Global divide

May 17, 2008

Al Gore was a believer from the start. More recently, more scientists became convinced. This week, Sen John McCain, the de facto Republican presidential nominee, confirmed that he, too, was a believer. The issue is global warming - the theory that carbon dioxide produced by cars, power plants and factories is raising temperatures around the world, melting the polar ice caps and destabilizing weather.

The scientific question appeared to be settled last year when a United Nations panel concluded after lengthy study that global warming caused by humans was real. But a new national telephone survey taken in April by the Pew Research Center may leave Mr. McCain with some explaining to do. It shows that Republicans are increasingly skeptical that there is solid evidence that the earth has been warming. About 49 percent of Republicans say that the earth is warming, down 13 percent from January 2007. That compares to 84 percent of Democrats.

If you think these Republicans are on to something, you should consider the following:

MYTH: The science of global warming is too uncertain to act on.

FACT: The National Academy of Sciences, which the White House has called "the gold standard of objective scientific assessment," has issued a joint statement with the academies of science from 10 other nations, saying, "The scientific understanding of climate change is now sufficiently clear to justify nations taking prompt action."

MYTH: Even if global warming is a problem, addressing it will hurt American industry and workers.

FACT: Companies that are already reducing their heat-trapping emissions have discovered that cutting pollution can save money. The cost of a comprehensive national greenhouse gas reduction program will depend on the precise emissions targets, the timing for the reductions and the means of implementation. An independent MIT study found that a modest cap-and-trade system would cost less than $20 per household annually and have no negative effect on employment.

MYTH: Global warming is just part of a natural cycle. The Arctic has warmed up in the past.

FACT: People are causing global warming by burning fossil fuels (like oil, coal and natural gas) and cutting down forests. Scientists have shown that these activities are pumping far more carbon dioxide into the atmosphere than was ever released in hundreds of thousands of years. Though natural amounts of carbon dioxide have varied from 180 to 300 parts per million (ppm), today's levels are around 380 ppm. That's 25 percent more than the highest natural levels over the past 650,000 years.

MYTH: We can adapt to climate change - civilization has survived droughts and temperature shifts before.

FACT: The current warming of our climate will bring major hardships and economic dislocations, especially for our children and grandchildren. We are already seeing significant costs from today's increasingly hot planet. Climate has changed in the past and human societies have survived, but today 6 billion people depend on interrelated ecosystems and complex technological infrastructure.

If you're still skeptical, check out these Web sites: The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (, The Environmental Defense Fund (, Climate change statement of the national academies ( ), The United Nations Framework on Climate Change (, Science Magazine (

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