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Tuesday, January 19, 2010

CRS Issue Statement on Climate Change: International Dimensions

Jane A. Leggett, Coordinator
Specialist in Energy and Environmental Policy

The debate in Congress about whether and how to address climate change inevitably concerns appropriate actions of the United States in a global context. The United States has contributed more to the historical accumulation of greenhouse gases (GHG) in the atmosphere than any other country, and is the second greatest emitter of greenhouse gases globally, having been surpassed in 2007 by China. The greatest growth in GHG emissions is expected from countries, such as China, India and Brazil, that historically have contributed less, currently emit much less per person, and in many cases lack the requisite economic or institutional capabilities to address the problem. Concerted global action will be needed to stabilize GHG concentrations, since emissions come from all countries. 

A variety of international efforts support cooperative action to address climate change. Global observations of the climate, and research on sources and consequences of climate change, have proceeded for decades. Work has advanced to develop and disseminate technologies and capacities to reduce GHG and to adapt to expected changes. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has provided an international forum for experts to assess all peerreviewed information and to provide a scientific basis for political decision-making on mitigation and adaptation. The United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC, 1992) has been the international framework for legally binding cooperation to address greenhouse gas emissions, including those from deforestation and forest degradation. It also commits Parties to promote and help finance adaptation to potential adverse impacts of climate change. 

Projected GHG emissions, and related climate change, are expected to have greatest impacts in regions and on people that already experience challenging climates—such as in Africa, indigenous peoples of the far north and the Amazon, and people dependent on snow-fed water supply and who are in drought-prone areas. In the longer-run, rising sea levels are projected to become existential threats, for example to Bangladesh and other low-lying and small island states. Potential impacts hold implications for demand for future foreign aid, migratory pressures, and, if other options fail, international conflict. On the other hand, adaptation actions could be taken internationally that enhance development and security. 

International challenges include how to promote economic development while diminishing climate change risks, and how to act without unduly shifting trade competitiveness or emissions to other locations ("leakage"). All these issues are debated internationally under the UNFCCC, in bilateral relationships, and in the U.S. Congress. While many in Congress seek to exert U.S. leadership and to demonstrate willingness to address climate change, many are concerned with potential costs of further obligations of a treaty or other form of agreement, such as those pursued in the "Copenhagen" negotiations. A particular concern regards parity of actions and trade competitiveness effects among countries, with related debate over the consistency of possible remedial measures, such as free allowances and tariffs, with international trade obligations. Additional issues include the compatibility of any international agreement with U.S. domestic policies and laws; the adequacy of appropriations, fiscal measures, and programs to achieve any commitments under an agreement; and the desirable form of any agreement and related requirements, with a view toward potential Senate ratification of the agreement and federal legislation to assure that U.S. commitments are met.

Date of Report: January 8, 2010
Number of Pages: 3
Order Number: IS41020
Price: $19.95

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