Global Warming: It’s Real, So Let’s Do Something About It

By JIM DIPESO, REP’s policy director

AN HISTORICAL DOCUMENT: Jim delivered this speech at the Environmental Law Society, University of Chicago, Chicago, Illinois; October 24, 2003


Good morning. It’s always a pleasure to be here in Chicago, which we think of as the ancestral home of Republicans for Environmental Protection.

REP came into being eight years ago in Lake County, where Martha Marks, our co-founder and current president, was a county commissioner.

Our mission is to resurrect the Republican’s Party conservation tradition, and help the party reclaim leadership in practical environmental stewardship. Next Wednesday or Thursday, the Senate is scheduled to take a vote on the Climate Stewardship Act, co-sponsored by Senators John McCain, Arizona Republican, and Joe Lieberman, Connecticut Democrat.

The bill will be voted down … even Senator McCain has said as much.

But the vote will be a useful exercise nevertheless. For the first time, senators will have to go on the record, yea or nay, on a specific piece of home-grown legislation that sets goals for reducing greenhouse gas emissions and includes a real toolbox for reaching those goals.

The greatest deliberative body in the greatest nation on Earth is facing up to the biggest public policy issue that our nation and the rest of humanity will face in this century – and to the nation’s greatest economic opportunity.

It is safe to say that we have a great deal at stake in managing and solving this problem. Our way of life, our very civilization emerged as a result of a stable, hospitable climate – which we tamper with at our peril.

That gets to the heart as to why, as REP, we care about dealing seriously with the climate issue.

We consider ourselves to be traditional conservatives. A key principle of traditional conservatism is what English statesman and philosopher Edmund Burke called the intergenerational contract – we have an ethical obligation to keep our society secure and pass it on, intact, to future generations.

We believe that taking good care of the environment that serves as our global life support system is critical for keeping up our end of the intergenerational contract. And, in practical terms, there is money to be made here and now in doing so.

Those who argue against anything more than voluntary measures to reduce greenhouse gas emissions assert that stronger action would tamper with the U.S. economy at our peril. I agree that we must act judiciously and think through our climate policy with care … conservatively, I might add.

But we don’t subscribe to the tiresome talk-show dichotomies that pit the economy against the environment. “Jobs vs. the environment is a false choice.” That’s a direct quote from the environmental platform of my party’s newest political star, Governor-elect Arnold Schwarzenegger.

The Climate Stewardship Act points a bipartisan, practical way out of a polarized debate that has blocked constructive action to protect America’s economy, international security, and our global life support system from the risks of global warming.

The Climate Stewardship Act is not perfect, no piece of legislation is, but as an opening gambit, the bill does a creditable job of reconciling the pressing need to start tackling this problem and the complexities of optimizing the energy choices of a very large economy that now runs on very large quantities of fossil fuels.

I’ll talk more about the balanced, practical approach the Climate Stewardship Act takes in a moment. First, let’s review the reason why the Climate Stewardship Act, or something similar, is a necessary first step in what must be a century-long effort to transform our energy system and reduce greenhouse gas emissions by at least two-thirds.

Let’s take a quick run through history to see how we have reached the point we’re at today. We have gone through a series of energy ages where one type of fuel was the leading source of heat, light, and motive force.

About half a million years ago, someone, perhaps a woman caring for ill children, brought a firebrand into a cave to provide warmth. The wood age had begun. From that distant time until a few centuries ago, wood was the leading source of heat energy we used to keep warm, cook food, and produce copper, iron, and other metals.

A few centuries ago, the fossil fuel age began with burning of coal, which is essentially decayed plant matter. Coal fired the industrial revolution – the workshops, mills, locomotives and power plants from which our technological civilization sprang.

Coal is the most abundant fossil fuel on Earth – last year, the U.S. burned a billion tons, providing one-fourth of our nation’s primary energy. Coal generates half our electricity supply. There is at least a 200-year supply left. Other developing nations, especially China and India, also burn a lot of coal.

