Climate Change: A Challenge to the Conventional Wisdom

Climate Change: A Challenge to the Conventional Wisdom

Eileen Claussen
Executive Director, Pew Center on Global Climate Change

World Aviation Conference
San Francisco, California

October 20, 1999

Good morning. I had a lovely flight to San Francisco yesterday. So let me begin by thanking you for making that possible. And we can wait until my presentation is over to see whether you think I deserve a smooth flight back. I must tell you that I accepted your very kind invitation to speak at the World Aviation Congress because I thought it would be a perfect place to challenge two pieces of what could be called "the conventional wisdom:" the first is that industry always opposes responding to environmental problems by initially doubting the scientific basis of the problem, then arguing that responding to the problem is too costly, and finally, arguing for a delayed timetable for the response; the second is that leadership on public policy issues must always come from government.

But before I challenge these views, it may be useful for me to provide a little background on the global climate change issue. I believe this issue represents one of the most significant challenges of the next century: it's a science issue and an environmental issue; a global issue and a national issue; a technology issue and a fairness issue; a business issue and an economics issue. It is not likely to go away in the short term no matter what we do. And, if we don't do anything, it won't go away in the long term either. So let me give you a brief sketch of what we know and where we stand, and then spend a little time talking about practical solutions, the Pew Center on Global Climate Change, and the aviation industry. In so doing, I hope that I can convince you that the best response to the conventional wisdom is real information, analysis, assessment, and action, and that some in industry, and in the aviation industry in particular, are clearly up to the task. My job, I think, is to inspire all of you to take on this challenge and help provide the leadership that we need and that is so sorely lacking.

But to begin at the beginning, let's look at the science. The earth's atmosphere is made up mainly of oxygen and nitrogen, but it also contains other naturally occurring gases, including water vapor, carbon dioxide, methane and nitrous oxide, that are responsible for a natural greenhouse effect. Without this natural greenhouse effect, the earth would be about 34 degrees colder than it now is. But atmospheric concentrations of these gases have been rising, particularly since the late 1800's, as has the average surface temperature of the globe, which has warmed by 0.6 degrees centigrade. In their analyses of these and other data, most of the world's best scientists are agreed on two things: that the earth will continue to warm (we estimate 1.3 to 4.0 degrees centigrade by 2100), and that human-induced greenhouse gases will be at least partly responsible for that warming. I don't want to over simplify the consensus that exists here. There remain significant uncertainties (like how the formation and dissipation of clouds affect the climate), and there remain skeptical scientists. But the greatest uncertainties surround not whether there is, or will be, a change in the climate, but rather what the impacts of that change will be, where they will be felt, and when.

What do we know about the impacts of climate change? If the amount of warming over the next century is as currently predicted, it is quite clear that there will be a rise in sea level, estimated to be between 17 and 99 centimeters. For the United States, the rate of warming is expected to be noticeably faster than the global mean rate, particularly across the northern Great Plains and the northeastern states. These temperature changes are expected to increase winter precipitation in northern latitudes, increase the frequency of extremely hot days, and decrease the frequency of frosts. Changes in the incidence of daily precipitation extremes are highly uncertain, although there is some evidence suggesting an increase in the frequency of wet extremes. The effects of these temperature and precipitation change on agriculture, water resources, coastal resources, health and ecosystems are expected to be regionally significant. For example, while climate change is not expected to threaten the ability of the United States as a whole to feed itself, regional patterns of agricultural production are likely to change, and many crops will have to be grown in more northerly latitudes. Similarly, we can expect climate change to have impacts on our nation's water supply because of increased flooding in northern latitudes and snow-melt driven basins. At the same time, the frequency and severity of dry spells and droughts is also predicted to increase, although at different times and in different regions. Sea-level rise, with concurrent increases in storm frequency and/or intensity, is likely to affect some of our coastal areas, particularly the Atlantic coast, the Louisiana delta and the San Francisco basin. But my objective here is not to give you a laundry list of possible or probable environmental effects, but simply to suggest that we know enough about the science and the environmental impacts of climate change to begin taking steps to address its consequences. We all live in worlds where we analyze risks, make decisions, and take appropriate actions based on our risk assessments. This issue is clearly at a stage where we must move beyond denial and debate, and focus ourselves on rational action.

