Midwest Takes Steps to Reduce Greenhouse Gas

By David L. Brown

A new move to reduce global warming has been announced, as six Midwestern states and a province of Canada have agreed to a regional plan to cap greenhouse gas emissions. The Midwestern Greenhouse Gas Reduction Accord was signed between the governors of Minnesota, Iowa, Wisconsin, Kansas, Michigan, and Illinois, plus the premier of the Canadian province Manitoba. This pact represents the third such regional agreement in North America, according to a news report in New Scientist magazine.

The participants have agreed to establish a greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions trading system by 2010. Although details have not yet been set, a spokesman says they aim to eventually reduce carbon emissions in the area by 60 to 80 percent, a target suggested by the International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). This will be accomplished through development of alternative energy sources such as wind power, improved energy efficiency, and the mandatory sequestration of CO2 by all coal-fired power plants in the region by 2020.

If the economies of the seven participants comprised an independent country, the news report states, it would be the world’s seventh largest contributor to greenhouse gas emissions. Similar plans have been agreed in the New England region and in California, also large emitters of GHG.

Addressing the question of why the group has taken independent action, a spokesman for Wisconsin Gov. Jim Doyle was quoted: “We can’t afford to wait for the federal government. Our environment and security challenges are too great.”

One can take some comfort from these actions, while hoping that the organizers will follow through. It would be a shame to learn that smoke and mirrors are involved, for political rather than economic or ecological purposes—but my instinct is that even if they don’t presently have their hearts fully committed to the program, they soon will as the facts become more evident.

Catastrophic climate change is becoming more likely with each passing month. On November 22, the IPCC issued a “synthesis report” on three detailed studies released earlier this year. Intended as a summary, the new report actually goes further than the original papers, according to New Scientist’s Fred Pearce. He writes in the November 24 edition:

IPCC chiefs headed by chairman Rajendra Pachauri were stung by criticisms from scientists that their report on the physical science of climate change, agreed in February, had painted too rosy a picture. The charge was that their efforts to concentrate on findings with a 90 per cent certainty or better had resulted in them leaving out scarier but less certain scenarios. The synthesis report tries to make amends.

For instance, the February report predicted that sea levels will rise “between 18 and 59 centimeters” by 2100. Many glaciologists say that growing evidence of the instability of major ice sheets on Greenland and Antarctica, plus a recent doubling in the rate of sea-level rise, has made this an improbably low estimate, and the new report has responded to this. “This report does not assess the likelihood, nor provide a best estimate or an upper bound for sea level rise,” it says.

At the launch in Valencia, Spain, Pachauri explained what had changed since February. “It became apparent that, concerning the melting of the Greenland and Antarctic ice sheets, we really don’t know enough. Given the uncertainty it was prudent, and scientifically correct, to remove the upper boundary,” he said.

The changing view is especially marked on the prognosis for Antarctica. In February, the IPCC said that “current model studies project that the Antarctic ice sheet will remain too cold for widespread surface melting and is expected to gain mass due to increased snowfall”. This would, if anything, lead to lower sea levels.

The new report is much more cautious about those modeling studies, and acknowledges that while the West Antarctic ice sheet is not likely to melt any time soon, it may physically break up. [Star Phoenix Base comment: !] As the report itself puts it: “The risk of additional contributions to sea level rise [from Antarctica] may be larger than projected by ice sheet models… because ice dynamic processes seen in recent observations [are] not fully included in ice sheet models and could increase the rate of ice loss.”

According to Pearce, “[T]he new report says that “anthropogenic warming could lead to some impacts that are abrupt and irreversible”, and for the first time highlights the risk of ‘very large impacts’ and ‘large-scale singularities’. Such events, it suggests, could include collapsing ice sheets, a shutdown of the Gulf Stream and runaway warming.”

Hmm, that is starting to sound fairly serious. Not only was the original report “watered down,” as many climate scientists claimed, but it was also vetted by political agents from more than a hundred countries, each of which had a say in what the reports would include. Saudi Arabia, for one, lobbied for the IPCC to minimize the possibilities of major climate change. As a result, more extreme possibilities were excluded entirely from the executive summary and whittled down in the bodies of the three reports, as in the example of the Antarctic ice sheet. Happily, pressure from scientists and on-going events such as the surprising rate at which the Arctic sea ice melted this Summer have caused the IPCC to reconsider sweeping those more frightening possibilities under the rug.

With the climate change boogie man emerging from the closet, we can expect more initiatives such as the recent Midwestern accord, and that programs to reduce global warming will be pursued with ever increasing vigor as new evidence and events come to light. Now that the United States is the only country on Earth that has not signed the Kyoto Accords (Australia did so last week), there will doubtless be great pressure on Washington to take a leading role in reducing GHG emissions and development of alternatives to fossil fuels. Congress (and it was not George Bush but the U.S. Senate that refused to support the Kyoto Accords during the Clinton administration) can no longer ignore this subject, nor can the administration, nor even less corporate entities such as major energy companies and auto makers which have stood in the way of action. If we don’t act to save the Earth from environmental disaster, there will be no winners, only losers.

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