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On Oct. 30, 2006, economist Nicholas Stern, on commission from the British government, released a 700-page report about the possible economic impacts of global climate change. The Stern Review found that the cost of combating climate change by reducing greenhouse gas emissions would be about 1 percent of gross domestic product (GDP) each year. The consequences of failing to act, however, would be equivalent to losing 5 percent of GDP per year now and forever. In a worst-case scenario, the loss could be as high as 20 percent. The report concluded that climate change is a serious global threat, but that there is still time to avoid the worst impacts if strong action is taken now.
Even though details of the report barely saw the light of day in mainstream U.S. media, reactions to the report emblematized both sides of the sternly contested debate about the dangers and possible effects of global warming.
Skeptics attacked everything from the overall credibility of the report — commissioned by a government already committed to emissions reduction and conducted by an economist — to its methodology to its individual numbers.
Environmentalists and advocates for greenhouse gas emissions reduction cited the report as yet another brick in a mounting wall of evidence that disaster — both fiscal and natural — looms if action is delayed any longer.
So the Stern Review helped reinforce already well-drawn battle lines. There are those who argue that global warming isn’t such a big deal — that “alarmists” are using global warming to create fear and spur unnecessary and expensive action. To these skeptics, spending large amounts of money to address hypothetical future scenarios would be a tremendous misallocation of funds.
On the other side are those who argue that human activity is fundamentally altering the Earth’s natural systems, that these systems may not be able to recover, and that global warming will have serious consequences for every kind of life on the planet, including human life.
Though both sides remain outspoken, the past few years have seen a significant shift in public opinion toward the idea that global warming really is a problem.
Even President Bush, an avowed skeptic, acknowledged in this year’s State of the Union address that alternative energy and other technologies would “help us confront the serious challenge of global climate change.”
A growing number of people in the United States — from individual citizens to heads of major corporations — are taking action independent of federal guidance. To these, climate change is too critical an issue with consequences too severe to remain mired in argument.
For facility executives, as the tide continues to turn towards the sentiment that global warming is an issue that requires action, an energy efficient building will no longer be enough. The new goal will be buildings that generate at least as much energy as they consume — and generate it without producing greenhouse gas emissions.
Though the two sides of the debate seem diametrically opposed, there is some nearly universally agreed-upon science that both sides use as a springboard for their arguments. The disagreement isn’t so much about what has already happened and why, though that is part of it. The argument is more about what will happen in the future, and, if climate change turns out to be as big a problem as most scientist believe, how dollars can best be spent to combat it.
In 2001, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), a multinational scientific body of more than 2,500 scientists established by the United Nations in 1988, released its third assessment report on global climate change. (The fourth assessment will be released in four phases throughout 2007. The first phase, yet to be released at press time, will reportedly contain bleak findings and predictions about storm severity, sea level rises, snow pack reduction and ocean acidification.)
The third IPCC assessment concluded that the Earth’s average temperature had risen 0.6 degrees Celsius during the 20th century. There is strong evidence, the report says, that this increase in temperature is directly attributable to greenhouse gas emissions from human activity, i.e. emissions from vehicles, industrial processes and generation of electricity, particularly from burning fossil fuels like coal and natural gas.
There are six main greenhouse gases, but carbon dioxide is considered the major climate change culprit. Carbon dioxide accounts for about 85 percent of greenhouse gas emissions from human activity. The concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere has greatly increased since the start of the Industrial Revolution — approximately 380 parts per million of carbon dioxide in 2004 compared with about 280 parts per million in the 17th and 18th centuries. (See chart)
“We know that greenhouse gases trap heat in the atmosphere. It’s basic physics,” says Jon Foley, director of the Center for Sustainability and Global Environment at the University of Wisconsin. “There were papers written back in the 1880s postulating global warming. This isn’t new.”
Foley says that 99.5 percent of scientific studies show that the world is getting warmer outside of natural variations.
“Most scientists think that it’s undeniable that the Earth is warming and that warming is caused by human activity,” says Eileen Claussen, president of the Pew Center on Global Climate Change.
According to the World Meteorological Organization, nine of the 10 hottest years on record since 1861 have occurred since 1995, with 2005 and 1998 virtually tied for hottest. The National Climatic Data Center recently announced that 2006 was the hottest year ever in the lower 48 U.S. states.