In 1859, Colonel Edwin Drake struck oil in Pennsylvania. Oil is the remains of ancient marine organisms. Today, the U.S. uses 20 million barrels of oil per day, supplying 40 percent of our primary energy and more than 95 percent of our transportation fuel.

In this century, consumption of natural gas has risen dramatically, for heating, industrial uses, and electric power generation. Natural gas is comprised mainly of methane. Today, we use 22 trillion cubic feet per year to supply one-fourth of our primary energy – that’s enough to fill a space 12 miles wide, 12 miles long, and 1 mile high.

Coal, oil and natural gas are fossil fuels. When we burn any fossil fuel for energy, an inevitable byproduct is carbon dioxide.

In the atmosphere, CO2, along with water vapor, acts like a greenhouse – it lets the sunlight through but keeps heat from escaping. In moderation, greenhouse gases are good – otherwise our climate would be inhospitably cold.

Over very long periods of time, the atmosphere’s natural CO2 levels have fluctuated in lockstep with global temperatures. CO2 goes up, temperature goes up. CO2 goes down, temperatures go down. Until the Industrial Revolution, never in the last 420,000 years did the atmosphere’s natural CO2 levels ever get above 280 parts per million. These are scientific facts, borne out by analysis of ancient Antarctic ice cores.

Since 1860, however, CO2 levels have risen from 280 to 375 ppm — an increase of 30 percent in what is, in geological terms, an eyeblink of time. About three-fourths of that CO2 buildup has come from our burning of coal, oil and natural gas.

The atmosphere’s concentration of CO2 is expected to hit double pre-industrial levels in the next 50-75 years, an extraordinarily rapid rate of increase.

Why is this a problem? Our emissions are unbalancing the natural carbon cycle. In a balanced cycle, CO2 is absorbed by marine and terrestrial plants. CO2 is released when plants and animals respire, and when they decay after death.

Think of a bathtub. When the water entering from the faucet is the same amount as the water going down the drain, the bathtub water level neither rises nor falls. When the water entering from the faucet is greater than the amount going down the drain, the bathtub water level starts to rise. That’s what is happening in the atmosphere.

Our emissions are outrunning the carbon absorption capacity of the oceans, forests and soils, so it’s piling up in the atmosphere. That buildup has consequences. More CO2 means a stronger greenhouse effect. A stronger greenhouse effect adds more heat energy to the atmosphere.

That latter point is very important. Global warming does not mean that every place on Earth will warm up gradually and uniformly. Global climate is a complex phenomenon driven by heat energy. Small changes could produce large feedback effects on weather patterns, ecosystems, and human social systems.

Here are some of the impacts that the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change projects to be very likely.

  • More heat leading to more evaporation, producing greater rainfall, causing increased flooding in certain places.
  • Warmer winters and fewer frosts, allowing pests to expand their ranges, threatening agriculture and forestry.
  • Longer and more intense heat waves threatening lives in cities worldwide – which everyone who experienced the 1995 Chicago heat wave well remembers.

Is all this known for certain? Like all science, the evidence is provisional. Science is a never-ending process of questions, observations, and theories to explain the observations.

But if I may borrow a legal concept, the preponderance of the evidence indicates that human activities are altering the climate. This is the conclusion of scientists with the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change who have collected data, formulated hypotheses, and subjected their findings to peer review.

In 2001, the National Research Council reviewed the IPCC’s work and concurred that climate changes observed over the last several decades are most likely the result of human activities, with the possibility that natural factors also are in play.

The atmosphere, oceans, and land interact in very complex ways. Scientists may be overestimating the impacts of global warming. But uncertainty cuts both ways. It is also possible that we may be under-estimating the impacts.

The signs of a changing climate are many.

