Meeting the Most Serious Environmental Issue Solutions Could Include Energy-Efficient Technologies, Incentives for Conservation, and Reduced Energy Subsidies

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It's official: The winter of 1996-97 was one of the wettest in United States history. In the last few years trends in flooding have been rewritten in many regions of the country, along with heat waves, record heat days, severe rains, and dry spells. The weather has gotten peculiar everywhere, and this past winter's rainfall and flooding is symptomatic of this larger trend.

Scientists suspect that our emissions of greenhouse gases are part of the reason for our odd new weather patterns. In Kyoto, Japan, this December, the United States, Japan, and more than 150 other parties to the 1992 Rio Treaty on Climate Change will consider setting binding global limits on greenhouse gas emissions. These are produced primarily by burning fossil fuels for a wide variety of human needs.

Scientists have tied the escalation of atmospheric greenhouse gases to long-term climate changes, such as global warming and intensified water cycles. According to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), a group of 2,500 expert scientists from around the world, atmospheric concentrations of greenhouse gases - carbon dioxide, nitrous oxide, and methane - have grown significantly by about 30 percent, 15 percent, and 145 percent respectively since the Industrial Revolution began. They are expected to more than double next century, and are growing faster than at any time in our geological record. As a result, by the end of the next century global temperatures are expected to rise between 1.8 and 6.3 degrees F., with a best guess of 3.6 degrees - the largest warming the earth has seen in 100 million years. The IPCC reached consensus that these climate changes are beyond natural variation and reflect "a discernible human influence." It depends on where you live Depending on where you live, the potential adverse impact of these trends on human habitation, water supplies, food supplies, infectious diseases, forests, fish and wildlife populations, urban infrastructure, floodplain, and coastal developments may be enormous. Solutions to these problems could include energy-efficient technologies, incentives for conservation, flexible emissions-permit trading by industries, reduced energy subsidies, and other methods to reduce emissions. Together, these issues constitute the most serious and complex environmental issue ever faced by the international community. The winter rainfall and a long list of other peculiar weather events indicate that long-term changes in the earth's climate already are having widespread impacts on the water cycle, weather patterns, natural resources, and human systems here in the US. Scientists with the National Climatic Data Research Center (NCDRC) in Asheville, N.C., recently analyzed a century of data from thousands of United States weather stations and made some compelling findings: * Over the past 100 years the average US surface temperature has increased almost 1 degree F. In some locations, such as southern California, it has increased as much as 4 degrees. In others, such as Mississippi, it has actually cooled, but these areas are expected to warm in the future. * Extreme temperature events, such as the 1993 Chicago heat wave, have increased on a steady trend that is expected to continue as average temperatures shift upward. A small shift in the average means that low-probability extremes of the past, such as 100-degree days, will become far more common. * Yearly rainfall in the US has increased 4 percent over the last 100 years (the equivalent of half the annual flow of the Mississippi River falling in new rainfall each year). In some coastal areas, like my own state of Connecticut, it has increased as much as 20 percent. In California and Wyoming, it has fallen by a corresponding amount. * A greater proportion of rain now falls in severe weather events (deluges of two inches or more of rain in a day). Most of it comes during cool months when it does little to help crops or forests, or as flash floods that leave too fast to relieve drought-stricken areas. …