Global Warning

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

This past July, Secretary of the Interior Bruce Babbitt went on National Public Radio to take the offensive against global-warming naysayers. "It's an unhappy fact that the oil companies and the coal companies in the U.S. have joined in a conspiracy to hire pseudo-scientists to deny the facts and then begin raising political arguments that are essentially fraudulent," he said. "I think the energy companies need to be called to account, because what they are doing is un-American in the most basic sense."

On July 24, Clinton entered the fray by kicking off a public-relations campaign to convince the American public that something must be done--and done now--about global warming. He invited to the White House seven scientists, including three Nobel Laureates, each of whom shared apocalyptic visions of heat waves, intense storms, tropical diseases moving north, famine and oceans swamping cities. Schneider, now a professor at Stanford University, was one of the seven. This past summer's floods were an "omen," he said. "The increasing frequency and magnitude of these could very well be the first signs that the canary in the cage is starting to quiver."

"The overwhelming balance of evidence and scientific opinion is that it is no longer a theory, but now a fact, that global warming is real," Clinton concluded after the meeting. He vowed that the United States would make a commitment to "realistic and binding" carbon-dioxide-emission limits at the upcoming treaty talks in Kyoto.

"Between now and then, we have to work with the American people to get them to share that commitment," Clinton said. "We have evidence. We see the train coming; but most ordinary Americans, in their day-to-day lives, can't hear the whistle blowing."

In September Babbitt blew through Boulder, where he accused global-warming naysayers of "a campaign of misinformation and deceit...The issue is the largest, most pervasive and ominous environmental threat that we have ever confronted. It will be the dominant issue of your generation," he told several hundred CU students and faculty members.

This week Clinton is hosting another White House conference on global climate change. NCAR researcher Kevin Trenberth, who helped write the 1995 IPCC report, was one of the scientists invited to attend.

Trenberth, who was raised in New Zealand, confesses to "not having been much of a weather buff" as a boy. But after graduating college without a clear career, he went back to school and became a weather forecaster. "As such I got a lot of experience watching the weather go by, and after a time, I began to see patterns in the weather."

Those patterns are what constitute climate, and Trenberth's fascination with them led to him earning a Ph.D. from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in atmospheric sciences; he arrived at NCAR in 1984 as an authority on El Nino. Four years later, following the tremendous heat waves and drought of 1988, the global-warming scenario really caught fire.

At the time, Trenberth was skeptical. What others were attributing to global warming, he blamed on cool water temperatures, called La Nina, in the tropical Pacific. But as he became more involved in global-warming research, he began to see the ramifications of man's production of greenhouse gases. Despite the uncertainties, he says, science as a whole points to a manmade warming trend. However, Trenberth doesn't foresee the total disaster that his friend Schneider does.

Man's affect on global warming, Trenberth suggests, will be to push weather to more extremes--extremes in all types of conditions, not just heat. The floods will be bigger floods. The droughts will last longer.

"With more evaporation, there's more water in the atmosphere, some of which will manifest itself as rain or snow," says Trenberth. While the snowfall that caused the Dakota floods last spring was not proof of global warming, he adds, "global warming could have been the straw that broke the camel's back and made it more extreme."

Citing NOAA's report that extreme precipitation events have increased, Trenberth says it's more important to learn how to deal with these events than to argue as to whether they will occur. "It may be that what were once hundred-year floods now occur every fifty or sixty years," he explains. "So we might want to examine how and when we build dikes and dams. We might want to look at the development of coastal areas."

And we should start looking right now, Trenberth cautions. The global-warming naysayers tend to be scientists who look at the little picture rather than the big one, he says, pulling out graphs that show how variable temperatures are on a daily, or monthly, or yearly basis. Those scientists are looking at the extremes of these recordings and dismissing the tiny, but steady, average increase over the past 100 years.

"What concerns me is the rate of change," Trenberth says. "Given time to adapt, we can develop technologies and mitigate any problems. My contention is that we ought to be trying to slow global warming down and give ourselves time to adjust to it."

But the proposed Kyoto treaty is flawed, he says. One problem is that developing countries won't have to agree to emissions cutbacks. While those countries argue that, per capita, American citizens use far more energy than their Asian counterparts, no one talks about the fact that there are far more Asians (or that China is one of the worst polluters, since it relies on dirty soft coal). "Population control and what it means to this whole equation has been swept under the rug," Trenberth says. "It's far too politically sensitive. But the problem will remain until it's addressed."

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