Online Discussion: Ask the Expert June 27

Online Discussion: Ask the Expert

Individuals from throughout the United States and the world participated in a live online chat on June 27th. Check out Eileen Claussen’s answers to these cybercitizens' thought-provoking climate change questions.


Moderator: Welcome to Viewpoint with our guest, Eileen Claussen. Eileen, we're glad to have you back, and let's get started.


St. Paul, MN: In lieu of the failure of the U.S. to adhere to the terms of the Kyoto Protocol, and in light of President Bush's announcement that the U.S. will take action on global climate change, what voluntary target for emissions control would you recommend for the U.S.? What might be a workable basis for such a voluntary target? What are the arguments for and against a complementary domestic voluntary target?

Eileen Claussen: I am delighted to be back! And there are so many questions to answer that I had better begin right now.

There is no question that despite what may be a delay in getting an international agreement off the ground, we need to take action at home. In fact, the U.S. has been taking voluntary action at home since about 1991. But in light of the fact that U.S. emissions are now about 12 percent above 1990 levels (and therefore our RIO commitment), I believe the time for voluntary targets has long since passed. What I believe we need is a framework for taking mandatory domestic actions to reduce our emissions, so we can stop our emissions from increasing and put us on a more sustainable path.


Zionsville, Ind.: The recent report issued by the National Academy of Sciences seems to have been misreported by most media. The report itself says that the science is inconclusive. Why should we be making policy decisions based on inconclusive science?

Eileen Claussen: While there may have been some misinterpretations in the media on the NAS report, it is important to know what the first sentence of the report said: "Greenhouse gases are accumulating in Earth's atmosphere as a result of human activities, causing surface air temperatures and subsurface ocean temperatures to rise." So while I agree that the report highlights many of the uncertainties in the science, it also highlights the certainties. And if this opening sentence is a certainty, and obviously the NAS panel thought it was, we certainly have enough reason to take action.


Washington, D.C.: Even if the Kyoto Protocol is not perfect from an academic/NGO analyst's perspective, my long-time experience in product and market development suggests that determination to succeed with an agreed plan is more important than endlessly tuning up the plan before starting action. Doesn't the Kyoto Protocol reflect the best plan the governments of the world devised by 10 years of discussion and negotiation? Why not try the agreed plan and see how it works, making whatever improvements may be suggested by actual experience?

Eileen Claussen: I agree that it is never possible to reach perfection in something like an interntional treaty where 180 countries are participating. And I also agree that it is time to actually start implementing something that will put our emissions on a downward curve. The Kyoto Protocol has been under development for a very long time, and while I believe that some things need fixing (for example, some of the targets are unrealistic -- even impossible -- to meet), I do think that the time for implementation is here.


Buenos Aires, Argentina: Due to "hot air," Russia and East Europe would receive a windfall profit of about U.S. $100 billion. Can their emission targets be redrawn or else can they be excluded from emissions trading?

Eileen Claussen: Not under the Kyoto Protocol as it currently stands. But since I believe that there are serious problems with the targets in general -- although not with the idea of binding targets -- dealing with "hot air" could presumably be tackled at the same time.


St. Paul, Minn.: Investments in energy production infrastructure carry lifetimes of upwards of 50 or more years. In its energy plan, the Bush administration is recommending major new expenditures in such long-lived energy production facilities, most of which are fossil-fuel based. If one were to accept the proposition that further study is needed before large emissions reductions are implemented domestically, this still leaves open the question of allowable levels of growth in the interim "study period." Should growth rates in emissions be constrained during the "study period" such that, should it be determined in the future that stringent controls will need to be imposed, they will not have been compromised by investment decisions taken during that "study period?" Assuming that you accept the need for a period of additional study, what rule would you establish to govern interim trends in emissions, and on what basis?

Eileen Claussen: It is my view that while we will need more energy supply in the United States over the coming decades, we ought to get that supply from less carbon intensive sources than recommended in the Bush administration energy plan. For example, while I think that coal will be with us for a significant period of time, I do not believe that we should be investing more money in more coal. Rather, we should be moving toward gas (which is much less carbon intensive) and toward renewables and hydrogen. So I think the premise is wrong.


Washington, D.C.: Having participated in the pre-Kyoto preparatory meetings, there was no agreement on any approach pre-Kyoto. Every substantive provision in the Kyoto Protocol appears to have originated by the United Staes (government) on a take-it-or-leave-us-out basis. Isn't the U.S. now saying the Kyoto Protocol is totally unworkable just trashing our own handiwork, calling into question whether any future U.S. leadership on global warming is simply duplicitous?

