What's really scary

May 28, 2004

CREATORS OF The Day After Tomorrow, the disaster flick opening today, recognized that global warming had great potential as a dramatic device, but pace was a problem.

The average temperature of the Earth's surface has increased by only six-tenths of a degree Centigrade over the past century. Talk about your slow plot! No wonder movie-makers had to fast-forward the catastrophic results to the point where New Yorkers are having trouble outrunning an ice age.

This fantasy approach shouldn't lend credence, however, to the notion that global warming is some kind of environmental scam. If anything, the climate disruptions now threatening the planet are even more frightening because they'll still be with us when the theater lights go up.

"The movie is fake, but the problem is real," said George M. Woodwell, director of the Woods Hole Research Center. "The glaciers are melting; the sea level is rising; more big, powerful storms are developing; forest fires are increasing; and the expense to society is enormous."

None of the indicators of global warming is under challenge. Nor is there much dispute about the cause: Carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases build up in the atmosphere and trap heat from the sun. Even the Bush administration's EPA acknowledges, "There is new and stronger evidence that most of the warming over the last 50 years is attributable to human activities."

The controversial part is what could or should be done about it.

Most of the greenhouse gases come from two sources: burning fossil fuels, such as oil, gas and coal, and the destruction of forests, which both releases carbon dioxide and robs the air of a cleansing filter.

In order to bring the atmosphere back into healthy balance, worldwide emissions of greenhouse gases would have to be cut immediately in half, Mr. Woodwell said. The burden would fall most heavily on the United States, which produces one-fifth of the world total of greenhouse gases.

Think of the implications: driving half as many miles, using half as much air conditioning, opening for business every other day. In this country and throughout the world, the rapid clearing of land to plant crops, build houses and raise cattle grinding almost to a halt.

Now, that's scary. So scary no politician would ever propose it. In fact, President Bush, who worries more about the fortunes of the energy industry, has chosen the opposite route: denial. His position is that climate change requires more study.

Environmental activists are hoping the movie will inject the issue into the presidential race this fall. In the meantime, the Hollywood hoopla should prod the Senate to approve long-pending legislation that would place new curbs on greenhouse gases.

Removing harmful emissions from tailpipes and smokestacks can actually save money on future cleanup costs - as well as the Earth as we know it.

Time for the Senate to be passing more than popcorn.

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