Too Hot To Handle

With no national policy on global warming in sight, states are gearing for action. Stanford researchers weigh in on prospects for political and technological solutions.

November/December 2005

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His Hummers were nowhere to be seen last June when Arnold Schwarzenneger strode to the podium at the United Nations World Environment Day conference in San Francisco. The California governor’s usual support for fellow Republican George W. Bush was parked out of sight as well. This day, Schwarzenneger used his action-hero diction to promote a cause that put him squarely at odds with the Bush administration: trying to turn back global warming through regulation.

“I say the debate is over. We know the science. We see the threat, and we know the time for action is now,” the governor told a cheering crowd. He decreed that greenhouse gas emissions in the most populous state must be cut to year 2000 levels in the next five years and drop to 80 percent below 1990 levels by 2050.

The Bush administration has long argued that the science of climate change is inconclusive and should not be the basis for mandatory and expensive policy decisions. That was one reason why the United States refused to join more than 140 nations in ratifying the Kyoto Protocol in 2001. However, Schwarzenegger’s announcement was another indication of a growing conviction among the American electorate, individual states, the scientific community, presidential hopefuls and business interests that the time has come to deal with this environmental threat.

As part one of STANFORD’s series on global warming showed (“Danger Ahead,” September/October), most University scientists working on the issue agree that human-generated greenhouse gas emissions are causing climatic shifts that can seriously disrupt agriculture and animal habitats and imperil tens of millions of people who live in coastal regions. Slow in coming, concern is rising outside climatology and traditional environmental circles. Beyond politicians from both major parties, a number of international corporations, including insurance giant General Re and oil giants British Petroleum and Royal Dutch Shell, have affirmed their belief that global warming is an imminent threat and in some cases made large investments in new technologies designed to address it.

But if there is an emerging consensus that the climate is changing, agreement on how best to deal with it—and the political will to act on a comprehensive scale—remains elusive. A U.N.-sponsored international working group, the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment, was charged in 2001 with compiling scientific data to help policy makers in their decisions on environmental issues. The group issued its gloomy findings in March. “Human actions are depleting Earth’s natural capital, putting such strain on the environment that the ability of the planet’s ecosystems to sustain future generations can no longer be taken for granted,” the report said, concluding: “The changes in policy and practice required are substantial and not currently under way.”

Researchers at Stanford, as elsewhere, are intensifying work on ways and means to mitigate climate change. Their investigations of fiscal, technological and political innovations point toward potential solutions.

In the absence of a U.S. national policy on greenhouse gas emissions, some regions are coming up with their own strategies. The New York Times reported in August that officials in New York and eight other Northeastern states had reached a preliminary agreement to freeze power plant emissions at their current levels and try to reduce them 10 percent by 2020. On the West Coast, Washington and Oregon have joined California in a collective effort to lower greenhouse gas emissions.

“When the federal government not only drops the ball but keeps kicking it away, you leave states and cities no choice but to take matters into their own hands,” says Stephen H. Schneider, the Melvin and Joan Lane Professor for Interdisciplinary Environmental Studies, a climatologist critical of the U.S. decision to pull out of the Kyoto accords.

Initiatives by the states, as well as in Europe, indicate that policy makers favor market forces to attack the issue. The most popular and cutting-edge policy approaches create incentives for large producers of carbon dioxide to reduce those emissions. Economists such as Lawrence Goulder, the Shuzo Nishihara Professor in Environmental and Resource Economics, favor programs that do not unduly punish companies with older, less efficient technology. These market-conscious solutions are important because fossil fuel producers and users have enormous political clout and can effectively veto any policy they consider too expensive.

Goulder is a leading expert on “cap and trade” strategies now used in the coal industry to limit sulphur dioxide emissions. They work this way: the government places a cap on the overall permissible level of emissions, then distributes a limited number of permits to the emission-producing industries. Companies with older, more polluting equipment typically exceed their permit levels and need to buy credits, while modern, efficient producers fall beneath their allotted levels and have credits to sell to bigger polluters. The system creates an incentive to modernize without crippling companies that can’t afford to do so right away.

Goulder proposes using cap and trade in a national plan to curb carbon dioxide emissions. He recommends that the government auction off a set number of CO2 emission permits, thereby gaining revenue. But it also would give away about 10 percent of the permits, helping energy firms retain their profits, and companies could trade among themselves. The Northeastern states and the three Western states are trying to come up with regional cap and trade plans to cut emissions, although the Bush administration so far has rejected any mandatory proposals.

The Kyoto accords try to do the same thing on a global level using a strictly voluntary approach. First laid out in 1997, the protocol sets targets for the total amount of greenhouse gases industrialized nations may emit from 2008 through 2012. Countries are allowed to meet their commitments by trading credits, and developing countries can qualify to “sell” valuable credits by offering investment opportunities for carbon-abating projects within their borders.

