Report

Changes in the Air (Spring 2006 Trust Magazine article)

The global warming debate reaches a turning point in the U.S.

When the environmental ministers of 22 nations met to discuss climate change in Ilulissat, Greenland, last August, they didn't have to go far to find evidence that global warming is affecting the Arctic.

Ilulissat, a rugged village of 5,000, is home to one of the Arctic's most stunning glaciers, a massive, 10,000-yearold, 3,000-foot-thick wall of ice that completely fills a nearby fjord. Five kilometers wide, the iceberg-choked front of Ilulissat glacier is one of Greenland's top tourist destinations and its only UNESCO World Heritage site.

It's also vanishing at a shocking pace.

Over the past four years, the massive glacier has receded by more than six miles, as Greenland's average temperatures have increased by about 2 degrees Fahrenheit. The ice in the glacier has been flowing nearly twice as fast as it did in the late 1960s because Greenland's gargantuan ice sheet melts in the heat.

“We are seeing massive melting, and it was very hard not to assign it to global warming,” says Robert W. Corell, Ph.D., a senior fellow at the American Meteorological Society, who led a helicopter-borne tour of the area. “Greenland is melting far more rapidly than anyone imagined possible just three or four years ago.”

Corell should know. He's the head of the Arctic Climate Impact Assessment, an unprecedented four-year study of the entire Arctic region involving 225 scientists from a dozen nations. The study's conclusions, published in 2004, leave little doubt that global warming is real and that its effects are already under way. Average winter temperatures have increased by as much as 4 to 7 degrees Fahrenheit in the past 50 years across much of the region, while the extent and thickness of sea ice have been reduced significantly. With the Arctic warming at twice the speed of the planet as a whole, half of the Arctic summer ice is expected to melt, along with much of the Greenland ice cap, by century's end.

The effects of global warming are already being felt by people who live in the far north. Melting permafrost has damaged roads, apartment buildings, pipelines and airport runways in northern Russia, while ice roads across the Alaskan tundra are now passable only 100 days a year, down from 200 just 30 years ago. Inuit communities in northeastern Canada that rely on ringed seal and polar bear for food have seen both species diminish, along with the summer sea ice.

At the other end of the planet, parts of Antarctica are also experiencing the effects of a warming climate. Around the Antarctic Peninsula, the ranges of cold-loving Adelie penguins are shrinking as sea ice becomes less extensive, and some colonies are plagued by ticks, whose eggs are surviving the milder winters. Glaciers 10,000 years old have been retreating, and several ice shelves have collapsed, including the 650-foot-thick Larsen-B shelf that was the size of Rhode Island and disintegrated in a few days in 2002.

“The speed of the collapse surprised everybody,” says glaciologist Robert A. Bindschadler, Ph.D., of the NASA Goddard Space Flight Center, who expects the larger Larsen-C ice shelf to collapse in the near future. As soon as the ice sheets collapsed, the glaciers on the land behind them began flowing rapidly into the sea, not unlike those at Ilulissat.

Nor are the effects limited to the poles. Just weeks before Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans, the journal Nature published new research showing that Atlantic hurricanes have more than doubled in power since 1970, fueled by warmer water and atmospheric conditions. In the United States, scientists have seen a shift in the geographic ranges of plants, animals and insects, and an alteration in the flowering times of plants and animal breeding seasons, both in line with rising temperatures.

A decade ago, scientists were still uncertain as to whether increased temperatures could be attributed to greenhouse gas emissions from vehicles, power plants, farms and industry, but that is no longer the case. “It is now evident that human activities are already contributing adversely to global climate change,” the U.S. National Academy of Sciences and 18 of its foreign counterparts said in a joint statement issued in 2001. “Business as usual is no longer a viable option.”

“The preponderance of evidence suggests that the warming of the past 50 years has mostly come from greenhouse gas emissions, and everything we're seeing in the Arctic is 100 percent consistent with that,” Corell says. Whether humans are implicated in the observed warming of the planet, he adds, “is an argument that is over.”

In much of the world, this scientific consensus has prompted policy makers to take action to curb emissions of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gasses or to prepare for the predicted effects. To date, 141 nations have ratified the Kyoto treaty, which limits emissions from 35 industrialized countries, including Japan, Canada, Russia and members of the European Union. Authorities in Venice and the Netherlands have spent billions upgrading flood defenses to take into account the expected effects of global warming on storms, sea levels and rainfall patterns. Tuvalu, a low-lying nation in the South Pacific, has negotiated special migration treaties to allow its population to flee to New Zealand if rising seas put their country under water.

