The message has finally gotten through: global warming represents a serious threat to our planet. At the recent World Economic Forum in Davos, world leaders saw climate change, for the first time, topping the list of global concerns.
Europe and Japan have shown their commitment to reduce global warming by imposing costs on themselves and their producers, even if it places them at a competitive disadvantage. The biggest obstacle until now has been the US. The Clinton administration had called for bold action as far back as 1993, proposing what was in effect a tax on carbon emissions; but an alliance of polluters, led by the coal, oil and auto industries beat back this initiative.
To the scientific community, the evidence on climate change has, of course, been overwhelming for more than a decade and a half. I participated in the second assessment of the scientific evidence conducted by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, which perhaps made one critical mistake: it underestimated the pace at which global warming was occurring. The Fourth Assessment, which was just issued, confirms the mounting evidence and the increasing conviction that global warming is the result of the increase in greenhouse gases in the atmosphere.
The increased pace of warming reflects the impact of complex non-linear factors and a variety of "tipping points" that can result in acceleration of the process. For instance, as the Arctic ice cap melts, less sunlight is reflected. Seemingly dramatic changes in weather patterns -- including the melting of glaciers in Greenland and the thawing of the Siberian permafrost -- have at last convinced most business leaders that the time for action is now.
Recently, even US President George W. Bush seems to have woken up. But a closer look at what he is doing, and not doing, shows clearly that he has mostly heard the call of his campaign contributors from the oil and coal industries, and that he has once again put their interests over the global interest in reducing emissions. If he were truly concerned about global warming, how could he have endorsed the construction of coal-fired electricity plants, even if those plants use more efficient technologies than have been employed in the past?
What is required, first and foremost, are market-based incentives to induce Americans to use less energy and to produce more energy in ways that emit less carbon. But Bush has neither eliminated massive subsidies to the oil industry (though, fortunately, the Democratic Congress may take action) nor provided adequate incentives for conservation. Even his call for energy independence should be seen for what it is -- a new rationale for old corporate subsidies.
A policy that entails draining America's limited oil supplies will leave the US even more dependent on foreign oil. The US imposes a tariff of more than US$0.15 per liter on sugar-based ethanol from Brazil, but subsidizes inefficient corn-based US ethanol heavily -- indeed, it requires more than 3.8 liters of gasoline to fertilize, harvest, transport, process and distill corn to yield 3.8 liters of ethanol.
As the world's largest polluter, accounting for roughly a quarter of global carbon emissions, the US' reluctance to do more is perhaps understandable, if not forgivable. But claims by Bush that the US cannot afford to do anything about global warming ring hollow: other advanced industrial countries with comparable standards of living emit only a fraction of what the US emits per dollar of GDP.