Two Sides to Every Story
Scientists and civilians alike who have investigated the issue believe that studies like the Stern Review and the IPCC report, while not empirical proof, are strong enough evidence with high enough probability of accuracy that they cannot be ignored. They believe the spike in carbon dioxide in the atmosphere due to human activity has indisputably caused a rise in Earth’s average temperature outside of what should be naturally expected. And they say this rise in temperature has and will continue to alter worldwide climate dramatically enough that life will have difficulty adapting. Skeptics say they require a scientific consensus before appropriate corrective action can be discussed. But many observers believe, based on these and dozens of other studies, that the scientific community already is unanimous. Or if not, unanimity is merely a hairsbreadth away.
While most skeptics do concede that the Earth is slowly warming partly as a result of human activity, many argue that the Earth’s current warming trend may mostly be a natural cycle.
“We don’t know for sure why the Earth is warming,” says Ben Lieberman, senior policy analyst at The Heritage Foundation, a Washington, D.C., think tank. “The question is how much is natural and how much is man-made.”
If that’s the case, where is the science that proves natural causes can account for the increase in the average global temperature, asks Foley. Indeed, skeptics offer very little peer-reviewed or non-industry-sponsored data that explicitly contradict the scientific, consensus-based data. Instead, they attack pieces of the data collected by other scientists and attempt to poke holes in the method by which it was collected. The skeptics don’t believe they’re saddled with the burden of proof.
“The problem with the skeptics is that they don’t have any real data of their own,” says Foley. “They’re just looking at holes in the existing data. It’s easy to be a gadfly. It’s harder to come up with your own data.”
The growing weight of evidence has also led skeptics to back down from earlier arguments. “The progression has been interesting,” says Claussen. “First, there was no warming. Then, there was warming, but it’s not caused by human activity. Then, there’s not very much warming caused by human activity. Now, there’s nothing we can do about it or it’s way too expensive to do anything.”
But the real vitriol is reserved for the arguments about the future effects of climate change. And while both sides agree that what might happen is far from certain, most scientists believe the consequences will be severe.
“Until modelers can reproduce what’s happening and be perfect, there are always going to be skeptics,” says Michael MacCracken, chief scientist for climate change at the Climate Institute. “They’re asking for absolute certainty, but no one makes decisions that way.”
The IPCC third assessment projects an increase of between 1.4 and 5.8 degrees Celsius in the period from 1990 to 2100. The wide range is intended to compensate for a number of variables, from land use changes to population increases. According to MacCracken, another reason for the wide range is simply that scientists hate being wrong.
“Scientists are being cautious,” he says. “We’re building a pyramid of knowledge and we don’t want it to come crumbling down.”
In a report titled “The Science of Global Warming,” MacCracken acknowledges that there is uncertainty, because of the complexity of paleoclimatic systems, about exactly how an increase in temperature would affect climate. But he also argues that there most certainly would be changes.
If the average global temperature rises by even 1.4 degrees over the next 100 years, MacCracken predicts that mountain glaciers will slowly melt, sea levels will rise, and evaporation rates and therefore droughts will increase in frequency and intensity. He foresees an increase in diseases as insects that thrive in warm weather proliferate. Air and water pollution will be magnified.
To MacCracken, these are cautious predictions. If the higher end of the temperature rise projection proves to be true, the results could be truly terrifying — stronger, more intense storms like Hurricane Katrina happening much more frequently, Antarctic ice shelves breaking off and polar ice caps continuing to melt causing sea level rises that will totally wipe out low-lying islands and coastal land, mountain snowpack disappearing causing water shortages, and widespread extinction because of lost habitat and failure of species to adapt quickly enough.
Skeptics decry these scenarios as ridiculous, essentially because no one can know for sure whether these gloomy predictions will come to fruition. “In general, the scarier the scenario, the less it’s probably true,” says Lieberman.
Skeptics also argue that the computer models that show these scenarios are not precise enough to be a good basis for decision-making. The simulations can be manipulated to produce desired conclusions.
“What good are these projections?” asks Myron Ebell, director of energy and global warming policy at the Competitive Enterprise Institute. “A seat-of-the-pants calculation on the back of an envelope would be more accurate. And basing public policy on these projections is irresponsible.”
Scientists acknowledge that the computer models aren’t perfect. But most believe they are scientifically accurate enough to draw reasonable conclusions.
