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Political issues complicate solutions to global warming, speakers say

Speakers offered three different perspectives on the science, politics and potential remedies for global warming at an April 7 panel discussion entitled "Where Are We After Kyoto?" in Wong Auditorium.

Kyoto, Japan, is where the international community made agreements in December 1997 to reduce emissions and include a count of carbon-absorbing sinks in calculating reductions. At the close of the Kyoto Climate Treaty conference, the "Annex I" countries -- including the United States, the European Union, Japan and the former Soviet Union countries -- established national targets to reduce emissions by 2012 to below their 1990 levels.

The Rev. Jane Gould, Episcopal chaplain at MIT and coordinator of the Technology and Culture Forum, introduced moderator Eugene B. Skolnikoff, professor of political science, with a summary of his service to the Eisenhower, Kennedy and Carter administrations.

Professor Skolnikoff described the environmental issue as "unique," in that it did not arise from illicit behavior but from human population growth, and as "bedevilling the community of the world at all levels for the next century." Setting the exploratory tone for the afternoon's discussion, he noted that "there is no single solution for simply solving the problem, but there are many options."

Ronald G. Prinn, the TEPCO Professor of Atmospheric Chemistry and co-director of the MIT Joint Program on the Science and Policy of Global Change (JPSPGC), explored four questions to be answered by current and future research.

Displaying a huge vertical temperature map which showed how "climate in the polar regions has changed drastically in the past 250,000 years," he said, "Human influence is very shallow." Thus, the answer to his first question for researchers -- does climate vary naturally? -- is "a resounding yes," he said. The question also served to highlight the scientific challenges for environmental planners, since natural climate variations can be difficult to separate from anthropogenic ones.


Professor Prinn's second question concerned the accuracy of current climate forecasts. "The greenhouse effect is real. That is, the physics are real but the magnitude is uncertain," he said. "Better forecasts will require understanding and simulation of the role of the oceans, aerosols, clouds, glacials processes, chaos and predictability."

Professor Prinn's third inquiry -- how easy is it to slow down global warming? -- introduced scientific, economic and political elements that were also addressed by the session's subsequent speakers. Noting that global warming is caused by a combination of natural and industrial processes, he demonstrated, by means of a forecast from an integrated model that combined variables from physical and social realms, how difficult it is to plan accurately and equitably to reduce consumption and to slow down the greenhouse effect.


"Even with Herculean efforts in reduction, warming will persist," he said. "This is not like the chlorofluorocarbon issue, which rich countries can solve pretty much on their own."

Without participation from less developed countries, rich countries would not only have to reduce emissions to zero, but, "to have an impact on global warming, rich countries would have to be sucking carbon out of the atmosphere by the middle of the next century," he said.

Professor Prinn's recommendations included enhanced forecasts in which human influence is quantitified; international involvement, with significant assistance from rich to developing countries; new technologies and enhanced technological options; and societal preparation for change, especially in coastal and agricultural areas, which are most affected by climate change.

Henry D. Jacoby, the William F. Pounds Professor of Management, at the Sloan School and co-director of the JPSPGC, followed with a summary of what obstructs realization of the Kyoto agreement.

"There is a disconnect between short-term policies and the Kyoto targets. To really meet the Kyoto commitment, we have to start now to reduce emissions," he said.

If we wait five to seven years, as the administration's current position implies, the reductions would have to be 25-35 percent, which is a "quick turnaround that is not credible," he said.

The United States has set up a technology initiative of $1.2 billion, which goes mainly to subsidies and not to long-term research and development, said Professor Jacoby. He characterized this approach as a "reverse tooth fairy -- put a billion dollars under the pillow and hope to find new teeth in 2010."

Many developing countries are firmly opposed both to emissions trading and to making commitments to reduce consumption, he said. Professor Jacoby also noted that the lack of political support in the United States for global warming initiatives undermines the possibility of universal participation in and ultimate success of the Kyoto Treaty.

Dr. Kilaparti Ramakrishna, director of the Program on Science in Public Affairs at Woods Hole Research Center and special advisor tothe United Nations for the Framework Convention on Climate Change, followed Professor Jacoby's presentation with comments on developing countries' perspective on the Kyoto agreements.

From their point of view, "the tensions between industrialized and developing countries is based on [industrialized countries'] desire to keep developing countries in a state of dependence," he said.

Implementation by developing countries of the equal but differentiated responsibilities related to slowing global warming are "contingent on measures taken by the industrialized countries," Dr. Ramakrishna said. Yet, he noted, those measures have yet to materialize and the upcoming climate conference (to be held in Buenos Aires in November) is likely to be stalemated by north-south tensions.

For example, the flexibility mechanisms built into the Kyoto agreement such as emissions trading "could add up to mean industrialized countries escape doing anything active (i.,e. reducing fossil fuel consumption) in their own countries," Dr. Ramakrishna said.

In essence, cutting back on energy consumption, a symptom of economic growth, makes as much sense in some developing countries as dieting does to the starving.

"But for the US role, we would not have had the current reductions," Dr. Ramakrishna said. "Yet the US lost the public relations game. US politicians were not good diplomats; they warned others at the Kyoto conference that any agreement made in Kyoto would 'never fly back home.'"

The general goal of international commitment and participation will only be met once local governments are convinced that everyone else is supporting a global warming agreement, he said. In addition, adequate compensation from the industrialized countries is essential, he added.

A version of this article appeared in MIT Tech Talk on April 15, 1998.

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