Published on Thursday, May 18, 2000 by Inter Press Service
Going Forward:
Shift In The US Senate On Global Warming?
by Danielle Knight
WASHINGTON - US lawmakers may be shifting toward taking action to prevent climate change. On Wednesday the Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee convened a hearing on the potential impact of global warming.

Arranged by Senator John McCain, a Republican from Arizona who ran this year in his party's primaries for the presidential nomination, the hearing considered testimony from some of the world's leading scientists.

McCain said he was motivated to conduct the hearing during his primary campaign when young adults across the county had asked him what his plan was on global warming.

''I don't have a plan,'' said McCain. But, he added ''policy makers should be concerned about the mounting evidence that something is happening.''

Most scientists - including those at the hearing - agree that the so-called 'greenhouse' gas emissions - which are produced by the combustion of oil, petrol, coal and other mostly carbon- based chemicals - have been gradually warming Earth's atmosphere and altering its climate.

The past decade has been the warmest ever recorded and 1998 was the hottest year in at least 200 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.

Scientists said they are witnessing a shift to extreme and anomalous weather events. While it is not possible to directly prove that droughts and heat waves in the United States and Russia or cyclones in India are a direct cause of global warming, such events are becoming more chronic, said scientists.

'''The question is not whether climate will change in response to human activities, but rather where, when and by how much,'' said Robert Watson, chairman of the IPCC, at the hearing.

He said it is clear that climate change will adversely effect human health (particularly through the spread of diseases like Malaria), ecological systems such as forests and coral reefs, and the economy, especially fisheries and agriculture.

To address this problem, industrialised nations hammered out what has been come to be known as the Kyoto Protocol. Named after the Japanese city in which it was drawn up, the agreement calls for 38 industrialised nations to reduce their emissions of greenhouse gases by an average of at least five percent below 1990 levels, by the year 2012.

Claiming that US industry will be at a competitive disadvantage, the Senate - many of whose members are financially supported by the oil and coal industries - has refused to ratify the treaty unless ''key'' developing countries also commit to binding limitations and timetables on cuts in emissions.

Before the Protocol was signed by President Bill Clinton, the Senate passed legislation that prohibited it from ratifying, any treaty that ''exempts'' developing nations from legally binding mandates or that would cause ''serious economic harm'' to the United States.

Many environmental groups closely monitoring the debate on climate change, praised McCain's efforts to break the political deadlock on Kyoto and try to understand the implications of global warming.

''If Senator McCain is serious about global warming, it could be just the leadership Americans have been waiting for from Washington,'' said John Passacantando, executive director of Ozone Action.

Recently the Senate Agriculture Subcommittee held a hearing on how farming practices, such as no-till farming, could reduce carbon emissions. During the hearing, several Senators from agricultural states publicly stated their belief that global warming needs to be addressed.

Despite this new momentum in the US Congress, two Republican members of the House of Representatives, Joe Knollenberg and Jo Ann Emerson have introduced legislation designed to halt any funding for programmes that resemble those under the Kyoto Protocol, such as carbon emissions trading schemes.

''No funds shall be used for the Kyoto Protocol, including such Kyoto mechanisms as carbon emissions trading schemes and the Clean Development Mechanism that are found solely in the Kyoto Protocol and nowhere in the laws of the United States,'' says the proposed measure.

The legislation has been attached to the House Agriculture Appropriations bill.

Neal Land, Assistant to the President for Science and Technology, strongly denounced the proposal when asked about it at the hearing. ''We are very concerned about this,'' he said. ''It undermines the ability of the executive branch to conduct international negotiations - which seems to me to raise serious constitutional questions.''

Depending on how the language of the proposal is interpreted, Land said the measure could have a ''chilling effect'' on national scientific research abilities.

Environmental groups agreed, calling the legislation a ''global warming gag rule.''

''Representatives Knollenberg and Emerson would rather quash reasonable scientific and policy inquiry than learn more about the impacts of pollution that dirties our air and causes global warming,'' said Philip Clap, President of the National Environmental Trust, an advocacy group here.

Copyright 2000 Inter Press Service