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Global Warning

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

"I was approached by energy companies, but I didn't take the money. My God, I'm speaking for my own conscience. In the meantime, there's some $2 billion in government funding going to these other guys. They definitely have a vested interest in global warming being a big problem. That's how they make their living down at NCAR; they want global warming so they can get research money to study it."

After the Cold War ended and military spending on science dropped off, the scientific community needed to find "a new common enemy to support the scientific infrastructure--all those scientists and labs," Gray says. The National Science Foundation, which is NCAR's primary support, "needed to have a reason to ask for the public's money," he adds.

"And, of course, the media went along with it, because it needs a good disaster story to sell newspapers and magazines."

There are two dangers to accepting these global-warming stories as fact, Gray says. The first is that whatever treaty is worked out in Kyoto will affect industrialized nations the most, especially the United States. The U.S. produces the greatest amount of greenhouse gases, and therefore would have to make the greatest cuts to reach 1990 emissions levels, the number the IPCC panel supports. "Should we make commitments that could drastically affect our standard of living when we don't have to?" Gray asks. "It's doubtful the developing countries, which need to burn fossil fuels to catch up, will agree to any cuts...unless we're willing to subsidize them, which would lower our standard of living even further to bring them up."

The second danger concerns the integrity of science. "You can only cry wolf so often before people stop listening," Gray says.

The theory that man is the root of all evil is an old story, one that periodically resurfaces. "Centuries ago, in Spain, there was an earthquake, and the roof of a cathedral fell, killing hundreds of people," he says. "The local bishop said it was because so many of those people had sinned. It was man's fault. It's always our fault."

Challenging that view can have unappealing consequences. Colleagues at government agencies such as NOAA who have publicly questioned global-warming theories have been warned by superiors to keep their opinions to themselves, Gray says. And while he can't prove it, he believes that his recent difficulties in getting funding for his own research--even though it doesn't concern global warming--may be attributed to his own outspokenness.

So far, though, Gray's managed to continue his research and arrive at a conclusion of his own: "I believe that for the next twenty years, there will be a slight global cooling."

The three main greenhouse gases--carbon dioxide, methane and water vapor--are naturally occurring. Mother Earth produces about 200 million metric tons of carbon dioxide a year, to which man currently adds about 10 million metric tons, mostly by burning the fossil fuels oil, coal and natural gas. In the distant past, there was even more carbon dioxide in the atmosphere than there is today. But in the last forty years, scientists agree, there's been a 33 percent increase.

Without greenhouse gases, life could not survive. For one thing, plants need carbon dioxide like we need oxygen, which plants provide. For another, the planet would be too cold. When sunlight warms the Earth's surface, the surface radiates the heat back into the atmosphere, where gases absorb about 70 percent of it; the rest escapes into space.

The more gases in the atmosphere, global-warming proponents theorize, the hotter it's going to get. That's the simple explanation of the greenhouse effect that has so many scientists worried.

According to Roger Pielke, though, climate is not a simple A causes B, but rather a complex interaction of thousands of variables between the atmosphere, the oceans and land. Pielke, whose paper-strewn cubicle is a few doors down from Gray's office, says the climate modelers have failed to account for many of those variables. In particular, they don't understand the intricacies of his own specialty: the effect of land use on climate change.

Pielke says studies he conducted recently showed that evaporation of water from irrigated land around Fort Collins had a cooling effect, just like the evaporation of sweat cools a runner's body. In fact, temperatures in that area were about 8 degrees cooler than in a non-irrigated short-grass prairie area just to the east. Pielke only recently published his findings, in which he asserts that "land-use change is a major contributor to climate on a local, regional and global level."

Unlike Gray, Pielke does not doubt that man has contributed to climate change. The eastern forests that Europeans found when they came to this country are largely gone; today forests are disappearing in Africa, Asia and South America. All of that changes the climate, he says, but to what extent is still a matter of guesswork. "We're fooling ourselves if we think we can predict the future," Pielke adds.

And atmospheric scientists are going to have a particularly tough time making predictions, since they're not trained to study land surfaces. "I believe they're sincere people," Pielke says, "but they don't have the background to be making the predictions they do."

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