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Updated September 2015  

What progress has been made in addressing the global warming issue?

While there have been international efforts to address the situation, the results have been uneven. In some developed countries, there have been reductions in emissions but such changes have been more than offset by rapid economic development in the undeveloped countries. Moreover, among the developed countries, some major players have not seriously come to the table. In the summer of 2015, the Obama Administration announced a major effort to reduce coal emissions but overall the U.S. has failed to cooperate in most international efforts to address the issue. Neighboring Canada withdrew from the Kyoto Protocol in 2012 rather than pay substantial fines for noncompliance with targets.

Although the evidence regarding the cause and pace of global warming has become increasingly definite, there has not been a corresponding change in the overall willingness to meaningfully address the issue in the United States. The issue was first introduced to the global community through the efforts of the Clinton Administration and has been fervently advocated by former Vice President Al Gore. Many countries, particularly European countries, have responded to the concern. Yet the eight years of the Bush Presidency was devoted to increasing the use and popularity of fossil fuels and the problem has not been prioritized during the Obama Administration. Although it is partly an economic issue, addressing global warming differs from other economic issues in that the possible effects of climate change have the potential to disastrously affect all economic classes in the society. Yet it appears that the collective conclusion which has been reached by policy makers is that the doomsday potential from climate change has not been sufficiently established to justify the massive economic adjustments necessary for meaningful action. To put it another way, the current consensus acknowledges that there will be a change in climate but has also concluded that it is not likely that it will seriously impair the sustainability of future humanity.

How serious is "global warming" and "climate change" issue?

Global warming is the term for the steady rise in average rise in global temperatures. The average temperature since 2001 has been warmer than in any year in the 20th century. 2014 was the warmest year on record.    The change in United States weather has not been quite as dramatic.

Scientists long theorized that the temperature rise has caused by the buildup of "greenhouse gases" such as carbon dioxide  and methane  in the Earth's atmosphere. The primary problem is carbon dioxide emmissions from fossil fuels.   These gases act like the glass on a greenhouse - they let the sun's heat in but they stop it getting out. The result is that the surface of the Earth is slowing getting hotter. The theory has been supported by the fact that the recent temperature trends are almost exactly consistent with scientific projections based on computer simulations. There is virtually no longer any debate within the scientific community regarding the relationship of human-created greenhouse gas emissions and climate change.

The main human causes of the buildup of greenhouse gases are the burning of coal and fuel by power stations in rich countries and the burning of forests in poor countries. Carbon dioxide is a main source of concern because of the massive quantities emitted. Energy use is the main source of carbon dioxide emissions. Methane gas is another contributor to global warming. Methane does not stay in the atmosphere as long as carbon dioxide but it has a much greater warming effect. The main source of methane is agriculture. Decaying organic matter and the digestive systems of farm animals, particularly cattle, are a major source. Methane also is generated by crops and landfills.    Nitrogen oxides from coal burning plants and automobiles are also a significant contributor.

Overall the richer countries in Europe and North America are emitting greenhouse gases at a rate disproportionate to their populations.   The United States and Canada are the largest consumers of oil per capita.  When carbon dioxide emissions are compared to the size of the economy, the U.S. and Canada fall into the medium range but Europe's performance is much better.

If the warming trend continues, what will happen?

This is the critical question, especially because of the economic costs associated with a meaningful reduction in greenhouse emissions.

Many scientists agree that one consequence will be a gradual increase in sea level which by the turn of the next century may threaten parts of some island nations. The climate change will certainly affect the levels of precipitation the ecosystems of various geographic regions. Some desert areas may expand; some arid areas may become productive.

Other consequences are not nearly as certain. Some suggest that there will be increasingly violent weather patterns and that the larger tropical areas will breed more diseases. There is concern that a melting tundra will release massive amounts of new greenhouse gases that will further accelerate the greenhouse effect. But there are a few experts who even believe that the net effect will be beneficial primarily because of increased agricultural production. The majority of environmentalists believe that even the possibility of an ecological disaster requires that prudent measures be taken to address greenhouse gas emissions and that the technology exists to accomplish this goal.

What has been done to address "global warming"?

At the Kyoto Climate Conference in 1997, 125 countries signed a commitment to reduce their overall emissions of six greenhouse gases to at least 5% below their 1990 levels between 2008 and 2012. In 2005, the agreement received the necessary ratifications to become a formal treaty. By 2011, almost all countries with the notable exception of the United States were parties to the agreement. (Click to see map)   Developing nations were exempted from most parts of this agreement in recognition of their current negligible contribution to the problem and because a significant increase in their use of fossil fuels would be an inevitable byproduct of economic progress. The Kyoto goals were significantly short of the target set by the Intergovernmental Panel for Climate Change of a 20% reduction by 2005. At the time scientists said this was the bare minimum to prevent some of the worst impacts of global warming.

The Kyoto Agreement's targets expired in 2012 but a subsequent proposal known as the Doha Amendment was developed to establish new goals. Under this protocol, developed countries would have binding targets but such targets would not be assigned to undeveloped countries. Canada had fallen fall short of the Kyoto goals and withdrew altogether from the Kyoto Protocol in 2012. Japan, New Zealand and Russia have indicated that they will not take on new targets. As of July 2015, 36 states have accepted the Doha Amendment, while entry into force requires the acceptances of 144 states. In 2014 negotiations were begun to establish a new framework but as yet there has been no new agreement.

