In 1992 the United States and nations from around the world met at the United Nations Earth Summit in Rio and agreed to voluntarily reduce greenhouse gas emissions to 1990 levels by the year 2000. The Rio Treaty was not legally binding and, because reducing emissions would likely cause great economic damage, many nations will not meet the goal.
Representatives from around the world met again in December of 1997 at a conference in Kyoto to sign a revised agreement. The Clinton Administration negotiators agreed to legally binding, internationally enforceable limits on the emission of greenhouse gases as a key tenet of the treaty.
The president's position is based on the idea that global warming is real and that it is caused by human activity. Further, it presupposes that the potential damage caused by global warming would greatly outweigh the damage caused to the economy by severely restricting energy use. Finally, his position assumes that the agreement will significantly reduce greenhouse gas emissions worldwide and will prevent global warming.
Is global warming occurring?
- According to Accu-Weather, the world's leading commercial forecaster, "Global air temperatures as measured by land-based weather stations show an increase of about 0.45 degrees Celsius over the past century. This may be no more than normal climatic variation...and several biases in the data may be responsible for some of this increase."
- Satellite data indicate a slight cooling in the climate in the last 18 years. These satellites use advanced technology and are not subject to the "heat island" effect around major cities that alters ground-based thermometers.
- Projections of future climate changes are uncertain. Although some computer models predict warming in the next century, these models are very limited. The effects of cloud formations, precipitation, the role of the oceans, or the sun, are still not well known and often not well represented in the climate models, although all play a major role in determining our climate. Scientists who work on these models are quick to point out that they are far from perfect representations of reality, and are probably not advanced enough for direct use in policy execution. Interestingly, as the computer climate models have become more sophisticated in recent years, the predicted increase in temperature has been lowered.
Are humans causing the climate to change?
- 98% of total global greenhouse gas emissions are natural (mostly water vapor); only 2% are from man-made sources.
- By most accounts, man-made emissions have had no more than a tiny impact on the climate. Although the climate has warmed slightly in the last 100 years, 70% percent of that warming occurred prior to 1940, before the upsurge in greenhouse gas emissions from industrial processes.
If global warming occurs, will it be harmful?
- The idea that global warming would melt the ice caps and flood coastal cities seems to be mere science fiction. A slight increase in temperature, whether natural or mankind induced, is not likely to lead to a massive melting of the earth ice caps, as sometimes claimed in the media. Also, sea-level rises over the centuries relate more to warmer and thus expanding oceans, not to melting ice caps.
- Contrary to some groups' fear mongering about the threat of diseases, temperature changes are likely to have little effect on the spread of diseases. Experts say that deterioration in public health practices such as forced large scale resettlement of people, increased drug resistance, higher mobility through air travel, and lack of insect-control programs have the greatest impact on the spread of vector-borne diseases.
- Larger quantities of CO2 in the atmosphere and warmer climates would likely lead to an increase in vegetation. During warm periods in history vegetation flourished, at one point allowing the Vikings to farm in now frozen Greenland.
Australia is arguing that there should be individual levels for every country considering its specific situation. The level should be determined by numbers like the projected population growth, emission intensity, energy intensity of exports, etc.
Australia is resisting a big reduction in the emissions level, which would have a devastating effect on a country that is a big coal exporter and also relies on coal for domestic energy use. Australia supports the idea of a tradable permit system with some reservations, especially about the initial distribution of permits and the huge transfers of money.