Rational action. It is probably a concept that we can all find appealing. But it seems to me that it is easier to say it than to take it, particularly when we are dealing with an issue like this where polarization of views is the norm, and coherent discourse and problem solving are rare. As some of you may imagine, and others of you may know first hand, this is a highly political issue, and I mean "big P" political: Republicans v. Democrats; Europe v. the United States; developed countries v. developing countries. It is also a "small p" political issue: scientists associated with the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change v. skeptical scientists; industry winners v. industry losers; the Kyoto Protocol as the solution to the climate change issue v. Kyoto as an agreement that will never enter into force. So perhaps I can be most helpful by giving you a little context, and then moving into a discussion of some practical paths forward.

In thinking about the climate change issue, it is both obvious and easy to suggest that climate change is a global problem that demands a global solution. And, of course, it is true. Greenhouse gases emitted in Delhi can affect the climate in Dallas, just as emissions in Chicago can affect the climate in Calcutta. On the other hand, global solutions cannot be found unless individual nations, businesses, and even individuals search for, and implement their own solutions. We have a broad global framework negotiated in 1992 and now ratified by 179 countries, including the United States, that establishes an overall goal of preventing dangerous anthropogenic interference with the climate system, and requires all countries to take policies and measures to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions, consistent with their circumstances and abilities. We also have the Kyoto Protocol, negotiated in December of 1997, and now signed by 84 countries, including the United States, and ratified by 15. This protocol establishes legally binding emission reduction targets for developed countries (7% below 1990 emission levels for the United States by 2012). It also allows for emissions trading and joint implementation among countries with targets, as well as use of a Clean Development Mechanism for project-based emission reductions between developed and developing countries. But perhaps the best way to look at the Kyoto Protocol is to look at what it does not contain, and what remains to be done.

It does not, for example, include any emission reductions or limitations beyond a first step for developed countries only. This is an obvious problem, since successfully addressing the matter requires more than one-step as well as participation from countries beyond those in the developed world. Yet the Protocol does not come to grips with what future steps might look like, for either developed or developing countries, or even what the framework for making decisions on these steps might be. What are the factors that should be considered in determining appropriate obligations for different countries or groups of countries to reduce or limit their emissions? To what extent should responsibility for the problem, past, present and future be a factor? Should it be tempered by a country's ability to pay for mitigation activities? Should emission rights be granted to countries based on historic emission levels, or should they be distributed on a per capita emissions basis? And what kind of system is effective, practical and fair?

The protocol does contain a framework for achieving emission reductions where they will be most cost-effective by including provisions on emissions trading, joint implementation, and the establishment of a Clean Development Mechanism, but it provides no specifics on how these mechanisms might work. It includes the possibility of sequestering carbon in forests and soils, but contains no specifics on how carbon that is sequestered should be included in a nation's total emissions budget. And it does not contain any provisions related to compliance, another issue that requires a serious and thoughtful response.

But as a practical matter, it seems to me that a framework for international action to deal with the climate change issue will evolve over the next decade no matter what current national and global politics suggest about the Kyoto protocol. And if you take this view of the inevitability of global action, and couple it with the view that the science is compelling enough to begin taking serious steps to address it, then the emphasis shifts to action frameworks and actions closer to home: national actions, company actions, and individual actions.