From the beginning, the United States was unlikely to meet the Kyoto targets. And while it could buy credits from other nations, the only likely sellers were Russia and Ukraine, where collapsing economies—not any real effort to be environmentally responsible—had indirectly lowered pollution emissions. Moreover, Kyoto did not impose limits on developing nations, whose use of fossil fuels is expected to grow dramatically in coming decades.

A number of climatologists, including Schneider, acknowledge Kyoto’s shortcomings. But he thinks the stakes for delaying action are so high that the United States substantially damaged progress by walking away from Kyoto in 2001.

David Victor, director of Stanford’s program on energy and sustainable development, sees the Kyoto Protocol in a different light. “People say this is a global problem and we need global solutions,” he says. “But in reality, almost no treaties are implemented top down. When there is high compliance to a treaty, it’s because it reflects what countries are already doing.”

Victor, a senior fellow at the Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies, points to Europe, where the United Kingdom and Denmark have created regional emission trading systems, and to the European Union Emission Trading System, which began operation in January. Interestingly, he notes, there is a “wall” around the EU partners, so that something like those Russian and Ukraine credits doesn’t flood the market and destroy the spirit of the exchange. “Because most Europeans care a lot about climate, they’ve created an emission trading system. We’re seeing a solution emerge from the bottom up.”

In America, however, “the policy situation is stuck in a funk,” Victor says. “Kyoto was never realistic for the U.S. There was never going to be support for buying credits from the Russians, for one thing,” he notes, given that their credits are more opportunistic than merited. In addition, Victor says, “The far right kept hammering that [Kyoto] was a conspiracy to take over the economy.”

For all the activity by states, almost all Stanford’s leading thinkers on climate change acknowledge that regional efforts, in Schneider’s words, “are more expensive and less efficient.” As Goulder explains, “Everyone prefers a national cap and trade program because it would allow fewer opportunities to escape the regulations.” The South, for example, has many coal-burning power plants.

“States are taking the initiative because federal policy is lagging behind, but few people see [the states’ actions] as a last step,” Goulder says. Ideally it’s a first step toward a national system. Victor agrees: “States don’t have much leverage. Almost all energy is linked to interstate commerce. In other areas of environmental policy, states can lead when the states are like laboratories. In this area, I think that will be hard.”

At the international level, reaching consensus on fair and viable emission policies poses an even thornier challenge. One reason global warming is so daunting stems from what Law School professor Barton H. “Buzz” Thompson calls its fundamental asymmetry. Historically, the Northern Hemisphere and the developed nations have created most of the emissions, but the burden will fall more heavily on the already warming developing nations of the Southern Hemisphere. Not all nations are equally responsible, and not all nations will benefit equally from solutions, so what is the correct way to assign responsibility going forward?

“Traditional air pollution is local,” notes Thompson, ’73, MBA ’75, JD ’76, but carbon dioxide and other gases disperse evenly around the earth’s atmosphere, regardless of where they are emitted. “When you’re dealing with a global problem such as climate change, you do not have an international regulatory engine that can impose a solution on the world,” says Thompson, the Robert E. Paradise Professor of National Resources Law and co-director of the Stanford Institute for the Environment. “That makes it wicked to address.”

Recognizing the issue’s global dimensions, and with a nod to the U.N. Millennium Ecosystem Assessment, two prominent Stanford biologists have called for a millennium assessment of human behavior. Former University President Donald Kennedy and Paul R. Ehrlich, the Bing Professor of Population Studies, propose an international forum to sort through the ethical and social aspects of developing sustainable environmental policies in a complex world. For example, “Preservation of animal life and the ethics of various kinds of human interference with ‘natural’ systems are viewed differently by those whose cultural traditions differ,” they wrote in July in Science, where Kennedy is editor-in-chief.

On another front, Stanford scientists are exploring new technologies that could offer cleaner alternatives to coal and gasoline, the world’s main energy sources. However, conversion to new energy sources will require massive, expensive shifts in technology and infrastructure. It will also take time. “If we decide to go to hydrogen and solar power tomorrow, it’s going to be 30 years before they can become a significant source of our energy,” Ehrlich notes. The process will bring pain to consumers as well. As expensive as gas has become, Ehrlich advocates raising gas taxes in part to encourage conservation and in part to fund new technologies.

Stanford’s Global Climate and Energy Project (GCEP) is host to a number of projects exploring alternative energy sources, such as hydrogen and solar power, as well as possible strategies to store vast amounts of carbon in underground or undersea chambers. Alongside these investigations, the Energy Modeling Forum directed by John Weyant, research professor of management science and engineering, creates complex models to assess the value of different approaches to energy issues.

