2005 will go down in the history books as the planet's hottest year on record, following a decades-long rise in average global temperatures. Arctic sea ice has shrunk by 40 percent since the late 1970s, and last year, warmer ocean water contributed to a record number of storms in the Atlantic. Will these trends continue in 2006?
The Kyoto Protocol on Climate Change went into effect early last year with a commitment from 38 industrialized nations that by the year 2012 they would reduce climate-warming greenhouse gas emissions more than 5 percent below their 1990 levels.
The United States rejected the treaty because it says trying to achieve such emission reductions would harm the U.S. economy, and that the treaty fails to require emission reduction targets from major polluters in developing countries like China or India.
The U.S. did agree to non-binding climate talks after meeting last month in Montreal, Canada, where delegates from many countries had gathered to discuss the future of climate change policies after the Kyoto pact expires in 2012.
The Bush Administration has favored a voluntary approach to addressing global warming, a position long favored by industry, but Jonathan Lash with the World Resources Institute believes private companies are beginning to see the virtue of clear and consistent government rules for counteracting climate change.
"For the first time a number of companies are saying publicly what many of us have heard them say privately which is they would like for the federal government to define the rules," he says. "If people are making long-term decisions, they want to know what it is going to cost them to deal with carbon in the future. I don't think that voluntary agreements do that. If we go on with the voluntary [system], there will be some 1,400 new coal fired power plants built. At that point it doesn't matter that we get serious (over global warming), it is too late."
Lash says election politics may force some Congressional action on climate change. However, he expects the most aggressive initiatives to come from state and local governments.
"I believe the count of cities that have made climate commitments is now up to 194. Twenty-eight states have climate action plans," he says. "Governor last June announced a program for California. It puts California on a path toward 80 percent reductions by 2050 and makes commitments in the near-enough-term so that it will have some bearing not only on future governors, but on the decisions that are made now in California."
Not everyone believes such government mandates ensure an effective response to global warming. Patrick Michaels with the Cato Institute - a public policy group that promotes limited government - doubts that California's progressive policies will have a major impact on the global climate picture.
"California can issue all the standards it wants," he says. "California had a mandate to have all the vehicles on the road to be non-polluting -- meaning electric vehicles -- by the year 2000. The technology simply wasn't there. Just because you say you are going to do something doesn't mean that you are going to do it. Interesting enough, the northeastern states that were entering into a much-vaunted compact have just seen two states defect, and the reason they said, 'No, we are not doing this,' is because this will cause us economic problems and it really doesn't do much about (global) warming. That seems to be the (political) wave of the future."
But another wave of the future, notes Jonathan Lash of the World Resources Institute, is renewable energy resources like solar, wind, biomass and geothermal. Mr. Lash believes renewables are becoming more financially attractive as the global demand for energy continues to grow.
"People are increasingly concluding that we simply are not going to solve problems of price and security through more drilling in the United States and that renewables have become a financially and technically viable option," he says. "So, I suspect that 2006 is going to be the year of renewables."
Patrick Michaels with the Cato Institute disagrees. "That is repetition of a prediction that has been made year after year," he says. "Renewables are not going to do it. They are not going to supply a major portion of the energy stream of any industrialized nation."
Instead, Mr. Michaels advocates a technological fix. "We produce a constant dollar of goods and services in the United States now with only about 60 percent of the energy that we did 35 years ago," he says. "That is a remarkable increase in relative efficiency. That didn't happen because of global warming. It happened because people wanted to be efficient, because efficiency tends to save money. That is going to continue. I would argue that technology 100 years from now is liable to be so different and more efficient relative to today. I can't tell you what it is going to be, but the way to get there is to allow for investment and technological development."
Whether it's the government or the market guiding our response to the challenge of global warming, Jonathan Lash of the World Resources Institute expects 2006 will see a steady stream of new climate-friendly products, not only for industry, but also for private citizens, looking for everything from alternative-fuel cars and trucks to more energy-efficient ways to heat and cool their homes.