So where do we stand domestically? Unfortunately, the complications at home are as daunting as the complications abroad. While there is concern, interest, and a willingness to act on the part of the general public, some in the business community, and some in government, particularly at the State and local levels, the issue is now enmeshed in difficult and frustrating partisan politics. While the science remains somewhat controversial (although far less than even one year ago), it is the Kyoto Protocol that has raised the tensions dramatically. It is rare, in Washington, to be able to get past the question of whether to support Kyoto or declare it dead. As a practical matter, this has translated into arguments on the size and scope of the climate change budget, debates over whether Federal employees should be allowed to talk about the Kyoto Protocol, and attempts to use economic analysis to prove either that Kyoto implementation would ruin the economy or that it would be virtually free. What it has not translated into is the further development and implementation of programs that would change the expected trajectory of greenhouse gas emissions, or the passage of legislation that would either protect the 1990 baseline for companies that have voluntarily reduced their emissions over the past decade or provide incentives for more companies to move forward with emission reduction efforts.

I feel compelled to add here that the situation in the United States is unique among the countries of the world. The United Kingdom is now in the process of planning a domestic emissions trading experiment. The Danish government has already secured legislative authority to implement a trading program, and other emissions trading programs are under development in Norway and Sweden. The Germans are implementing a modest tax program. The Netherlands has a more traditional program full of different policies and measures that has been approved by their parliament. Whether these programs will work, or how well they will work, remains uncertain. But they do reflect serious attempts to experiment and move forward, to take the risk necessary to determine what approaches will ultimately be successful. There is even movement in the less developed world: privatization of the electricity sector is moving forward in India, where competition is expected to increase the use of natural gas and lower greenhouse gas emissions; Korea is beginning to plan for opening up their power sector to competition, again with a projected increase in the use of natural gas; and China, which has dramatically lowered its energy consumption per unit of output over the past decade, is on a path to continue making significant energy intensity improvements over the next decade.

Can more be done to deal with this problem than is apparent from the current level of activity? Of course. But if the U.S. government, or global governments more broadly, are either not able to come to grips with the more challenging issues that must be addressed, or unwilling to exercise real leadership, who will? I believe the answer is obvious and already in evidence, and I hope you will forgive me for the following advertisement. When the Pew Center on Global Climate Change was formed in May of 1998, there was little that was pushing 13 companies (the Washington Post, in an editorial, called them "a few brave firms") to publicly declare that

1 - they accept the views of most scientists that enough is known about climate change for them to take actions to address its consequences;

2 - that businesses can and should take concrete steps now in the U.S. and abroad to assess their opportunities for emission reductions; establish and meet emission reduction objectives; and invest in new, more efficient products, practices and technologies; 

3 - that the Kyoto agreement represents a first step in the international process but that more must be done to implement the market-based mechanisms that were adopted in principle in Kyoto, and to more fully involve the rest of the world in the solution;

4 - and that we can make significant progress in addressing climate change and sustaining economic growth in the United States by adopting reasonable policies, programs and transition strategies.

Three of these companies are leaders in your industry as well: Boeing, Lockheed Martin and United Technologies. And there was little pushing the additional 8 companies that have since affiliated with the Pew Center. And there was little pushing those companies that have already set reduction targets and established programs to implement those targets, including DuPont, BP Amoco, Shell and United Technologies. And if this isn't leadership and a serious challenge to the conventional wisdom, I'd like to know what is.

But the job is not over yet. In fact, it is barely beginning. This is not a problem that can be solved in one day or one decade. It is a long-term issue that will require a sustained and serious effort over a long period of time. And there is room for virtually everyone to play a role in developing solutions. In fact, without participation from everyone -- countries, industry sectors, companies, and individuals -- it is not clear that we can mount a serious response to the problem. And this brings me to the aviation community.

I recognize up front that you have a problem that inspires jealousy in most other industries: you have had, and are projected to continue to have, a strong annual growth rate. And with this growth rate comes a problem, for while you have been successful in reducing emissions per unit of output, continued growth will increase your total greenhouse gas contributions. Even at current levels, the aviation industry accounts for roughly 2 percent of total global carbon dioxide emissions. I also realize that this sounds like a relatively small contribution. But unfortunately most sectors make small contributions, and aviation outpaces chemicals, iron and steel, cement and aluminum. You could even compare yourselves to many countries. The global aviation sector emitted more carbon dioxide than China, Germany, France or the United Kingdom.

