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Global Warning

What do you get when greenhouse gases inspire greenhouse guesses? A heated argument--but not much scientific agreement.

In this desert, no living thing moves. Rocks and saguaro cactus bake on the barren hills. The sun is so bright that it hurts to look at it--even on a television screen.

A voice, British and full of Shakespearean portent, rolls over the scene. "It has all the hallmarks of a good disaster movie," the voice warns. "An impending crisis that threatens to engulf the world. From an almost benign start, a hardly perceptible change in global temperature, the Earth could suddenly topple into crisis...large tracts of land to desert...wreaking havoc on our culture."

A clean-cut young man--the narrator--wanders out onto the desert, hands in his pockets. "Nor is it a theory supported by a few cranks," he says. "It's been endorsed by the great and the good, by politicians and academics. There's only one problem."

The narrator pauses dramatically. "There's mounting evidence that it's not true."

The Greenhouse Conspiracy was not a hit when Mickey Glantz, a political scientist at the National Center for Atmospheric Research in Boulder, showed it to his NCAR colleagues. Although the film makes several valid points about the scientific uncertainty surrounding the so-called "greenhouse effect," there's no mistaking its basic message: Man's contribution to global warming is a myth.

Conspiracy, which Glantz says was produced by the coal industry, features cameos of scientists patronizingly dismissing the threat. And the narrator goes on to ambush other scientists who support the scenario that man contributed to global warming, including Stephen Schneider, the eminently quotable and controversial former head of climate research at NCAR.

At the end of the showing, Glantz asked the NCAR researchers for their comments. But he wasn't as interested in their opinions of the film's science as he was in their reactions to Conspiracy's politics.

And they reacted angrily--not just to the film, but also to the messenger who'd brought it to them. "They wanted to know why I would show it at NCAR," he says. "Why give it any publicity?"

When Glantz showed The Greenhouse Conspiracy to the NCAR researchers' counterparts at Colorado State University's Department of Atmospheric Sciences, however, the CSU scientists supported the film's assertions--and Glantz's right to show it.

These days, the hottest thing about global warming is the rhetoric it inspires. That bothers Glantz. While he personally believes evidence is "leaning toward" man having contributed to global warming, he cautions that this belief is not yet a proven fact. Other scientists, like those at CSU, are far more cautious and warn that global warming may ultimately prove a false alarm. But in the meantime, he says, the theory's stalwart proponents are bypassing the peer review system that has been the hallmark of American science and moving full speed ahead--straight into the political arena.

The scientific schism is deep, and it cuts close to home. Both NCAR and CSU's atmospheric-sciences department are respected institutions, staffed by researchers with international reputations. Throw in the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) lab in Boulder, and the Front Range boasts a leading brain trust on weather.

Yet when these brains storm, they do not agree.
NCAR scientists generally align themselves with the camp that believes man's contribution to climate change, through the production of greenhouse gases--carbon dioxide, methane and water vapor--is both detectable and a cause for serious attempts at mitigation, if not outright alarm. NCAR researchers frequently make public pronouncements on the issue, sitting on presidential commissions and serving as major participants in the U.N.-sponsored International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), which in 1995 released a proclamation that man had made a "discernible impact" on the climate of his home planet.

The CSU researchers are more likely to work quietly in their labs than to sound off publicly. They're counting on science to ultimately show whether man's contribution to global warming is a real threat or whether climate change can be attributed to purely natural causes.

In December, IPCC representatives from most of the world's countries will be meeting in Kyoto, Japan, to draft a treaty that would reduce greenhouse gases by limiting the burning of fossil fuels by industrialized nations. President Bill Clinton has already announced that the United States will make such a commitment; the Republican-controlled Senate, however, has warned against agreeing to anything that would seriously harm the U.S. economy.

Both sides of the global-warming debate--locally, nationally and internationally--charge each other with selling their science for money. Both sides accuse each other of using scare tactics: predictions of global catastrophe on one hand, economic ruin on the other. And both sides claim that they're in the majority.

"They're forty miles apart," Glantz says of the NCAR and CSU scientists. "They all have Ph.D.s. They all read the same science. But in some cases, they won't even talk to each other...You have to ask: What is happening to science?"

Good question.

The National Center for Atmospheric Research sits high above Boulder on a mesa, fulfilling the dream of its founder, Walter Orr Roberts, that NCAR scientists "see human civilization below, the mountain wilderness behind, and the ever-changing skies" as they try to understand the connections between them.

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