What should we do about climate change?

A viewer asked this question on 5/17/2000:

Can you argue for a course of action or inaction that the world should follow in an often discussed issue about the global effects of human-produced greenhouse gases on the atmosphere?

Can you give data, statistics and/or facts (references please) relating to that issue?

Opinions welcomed. (I don't know enough about either side to have an opinion yet.)


JesseGordon gave this response on 5/17/2000:

Here's the basics and what's known and agreed upon:

Greenhouse gases:

Atmospheric gases which keep heat in, like greenhouse glass does. The most common greenhouse gas (GHG) is carbon dioxide (CO2), which comes from burning gasoline, wood, oil, etc. The evidence of rising CO2 levels is undisputed; the political dispute centers on how much of the rise is attributable to human activities versus how much is natural climatic fluctuation.

Global Warming:

Increase in worldwide temperature due to excess emissions of greenhouse gases. A few degrees rise in temperature, in theory, would cause rising sea levels, more extreme weather, and climate change around the world. The evidence of rising temperatures is undisputed; the political dispute centers on and whether it will change the climate and whether we can or should do something about it.

Climate Change Treaty:

The basic international treaty on reducing greenhouse gas emissions was signed by the US and 182 other countries in 1992. It set up a 'framework' for later 'protocols.' Also known as the Rio Treaty or Greenhouse Gas Treaty.
The follow-up to the Climate Change Treaty which sets GHG reduction targets for the US and other developed countries. Completed in

Kyoto Protocol:

Written in 1998, the US has not yet signed (Argentina is the largest economy to have signed). This is politically controversial because it would require the US to cut CO2 emissions, which is potentially costly.

You can find further links, and candidates' opinions, at and .

My opinion is that we should do a series of things to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, but we should start with things that make economic sense. In other words, do first anything that both saves money and reduces emissions. Mostly that means we should start with focusing on auto emissions, third world deforestation, and switching over from coal burning. I discuss all of those issues, and means to achieve emissions reductions with voluntary, market-based methods, at , a paper about "Using the Market to Reduce Global Warming."

A viewer rated this answer:

Excellent. Thank you for breaking it down so a uninformed layperson can understand it easily. I tend to agree with your opinions. I will look up the websites recommended.

A viewer asked this follow-up question on 5/30/2000:

What do you mean by focusing on auto emissions? What should we do? We should switch over from coal burning to what?

JesseGordon gave this response on 5/30/2000:

"Focus on auto emissions" means we should work to reduce how much CO2 comes out of car tailpipes. "We" in this case means "the US," since we are the biggest auto users. And if we lead, the rest of the world will follow.

My opinion is that we should have a large gas tax, and make gasoline cost the same as it does in Europe and Japan, about $3 per gallon. Clinton & Gore suggested a "BTU Tax" early in their first term, which was intended for the same purpose (but by the time it got filtered through Congress, it ended up adding maybe a dime to the gas tax.)

The idea of a large gas tax is that it would:
1) Encourage smaller cars, because it would cost a lot to run big gas-guzzlers. That in itself would reduce emissions a lot.
2) Encourage more fuel-efficient technology, since auto makers would have an incentive to produce low-emission vehicles.

The second goal is now being achieved by raising the "CAFE standard", or "Corporate Average Fuel Economy," which means the government tells auto makers to average 30 mpg for their whole fleet. I prefer economic incentives like a gas tax because I don't like arbitrary rules like CAFE. But I do agree with the results -- get low-emission and zero-emission vehicles into production and on the road. That will create a new industry and reduce greenhouse warming substantially, if it succeeds.

On coal burning: This is also a huge greenhouse gas producer, and again the answer (in my opinion) is to encourage industry to create a new technology. In other words, switch from burning coal to burning nothing. Replace coal plants with solar, wind, wave-powered turbines, or whatever else works. The technologies all exist now, they're just not economically feasible.

Clinton's BTU tax would have pushed that technology along also, had it been passed at a high level. Burning coal would have been taxed a lot; burning oil would have also been taxed; but solar collectors would have been untaxed. Hence the economics would have shifted to favor solar over coal and oil. Then industry would have developed good solar cells, and the rest of the world would have benefited as well.

I think that most of our greenhouse-producing activities are unnecessary, since there are non-greenhouse-gas replacements available right now. The alternatives just need to be developed further, to make them price-competitive with gas, coal, etc. That development is expensive, of course, and won't happen for many years or decades if there's no government intervention. My opinion is that a proper role of government is to push new technologies. That can be accomplished by a BTU tax, a gas tax, or just investing some billions in development directly.

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