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Global Climate Change Policy

Climate protester
smoke stacks emitting greenhouse gases

“Climate change does not respect border; it does not respect who you are—rich and poor, small and big. Therefore, this is what we call global challenges, which require global solidarity.”

—UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, December 6, 2011


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 via man-made emissions is causing more heat to be trapped, raising average global temperatures—a phenomenon known as global warming—which leads to changes in the planet’s climate.

Although some people claim that the observed 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 emissions from any country affect the overall level of warming. Reducing greenhouse gas emissions worldwide will not be easy. Modern economies depend on fossil fuels. Output from alternative sources such as solar and wind energy 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.

Decision Point

NSC Meeting

A major international climate summit is approaching. At the UN climate summit in Paris in 2015, world leaders pledged to reduce or limit their countries’ emissions and to monitor progress toward these goals. However, on June 1, 2017, President Donald J. Trump announced his intention to withdraw the United States from the Paris Agreement, arguing that it imposed “draconian financial and economic burdens” on the country. Trump argued that the accord “disadvantages the United States to the exclusive benefit of other countries.” He indicated, however, that he would be willing to remain in the deal if it could be renegotiated on terms more favorable to the United States.

Most heads of governments, including the president of the United States, are attending the upcoming summit, and all eyes are on Washington to see what the new U.S. negotiating strategy will be. The president has called a meeting of the National Security Council (NSC) to decide on a strategic goal for the summit. In their deliberations, NSC members will need to bear in mind the potential impact of climate change, the potential effects of proposed measures to mitigate it, and the need to secure international support for the U.S. approach from both developed and developing countries.

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