  • The 20th century’s increase in surface temperatures likely was greater than any century within the past 1,000 years.
  • Sea level has risen 10 to 20 centimeters since 1900, largely from thermal expansion. When water warms, it expands in volume.
  • Rainfall patterns have changed globally.
  • Ice fields are melting worldwide, from the floating ice of the Arctic to the snows of Kilimanjaro to Glacier National Park in Montana.
  • Bird migration patterns are changing and the growing season has lengthened in the Northern Hemisphere.
  • Weather-related economic damages have risen dramatically since the mid-1980s, according to figures from the insurance industry.
  • Over the coming century, the IPCC projects that global temperatures may rise anywhere from 2 to 10 degrees F.
  • Sea level is expected to rise another 3 to 35 inches. There is a possibility that extreme storm events may increase in frequency. Bigger hurricanes and a higher sea level will mean higher storm surges on the East Coast.
  • Certain sensitive ecosystems, such as boreal forests and coral reefs, will be vulnerable to temperature stress, pests, and disease. Coastal wetlands could be inundated. Saltwater intrusion will threaten drinking water supplies. In New York, for example, water suppliers are worried about inward migration of the salt front, the boundary in the Hudson River between salt water and fresh water.
  • Illinois could see hotter summers, warmer winters, and increased precipitation. With hotter summers would come more low-level ozone smog. Warmer, wetter conditions would create more hospitable conditions for mosquitoes.
  • Developing nations will have a much harder time adapting to change than wealthy nations. If sea levels rise 1 meter, for example, Bangladesh would lose 17 percent of its land area. Adapting to that loss would be very difficult for a very poor, overpopulated nation.


We have to ask ourselves a hard question: Will our emissions cause harm to the least among us?

There are some wild cards we need to be aware of. As I said earlier, global warming doesn’t necessarily mean the world will heat up gradually and evenly. Scientists are paying more attention to the phenomenon of abrupt climate change, which has happened before in prehistory.

You’ve heard the proverb about the straw that breaks the camel’s back. Rising heat energy could push the atmosphere and/or the oceans past a dangerous tipping point that would trigger all sorts of extremely serious impacts.

Here’s one example. Warming at the high latitudes could melt permafrost, releasing carbon dioxide and methane, another greenhouse gas, and accelerate the buildup of heat energy in the atmosphere.

Warming temperatures could set off a chain reaction of events in the oceans, leading to shutdown of the Gulf Stream that delivers warmth to Europe. That’s right. Global warming could produce a deep freeze in one region. That vividly illustrates that climate can be a temperamental beast. Poking it with a stick can cause the beast to lose its temper.

In short, we are conducting an uncontrolled science experiment on the only atmosphere we have. We are playing a risky game. It is our responsibility to plan ahead, and start implementing the practical solutions that will get a handle on this problem.

So what do we need to do? To stabilize CO2 levels in the atmosphere at double pre-industrial levels, we need to reduce CO2 emissions by at least two-thirds over the next century. We need to reduce the flow coming into the bathtub.

We need to use energy more efficiently, then diversify our nation’s energy portfolio by phasing in new energy technologies that release little or no carbon dioxide into the atmosphere.

Action now is important. The longer we delay, the more heat energy will build up in the atmosphere. We could pass one of those dangerous tipping points that could lead to irreversible impacts and make life very difficult. Doing nothing about global warming is a risk we shouldn’t take.

But more than that, doing something about global warming is an opportunity we shouldn’t pass up. That’s right. Fighting global warming, if we’re smart about it, is a business opportunity that we should seize because there is money to be made, jobs to create, and spin-off benefits — from cleaner air in our cities to greater freedom from unstable foreign energy sources.

Worldwide, the market for clean energy technologies — efficiency , fuel cells, wind, solar, and other renewable sources of energy — is expected to total $180 billion per year for the next 20 years — without any policies to stimulate more rapid growth.

