The Problem of Global Warming
In June of 1988, James Hansen, director of the Goddard Institute for Space Studies at the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), informed a Senate committee that, "the greenhouse effect has been detected and is changing our climate now." With this statement, he launched the ongoing international debate on the magnitude of global warming and its "potential to adversely affect the Earth's environment."1 Unfortunately, since this announcement, the world has not yet become fully mobilized to act on this problem. The majority of solutions proposed by the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) have not been implemented as countries like the US, though symbolically ratifying the Kyoto Protocol, hesitate to actually implement its policies. The slow progress of policy to abate global warming can be attributed to limited scientific backgrounds of politicians, lobbying from polluting industries, international disagreement and confusion over the sheer number of policy options now being considered.
An Insight article by Robert Watson, current Scientific Advisor to the World Bank, and then associate director for environment in the White House Office of Science and Technology, clarifies some of the uncertainties faced. He states that "the question is not whether climate will change in response to human activities, but rather where (regional patterns), when (the rate of change) and by how much (magnitude)."2 While scientists from the International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) and other researchers continue to struggle to answer these more scientific questions, policy makers have tried, somewhat unsuccessfully, to respond to the potential threat of global warming. Proposed solutions include 'joint-implementation' projects which take advantage of internationally lower costs of reducing green house gas emissions by allowing developed nations to reduce emissions in other countries.3 Other policies focus on direct reduction of emissions by turning to non fossil-fuel sources and indirect reductions through carbon taxes, venture capital for 'green' technology and reduction of overall energy consumption.
Effects of Scientific Uncertainty on Policy
While the scientific precepts of global warming are generally accepted, advocates of aggressive initiatives to combat global warming must still counter a few skeptics. A useful practice is to invoke the 'precautionary principle' which implies that specifically because we lack complete scientific information, policy makers should respond with conservative or, precautionary, policies to halt the suspected human contributions to climate change.4 The philosophy behind environmental policymaking is important to consider in light of scientific uncertainty. On the research front, it is unlikely that before we reach the 2012 deadline for emissions reductions established by the Kyoto Protocol, scientists will definitively prove that humans...