40-Nation Environmental Panel : Act Quickly on Global Warming, Baker Asks

Times Environmental Writer

Secretary of State James A. Baker III, emphasizing the Bush Administration’s concern about global environmental problems, said Monday that the nations of the world cannot wait for solid scientific confirmation of global warming before taking action.

In the first remarks on global environmental issues by a senior Bush Administration official since the inauguration, Baker said that the United States and the world must “focus immediately” on energy conservation, reforestation and reductions in harmful chemical emissions.

“We can probably not afford to wait until all the uncertainties have been resolved before we do act. Time will not make the problem go away,” Baker told delegates from more than 40 nations to the newly formed Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.

Baker’s remarks before the United Nations-sponsored group at the State Department was intended as a clear signal of the Bush Administration’s determination to address environmental issues and was seen as a reaffirmation of President Bush’s promises during last year’s campaign.


Indeed, Baker, quoting remarks made by Bush last year during the presidential campaign, said: “We face the prospect of being trapped on a boat that we have irreparably damaged, not by the cataclysm of war, but by the slow neglect of a vessel we believed to be impervious to our abuse.” Baker said Monday’s meeting, attended by representatives of more than 40 countries, “shows beyond a doubt that this is a transnational issue. We all are in the same boat.”

Environmentalists generally welcomed Baker’s statement. Rafe Pomerance of the World Resources Institute, a Washington-based public policy research group, called the secretary’s remarks “a positive shift in commitment” compared to the Reagan Administration record.

But Pomerance cautioned that actual policy decisions to carry out the Administration’s stated commitment remained to be seen. “The issue is whether there will be leadership that makes decisions,” Pomerance said in an interview.

Indeed, sources said that during a portion of the conference closed to the public, representatives of several U.S. government agencies offered conflicting approaches on dealing with the global warming problem.

Officials in the State Department and the Environmental Protection Agency, as well as foreign dignitaries, acknowledged Monday that minimizing or rolling back the global warming, known as the greenhouse effect, will succeed only in the face of overwhelming political, economic and social obstacles.

“There will be problems of gains and losses, winners and losers, and these will cause various problems in the political arena,” said IPCC chairman Bert Bolin of Sweden, an adviser to that country’s the prime minister.

In an interview, Linda Fisher, assistant administrator for policy, planning and evaluation at the EPA, said: “You are going to look at some pretty fundamental things about people’s societies, how they produce energy, how they produce food. Some of the bills in Congress have put on the table population control. Those are pretty fundamental public policy concerns in every single country. Everyone comes with a different cultural and economic basis. It will not be easy.”

Own Merits

Indeed, in his remarks, Baker made clear that while scientists attempt to better understand climate changes, initial steps to stave off global warming should be justified on their own merits.

It has been argued, for example, that energy efficiency would not only reduce emissions of carbon dioxide, the principal greenhouse gas, but reduce dependence on foreign oil and have a favorable impact on the balance of trade deficit. Moreover, energy efficiency would probably not adversely affect the domestic economy.

But Bolin said that improvements in energy efficiency, while critically important, will not in themselves be enough. Tougher issues lie ahead, among them difficult decisions on whether to switch from fossil fuels to less polluting energy sources.

A measure of that difficulty, Bolin said, can be found in energy statistics. Fossil fuels--coal, oil and petroleum--account for 80% to 85% of the world’s energy sources, he said. These same fuels are the principal source of carbon dioxide emissions.

Moreover, Bolin said the use of fossil fuel is not declining, but is projected to grow by another 15% by the year 2000 in the industrialized countries, and by a higher percentage in developing countries.

Yet, steps to minimize or even roll back global warming would mean not only a slowing of that growth but “substantial reductions.”

Although there is little disagreement that the Earth will gradually warm due to the greenhouse effect, there remains controversy in scientific circles as to when and where the warming will take place. Global climate models, which are used to estimate changes in the earth’s climate, are less precise in making predictions involving areas on a scale smaller than the entire globe. For that reason, scientists have been cautious in making predictions for specific regions of the world.

But scientists have warned that a doubling of carbon dioxide--now predicted as early as the year 2030--would result in major shifts in climate, rising sea levels and flooding, a change in agricultural growing regions and the loss of plant and animal species that would not be able to adapt.

Bolin said concentrations of carbon dioxide were about 280 parts per million 200 years ago, moving up to 350 ppm today. By the year 2000, he said concentrations would range between 400 and 450 ppm unless the world acts quickly.

William A. Nitze, the State Department’s deputy assistant secretary in charge of environment, told The Times that development of a coherent energy policy would be central to addressing greenhouse issues, a view shared by environmental groups.

“Now the question is going to be (over) putting together a set of measures that is salable politically and that will move us in the right direction.”