Online Discussion: Ask the Expert

Ask the Expert

Individuals from throughout the United States and the world participated in the Center’s premier live online chat on April 19. Check out Eileen Claussen’s answers to these cybercitizens' thought-provoking climate change questions.

Moderator: Welcome to Viewpoint with our guest, Eileen Claussen. Eileen, thank you for joining us.

Eileen Claussen: I am delighted to be here, and looking forward to answering your questions. So let's get started.

St. Paul, MN: Some organizations, often funded by companies that profit from fossil fuels, claim that global warming does not exist. How do you respond to these claims?

Eileen Claussen: You are right that some organizations are funded by companies with fossil fuel interests, and quite obviously they claim that global warming does not exist. Of course more than 2000 of the world's best scientists are convinced that the earth has warmed, and that this warming is largely the result of human activities. Many in the private sector also share this view. Our job is to make sure that the public hears the voices that are most honest and objective on this issue.

Washington, D.C.: According to MIT's chair professor on global warming, Professor Lindzen:

One cannot observe the presumed global warming "conveyor belt" that is supposed to signal climate change, even in today's ocean circulation. Carl Wunsch -Ida and Cecil Green Professor of Oceanography at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology] has been especially outspoken on this. So has Bill Schmidt, senior scientist at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution. However, even if the conveyor belt were a reasonable depiction of the thermohaline circulation, we wouldn't know if cooling or warming would be more likely to trigger a change. Thus any policy could be the "wrong" policy.

In light of this, and Professor Robert Mendelsohn's (of Yale and his anthology from 26 authors, including authors from 11 different colleges and universities) conclusion that there would be slight net benefits for the U.S. from IPCC-predicted warming and it was roughly a wash for the world, what basis exists to promote Gore initiatives to significantly upset existing American economic activities, and in particular, continued use of increasingly efficient combustion engines?

Eileen Claussen: I think there is some confusion in this question, but I would like to try to answer it anyway. The "conveyor belt" that you refer to (thermohaline circulation, or THC pattern of the ocean) exists naturally. Scientists believe that one possible outcome of global warming is a slowdown or disruption of this THC pattern. But the absence of such a shift to date does not suggest that global warming is NOT occurring. (you might look at the IPCC reports, or C2ES's report done by Tom Wigley for more information.)
On the Mendelsohn book, it is important to note that while there could be some benefits from CO2 fertilization, none of the essays put any value on species that would be lost; they do not look at the distributional effects (some locations benefits, others lose); and they consider only the low range for how much warming we might expect. The book also does not show that global warming would be a wash for the world. In fact, the world as a whole definitely does not benefit from global warming.

Kamakura,Kanagawa,Japan: Good morning. My name is Keiichiro Sugimura (Mr.) Working for Japan Space Environmental Protection Institute,in Kamakura City, Kanagawa Pref.Japan. I understand that US government is standing a little bit on the side of opposition to ratify Kyoto Protocol as it is at moment. Is US government trying to change the direction not taking emission trading system of greenhousegas? If so, what kind of system does she take next? Is that like a "absorption trading"? Thank you.

Eileen Claussen: I think it is fair to say that while the United States is becoming more convinced that the earth is warming, and will continue to warm, there is still a very strong anti-Kyoto bias here. Much of this opposition is based on the view that there will be significant economic costs, and that some countries in the developing world will not have commitments like the United States. The reality is that overall costs are not likely to be huge, although some regions and some industries will be negatively affected. And much work is now going on in the developing world to move away from fossil fuels. But the United States still has a long way to go to deal with these issues in a thoughtful way.

Sydney, Australia: How is the trading of carbon credits going to solve the issue of greenhouse gas emissions?

Eileen Claussen: The trading of carbon credits will not, in itself, solve the issue of greenhouse gas emissions and global warming. What it will do is make reducing emissions cheaper and more cost effective. Since we will be reducing lots of emissions over a long period of time, it is highly desirable to be as cost effective as we can.

