Our global future: climate change - Timothy E. Wirth, Undersecretary for Global Affairs - Transcript
US Department of State Dispatch, Oct, 1997


Thank you for that kind introduction and for the opportunity to be here today. It's an honor and a privilege to address this audience in this forum, and I have to admit that I'm more than a bit awed by the fact that my predecessors in this lecture series include a prince and three presidents, as well as several leaders of major international environmental organizations. Maurice Strong, who gave the Kew Lecture two years ago, is a neighbor of mine in Colorado, and I can't think of anyone in the world I admire more.

Let me take this opportunity to convey once again my country's and my own deepest sympathies during Great Britain's period of national mourning. Along with millions of other Americans, I woke up early in the morning a week ago Saturday to watch the broadcast of Princess Diana's funeral. Seeing Prince William and Prince Harry walking bravely into Westminster Abbey reminded me vividly of John F. Kennedy's two children, who went through a similar ordeal 34 years ago. You have our heartfelt condolences.

My central topic today is climate change. I want to explain in detail the United States' negotiating position on this vital issue as we head toward December's international conference in Kyoto. But, let me start by putting this issue in context because, in several respects, it is typical of the kinds of threats and opportunities that we will face together in the 21st century.

All over the globe, nations are beginning to recognize their opportunity and their responsibility to look beyond the crises of the moment toward the underlying causes that are making the world ever more complex and redefining the priorities for long-term national security and global stability. You only need to contrast the experience of me and my generation with that of my children and theirs.

In August 1961, I was an army private watching the Berlin Wall rise, and I remember thinking that we might be shipped off to war in central Europe. Thirty years later, my kids sat on that same wall with some 750,000 other young people to hear a Pink Floyd concert.

For my generation, the East-West confrontation was certainly the formative experience. It defined who we were as a country, what we thought was valuable, what we thought was important. For my children, the Cold War is ever more a distant reflection in the rear-view mirror.

The void left by the end of the East-West conflict has evoked various suggestions about our national purposes. There are those who would suggest that the U.S. mission is domestic only; that since our interests and responsibilities around the world are greatly diminished, we should simply maintain a strong defense to guard against military threats and traditional security concerns. This view ignores much more than the increasingly interdependent nature of our planet. It ignores the tremendous suffering and lost opportunities that exist in today's world, and it ignores our responsibility to ensure progress and hope for the future.

We are accustomed to searching for international purpose and the causes of international instability in such factors as ideology; geopolitic; economic inequity; or intense hatreds spawned by nationalism, race, and religious fanaticism. To these we must now add the enormous global factors of rapidly growing population, climate change, and the loss of biodiversity--and the threatening results: soil erosion, air pollution, overgrazing, diminishing freshwater supply, infectious disease, ozone depletion, and many others.

Compared even with the complex considerations that determined our national security policies during the Cold War, the new global threats to international stability are almost bewildering in their interplay of man-made and natural phenomena. All of these factors are linked through complex chains of cause and effect, resulting in issues that can make even the arcane calculus of nuclear deterrence seem like a simple proposition. Climate change calculations, as just one example, challenge even the most sophisticated and powerful computers designed for our Cold War weapons programs.

But complexity need not be the enemy of a coherent concept for policy related to global issues. For all of us, the incorporation of global threats into the post-Cold War definition of global and national security requires breaking down barriers and--in the words of Abraham Lincoln--"disenthralling ourselves" from old ideas and yesterday's paradigms.

Appealing as it might be to some in our Congress, passive isolation will not enable us to fulfill these responsibilities. Instead, we have to recognize and adapt to new responsibilities and new challenges--issues that will define the 21st century. And one of the most important of these is sustainable development, the central concept agreed to at the Earth Summit in 1992.

As Maurice Strong so clearly discussed here two years ago, sustainable development fundamentally means that the economies of the world should attempt to meet the, needs of today's generation without compromising or stealing from future generations. It is a concept rooted in a recognition of the mutually reinforcing nature of economic, social, and environmental progress.

