'What's the catastrophe?'

Environment | An expert panel testifying on climate change tried to answer Sen.
by Jacob Parrish
Posted 6/05/09, 12:00 am

WASHINGTON-Sen. Richard Lugar, R-Ind., in the middle of a Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing on U.S.-China climate change relations, leaned forward in his chair and asked the expert panel, "What's the catastrophe?" Lugar, a long-time advocate of emissions reductions and global warming prevention, asked the expert panel to clarify just what the disaster would be if carbon emissions are not reduced.

The three members of the panel, all experts on greenhouse gas emissions in China, looked at each other and hesitated.

The panel had reached a consensus that the United States and China contribute 40 percent of the world's greenhouse gas emissions and must forge an emissions-reduction partnership to "avert climate disaster." So for a few minutes of the two-and-a-half-hour hearing Lugar shifted away from policy and asked exactly what calamity they are trying to avoid.

Dr. Ken Lieberthal, a panelist from the Brookings Institute, formed the most complete response. He said the public should be made aware of the damage already being done by negative climate change, such as increasing storms, fires in California, and receding forestation: "This is about more than just polar bears in the Arctic."

Ben Lieberman, a senior policy analyst in energy and environment for The Heritage Foundation, later said that was not true: "There are no tangible problems from climate change." He added that real problems arise from incorrectly linking natural events to the very slight increase in average global temperature-problems such as additional cost to taxpayers from unnecessary climate change reform.

At the hearing, Lugar also asked for specific potential damages to agriculture. Elizabeth Economy, a director for Asia studies at the Council on Foreign Relations, responded that her specialty was China's emissions, not agriculture, but that farmers in rural China will often attribute their poor land quality and growing water scarcity to climate change. Severe flooding, she added, would also occur.

Lieberthal said there was no way to predict specific global warming damages because "there is uncertainty region by region," which, he added, makes it scarier. But there are more ways to motivate people than just by fear, he said, because people ultimately "want to do the right thing."

The committee moved on to discussing the cap-and-trade legislation that Democrat House leaders are pushing to enact greenhouse gas limits on energy suppliers, but there was no discussion on whether or not climate change is actually occurring, or how rapidly.

Lieberman, however, said the climate change debate is still open, and even climate change experts have not reached a consensus on the possible harms of a slight increase in temperature. "It shouldn't be a front burner issue," he said. "There are no catastrophic consequences."