Germantown, MD: One of the problems I find with the whole debate on global warming is the technical basis for reaching the conclusion that man-made sources of greenhouse gases are the cause. From my understanding, there are multiple natural producers (volcanoes and others)and removers (plants being the main one I can remember) as well as man-made sources for greenhouse gases. However, no comparisons are published for not only the current fraction from each natural and man-made source/remover but, more important in my mind, the historical trend. Everyone points to man-made increases in the last 100 years. But what was the trends from good old Mother Nature during this time? For governments to form policy based on science, then science must answer the complete greenhouse gas cycle question, publish the data and be accurately reported by the media. As it stands now, I feel that I am being deprived a major portion of the answer because a very few are pushing a cause to satisfy their own political views (both pro and con). What is the total picture and where is it available?

Eileen Claussen: There are many causes of climate change, and man-made emissions are only one of those causes. Still, most of the world's best scientists agree that much of the warming of the last 20 years or so is coming from man-made sources. You are correct that it is difficult to get a full and complete picture. I believe that our report on the science of global climate change by scientist Tom Wigley is a good and rational source.

Calif.: Is there really a significant change in our climate? What is that change? Why should we worry?

Eileen Claussen: Yes, there really has been a significant change in the climate, although the idea of a one degree change seems too small to have real effects. Predictions over the next hundred years range from 2 to 7 degrees, and these, too, seem small. Still, we can expect significant rises in sea levels, changes in precipitation patterns, and effects on agriculture as a result of these seemingly small changes.

Madison, WI: Is it true that the government and public of the US is reluctant to accept the anthropogenic causes of climate change? If so, what reasons do you see for this?

Eileen Claussen: I think that we are beginning to see a change in both public attitudes and in the attitude of the government on these questions, primarily as a result of the increasingly sound science that is being developed, peer reviewed and published. Most polls suggest that a significant majority of the public believe that the climate is changing, and, even in the Congress, there is evidence of a shift. This can be seen by the number of bills being discussed and introduced on a bipartisan basis.

Ohio: As a 20-year veteran of utility efficiency programs, I am baffled by the serious disconnect between the vast potential for cost-effective energy efficiency, and the public perception of "cost" surrounding global warming. How can we establish a conceptual anchorpoint for the principle of doing everything that saves money first, and then seeing how much is left? Several states have spent billions of dollars saving electricity at an average cost of 2 cents per KWH saved, and have not run out of money yet.

Eileen Claussen: Much of the information that has been put out on the economics of climate change mitigation has come from macro economic models that use a "top down" approach. Unfortunately, these models do not do a very good job in assessing how technology changes, nor are they typically very flexible in how they show that the economy substitutes one product or process for another. The result is that we do not get a very accurate picture of the costs. We are doing a lot of work on the costs and the models, and hope to have some good, transparent information available soon.

Los Angeles: What can the average individual do to help in reducing global warming? Can it be an individual effort, or is this really mostly on the shoulders of corporations and governments to resolve?

Eileen Claussen: Of course both government and business have significant roles to play in dealing with this issue. Governments need to set up a framework for action, and businesses need to do what they do best -- innovate and find solutions. But citizens around the world should learn more about this issue, and make decisions about energy use, transportation and other activities that will help lay the groundwork for change.

Philadelphia, PA: Where is Congress on Kyoto now? Is this an issue that government can address?

Eileen Claussen: Congress is really not very far on Kyoto right now. The issue of Kyoto remains a partisan one, and there has been little progress in actually sitting down and deciding what things are acceptable in the Kyoto treaty and what are not. The Administration is still working on the treaty (elaborating on some of its provisions and establishing rules for how certain provisions will operate) and has not submitted it to the Senate for its advice and consent.

Boulder, CO: BP Amoco and Shell have quit the Global Climate Coalition. BP Amoco has committed to reducing operational CO2 emissions using an internal emissions trading scheme. Is BP Amoco's commitment legitimate? This is an oil company we're talking about here ... are they making real changes or simply marketing them?