Unhappily, the biggest obstacle to the pursuit of sustainable development is the misguided belief that protecting the environment is antithetical to economic interests. Far too many will nod their head, saying "Yes, I'm for the environment as long as it doesn't cost jobs." And it is within this terribly mistaken analysis that we encounter the fundamental intellectual challenge to sustainable development, and to the imperative of concerted action. The truth is that the environment is fundamental to the economy.

Ecological systems are the very foundation of our society--in science, in agriculture, in social and economic planning. Five essential biological systems--croplands, forests, grasslands, oceans, and fresh waterways--support the world economy. Except for fossil fuels and minerals, they supply all the raw materials for industry and provide all our food.

* Croplands supply food, feed, and an endless array of raw materials for industry such as fiber and vegetable oils.

* Forests are the source of fuel, lumber, paper and countless other products, and house valuable watersheds that provide drinking water for growing urban areas.

* Grasslands provide meat, milk, leather and wool.

* And oceans and freshwater produce food for individuals and resources for industry.

Stated in the jargon of the business world, you could say the economy is a wholly owned subsidiary of the environment. But when we pollute, degrade, and irretrievably compromise that ecological capital, we begin to do serious damage to the economy.

Is this just a theoretical concept? It is not. It happened in central and eastern Europe, whose profound environmental destruction we are only now uncovering and comprehending. It is, in fact, happening all over the world, even in many of today's headlined trouble spots. For example:

In Rwanda, the unspeakably brutal massacres of 1994 occurred against a backdrop of soaring population growth, environmental degradation, and unequal distribution of resources. Rwanda's fertility rate is among the highest in the world--more than eight children per woman. The nation's once rich agricultural land is so severely depleted and degraded that between 1980 and 1990, during a time of unprecedented population growth, food production fell dramatically.

In Chiapas State, Mexico, decades of resource conflicts underlie the rebellion in Mexico's most troubled region. Unequal distribution of land and rapid population growth have forced poor peasants, mostly indigenous people, to eke out a meager living by farming environmentally fragile uplands. But these lands are quickly degraded, plunging the increasing population even more deeply into poverty. A similar cycle has been observed in places as diverse as the Philippines, the Himalayas, the Sahel, Indonesia, Brazil, and El Salvador.

In Haiti, dwindling resources are even more central to the social collapse that has overtaken an island nation that was once the crown jewel of the French Empire. Almost totally deforested, its poor croplands divided into smaller and less-productive parcels with each generation, these problems were compounded by a predatory government that drained the nation's scant resources and failed to invest in its people. Looming ominously over this environmental, economic, and political collapse is the fact that Haiti's population of 7 million--already unsustainable by every measure--is expected to double in the next 18 years.

And in China, home to one in five of the earth's people, severe water shortages and soil erosion threaten that nation's ability to feed its population. Between 1987 and 1990, China's arable land decreased by some 50 million acres--an area the size of all the farms in France, Germany, Denmark, and Netherlands combined. This depletion is prompting an exodus from the impoverished interior to the booming coastal cities. China, and the demands which accompany its rapid industrialization, is moving headlong toward an environmental wall which its economy will soon hit full speed.

Some of these dangerous trends are the product of poverty; 1.8 billion people around the world live in wretched poverty. More than 2 billion live without access to adequate sanitation facilities.

Poor people in Asia, Africa, and Latin America are in desperate need of fuel and land to work. Their needs and their number make them unwitting, but powerful, agents of destruction whether in tropical rainforests or on fragile hillsides, a tragedy for the environment, and their own futures.

But poverty is not the only, or even the worst, toxic force at work on the global environment. The appetite of the affluent for timber products is just as much of a menace to forests in Malaysia, Indonesia, the Philippines, Brazil, and the United States. The bulk of the underground water being drained away from our future flows into the shining cities of the "haves," not the parched lands of the "have-nots." Those same cities, and we who live in them and the way we live in them, are, of course, the furnaces of global warming.