The first place to start is energy efficiency. Efficiency is the essential foundation that will support the clean energy technologies that will get us out of our carbon dioxide predicament. The antithesis of efficiency is waste, and waste is indefensible. Every good conservative knows that.

Let’s be clear on what energy efficiency means. It does not mean shivering in the dark in a sweater. That’s not efficiency, that’s deprivation. We’re not interested in deprivation. Efficiency means getting more work out of each kilowatt-hour of electricity and each gallon of fuel. All real conservatives appreciate efficiency, because it means getting more value per dollar spent.

Let’s remember why we buy energy. We don’t buy electricity and fuel for the sake of having electricity and fuel. We buy them for the services they deliver, whether it’s illumination or personal mobility. If the same services can be provided with less energy, you don’t have to buy as much energy.

Efficiency delivers proven economic benefits. Since 1973, the American economy’s “energy intensity” – energy used per dollar of output – has fallen by 43 percent. Nearly two-thirds of that reduction was the result of energy efficiency improvements. The reduction in energy intensity is saving our country $430 billion every year that we otherwise would be spending on wasted energy.

We’ve made a lot of progress, but there are many more efficiency opportunities waiting to be tapped. Five national laboratories have estimated we can improve energy efficiency 20 percent by 2020 at a profit.

Sometimes, energy efficiency just means you stop doing dumb things. For example, a Pratt & Whitney engine plant in Florida saved a quarter of a million dollars simply by teaching employees to turn off computers when not in use. The project produced a 5,000 percent return on investment.

In 1998, British Petroleum set up an internal program to cut its greenhouse gas emissions to 10 percent below 1990 levels by 2010. They met the target nine years ahead of schedule and saved $600 million in the process. How? BP turned its work force loose to ferret out and eliminate wasteful practices that resulted in CO2 emissions. BP figured out that pollution is waste and waste is lost profit.

The story is the same for cars. In 2001, the National Academy of Sciences released a report showing that the efficiency of cars could be improved significantly, with technologies on the shelf and without compromising safety in any way whatsoever.

Hybrid-electric cars deliver great efficiencies. Today, there are three models of hybrid cars in showrooms. More will be available in the next few years.

Another exciting opportunity is combined heat-and-power. Every year, America’s power plants throw away enough waste heat to power all of Japan.

In a combined heat-and-power plant, the heat is put to use. You burn a fuel to generate power, then tap the waste heat for industrial use nearby, such as food processing. Instead of using only one-third of the fuel’s energy, you use two-thirds or even more. Fully adopting combined heat and power could profitably cut CO2 emissions by a quarter.

Efficiency must be the foundation of the transition from the fossil fuel age to the solar/hydrogen age. The superstructure will be new ways of providing energy services that don’t increase CO2 emissions.

Wind power systems are competitive today with fossil fuel. Wind farms are going up all over America. Illinois, which ranks 16th in the U.S. for wind energy potential, is seeing a couple of wind farms going up as we speak.

Wind can be a reliable source of income for farmers. The Crescent Ridge project in Bureau County, 100 miles west of Chicago, will pay $5,000 per turbine per year in royalties to landowners who can go right on growing corn or soybeans beneath the blades.

Biomass is potentially an enormous source of both electricity and liquid fuels — and another source of income for farmers.

Ethanol, for example, is a liquid fuel derived from corn. Recent and prospective breakthroughs in processing technology will permit extraction of ethanol from all kinds of plant matter — stems, stalks, wheat straw, grasses, or wood chips.

With highly efficient hybrid or fuel cell vehicles, we could replace much of the gasoline we use today with ethanol.

Demand for solar energy is rising 25 percent per year as prices fall. Once the price of an installed solar energy system falls by another two-thirds, solar photovoltaics will be a competitive source of large-scale power generation.

Just recently, a European semiconductor manufacturer announced a technological discovery that would push the cost of solar modules from about $4 per watt today to 20 cents a watt – which would underprice even the cheapest of the fossil fuels.