Although the Clinton Administration was instrumental the negotiation of the Kyoto treaty, his efforts were not supported by Congress. In a suprisingly unanimous vote, the Senate passed a resolution as the treaty was being negotiated objecting to favorable treatment for developing countries. The Bush Administration continued this opposition and, of the developed countries, the U.S. was in rejecting the agreement. The opposition to the Kyoto agreement is based on the adverse economic consequences associated with curbing energy use. U.S. public opinion was generally critical of the country's refusal to participate in the Kyoto agreement  but the issue has never seemed to resonate with the public. The issue as not been on the forefront during the last three Presidential campaigns.

Most countries, including the U.S., are developing mechanisms to reduce the rate of greenhouse emissions. In stark contrast to North America, many European countries have achieved significant success in addressing Kyoto targets.    Current projections suggest that the carbon dioxide emissions due to energy consumption will stabilize (but not be reduced) in the developed countries but the overall emissions will still increase significantly by the year 2040.

Is there any possibility of reducing emissions?

The technology exists to accomplish the reductions contemplated by the Kyoto treaty but they all come at a signficant financial cost which makes their adoption unlikely especially in developing economies. Strategies to stabilize carbon dioxide emissions fall into these general categories:

  • Energy Efficiency and Conservation
    • Efficient vehicles - Fuel economy can easily be increased from 30mpg to 60mpg without subtracting from the utility of the passenger car.
    • Reduced use of vehicles - Improved urban design strategies can be used to facilitate mass transit and ride sharing so that passenger car mileage can be reduced from 10,000 to 5,000 miles per year.

    • Efficient buildings - Improved building and appliance design can cut emissions by 25%.

    • Efficient coal plants - the use of newer high temperature materials can increase coal plant efficiency significantly.

  • Fuel Shift

    A shift from coal to natural gas can accomplish significant reductions.

  • Carbon Dioxide Capture and Storage

    Emerging technologies are quickly developing feasible methods of capturing carbon dioxide emissions at coal plants and storing it rather than emitting it into the atmosphere.

  • Nuclear Power

    Increasing the percentage of electricity produced through nuclear power can achieve significant reductions. But increased reliance on nuclear power leads to other substantial environmental concerns.

  • Renewable Electricity and Fuels

    Increased utilization of solar and wind technologies are feasible and can contribute to some reductions.

  • Land use

    Stopping the current trend toward deforestation together with improved soil management and agricultural efficiency techniques can be effective.

Accomplishing any of the above strategies requires the kind of political will and foresight which has prompted the ratification of the Kyoto treaty. Whether the commitment of the world's countries toward this goal will be sustained and whether the U.S. will join the campaign is still unclear.

Are there alternatives to reducing emissions?

Possibly. There is increasing interest in the concept of geo-engineering, i.e. mitigating the effects of greenhouse emissions by modifying the environment. In addition to the proposals to capture and store carbon dioxide discussed above, there are proposals for solar radiation management techniques aimed at cooling the atmosphere by reducing the amount increased solar radiation caused by carbon dioxide emissions. There are a variety of such proposals such as aerosols or cloud cover. The advantage of many of these proposals is that the technology presently exists to implement them and they can be accomplished at a mere fraction of the cost of consevation or the development of alternative energy sources.

In March 2015 the National Academy released a report recommending signficant funding for researching such "Plan B" alternatives. The study concluded that carbon dioxide removal strategies address a key driver of climate change, but research is needed to fully assess if any of these technologies could be appropriate for large-scale deployment. Albedo modification strategies which would reflect sunlight could rapidly cool the planetís surface but pose environmental and other risks that are not well understood and therefore should not be deployed at climate-altering scales; more research is needed to determine if albedo modification approaches could be viable in the future.

Do Democrats and Republicans differ on global warming?

The partisan divide on this issue may be wider than on any other policy matter. The only reference to the problem in the 2012 Republican Platform was to ridicule the Obama Administration for suggesting that climate change is a crisis. In contrast, the 2012 Democratic Platform has strong language regarding the threat of climate change and the need for action. The Obama Administration undertaken various efforts to support alternative energies and in August 2015 announced an ambitious plan to curtail the percentage of electricity generated by coal burning.

But the politics of climate change policy are affected by public ambivalence regarding the issue. Americans do not put a high priority on climate change when compared to other issues and are likely to strongly oppose potentially effective measures to address the problem, such as a significant increase in the cost of gasoline. Most Americans do not think global warming will be a major problem in their lifetimes  and they now believe that higher priority should be given to economic growth.   A substantial percentage of the public believes that the problem is exaggerated by the news media. .

Global Warming Links

Open Directory - Climate Change

Climate Change at the National Academies

Kyoto Protocol - Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

Global warming - Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

Climate change - Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

How Stuff Works - Global Warming

American Petroleum Institute on Global Climate Change

Heritage Foundation - Global Warming

Global Warming Information Page

Charts
(click to enlarge)

Average Global Temperatures 1880-2014

Average U.S. Temperatures 1890-2013

Carbon Dioxide Emissions 1959-2014

Global Methane Emissions 1990-2010

Distribution of Greenhouse Gas Emissions

Sources of Carbon Dioxide Emissions

Sources of Methane Emissions

Top Eight Countries For Greenhouse Emissions and Per Captia Emissions of Each in 2011

Per Capita Oil Consumption

Carbon Dioxide Emissions Relative to Size of Economy

Status of Kyoto Treaty 2011

Status of Kyoto Treaty 2015

U.S. Public Opinion on Signing Kyoto Treaty

Progress To Date in Meeting Kyoto Goals

Projected World Energy Related Carbon Dioxide Emissions 2005-2040

Do you think Global Warming Will Pose a Serious Threat in Your Lifetime?

Americans Who Believe that Priority Should Be Placed on Economic Growth and the Expense of the Environment

American Attitudes on News Media Coverage of Global Warming