Global Warming Is Here, Now What Do We Do About It?

Cutting Back on Energy Use Would Create More Jobs Than Would Be Lost.

By Professor Jim Kotcon

I was recently asked to participate in a panel discussion on global warming, but had to decline due to schedule conflicts. I was then asked if I could name another West Virginia environmental activist who would be recognized as a leader on this issue, but unfortunately, I could not name one. Global warming may have the largest long term economic and environmental impact of any environmental issues facing the state, yet leadership, or even interest from West Virginia's environmental community is noticeably lacking. The coal industry has teamed up with mine-workers to spread propaganda against the Kyoto Climate Change Treaty throughout the state, and no one is speaking up to counter it.

The debate over the Treaty seems to center around claims of uncertainty in the science and policy issues of who, if anyone, should bear the burden of responding to climate change.

Because of the complexity of the science surrounding global warming, the United Nations Environmental Program and the World Meteorological Organization convened the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). These scientists were asked to study the issues and develop consensus reports to guide policymakers around the world. For many years the science was admittedly uncertain and the climate models were faulty. According to the early models, the steady increase of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere should have produced significant warming, but little was seen. It was not until 1995, when models began to combine the cooling effect of sulfate aerosols and particulates with the warming effect of greenhouse gases, that model predictions began to closely match observed climate responses.

From this point on, the consensus developed fairly quickly and in 1996, the IPCC released a report that said the balance of evidence shows a discernible human impact of global climate. From this point, negotiations centered on a ways that the nations of the world could prevent "dangerous interference with the climate system." The issues are complex and loaded with economic implications and policy decisions, so the 1997 Kyoto Treaty is barely a first step in the right direction, yet it is already under attack.

Some industry-backed think tanks are seeking "scientists" for a propaganda campaign to cast doubt on the consensus that has developed. The favorite tactics are to focus attention on single data sets that contradict warming while ignoring multiple other data sets that show warming is occurring; and to use deceptive pseudo-scientific reports in mass mailings. The fact is that while the amount of warming is uncertain, a doubling of carbon dioxide, will most likely cause a 1.5 to 4.5 degree centigrade increase in global temperature. The probability that the warming will be less is matched by the probability that the warming will be catastrophically larger than this prediction.

By the time global warming is large enough to be noticeable even to the most stubborn "contrarian," it will already be too late to prevent significant damage, indeed this damage is the "signal" that some would insist on before taking any action. This is analogous to a public health policy that ignores symptoms and insists on seeing a pile of dead bodies before admitting there is a disease, an approach we would surely all acknowledge as a failure of prevention.

Other "contrarians" acknowledge that warming will occur, but insist that other undeveloped nations must be party to any treaty before the U. S. should act. The fact is that, even under the most pessimistic scenarios of the Kyoto Treaty, emissions from developed countries will swamp those of undeveloped countries for at least the next several decades. Those who object to the absence of undeveloped countries from mandated goals under the Kyoto treaty should be careful lest they get what they are asking for. Currently, undeveloped countries emit 0.51 tons of carbon per person, compared to 3.05 tons per person in developed countries. The Kyoto Treaty projects increases in emissions by undeveloped countries to 0.71 tons per person by 2010, while developed countries reduce their emissions by about 9 % to 2.85 tons per person. So even if undeveloped countries agreed to stabilize at their current emissions levels, the U. S. would need to reduce emissions by over 80 %, not just 8 or 9 %, to match the per person emissions rate of undeveloped countries. I know of no way to achieve that goal without draconian changes to our current lifestyle.

What will be necessary to achieve the modest goals of the Kyoto treaty? The U. S. Dept. of Energy (hardly a bunch of leftist ideologues) conducted a multi-lab peer-reviewed economic analysis. They concluded that, contrary to the fears of some, modest investments in energy conservation, combined with application of readily available technology, would allow the U. S. to reduce emissions to 1990 levels and save $20 billion per year in the process. Contrary to fears of costing jobs, adoption of these new technologies could stimulate the economy and reduce waste, making the US more competitive in the global economy.

Industry has an unfortunate tendency to overestimate the cost of regulatory programs. In studies where good data are available, the projections from industry have overestimated the actual cost experienced EVERY TIME; often by a factor of ten or more. Why would anyone continue to rely on an information source that has been proven wrong EVERY TIME? Why does industry continue to throw good money away in a futile effort to pretend the world is not changing? [bold and italics added by editor] Other countries are already capitalizing on these opportunities and investing in the technology to make their industries cleaner and more efficient while the US stands around complaining that the costs are too high.

Long lead times are essential when dealing with systems as large and complex as the world economy or the chemical composition of the atmosphere. Clearly, a conservative "No regrets" strategy of gradually implementing economic investments now makes more sense than a risky "Let's ignore the problem and let our children deal with it" approach. This is especially true for those entrepreneurs who take advantage of the opportunities for efficiency and new technology, rather than simply complain about things not being the way they used to be, or try to blame some "government conspiracy." West Virginia’s economy will certainly change as a result of global warming, but if we pursue the opportunities, it can change for the better.

So what do we do? One of the single best opportunities to influence state energy policy in decades will occur in the coming months as the state Public Service Commission considers proposals for electric utility deregulation. Of course the industry heavy-hitters have been pursuing this issue for several years, but the environmental community has been slow to get involved. Utility deregulation in other states has led to major funding efforts to promote energy conservation and renewable energy sources. An energy services fund of only a tenth of a cent per kilowatt-hour is a common characteristic of other states, and could fund conservation measures for homeowners, as well as provide assistance for low-income customers. A renewable energy portfolio has been adopted in a number of states, requiring that utilities get a portion of their electricity (usually 2-4 %) from renewable energy sources such as wind or solar. A "Green Labeling" provision is easily added so that customers who choose a renewable source can be assured of getting green energy, while the producers are assured of a rate that allows them a fair chance at being profitable. (Surveys show that 20-30 % of utility customers would be willing to pay 10 % higher rates for green energy, a premium that would assure success).

Unfortunately, without involvement of more environmentalists in the Public Service Commission proceedings, the industry- dominated panel working on deregulation seems disinclined to adopt any of these provisions. West Virginia cannot solve the global warming problem itself, but instead of taking advantage of this opportunity to restructure the electric industry to do our part to reduce global warming, this panel seems determined to remain part of the problem. (More information on utility restructuring is available at

More information about global warming is available on the Internet. See the US-DOE EREN (Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy Network - for information about the DOE 5-lab study. NASA's Global Change Master Directory (available at contains links to over 5200 data sets on global warming. Or visit EPA at to find out what opportunities are available.

A dynamite web-page is the Sierra Club's Global warming site ( Other good sites include the National Environmental Trust ( or the Union of Concerned Scientists (

James Kotcon, Ph. D., is President of the West Virginia Environmental Council, a member of the Union of Concerned Scientists and a professor at West Virginia University. _