appears the Bush administration is counting heavily on the development and implementation of hydrogen fuel cells as a way to reduce carbon emission in the future. Hydrogen fuel cells produce “clean” energy, and their efficient implementation could make the transition from a fossil fuel-based economy to a clean fuel-based economy seamless. However, relying on corporate beneficience and the development of a sophisticated technology that is nowhere near the implementation stage to solve climate-change problems is foolhardy and irresponsible.

Most climate-change experts believe we can avert the worst ramifications of global climate change if we act now to begin reducing carbon emissions. Although the Bush administration is right in noting that the economic consequences of climate change are uncertain, the risks of great economic loss and the certain disruption in the biosphere argues for limited carbon emission reductions immediately. While more research could indicate the economic damage will be minimal, inaction now will lead to the destruction of the world’s coral reefs and accelerated biodiversity extinction. And if future research indicates economic disaster is inevitable unless drastic changes are made, our inaction today could make these needed changes impossible to implement.

But unilateral action on the part of the United States cannot solve the climate change problem. Given the Bush administration finds the Kyoto protocol flawed, it is imperative that the administration suggest an alternative initiative that the whole world finds palatable and begin to reduce carbon emissions now. The initiative must be flexible enough to respond to future climate change research that in all likelihood will show that more aggressive action will be needed in the future.

The United States has shown over the last year and a half that it will act proactively around the globe to reduce the uncertain risks of terrorism. The United States has devoted countless assets to address an act that might or might not happen again – a large-scale terrorist attack on U.S. soil. Most Americans believe this is a prudent approach. Therefore, is it not prudent to address a risk such as global climate change, a phenomenon that could cause more U.S. damage, death and misery than any nuclear bomb or anthrax attack?