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Meeting the Challenge of Global Climate Change

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Global Climate

April 2000

Global climate change is one of our greatest environmental challenges. The overwhelming weight of scientific authority tells us that the build-up of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere creates dangers -- such as severe storms and droughts, increases in respiratory and infectious diseases, and rising sea levels -- that are too serious to ignore.

The Clinton Administration is working at home and abroad to meet the challenge of climate change. Domestically, we are working on a wide range of initiatives to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by developing and deploying energy efficient technologies and spurring the broader use of renewable energy. Internationally, we are working to secure the meaningful participation of developing countries in addressing global warming and to complete the other unfinished business of the Kyoto Protocol.


Greenhouse gases trap heat from the sun. These gases warm the Earth's surface by an estimated 60° Fahrenheit (F), sustaining our existence on the planet. However, the burning of fossil fuels and deforestation have increased the concentration of carbon dioxide (the principal greenhouse gas) by more than 30% since preindustrial times.

Scientists predict that, if we continue on our current course, concentrations of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere will reach roughly twice current levels by 2100 -- a level not seen on this planet for the past 50 million years. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), which represents the work of more than 2,000 of the world's leading climate scientists, estimates that this will lead to an increase in global temperature of 2 to 6.5° F. By way of comparison, the last ice age was only 5 to 10° F colder than today.

Over the past year, new data from satellites, tree rings, ice cores, and deep boreholes drilled in the Earth's surface have reinforced the broad scientific consensus that human activities have started to affect the climate and that continuing on a "business as usual" course will lead to substantial warming in the next century. Studies have shown that the 20th century has been the warmest century in the past 1,000 years and that the 1990s have been the warmest decade in that period, while 1998 has been the single warmest year on record.


Scientists predict a range of likely effects from global warming:

  • Extreme weather. As temperatures increase, so does the rate of evaporation. This acceleration of the so-called hydrologic cycle is projected to increase the frequency and intensity of extreme weather events such as floods and droughts. Last year's El Nino -- which produced warmer and wetter conditions akin to those anticipated from global warming -- offered us a window on the type of extreme weather that climate change may bring, from heat waves and drought in Texas, to wildfires in Florida, Mexico and Indonesia, ice storms in the northeastern United States, and devastating floods in China and Bangladesh.

  • Human health. Warmer temperatures are projected to increase fatalities from heat stress and expand the geographic ranges for diseases like malaria and dengue fever. Additional smog caused by warmer temperatures could increase the incidence of asthma and other respiratory illnesses, particularly among children and the elderly.

  • Sea level rise. Scientists project that the sea level will rise by an additional 6 to 37 inches by 2100, endangering island states and coastal areas. A 20-inch rise could inundate 7,000 square miles of the U.S. coastline, with Florida and the Gulf Coast at greatest risk.

  • Agricultural impacts. Changes in growing seasons, water availability, soil moisture, and precipitation are expected to cause significant regional shifts in food productivity, with decreased production in many of the world's poorest regions. Water supplies and water quality may also be affected, posing threats to irrigation, fisheries, and drinking supplies.

  • Damage to ecosystems. Many species are highly adapted to particular climate conditions and may not survive substantial climate shifts. For example, the United States may lose beech trees and sugar maples, and western conifer forests are likely to shrink, as the tolerable climate zones for these species shift hundreds of miles to the north.


Since 1993, President Clinton has put into place dozens of win-win programs to develop and deploy energy efficient technologies and spur the development and broader use of renewable energy. These efforts have accelerated since the Kyoto climate change conference in 1997.

  • Climate Change Technology Initiative. This vigorous program of tax incentives and investments focuses on energy efficiency and renewable energy technologies. The FY 1999 appropriations for these programs totaled over $1 billion and represented a 25% increase over the prior year. The President's FY 2000 budget proposes a still more accelerated effort.

    • The tax incentive package contains $3.6 billion over five years for consumers who purchase energy efficient products and for producers of energy from renewable sources. Highlights include: a tax credit of up to $2000 for energy efficient new homes; a 10-20% credit for selected energy efficient products for homes and buildings; a credit of up to $2000 for rooftop solar systems; a credit of up to $4000 for qualifying electric, fuel cell or hybrid vehicles; extension of the current 1.5 cents/kilowatt hour credit for the production of electricity from wind and biomass; an expansion of the biomass credit to cover additional sources; and a 1.0 cent/kilowatt hour credit for cofiring coal and biomass in power plants.

    • The investment package contains nearly $1.4 billion in FY 2000 to research, develop, and deploy clean energy technologies. This represents a 34% increase over the amount appropriated in FY 1999. Highlights include: increased funding for the Partnership for a New Generation of Vehicles, a government-industry effort to develop cars that get up to three times the fuel efficiency of today's cars; the Partnership for Advancing Technology in Housing, which aims to improve the energy efficiency of new homes by more than 50% and to retrofit 15 million existing homes to make them 30% more energy efficient within a decade; a stepped-up Bioenergy Initiative to develop advanced bioenergy technologies; expanded research and development efforts in other key renewable energy technologies, such as solar, wind, and geothermal energy; and a Carbon Cycle Initiative, to deepen our understanding of carbon "sinks," such as forests and farmlands.

