Statement of The Honorable Timothy E. Wirth
Under Secretary of State for Global Affairs
before the Committee on Environment and Public Works
United States Senate
July 17, 1997

Chairman Chafee and Members of the Committee, I am pleased to be with you today to discuss the ongoing negotiations toward next steps under the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change. These negotiations began in August 1995 and are scheduled to end in December, at the Third Conference of the Parties in Kyoto, Japan, with the adoption of a new protocol or other legal instrument.

In his address last month to the United Nations General Assembly Special Session, President Clinton noted that "[t]he science is clear and compelling" and committed the United States to strong leadership on climate change. The President committed himself to engage the American people and the Congress in a dialogue to explain the real and imminent threats from climate change, the economic costs and benefits involved, and the opportunities that American technology and innovation can provide. The President also committed to "bring to the Kyoto conference a strong American commitment to realistic and binding limits that will significantly reduce our emissions of greenhouse gases."

In recent weeks, interest in the negotiations has intensified, particularly in the Congress. The Administration welcomes this interest, wants to encourage the broadest possible dialogue as we work toward a new agreement in Kyoto, and urges the Senate and House leadership to establish observer groups with whom we can work even more closely in the weeks and months ahead.

I would like today to focus on two concerns -- first, how the actions we are negotiating under the Climate Convention correspond to a specific environmental objective; and second, the need for developing nations to acknowledge more fully their role in meeting that objective.

I would like to begin with the science, because scientists were the ones who drew our attention to climate change in the first place, and because we continue to base our policies on the best evidence and the most rigorous scientific analysis available. While I know many of you are aware of the basic facts, I think it may be useful to reiterate a few of the most crucial points that the scientific community has established.

The "greenhouse effect" is caused by gases such as carbon dioxide, methane and nitrous oxide, which accumulate in the atmosphere and trap solar radiation, thus making the planet warmer than it otherwise would be. The natural levels or concentrations of these greenhouse gases in the atmosphere keep temperatures within a range that can support life.

Without the background level of greenhouse gases in our atmosphere, the earth's temperature would be about 33 degrees Celsius cooler.

Human beings increase the concentrations of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere primarily by the burning of fossil fuels -- coal, oil and natural gas -- and through a number of other industrial processes. Changing land use patterns, particularly deforestation and soil erosion, also play a role, by reducing the capacity of the natural environment to absorb carbon from the atmosphere. Since the industrial revolution in the 18th century, the concentration in the atmosphere of carbon dioxide has risen 30%; during the same period, methane concentrations have doubled, and nitrous oxide concentrations have risen by about 15%.

Since pre-industrial times, the Earth has warmed about one degree Fahrenheit. Scientists believe that the observed increase is unlikely to be entirely natural in origin. In its most recent scientific assessment, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) concluded that the balance of evidence suggests "a discernible human influence on the climate system."

Projections of future climate change, based on complex climate models and on our best understanding of the physics of the climate system, suggest a rise of another two to six and a half degrees Fahrenheit by 2100, with an average increase greater than any seen in the last 10,000 years. This warming will not be uniform it is likely to be greater at higher latitudes and at the poles.

Based on these warming trends, sea level is projected to rise an additional one and a half feet by 2100 due to thermal expansion of the oceans and to the melting of glaciers and ice sheets. This would, without adoptive measures, flood 9,000 square miles of coastal areas here in the United States, notably in Florida and Louisiana, and put about 100 million people world-wide at risk each year from storm surges.

In other words, the path we are on is cause for significant concern. Climate change is likely to have wide-ranging and mostly adverse effects on human health. Both natural and managed ecosystems are at risk. The viability and location of forest and agricultural zones will change significantly.

Moreover, virtually all the studies on the effects of climate disruption have focused on predicted doubling of atmospheric concentrations of greenhouse gases. But unless significant actions are taken early in the next century, it is very likely that atmospheric concentrations will, by the year 2100, nearly triple the pre-industrial level and rise higher than any point in the last 50 million years. Changes to our climate system would also continue beyond the effects that the current studies predict; the risks would increase dramatically as concentrations continue to rise. Moreover, there is no reason to believe that these additional effects would be linear; they would most likely take unpredictable and highly undesirable paths.

Let me now move on to the division of responsibilities between developed and developing countries.

As I noted earlier, we know that man-made emissions have increased the concentration by about 30%, from 280 parts per million in pre-industrial times to around 366 ppm today. We know that the industrialized countries have put most of the carbon into the atmosphere, and that CO2 lingers there for 100 to 150 years. We know that the United States is the largest emitter of greenhouse gases; we have 4% of the world's population and contribute 22% of the carbon. We also know that, given current trends, the developing world will pass the developed world as an emitter in about 30 years. (At that point, the developing world will have about 70% of the world's population.) China, with its 1.2 billion people, will probably pass the United States toward the end of the first quarter of that century.

So action by industrialized nations alone will not put us on the road to safe concentrations of greenhouse gases; we need action by the developing countries as well. But it is very clear from all our discussions and negotiations to date that if the developed countries, with our current economic capacity, technical capability, and energy intensive life-style, don't go first -- setting the example and reducing emissions -- then developing countries will not act either. We must lead the way. And we must move soon. If not, a doubling of concentrations becomes certain, and we put ourselves on the road to a tripling or even higher levels of concentrations -- the consequences of which are uncertain but likely to be catastrophic.

