News

By William Pennell and Doug Ray
Published in the Tri-City Herald on Feb. 16, 2020

Bill Pennell is a former director of the Atmospheric Sciences and Climate Research Division at Pacific Northwest National Laboratory. In addition to his research, he has served as a scientific advisor to the Department of Energy and the Environmental Protection Agency. Doug Ray is Chair, Board of Directors of Carbon Washington, a nonprofit, nonpartisan organization dedicated to net-zero carbon emissions in Washington State. He is a Fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science.

It has been known for well over a century that human activities resulting in the emissions of greenhouse gases (carbon dioxide, methane, and others) to the atmosphere have the potential for disrupting the Earth’s climate system. But until the latter part of the 20th century, such concerns were largely academic. The magnitude of the emissions and their contribution to the overall chemistry of the atmosphere were too small to be of consequence.

But by the 1970s and ‘80s, this situation was changing. Evidence began to accumulate that not only was the chemistry of the atmosphere being affected by human activities, but that the Earth’s climate was changing as well.

By the late 1980s these concerns were beginning to come to the attention of leaders in both the developed and developing world. These concerns reached their culmination in the Earth Summit held in Rio de Janeiro in June 1992 and in the drafting of an international environmental treaty, The United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change.

Ratified by over 190 individual parties, including the United States, the treaty set a goal of stabilizing “greenhouse gas concentrations in the atmosphere at a level that would prevent dangerous anthropogenic interference with the climate system.”

This goal was to be achieved by the signatory parties reducing their individual emissions of these gases over time. However, the amount of these reductions and the target greenhouse gas concentrations required to prevent “dangerous anthropogenic interference” were questions left to future studies and negotiations.

In the decades since the treaty came into force, global greenhouse gas emissions have increased by over 60% largely driven by growth in the consumption of fossil fuels in developing countries.

Emissions reduction has occurred in the United States and other developed nations but not nearly enough to solve the problem. And in the United States, what initially appeared to be a bipartisan consensus on the fact of human-induced climate change had largely dissipated by the end of the 1990s.

So where do we stand today?

The facts of climate change, and the damage it is inflicting on communities, infrastructure, and the environment, are increasingly difficult to deny. And President Trump said last month that he no longer considered climate change a hoax, but a “very serious subject.” But what does this mean, especially when President Trump’s administration is aggressively promoting the development of fossil fuel resources. Are we any closer to addressing the problem in a serious manner than we were 30 years ago?

These are some of the questions we will be addressing in the Badger Club forum on Thursday, Feb. 20: Do we really understand what actions will be required to eliminate the root cause of climate change, which are primarily emissions from the development and use of fossil fuels? Do we, especially in the United States, have the political will to take these actions, and if not why?