The reality of global warming

January 16, 2000|By Tom Teepen

APPARENTLY global warming, as a phenomenon, is roughly on a par with the Tooth Fairy. How else to explain the number of conservative politicians and commentators who rush to say they don't "believe" in global warming with every new report verifying it?

So expect the usual naysayers to form up and declare their eager apostasy to the finding by a panel of the National Academy of Sciences that global warming is very much with us and shows signs of having accelerated in the past couple of decades.

Indeed, one vivacious scientific dissenter, a chemist, immediately kissed the report off as evidence only that the academy has been captured by, his word, "enviros." We are to understand that enviros, who -- or whatever they may be, are bad.

Counting the experts

Please know, and I can't emphasize this too much, that I have no idea what I'm talking about here. I don't know beans about the science of it.

But I can count heads and I can read pedigrees and it has been clear for some years that the overwhelming burden of the best-informed scientific judgment holds that the Earth is growing warmer at record rates.

If you are handicapping biospheric health and -- not to be alarmist, mind you -- perhaps THE VERY BREATH OF LIFE!, it would seem prudent to go with the odds.

For another view, consult the right-wing radio talk-show guru of your choice or one of the dwindling number of contrarian scientists who, as chance would have it, are not infrequently in the employ of mining, oil or power companies. Or consult just about any Republican.

The academy pretty well debunks one of their favored arguments, to the effect that because upper-atmosphere temperatures are not rising nearly as much as surface temperatures, what we take as global warming is only a spell of bad weather.

The discrepancy, the panel concludes, "in no way invalidates the conclusion that the Earth's temperature has been rising." The warming trend over the last two decades "is undoubtedly real and is substantially greater than the average rate of warming during the 20th century."

Greenhouse gases

The panel did not make predictions about the durability of warming or its future rate, and it didn't speculate on consequences.

Neither did it address the suspicion, widely held among scientists, that the trend is at least partly and maybe very substantially the result of pollution by carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases that trap heat.

There are perfectly legitimate arguments over those and more points among scientists who concur on the basic premise, and by extension it is perfectly valid, too, to argue a spectrum of social responses, from watch-and-wait to kill the automobile.

What is not sensible is to continue stubbornly denying the obvious for ideological reasons and imprudently, considering the potential disruptions, to disallow even measured precautions out of partisanship or in greater fealty to sponsoring benefactors than to humanity's simple self-interest.

Tom Teepen, a national correspondent for Cox Newspapers, is based in Atlanta. His e-mail address:

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