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Gearing Up to Fight Global Warming

The Politics of Global Atmospheric Change

A mere 16 years after the theoretical finding that chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) can destroy stratospheric ozone, a global agreement to phase out CFC production went into effect. By contrast, the theory that rising levels of atmospheric carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases would cause global warming was first advanced a century ago, but has not yet been followed by effective global action. In The Politics of Global Atmospheric Change, Ian H. Rowlands, a political scientist at the London School of Economics and Political Science, reflects on why this is so. Exactly what would it take, he asks, to achieve an effective global agreement to stabilize the climate?

First, he says, scientists have to agree that a problem does in fact exist, and they have to reach consensus on what is causing it. Second, all key actors have to perceive that an agreement is in their interest-including developing nations, whose most pressing concern is often economic growth, not pollution control. Rowlands notes that both these elements were at work in the effort to phase out CFCs.

Significantly, the first of Rowlands’s preconditions for an effective climate change agreement has now been met: the scientific working group of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has concluded that the global mean surface air temperature has increased, and that human-caused greenhouse gas emissions have contributed to that rise. However, the other precondition Rowlands outlines-a general feeling among nations that an agreement would be in their interest-may be harder to fulfill for climate change than it was for ozone protection.

The main problem is that the costs of limiting greenhouse gas emissions could be much higher than the costs of phasing out CFCs, for developed and developing countries alike. Against these costs must be weighed the benefits of climate stability, which, for most of the world, are uncertain. So far only island nations threatened by rising sea levels have strenuously called for substantial cuts in greenhouse gas emissions. Yet if emissions reductions were viewed from a broader perspective, we might determine that costs will be lower and benefits will be higher than they now appear.

A Political Feedback Loop

The costs of reducing emissions will decline with technological advances in areas such as renewable energy. These advances depend on the level of research and development, which in turn depends largely on political signals. Here Rowlands’s book is particularly instructive. The history of CFC regulation, as he describes it, illustrates the importance of the feedback loop between political actors and manufacturing firms.

Rowlands shows that chemical companies began looking for CFC substitutes in the late 1970s, after chemists Sherwood Rowland and Mario Molina published their theoretical finding that CFCs destroy ozone, prompting the United States and Europe to limit the use of such chemicals in aerosols. The companies opposed a total CFC ban, however, and in the early 1980s, when neither the United States nor Europe issued further regulations, they significantly reduced their research.

It was not until an ozone hole was discovered over Antarctica in 1985 that chemical companies relinquished their opposition to a ban on CFCs and acknowledged that substitutes were possible. The discovery of the ozone hole suggested that strong political action to halt production of CFCs might be imminent, and fortunately, the chemical industry no longer felt compelled to oppose such action: although companies had recently reduced their research, the studies on CFC substitutes initiated years earlier had produced encouraging results. Once the perceived benefits of CFC controls had risen high enough-and the perceived costs had fallen low enough-the way was clear for the 1987 Montreal Protocol and subsequent amendments aimed at phasing out production of CFCs and other ozone-depleting substances.

For greenhouse gas emissions, too, the perceived costs of reductions may decline substantially if political signals prompt more intensive research. And a better understanding of the benefits of a stable climate might very well help generate those signals. Current assessments of what we have to gain from keeping the climate stable address only some sectors in some countries, and fail to consider the advantages of heading off the more frequent droughts, floods, and storms that global warming may induce. Nor do they consider the potential for extreme changes, such as a shift in direction in the warm water “conveyor” in the North Atlantic, a phenomenon postulated by Columbia University geologist Wallace Broecker. Such a development could make Europe much colder and cripple its agriculture.

In the end, the most significant feature of Rowlands’s book is not the strate-gies it calls to mind but simply the framework it provides for understanding the political aspects of the fight to stop global warming. That contribution is all the more welcome for its rarity: there are few environmental successes as significant as the Montreal Protocol, and fewer still have been documented by an author as meticulous as this one. Nevertheless, it is worth pointing out that those who favor an equally effective climate-change agreement can put his insights to good use.

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