Greenhouse gas emissions from the combustion of fossil fuels, deforestation, land cover change and other forces are increasing rapidly. The concentration of GHGs in the atmosphere is now over 385 parts per million (ppm), compared to a constant level of around 280 ppm before the Industrial Revolution. The result has been a warming of approximately 0.8ºC above pre-industrial levels, and another 0.5-1.0ºC increase is in the pipeline even if all emissions are stopped today. Impacts such as accelerated melting of snow and sea ice, widespread retreat of glaciers, rising sea levels, increasing ocean acidity and extensive changes in weather patterns, including changes in precipitation and storm intensity are already occurring and are projected to increase as temperatures continue to rise.

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change recommends reducing global GHG emissions to 50-80 percent below 2000 levels by 2050 to avoid catastrophic impacts of climate change. To meet this ambitious target, leaders worldwide would need to adopt aggressive and comprehensive climate policy that includes all major GHG emitters.

On February 25, the Environmental and Energy Study Institute (EESI) held a briefing to discuss the current state of global climate change and prospects for federal and international climate policy. This briefing provided an overview picture of current climate science and projected impacts based on present greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions levels. The discussion also focused on prospects for federal climate legislation as it begins to take shape in the 111th Congress and how this will interact with international climate treaty negotiations. The United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change is set to meet in Copenhagen in December to negotiate an agreement to succeed the Kyoto Protocol, which ends in 2012. Speakers on this panel offered perspectives on these negotiations and how US and international policies can be shaped in the face of this urgent global issue.

  • 24 of the 25 warmest years since global records began in 1850 occurred since 1980, paralleling an increase in greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions.
  • Rising levels of CO2 and other GHGs affect global and regional temperature, precipitation, and sea level rise, which can translate into negative impacts on societies, health, agriculture, forests, water resources, coastal areas, and ecosystems. Ocean acidification due to increased CO2 absorption will result in significant changes to the oceanic food chain.
  • Global average temperature was about 1°C higher 125,000 years ago (Eemian interglacial), causing the Greenland Ice Sheet to be half its current size and raising sea level by about 13 to 20 feet.
  • Projected CO2 levels will increase in a geological “blink of an eye” compared to natural changes (which occurred tens of millions of years ago) that took thousands of years.
  • The United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) was established in 1992 and ratified by the United States. It directed countries to gather and share information on climate change, and to launch national strategies for addressing GHG emissions and adapting to expected impacts, including financial and technological support developing countries.
  • Developing countries are taking action: Mexico set a goal to reduce GHGs 50 percent below current levels by 2050, Brazil is targeting a 70 percent reduction in deforestation by 2018, and China is requiring industries to reduce energy intensity by 20 percent by 2010 and has set a 20 percent renewable energy target for 2020.
  • Border allowance purchase requirements and output-based free allocations could eliminate competitive disadvantage impacts due to national carbon legislation. Output-based allocations are favorable, as they are less likely to create trade policy retaliation.
  • There is a need for technological and financial assistance to developing countries to accelerate deployment by bringing down the cost of advanced technologies. A key part of the global negotiations will be determining the extent of assistance offered to developing nations to transition away from a high-carbon economy.
  • Countries could provide financing by setting aside a portion of allowances or auction revenues in domestic trading systems.
  • Climate change is a top priority for the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, chaired by Senator John Kerry, which will continue round table discussions on adaptation, deforestation, technology, and financing. The challenge of climate change cannot be solved without US leadership.
  • The UNFCCC negotiations to be held in Copenhagen in December 2009 ‘must’ result in a global deal.

Speaker Slides