United States: Congress gets wake-up call from scientists

by Danielle Knight

Washington, Jun 28 -- Scientists here have demanded that the US Congress heed their calls to reduce emissions of 'greenhouse gases,' blamed for global warming.

More than 50 prominent experts climbed Capitol Hill here Monday to give legislators a refresher course on climate change - and to dress them down for not joining a worldwide effort to control the heat-trapping gases.

The United States is responsible for the majority of the industrial emissions already in the atmosphere, they noted, yet members of Congress have refused to ratify the Kyoto Protocol, an international agreement drawn up in 1997 and signed by the United States the following year.

Scientists from 23 US states also lambasted members of Congress who have argued that global warming remained "only a theory" and that cuts in greenhouse emissions would raise the cost of energy and hurt the US economy.

"If you think climate change mitigation is expensive, try the cost of not mitigating climate change," said Richard Gammon, professor of chemistry, oceanography and atmospheric sciences at the University of Washington.

Speakers on Monday reiterated the majority view among scientists worldwide, that greenhouse gases - released when oil, coal and other carbon-based fuels are burned - were responsible for warming Earth's atmosphere.

"We are astonished that some members of Congress continue to ignore warnings from the scientific community," said Walt Oechel, director of a global climate change research group at San Diego State University, in California.

"Climate scientists from around the world are in wide agreement that global warming is real and could greatly disrupt society," Oechel added at a Capitol Hill briefing organized by the non- governmental Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS).

The experts urged lawmakers to initiate strong policies to cut emissions through greater use of energy-efficient technologies, transportation reforms and a shift to renewable energy sources such as solar and wind power.

The dangers of human-induced climate change include the spread, to temperate zones, of tropical diseases such as malaria, and the loss of agricultural land to deserts. Rising sea levels, brought on by melting polar ice caps, could cause the loss of coastal areas and - most dramatically - entire island countries. The past decade has been the warmest ever recorded and 1998 was the hottest year for at least two hundred years, researchers said.

If current record-breaking warming trends continue, average global temperatures could rise between one and 3.5 degrees centigrade by the year 2050, according to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), a United Nations scientific body.

"Our society is currently conducting the largest experiment in the history of humanity," said Donald Wuebbles, a University of Illinois professor of atmospheric sciences who also serves on the IPCC.

"The potential rise in temperature could lead to significant effects on coastal systems, human health, agriculture, fresh water resources and ecosystems, and could cause severe weather conditions like heat-waves and floods," Wuebbles warned.

In order to deal with this threat, the United States and 37 other industrialised nations agreed two years ago in the Japanese city of Kyoto, to reduce their emissions of greenhouse gases by an average of at least five percent below their 1990 levels by the year 2012.

After signing the Kyoto Protocol, the administration of President Bill Clinton - under pressure from pro-industry Republicans and Democrats from oil- and coal-producing states - agreed not to seek Senate ratification until key developing countries committed themselves to limiting their emissions.

This was in response to industry arguments that the treaty would unfairly restrict US emissions while permitting developing countries to remain large emitters of carbon dioxide in the next century.

Most developing countries and the European Union have rejected that position, arguing that the industrialised countries are responsible for virtually all the warming that has taken place so far and therefore should reduce their emissions before requiring developing countries to follow suit.

US lawmakers - facing pressure to appease environmentalist constituents - in turn have proposed several regulations that would create incentives for industries to voluntarily reduce their emissions.

Speakers on Monday, however, said much stronger action was urgently needed.

Wuebbles, noting that the "mainstream scientific community" was unaware of any uncertainties likely to alter its conclusion that human activities affect the global climate, argued that "Congress needs to be better prepared to make the right decisions."

Many scientists warned that climate change already may be affecting the United States.

"In Alaska, the frozen ground, known as permafrost has already begun to warm," said Oechel. "We have already begun to see a change in the types and numbers of species in the Arctic."

The western Arctic was warming at least twice as fast as the rest of the globe, according to scientists with the environmental group Greenpeace. This warming had caused polar ice packs to thin and recede - robbing polar bear, sea birds and other wildlife of their habitat.

Earlier this month, the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) and Marine Conservation Biology Institute warned that ocean warming was leading to worrying declines in marine life and habitats - especially in and around especially vulnerable coral reefs.

Evidence of the damage wrought by global warming stoked scientists' ire at the work of the Global Climate Coalition and other industry lobbying groups.

Two years ago, the Coalition launched a multi-million-dollar advertising campaign against the Kyoto Protocol. Since then, the business group has maintained its opposition to mandatory emission limits.

The UCS, however, noted that several large firms had begun to break away from the corporate bloc. These included General Motors, DuPont, British Petroleum and Boeing - all of whom have agreed that climate change poses a serious threat to public health and the environment.

"With more and more industries finally acknowledging the threat of rising temperatures, Congress has become a last bastion of denial over global warming," a UCS statement said. (IPS)

The above article by the Inter Press Service appeared in the South-North Development Monitor (SUNS).