The “Greenhouse Effect” is produced by the sun’s energy being trapped in the Earth’s atmosphere by gases known as “greenhouse gases,” which include carbon dioxide. This natural process heats up the atmosphere as if it were the air in a greenhouse keeping plants warm during the winter. The greenhouse effect is good, because it allows humans to live in the warm climate on Earth; otherwise, Earth would be too cold for humans to live.

However, when the process gets out of balance and the Earth’s atmosphere warms too much or too quickly (called global warming), environmental changes can occur that are difficult for natural systems to recover from. Global warming is dangerous by itself, but it is also part of something called global climate change. Because of global climate change, animal and plant habitats (the surroundings in which they can survive) are changing, and some species (animals or plants of exactly the same type) may become extinct, or die out completely. Habitats may change because of changes in rainfall amount that affect water supply and food production, longer or shorter breeding seasons because of the higher global temperature, or increases in “extreme weather events” (floods, droughts, blizzards and tornadoes).

Other effects of global warming and climate change include sea levels rising because ice sheets from the North and South poles are melting, and an increase in mosquito-carried tropical diseases, which will affect greater numbers of people as their habitat spreads northward with the increase of warmth. Sea level rise threatens humans because of the large groups of people living at sea level. Tropical diseases threaten humans when the diseases are carried to places they have not been before; then they can infect people who are not used to them.

Many scientists from all over the world have been researching the effects of global warming and climate change for a long time. These scientists have written about their research in three large reports (in 1990, 1995 and 2001) for the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. In the 1995 report, they found that increases in greenhouse gases since about 1750 have caused global warming and other climate changes, and that the increases in greenhouse gases are mostly because of human activities.

In 1997 close to 10,000 scientists, politicians, economists and environmentalists from all over the world participated in the third meeting of the United Nations Climate Change Treaty in Kyoto, Japan. The rough draft of the treaty had been written in 1992, and the third meeting had been decided on for a decision on exactly how to deal with climate change. The Kyoto Protocol was the result, and set out specific amounts by which every country needed to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions in order to slow down the effects of climate change.

The Kyoto Protocol could only go into effect when at least 55 countries, responsible for 55 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions, signed it and agreed to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions by a specific amount. One hundred and twenty eight countries signed the Kyoto Protocol. It went into effect after Russia, a country responsible for a large amount of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, signed it. The United States did not sign the Kyoto Protocol because the US government felt that it would be too hard and too expensive to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. The Kyoto Protocol took effect on February 16, 2005.

Now all the countries that signed the Kyoto Protocol can participate in a process called “emissions trading.” Each country in the Protocol has slightly different levels of allowable carbon dioxide. Countries who can’t meet their emission level targets can buy emission “credits” from countries that are below their emission level targets. Since the US didn’t sign the Kyoto Protocol, it can’t participate.

Some US companies are lowering their carbon dioxide emissions on their own, largely because they have manufacturing plants in countries that are part of the Protocol. Dupont is one company that has cut greenhouse gas emissions by fifty percent. Some of the money the company has spent has been gained back by selling its emission rights to polluting companies in countries that are part of the Kyoto Protocol.

Although the United States would not sign the Kyoto Protocol, two US senators, John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Joe Lieberman (D-Conn.), sponsored the Climate Stewardship Act of 2003. This senate bill calls for a reduction in emissions of heat-trapping gases to 2000 levels by the year 2010 in electricity, transportation, industrial and commercial economic industries, using a market-based system of tradable allowances. The Climate Stewardship Act would cost $20 per year per household.

Although many people in the US government think that the Kyoto Protocol is not a good agreement, it is a place to start. We need to begin limiting our carbon dioxide emissions in order to stop the effects of global warming and climate change. Actions such as those taken by the Dupont Company and the Climate Stewardship Act are necessary, especially if the US government is not willing to participate in the Kyoto Protocol.