The Hot Zone

Global warming isn't just a theory anymore. Now the arguments are about how dire the changes in world climate will be, how soon they'll come--and what, if anything, can be done to moderate them.

What the coming climate has in store by way of climate flips is unclear. But there are scenarios pointing just about any possible direction--one, by UM associate professor Robert Johnson, suggests that global warming could actually send the glaciers that once covered Minnesota creeping back from the Arctic. "Climate is an angry beast," Wallace Broecker of Columbia University's Lamond-Doherty Earth Observatory has said, "and we are poking it with sticks."

One thing researchers know for sure is that carbon dioxide is a remarkably long-lived gas. Almost all the CO2 humans have been sending into the atmosphere for the past century is still up there (minus, that is, the 50 percent or so plants have obligingly extracted), and will affect climate for another century or more. Children born now may see the rate of climate change slow down, if they live long lives and if most fossil-fuel burning stops immediately.

Which, of course, will not happen. But coal and oil consumption could come down--drastically if desired, slowly otherwise. This is something the IPCC considered. One of the most interesting graphics in its 1995 report shows just how much warming is likely, both for this generation and the next few, under various "emissions scenarios."

Under the most benevolent of those scenarios, humans would put the brakes on fossil-fuel burning to the point where CO2 emissions would increase just a little for the next 25 years, and then begin declining. By about 2100 they'd be back to where they were in 1960 and keep going down. This is what the science panel called the "safe trajectory"--not because it would avoid global warming, but because average temperatures would rise a mere 2.5 degrees over the next 100 years. The commission figured that was the upper range to which humans and ecosystems could more or less adjust.

For a moment, it looked as if the world's politicians were listening. In a 1992 convention signed by, among others, George Bush, the governments of 157 nations promised to "achieve... stabilization of greenhouse gas concentrations in the atmosphere at a level that would prevent dangerous anthropogenic interference in the climate system." As a first step, by 2000 they would all rein in their carbon emissions to 1990 rates. And by 1997, they would get together to determine "legally binding" targets for the next century. A meeting to do just that is set for December in Kyoto, Japan.

Judging from the performance of the first five years, the signatories aren't doing too well. Worldwide, carbon emissions are up some 6 percent over the 1990 level, and rising; the U.S. is in the lead, set to overshoot the target by as much as 11 percent. (It's also the world's biggest carbon user, period: The average American is responsible for some five tons of CO2 each year, compared to 2.5 for the average Japanese and a mere 0.25 tons for the average East Indian.) Bill Clinton came into office promising to get serious about emissions reduction; yet when international negotiations turn to how much and how fast, the American delegation has a reputation for blocking any firm targets. It's thus earned itself the designation of "chief of the carbon club."

It's not until you start reading the international press that you realize just how far out of step that position is. Not that the U.S. is alone in wanting to keep burning fossil fuels; everyone does, with varying degrees of hypocrisy. But no other industrialized nation seems to cling to the notion that climate change is just a theory. Which, in turn, reveals the depth of the public-relations war that has shaped debate here.

One recent effort was particularly instructive: In 1994, a group called the Information Council on the Environment (ICE) launched a campaign aimed explicitly at "repositioning global warming as theory rather than fact." It included, according to internal memos, locating and funding scientists who would question global warming; getting them interviewed by the press; and producing ads that asked things like "If the earth is getting warmer, why is Minneapolis getting colder?" Those spots, a campaign memo noted, should be aired on shows appealing to "older and less educated men" and "young, low-income women" in districts that got their electricity from coal plants and, if possible, had a representative on one of Congress's energy committees.

ICE was sponsored by coal-industry trade groups, who called off the whole endeavor after its existence became known. But kindred efforts have continued, chiefly by way of funding and publicizing a small but vocal group of researchers known as the "climate skeptics." The best-known are Patrick Michaels of the University of Virginia, Richard Lindzen of MIT, and "rebirth of the biosphere" theorist Idso.

Contrary to what some greenhouse activists like to claim, these are not uncredentialed kooks. Their research, when it appears in scientific journals, is subjected to the same scrutiny as anyone else's, and in many cases it opens interesting questions about the climate puzzle. What it does not do is balance the weight of evidence on the other side--unless, that is, the voices of the skeptics are amplified beyond what their number would warrant.

Other key bits of information, by contrast, haven't been nearly as well publicized. A number of economists calculate that industrialized countries could cut their CO2 emissions by up to 30 percent at no net cost. Even further reductions are feasible with technology allowing cars and power plants to run on "fuel cells" in which natural gas is converted to energy without being burned. As the IPCC noted, each factory, power plant, and office building will be replaced at least once within the next century anyway, "offering opportunities to change the energy system without premature retirement of capital stock."

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