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CSF Report

Congressional Climate Change on Global Warming?

by Kai Anderson, GSA Congressional Science Fellow
Reprinted from GSA Today, v. 9, no. 3 (March 1999)

In this initial report, I will briefly describe my motivation to work on science-policy issues and my early experiences in Washington, D.C. as the 1998–1999 GSA/USGS Congressional Science Fellow. I came to Washington as a geoscientist dedicated to exploring the nexus between science and public policy because I was, and am, profoundly interested in the relationship between people and Earth. This relationship is sometimes wrongly portrayed as a strict trade-off between the economy and the environment. At the end of a four-week orientation and interview process, I chose to work for Senator Joseph I. Lieberman (D—Conn.), in part because he articulates the point that economic vitality and environ-mental achievements are critically interdependent, not mutually exclusive. He refers to the misconception described above as a "false choice" between economic vitality and environmental stewardship. This false choice has great potential consequences for the complex and contentious domestic and international debates regarding global climate change. In addition, because climate change poses a myriad of global scientific and socioeconomic challenges, the international and domestic debates on the issue provide fascinating windows into the relationship between science and policy.

The complexity of the climate change debate reflects three vexing problems. First, from a scientific perspective, Earth's climate is dynamic, complex, and difficult to model with great temporal or spatial accuracy. Second, in a geopolitical context it is commonly assumed that attempts to mitigate climatic forcing will require significant reductions of greenhouse gas emissions, including carbon dioxide. Emission of greenhouse gases result, in turn, largely from fossil fuel burning, which drives the global economy. Finally, although climate change may seem rapid when viewed from the frame of reference provided by geologic time, to date it has not alarmed a sufficient number of people to galvanize multinational commitments to greenhouse gas emissions reduction. This does not mean that people are not concerned with the issue; rather it simply underscores the fact that the lack of a catastrophe directly attributable to anthropogenic global warming diminishes the sense of urgency that the issue might otherwise inspire.

My on-the-job education regarding geopolitics and science of climate change began in earnest at the Fourth Conference of the Parties (COP-4) to the United Nations Convention on Climate Change held in Buenos Aires, Argentina, November 1998. The week I spent staffing Senator Lieberman as a member of the Congressional oversight delegation to the COP-4 provided a challenging and inspiring start to my year on Capitol Hill.

I arrived at the COP-4 with Sally Kane, an economist detailed to Senator Lieberman's office from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), five days before Senator Lieberman began his two-day stint in Buenos Aires. We spent several days attending State Department briefings of the congressional, industry, and environmental non-profit delegations and visiting with members of these constituencies as well as White House representatives. As a veteran observer of the COP-3 negotiations held in Japan, which resulted in the drafting of the Kyoto Protocol, Sally helped orient me to the proceedings that appeared, at first, to be equal parts chaos and cosmopolitan cocktail party. Formal negotiating sessions and informal discussions largely focused on the economic, political, and environ-mental implications of reducing green-house gas emissions, using the flexible mechanisms provided for by the Kyoto Protocol such as greenhouse gas emissions trading. Technical discussions examined issues such as carbon sequestration by agriculture and forestry management.

The atmosphere of the conference itself heated significantly when a rumor began circulating that the Clinton Administration would sign the Kyoto Protocol during COP-4. Shortly thereafter, in response to the rumor, Republican representatives held an anti-Protocol press conference. The event was highlighted by a question posed by a well-known climate change skeptic who was not, coincidentally, a member of the press corps. The question turned out to be a statement expressing the skeptic's conviction that climate change science is highly uncertain and anthropogenic activities are not causing global warming. The question, in turn, prompted Representative James Sensenbrenner (R—WI) to conclude the press conference by reiterating his opinion that signing the Kyoto Protocol was a very bad idea, but that if it were signed, it should be immediately submitted to the Senate for ratification (a veritable death sentence given the current political climate). In all, the press conference was a sobering introduction to the political use of scientific uncertainty.

During the anti-Protocol press conference, I helped to coordinate and distribute a press release by Senator Lieberman that explained the rationale for, and encouraged the Clinton Administration to sign, the Kyoto Protocol. One timely argument in support of signing the protocol during the COP-4 was that the act would increase the American negotiators credibility at the bargaining table. Senator Lieberman's statement was outlined and reviewed in D.C. by his environmental legislative assistant, rewritten and finalized in Brazil by the senator, and copied and distributed to members of the media in Buenos Aires by Sally and me at the conclusion of the Republicans' press conference. The battle for media coverage provided my first taste of the partisan side of Capitol Hill.

During a briefing for Senator Lieberman, Sally and I highlighted three aspects of the COP-4 that we felt particularly noteworthy: (1) fragmentation of the developing-country negotiating bloc (G77); (2) constructive participation by industry representatives; and (3) wide-spread interest in Senator Lieberman's Credit for Voluntary Early Action bill.

We viewed the developments as positive signs for the negotiating process generally, but particularly interesting insofar as they could help to advance the climate change debate in the U.S. Senate. In the first case, developing countries, including Argentina and Kazakstan, announced their intentions to limit increases in the growth of their greenhouse gas emissions. Carlos Menem, the President of Argentina, stressed the importance of a healthy environment for robust and sustainable economic growth during his plenary address. The presence of industry representatives lent balance and legitimacy to the proceedings and helped delineate the issues critical to cost-effective implementation of the Kyoto Protocol. Finally, interest in the Credit for Voluntary Early Action bill had sparked many informal discussions.

Later during COP-4, Senator Lieberman and representatives of industry and the environmental community led a seminar that attracted more than 225 participants to a 100-person office. The intense interest in the bill reflected curiosity regarding the bill itself and a widespread international desire that the U.S. lead on the issue of climate change.

The Credit for Voluntary Early Action bill, which was introduced at the end of the 105th Congress by Senators John Chafee (R—RI), Lieberman, and Connie Mack (R—FL) is slated by its co-sponsors as a legislative priority for the 106th Congress, which began in January. The bill represents a bipartisan effort to eliminate barriers and disincentives to reducing carbon dioxide emissions and/or improving energy efficiency by crediting those who voluntarily undertake emissions reductions in advance of future regulation. The bill promises to defy the cliché that "no good deed goes unpunished." Most importantly, it represents an opportunity to break Congressional ice on this polarized issue.

As a result of my experience in Buenos Aires and the importance of the Credit for Voluntary Early Action bill, I am excited and ready for the legislative battles and lessons that lie ahead in the 106th Congress.

Kai Anderson, 1998–1999 GSA Congressional Science Fellow, serves on the staff of Senator Joseph F. Lieberman (Democrat—Connecticut). This one-year fellowship is supported by GSA and by the U.S. Geological Survey, Department of the Interior, under Assistance Award No. 1434-HQ-97-GR-03188. The views and conclusions contained in this article are those of the author and should not be interpreted as necessarily representing the official policies, either expressed or implied, of the U.S. government or GSA. You can contact Anderson by mail at 1905 37th Street, Washington, DC 20007, by phone at (202) 224-7201, or by e-mail.