Eileen Claussen: You are quite right that the framework of the Kyoto Protocol came largely from the United States. And I do not believe that it is unworkable, or fatally flawed, as the president seems to. Of course other nations will look awry at the United States because we are, in a sense, trashing our own handiwork. I believe this will make it more difficult for the U.S. view to be taken seriously in the future.


Jakarta, Indonesia: The U.S. was the biggest producer of CO2 but has not ratified the Kyoto Protocol. Why?

Eileen Claussen: : The U.S. is the largest emitter of greenhouse gases in the world, and no, it has not ratified the Kyoto Protocol. President Bush has also made it clear that the U.S. will not ratify the Protocol, because he will not send it forward to the Senate for its advice and consent, as required by U.S. law. As of May, 84 countries have signed the Protocol (including the U.S.), and 34 have ratified it.

Most countries were waiting for the outcome of the November meeting in The Hague before moving forward with ratification. They are now awaiting decisions that might be made in Bonn. But whether enough countries ratify it for it to enter into force is an open question. The EU has indicated that it will ratify, and others may as well. It will take 55 countries representing 55 percent of developed country emissions for the treaty to enter into force.


Mays Landing, N.J.: According to your resources (Dennis Reilley, C2ES Conference, Sept. 13, 1991) the DuPont Compaqny determined in 1991 "that there was sufficient evidence linking greenhouse gas emissions to global climate change ..." It was also made clear that absolute certainty of the precise cause is not a function of scientific method nor a luxury business can afford. In the light of no other explanation (hypothesis) that serves to explain the phenomenon as well or as simply, why are we still debating the issue? As of 1999, the DuPont Company had spent over $50 million to achieve the goal of reducing greenhouse gas emissions. In a capitalistic society this depth of commitment is as close to certainty as one will ever get in an uncertain and probable world.

Eileen Claussen: : DuPont is just one of many companies that has committed to taking action and managing the risk of climate change. In fact, of the 33 Pew companies, 16 already have substantial targets and all are taking action. I agree that this is highly significant, but, as has happened before, industry (although obviously not all of it) is singificantly ahead of government in coming to terms with the risk, with the need for action and with actual action.


Tallahassee, Fla.: I saw a poignant political cartoon recently that depicted George W. Bush hedging on action on global warming due to data shortfalls, but being more than willing to plunge ahead with funding the "Star Wars" missile defense system with all of its huge uncertainty. Clearly there's more here than analysis paralysis. Would it help move things along if instead of the more study vs. enough study camps, we could introduce some kind of reasonable economic analysis of action (including the positives stemming from greater efficiencies) versus the wait and see which rises faster, oil company stocks or seal level? The way I see it, we have nothing to lose by hedging our bets and assuming global warming is actual and largely anthropogenic. Just jow costly is a 20" rise in sea level -- a minimal estimate of the likely rise? Maybe the same complacent folks who find no reason for action would be moved by raw, unemotional analysis.

Eileen Claussen: Obviously there is more here than analysis paralysis! And you make a sound point about the economics. Many who follow the climate change debate have worried about the uncertainties in the science, but have not paid much attention to the uncertainties in the economics. The reality is that we have no economic analysis that does a really good job of looking at costs and benefits.

If you look at the results of most of the economic analyses, there are five key drivers of the results: the emissons projected under business as usual, the policies that are modeled, the way and speed of technological innovation, the environmental impacts on climate change itself (or the benefits of action) and the flexibility of the economy. We do not believe that any of the existing models are accurate or comprehensive enough in dealing with each of these drivers. And so it is very hard to make a case one way or the other.

I might add that we are doing lots of work on this, trying to fill in the gaps and trying to develop a model that will be both more comprehensive and more accurate. Maybe we will be able to out forward some useful analysis next year.


Falls Church, Va.: The polls show over and over that the American public cares about the environment. Most recently, polls are showing that the public would emphasize a clean environment as a priority over the Bush policy of increased energy production with reliance on fuels that produce greenhouse gases. Do you think the public "gets" the climate change issue at some intuitive level? What about the decision makers ... the heat is rising, don't we really need a faster pace of change in order to secure a healthy future for Americans and people all around the world?

Eileen Claussen: Yes, the polls do show that the public cares about the environment, and the most recent polling that I have seen suggests that they do "get" the climate change issue, at least at some level. But the decision-makers are only beginning to wrestle with what needs to be done -- and by decison-makers, I mean the Congress.

One of the effects of the Bush administration statements on climate change and Kyoto has been the unprecedented level of press attention to this issue, and this has helped. We now have leigslation being proposed in the Senate, and much more is under consideration. So I believe it is possible to be optimistic about the U.S. coming to terms (or maybe I should say beginning to come to terms) with this issue.


Lille, France: Do you think that it could be possible today to reduce CO2 production in the world considering the economic increasing of some parts of the world like South America or Asia? Thank you.