In the United States, however, the current administration and Congress have rejected the Kyoto protocol and several other efforts to require reductions in greenhouse gas emissions.

Despite inactivity at the federal level, there is a quiet sea change taking place within the country, with increasing numbers of policy makers, journalists, corporate executives, religious leaders and ordinary citizens recognizing that global warming is real and demanding action to address its causes.

“Compared to five years ago, there's been a wholesale change in public understanding of what the problem is and what the solution might be,” says Eric Heitz, president of the Energy Foundation in San Francisco, which has been helping promote state global-warming policies. “Suddenly people are saying, hey, this is serious and there's something we can do about this.”

Those working to address climate change say the shift in attitudes is due to a variety of factors: the certainty of the scientific evidence, dire images of retreating glaciers and collapsing ice shelves, and the adoption of the Kyoto treaty by much of the rest of the world, which is forcing many multinational corporations to plan for a world in which greenhouse gas emissions are constrained. Add to that a perceived increase in erratic ecological and weather activity, including an increasing number of intense hurricanes, reduced ski seasons and increased wildfires, and many people have begun rethinking the dangers of a changing climate.

Significantly, religious leaders are becoming increasingly vocal about climate change, adding a moral imperative for action. In 1990, Pope John Paul II declared that the greenhouse effect had reached “crisis proportions” as a consequence of human activity. The senior figure in the Orthodox Christian world, Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew I, has gone further, saying that it is a sin “for humans to degrade the integrity of the Earth by causing changes in its climate” and that followers of the Abrahamic traditions have a religious obligation to tend and protect the earthly environment.

In the past few years, U.S. religious leaders have begun to follow suit. Under the umbrella of the National Religious Partnership for the Environment, more than 60 Catholic, Jewish, evangelical and mainstream- Protestant organizations have been working to weave environmental stewardship into American religious life.

“Climate change was seen early on as the preeminent environmental challenge for people of faith,” says Paul Gorman, executive director of the partnership. “It encompasses the totality of creation on Earth, dramatizes the imperative of human stewardship and intergenerational responsibility, and inextricably links protection of the environment with protecting the poor. All of these things are central to biblical theology and social teachings.”

The religious groups are making their feelings known, both to their adherents in the pews and policy makers elsewhere. The U.S Conference of Catholic Bishops published a pastoral statement calling for action on global warming, while the editors of Christianity Today and more than 20 leading evangelical figures signed a 2004 covenant calling on followers to become engaged in key environmental problems, including climate change. Other members of the National Religious Partnership have established interfaith climate change campaigns in 18 states.

And in February, 86 evangelical Christian leaders launched the Evangelical Climate Initiative with a statement to fight global warming; signers included the presidents of evangelical colleges, officials from human-services organizations like the Salvation Army, and megachurch pastors, like Rick Warren, D.Min., author of The Purpose-Driven Life.

“It's a deep religious insight and conviction that has moved this thing along,” Mr. Gorman says. “Unless we approach these issues from the standpoint of our deepest convictions and values, we're not going to have the strength and power to overcome the inertia and the opposition to change.”

While religious leaders are taking a moral stance on the issue, an increasing number of corporate leaders believe that confronting global warming makes good long-term business sense. Forty-one companies have joined the Pew Center on Global Climate Change's Business Leadership Council, which encourages government action on the issue, including General Electric, Boeing, Cinergy and DuPont, forestryproducts giant Weyerhaeuser, and three major oil companies: Sunoco, BP and Royal Dutch Shell.

“One of the things these companies are looking for is certainty,” explains Eileen Claussen, the Pew center's president. “Many of their businesses require long-term capital investments, factories and other expensive equipment that could be rendered uncompetitive or obsolete if greenhouse gas emissions cease to be free and unregulated. With Europe, Japan and other countries already regulating such emissions, many companies feel that it is not a question of if, but how the United States will ultimately achieve reductions.

“Some regulations provide the flexibility and certainty that is friendly to business, and some do not,” Claussen points out. “Many of these companies would like a seat at the table when these policies are discussed.”

Some companies now regard global warming as an important business opportunity. Toyota can't keep up with demand for its popular Prius and expects to sell a million such hybrid-engine vehicles a year by the end of the decade, while General Electric is developing lower-emission locomotives and aircraft engines. Royal Dutch Shell has invested more than $1 billion in renewable energy and opened the world's first hydrogen filling station in Reykjavik, Iceland, three years ago. BP is running a pilot project in Algeria to see if carbon dioxide from natural gas production can be sequestered in subterranean reservoirs, where it won't add to the greenhouse effect.

