Warming to climate change: consensus reached, choices await

Book Review


The Weather Makers: How Man Is Changing The Climate And What It Means For Life On Earth

Tim Flannery

Grove/Atlantic / 320 pages / $24

Boiling Point: How Politicians, Big Oil And Coal, Journalists And Activists Are Fueling The Climate Crisis - And What We Can Do To Avert Disaster

Ross Gelbspan

Basic Books / 288 pages / $13.95 (paperback)

The debate is over. The scientific consensus is that global warming is real, and that human industry is to blame.

The question is now whether the public - long distracted by an industry disinformation campaign - can focus on practical solutions to a problem that is subtle, seemingly distant and likely to wreak its real damage decades in the future.

Three new books on climate change, The Weather Makers by Tim Flannery, Field Notes from a Catastrophe by Elizabeth Kolbert and Boiling Point by Ross Gelbspan, illuminate the wide gulf between small-bore attempts to address the issue and the much more drastic measures that might be needed to prevent widespread floods and droughts.

Arguments over how to tackle global warming are boiling in the Maryland General Assembly. Lawmakers are debating the Healthy Air Act, which would require power plants to reduce carbon dioxide emissions by 10 percent by 2018 and cut other pollutants.

The goal is to curb greenhouse gases, which wrap around the planet like a blanket, trapping heat, melting glaciers and nudging sea levels higher.

There's no doubt among researchers that this change is happening. But it's a legitimate question whether this bill - or any other similarly modest steps, such as the Kyoto Protocol - would do anything to prevent global warming's damage. At special risk are low-lying waterfront areas, such as Baltimore's Fells Point and parts of Dorchester County on the Eastern Shore, that may be flooded as sea levels rise and storm surges sweep further inland.

The nations of the world would need to act together much more aggressively - cutting emissions by 70 percent by 2050 - to stabilize the amount of carbon dioxide cooking the Earth's atmosphere, Australian zoologist Tim Flannery writes in The Weather Makers. And even this would not stop the rising of oceans, which is caused in part by the natural thermal expansion of water as it warms.

"Even if greenhouse gas levels are eventually stabilized, sea levels will continue to rise for several centuries, owing to the ocean's thermal inertia," writes Kolbert, a staff writer for the The New Yorker, in Field Notes from a Catastrophe.

If this is true, the question becomes: Should Maryland require power companies to spend millions of dollars in an effort that will show no local benefits in our lifetime?

You've got to begin somewhere, advocates for the legislation argue. Theoretically, passing the Healthy Air Act could help persuade neighboring states and eventually perhaps the federal government, China and India, to take action against global warming.

A 10 percent reduction in carbon dioxide may be too small to save Fells Point from the next major storm. But even a slight reduction in global-arming gases would be a step in the right direction and could encourage meaningful reductions later, advocates for the legislation argue.

Taking such incremental steps without any hope of a concrete economic payoff is really a moral decision. It's like deciding to pay thousands of dollars more to buy a hybid car even though you know your neighbor's new Hummer will cancel out any air quality improvements you hoped to achieve.

The real challenge is convincing the guy next door - or, in the case of global warming, the guy in the White House.

And this task has been complicated by a propaganda campaign funded by the coal and oil industries, which, as Flannery writes, employed both President Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney.

Flannery describes the efforts of the Global Climate Coalition, which spent more than $60 million from oil, gas, coal, auto and chemical companies to lobby and advertise against action to reduce greenhouse gases.

"The industries who oppose action on climate change are little different than the asbestos and tobacco companies who, by constantly challenging and clouding the outcomes of research into the link between their products and cancer, seek to buy themselves a few more decades of fat profits," Flannery writes. "Asbestos and cigarettes can kill individuals, but CO2 emissions threaten our planet."

The facts about carbon dioxide and climate change are clear to the majority of researchers.

More than 2,000 scientists from 100 countries, participating in the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, concluded in 1995 and 2001 that global warming is happening and that carbon dioxide produced by humans is largely to blame.

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