But I didn't come here to depress you. It seems to me that all of the players on this issue are different from one another. Their contributions to the problem differ; their opportunities for emission reductions differ; and the costs that these reductions would entail differ. There is no "one size fits all" solution, and while special pleadings have never appealed to me as ways to do business, there is much to be said for flexible systems that allow for these key differences to be addressed and resolved. So let me be specific in suggesting that you focus on three topics: governance, technology and flexibility.

The aviation industry is already in a unique position with respect to governance. Article 2.2 of the Kyoto Protocol grants the industry special recognition, and establishes ICAO, the International Civil Aviation Organization, as the body responsible for regulating international aircraft emissions. As someone who has worked for many years with various Convention Secretariats and their Conferences of the Parties, I can only assure you that you are very lucky to be dealing with an organization that knows your possibilities and your constraints. But what is important is that you not squander your good fortune; your credibility on environmental issues is at stake here. It should be possible to develop timely and effective solutions that allow you to grow your business in sustainable ways. Find them, before others find paths that are less in your interest.

The second topic that demands some attention is that of innovation and technological change. Your industry has been a leader in the development and diffusion of new, more advanced technologies for decades. As you make investments in research and development, and as you consider priority areas upon which to focus your efforts, I would urge you not to forget that growth in the 21st century will almost certainly have to be environmentally sustainable growth. It is no accident that several of the largest global oil companies (and I am referring here to Shell and BP Amoco) have begun to think of themselves as energy companies, and have begun to significantly expand their investments in less traditional, more environmentally friendly energy sources. I didn't come here to tell you how to spend your R&D dollars. But I would like to suggest that you think carefully about what may be required over the next several decades to deal with the issue of global climate change, and that you factor this picture of the future into your longer term planning. You should be the industry that is first at the starting gate, and first at the finish line.

And finally, I urge you to think constructively about the market mechanisms that are contained in the Kyoto Protocol. These mechanisms essentially allow firms and nations to achieve the lowest cost emission reductions regardless of where they occur. And by doing this, the mechanisms provide economic incentives for innovation and lowered compliance costs. The best known example we have of how emissions trading works can be found in the acid rain trading program under Title IV of the Clean Air Act, a program which coincidentally I managed while at the Environmental Protection Agency. That program was designed to be scrupulous in its accounting system, and highly flexible and open in its trading system, a balance that has worked well to ensure that emissions are lowered and costs are as low as possible. It seems to me that the "Kyoto mechanisms," emissions trading, joint implementation and the Clean Development Mechanism have a significant potential for use by the aviation sector, and I know that ICAO is exploring their use along with other policy choices. You should carefully consider whether they would work for you, and, if you become convinced (as I am) that they could be of value, work with governments to ensure that the rules that are used to implement these provisions are simple, straightforward and result in real emission reductions.

In closing, I would like to briefly come back to the conventional wisdom. Yesterday's Wall Street Journal contained several articles on climate change. The lead story was titled "Inside the Race to Profit from Global Warming: Big Business Produces some Unexpected Converts." I call your attention to these articles not because I am quoted in them (alas, I am, and my quotes are not always diplomatic), but because I think they do point directly to the issue of leadership. If the marketplace has triumphed, at least temporarily, over government, as Daniel Yergin contends in his book "The Commanding Heights," then the marketplace will also have to stand ready to be judged by its commitment and contribution to environmentally sound solutions. The aviation industry is viewed as clean and green: technological giants in a world where technology is king. I urge you to live up to your reputation, exercise leadership, make a constructive contribution to the solution, and turn the conventional wisdom on its head.

Thank you.