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Schneider says carbon tax would help U.S. economy in the long run
STANFORD -- Climatologist Stephen Schneider fires off ideas as rapidly as clouds driven by El Nino rush across the coast.
In a recent interview, Schneider, a visiting professor at Stanford, described his research on global warming trends; the impact of a hotter planet on wildlife and ecosystems; and his opinions on international efforts to curb global warming at the United Nations "Earth Summit" in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, in June.
Schneider said the worst-case scenario for the summit would not be "that nothing will happen, but that only a little will happen and everybody will go home content." Unfortunately, he said, "That is the highest probability case."
Schneider is on sabbatical from the National Center for Atmospheric Research in Boulder, Colo., where he heads the Interdisciplinary Climate Systems Section. At Stanford, he is helping launch the School of Earth Sciences' multi-disciplinary Earth Systems program and continuing a collaboration of many years with Stanford biologists Paul Ehrlich and Harold Mooney on climate-change and ecological-change issues.
Next year, Schneider likely will begin a permanent joint professorship in the Department of Biological Sciences and the Institute for International Studies.
As an expert on global change, he spent two days last month in Washington, D.C., meeting with U.S. negotiators for the Earth Summit, officially called the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development.
The meeting included the summit's secretary-general, Maurice Strong of Canada; environmental scientists; business leaders; and Sens. Tim Wirth, D-Colo., and Albert Gore, D-Tenn., members of a Senate observer group slated to attend the summit.
Representatives from more than 170 countries will gather in Rio with goals including ratification of an accord to stabilize climate change. At the Washgton meeting, Schneider argued that good environmentalism is good business, "at least to the tune of cutting 25 percent of current CO2 emissions."
Cutting carbon dioxide emissions would hurt some industries, such as coal. However, such alternatives as natural gas and fuel-efficient technologies would save money for the U.S. economy as a whole, he said.
Limitation of carbon dioxide emissions lies at the heart of a meaningful global change accord, Schneider said. When fossil fuels burn, they emit carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases, trapping heat in the atmosphere. Driven by an ever-growing world population "hooked on the drug of fossil fuels," atmospheric carbon dioxide has risen more than 25 percent since the Industrial Revolution, he said.
The best-case scenario at the Earth Summit would be a position other countries have taken but the United States is so far resisting: a commitment to reduce carbon dioxide emissions. Schneider favors U.S. acceptance of some form of a carbon tax, to ensure that the environmental costs of carbon-based fuels are part of the price consumers pay.
As long as the price of fuel only includes the costs of extracting, storing and transporting it - plus a profit - it is being artificially subsidized. This is "an absolute distortion of any true free market," said Schneider.
The real cost of carbon-based fuels includes economic effects of global warming: the potential havoc wreaked by raising sea levels, and the destruction of fisheries, wilderness, agriculture and water supplies, he said.
A carbon tax would be highest for the most polluting fuels, thus encouraging the use of efficient technologies and cleaner energy sources, such as natural gas or solar power. However, those that stand to lose from a carbon tax - such as the coal and auto industries - are organized to resist it.
"Coal has got a senior senator from West Virginia who will block anything," Schneider said of Sen. Robert Byrd, and this makes it "very difficult to do what is rational on a national level."
Global warming scenarios
Many scientists project that increasing amounts of greenhouse gases will cause global temperatures to rise from one to five degrees Celsius (three to nine degrees Fahrenheit) in the next century. Schneider's research focuses on what this warming may mean to ecosystems and wildlife, from butterflies to Arctic auks.
He is discussing a collaboration with Stanford biologist Ward Watt, whose research suggests that extreme weather can change the genetics of butterfly populations.
Schneider is also working with avian ecologist Terry Root at the University of Michigan, studying how the Northern ranges of birds would change as the climate warms. Although birds may be able to move and follow the climate, he said, different species will move at different rates, ripping apart whole communities of species - birds, insects and trees - that normally associate together.
"What I see happening in the next 100 years is a very rapid tearing apart of communities at unprecedentedly fast rates," he said. Ecosystems that evolved over thousands of years are being disturbed at 50 times the natural rate of climate change, he said.
In one study, Schneider and colleagues projected what would happen if each square meter of the Arctic warmed by an amount equivalent to the heat of a child's night light - the amount expected within several decades if current trends continue.
They found that the ice would disappear at its margins earlier and earlier each spring. White ice bounces 80 to 90 percent of sunlight's warmth off its surface; as it is replaced with brown land or blue water, which reflect only 10 to 20 percent of the heat, the warming would accelerate.
An earlier spring would change when shore birds can arrive and feed, and disrupt their reproductive cycles. It would usher in predators, possibly disturbing predator-prey balances. As the climate warmed, many plants and animals that are limited by how much heat they can take would be put out of existence.
"Arctic species living at the margin of the North Slope will essentially get pushed into the sea. Those living on mountain tops will probably become extinct," he said. "There could well be ecological chaos, but exactly what that means is beyond our description."
Hanging around to be sure
Schneider does not expect the issue of global warming to be resolved soon. It will be one or two decades before the warming trend is established beyond doubt as due to human activity, he said, and "politics works on short-term, emotionally tangible events," not long-term underlying trends.
"Unfortunately, you don't have the luxury of hanging around until you're sure," he added. If the problem turns out to be as bad, or worse than projected, immense damage already will have been done.
Ultimately, the global change question is, "What can we do?" said Schneider. "What are alternative ways that we can develop the earth, reduce poverty and give people some chance to meet their aspirations without creating an environmental disaster?"
Looking for organizational solutions, Schneider is helping plan a National Institute of the Environment. He envisions it bringing people together from all relevant disciplines to solve such problems as global climate change.
In order to approach global change, Schneider said, "one has to start out not only with physics and chemistry and biology, but also with social science, economics and demography."
The real problems, he said, pose a fundamental question, "Can we manage ourselves into the next millennium if our organizations are not at the same scale as the problem?"
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