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Meeting the Most Serious Environmental Issue

Solutions could include energy-efficient technologies, incentives for conservation, and reduced energy subsidies

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The trend documented by NCDRC continued steadily over the last century. Extensive climate modeling by the IPCC indicates it is likely to intensify. An exact scenario is not clear, but even low-end forecasts are serious.

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The water balance in drier areas of the United States could be dramatically affected, squeezing supplies for agriculture, fisheries, urban, commercial, and recreation uses.

Higher temperatures and lower rainfall have already contributed to recent droughts in the Southwest and intermountain regions that have rivaled the dust bowls of the 1930s and 1950s. Deserts could expand beyond current areas in the Southwest. Climatologists say a 5 percent decrease in precipitation in Texas, coupled with a 3.6-degree F. temperature increase, could result in 35 percent less water in the state's rivers, aquifers, and estuaries, potentially triggering major resource problems.

The Great Lakes could lose two to eight feet of water level, shrinking already very tight hydroelectric supplies and complicating water supply problems in cities like Chicago. Upper Midwest corn production could fall 15 to 30 percent, and soybean production 10 to 25 percent, unless costly adjustments are made by farmers.

Forests could gradually move north or die out. Under worst-case scenarios the "wood baskets" of the Northwest and Southeast could disappear at the same time in the middle of the 21st century, with major economic implications. Forest-dependent wildlife could become endangered as forests die out faster than new habitats evolve.

Diseases such as malaria, dengue fever, and encephalitis are forecast to migrate northward and intensify. Sea level has risen a foot in the last century in the Chesapeake Bay, about half from global warming, and this trend is expected to accelerate in the next century. Summer heat waves and drought conditions could intensify this problem as farmers pump more water from aquifers and the ground subsides.

Some climate changes could be favorable, at least in the short term. Fruit growers in Florida and south Texas could face fewer killing frosts. Some Northern states could gain longer growing seasons and new crops. Some diseases would decline from an overdose of temperature and flooding. Increased carbon dioxide uptake by plants could partially offset some greenhouse gas emissions. And higher water use by plants could counteract higher rainfall to a point.

But when projected negative and positive consequences of climate change are netted out, the result appears to be largely negative. Major adjustments in our quality of life and cost of living could be required.

To find an effective way

Given these potential scenarios, and a host of other problems becoming apparent worldwide, it is not surprising that the international community is trying to find an effective way to deal with the problem of climate change.

If we don't set long-term greenhouse emissions limits now, and instead wait to see just how our climate changes, it may be too late when we do act. Greenhouse gases remain in the atmosphere for decades - even centuries - before leaving the atmosphere, so we need to begin reductions soon to achieve a useful long-term effect. A new generation of energy-efficient technologies requires a long lead time for development and implementation.

As we enter full-scale international negotiations this year, I hope we will take a hard look at climate changes already occurring here, and the implications for our future if they continue and grow. If nations of the world fail to act in concert in the face of hard facts, consequences for humankind will be enormous. There are no benefits from delay.

* Sen. Joseph Lieberman (D) of Connecticut is a member of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee.