Thursday, February 26, 2009

Dire climate fears for US

CLIMATE scientists have produced a blunt assessment of the impact of global warming on the US, warning of droughts that could reduce the south-west to a wasteland and heatwaves that could make life impossible even in northern cities.

In an update on the latest science on climate change, US Congress was told melting snows could lead to severe drought from California to Oklahoma. In the mid-west, diminishing rains and shrinking rivers were lowering water levels in the Great Lakes to the extent where shipping could be affected.

"With severe drought from California to Oklahoma, a broad swath of the south-west is basically robbed of having a sustainable lifestyle," said Christopher Field, of the Carnegie Institution for Science.He also warned of scorching temperatures in a range of cities.

"We are close to a threshold in a very large number of American cities where uncomfortable heatwaves make cities uninhabitable," Professor Field told the Senate's environment and public works committee on Wednesday.

The warnings were the first time Congress had been directly confronted with the growing evidence that the impact of climate change will be far more severe than revealed even in the United Nations' most recent report, in 2007.

The hearing was also the first time senators had been permitted to hear testimony about the dangers to human health from climate change. In 2007, the Bush administration censored testimony from the Centres for Disease Control and Prevention on the rise in asthma and other respiratory illnesses, as well as the increasing occurrence of "tropical" parasites.

This week's gathering of climate scientists, led by the head of the UN's Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, Rajendra Pachauri, was designed to give momentum to efforts by the Democratic leadership to press ahead on energy reform.

"If we don't do it, people are going to die. They are going to get sick and they are going to die," said Senator Barbara Boxer, who as chairwoman of the Senate environment and public works committee is key to securing the passage of climate change legislation.

But even with the new Administration and the Democratic leadership in Congress united on the urgency of acting on climate change, there were still signs of battles ahead.

The hearing produced a stream of bickering between Senator Boxer and her Republican counterpart, James Inhofe, renowned as a climate change sceptic. Republicans argued that President Barack Obama's proposed carbon cap legislation would be costly.

"I will certainly oppose raising energy costs on suffering families and workers during an economic crisis when the science says our actions (to combat climate change) will be futile," said Senator Kit Bond.

The White House was expected overnight to unveil a budget that assumes there will be revenue from an emissions trading system by 2012. A source familiar with the document said it would direct $US15 billion ($A23 billion) of that revenue to clean energy, $US60 billion to aid the working poor and further money to help offset higher energy costs for families and small businesses.

Mr Obama's budget director, Peter Orszag, has previously estimated revenue from a cap-and-trade bill that died on the Senate floor last year would have generated $US112 billion by 2012. By 2020, he estimated, $50 billion to $300 billion a year might be generated.

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