The truth about global warming

July 11, 1996|By James P. Pinkerton

WHICH DO YOU prefer? Huge tax increases that cost the American economy 500,000 jobs a year, or the expansion of tropical diseases, such as malaria, dengue fever and river blindness, into the United States? These are just two of the stark scenarios put forward by industry on one side and environmentalists on the other side in the intensifying debate over the ''greenhouse effect.''

As Yogi Berra might say, global warming is heating up.

This week negotiators from the United States and 140 other countries began new talks in Geneva about reducing carbon dioxide emissions, which come mostly from burning fossil fuels. It's a virtual certainty that the Geneva talks will lead to an international agreement on CO2 reduction; the hard part will be implementation.

One indicator of the fierceness of the coming debate was a forum held at the Cato Institute, a libertarian think tank in Washington. The immediate topic was a report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, an international consortium of scientists, which found ''a discernible human influence on global climate.'' Beyond this careful prose, the larger question was whether science can be trusted to guide public policy.

The first speaker was William O'Keefe, chairman of the industry-backed Global Climate Coalition -- and executive vice president of the American Petroleum Institute. With refreshing candor, Mr. O'Keefe announced, ''I am a special interest.''

Having said that, he dismissed fears of global warming and accused environmentalists of ''politicizing climate science'' as a way of advancing their own special interests, adding that pTC scientists ''see a way for government labs to tap into the $2.3 billion that the federal government spends in the climate-change area.''

In the audience was Jessica Matthews, a fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations. Her question was a counter-attack: If Mr. O'Keefe really was asserting that IPCC staffers ''were prepared to sacrifice their scientific integrity'' to reach a political goal, he was ''basically saying the entire basic scientific research enterprise is broken, is corrupt.''

Ethical accounting

That's exactly what global-warming skeptics are saying. Yet others in the audience observed that if it were true that government funding under the Clinton-Gore administration drove research in a green direction, it must also be true that industry funding would drive climatology in the opposite direction. This .. led to some bizarre ethical cost accounting.

Patrick Michaels, a climatologist at the University of Virginia, said 84 percent of his income comes from his state-run school, and just 16 percent from industry. By that reckoning, he said, he should be part of the IPCC ''groupthink,'' rather than the global-warming iconoclast that he is. Whereupon someone countered that if Mr. Michaels' state-paid salary is fixed, his position on issue could be driven by the incremental research income he receives from industry.

The legendary ''Deep Throat'' told Bob Woodward during the Watergate investigation, ''Follow the money.'' Yet identifying financial interest is just one tool in identifying the truth.

Michael MacCracken, whose lengthy title -- director of the Coordination Office of the U.S. Global Change Research Program -- reveals him to be a government employee, notes that in 1896 the Swedish scientist Svante Arrhenius theorized that the increasing amounts of CO2 that he was measuring would increase the planetary temperature. Since then, the earth has warmed by a little less than two degrees Fahrenheit. Is CO2 the cause? That's the $64 zillion question. This much we do know: The world's atmosphere contains about 700 billion tons of carbon. Each year, humans add a net of 3.5 billion tons. Does a half-percent-a-year increase in CO2 matter a little, a lot, or not at all?

Science has become a political hammer against everything from pesticides to plastics to capitalism itself. Frequently, the truth has been fractured. Do researchers sometimes have a financial or political interest in crisis-mongering? Sure. But the solution is not ever more charges and counter-charges, but rather a renewed commitment to objective truth.

James P. Pinkerton is a columnist for Newsday.

Pub Date: 7/11/96

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