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Global Warning

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

Rather than spending so much time, money and effort on something that may or may not happen in the future, Pielke believes we should focus our resources on current risks. "In Denver, would we be better off spending our money on cutting carbon dioxide emissions or carbon monoxide from automobiles?" he asks. "And elsewhere in Colorado, is it more important to put our resources toward the quality and quantity of water or questioning the right or wrong of burning of fossil fuels?"

If the Kyoto conference calls for drastic emissions cuts, he says, it's "jumping the gun. What's the bigger threat in Africa? Disease or global warming?"

As the editor of the respected Journal of Atmospheric Sciences, which publishes articles from either side of the global warming issue so long as they have been favorably reviewed by peers, Pielke says it's evident that there's no scientific consensus on global warming. Even the 1995 IPCC report, which global-warming proponents claim represents the opinion of the 2,400 scientists who participated, includes a caveat that not all of the scientists agreed with the conclusions.

"Unfortunately, there's a lot of labeling and name-calling going on," Pielke says. "The media keeps quoting the same people over and over again. Meanwhile, most of the people involved in climatology and meteorology have never been asked for their position. And because of the politics, a lot of them would now not want to talk publicly. I've talked to young scientists who say they'd be worried that their funding would be cut off."

He's experienced the censorship himself. A recent exhibit on global warming at the Denver Museum of Natural History initially included an article written by Pielke for the Christian Science Monitor--the only dissenting text in the display. But the article disappeared soon after the exhibit opened to the public.

Staffers removed the piece after global-warming proponents complained, Pielke says, "and that's not healthy in a democracy."

Debate is the fuel that propels science to higher planes. The process of submitting your theory to the review, criticism and challenges of peers is the crucible through which, historically, good science must pass before it is accepted as fact. Albert Einstein developed his theory of relativity in 1905, for example, but wouldn't accept the validity of his own work for some twenty years, and not until it was proved accurate by rigorous testing.

But scientists who support the global-warming theory warn there may not be time to wait for perfect scientific consensus on the subject: Global warming could soon reach a point where even if fossil-fuel burning is curtailed, the gases already in the atmosphere would continue heating the planet.

Like many other global-warming claims, that's debatable.
Most scientists agree that the average temperature of the Earth has risen 1 degree Fahrenheit over the past century. But most of that increase occurred in the first half of the century, not the second--when fossil-fuel burning pumped up the carbon-dioxide content of the atmosphere by 33 percent.

Global-warming proponents, noting that sea levels have risen four to ten inches over the past hundred years, predict further increases, as much as several feet, which would swamp low-lying islands and coastal cities. But sea levels overall have risen 300 inches since the last Ice Age, and critics of global-warming scenarios contend that the rate of rise has not increased recently.

NOAA has detected a 20 percent increase in extreme precipitation events (hard rains, heavy snowfalls) since 1900, a trend consistent with global warming due to more water vapor in the atmosphere. But even after eighteen years of use, NASA satellites have not recorded global warming. In fact, they've noted a slight cooling trend. Global-warming proponents, who used to contend that the satellite record had not been kept long enough to give an accurate picture, now claim that satellites cannot correctly measure low-altitude warming.

Computer modelers themselves have scaled back their earlier predictions, reducing their estimates of temperature increases by one-third and sea-level rise by 25 percent. By 1995, the IPCC panel was predicting that the average temperatures would rise just 3.6 degrees by 2100. Modelers say the revisions have been made because their equipment and knowledge is stronger. But global-warming opponents, who note that the predictions have gotten milder with each generation of computer models, say the disaster mindset of policy-makers is still based on those earlier, flawed calculations.

If they base their actions on these problematic predictions, critics claim, emissions cutbacks could cost the U.S. economy billions of dollars and as many as a million jobs. Global-warming proponents, however, note that industry also made exaggerated claims about economic horrors when laws combating CFCs and acid rain were passed; those doomsday scenarios never came true. The development of energy alternatives, these proponents say, could actually stimulate the economy and create jobs.

Since the release of the 1995 IPCC report, the fight over global warming has more closely resembled an election campaign than scientific discourse.

That year, Vice President Al Gore, who's been gearing for a run as the environmentalist president, belittled scientific critics of the global-warming hypothesis. He accused a "tiny minority of dissident scientists" of treating warnings about the greenhouse effect as the "empirical equivalent of the Easter Bunny."

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