Climate Change and U. S. Policy

Date: Fri, 16 Mar 2001 00:12:57 -0500 (EST)

Dear All,

As you may have heard, President Bush has reneged on what was probably his most important environmental pledge during the campaign, to set "mandatory reduction targets" for carbon dioxide. (See NY Times, 3/14/01, Such a step would have been an important one for the world's largest carbon dioxide emitter -- the United States -- in finally taking action against global climate change. Instead, unless the President returns to his campaign position, it looks as though the United States will remain a laggard on taking action to mitigate climate change, which is one of the most, if not the most, important environmental issue facing our planet and our generation.
While those who oppose such actions will try to support their position by pointing to the uncertainty that surrounds the issue of climate change, we should be clear: The mainstream scientific community believes that climate change is real, that human activities are its main cause, that these changes already are upon us, and that the consequences will become more significant as the century progresses. The uncertainty is in the details. For example, where within the range of 1.4 to 5.8 degrees Celsius will our planet warm come 2100? Which consequences, among those that are considered possible or likely, will materialize, and to what extent?
A publication earlier this year, put out by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), considered the most authoritative body on climate change, explains how, as more studies are done and as computer models improve, the strength of the evidence that climate change is underway and is primarily attributable to human activities only increases. If you have doubts about the reality or serious magnitude of climate change, I urge you to have a look at this report, the Third Assessment Report of Working Group I of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (summary for policymakers), available at (Also, for a persuasive and powerful article from 1998, see Bill McKibben's Atlantic Monthly article, available at
Climate change will have -- and is very probably already having -- an array of lethal effects: an increase in hurricanes, floods, droughts, heat waves, and other killer weather events. Food production in some areas of the world -- including Africa, which can least afford a decrease in food production -- is likely to fall. Tropical diseases, such as malaria, are likely to spread. Small island-nations will be flooded out of existence. And some species, unable to adapt, will become extinct. For more on these and other effects, you might want to look at another recent IPCC report, Climate Change 2001: Impacts, Adaptation, and Vulnerability (summary for policymakers), available at
In this report, the IPCC states, "The effects of climate change are expected to be greatest in developing countries in terms of loss of life and relative effects on investment and the economy." (See and Bob Herbert's NY Times column, This is no surprise. Wealthy nations can build seawalls to keep away the rising tides, build strong houses to withstand hurricanes, transport food to regions that cannot grow their own food because of drought. Poor nations largely lack the resources to do these things. Witness, for example, the devastation caused by Hurricane Mitch in Central America in 1998 and a powerful cyclone in the Indian state of Orissa in 1999. Violent weather can kill in very large numbers, and most of the victims will come from the ranks of the poor.
Despite all of this, President Bush has apparently decided to put America (and its coal and oil industries in particular) first, the consequences for the rest of the world -- especially for the poor nations of the world -- notwithstanding (not that the United States is immune from climate change, from killer heat waves to rising sea levels to record-setting floods).
The President said that he now opposes mandatory reduction targets for carbon dioxide emissions because of higher energy prices and energy shortages. To me, it seems arrogant to say, in effect, that the rest of the world should suffer the severe consequences of climate change so that Americans can have cheap energy, and more of it. Yet even so far as cheap energy is a legitimate concern, setting standards for coal and oil power plants would not significantly affect energy prices. As the tone of today's NY Times editorial makes quite clear, the impression President Bush creates that "a policy aimed at gradual reductions in carbon dioxide emissions would have an immediate and devastating effect on American consumers and the economy" is false. (See; see also, and the Natural Resources Defense Council website,, for more on Bush's decision and climate change generally) The California energy problems have very little to do with the cost of oil and coal. (See NY Times, 3/15/01, Any sustainable solution to energy woes will have to rely on natural gas and, ultimately, renewable energy sources -- which are rapidly becoming less expensive -- not on coal or oil. For the sake of our planet's environment and the people for whom that environment is a backdrop to life -- you, me, and everyone else -- the President should be encouraging this transition, not impeding it.
I urge you, therefore, to write to the President (, see for other contact information) and tell him to return to his earlier position of supporting mandatory reduction targets for carbon dioxide. You might also want to write to EPA Administer Christine Todd Whitman (you can e-mail the EPA through, who seemed to genuinely support Bush's pre-reversal position, and ask that she adhere to her principles and beliefs of what is best for the environment, and urge the President to reconsider.
Before I end this e-mail, I want to touch briefly on another topic, the global AIDS crisis, and remind you to write to the President, your Senators or Congresspeople (see, or others in government to insist that the U.S. increase its funding to at least $4-5 billion annually (about a ten-fold increase, based on a global total of at least about $15 billion). Since I last wrote, several American drug companies and an Indian generic have offered drugs at or below cost. Only with billions of dollars in government funding, however, will impoverished countries be able to afford the medicine and establish the health infrastructure and distribution systems necessary to get it to those who need it.
As always, thank you,



"I have only dreams: to build a better world, a world of harmony and understanding, a world in which it is a joy to live. This is not asking for too much." -- Yitzhak Rabin

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