Eileen Claussen: I think it will be very difficult to do what needs to be done to stabilize concentrations of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, at least partly because of likely emissions growth in the developing world as these countries develop and standards of living improve. We will need a second industrial revolution, one in which carbon intensive fuels and processes give way to those that are far less so. And this will have to be dealt with differently in different parts of the world. In the developed world, we are talking about changing existing infrastructure which, if we do it sensibly, will take time and should be consistent with capital cycles. In the developing world, we are talking about new infrastructure, which, if it is to be clean and green, will likely be more expensive. So we have diffeent kinds of problems, some technological, some requiring political will. Not an easy recipe to prepare.


Detroit, Mich.: Your response to the question from Zionsville, Indiana suggests that one need only read the first sentence of the NAS report to arrive at the conclusion that action is needed and needed now. This is not the sum of the science described in the report. If only the first sentence were necessary, why did these very busy peole produce this very long report which calls into question virtually all of what we know about global science?

Eileen Claussen: I did add that there were many uncertainties highlighted in the report. Obviously we should work to resolve those uncertainties as rapidly as we can. But I also suggested that we should take account of the certainties as well. And it is my view, and the view of the 33 companies working with C2ES, that enough is KNOWN about the science to take action.


Stapleford, Cambridge, UK: Given that the U.S. has about twice the world average per capita carbon dioxide emissions, its failure to implement serious policies to reduce domestic emissions sets a poor example to the rest of the world. Do U.S. citizens care about what the rest of the world thinks about them?

Eileen Claussen: I agree that our lack of serious action sets a poor example for the rest of the world. But your question, about whether U.S. citizens care, is a more complicated one. I think that they do care, and that they do want to see some serious and sensible action taken, but I must say that when I talk to members of the U.S. Senate and House, many tell me that they never hear from their constituents about climate change and about the need for action. If citizens were better informed, and more politically active, I think we would see more action.


Princeton, Mass.: If someone woke you up in the middle of the night and demanded "What would compliance with the Kyoto Protocol cost?" what would be your answer?

Eileen Claussen: The first thing I would do is recommend a glass of warm milk. Unfortunately, I do not have a good answer. Existing analyses, none of which I think are on the mark, range from a net positive to a rather serious negative. I could guess that a reasonable answer would be somewhere in between. It is clear to me from the work we have done to date that a major transition away from fossil fuels will not be free. And I suspect that most of the negatives will be regional and sectoral. But I am reluctant to put a number on it at this time. I am back to the warm milk.


Danville, Ill.: If it is such a "good" treaty, then why haven't many of the EC ratified the treaty? Will this increase the cost of goods manufactured in the U.S., thus further handicapping our industry? Countries such as China and India are not held to the same standards as the U.S.

Eileen Claussen: Before I answer, I want to say what I have said before. I believe the treaty is flawed, just not fatally flawed. And I support fixing it, rather than walking away from it.

That said, most countries have not moved forward with ratification because they were (and are) waiting for the rules to be set so that the broad pronouncements in Kyoto can have some meaning, and so that everyone will know how they must operate. So the EU, which continues to say it will ratify, also says it needs some issues resolved.

I think the cost question has to do with the target and the timetable. The Kyoto Protocol has many features which would minimize the costs -- emissions trading, the ability to sequester carbon, etc. But would the cost of goods rise? It depends on how quickly emisisons must be reduced, as well as how the flexibilities mentioned earlier are implemented.

No, the Protocol does not require China and India to do the same as the U.S. That is because the developed countries are responsible for most of the greenhouse gas concentrations now in the atmosphere. But I would also like to point out that over the last several years China's emissions have actually dropped, while those of the U.S. have increased. So while it is essential that we have a framework that involves everyone, I am not sure that all countries need to do the same kinds of things on the same timetable.


Berlin, Germany: We might agree or disagree on the value of the Kyoto Protocol, but let's take a look beyond Kyoto. I would like to hear your opinion on an approach called "contraction and convergence," where all countries agree on a path of contarction of greenhouse gas emissions to a sustainable level, and agree on a date when their emission rights converge on an equal per capita level. Unlimited trading assumed, this may still permit countries to overshoot their emissions budget, but makes them pay for the atmospheric commons they use. I would very much appreciate hearing your position on this.

Eileen Claussen: We have given quite a bit of thought to the concept of contraction and convergence, and I must say I think it is too simple a formula. There is no question in my mind that per capita emissions are important. But they are not the only thing that is important. An industrialized country that supplies a significant portion of the world's economic output is likely to have much higher per capita emissions than a country that is largely agricultural. And so I think that economic activity has to be factored into the formula as well.