Eileen Claussen: I believe that BP Amoco's commitment is,indeed, legitimate. They have established a goal of reducing emissions to 10% below 1990 levels by 2010, and have fashioned a strong program to actually achieve that goal. It involves emissions trading among all 127 of their business units. And business unit managers have their emission reduction objectives in their performance contracts.

Shell has established a goal of reaching 10% below 1990 levels by 2002, and I believe they have already met their objective.

Reston, Virginia: Is the current trend in the increasing concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere a benefit to mankind or not?

Eileen Claussen: I think it is impossible to view the increasing concentrations of carbon in the atmosphere as a benefit to mankind. We know that there will be serious impacts in many parts of the world (and in many parts of the U.S.) from the global warming that results from these increased concentrations. This is not to say that the science is perfect, that there are no uncertainties, or that we know exactly what the impacts are or where they will be felt. But, based on what we know, the impacts will be negative overall.

near Jefferson, NC: How can the public be brought to understand that climate may be very
sensitive to small changes and that even a few degrees of warming could
produce serious long term effects? For example, the ocean Thermohaline
Circulation might switch into another mode of operation, which would
impact the lives of hundreds of millions of people.

Eileen Claussen: There is no question that small changes can have serious effects, and that we may not see small incremental changes but rather unexpected events or surprises. We are actually doing some work on this issue, and will have a report out by the fall.

London,UK: Why is there still a 95 to 0 vote in the US Senate against ratifying the Kyoto Protocol?

Eileen Claussen: The 95 to 0 vote was held before Kyoto was negotiated (in July of 1998), and essentially asked that the Administration not negotiate a treaty that did not include commitments for developing countries and that would be an economic burden on the United States. Legally, it was a non binding resolution. But, of course, it carries great weight, and cannot be dismissed out of hand.

USA: Do you believe global warming can be addressed without changing priorities in land use and energy? Presently, road building continues apace, creating more vehicular traffic and petroleum emissions adding to the greenhouse effect. In other words, when would be the right time to support fundamental change?

Eileen Claussen: No, I do not think that we can successfully address this issue without a second industrial revolution. But doing this will take time, and the development and diffusion of new technology. What we can do in the shorter term is become as efficient as possible, and begin a movement away from the most significant greenhouse gases. This should be started now, as we move forward with technology development.

Arlington, VA: Madam Secretary: Isn't there any way to depoliticize an issue of life and death like global warming? It would seem that, as an empirical matter, such an effect could be proven or disproven or does the fact that a debate exists mean there is no consensus, or at least not enough to induce action sufficient to reverse this?

Eileen Claussen: It is good to see that someone remembers my earlier life! It is actually surprisingly difficult to depoliticize an issue like this. But depoliticize it is exactly what we have to do. Much of the current debate has been caused by special interests that will be negatively affected by efforts to deal with climate change. And on the other side, are those that might benefit from these efforts. What is needed is a constructive, objective and centrist voice -- and we (C2ES and the 21 major corporations that have joined with us) hope to provide that centrist voice.

Cambridge, MA: Two questions
First question: Is Kyoto really enough? Second question: A year or so ago, some people were talking about the huge potential of sequestration of CO2 in oil and gas wells. One expert even stated that this could decouple the use of fossil fuels with overall GHG emissions. Was this hype or is there real potential there?

Eileen Claussen: Let me answer your first question. Of course Kyoto is not nearly enough. It is barely a start. Although it is clear to me that the United States will be unlikely to meet the targets its negotiated in Kyoto, largely because of the time that will be required to consider the treaty thoughtfully, have it ratified, have implementing legislation agreed to by the Congress (a very difficult task given that the economic impacts will fall on certain industry sectors, certain jobs, and certain regions of the country), and have an agency of the government do rules and regulations. Not to mention that industry would also need some time to comply with those rules!

