No one really knows why globe's warming

March 09, 2001|By Neal Lavon

WASHINGTON -- A recent U.N. report warned that temperatures would spike by up to 10 degrees in the next century, sparking altered ocean currents, increased spread of diseases and numerous natural catastrophes unless governments curb greenhouse gas emissions, the major culprit in the global warming theory.

But within hours of the release of the report by the U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), the Gallup Organization put out a poll taken last year that says Americans are not ready to overhaul their lives based on studies from the United Nations.

It's not that Americans don't care about the environment, Gallup says. In fact, our fellow citizens are quite concerned about polluted drinking water and the contamination of soil, rivers, lakes and reservoirs.

But for now, Americans have concluded that the United Nations has yet to prove its case for global warming, despite press coverage from an unquestioning and often supportive media.

The United Nations likes to say the science supporting its climate change theories is "settled." But despite the U.N.'s claims, the science behind global warming is far from "settled." Science is never "settled" because new information and data are always emerging that can either refute earlier conclusions or cause prior predictions to be scaled back.

Even Darwin's postulates about evolution are still considered "theories." Such is the case with the environment. In fact, debates over global warming are still raging in scientific journals.

For instance, in the Feb. 8 edition of Nature, Stanford University professor Mark Jacobson cautions that plain, old-fashioned soot -- the stuff that blackens your chimney -- could account for as much as 30 percent of global warming.

If his research is validated, soot, which traps heat in the atmosphere, could become the second-most important factor in global warming behind carbon dioxide, universally blamed by environmental scientists as the major greenhouse gas.

If Mr. Jacobson is correct, soot, in combination with other particles in the atmosphere, would counteract cooling agents that the IPCC says mask the true effects of global warming in the upper atmosphere.

These cooling agents, say the IPCC, are mainly volcanic dust and sulfates from fossil fuels that reflect heat. These agents, it argues, account for the discrepancies in temperatures recorded on the Earth's surface and those taken by weather satellites and balloons higher in the atmosphere.

Some scientists believe that the upper atmosphere readings show no global warming and are more reliable than those taken on the ground. The IPCC disagrees. In addition, the IPCC dismisses soot as a minor contributor to global warming and places it in the "very low" category of factors it scientifically "understands."

But if Mr. Jacobson is right, and soot does counteract the cooling effects of sulfates and volcanic dust, then the IPCC's temperature models -- which show the upper atmosphere should be warmer than it is -- are wrong. That would call into question much of the scientific underpinning for their global warming predictions.

In addition, a draft report slated for March publication by the IPCC and leaked to the British Broadcasting Corp. says that policymakers should prepare for "possible revision of the scientific insights into the risks of climate change."

Now does all this sound like "settled" science?

Policymakers in the United States and elsewhere should proceed cautiously rather than blindly follow the drastic U.N. recommendations to reduce energy production and reallocate funds from developed nations to developing ones based merely on the claims that the science is "settled" on global warming.

Neal Lavon covers politics and other issues for the Voice of America in Washington. The views he expresses are his own.

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