Debate over energy policy and what to do about global warming was the dominant environmental story of 2001.
The planet is warming faster than expected, and evidence is mounting that human activity is to blame with potentially serious global consequences. Those were the major findings of a study released this year by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, a report that represents a consensus of the world scientific community. The report says the earth's atmosphere could rise between 1.4 and 5.8 Celsius in the next 100 years. "And that would make earth potentially nearly as hot as it was when dinosaurs were dominant," says Michael Openheimer, co-author of the report summary and chief scientist with Environmental Defense, an environmental advocacy group. He says ice sheets are melting, the timing of seasons is changing and some species are altering their behavior in response to global warming. "The climate is changing. Human beings bear a large part of the responsibility, and much larger changes are afoot for the future if we don't act to reduce emissions."
In fact, action was taken this year to reduce green house gas emissions thought to cause global warming. Delegates from 160 countries met in Bonn in July and again in Marrakech in October to finalize the Kyoto Protocol, the global treaty that sets greenhouse gas emissions reduction targets for industrialized nations. While the United States sent observers to the meeting in Marrakech, the Bush Administration abandoned the treaty in March. The Administration has said the agreement would hurt the American economy, and that it fails to include emissions targets for developing countries. The United States which contributes 25 percent of the world's greenhouse gas emissions - has been widely criticized for its withdrawal. Randall Lutter is with the American Enterprise Institute, a policy group that advocates limited government regulation and opposes the Kyoto Protocol. "In the United States had it been ratified we wouldn't have been met it [target emission reductions]," says Mr. Lutter. "Overseas it may or may not be ratified, but if they do ratify it they are not likely to meet it, and what in effect you are going to get twelve years from now if it goes into force is a substantial disappointment (over failure to meet) these very stringent targets [and that] we are deceiving ourselves (that) they are actually being met."
Michael Oppenheimer the chief scientist with Environmental Defense - disagrees. "And, it is fully consistent with keeping our overall climate in safe bounds, and the problem with not taking the Kyoto step is that it will delay any kind of action so long that it will become virtually impossible to avoid damaging global warming thereafter."
The Bush Administration has not said when or how it plans to cut American greenhouse gas emissions. But, Michael Oppenheimer says since the September 11 attacks on the United States, the Bush Administration has focused on gaining energy security by promoting the development of domestic oil and gas. "It's a supply side policy. Let's find more oil. Let's find more fossil fuels. And that is inimical to solving the global warming problem that basically comes from using too much fossil fuel," he says. "And, an intelligent rational energy policy obviously would focus on the side of providing new non-fossil fuel renewable supplies and on increasing the efficiency in which we use energy."
The debate over energy policy will continue into the New Year. The U.S. Congress is expected to consider energy legislation early in the year, and final ratification of the Kyoto Protocol is expected by September 2002, in time for the U.N. World Summit on Sustainable Development in Johannesburg.