We are also learning that environmental capital cannot be measured simply by counting trees, stocks of fish, or ears of corn. It also encompasses complex ecological systems that filter wastes, regenerate soils, determine weather patterns and climatic conditions, and replenish fresh-water supplies. Those systems, now called ecosystem services in a new, exciting, and compelling field of ecological economics, allow us to live on this earth. Ozone depletion, species loss, and the increasing carbon content of our atmosphere are all reflections of the fact that the planet's ecological systems are under enormous strain. We are destroying our own systems of survival.

The rapid degradation of our life-support systems illustrate our interdependence with nature and our changing relationship with the planet. Our security is inextricably linked to these trends. The security of our world hinges upon whether we can strike a sustainable, equitable balance between human numbers and the planet's capacity to support life.

Why have these new aspects of security only recently been recognized? Two trends tell the tale. First is the exponential growth of the human population. World population has doubled since 1950, and now stands at nearly 6 billion. Every year, the world gains another 91 million inhabitants--the equivalent of another New York City every month, another Mexico every year, another China every decade. Ninety-five percent of that growth is taking place in the impoverished countries of the developing world, which are already struggling to provide jobs and sustenance for their people.

At the same time, the industrialized world has developed the capability and consumptive capacity to utilize resources and produce wastes at a rate that is unprecedented in human history. Although we comprise only one-fifth of the world's population, the industrialized countries use two-thirds of all resources consumed and generate four-fifths of all pollutants and wastes.

So we're getting ourselves into a terrible fix--the globe's population is growing at a rate that is matched or exceeded only by our growing capacity to consume resources and produce wastes. The course we are presently on is unsustainable.

Of special concern to us in the United States are the big three: population, biodiversity, and climate change. We believe that there is an urgency in all three.

While it is true that the rate of population growth is declining, the base against which that rate applies is bigger than ever in world history. Nearly half of today's population is 15 or younger. They are just entering their child-bearing years. Much of the future of the globe will be determined by whether these new young parents have two, three, four, or more children. I hope we can talk more about this issue in the question period. From the Cairo Program of Action we know what to do. Now we must do it.

The second of the big three is biodiversity--the central focus of Kew Gardens and your wonderful work around the world. We need to realize the opportunity of the need to move beyond the abstract words of preserving and utilizing our biological inheritance. I am increasingly convinced that the biodiversity issue may dwarf all others in the not-too-distant future.

The 21st century will certainly be the century of biology; already more than 50% of today's top-selling pharmaceuticals come directly from plant biochemicals, and compounds of undiscovered promise await us:

* A periwinkle plant from Madagascar provides a treatment for forms of leukemia, breast cancer, and cancers that afflict children;

* Fox glove--a plant in the snapdragon family, also known as digitalis--is the source of a key medicine used in the treatment of chronic heart failure;

* Quinine, extracted from the bark of a plant in the coffee family, was for a century the main treatment for malaria; and

* Penicillin, the first and most famous antibiotic, was developed from common mold.

The list goes on and on, providing immeasurable assistance and comfort to mankind, and creating multibillion-dollar markets.

Similarly, our food base comes from the reservoir of nature. For example, just three species of grass--rice, wheat, and corn--represent humanity's principal foods; yet, the abundance of the natural world is much larger.

We can measure the distance to the moon to an accuracy of centimeters but haven't explored the wonder of our own world's species. Are there 10 million, 50 million, or 100 million, and what genetic wonders do they hold? Certainly, this is the overwhelmingly important frontier of the future in which we can prospect for food, fuel, pharmaceuticals, or fiber, as we once prospected for gold in South Africa or silver in the American West. Unfortunately, this is not at all well understood in the United States. There are forces afoot in our country, bent upon crippling our nation's biological survey, repealing the Endangered Species Act, and ignoring the International Biodiversity Treaty. One of the major challenges we face is to change the terms of the biological debate, so it is understood as a phenomenal future, where we can prove that economic prosperity and environmental preservation can be linked with enormous promise for posterity.

And now to the third of the big three--climate change. Global warming, caused by our dumping billions of tons of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases into the atmosphere every year, is likely to have a tremendous impact on every aspect of the natural order. We need to think about climate both as a sustainable development issue and as a global issue.

