Climate treaty a very cheap insurance policy for U.S.

By George Reiter, Alden Meyer, and Tim Mock
Copyright 1998 Houston Chronicle
September 16, 1998

Since climate-change negotiations in Kyoto, Japan, last December, many conservative politicians and pundits have developed a suspiciously consistent mantra: "Oil and coal, good. Global warming treaty, bad." Cynical and misinformed media have added "Don't worry, be happy" to the chant.

The Kyoto treaty opponents spin global warming information for their own economic and political advantage. The narrow assumptions underlying their do-nothing recommendations ignore emerging technologies, the ability of American businesses to profit from change and the costs of climate change.

Will action to curb climate change break the bank? A new report by the Union of Concerned Scientists reveals that economic disaster claims are pure fiction.

UCS surveyed peer-respected studies from the past 10 years to determine what cost, if any, the United States might pay for combating global warming. The report looked at independent analyses from federal energy laboratories, the National Academy of Sciences, the Office of Technology Assessment and private energy research organizations. Result: an encouraging economic forecast.

The Kyoto climate treaty calls for U.S. emissions of heat-trapping gases to be cut by 7 percent below 1990 levels by 2010. The independent, detailed studies show that the United States can do this, significantly reducing emissions of carbon dioxide - the most critical global warming gas - often with net economic savings from resultant lower energy bills. Stabilizing population, like other industrialized nations, would help but is not required. Moreover, the same measures that cut emissions improve local air quality, a key consideration in Houston, and reduce dependence on foreign energy sources.

To meet the treaty's goals, the United States must encourage energy efficiency and support clean renewable sources like wind and solar power. Texas is now a net energy importer but could once again export if the state's extensive clean resources were developed. The alarmist economic predictions ignore clean technologies and stress crude, costly and shortsighted measures, like huge gasoline taxes, that would cause economic damage. Well-chosen industry-appropriate policies can facilitate market transitions, create jobs, promote commercialization of clean technologies and stimulate innovation.

Opponents of action ignore the potentially enormous economic costs of global warming. Recent Texas fires, floods and heat-related deaths and crop destruction may foreshadow future local costs.

Texas scientists presented concerns at a 1996 Austin conference: A Texas A&M University professor of agricultural economics predicted that the state would lose one-third of its agricultural area as production zones move 200 miles northward; the Rice University chair of geophysics/geology said that subsidence and rising water levels would likely destroy coastal wetlands, nurseries for seafood species.

The Houston Chronicle has reported the spread of dengue fever from Mexico into Texas, consistent with predictions of the spread of tropical diseases. Other costs are more difficult to quantify - the accelerating loss of ecologically important species and social, demographic and political disruptions.

Some misguided politicians, such as U.S. Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison, R-Texas, rely on "science" funded for the most part by the fossil-fuel industry and deny that the Earth is actually warming. The vast majority (about 2,000 to 5) of independent scientists think climate-change threats are real and require immediate action.

If the United States will act, Americans can share or lead the rapidly expanding international market for advanced energy technologies. British Petroleum and Houston's Enron seem already to understand that the future belongs to multinationals that consider themselves energy companies, not just oil or coal companies. More important, America should do its necessary part to avoid the harsh and eventually irreversible impact of a warmer and less stable climate.

Our political and business leaders - and ordinary citizens - must see through the gloom-and-doom rhetoric of do-nothing advocates and scrutinize the billions of federal dollars going annually to subsidize the fossil-fuel industry. By comparison, the Kyoto climate treaty is a very cheap insurance policy. Future generations deserve this small price of protection.

Reiter is a professor of physics at the University of Houston. Meyer is director of government relations for the Washington, D.C.-based Union of Concerned Scientists. Mock has a Rice University physics degree and a career in computer software.

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