Statement of Senator Lieberman
Climate Change
July 10, 1997

Mr. Chairman, thank you for holding these hearings on climate change. I regret that I will be unable to stay for the testimony and questions because this is a very important issue.

Climate change is one of the most serious global issues we face today and in the future. After spending more than three years analyzing hundreds of peer-reviewed scientific studies, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change-- a group of 2,500 expert scientists representing more than 50 countries-- concluded that as a result of human emissions of greenhouse gases, particularly by combustion of fossil fuels, "there is a discernible human influence on the global climate." The IPCC included a diversity of members from individual disciplines who, based on sheer odds alone, are likely to hold widely-ranging views within the scientific community. I've been told that getting scientists to agree to anything is as challenging as herding cats. So the fact that consensus has been reached within the IPCC on an emerging scientific issue of such complexity and variety is remarkable, and makes its conclusions very impressive.

The IPCC has tied the increase of atmospheric greenhouse gases to long-term changes in prevailing patterns of temperature and precipitation. Without action to reduce emissions of greenhouse gases, we are likely to see temperature changes in the next 100 years many times those experienced in the last several centuries. The IPCC predicts the number of extreme weather events - floods, heat waves, and droughts - will increase. We know our weather already is becoming increasingly peculiar. In the last few years,the frequency and magnitude of floods have been altered dramatically in many regions of the US, along with heat waves, record heat days, severe rains, and dry spells. IPCC experts also predict sea level will rise substantially. The number of citizens in the U.S. living in coastal areas at risk of serious ocean flooding likely will double due to sea level rise. The amount of urbanized land likely to be vulnerable to extreme weather events is large, raising economic issues of disaster relief, damage repairs, and relocation in many regions.

Changes in climate have major implications for human health, water resources, food supplies, infectious diseases, forests, fisheries, wildlife populations, urban infrastructure, and flood plain and coastal developments in the United States. Although uncertainties remain about where, when, and how much climate might change as a result of human activities, the changes- when they happen-- may have severe impacts on many sectors of the U.S. economy and on the environment. These are serious risks that we must start considering.

The fundamental question as we consider a climate agreement is whether the U.S. can develop policies that will achieve significant reductions in greenhouse gas emissions without harming the economy. The news here is promising and suggests that we can afford to meet realistic emissions reductions. First, the National Academy of Sciences concluded in 1991 that "the efficiency of practically every end use of energy can be improved relatively inexpensively...and that the United States could reduce or offset its greenhouse gas emissions by between 10 and 40% of 1990 levels at low cost or at some net savings." More recently, over 2,500 American economists, including eight Nobel laureates, stated that there are many potential policy options to reduce greenhouse gas emissions for which the total benefits outweigh the total costs. These policies would slow climate change without harming American living standards, and may in fact improve US productivity in the longer run.

We won't find a silver bullet to solve the problem. Luckily, climate change lends itself to flexible solutions. Because it's all one atmosphere, it doesn't matter where or how the reductions are made. It only matters that fewer greenhouse gases are emitted. The 2,500 economists found that the most efficient approach to slowing climate change is through market-based policies such as an international emissions trading agreement. We know from our experience with programs like the acid rain title of the Clean Air Act that emissions trading is very cost-effective because it provides businesses with the maximum flexibility to make choices about how to achieve the necessary reductions.

Given the potential impacts of climate change, it is not surprising that nations of the world agreed to find more effective ways to understand and deal with the problem. If we don't agree to long-term greenhouse gas limits soon, and instead wait to see how our climate changes, it may be too late. Greenhouse gases remain in the atmosphere for decades to centuries, and there is a long lag time between when gases are emitted and when the climate consequences of those emissions appear. So we need to begin reductions soon to have any long-term effect. And, a new generation of energy-efficient technologies requires a long lead time for development and implementation. This won't happen without clear signals to the market.

Recent discussions in the Senate regarding the international agreement have emphasized the role of the developing countries. I concur that this is an important issue, and developing countries ought to make commitments consistent with their historic responsibility for the problem, as well as their current capabilities.

At the same time, I am concerned that elevating one issue to a level of importance that will overshadow other key matters may harm the United States' efforts to ensure that the climate agreement is realistic and achievable. For example, the need for flexibility in implementing a treaty is critical. Some countries, such as members of the European Union, would prefer highly prescriptive policies and measures to meet reduction targets. The United States' negotiating team has made flexibility an absolute prerequisite for any agreement, and I want to commend them for this approach. I believe that to be acceptable, our businesses must have the most flexibility possible to find the least-cost ways to reduce emissions. This means the agreement must contain provisions that are so important to our business community: emissions trading, joint implementation between nations, and appropriate credits for those companies that have already made certain emissions reductions.

As we grapple with the human judgments and values that inevitably will determine how we handle climate change, we must base our actions on the facts- the scientific evidence of climate change, the physical effects that are likely to result from it, and the costs of our "insurance policy" to prevent these changes. Mr. Chairman, I look forward to working with you and the members of the Committee as we face these challenges.