Key Policy Issues In Climate Change Debate Outlined By RFF Briefing Papers

March 26, 1997

WASHINGTON, DC -- Resources for the Future (RFF) today releases the first in a series of briefing papers on key issues in the debate over global climate change. As decisionmakers prepare for domestic policy debates and the ongoing international negotiations under the Framework Convention on Climate Change, RFF's briefs provide topical, timely, and non-technical information and analysis. They are intended to integrate the various aspects of climate change with critical reviews of existing literature and original research at RFF on climate policy, energy markets, water and forest resource management, technological change, air pollution, and sustainable development.

The first paper in the series, "Climate Change Risks and Policies: An Overview," discusses a "decision framework" -- a way of organizing and evaluating information. Authored by Michael Toman, director of RFF's Climate Economics and Policy Program, the paper also outlines key policy lessons and touches on the "U.S. Draft Protocol Framework." Issued by the Clinton Administration in January 1997, the draft protocol embraces a number of policy ideas that, if implemented, could significantly enhance the cost-effectiveness with which any emissions reduction targets are achieved.

"There is an enormous amount of controversy surrounding global climate change," says Toman. "There are differing opinions, domestically and internationally, about the seriousness of risks posed by climate change, about the costs of responding to these risks, and who should be responsible for bearing the costs to curb those risks. Advocates warn that climate change is one of the greatest threats facing humankind and urge immediate and strong responses to reduce greenhouse gases. Skeptics contend that there is inadequate scientific documentation of the risks of climate change, and that little action should be taken today other than more research and continued development of technological options."

Global climate change can be caused by an increase in the atmospheric concentration of greenhouse gases which transmit or reflect different types of radiation from the sun. They include carbon dioxide, water vapor, methane, and chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs). The increased concentrations of greenhouse gases result in part from human activity -- deforestation; the burning of fossil fuels such as gasoline, oil, coal and natural gas; and the release of CFCs from refrigerators, air conditioners, etc.

Disagreements over the scientific evidence relating to climate change and its consequences, together with differing national interests, surface frequently in the ongoing efforts of the international community to negotiate goals and actions under the Framework Convention on Climate Change. The Convention is an agreement among more than 150 countries to develop programs to slow climate change, and to consider climate change in the management of agriculture, energy, water and other natural resources.

"These issues briefs do not seek to resolve the controversies," says Toman. "Rather, they outline ways for policymakers to think about climate change and its key issues. They also explain the crucial role economics can play in addressing them."

"Global climate change is also a social and economic issue, not just a scientific one," says Toman. "If we take measures to substantially reduce our greenhouse gas emissions or to adapt to climate change impacts, we will have to pay for these efforts by diverting resources away from other activities. If adverse climate change impacts are felt, then we will have to suffer the consequences. The economics of global climate change and climate policies are primarily about how to balance these risks and costs, and how to design credible, cost-effective policies."

Forthcoming briefs will examine issues related to domestic emissions trading programs; revenue-raising and non-revenue-raising policy instruments; the scheduling of emissions reductions over time; the potential for technical innovation to substantially lower the cost of limiting greenhouse gases; and different modeling approaches for assessing the economic costs of limiting emissions of greenhouse gases.

All briefs will be posted to RFF's internet site ( To order hard-copies, call RFF's public affairs office at (202) 328-5000.

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Resources for the Future (RFF)

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