For example, James Sweeney, professor of management science and engineering, has done extensive analysis of whether it makes more sense to create policies to encourage the proliferation of hybrid electric cars, or to devote attention and resources to developing hydrogen fuel cell cars. The hybrids reduce carbon emissions, while cars powered by hydrogen fuel cells produce only water as a byproduct. Several years ago, automakers talked about hydrogen as the potential wave of the future, but those hopes have slowed for two reasons. First, hydrogen is produced by an energy-intensive process that does create carbon emissions, thus limiting the ecological value of this approach. Secondly, fuel cells are still too expensive to be practical.

Sweeney concludes that “the appropriate thing is to push hybrid vehicles today and move hydrogen off toward the distance” until the problems surrounding it are worked out. “Just because you can’t entirely fix a problem doesn’t mean you shouldn’t do the best you can,” he says. In the short term, heavy consumer demand for hybrids is prompting automakers to shift their efforts in that direction.

Solar power and nuclear power are options that don’t generate greenhouse gases, but their drawbacks will take decades to overcome. Solar energy, while vast and renewable, is relatively inefficient and costly. Nuclear power plants, which supply roughly 20 percent of this nation’s electricity needs (and the vast majority of France’s), had their heyday in the 1970s, says Wes Hermann, an energy assessment analyst at GCEP. “And then we didn’t build any more. Now we’re about to hit a big wave” where all the facilities will be retired at once, he says. But there is a revival of interest in trying to develop safer facilities and better methods for nuclear waste disposal, one of the technology’s biggest downsides.

A number of GCEP participants are conducting research into carbon sequestration, the storage of large amounts of CO2 in underground caverns created by oil or natural gas pumping, or in deep aquifers, where the dissolved gas would not pose a hazard. But these possibilities are decades away, too, requiring technology advances on several fronts—including lowering the cost of capturing the gas and ensuring its leak-proof storage.

Ironically, Americans’ belief in technology may partly explain why it has taken so long to get the general public and politicians moving on global warming, notes civil and environmental engineering professor Jeff Koseff, who co-directs the newly formed Stanford Institute for the Environment with Thompson. “Deep down we have this fundamental faith that we can do whatever we want and technology will bail us out,” he says. “We [in the environmental community] haven’t been able to counter that convincingly yet—dire warnings, in some ways, just have not done much good.”

Grassroots support is vital to progress toward a national energy policy, and a number of Stanford scientists devote considerable energy to explaining the effects of climate change and bringing that message to the public. Thompson and Schneider are active in the Aldo Leopold Leadership Program, which identifies promising scientists and teaches them how to interact with both government and the media.

Climatologist Schneider says the media have a tendency to “balance” stories on global warming by giving disproportionate attention to skeptics who represent a very small fraction of scientific opinion and often are funded by energy concerns. Ehrlich says that practice is disingenuous: “Every time we launch the space shuttle the media doesn’t march out someone from the Flat Earth Society for comment.”

Shanto Iyengar, the Henry and Norman Chandler Professor of Communication, isn’t optimistic about grassroots support for action on global warming. He says the issue is “just not made for media coverage,” largely because it is difficult to show on television or cover in an “episodic” fashion that focuses on individuals. The Hurricane Katrina disaster certainly lent itself to episodic human-interest TV coverage, and some scientists and politicians tried to pressure the president by linking the warming oceans with the severity of hurricanes. But Iyengar doubts their efforts will have much effect, because criticism of the federal government’s emergency response “drowned out” global-warming concerns.

Two years ago, Iyengar’s research using a “deliberative opinion poll” showed that after a representative sample of the U.S. public was educated about global warming, the percentage of those who thought it was a serious problem requiring immediate action rose from 49 percent to 61 percent. However, he thinks “most people are pretty confused by the issue. There is no court of opinion on it, so the public tends to follow the lead of the president.” At the same time, he says the most likely way scientists will build public support is through research linking warming to specific events—for example, the increase of insect-borne diseases like Lyme disease in places once too cold to host ticks.

Thompson agrees. “To the degree that we can link climate change to what happens locally”—with solid biological research and effective communication to the public—“we can convince people that this is a problem we need to worry about,” he says. Goulder has been advising a number of politicians, including Schwarzenegger and New Mexico’s senators, Democrat Jeff Bingaman and Republican Pete Domenici. In June, Bingaman, JD ’68, sponsored a resolution, passed by the Republican-controlled Senate, stating that climate change is a significant problem with human causes and the United States needs to move toward mandatory limits.

“I think there has been a shift, gradual but real,” Goulder asserts. “I am more optimistic than I was [a year] ago.”

JOAN HAMILTON, ’83, lives in Menlo Park and is a frequent contributor to Stanford.  

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