We believe that the science is compelling: The chemical composition of the atmosphere is being altered by anthropogenic emissions of greenhouse gases; the continued buildup of these gases will enhance the natural greenhouse effect and cause the global climate to change. Based on these facts and additional underlying science, the second global assessment by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change reported that "the balance of evidence suggests that there is a discernible human influence on global climate."

This last finding represents the first time that a consensus has emerged among leading climate scientists that the world's changing climatic conditions are more than the natural variability of weather. In short, the IPCC's results have further underscored the compelling nature of scientific understanding of this issue.

Nonetheless, uncertainty remains. The scientific community cannot yet tell us precisely how much, when, or at what rate the Earth's climate will respond to greenhouse gas buildup. However, making the best possible estimate based on what is known about the complex climate system, the scientific community believes that current emissions trends--resulting over the next several decades in the effective doubling from preindustrial concentrations of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere--will lead to global temperatures which, on average, are 2 [degrees] to 6.5 [degrees] warmer than today, increasing at a rate greater than any known for the past 10,000 years.

Based on these estimates, the best scientific evidence indicates that human-induced climate change, if allowed to continue unabated, could have profound consequences for the economy and the quality of life of future generations.

Human health is at risk from projected increases in heat-related mortalities and the spread of diseases like malaria, yellow fever, and cholera. In fact, the World Health Organizations sees the effect of climate change as one of the biggest public health challenges for the 21st century.

Food security may be threatened under a number of global warming outcomes as croplands move northward, leaving some regions of the world at serious risk of food scarcity.

Water resources are expected to be increasingly stressed, with substantial economic, social, and environmental costs in regions that are already water-limited and, perhaps, even political costs where there is already conflict over limited resources.

Coastal areas--where a large percentage of the global population lives--are at risk from sea-level rise. In the U.S. alone, our planners estimate costs in the range of $100-$300 billion to protect coastal property from a 1-meter rise.

In our opinion, the IPCC has clearly demonstrated to policymakers that further action must be taken to address this challenge. U.S. policy on climate change flows from this science; the risk is too great to ignore, and we must act now.

Our proposals have three central components:

* We propose that all developed countries have realistic and achievable targets and timetables for significantly reducing their greenhouse gas emissions;

* We propose that developing nations advance their commitment undertaken as part of the original Climate Change Treaty and, further, agree to a process that will ensure that they will have binding emissions limitation commitments of their own; and

* Finally, we propose to establish a system of emissions trading and other market mechanisms that will reduce the costs of limiting emissions in both developed and developing countries.

Let me address each of these three aspects of our proposal in turn.

I want to start with our ideas for emissions trading and market mechanisms, because we see them as essential to our whole proposal, both environmentally and economically. We believe that these market mechanisms can reduce the costs of implementation significantly, thus enabling us to achieve much greater reductions in emissions in both developed and developing nations.

In the United States, the concept of emissions trading has been successfully used to reduce costs as much as tenfold in meeting the standards set for power plant emissions of sulfur dioxide. In the climate context, we envision that participating nations, and their private sector companies, would be allowed to trade greenhouse gas emission permits, thus creating the opportunity to reduce emissions where it is cheapest to do so. Such a program could cut the cost of reducing emissions by as much as 50%.

An international emissions trading regime must be designed and implemented. We will need to establish a reliable system of monitoring and verification to ensure that everyone plays by the rules, but that's the case with almost all international agreements--from arms control to intellectual property rights.

Another key piece of our climate strategy is joint implementation. We propose that private-sector companies in developed countries be allowed to undertake emissions reductions projects in developing countries and count these reductions against their own emissions. We believe that joint implementation can harness the expertise and capital of the private sector to reduce global greenhouse gas emissions in a cost-effective manner.

The U.S. already has launched many successful demonstration projects of activities jointly implemented--from forestry to energy conservation, from Costa Rica to the Czech Republic, from Belize to Bolivia to Russia.