Fuel cells could be sized to run everything from laptop computers to automobiles to utility-scale power plants. Fuel cells run on hydrogen, an energy carrier that has to be produced. Initially, we can produce hydrogen from natural gas. Eventually, wind, solar, and biomass could produce hydrogen to store and deliver energy.

All of the major auto companies are investing large sums in hydrogen fuel cells. Bill Ford, the CEO of the company that bears his family name, says fuel cells will end the reign of the internal combustion engine. President Bush has announced his FreedomCars and FreedomFuels initiatives to commercialize hydrogen-powered cars.

So, where do we start?

We’re a proponent of starting carefully but starting now. The risks of global warming are such that judicious action is justified right now. The sooner we start now, plan ahead, and start implementing solutions, the more intelligently we can manage the process of stabilizing greenhouse gas concentrations. The later we start, the harder the job will be.

Imagine going to the doctor and he tells you he’s worried about your cardiac health. He can’t tell you for sure that you’re going to have a heart attack, but the risk is there. So, he’d like you to lose 25 pounds in the next 12 months. If you start now, you can drop reasonable amounts of weight over time and improve your health tremendously. If you wait nine months and try to lose the weight all at once, you might do yourself great harm. If you do nothing, you’re taking a chance that the doctor may be right about that heart attack.

We need federal leadership to speed up the transition from the fossil fuel age to the solar/hydrogen age — because we have to start now. We could leave this entirely to the market, but we don’t have the luxury of time.

The atmosphere is like a huge freight train. If it starts going in one direction, it’s very hard to stop. If CO2 levels continue rising, slowing the rise will be increasingly more difficult and the risks of serious impacts will be increasingly high.

And there is ample historical precedent for federal leadership to speed up technological change that is in the national interest. The transcontinental railroad and the Apollo project, for example, brought tremendous economic benefits to our country.

So let’s turn to the Climate Stewardship Act as a good place to start the transition from the fossil fuel age to the solar/hydrogen age.

The Climate Stewardship Act would set a cap on greenhouse gas emissions of power plants, refineries, commercial and industrial sectors at 2000 levels by 2010. The bill would apply to any entity that emits more than 10,000 metric tons of greenhouse gases every year. Individuals and the farming sector would not be covered, but the bill would cover about three-fourths of greenhouse gas emissions.

The bill would establish an emissions allowances trading system, modeled after the trading system in the Clean Air Act, which has successfully reduced power plant sulfur dioxide emissions at reasonable costs. The utilities predicted SO2 reduction would cost $1,300 per ton. Experience has shown the costs were only $200 per ton. Today, SO2 emissions trading is a $2 billion annual market.

Less than a month ago, a pilot carbon dioxide emissions trading market kicked off right here in Chicago. The Chicago Climate Exchange is a market made up of 21 companies and other entities, including the city of Chicago. The exchange held its first auction of 125,000 tons worth of CO2 emissions trading allowances.

Members of this self-regulated market have pledged to cut their emissions 4 percent below 1998-2001 levels by 2006. Each member will receive allowances equal to their voluntary targets. Companies that beat the targets can sell their surplus allowances through the Chicago Climate Exchange. Companies that don’t make the targets can buy those surplus allowances.

The market will determine the value of the allowances.

Unlike conventional regulatory approaches, emissions allowances trading creates incentives for innovation. Under the Climate Stewardship Act, businesses that find creative, low-cost ways of reducing greenhouse gas emissions below the legal standard would accumulate credits they could bank for future use or sell. Businesses could buy credits as offsets for their emissions.

Additionally, the bill credits companies for emissions reductions voluntarily achieved and registered before 2010. It enables automakers to sell credits for corporate average fuel efficiency achievements that beat CAFÉ standards by 20 percent. This is a creative way of expanding the emissions trading market by allowing, say, an electric utility to buy CO2 emissions allowances from automakers.

