Too Much Hot Air

IS THAT A CLOUD OF HOT AIR ABOVE the White House? First the administration appoints a climate czar. Then, throughout the summer, high-level task forces meet, and teach-ins and town meetings around the country hear federal officials sound the alarm about melting glaciers, rising sea levels, spreading tropical diseases and other unpleasant consequences of climate change. Then, last month, the White House invites more than 100 radio and television meteorologists to a crash course on global warming. Four days later it was the White House Conference on Climate Change, at which highly skeptical steel, auto and electric-utility lobbyists and consumer groups heard President Clinton himself vow that the United States ""must show leadership'' on global warming and ""do the responsible thing . . . to avoid leaving our children and grandchildren with a catastrophe.''

You might think, from this public-relations blitz, that the administration is softening up the public for a dramatic and possibly painful new policy aimed at thwarting the climate changes that global warming threatens. You might think that, but you could be wrong. Most of the industrialized world is putting the finishing touches on plans to reduce the output of greenhouse gases. For 10 days in December, in Kyoto, Japan, 160 countries will meet to try to turn these plans into an international treaty limiting emissions of the planet-warming gases. Japan, under pressure as the host country not to botch the conference, last week proposed 5 percent cuts in emissions of greenhouse gases from the 1990 baseline over the next 10 to 14 years. (Japan today is 8 percent above the baseline.) The European Union has suggested 15 percent cuts by 2010. But the Clinton administration, caught in the crossfire between environmentalists and its economic advisers, is leaning toward a proposal that merely returns to 1990 levels by 2010. Green groups are fuming that the plan, to be unveiled next week in Bonn at the final prep meeting for Kyoto, makes it seem as if the White House expects global climate change to bring not the ""catastrophe'' Clinton described but just a few balmy days in October. If the U.S. proposal indeed puts off emissions cuts to 2010, says atmospheric physicist Michael Oppenheimer of the Environmental Defense Fund, it ""will be taken as a sign by the rest of the world that the U.S. isn't really serious about finding a solution [to climate change].''

The gap between the White House's rhetoric and its expected plan is big enough to drive a $13 million ad campaign through. The industry-sponsored Global Climate Information Project last month started running commercials reminiscent of the ""Harry and Louise'' spots that sunk Clinton's health-care overhaul. The commercials argue that greenhouse warming is not a real threat and that capping greenhouse-gas emissions would cripple the economy. Earlier this month CNN, under pressure from environmental groups, pulled the ads, drawing the predictable flak about founder Ted Turner letting his own green politics squelch debate. Late last week, however, CNN, ""after re-evaluating its position,'' rescinded the ad ban.

That run-in reflects each side's approach to Kyoto: take no prisoners. Industry and conservative think tanks churn out papers with titles like ""Kyoto Madness'' and warn that greenhouse-gas limits will suck $350 billion out of the U.S. economy every year, boost electricity costs 52 percent, bring gasoline rationing, force poorer families ""to restrict their recreational activities'' and eliminate 600,000 jobs. The other side counters that reducing greenhouse emissions by 2010 to 10 percent below 1990 levels would save the average household $530 a year in energy bills and generate 773,000 new jobs. Confusing? Get used to it. As Kyoto nears, ""agenda-driven stretching of the science is inevitable [by] both sides,'' says climatologist Jerry Mahlman, director of the Geophysical Fluid Dynamics Laboratory in Princeton, N.J. ""The sense of controversy will be exaggerated.''

In fact, scientific controversy is much less than industry claims but more than green groups wish. This much is virtually certain: gases such as water vapor and carbon dioxide trap infrared radiation, warming the world (diagram). Water vapor accounts for some 98 percent of the warming, without which the Earth would be 61 degrees Fahrenheit colder. Carbon dioxide accounts for most of the other 2 percent; the vast majority of that comes from burning fossil fuels (coal, oil and natural gas). But fiddling with that 2 percent is like pushing on a long lever: a tiny push can bring huge changes. The concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere has risen from about 280 parts per million (ppm) before the Industrial Revolution to 360 ppm today; it threatens to go to 560 in the next century. The world has already warmed about 1 degree Fahrenheit over the last century. Because seawater expands when heated, oceans have risen four to 10 inches. Could this reflect natural climate swings? Anything is possible. Over the past 10,000 years, though, century-to-century variability has seldom been this high.

Less certain is what kind of world this miasma of greenhouse gases will bring. According to the 2,000-plus scientists and technical experts from industry, government and academia who make up the authoritative Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, sea levels will rise another six to 37 inches by 2100. The Florida Keys would be obliterated; shorefront houses would become driftwood and inland subdivisions would become beachfront property. Global mean temperatures will warm 1.8 to 6.3 degrees Fahrenheit by 2100. That rate of warming exceeds all others in the 10,000-year history of civilization. Computer models, which despite a rocky start are now able to ""retrodict'' the climate of the past 30 to 50 years, forecast more warming at night than day, more very hot summer days and fewer frigid winter days in the U.S. and Europe and more frequent heavy rains and droughts. The weakest link in the science is how a warmer world will affect moisture in the lower atmosphere. While it sounds like an esoteric point, how this band of air behaves may determine how bad the greenhouse gets. If the troposphere (roughly sea level to 10 miles up) gets drier as the world warms a little, then further warming could be held in check. But if the troposphere becomes moister--remember that water vapor is a greenhouse gas--the warming could accelerate disastrously.