The combined influence of science, business and religious leaders has helped to inform and advance global warming policies on Capitol Hill. Last summer, the U.S. Senate passed a resolution recognizing the actuality of global warming and urging mandatory emissions reductions. The chamber also approved an amendment to the president's energy bill that provides tax incentives for utilities and other companies that adopt technologies that reduce greenhouse gas emissions. The amendment called for more federal research on climate change.

Frustrated with waiting for a federal response, many states have taken the issue into their own hands. The furthest progress has been made in the Northeast, where the six New England states, along with Delaware, New Jersey and New York, are working together to establish a region-wide greenhouse emissions cap-and-trade system for power plants. (“Cap and trade” gives companies flexibility in meeting emission standards. They may cap their own emissions at a level designated by a regulator or beat those levels and sell permits for the difference to other companies.) If it becomes fully operational in 2009, the Northeast Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative will reduce power plant emissions by 10 percent from 1990 levels by 2020. In addition, member states plan to implement policies to address other sources of greenhouse gas pollution in the coming years.

The initiative is “the most important concrete thing that's happened in addressing global warming in this country,” says Dale Bryk, a senior attorney at the Natural Resources Defense Council in New York. “These states are out there and have woken up to the fact that they can showcase themselves as leaders on a global problem.”

On the West Coast, the governors of California, Oregon and Washington are working to develop a similar cap-and-trade plan and encourage the introduction of fuel-efficient vehicles. California's Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger has been leading the way. Last June, he signed an executive order which would reduce his state's greenhouse gas emissions by 80 percent below 1990 levels by 2050. “I say the debate is over. We know the science, we see the threat, and the time for action is now,” Schwarzenegger said at the time. “California is going to be the leader in the fight against global warming.”

Inspired by the other states, New Mexico and Arizona have also taken steps to develop cap-and-trade plans of their own, while Pennsylvania and Maryland attend meetings of the northeastern program as official observers. “In theory, there's no reason why these states couldn't join one or both of the regional regimes or why plants in the Northeast and West couldn't one day trade emissions allowances with one another,” says Bryk, who has been assisting many of the states in developing their plans. “Things would get cheaper and cheaper as the trading area expands.”

The state-based initiatives are expected to increase pressure on Washington to take action. “If you have a working model in place somewhere like the Northeast, it may show that enacting climate policies is not the end of the world,” says Lea Aeschliman, former public utility commissioner and frequent Trusts adviser. “These mandatory state- and regional-level policies can serve as an example for federal action and create a climate where federal action is inevitable.”

“It's really up to the states to get the ball rolling,” agrees Frank Gorke, an energy advocate at the Massachusetts Public Interest Research Group who has been supporting the Northeast's cap-and-trade effort. “What we are doing here will put the rest of the country in a much better position to tackle these problems.”

The speed and effectiveness of future global warming efforts may be tied to the extent to which the general public expresses an interest in the issue. “People will need to feel as strongly about doing something about global warming as they did in the past about acid rain, air pollution and toxic-waste dumps,” says Angela Ledford, director of Clear the Air, a national public education campaign that receives support from the Trusts. “That's the level of commitment that there will have to be to get the nation to take significant action.”

Despite progress on the issue, skeptics remain. An avowed but fully-footnoted fiction even entered the discussion. Physician and author Michael Crichton's 2004 novel, State of Fear, is set against a backdrop of presumably flawed global-warming science and exaggeration, and climate-change critics cited the book in making their case. Crichton himself testified last September before the U.S. Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works, where he questioned the rigor of climate science and called for independent government verification of the research.

“The critics give some cover to elected officials who do not want to do something about this issue, whether it is because of campaign contributions or political support from others in industry,” says Claussen. “I think we're starting to get through to some of those people who hear the skeptics' arguments and don't know what to think. That's a group we have to reach.”

“The science is clear, and the number of industry-supported scientists that are willing to stand up and refute it is diminishing,” adds Gorke at MassPIRG. “Their arguments that the problem doesn't exist are largely discredited. Now the debate is more about what to do to start solving it.”

For information on the Trusts' work in global climate change, go to www.pewtrusts.org.

Journalist Colin Woodard is the award-winning journalist and author of Ocean's End and The Lobster Coast. He lives in Portland, Maine, and has a Web site, www.colinwoodard.com.