In 1992, the world community adopted the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change in an effort to begin coming to grips with this environmental threat. Under the Convention, developing nations agreed to take a variety of actions to mitigate climate and to facilitate adaptation to it's consequences. Industrialized nations agreed to take the same actions, but in addition, they agreed to take steps aimed at returning their emissions of greenhouse gases to 1990 levels by the year 2000.

In 1995, the Parties to the Climate Convention decided the existing treaty commitments were not adequate to address the threat. Accordingly, they agreed to begin a process to negotiate next steps. Since the "aim" set for industrialized nations expires in the year 2000, they began to consider the goals that should guide their efforts in the decade or two after the year 2000. Industrialized nations agreed to establish quantified targets to limit and reduce their greenhouse gas emissions over yet-to-be-determined time periods -- such as 2005, 2010 or 2020. At that time, developing nations, many of whom had only begun to implement their existing commitments under the Convention, argued strenuously that the negotiating process should not result in new commitments for them. They agreed, however, to continue to advance the implementation of their existing commitments.

The U.S. proposals in the current negotiations attempt to move the process. The U.S. proposal acknowledges that the list of "developed country Parties" established by the Convention's Annex I in 1992 no longer reflects current realities. A number of developing countries have joined the ranks of the developed world, through membership in the OECD and in other ways, and more are poised to do so. Our proposal to establish an "Annex B" would enable such countries, on a voluntary basis, to move beyond their current non-Annex I status, and take on binding greenhouse gas emissions obligations, reflecting their rapidly-changing economic status, and enabling them to engage in emissions trading with industrialized nations.

Similarly, Article 16 of the U.S. proposal calls on developing country Parties to adopt, by 2005, binding provisions so that all Parties have quantitative greenhouse gas emissions obligations and so that there is a mechanism or "trigger" for automatic application of those obligations, based on agreed criteria.

In urging this policy of "evolution," the United States is far out in front of almost all other countries, and we are being criticized accordingly. For example, several developed countries believe that our proposal imposes unfair burdens on developing countries. Most countries in the developing world believe that "evolution" goes beyond the scope of the Climate Convention and the Berlin Mandate. We think we have the concept about right: no one should be exempt; we emit the most, so we have to act first; but others have to phase in over time.

The overall negotiation on climate change is extremely complex -- the most complex I have seen in 25 years of public life (including 12 years on this challenging committee!) -- and the "evolution" aspect is perhaps the most important of all. We have put forward some proposals; some in Congress have as well. Now we have to hammer out a final proposal and negotiating position. We welcome your input, support and creativity as we work to solve this problem, and I look forward to hearing your ideas, questions and comments today.

The issue is not whether developing countries, especially the big and rapidly- developing ones, take on quantified commitments to limit or reduce their emissions of greenhouse gases clearly, it will be impossible to abate the threat of climate change unless they do. The issue is when such commitments should begin, and what criteria should be used to establish them, and to whom they would apply.

There are significant disparities in national income between those in industrialized nations and those in developing nations. There are enormous differences in per capita levels of greenhouse gas emissions. Some developing countries argue that these gaps must narrow before they will accept quantified emissions limitation or reduction commitments.

While this argument is understandable, it misses two key points. First, the environmental threat posed by global climate change cannot be averted if nations wait to act until levels of national income or per capita emissions converge at some theoretical point in the future. Second, industrialized nations simply will not make significant efforts to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions if their efforts will be undermined by an unlimited increase in emissions from the developing world.

The Framework Convention, which President Bush signed and to which the Senate overwhelmingly gave its advice and consent, established the principle that, with respect to climate change, the world's nations have common but differentiated responsibilities and varying capabilities. Insisting that developing nations immediately accept binding emissions targets that industrialized nations are seeking to negotiate for themselves is neither realistic nor consistent with the Convention approved by the Senate. But insisting that those developing nations now responsible for a growing share of global greenhouse gas emissions should have no further obligations to act until they have crossed some threshold of national income or emissions on a per capita basis is equally unrealistic and inconsistent with the Convention's ultimate objective.

The agreement reached in Kyoto will not solve the problem of global climate change. No matter how ambitious, it will represent only a second step along the much longer path toward achieving the Climate Convention's ultimate objective. As we prepare for Kyoto, we must also prepare for further steps beyond it. In particular, we must ensure that all nations responsible for a significant share of current global greenhouse gas emissions accept the need to limit or reduce their emissions, and that they begin to move in that direction.

What a Kyoto agreement can do is provide nations with the tools they will need to achieve to achieve significant, binding greenhouse gas limitation and reduction commitments. These tools include greenhouse gas emissions budgets over multiyear budget periods that will help smooth out annual fluctuations. They include full national flexibility in the choice of policies and measures to meet such binding emissions budgets. They include emissions trading among nations with binding emissions budgets, with the participation of the private sector in the trading regime, to help lower the costs of compliance. And they include joint implementation for credit between nations with binding emissions budgets and those that do not yet have such budgets both to lower the costs of compliance and to promote economic development and environmental protection.

Mr. Chairman, we have indeed charted an ambitious course for the months ahead. The tremendous risks to our planet demand nothing less. With your continued support and the support of other Members of Congress, I am confident that we will obtain an outcome in Kyoto that will represent a significant step forward on the much longer path toward safeguarding the Earth's climate system for present and future generations. Thank you, Mr. Chairman.