The most powerful argument for trying to mitigate climate change now is based on chemistry: carbon dioxide stays in the atmosphere for a century, on average; gas from the coal that kept President McKinley warm is still up there. As a result, the world would warm even if we stopped burning coal, oil and natural gas today. But if we wait to act until the greenhouse world is upon us, it will take decades to turn it around. Even stabilizing emissions doesn't stabilize climate: as long as the gases keep rising, even at current rates, so will the mercury. ""To stay on an environmentally benign course,'' says EDF's Oppenheimer, ""we need to reduce emissions 1 or 2 percent per year for the next century. If we don't start now, we will have to cut 3 or 4 percent per year,'' which would be more painful.

In February 2,600 economists issued a statement concluding that ""sound economic analysis shows that there are policy options that would slow climate change without harming American living standards, and these measures may in fact improve U.S. productivity in the long run.'' There is precedent for such a win-win situation: between the 1973 Arab oil embargo and 1986, the U.S. economy grew by 35 percent with no overall increased energy use. Can any more efficiency be squeezed out? Clinton's own Department of Energy thinks so. In a new report it concludes that ""energy-efficient technologies remain underutilized.'' By fully exploiting the ones available today, investing in research to develop more tomorrow and charging industry $50 per ton to emit carbon (that's 12.5 cents per gallon of gasoline and half a cent per kilowatt hour of electricity from natural gas), the United States could get back to 1990 levels of carbon emissions by 2010, concludes Energy. All of this would cost $50 billion to $90 billion a year. The energy cuts would bring $70 billion to $90 billion in annual savings. In other words, no net cost to bring U.S. carbon emissions back down to 1990 levels. (The country is now 13 percent above its 1990 emissions levels, so the White House proposal expected next week, administration insiders are telling horrified environmental groups, would actually cut greenhouse emissions 28 percent from a business-as-usual energy path by 2010.)

Some economists dismiss the notion of a free lunch. ""The idea that you can stabilize emissions at no net cost reflects a level of technological optimism that is not warranted,'' says Henry Jacoby of MIT. How, then, can the Europeans promise such hefty cuts--15 percent below 1990 by 2010? Says Ford Motor Co. scientist John Shiller, ""They are just taking the moral high ground,'' knowing full well that nothing so extreme will be agreed to in Kyoto. The White House, privately, agrees. But Britain, which is promising a 20 percent cut, will be 8 percent below 1990 by the year 2000, and believes it can go the rest of the way by substituting natural gas for coal (coal produces more carbon dioxide than any other fuel), increasing nuclear power, phasing in renewable energy like wind power, raising gasoline taxes and capturing the waste heat from power plants to heat buildings. British Petroleum, sounding as if Greenpeace had infiltrated the boardroom, decided last May that greenhouse gases pose a serious threat and is now setting targets for greenhouse cuts at its plants. German Chancellor Helmut Kohl pledged a 25 percent cut from 1987 levels by 2005. Germany had gotten halfway there last year by closing high-polluting, inefficient East German factories, installing modern technology in the remaining plants and switching from dirty lignite coal to natural gas for electricity. While German environmental groups doubt that the country will hit the 25 percent target, industry is trying. Mercedes, for instance, plans to have 100,000 cars on the road by 2005 running on fuel cells, which emit no greenhouse gases.

U.S. oil, steel, paper and auto industries, in contrast, are convinced that carbon caps will cripple economic growth and even ""put some sectors virtually out of business,'' says chief auto lobbyist Andrew Card. How seriously does Detroit take the prospect of carbon caps? Ford chairman Alex Trotman will regale anyone who will listen about how Antarctic ice cores belie the notion that the world is warming. Another sore point: only industrialized countries are likely to be subject to any carbon reductions negotiated at Kyoto. That could shift jobs and the competitive edge to countries like India, China and Malaysia, goes the argument. Clearly the greenhouse world cannot be avoided unless the Chinas and Indias do their part. Although rich countries account for 60 percent of today's greenhouse emissions from fossil fuels, the less-developed countries are expected to emit more than half by 2020. How can those countries best be brought on board? None will accept greenhouse controls unless the rich nations go first. India, for instance, is happy to point out that Americans' cars emit more carbon dioxide than all the sources in India. ""Only a commitment to greenhouse-gas reduction by the developed world will bring the developing countries along,'' says John Gummer, environment minister under Margaret Thatcher. The Senate isn't convinced. This summer it passed a resolution, 95-0, opposing any treaty that exempts the developing world.

Next week in Bonn, the White House will unveil its Kyoto proposals. It is expected to call for stabilizing greenhouse emissions by 2010, and will insist on a very gradual phase-in so industry can adapt. The plan may also have an escape clause: if cutting carbon gets too expensive, companies will get a price break on permits. ""We want to be sure that if we're wrong about the actual costs we don't devastate the economy,'' says an administration official. Now all they have to worry about is whether, if such a proposal carries the day in Kyoto, it won't devastate the planet.

1 About half the sun's energy, in the form of solar radiation, is absorbed by Earth.

2 That energy is converted into heat. Greenhouse gases keep much of the heat from escaping.

3 As carbon-dioxide concentrations increase (up 30% since 1750), more heat is trapped.

The upshot: the average global temperature has risen nearly one degree in the last century.

Worldwide carbon-dioxide emissions are rising. After stablizing output for 30 years, Western countries' emissions are on the rise. Levels for all countries are expected to double by 2100.

Despite a drop during the 1970s energy crisis, Americans continue to use more gas, oil and coal. Meanwhile global temperatures rise: the four warmest years on record have all been in the 1990s.