Introduction to Climate Change

1. Introduction to Climate Change

Climate change looms as a defining issue of the 21st century, because it pits the potential disruption of our global climate system against the future of a fossil fuel based economy. Climate change refers to the response of the planet's climate system to altered concentrations of "greenhouse gases" in the atmosphere. If all else is held constant (e.g., cloud cover, capacity of the oceans to absorb carbon dioxide, etc.), increases in greenhouse gases will lead to "global warming"-an increase in global average temperatures-as well as other changes in the earth's climate patterns.

The expected impacts of climate change-increase in global temperature, a rise in the "energy" of storms, and the consequent sea level rise-could have significant environmental and social ramifications. Weather patterns could become more extreme and unpredictable and the intensity and frequency of floods, as well as the duration and severity of droughts, are expected to increase in many regimes. These conditions, coupled with warmer temperatures, could fan the spread of water and insect borne diseases, such as typhoid, dengue and malaria. Areas currently facing food or water shortages could face increased shortages in the future. Forests and other ecosystems might not be able to adapt to the rate of change in temperature, leading to substantial loss of biodiversity and natural resources. The range of possible impacts is so broad and severe that many observers believe climate change to be the most significant environmental problem facing the planet.

Concern about climate change and calls for international action began in the 1970s and continued throughout the 1980s. In 1990, the United Nations authorized an Intergovernmental Negotiating Committee on Climate to begin discussions of a global treaty. These negotiations culminated in the 1992 Framework Convention on Climate Change ("the Climate Change Convention") signed at UNCED. The Climate Change Convention established a general framework, but delineated few specific and substantive obligations to curb climate change. Ongoing scientific research, however, continued to support the need for binding "targets and timetables" for the reduction of greenhouse gases. In December 1997, the Parties responded by negotiating the Kyoto Protocol to the Climate Change Convention, which established binding reduction targets for the United States and other developed countries. Despite the growing scientific urgency, the potential economic costs of limiting fossil fuel use in both developing and developed countries have led to substantial opposition to the climate change regime. Indeed, in 2001 President George W. Bush unilaterally announced that the United States would not proceed with ratification of the Protocol. This announcement led to an acrimonious split with the European Union and indeed the rest of the world. As a result, the climate regime remains a complex and controversial regime-a regime that will undoubtedly evolve substantially in the years to come.