Wezembeek-Oppem, Belgium: President Bush has said that he wishes to pursue market-based measures for climate change -- but emissions trading can only work if there is a cap and there is recognition of the value of the emissions permits. How can this circle be squared without ratifying Kyoto?

Eileen Claussen: Of course emissions trading can only work if there is a cap and a scarcity. And I do believe that those working in the White House understand that. I do know that emissions trading as a domestic option was and probably still is being considered in the White House process.

Countries can and should move forward nationally even in the absence of a treaty that is fully implemented, and, as I am sure you know, many European countries are moving forward with emissions trading schemes: the UK, Denmark, France and others.


Frederick, Md.: Is there any treaty/protocol in place that currently requires worldwide industry to reduce carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions?

Eileen Claussen: No. The Kyoto Protocol, negotiated in 1997, was an attempt to do precisely that.


New York, N.Y.: The U.S. Senate previously unanimously resolved that they would not accept anything like the Kyoto Protocol that excludes developing countries and may be "economically harmful." How will the U.S. Congress resolve these political issues, and finally accept and ratify the Kyoto Protocol?

Eileen Claussen: What the Senate did in 1997 was put forward a resolution that said that no treaty negotiated by the United States should significantly harm the U.S. economy. It also argued that developing countries should have commitments in the same time period as those of the developing world. On the first, I do not believe that we have ever really answered the question, although the Clinton administration did put forward an economic analysis. The trouble with that analysis was that in order to show that it would not be economically harmful, the administration assumed wildly optimistic emisisons trading scenarios. I do not have an answer to the question, although I would argue that none of the analyses that show significant economic harm are very realistic in their assumptions.

On the developing country issue, the reality is that we have not had a major debate on the question. If Congress is to be both realistic and fair, I think it would have to revisit the issue, taking into account what we know about developing country actions, some of which are significant, and many of which are greater than those of the United States, the largest emitter.


Gaithersburg, Md.: Yeah, people say they care about the environment but if gas gets over $1.60 they'll scream. People always answer what they think is right not how they want to live. And how about being non-partisan? The Senate rejected the treaty 97-0 before it was ever written so there is no reason, legal or otherwise, for it to be sent to the Senate.

Eileen Claussen: I am being non-partisan, and also trying to be accurate. The Senate did not reject the treaty. It unanimously agreed to a resolution in July of 1997 that urged the Clinton administration not to negotiate a treaty that would be harmful to the U.S. economy, and that did not include developing country commitments. The Clinton administration did not deal satisfactorily with the first, and negotiated a treaty that did not address the second.


Dakar, Senegal: In a past paper, C2ES defines equity with three criteria -- responsibility, opportunity and standard of living. Please, can you explain these criteria? Thanks.

Eileen Claussen: Let me do this briefly. I think that those most responsible for causing the problem (and I think this is a past emisisons, current emisisons, projected emissions and per capita question) should do the most to address it. I also believe that those with the greatest ability to pay should indeed pay the costs, since this is a global issue, and everyone will be affected. Finally, I think that those with "easy" opportunities should take them!


Washington, D.C.: As one of the most knowledgable people on the world about global warming, can you speculate on how people -- Americans and others -- in 30 or 40 years from now might look back on U.S. actions today regarding greenhouse emission reduction?

Eileen Claussen: Thank you for the compliment. I wish it were true. But I can try to simply answer your question. I think they will look back with dismay, since we seem unable to do even the relatively small things that would at least start us down the road of addressing this problem. The one bright spot that I hope they see is in the good and significant efforts of some members of the business community, who are setting targets and reducing emissions without being required to do so. If only all businesses and consumers would follow their lead. And if only governments would show some leadership!


Bethesda, Md.: Doesn't the issue ultimately come down to energy production? If so, emphasis on "renewables and hydrogen" is meaningless for the near future. Nuclear energy is the only type of energy production now that can satisfy the necessary reductions in greenhouse gases without economic contraction. I understnd the emotional aspects of this issue -- but how can we discuss this without its mention?

Eileen Claussen: You are quite right to raise this issue. And although I do not believe that the public will stand for new nuclear facilities being built, I certainly think that those in existence will be relicensed, and continue to operate. Some of the Pew companies have nuclear facilities, and they tend to believe that nuclear is part of the solution.


Eileen Claussen: I am sorry that we have run out of time (actually we are 15 minutes over), and I have not been able to answer all of the questions (including the two from Augusta, Georgia, on global cooling). We will be doing another online chat sometime in the future (after COP 6.5 in Bonn), so please check our Web site (www.c2es.org) for the date.

Again, thanks for your thoughtful questions. And I am now off for a glass of warm milk.


Moderator: Our thanks to Eileen Claussen, the Pew Center and all who participated.