CHE 300

Environmental Science

Dr. J. A. Schneider
Dept. of Chemistry
SUNY Oswego
Oswego, NY 13126

Rm: 237 Snygg Hall
Tel: 315.312.2124
Environmental Investigations: Should the United States Ratify the Kyoto Agreement? by Jeffery A. Schneider, Ph.D.

Issues and Background

Why are greenhouse gas concentrations increasing? Scientists generally believe that the combustion of fossil fuels and other human activities are the primary reason for the increased concentration of carbon dioxide. Plant respiration and the decomposition of organic matter release more than 10 times the CO2 released by human activities; but these releases have always been in balance with the carbon dioxide absorbed by plant photosynthesis. What has changed in the last few hundred years is the additional release of carbon dioxide by human activities. Energy burned to run cars and trucks, heat homes and businesses, and power factories is responsible for about 80% of society's carbon dioxide emissions, about 25% of U.S. methane emissions, and about 20% of global nitrous oxide emissions. Increased agriculture, deforestation, landfills, industrial production, and mining also contribute a significant share of emissions. In 1994, the United States emitted about one-fifth of total global greenhouse gases.
U.S. Department of Transportation

I do not support the Kyoto Treaty. The Kyoto treaty would severely damage the United States economy, and I don't accept that. I accept the alternative we put out, that we can grow our economy and, at the same time, through technologies, improve our environment.
U.S. President George W. Bush, June 6, 2002

On December 11, 1997 the United States, under the leadership of then President Bill Clinton, became a signatory to the Kyoto Protocol to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change. Over time, the Kyoto agreement met with opposition from the governing bodies of the signatory countries. Four years after the initial countries signed the agreement, at the close of a meeting, in which 178 countries reached an historic compromise to save the Kyoto Protocol, the President of the United States rescinded support for the treaty saying that he will not ratify a "fatally flawed" treaty, thus setting the stage for one of the nation's largest debates in recent history.

Most scientists believe that the Earth's average temperature is increasing, this much is certain. What is less certain is whether or not humans have had a hand in its warming. More fossil fuel use means more carbon dioxide being pumped into the atmosphere. More carbon dioxide in the atmosphere leads to increased heat being trapped via the Greenhouse Effect. Imagine a bathtub (the atmosphere) filling with water (carbon dioxide) and simultaneously draining (carbon dioxide being absorbed by the ocean, plants, etc). If the rate of filling is equal to the rate of draining then the level of water (carbon dioxide) in the bathtub (atmosphere) remains constant. In a perfect world this is how the Earth's atmosphere is supposed to behave. The Greenhouse Effect, so called because of the manner in which the Earth's atmosphere acts like a greenhouse to trap heat, would be similar to opening the faucet more to let water enter the bathtub faster than it could drain out. In this case, the rate of filling is greater than the rate of draining and the level of water in the bathtub begins to rise. For the last 100 years, the human race has opened that faucet more and more, thus increasing atmospheric carbon dioxide levels. Other gases also trap heat in the atmosphere, for example, methane, chlorofluorocarbons and nitrous oxide and humans have been adding these gases to the atmosphere too.

Certainly, there are ways in which to stop adding greenhouse gases to the atmosphere. The most obvious and least practical way would be to stop using fossil fuels. Shifting our energy policy to encourage development of renewable energy sources would go a long way toward fixing the problem. It would definitely be a slow and probably painful process but it will be painful anyway when fossil fuels run out and when Iceland and Greenland become tropical paradises. But even if we supplied all of our energy needs with solar, wind, nuclear, hydroelectric or other alternative energies, we'd continue to put greenhouse gases such as methane into the atmosphere due to all of the livestock we raise for food.

In June 2002, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency issued a report stating that they believed human activities were responsible for global warming. The next day President George W. Bush discounted it saying the report was "put out by the bureaucracy." Clearly the President and his own EPA did not agree. Rather than admit that there is a global problem and that the U.S. is a major contributor to this problem and that the U.S. is ready to lead the world in fixing the problem, the President has essentially told the rest of the world "do as I say, not as I do." The President makes it sound as if "strong economy" and "healthy environment" are mutually exclusive goals when indeed they are not. The same day that the President reiterated his opposition to the Kyoto Protocol, the Prime Minister of Australia announced that it is "not in Australia's best interests to ratify the Kyoto Protocol" because "the arrangements currently exclude - and are likely under present settings to continue to exclude - both developing countries and the United States." Remove the keystone and the whole structure comes tumbling down.

Ask Yourself These Questions
  1. Questions
Different Perspectives in the Debate

  • U.S. Department of Transportation
    This is the official site of the U.S. Department of Transportation's Center for Climate Change and Environmental Forecasting. It is a very informative site with a large amount information.
  • The White House of the U.S. Government
    This is the official site of the President of the United States. There is a searchable database of press releases, etc.
  • Kyoto Protocol to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change
    If you're looking for the official Kyoto Protocol document, this is it.
  • The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change
    From the IPCC website: Recognizing the problem of potential global climate change, the World Meteorological Organization (WMO) and the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) established the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) in 1988. It is open to all members of the UNEP and WMO. The role of the IPCC is to assess the scientific, technical and socio-economic information relevant for the understanding of the risk of human-induced climate change. It does not carry out research nor does it monitor climate related data or other relevant parameters. It bases its assessment mainly on peer reviewed and published scientific/technical literature.
  • The Natural Environment Research Council
    Climate Change: Scientific Certainties and Uncertainties outlines facts and figures, global consequences and solutions to the climate change problem. This is a good starting point to learn the basics of climate change.
  • Global Warming
    The Environmental News Network has several sections of in-depth coverage of various topics including this one on global warming. Learn about methods of prevention, international impacts and then test your knowledge with the global warming I.Q. test.
  • President Bush's Statement on Climate Change
    On July 13, 2001, the President made a speech regarding his position on climate change. Here is the full text of that speech.
  • Canada and the Kyoto Climate Treaty
    This is the website of the David Suzuki Foundation. Dr. Suzuki was a professor of genetics at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver until his retirement last year. Dr. Suzuki is also an award-winning broadcaster who has produced and narrated many environmentally related television and radio series. In this article he argues for Canada staying in the Kyoto Protocol and outlines a strategy for continued economic growth.

All material (except for some code and external links) © Jeffery A. Schneider, 2003