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The Sticking Gas

In response to:

Some Like It Hot from the March 26, 1992 issue

To the Editors:

In an otherwise excellent review of some current environmental issues, Daniel J. Kevles discusses the Bush Administration’s stance on global warming and possible carbon dioxide reductions almost as an afterthought [“Some Like It Hot,” NYR, March 26]. In so doing he omits to mention an important component of that stance which involves a “comprehensive approach”1 to lowering the potential for global warming.

This approach acknowledges that carbon dioxide is only half of the problem, and that gasses such as CFC’s, methane and nitrogen oxides constitute the balance. Since equivalent levels of global warming potential for each gas are roughly known, then theoretically a country could be allowed to choose its own mix of reductions, keeping the country’s total contribution within overall bounds to be negotiated at conferences such as that to be held in June in Rio. The approach is promoted as providing flexibility for each nation, but in reality there is none for underdeveloped nations who have little choice but to cut back on methane output. It is this approach (and not “no regrets”) that is “disingenuous,” because the Administration is looking to count CFC reductions already pledged under the Montreal Protocol of 1987. In this respect the approach is also outdated: a recent study2 concludes that CFC’s may be simply replacing ozone with respect to warming potential, and hence nothing would be gained by counting CFC’s as “greenhouse” gasses.

Finally, to clarify a point made by Kevles, it should be noted that the “no regrets” option has been advocated by many climate activists. It is only the Administration’s conception of the approach that is limited, and not the approach itself. In the policy as advanced by Stephen H. Schneider,3 for example, the greenhouse problem is addressed first and involves taking actions against global warming that also would have widely agreed upon societal benefits even if global warming did not materialize. For example, to turn Kevles’s example around, setting fuel efficiency goals for automobiles and industry would incidentally reduce dependency on foreign oil supplies. And while it would be moderately expensive in the short term to reduce emissions (one study estimates $5 per barrel for a 25 percent reduction by 2000, less than the OPEC hike of the early ‘70s),4 in the long term American industry will be less efficient and less competitive if such policies are not adopted (Germany is pledged to a 30% cut by 2005). However, as Kevles implies, even the short term is longer than any of the current presidential hopefuls could remain in office.

Keith Montgomery
Department of Geography-Geology
University of Wisconsin
Wausau, Wisconsin

Daniel J Kevles replies:

Mr. Montgomery is precisely right to say that a “no regrets” policy makes sense, and he usefully points out other ways that the administration’s embrace of it has been disingenuous. However, although carbon dioxide does comprise slightly more than half of greenhouse gases, it’s the sticking gas, so to speak, because it’s the salient greenhouse product of the burning of fossil fuels, which are, of course, at the core of industrial economies. The principal disingenuousness in the administration’s no-regrets policy is thus its unwillingness to deal seriously with CO2 emissions in the United States—by pressing for tougher measures to conserve fossil fuels such as requiring that automobiles get more miles per gallon or gradually taxing up the price on gasoline.

  1. 1

    US Task Force on the Comprehensive Approach to Climate Change, “A Comprehensive Approach to Addressing Potential Climate Change” (US Department of Justice, Washington, DC, 1991).

  2. 2

    V. Ramaswamy, M.D. Schwarzkopf, K.P. Shine, “Radiative Forcing From Halocarbon-Induced Global Stratospheric Ozone Loss,” Nature Vol. 355 p. 810–812 (February 1992).

  3. 3

    S.H. Schneider, “The Greenhouse Effect: Science and Policy,” Science Vol. 243 p. 771–781 (February 1989).

  4. 4

    National Academy of Science, “Policy Implications of Greenhouse Warming—Mitigation Panel” (National Academy Press, Washington, DC, 1991).

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