issue guide: Global Warming

Background & Facts

See also the skinny, pro & con, links

The Science

How warming works

The earth would be a chilly place if it weren't for a phenomenon known as the greenhouse effect. Energy from the sun hits earth and radiates back into the atmosphere; it would normally escape to space if some didn't get trapped by gases in the atmosphere, like heat gets trapped by glass in a greenhouse. These gases, called “green house gases,” include gases that are both naturally found in the atmosphere and man made - such as carbon dioxide, methane, nitrous oxide - as well as purely industrially produced gases. Carbon dioxide, which is released by burning fossil fuels (gas, coal, etc.), is considered the largest contributor to the green house effect.

Where the green house gases are coming from

We plucked this straight from the Energy Information Administration:

Note: CO2 emissions also come from non-energy related sources, including agriculture and waste production. See this Pew chart using 1990 stats.

How much we're heating up

Most scientists – and the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) - agree the planet is getting warmer; about 1° F over the past century. (There are exceptions.) Estimates of future temperature rises range from 2.2° – 10° F by the year 2100. (Note: new IPCC numbers came out in April, 2007. Joe hasn't taken the time to sift through the new numbers, but you can check out the report here.)

How much are we adding to the heat?

At least part of this warming is unavoidable - part of a cycle that occurs naturally over long periods of time. Most scientists, however, think human activities, particularly the burning of fossil fuels, also add to global warming, although there are a small number in the scientific community who do not believe there is a definite link between human activity and climate change.

The full story? Not everyone agrees that it's the greenhouse gases alone that are warming up the atmosphere (even though that's the consensus of the vast majority of climatologists). In one alternative theory, a 2005 Duke University study suggests the sun is shooting off more heat lately and could be responsible for 10 - 30% of recent warming.

For more on how much humans contribute to warming, the possible effects of warming and economic costs of curbing emissions, see Pro/Con.

The policies

Kyoto - and beyond Kyoto

The 1997 Kyoto Protocol is an international treaty that calls on governments to bring emissions down to 5.2% below 1990 levels by 2012. Over a hundred nations have signed on, but neither Clinton or Bush ever brought the treaty to the Senate for approval. Bush is unlikely to change his mind as he says the economic impacts would be too great and that more research is needed. Kyoto officially went into effect February 2005. (WP)

The US agreed to participate in talks for what would come after Kyoto. A December '07 meeting in Bali set a loose framework for a future accord, including commitments from developing nations - for the first time - to slow their emissions (with a little help from developed nations) (WP). Nations are planning a December 2009 meeting in Copenhagen to put the details on what that new international treaty would be (NYT); although it looks like the world will agree the earth should be kept from getting more than 3.6 degrees F warme, there's still agreement over how much of a burden in emissions cust rich v. developing nations should make (NYT).

Legislation during the early Bush years: McCain-Lieberman I and II

Senators Lieberman and McCain were early pushers of "Climate Stewardship" acts, none of which ever made it to President Bush's desk. Their 2003 version set a national cap on greenhouse gas emissions at 2000 levels by 2010, with options for companies to buy and sell emission credits. An earlier version of the bill also had a second phase that would have required even stronger restrictions by 2016. In 2007, McCain-Lieberman would cap emission at 2004 levels by 2012 - with a second, long-term phase slowly bringing down emissions by over a third by 2050. The House's companion bill was known as the Gilchrest-Olver Climate Stewardship Act. (Pew)

Congressional action in 2008

With Dems taking over control of Congress in '07, hopeful lawmakers poured in climate change proposals; some of the top contenders are summarized in this Pew chart (pdf). The front runner bill in the Senate, S 3036, would get get emissions down by 66% (from 2005 levels) by 2050 using a cap & trade program (NYT). That bill was tested on the Senate floor in June but, as suspected, never made it to a full vote. See more details on 3036.

The House, which pushed for a climate change vote for in the fall of '08, also wrestled with a pile of differing opinions, many spelled out in this Washington Post article. The guys who had the reins on a frontrunner bill - Dingell & Boucher - were expected to introduce a bill that would set 2050 emission cuts somewhere around 60-80%.

2009 - Global Warming bills finally see the light of day

With global warming action a top Dem campaign promise, the stars are aligned for a climate change bill to become law this year.