Washington, DC: Is any work being done to portray the climate change problem as a risk management or insurance issue? Obviously, once we reach a dangerous level of warming, it will be far to late to do anything about it. Shouldn't we "buy insurance" now by increasing efficiency, etc. just as we buy insurance against the chance of fire in our homes?

Eileen Claussen: I believe that there is work being done to portray it in exactly this way. In fact, some would argue that Kyoto is just the first down payment on that insurance policy. And, of course, you are right that it would be foolish not to buy insurance now.

Washington, DC: Some of your recent reports, such as "Sea Leve Rise and Global Climate Change," point to the increasing frequency of natural disasters, attributing this increase to global warming.

Yet, other studies, such as the recent Sigma report by Swiss Re, a large insurance company, have concluded that natural disasters are not increasing in frequency - only in cost due to development (i.e., Hurricane Andrew). Swiss Re, and other insurance companies, have a lot of money on the line to generate accurate reports. How do you reconcile C2ES's stance on the increasing frequency of natural disaster with reports from an industry that has a huge vested interest in generating accurate reports?

Eileen Claussen: I think that you are perhaps misreading our sea level rise report. We do not say that there will be more natural disasters due to global warming. We do say that there will be increased sea level rise, and that this sea level rise will come on top of other stresses to our coasts, stresses from coastal development and pollution. There is some indication that increasing hurricanes, for example, could result from global warming. But we believe that this is not conclusive.

Lexington, Kentucky: Do you think tradeable permits for carbon will be a reality? What will be the greatest impediments to a carbon market?

Eileen Claussen: I believe that tradeable permits for carbon will become a reality, although I also believe the world will move slowly to create a carbon market. One of the reasons for the BP Amoco and Shell internal trading systems is so that they can gain experience in how such a market will actually work.

Annapolis, Md.: The news reported today that this was the USA's warmest first 3 months ever. By far. They blamed global warming. That couldn't be the case, since the theories that I've heard is that the earth is very gradually getting warmer. To put it another way, according to the theories, global warming will not be noticeable for quite a long time, and any VERY HOT periods are normal spikes.

Eileen Claussen: I believe that most scientists are now saying that the recent warming of the globe is largely attributed to human-induced global warming. And the changes we are seeing are small, although significant. You might want to look at either our report by Tom Wigley or the most recent IPCC report to get more information on this question.

College Park, Md.: Hello, Ms. Claussen. Does the State Department have enough scientific expertise to deal with climate change?

Eileen Claussen: Well...Actually, when the United States deals with an issue as complicated as global warming, it relies on the expertise of many different agencies of the government. So, for example, in deciding what position to take, or what strategy to use in a negotiation, not only the State Department, but also the Department of Energy, the EPA, the Department of Commerce, the Department of Transportation and others will all participate. I used to chair these meetings at the Assistant Secretary level, and can assure you that it took the combined expertise of many to fully understand and deal with a complex issue.

San Francisco, CA: I have read that carbon sequestration through reforestation can offset some releases of CO2 and act as an insurance policy against global warming until more drastic changes can be made (reduce consumption of fossil fuels). What is your opinion on the benefits of large scale tree planting?

Eileen Claussen: Carbon sequestration -- either through reforestation or sustainable management of existing forests as well as through changed agricultural practices -- can play a significant role. But there are many issues that need to be resolved, including how we define the universe to be included, and how we make sure that our measurements are accurate. We are actually doing a report on sequestration, which we hope to release this July. We hope it will be helpful.

Eileen Claussen: I am sorry that I was not able to answer all of the very good questions that we received in the time we had. But we would very much like to continue this dialogue. If you have questions that you would like answered, please go to our web site, where you may contact us directly to ask a particular question. We will do our best to respond. Our web address is Thanks very much for joining us in this discussion.

Moderator: Our thanks to Eileen Claussen and all who participated.