Credits also could be obtained from forestry or farm carbon sequestration projects, which would enable forest products companies and farmers to sell carbon storage services.

In the end, this is a judgment call, but one that encompasses our ethical obligation to protect the interests of unborn generations in a stable, hospitable climate.

More immediately, there will be spin-off benefits – new technologies creating new jobs and export sales opportunities, new development potential for rural communities, cleaner air, cleaner water, and greater geopolitical stability.

The Climate Stewardship Act will be a good start, as part of a broader policy.

Here is what else we need to do:

First, we need to set goals. Here’s one that seems reasonable – a one-third cut in CO2 emissions in 25 years, two-thirds in 75 years. This goal was suggested in an article by former Clinton and Bush Senior administration officials in a Foreign Affairs magazine earlier this year.

Second, research & development. Solar energy and fuel cells still cost too much. A fuel cell producing one kilowatt of energy for a car costs $5,000. A gasoline engine produces the same amount of energy for $50. We need to shrink that price differential.

We also need to crack the carbon sequestration nut. The world has a lot of coal. Unfortunately, coal emits more carbon per unit of energy than any other fuel. To keep using coal, we have to figure out ways of cleanly burning coal or using it for hydrogen extraction, then capturing and sequestering carbon where it won’t escape.

Third, We need aggressive incentives that will expand markets for hybrid-electric vehicles, green building technologies, efficient appliances, and zero-carbon energy technologies.

The Senate version of the pending energy bill has consumer tax credits for buying highly efficient refrigerators, washing machines, furnaces, and central air conditioners. We ought to pass them all.

Speaking of expanding markets, the federal government buys 56,000 cars a year for its fleets. I’d like to see every federal bureaucrat behind the wheel of a hybrid-electric fleet vehicle.

Fourth, standards. It’s time to update automobile fuel efficiency standards. It can be done without compromising safety or styling. Current CAFÉ standards save 3 million barrels of oil per day, about 15 percent of current consumption. We can do even better.

It’s time to expand the number of appliances covered by federal efficiency standards. They work. By 2020, appliance efficiency standards already in place for refrigerators, clothes washers, and other common appliances, will have reduced our electricity consumption by nearly 8 percent, cutting carbon emissions by 75 million metric tons, and saving consumers nearly $1,800 per household.

We can do even better by adopting standards for furnace fans, ceiling fans, consumer electronics, and other equipment. New standards for ceiling fans alone would save enough electricity by 2020 to power three cities the size of Seattle for one year.

Fifth, regulatory policy. Combined heat and power plants can cut CO2 emissions in half and reduce energy costs 40 percent. Yet environmental permitting procedures geared toward controlling pollution from large, central station power plants can be a costly hassle. For example, MIT installed a CHP system that cut pollution 45 percent. Yet, the university had to fight state regulators who insisted on installing an inappropriate cleanup technology not suitable for a small power plant. Many of these issues will have to be worked out at the state level.

What about Kyoto? Let’s remember that Kyoto would only get us a small fraction of the emissions reductions we need to stabilize CO2 levels. We should set an example by adopting an aggressive climate policy. Then, we will have the credibility to press for negotiations to craft a fair, long-term deal that includes every country, and which incorporates emissions trading, all sources and all sinks of greenhouse gases.

None of this will be easy, but we’re all in this together. We all have a stake in taking good care of our global life support system for ourselves and future generations.

Nothing we do would be more important for the future of our nation and the future of the human experiment.

We have two choices.

We can ignore what the scientists are telling us, convince ourselves that nothing can be done, and abrogate the intergenerational contract we have with unborn generations.

Or, we can accept what the scientists are telling us, roll up our sleeves, and take on the climate challenge. REP is convinced that the benefits will outweigh the costs. The second path will be better for our families, our communities, our nation, and our world. It’s the responsible, ethical, and conservative thing to do that will secure a better world for ourselves and for those who will follow us.