October 28, 2005

Experts Urge Awareness on Global Warming

SEATTLE  -- The special-effects film extravaganza "The Day After Tomorrow" offers one extreme scenario on global warming: instant worldwide catastrophe. The bestseller "State of Fear" offers another: worrywart scientists are hyperventilating over nothing.

The truth lies somewhere in between, Christine Todd Whitman said Thursday. But "the public doesn't know where to be," said the former New Jersey governor, who served the Bush administration as director of the Environmental Protection Agency until 2003.

The issues "need to be put in terms the average person can understand," Whitman said, because at this point the environment is not among Americans' top 10 concerns - and it should be.

Whitman was the keynote speaker at the King County Climate Change Conference: "The Future Ain't What It Used to Be."

Also speaking Thursday were Stanford University global warming expert Stephen Schneider, who founded the journal "Climatic Change"; the University of Washington's Edward L. Miles, leader of the Climate Impacts Group; Tulalip fisheries expert Terry Williams; and Kathy Fletcher of People for Puget Sound.

Part of the communication problem rests with scientists, who tend to focus on areas of conflict, Schneider said. Scientists also need to use language that people understand, he added.

There are broad areas of agreement in the scientific community about global warming, Schneider said: it is happening, due at least in part to gases generated by human activity since the mid-18th century Industrial Revolution.

Another factor is that nobody can predict the future. No one knows all the factors that go into climate change, or exactly how the system works.

"The past may no longer be a reliable guide for the future," noted UW scientist Amy Snover.

Several speakers warned of nature's capacity for surprise. They agreed there is no consensus yet on the role of global warming in this year's Gulf Coast hurricane season, though Schneider said warmer waters - even just half a degree warmer - are known to intensify the power of such storms.

Even if the international community takes immediate action, the impact might not show for decades - a tough sell in a world of sound bites and channel surfing.

"It's hard to get people to pay for changes they may never see," Whitman said.

Under the U.N.-brokered Kyoto Protocol, an international agreement to start addressing climate change, industrialized nations commit themselves to cutting their collective emissions of carbon dioxide, methane and four other "greenhouse" gases to 5.2 percent below 1990 levels.

While the United States did not sign off on the Kyoto Protocol, many U.S. companies have adopted voluntary limits that so far account for a 17-billion-pound annual reduction in such emissions, Whitman said.

"None of us wants to leave this world in worse shape than we found it," Whitman said, though U.S. companies taking the lead - none in the Northwest, she noted - will be ahead of the curve when controls become mandatory. "This is a pretty pragmatic business decision on their part," and many have heard about the issue from shareholders, she said.

But Whitman conceded that "I don't think we'll get to the protocol without mandatory caps."

States and counties are getting ahead of the federal government in climate change action, with tougher emission standards for cars, for example.

Ultimately, Whitman said, national standards are easier for businesses to deal with than a patchwork of local rules. "Even after we have a national standard, it's going to be up to all of us," she said. And over time, companies operating internationally will be required to meet Kyoto standards by their foreign customers.

Rising fuel prices have Americans thinking about more energy-efficient cars and homes. And some are becoming more politically active, Whitman said, though enthusiasm has not yet reached the level of the 1970s environmental movement.

"What you're doing also affects the political climate," she told the crowd of about 500 people.

How can the public help? Buy appliances - everything from music players to washing machines - that carry the government's "Energy Star" label, indicating they use half the power to do the same job as competitors, Whitman said.

Voting can also help shape policy, she said, as can communicating with elected officials and policymakers.

Whitman also urged communication with companies based in Washington state. "Get them to make a commitment" to help reduce climate change, she said.

"Our population growth makes everything harder," said conservationist Fletcher. "We've gone down the dumb-growth path for many years. ... Maybe as we see all this bearing down on us, we'll take the smart-growth path."

"At some point, we're not going to have a choice," said Williams, the Tulalip fisheries expert.