As these projects have demonstrated, joint implementation can do much more than just reduce costs. Developing countries reap substantial, long-term benefits from such a system, through the transfer of cutting-edge technologies and business practices. Moreover, as we have seen in Central America, joint implementation projects can provide an invaluable mechanism to protect forests and other critical habitat around the world.

We see the combination of emissions trading and joint implementation as a more comprehensive, "greener" alternative to the idea of a European "bubble," and to other purely regional schemes. Climate change is a global issue, not a regional one, and the mechanisms that we put in place to reduce costs should be as inclusive as possible. To be sure, we should encourage European governments and companies to work together to reduce emissions, but Great Britain and its neighbors should also be encouraged to cooperate with the United States and Australia, Russia and Japan, China and India. The guiding principle should be to maximize the environmental benefit at the least cost. We should reduce emissions wherever and whenever we can, even when that means crossing national or regional boundaries. Lower costs will, in turn, enable us to aim for and then to achieve much more significant reductions in greenhouse gas emissions.

At the same time, we think all developed nations should have to take significant emissions reductions measures. This is a problem which affects every nation, and every nation must be part of the solution. But unlike emissions trading, the EU bubble would create a system in which countries such as Spain, Portugal, and Greece had little or no incentive to limit their emissions; indeed, the current EU proposal would encourage these countries to increase their emissions by as much as 40% over 1990 levels. That's not the best way to reduce overall emissions, and it's not the right signal we want to send to newly developed countries such as Mexico and Korea. That brings me to the subject of targets and timetables for reducing emissions in developed countries.

President Clinton recognizes that the United States, as the world's leading emitter of greenhouse gases, must set a strong example for other nations around the world. That is why the President and his Cabinet members are now engaged in an intensive education campaign "to convince the American people and the Congress that the climate change problem is real and imminent." And that is why President Clinton has promised that

We will bring to the Kyoto conference a strong

American commitment to realistic and binding

limits that will significantly reduce our emissions

of greenhouse gases.

We believe that market mechanisms, such as the ones I have discussed, will make it possible to achieve meaningful emissions reductions in a cost-effective manner.

But even with such mechanisms, there are limits as to what we can or should agree to in Kyoto. It is one thing to say that each of our countries will reduce emissions by 15% or 20% below 1990 levels over the next two decades, but we need to be honest about what is realistically achievable--and we need to be able to deliver what we promise. Otherwise, the entire international negotiating process on climate will degenerate into political posturing, and with no agreement in sight, emissions will continue to rise rapidly.

Over the past decade, the United Kingdom has made difficult and admirable decisions to reduce energy subsidies. In doing so, you set a fine example for other nations around the world that will need to make similar choices in the years to come. We commend Prime Minister Blair for his enthusiastic and public commitment to further emissions reductions.

By the year 2000, it is likely that the only developed countries to hold their emissions to 1990 levels will be the U.K., Germany, and the nations of the former Soviet Union and eastern Europe. Germany will reach its emissions target by shutting down the factories of the former German Democratic Republic; while Russia and its east European neighbors will reach their targets only because of massive, and extremely painful, economic restructuring.

Looking at the larger picture, we also need to recognize that action by the United States, Great Britain, and the other industrialized nations will not, by itself, put the world on the road to stable greenhouse gas concentrations. As I've said, climate change is a global issue, requiring a worldwide response. It's all one atmosphere, whether it's polluted by American power plants, Brazilian steel mills, or Korean traffic jams.

At present, developed country emissions account for approximately 60% of the global total. But developing country emissions are growing rapidly, and by 2020, will account for more than half of the world's emissions. China, which is already the world's second-largest emitter, will surpass the U.S. within 15 years. So it is imperative that any next step we take include action from both developed and developing countries.

I should add that the United States Congress shares our sense of the importance of developing country participation. Indeed, the Senate, by a vote of 95-0, recently indicated that it will approve a climate change agreement only if it contains specific provisions to address this issue. Many of my former colleagues in the Senate see this as a competitiveness problem. A large and growing percentage of U.S. exports go to developing countries; we compete worldwide with China, the world's largest exporter of consumer goods. So many Americans are worried that a Kyoto agreement could result in their jobs being shipped overseas.