  • Electricity restructuring. Another core element of the President's plan involves restructuring the electricity industry by introducing competition that will save consumers millions on their energy bills while reducing greenhouse gas emissions. The Administration's restructuring proposal would provide a profit incentive for generators to produce more electricity with less fuel and to improve energy efficiency. It also includes an aggressive, 7.5 percent renewable portfolio standard to increase the use of electricity from renewable sources and a $3 billion Public Benefits Fund to spur greater investment in energy efficiency and renewables.

  • Industry Partnerships. The Administration is also engaged in a wide range of consultations with key industry sectors to improve energy use and reduce emissions. For example, the Industries of the Future program works cooperatively with the nation's most energy-intensive industries -- such as aluminum, glass, chemicals, forest products, mining, petroleum refining, and steel -- to develop technologies that increase energy and resource efficiency.

  • Credit for Early Action. The Administration is committed to working with Congress and industry on legislation to reward companies taking early, voluntary action to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions or increase carbon sequestration.

  • Clean Air Partnership Fund. The President's FY 2000 budget proposes $200 million for the creation of a new Clean Air Partnership Fund to support state and local projects to reduce both greenhouse gas emissions and ground-level air pollutants.

  • Federal energy use and procurement. The President's plan seeks to substantially reduce the Federal government's own greenhouse gas emissions by improving the energy efficiency of Federal facilities and activities and reforming procurement practices. These actions are important in their own right, since the Federal government is the nation's largest single energy user, but they also set an important example for the private sector.

  • Domestic emissions trading. The President has proposed a domestic emissions trading system to begin by 2008 so that we can achieve our emissions target at the lowest possible cost. The U.S. has used emissions trading successfully to reduce the pollution that causes acid rain -- exceeding environmental objectives at about 50% the expected cost.

  • Scientific research. The Administration is continuing its strong support for the U.S. Global Change Research Program, with nearly $1.8 billion in funding requested for FY 2000. This program provides a sound science foundation for policy decisions by furthering our understanding of human- and naturally-induced changes in the Earth's environment and assessing the likely consequences of global warming.


Thanks largely to U.S. leadership, the international climate change agreement reached at Kyoto, Japan in December 1997, combines strong environmental targets with elements of flexibility that will allow nations to meet their targets in a cost-effective manner, including:

  • Flexible market mechanisms. The Protocol includes critically important market mechanisms that can dramatically cut the cost of reducing emissions. Chief among these are international emissions trading and the so-called Clean Development Mechanism (CDM), which will allow U.S. companies to participate in joint clean energy ventures in the developing world and earn credits from verified reductions in greenhouse gas emissions.

  • Emissions targets are to be reached over a five-year commitment period. The first commitment period will be 2008-2012. Allowing emissions to averaged over a commitment period helps smooth out short-term fluctuations due to economic performance or weather. Having a decade before the start of the binding period will allow more time for companies to make the transition to greater energy efficiency and/or lower carbon technologies.

  • Emissions targets include all six major greenhouse gases. This will provide both more comprehensive environmental protection and additional flexibility for nations and companies.

  • Activities that absorb carbon, such as planting trees, can be used to offset emissions. Including these so-called carbon sinks will encourage afforestation, reforestation, and better forestry and agricultural conservation practices.

At the November 1998 UN climate change conference in Buenos Aires, the parties agreed on a two-year timetable for filling in the key details of the Kyoto Protocol in areas such as emissions trading, the CDM, compliance, and the scope and use of carbon sinks. Buenos Aires also saw progress on the issue of developing country participation as Argentina and Kazakhstan announced their intention to take on binding emissions targets for the 2008-2012 time period. The President has made clear that he will not submit the Kyoto Protocol to the Senate without meaningful participation from key developing countries in efforts to address global warming.


The Administration's economic analysis of the Kyoto Protocol concludes that, if we do it right, the cost to the United States of meeting our Kyoto target should be modest. Even without counting the impact of domestic policies or the environmental, health, and economic benefits of limiting climate change, estimates derived from economic modeling suggest an emissions price in the range of $14 to $23 per ton of greenhouse gases. In 2010, that would translate into an increase of $70 to $110 per year for an average family's energy bill. This increase, however, would be substantially offset by the decline in electricity prices resulting from increased competition in a restructured electricity industry, as the Administration and others have proposed. In addition, noted economists have estimated the ancillary benefits of reducing greenhouse gas emissions -- such as reduced air pollution -- could produce savings equal to one quarter of the costs of meeting our Kyoto target.


For the past 25 years, efforts to protect the environment, whether by cleaning our air, our water, or eliminating acid rain, have been repeatedly assailed as a threat to our economy. Yet today, we have the cleanest environment in a generation and the strongest economy in a generation. President Clinton's balanced approach to the challenge of climate change will allow us to continue to grow the economy and protect the environment at the same time.

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