SECOND in the series "Strong warnings about climate change."
President George H.W. Bush signed the global change research bill proposed during Ronald Reagan's administration. However, Bush let it languish during his own presidential term. Some have suggested that his history as a mover and shaker in the petroleum industry underlay the president's inattention. A program that looked into the link between human use of fossil fuels and climate degradation did not appear to jive with the interest of large oil and gas companies.
The climate office formally began operations under President Clinton in 1993. In 1997, though, after the failure of Hillary Clinton's health care initiative, deadlock between two Republican houses of Congress and the Democratic administration, the nation still reeling from strong internal and external pressures, and rumors about the president's private life, many in industry and politics felt the nation's strength was challenged by the upcoming Kyoto Protocol environment talks.
The Senate thus passed the Byrd-Hagel Resolution, a protectionist measure that warned the Clinton Administration away from two potential directions of any global warming treaty: (1) exempting developing nations from emissions restrictions, thus restricting their further growth (at the time, unlike now, the climate debate was split in two between well-to-do countries and China, India, and 127 other places); or, (2) because of its vagueness, perhaps more important--resulting in "serious harm" to the American economy.
Former Nebraska senator Chuck Hagel (R-NE), who introduced the Byrd-Hagel Resolution on global warming, is President Obama's choice for the next defense secretary.
The first National Assessment on climate change was completed behind schedule in 2000, the year George W. Bush, incumbent governor of Texas, won the presidential election by a margin so close that it depended on a Supreme Court decision (Bush v. Gore, 531 U.S. 98) awarding Florida's 25 electoral votes to Bush. Gore had won the popular vote by half a million.
The defeated candidate had begun political action on climate change with the first congressional hearings on the subject in 1976. While still a Senator, Gore wrote Earth in the Balance, which summarized what was then known about climate change. (It was the first book by a sitting Senator to make The New York Times bestseller list since John F. Kennedy's Profiles in Courage.) In a Washington Post editorial, Gore excoriated the first President Bush, saying that "humankind has suddenly entered into a brand new relationship with the planet Earth. The world's forests are being destroyed; an enormous hole is opening in the ozone layer. Living species are dying at an unprecedented rate." At the time, the hole in the ozone layer was fresh and alarming news. As Vice President, Gore fought the Senate over Byrd-Hegel, but political opponents dismissed his point of view as esoteric, unimportant, and in many cases, just plain "wrong."
The new President Bush, a son of Midland, Texas, oil and gas country, resumed downgrading the priority of the national climate change program. In 2001, he announced that the United States would not ratify the Kyoto Protocol, which Gore had signed in a symbolic gesture. Two years later, Senators John McCain (R-AZ) and Joseph Lieberman (D-CT) co-sponsored a proposal to cap "greenhouse gas" emissions from utilities and other industries. Their attempt was unsuccessful.
In 2004, the president dismissed an eight-nation report compiled by 250 scientists on accelerating Arctic warming. His administration never produced the next National Assessment on climate change, which was supposed to be finished in November 2004. The following year, Senator Jim Inhofe denounced the idea of global warming on the Senate floor as "the greatest hoax ever perpetrated on the American people."
Outraged environmental groups, including the Center for Biological Diversity, Greenpeace, and Friends of the Earth, challenged the administration's apparent attempts to ignore the law. They won their lawsuit. U.S. District Justice Saundra Armstrong ruled in "a stern rebuke of the administration's head-in-the-sand approach to global warming" that per the 1990 law, a national assessment of impacts of global warming was due on May 31, 2008.
The program produced its long-overdue report, Global Climate Change Impacts in the United States, in 2009. It found that Americans were "already being affected by climate change through extreme weather, drought, and wildfire trends." The report attempted to help farmers making crop and livestock decisions, local officials thinking about coastal zoning, public health officials attempting to lessen the impacts of heat waves, water resource officials considering development plans, and business owners with short- and long-term investments.
The 2009 report predicted these effects:
- Heat waves will become more frequent and intense, increasing threats to human health and quality of life. Extreme heat will also affect transportation and energy systems, and crop and livestock production.
- Increased heavy downpours will lead to more flooding, waterborne diseases, negative effects on agriculture, and disruptions to energy, water, and transportation systems.
- Reduced summer runoff and increasing water demands will create greater competition for water supplies in some regions, especially in the West.
- Rising water temperatures and ocean acidification threaten coral reefs and the rich ecosystems they support. These and other climate-related impacts on coastal and marine ecosystems will have major implications for tourism and fisheries.
- Insect infestations and wildfires are already increasing and are projected to increase further in a warming climate.
- Local sea-level rise of over three feet on top of storm surges will increasingly threaten homes and other coastal infrastructure. Coastal flooding will become more frequent and severe, and coastal land will increasingly be lost to the rising seas.
The report found the emissions of greenhouse gas pollution "significantly above the worst-case scenario that this and other reports have considered." Though it stopped short of directly naming parties responsible for the emissions, it did stress the potential value of early, aggressive action to combat global warming.
“By comparing impacts that are projected to result from higher versus lower emissions of heat-trapping gases, our report underscores the importance and real economic value of reducing those emissions,” said Tom Karl, director of NOAA’s National Climatic Data Center in Asheville, N.C. and one of the co-chairs of the report. “It shows that the choices made now will have far-reaching consequences.”
But who listened four years ago, and who remembers today?
NEXT: "Climategate" and assorted dirty tricks, 2009-2013
Award-winning science writer Sandy Dechert covered issues raised at the recently concluded 18th UN climate change summit meeting and during the 2012 presidential election. Her other work has included investigations into solar, wind, biomass, large and small hydroelectric, geothermal, and conventional energy forms. Sandy has also reported for Examiner.com on extreme weather disasters over the past few years.
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