Monday, October 30, 2006

The British tackle global warming, while the Bush administration takes up the fiddle

By Nancy Jane Moore

US spending on all energy technology research -- not just on that related to less polluting versions -- is less than half of what it was a quarter century ago.

Today's New York Times says:

[Energy spending] has sunk to $3 billion a year in the current budget from an inflation-adjusted peak of $7.7 billion in 1979, according to several different studies. . . .

President Bush has sought an increase to $4.2 billion for 2007, but that would still be a small fraction of what most climate and energy experts say would be needed.

Federal spending on medical research, by contrast, has nearly quadrupled, to $28 billion annually, since 1979. Military research has increased 260 percent, and at more than $75 billion a year is 20 times the amount spent on energy research.

Clearly, the US is not taking global warming seriously. Fortunately, other people are. The British government released a report today from Sir Nicholas Stern, who heads the UK Government Economics Service and advises the country on the economics of climate change and development.

In the executive summary, Stern writes "the benefits of strong, early action considerably outweigh the costs." He summarizes:

If no action is taken to reduce emissions, the concentration of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere could reach double its pre-industrial level as early as 2035, virtually committing us to a global average temperature rise of over 2 [degrees] C. In the longer term, there would be more than a 50% chance that the temperature rise would exceed 5 [degrees] C. This rise would be very dangerous indeed; it is equivalent to the change in average temperatures from the last ice age to today. Such a radical change in the physical geography of the world must lead to major changes in the human geography -- where people live and how they live their lives.

Even at more moderate levels of warming, all the evidence -- from detailed studies of regional and sectoral impacts of changing weather patterns through to economic models of the global effects -- shows that climate change will have serious impacts on world output, on human life and on the environment.

All countries will be affected. The most vulnerable -- the poorest countries and populations -- will suffer earliest and most, even though they have contributed least to the causes of climate change. The costs of extreme weather, including floods, droughts and storms, are already rising, including for rich countries.

The whole report runs some 700 pages. You can download it chapter by chapter in pdf form online, or wait until December to purchase it in book form.

The Times says of the Stern report:

The report emphasized that global warming can only be fought with the cooperation of major countries such as the United States and China, and represents a huge contrast to the Bush administration's wait-and-see global warming policies.

This article also notes that former Vice President Al Gore has agreed to advise the British government on climate change.

The Washington Post report on the Stern report played the usual journalistic balancing game of getting quotes from both environmentalists and those who don't think global warming is a problem. It ended its report with the following observation from Alden Meyer, strategy and policy director at the Union of Concerned Scientists:

The Stern report exposes the bankruptcy of the arguments of President Bush and some in Congress and industry that taking action on global warming will hurt the economy. ... In fact, just the opposite is true -- it's the refusal to take serious action that poses the true risk to our future economic prosperity.

However, The Post also quoted from Jerry Taylor, whom it described as "a senior fellow at the libertarian Cato Institute, which accepts contributions from fossil-fuel companies."

There's just a very small part of GDP [in industrialized nations] that's affected by weather in a direct or indirect way. ... It's very difficult to sketch out this disaster scenario.

I've only read about half of the 27-page executive summary (pdf) so far, but it seems to me that increases in the intensity of storms, forest fires, droughts, flooding, heat waves and hurricanes are going to have a direct effect on the GDP of the US.

Stern's report isn't all negative: He begins the short version of the executive summary -- this one is only 4 pages (pdf) -- with these words:

There is still time to avoid the worst impacts of climate change, if we take strong action now.
But perhaps the most important thing about the Stern report is that is shows that at least one government is actually taking global warming seriously. Too bad it isn't the government of the country that is contributing the most to the problem.

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