We regard the participation of developing countries as an essential part of a comprehensive Kyoto agreement, along with the legally binding commitments for developed countries and the creation of cost-effective implementation mechanisms. There are more than 100 developing nations, and they vary greatly in size and level of economic development. But each of those nations can and should take actions commensurate with its capabilities and responsibilities.

The U.S. proposal for developing country participation has three elements:

First, we call on all nations, developed and developing, to advance the implementation of their existing commitments to undertake climate-friendly policies and measures;

Second, we ask that advanced developing countries, particularly those which have graduated to OECD status, voluntarily undertake quantified emission limitations; and

Third, we call for a new series of negotiations to develop quantified obligations for all countries and to establish a "trigger" for the automatic application of these obligations, based upon agreed criteria.

* To begin with, there is the issue of advancing the implementation of existing commitments under the Climate Convention. We believe that all nations should increase their energy efficiency, eliminate subsidies, and emphasize market-oriented pricing; increase the use of renewable energies; facilitate investment in climate-friendly technologies; and promote the development and sustainable management of forests and other carbon "sinks" and "reservoirs." These are all measures that are justified economically in their own right and can also help in solving other environmental problems.

* Next, how should we categorize developing countries? They are not all the same. Some, because of their large economies, are responsible for a significant share of global emissions. Others have higher capita incomes, thus making them more capable of taking on greater responsibilities. Distinctions among developing countries are justified, and we believe this merits the creation of a special class of nations that would be asked to take on voluntarily emissions targets. These nations would then be permitted to trade their emissions rights.

* Third, we need to address the urgent need for a regime in which all nations, particularly the bigger and richer ones, become full partners in responding to the threat of climate change. This means Kyoto becomes a first step in a process that must be sustained over many more years. Our work will not finish in Kyoto, but it is important that it begin with a serious and committed first step.

I've gone into quite a bit of detail about the rationale for our proposal for Kyoto, because the United States and the European Union will need to agree on a common position, preferably sooner rather than later, so that we can work together during the upcoming negotiations. The alliance, which has served our common interests so well during World War I, World War II, and the Cold War, will be essential here as well. That's why I'm here, today, to talk with you and to engage in consultations with your government.

This is an ambitious, exciting, consuming agenda, not costless, not barrier-free, but doable. In fact, the question is no longer what to do, the question is how to facilitate what so clearly needs to be done. Success will send benefits rippling across both our nations, both our economies, and, most important, the lives of present and future generations. I believe that our legacy depends in large measure on our ability to understand and react to these new challenges. The future habitability and stability of the world is in the balance. In this way, protecting the globe is a metaphor for the degree to which we recognize the interdependent nature of the new world order unfolding before us.

In 1948, when the notion of space exploration was still science fiction, the Astronomer Fred Hoyle said:

Once a photograph of the Earth, taken from the

outside, is available. . . new ideas as powerful as

any in history will be let loose.

Twenty years later, when space travel became a reality, the travelers themselves provided powerful testimony to Hoyle's sense of the unity of the world. Let me read to you from our own astronaut, James Irwin:

That beautiful, warm, living object looked so

fragile, so delicate that if you touched it with a

finger it would crumble and fall apart.

And now from a Russian cosmonaut:

After an orange cloud--formed as a result of a


dust storm over the Sahara--reached the

Philippines and settled there with rain, I

understood that we are all sailing in the same


In this last decade of the millennium, we have the power and enormous responsibility to captain that boat carefully. We also have the ability to shape change for the benefit of the entire world. The interests and intellectual capacity reflected in this room today bears a special burden in this regard. Working together, your talents, your energy, and your power is more than the match for the challenges and the institutions involved. I know that each of you will engage in this effort and that we can harness that energy and wisdom in service of these objectives. Our future certainly depends on it.

COPYRIGHT 1997 U.S. Government Printing Office
COPYRIGHT 2004 Gale Group