WASHINGTON – Global warming,left unchecked,is like a person running toward a cliff's edge in a thick fog,a car accelerating in the dark through a sharp bend,a fire left burning in the basement of a house or an overflowing bathtub.
Or so say legislators and scientists who aim to inform the public concerning greenhouse gas emissions.
With new emissions legislation in the works,several Democratic senators on the Environment and Public Works Committee said it is more important than ever to take steps toward decreasing emissions. Showcasing posters listing flooding,droughts,insect invasions,intensified storms and more water-borne diseases as future effects of global warming,Sen. Barbara Boxer,D-Calif.,said Tuesday there is an urgent need for action.
“We are not sitting back and waiting for some magic moment,” said Boxer,who chairs the committee. “We are ready to go.”
However,the legislation faces opposition in both parties. A group of Democratic senators formed the “Gang of 10,” after Boxer's proposed emissions legislation failed last summer.
“We invite those people on the other side of the political divide,who are members here,‘Come with us,please,and let us join in the fight together,'” said Sen. Frank Lautenberg,D-N.J.,a committee member.
The gang has since grown; all of its members are from coal-dependent states. With most of Congress' energy leaders being from the east and west coasts,these senators fear that too-stringent emissions standards will harm their states' already hurting economies.
But committee Democrats said efforts to combat global warming are not only cost-effective but also profitable,at times. Insulating homes,using public transportation and improving the efficiency of existing technologies could re-invigorate the economy.
“We talk about job loss as if that's the only outcome,” Lautenberg said. “Not if we plan it right.”
Boxer and her committee colleagues released their guiding principles for the legislation Tuesday,but declined to comment on specific numbers or a concrete date to complete the bill. While she said she could speak only for the committee's role,Boxer promised the legislation would be out of committee by year's end. Boxer also said the bill would have bipartisan support,although no Republican senators attended the press conference.
Ranking minority committee member,Sen. James Inhofe,R-Okla.,agreed with the gang,in a posting on The Hill's Congress Blog on Thursday.
“Mandatory carbon caps will force energy providers to utilize much more expensive renewable energy,which will be passed on to already short in the pocket consumers,” Inhofe wrote.
An international effort to combat global warming faces other roadblocks. The creator of the “bathtub model,” Massachusetts Institute of Technology Professor John Sterman,said in an interview the public does not understand the subject.
More carbon is entering the atmosphere than can naturally be removed – the bathtub is draining slower than it is being filled. This years-long process means that equaling inflow and outflow will no longer help. The water (or carbon) that has already accumulated will not disperse until more is leaving the tub than is going in.
“Many people simply don't have good intuition about how these systems work,” Sterman said.”People say,‘You aren't very rigorous. You talk about bathtubs,not equations.' I can do that too,but it doesn't work,even with our students.”
While global warming is a chain of events with long-ranging effects,many people in the United States and other countries support a “wait and see” approach,according to Sterman's findings. Few realize that it takes significant time for emissions legislation to reduce carbon levels in the atmosphere and for other factors,including temperature and sea levels,to be affected.
“By the time you detect the harm that will come from climate change,there's no turning back,” Sterman said.
Although planting trees and maintaining soil fertility will help deplete carbon in the atmosphere,Sterman emphasized that emitting less carbon is crucial. While new approaches are constantly being developed – including capturing carbon dioxide,liquefying it and injecting it into wells and salt domes – carbon's longevity is an issue.
Much of the carbon that has been emitted already has merely been stored temporarily in the oceans,to be re-released into the atmosphere later. Essentially every scientific model shows the oceans' capacities for storing carbon are decreasing. Meaning,in Sterman's bathtub scenario,the water is pouring in ever-faster and flowing out ever-slower,with no indication of when the tub will overflow.
New studies and reports provide an even grimmer outlook: warming patterns in Antarctica,dust bowl-like droughts for decades around the world and temperature increases of several degrees.
“It's clear to me that the Earth is giving us a very strong warning,” National Wildlife Federation President Larry Schweiger said at Tuesday's press conference.
Based on these concerns,Sterman stressed that scientists must redouble their efforts to educate the public. Sterman supports using analogies and metaphors like the bathtub model. He also suggests using plainer language in scientific reports.
“Scientists need to talk to the public,” Sterman said. “Their primary job is to research,but that's not good enough.”