MacCracken writes: “Given that the Earth system is arguably the most complex system science is investigating, we will likely never have a perfect model. There can be legitimate discussion, in my view, about how careful we have to be in using these tools, but totally rejecting model results, as some of the noisier critics argue, seems to me to be failing to make use of the unique human capability for contemplating what coming decades may bring.”
A Political Engagement
Strong opinions have only been exacerbated as global warming has increasingly become politicized.
“Environmental issues have always been partisan,” says Claussen. “We entered a period during the Clinton administration where we became really polarized because the administration wanted to move forward on climate change. Most industry was opposed, so they went to their supporters on the Hill, who happened to be Republicans. They ran to their constituency.”
That, in a nutshell, is the main reason that climate change has become a political issue — the underlying beliefs, assumptions and opinions regarding global warming match up well with many of the core tenets of each political party.
Of course, there are exceptions: John McCain, a Republican, is one of the more active senators in urging climate change measures and Arnold Schwarzenegger, the Republican governor of California, recently signed into law the first U.S. building emissions reduction law on record. (See sidebar below.) But even though there are these few “aisle-crossers,” the divide on global warming generally follows party lines.
“Underneath the issue, there are very strong agendas,” says Ebell, who has testified before six House and Senate subcommittees on global warming. He says the left generally believes government should regulate energy use, whereas “the right has a fear of giving government too much control and believes that people should make their own choices.”
The financial stakes involved push the two sides even further apart.
“Making a serious effort to reduce carbon dioxide emissions would be the most expensive environmental effort ever,” says Lieberman.
Critics of the California Global Warming Solutions Act, which requires organizations to reduce emissions to 1990 levels by 2020, argue that businesses will leave the state rather than spend the money to try to comply with greenhouse gas emissions caps.
But advocates for emission reduction legislation argue that organizations that take action to reduce greenhouse gas emissions now will gain a competitive advantage in the future. Additionally, they argue that the cost of environmental action is never as expensive as originally forecast. One oft-cited example is the elimination of CFCs from chillers — a process that was less expensive than expected and resulted in the development of better, more efficient products.
So the cost of combating climate change is bringing to light another level of disagreement: how to spend dollars to effectively combat a problem, the severity of which is disputed. If the solutions were cheap, there would be no argument. But the stakes are enormous and everyone has a vested interest.
A Solvable Problem?
“There are so many different perspectives, which is the reason for so much dissension,” says MacCracken. “The skeptics say ‘Before we risk billions of dollars, we better be sure.’ Environmentalists say ‘We only have one Earth. Stop doing experiments on it. It’s not worth the risk.’”
Many believe that a 60 to 80 percent reduction in greenhouse gas emissions by 2050 is necessary to prevent irreparable climate damage.
But before emissions can be reduced, they have to be leveled off — a major first step. With a booming worldwide population, changes in land use, deforestation and myriad other factors, the concentration of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases in the atmosphere will continue to increase at an alarming rate at least for the next several years. Meeting the 2050 reduction goal means capping greenhouse gas emissions sooner rather than later.
One attempt to do this is the Kyoto Protocol. This first multinational attempt at emissions caps has been ratified by every industrialized nation except the United States and Australia.
Skeptics, however, refer to capping emissions as “energy rationing.” They argue that emissions caps drive up energy prices and are therefore financially unfeasible — not to mention the cost of technology needed to reduce emissions in the first place. Many argue that the real answer is tax credits and incentive-based initiatives. Besides, they say, there is no way to accurately predict the degree to which emission caps will actually mitigate global warming.
A much better way to spend money, they say, is developing third-world economies and democracies so that they will be more resilient in the face of economic problems that global warming may cause. In other words, money should be spent on adaptation, not change.
“If their environment changes, more technology will allow them to better adapt and they’ll be better able to face change,” says Ebell.
Most scientists reply that if greenhouse gases continue to be emitted at the current rate, no amount of adaptation or resiliency will be enough. Greenhouse gas emissions must be reduced, they say.
But would emissions caps bring economic calamity? No, say advocates for reduction. They believe that the widespread use of already available technologies along with greater investment in renewable energy would financially feasible and would have significant impact.
For example, two scientists at Princeton University’s Carbon Mitigation Initiative have developed a greenhouse gas reduction system they call “stabilization wedges.”
