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Debating Global Warming Public Policy

Switching away from fossil fuels to “green” energy sources requires nothing less than reorganizing the whole industrial economy, say analysts.

Former Vice President Al Gore has been busy trying to put global warming on center stage with warnings of calamity in his best selling book, An Inconvenient Truth. Recent public opinion surveys show that more than half of Americans agree with him that global warming is happening and that something should be done about it.

Some experts contend that public concern about the issue has risen because scientists are finding convincing evidence that climate change is a serious problem.

Richard Alley is Professor of Geosciences at the Earth and Environmental System Institute at the Pennsylvania State University and author of the book: The Two-Mile Time Machine: Ice Cores, Abrupt Climate Change, and Our Future.

“I think the realization that humans are burning a lot of fossil fuels, that that stuff goes somewhere, that its going into the atmosphere and that it is going to change the climate is now becoming widespread. I think most Americans say, “Yeah, there is something here,” says Professor Alley.

But he also notes the problem of climate change for most Americans remains low on their list of concerns. He says that like many other issues where the expertise is highly technical, it is difficult to interpret the data. And, he says, many Americans believe there is no need to rush to combat global warming because the Earth’s rising temperature is happening slowly and it is not hurting the economy. That’s all the more reason, say climate change skeptics, not to take steps to stave off a threat, which may not be imminent.

A Market Place of Solutions

Bill Gray, Professor of Atmospheric Sciences at the University of Colorado, argues against taking bold measures to stem global warming.

“The question is: is the environmental problem so strong that we need to cut back on coal and oil? And my point of view is it may not be. We may find that if we cut back on coal and oil and go to other energy sources, we’ll pay more for our energy and our economy might be hurt as a consequence,” contends Professor Gray.

Nevertheless, most scientists assert that to avoid a doubling of carbon dioxide concentrations in the atmosphere during this century, nations must drastically increase their energy efficiency. By mid-century, they add, there must be a complete switch away from fossil fuels to clean energy sources or climate change will become irreversible.

Pennsylvania State University’s Richard Alley says the market place is often the best place to find solutions to problems in modern industrial economies, including environmental ones.

“If you look at environmental issues that we’ve dealt with in the past -- the ozone hole or the phosphates going into Lake Erie -- you find that usually one or many bright ideas came along and somebody figured out how to fix the problem without trashing the economy and without causing immense dislocations to the economy. Maybe this is the way that the U.S. does this. We try lots of things; we experiment. And we see if we can figure out what works,” Alley says.

American Business Going “Green”

Other economists point out that some American businesses have already decided to go “green” because they realize there is a market for environmentally friendly technologies.

Truman Semans is Director for Markets and Business Strategy at the Pew Center’s Business Environmental Leadership Council in Washington, which represents 41 corporations worth $2 trillion and employs more than three million people. The group, dedicated to finding solutions to climate change, includes oil and gas giants -- British Petroleum, Royal Dutch/Shell and Sunoco.

For Truman Semans, business is indispensable in addressing global warming. “There is absolutely no way to deal effectively with such an enormous set of challenges, as those posed by climate change without having businesses on board working toward the solution. The group of companies has grown over time and, in fact, we have recently added a number of new members -- including Exelon, which is the largest nuclear-based utility in the country, G.E. [i.e., General Electric], Marsh, Inc., which is the largest risk-management advisor to corporations in the world, and others. So the interest in the issue continues to grow,” according to Semans.

Moreover, he says, energy companies have also decided they have a stake in planning national climate change policies. “It’s very clear that voluntary approaches are insufficient to tackle the problem and that there is a need for a consistent national, federal policy that includes mandatory limits on greenhouse gases. Some of the companies that have stepped up to advise the Congress on ways to design such mandatory policies include B.P. [i.e., British Petroleum], Dupont, Shell, Exelon, Duke Energy. The list goes on and on.”

Cities and States Joining the Fray

A growing number of American cities and states are also addressing global warming. One-hundred-fifty cities representing more than 50 million Americans, for example, have committed to reducing carbon dioxide emissions to seven percent below 1990 levels. Nine Northeastern U.S. states have programs in place that regulate greenhouse gas emissions, while 13 Western states plan to cut CO2 missions and are calling on Congress to come up with a national policy.

But David Victor, Director of the Program on Energy and Sustainable Development at Stanford University in California, says dealing with climate change is a daunting challenge.

He cautions that, “whenever something is costly and requires people to do something quite different, it is inevitable that it is going to take much longer and be a more frustrating process. What we are talking about here is nothing less than reorganizing the metabolism of the whole industrial economy -- moving us away from fossil fuels into some other kind of energy system that doesn’t emit carbon dioxide and other gases that cause global warming.”

Professor Victor says that reversing climate change requires not only a U.S. national energy and environmental policy, but also global measures. He adds that even if the United States were to develop an effective plan for itself, it wouldn’t be able to stop global warming. What is needed, most experts agree, is comprehensive and coordinated action on a global scale.

This story was first broadcast on the English news program,VOA News Now. For other Focus reports click here.