2.1 The Issue
Developed or industrialized countries, including the United States, have been releasing greenhouse gases such as carbon dioxide into the atmosphere for more than a century by burning fossil fuels for power, heat, transport, and industrial activity. In recent decades, rapid economic growth in major developing countries such as Brazil, China, and India has led to significant increases in their greenhouse gas emissions as well. Greenhouse gases trap the sun’s heat close to the earth, causing the planet to warm. Some of these gases occur naturally, which is why the earth is warm enough to sustain life as we know it. But increasing the concentration of these gases in the atmosphere causes more heat to be trapped, raising average global temperatures and changing the planet’s climate—a phenomenon known as global warming or climate change.
Although some people claim that the rise in the earth’s average temperature is primarily a natural phenomenon, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, the U.S. National Academy of Sciences, and other organizations have concluded that much of the warming observed in recent decades is a consequence of human activity.
Climate change poses risks not only to the environment but also to the security and livelihood of people in the United States and around the world. These effects include rising sea levels, more extreme weather patterns, and significant damage to the earth’s ecosystems. If current trends continue, growing plentiful and affordable food for a rising global population could become more difficult; low-lying areas, including many of the world’s major cities, could be forced to build expensive flood defenses; and more extreme weather could threaten the safety of millions of people.
Rising greenhouse gas emissions could be addressed through policy at both domestic and international levels. But reducing greenhouse gas emissions worldwide will not be easy. Modern economies depend on fossil fuels. Output from alternative sources such as solar energy and wind is growing but not enough to fully replace fossil fuels yet, and currently available measures to increase energy efficiency are costly and time-consuming. Climate change, moreover, is a difficult issue for policymakers. The questions of whether, how, and how fast emissions should be cut; who should bear the costs of doing so; and how those harmed by both climate change and climate change mitigation should be compensated have few simple answers.