Essentially, the system is a blueprint for leveling off emissions with technology available today. The 15 “wedges” are detailed emissions reduction strategies, such as efficient vehicles, efficient buildings, efficient baseload coal plants, capturing carbon dioxide at baseload power plants, substituting nuclear, wind and solar power for coal, using biomass fuel instead of fossil fuel, and reducing deforestation.
According to this system, implementing seven of the 15 wedges would offset emissions growth. The next step, then, would be actually reducing emissions.
“This problem defies a single silver bullet solution,” says the University of Wisconsin’s Foley. “We’re not going to completely stop using fossil fuels, but we have to be smarter.”
Foley says that we have all the tools in place right now to begin making a serious dent in emissions — even small things like replacing incandescent lamps with compact fluorescents helps. There are dozens of low-cost and no-cost strategies that can help begin to make a difference.
Even with a Democratic majority in Congress, significant federal action is unlikely any time soon. But there are literally dozens of private-sector initiatives that focus on carbon dioxide emission reductions. (See sidebar below.)
“The really innovative stuff isn’t happening at the federal level,” Foley says. “It’s happening in the private sector.”
Private organizations are beginning to understand that the conclusions presented in the Stern Review are applicable to them as well. They have realized that taking action now will result in savings later, but failing to take action now will have catastrophic consequences later.
“What we need is leadership to create a path,” says MacCracken. “Waiting to see if global warming is perfectly accurate science is like waiting until age 60 to fund retirement.”
Foley echoes the sentiment: “This is a case where an ounce of prevention is worth a ton of cure.”
1000 Years of Global CO2 and Temperature Change
Click on graph for larger PDF view
Voluntary Climate Change Programs
A growing number of corporations are considering voluntary reduction of their greenhouse gas emissions. Because the generation of power consumed by buildings is a major source of emissions, building energy use will come under increasing scrutiny in those organizations. Facility executives who haven’t pushed for energy efficiency or other measures may find themselves scrambling to respond to corporate mandates. That’s especially true if the corporation joins a voluntary program like one of these.
Climate Leaders is a voluntary greenhouse gas emission reduction program run by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). It helps organizations set goals for emissions reductions and provides tools to help achieve those goals.
The 2030 Challenge
The 2030 Challenge is a fossil-fuel reduction goal endorsed by leading organizations such as the American Institute of Architects, the U.S. Green Building Council, ASHRAE and the U.S. Conference of Mayors. Developed and championed by Edward Mazria, founder of Architecture 2030 and senior principal at Mazria Inc. Odems Dzurec, the 2030 Challenge is essentially an appeal to the building community to design buildings that meet energy efficiency targets.
Chicago Climate Exchange
The Chicago Climate Exchange (CCX) is the only greenhouse gas cap-and-trade program in the U.S, and the only one in the world to trade six major greenhouse gases. Organizations that voluntarily sign up for the market-based system are legally bound to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by a certain percentage. By December 2006, all participants had to have successfully reduced greenhouse gas emissions by 4 percent below their 1998-2001 baseline. Phase II, which runs through 2010, has a target of 6 percent reduction.
— Greg Zimmerman
AB 32: Cutting Emissions In California
When California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger signed AB 32 — the California Global Warming Solutions Act of 2006 — into law on Sept. 27, 2006, the United States instantly had its most stringent piece of legislation aimed at reducing greenhouse gas emissions. The law gives the California Air Resources Board (CARB) the authority to administer and regulate the process of reducing California’s emissions 25 percent to 1990 levels by 2020.
— Greg Zimmerman
Could Climate Change Be Beneficial?
Amid their other arguments that global warming may not be as terrible as it’s made out to be, some skeptics brandish the theory that climate change may actually yield some benefits. In a recent op-ed article in Forbes magazine titled “Love Global Warming” and subtitled “What’s wrong with mild winters, anyway?”, Myron Ebell, director of energy and global warming policy at the Competitive Enterprise Institute, argues that global warming would ease severe winters and make life more pleasant for those in cold weather climates. People prefer warmer climates, and warmer climates are healthier for the elderly and infirm, argues Ebell in the piece.
— Greg Zimmerman
Climate Change In Popular Culture
Climate change has undeniably cap-tured the public’s interest. So it was only a matter of time before the issue found its way into popular culture. Here are a few examples:
— Greg Zimmerman