Academic journal article Harvard International Review

The Single Greatest Threat: The United States and Global Climate Disruption

Academic journal article Harvard International Review

The Single Greatest Threat: The United States and Global Climate Disruption

Article excerpt

Climate change--or better, climate disruption--is the single greatest threat that societies face today.


In 1979, the administration of US President Jimmy Carter asked the National Academy of Sciences (NAS) to assess the scientific basis for concern about man-made climate change. Massachusetts Institute of Technology scientist Jule Charney led the NAS review. The chair of the NAS's Climate Research Board summarized the findings of the Charney Report: "If carbon dioxide continues to increase, the study group finds no reason to doubt that climate changes will result and no reason to believe that these changes will be negligible.... A wait-and-see policy may mean waiting until it is too late."

Since these early beginnings, the efforts to forecast climate change and to influence policy with the results have become a huge international enterprise. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has been at the center of the activity, and many US federal agencies, the NAS, and innumerable academic institutions and research centers have been deeply involved.

The effort is at last yielding some significant, if seriously belated, responses. With Russia's ratification, the Kyoto Protocol has entered into force. European governments, both individually and through the European Union, are taking more significant action. The government of British Prime Minister Tony Blair, for example, has remarkably committed to a 60 percent reduction in the United Kingdom's greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions by 2050, has developed a plan of action to meet this target, and estimates that the costs would be "very small--equivalent in 2050 to just a small fraction (0.5 to 2 percent) of the nation's wealth, as measured by gross domestic product (GDP), which by then will have tripled."

Such developments in Europe are encouraging, and some major corporations and a fair portion of US states are also taking significant steps. These changes are contributing to a growing momentum that offers hope for the effort to halt climate change. But an honest assessment reveals that, in general, scientific efforts to influence public opinion and policy on climate change have been disappointingly ineffectual.

The Situation Today

The scientific community has provided credible forecasts and serious warnings for the better part of three decades. Nonetheless, the buildup of GHG in the atmosphere has proceeded apace, climate change has begun in earnest, and even optimistic projections grimly forecast that both trends will worsen. One of the most comprehensive studies ever of the regional impact of climate change is the Arctic Climate Impact Assessment. The report makes for disturbing reading: the Arctic is warming much more rapidly than previously known, at nearly twice the rate as the rest of the globe, and increasing GHGs from human activities will likely make it warmer still. In Alaska, Western Canada, and Eastern Russia, average winter temperatures have increased as much as 3 to 4[degrees]C in the past 50 years and are projected to rise 4 to 7[degrees]C over the next 100 years. Warming over Greenland could melt the Greenland Ice Sheet, contributing to global sea-level rise at increasing rates. Over the long term, Greenland contains enough melt water to eventually raise sea level by about 23 feet. The report makes clear that Arctic developments could affect societies far away from the region by contributing to a rise in the sea level, adding positive feedback that accelerates warming and disrupting ocean currents, including the Gulf Stream.

Looking ahead, among the most widely accepted projections of future fossil fuel use are those provided by the International Energy Agency. Its 2004 "reference scenario," a business-as-usual projection, has total world carbon dioxide emissions climbing by 62 percent by 2030--several times the tolerable level for climate protection. The US Energy Information Administration has developed a similar business-as-usual scenario for the United States. …

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