The first salvo came from
the Senate which issued a set of "principles" for global warming
legislation. Those principles include using a cap & trade system
and setting goals that are "guided by science." Not to be too vague or
anything. (WP)

The House blasted ahead in June by passing HR 2454, a bill that would bring down carbon emissions to 83% of 2005 levels by 2020 and 17% of 2005 levels by 2050. Using a "cap and trade" system, energy and other carbon emitting companies would get allowances to pollute (which get ratcheted down over the years) which they could trade to other companies. Obama had wanted Congress to sell off those pollution allowances, but the House bill gave 85% of them away (to protect the American consumer - or to cave into special interests, depending on your view). The House bill also includes requirements that electriciy companies get 15% of their juice from renewable sources by 2020, along with other measures to conserve energy and encourage cleaner energy (WP). (Also check out the WP's Q&A on the House bill.)

The president looks likely to support the House's bill, although he's not not tight with the bill's measure that would slap tariffs against countries that aren't also fighting global warming. (WP) The Senate gets to work crafting its version of a climate bill in July, when Congress watchers predict there will be heavy horsetrading in order for senators to reach their 60-vote threshold for passage. (WP)

See Pew's Global Warming site for more on the bills Congress is batting around.

Reducing Carbon - Tax vs. Cap & Trade

Policies that force a reduction of carbon emissions (rather than policies that create voluntary incentives) come in two shades: carbon taxes or cap & trade programs. Taxes simply charge companies for every ton of carbon emissions they put out into the atmosphere, while cap & trade set limits on how much companies emit, but let them trade emission credits - so a heavy emitter can either decide to clean up their act or pay another company to be even cleaner than they have to. Economists disagree on which system is more efficient (ie ends up costing less in the end). CitizenJoe hasn't a clue, so may we suggest you start with an overview from the Congressional Budget Office (in pdf).

Bush's economic incentives and tech initiatives

The president doesn't deny that global warming may be a problem; his tactics for addressing climate change, however, are more cautious. His policies prefer to provide incentives to private industry to voluntarily reduce emissions. Critics, however, say these incentives aren't effective enough. (A 2006 GAO report suggests that voluntary efforts have lukewarm results.) In a bit of an about turn, as part of a G8 meeting in July '09, the president supported the idea of setting goals for reducing greenhouse gas emission. (NYT)

Bush also supports putting money into developing alternative energies as well as building new nuclear reactors, both of which do not emit carbon dioxide. (WP) At the same time, he supports higher gas mileage standards and mandating that more fuel come from renewable sources like ethanol.

Stateside, cityside - and courtside

Impatient with the progress of climate control legislation in DC, many states have taken their own initiatives to cut back emissions at home, with nine Northeastern states - and possibly the West Coast - working on a cross-state plans to lower emissions (NYT & WP & WP). 522 cities, meanwhile, are also leap-frogging the feds to "sign on" to Kyoto, vowing to meet the foreign treaty's emission standards within their municipal boundaries (WP). At least one of those efforts - to set stricter tailpipe emissions standards - was temporarily stymied after the EPA refused to let California set its own standard (WP), a decision which California contested in court (WP) and which the EPA under Obama reversed (WP, WP).

Eight states - California, Connecticut, Iowa, New Jersey, New York, Rhode Island, Vermont and Wisconsin – and NYC have also joined forces to sue five of the countries largest power plants, in an attempt to force industry to curb CO2 emissions.

In a separate suit, twelve states went to court to force the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to regulate CO2, saying the EPA has the authority and responsibility to do so under the Clean Air Act - which the EPA denied (WP). The Supreme Court ruled in April 2007 that the EPA does, indeed, have the authority to regulate CO2 and that it can't dismiss its duty to do so out of hand - but it leaves it up to the EPA if and how it will regulate CO2 (WP). That has turned out to be a slow process that dragged into 2009 - but now the EPA could move to regulate carbon emissions if Congress doesn't act first (WP & NYT & WP & WP, WP). Meanwhile many of the same states took a second shot at the EPA with a similar - but more narrowly defined - suit (AP). 

Updated July 12, 2009

Did we miss something, let some slant slip in, lose a link - or do you just have something to say? Drop a line below! In the spirit of open dialogue, cJ asks you keep it civil, keep it real and keep it focused on the message, not the messenger. See our policy page for more on what that all means.