Statement of Senator James M. Jeffords
March 13, 2002
Today we’ll hear testimony on the economic and environmental risks of increasing greenhouse gas emissions. It’s important to note that this hearing is not a debate about whether manmade emissions are causing warming. For the time being, that question has been settled by the National Academy of Sciences.
An Academy report from June 2001 said, “Greenhouse gases are accumulating in Earth’s atmosphere as a result of human activities, causing surface air temperatures and subsurface ocean temperatures to rise” . . . and . . . . . “Human-induced warming and associated sea level rises are expected to continue through the 21st century.” We’re fortunate to have a witness here today who worked on that report.
What the Committee will review is the magnitude of the possible injuries or losses that may be caused by this warming. I urge the witnesses to stay on that topic and help us assess the risks related to increasing greenhouse gas emissions.
One year ago today, the President formally notified the world and the Senate of his decision to unilaterally abandon the Kyoto Protocol. At the same time, he also abandoned his campaign promise to reduce carbon dioxide emissions, or the fourth “P,” from power plants. That was a serious blow to a sensible, market-based approach to reducing carbon emissions.
As a result, the country has no actual policy in place to achieve a real emissions reductions target. So, emissions will continue unabated.
This is happening despite our international commitment in the Rio Agreement to reduce U.S. emissions to 1990 levels. Voluntary measures are no substitute and have failed to do more than slightly slow the rate of growth.
This situation concerns me and it should concern all of my colleagues. Unconstrained emissions will increase atmospheric concentrations. These will lead to greater global warming and provoke even greater climate changes.
Some of my concern is parochial. In Vermont, we rely on the predictability of the seasons for our economic well-being and our quality of life.
In the spring, maple syrup production is important. In the fall and summer, it’s tourism. In the winter, it’s skiing, snowboarding and other outdoor recreation. It’s safe to say that most Vermonters aren’t interested in moving to Hudson Bay to maintain their way of life.
Elsewhere in the country, my colleagues should be concerned about the potential impacts of climate change on public health, infrastructure, agriculture and wildlife. Sea-level rise should be of particular concern to my friends who represent coastal states, especially with growing areas.
As Senator Stevens has noted, Alaskan villages have already started to experience some of these effects.
However, these gradual impacts may pale in comparison to what might happen with a sudden or abrupt change. In December 2001, the National Academy said, “greenhouse warming and other human alterations of the earth system may increase the possibility of large, abrupt and unwelcome regional or global climatic events.”
That should be a sobering statement that encourages action. Instead, the debate often seems to be focused on the trees rather than the forest.
There are even some people who think we should stop our efforts to assess the possible impact of global warming on our economy or our environment. They want to wait for perfect information. That seems unwise and irresponsible.
We must redouble our efforts to understand how global warming may affect us. We should continue working diligently to reduce the uncertainties of predictions.
I am hopeful that the President will soon send up the detailed global change budget, as required by the Global Change Research Act of 1990. That budget must keep the national assessment moving without delay or censorship.
But, that information is not essential for Congress to begin acting. The potential calamity that awaits us through inaction is too serious for Congress to ignore.
We acted on lead in gasoline and on ozone-depleting substances even though we did not have perfect information. We made the right choice. The science on climate change is sound enough to proceed with reductions now.
Many carbon intensive businesses have already begun to take action. They see a duty to their shareholders and to the public to start reducing their carbon risks. Major insurance companies are increasingly concerned about the uncertainty of changing climate and their financial exposure. Several markets are developing for the trading of greenhouse gas reduction credits, even in the United States. It seems that there must be some level of economic or environmental risk associated with these emissions. Otherwise, how could the credits have value and why would anyone trade them? But, they are being traded at $1-$9 per ton.
Congress is often slow to act on complex problems like climate, especially without vigorous leadership from the White House. In this situation, the private sector may have to lead us in the right direction.
Unfortunately, in the meantime, it seems to be business as usual on emissions. They will continue to grow and we may reach atmospheric concentrations that haven’t existed for hundreds of thousands of years.
We need to know and be prepared for what that means for our communities, our plans, and our nation.
I look forward to the panel’s testimony. It will help us discover and better understand the risks that are posed by continuing to increase greenhouse gas emissions.