OREGON STATE UNIVERSITY

Scientists warn about impacts of climate change

07/24/1997

WASHINGTON, D.C. - An Oregon scientist and several other leading experts today will brief President Clinton and Vice President Gore on the verifiable reality of global climate change, the environmental, economic and social havoc it may cause, and the need for the United States to lead the world in addressing this problem.

"The evidence is overwhelming that the climate is warming and the vast majority of scientists are in agreement," said Jane Lubchenco, a distinguished professor of zoology at Oregon State University and chair of the board of directors of the American Association for the Advancement of Science.

"It's no longer possible to say we don't have a scientific basis for taking action," Lubchenco said. "Climate change is with us, the issue is urgent and it needs immediate attention. The sooner we take action, the more options we will have. Because carbon dioxide lingers in the atmosphere for 100-150 years, there is a long, long time between when we start fixing the problem and when we'll see results. We have a moral obligation to act now."

Lubchenco and three other scientists, who have been strong advocates for international actions to address global climate change on many fronts, will present today's briefing at the request of the president and vice president. She also co-authored a professional paper being published tomorrow as part of a special section in the journal Science, which outlines the range of impacts humans are having on the planet Earth.

Later this year, important decisions will be made by the U.S. and more than 165 other nations - through the Framework Convention on Climate Change - on what steps to take and policies to develop about climate change. One international goal already in place is to limit global greenhouse gas emissions to 1990 levels by the year 2000.

"These non-binding targets are not being met, and governments need to exhibit stronger leadership in setting binding emission reduction goals," Lubchenco said.

Topics at the White House briefing will include the potential of climate change to affect agriculture, forestry, plant and animal biodiversity; cause sea levels to rise; cause health and infectious disease problems; and increase the frequency of severe or unusual weather, such as hurricanes, droughts and floods.

Lubchenco and five other leading scientists recently drafted a letter urging the U.S. to have a clear plan for limiting greenhouse gas emissions in place prior to a December, 1997, meeting in Kyoto, Japan, and suggested that proposals currently being considered "do not come close to stabilizing concentrations of greenhouse gases."

Since the release of that letter less than a month ago, more than 2,500 prominent scientists - including 101 from Oregon and 33 members of the National Academy of Sciences - also signed it.

Lubchenco, who is the Wayne and Gladys Valley Professor of Marine Biology at OSU, is also helping to lead a group of concerned ecologists who warn that a major part of the problem is the speed of global warming.

"In ecology, we understand that the biological impact of environmental changes can vary a great deal, depending on how quickly they occur and whether or not plants and animals have time to adapt," Lubchenco said. "That's an important point too often lost in other debates, and one we want people to appreciate."

The public and political leaders should also appreciate, Lubchenco said, that the presence of a few isolated critics or scientific holdouts - and vocal objections from the coal or oil industry - do not change the scientific consensus which is emerging about climate change.

Lubchenco and her colleagues strongly endorse the findings of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, or IPCC. With input from about 1,500 of the leading scientists in the world, the IPCC has concluded that human-induced global climate change is, in fact, under way. The group says global temperatures have increased by 0.5 to 1.1 degrees Fahrenheit in the past century, and may rise up to 6.3 degrees more in the next century.

The rate of this change would be faster than any natural variations that have occurred in the past 10,000 years, scientists say, and due to other human influences might be coupled with pollution, habitat fragmentation, habitat loss and the disappearance of many plant and animal communities.

"During rapid climate change, disturbances like fires, floods, erosion, droughts, storms, pests and pathogen outbreaks may increase," Lubchenco and the other ecologists wrote in one letter to Clinton, "with adverse effects on . . . water supply, soil fertility and carbon sequestration."

Such changes, the scientists say, could also result in rapid sea level rise of up to three feet by the year 2100, massive beach erosion, species extinction, widespread tree mortality, wildfire and the replacement of forests by grassland. Diseases such as malaria and dengue fever might expand as the world becomes more tropical. Vegetation patterns could change radically. There may be other problems scientists have not yet even anticipated.

Due to these concerns, the ecologists recommended to Clinton that policies be implemented which would limit the rate of global warming to no more than 1.8 degrees Fahrenheit per century.

The move towards immediate action about global climate change, Lubchenco says, continues to pick up allies. A letter has been recently signed by 2,000 economists who suggest that "there are many potential policies to reduce greenhouse gas emissions for which the total benefits outweigh the total costs." Options they point to include market-based "carbon taxes" or the auction of emission permits.

But there will be no substitute for the U.S. becoming a leader in tackling this problem, Lubchenco said.

"The United States is the largest emitter of greenhouse gases," Lubchenco said. "We represent 4 percent of the world's population but contribute 22 percent of the carbon. We need to wean ourselves from fossil fuels, we need a greater investment in alternative energy sources, we need some of the market-based approaches that the economists are talking about. And the sooner we begin these changes the better."