One of the most important environmental issues today -- some would call it THE most important issue -- is global warming. Ever since the industrial age began 150 years ago, factories, cities, farms, automobiles and homes have been pouring carbon dioxide and other waste gases into our atmosphere. Scientists know that these gases contribute to what it known as the "greenhouse effect." That is, like the glass in a greenhouse, these gases, (along with water vapor and cloud cover) reflect infra-red heat back to the earth and lead to a warming of the earth's surface.
All meteorologists and climatologists agree that there is a greenhouse effect and indeed this greenhouse effect has been keeping the earth at a livable temperature for many millions of years.
Now come the disagreements.
Some meteorologists and climatologists predict that the addition of large amounts of carbon dioxide and other gases from human activities will increase the greenhouse effect and lead to a dramatic rise in average temperatures around the world in the 21st century. This global warming, some warn, may prove to be one of the most catastrophic happenings in human history. In support of this claim many recent books, articles, TV documentaries, and Hollywood movies have made a doomsday scenario so vivid and believable that polls show the majority of the public now takes global warming for granted. The only disagreement is how hot it will get and what, if anything, we can do about it.
Not so well know is that SOME meteorologists and climatologists disagree with this prediction. These dissenting scientists claim that the evidence today is far too flimsy to support such a scenario. Some of the more colorfully critical ones go so far as to claim that while the greenhouse effect is solid science, “global warming is a lot of hot air.”
And finally, there is also much disagreement as to what actions we should or should not take as a society to mitigate the possible ill effects of a global warming if it does happen.
We talked to scientists and environmentalists about these issues to help you begin to investigate the claims for yourself.
One of the most aggressive and outspoken proponents of the global warming scenario—and of ways to counter it-- is the environmentalist Jeremy Rifkin, President of the Foundation on Economic Trends. His is a common view. Here it is.
"I think we have to realize that global warming is the bill come due for the industrial age. All of the spent molecules of carbon dioxide, methane, CFCs, nitrous oxide, that is the remains of our profligate consumption life style, especially in the first world. The fact is the United States, and the Soviet Union, are the main contributors to global warming. Our US population is also the main users of resources on the planet. Six percent of the population on this globe lives in our country. Yet we're using a third of the resources of this earth. And we are responsible for about 28 percent of global warming.
"So the beginning point for any discussion of global warming is to change our life style in this country. We need to develop a green lifestyle. We need the change our concept and our relationship to the environment. We have to develop tools that are sustainable to our resource base. We need to realize that the planet is an organism and we need to treat it with respect and dignity. And finally we're going to have to realize that the more we consume the less resources are available on the earth for other human beings and other creatures. So if we want to steward this planet for other generations we're going to have develop a green lifestyle, a green cultural movement. We're going to have to learn to use our fair share of resources and no more, and we're going to have to learn to be good neighbors to the rest of the planet"
Mr. Rifkin assumes there will indeed be global warming. The next expert we talked to is not so sure. He is Reid Bryson, internationally respected climatologist and author at the University of Wisconsin in Madison. What do you think of global warming, Dr Bryson?
"Well, global warming is an interesting and significant hypothesis. But it is no more than an hypothesis. It is based on the fact that carbon dioxide and certain other gases in the atmosphere absorb a lot of heat radiation, infra-red radiation, from the earth. And so increasing the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere is like adding another blanket to your bed. It keeps the surface of the earth, as your blanket does you, a little warmer.”
If that’s true, won’t that lead to what people are worried about -- “global warming.?”
"But that's true only if other things don't happen. If nothing else happens but adding the carbon dioxide then the earth will warm. But the characteristic of the climate is that there is always something else that is happening. There's a lot of things that cause the climate to vary. As carbon dioxide comes into the air may be one of them. I say maybe because when carbon dioxide increases nowadays we assume it is because of human activity. And there is some evidence that the present increase is at least exacerbated by human activity.
"But carbon dioxide has gone up and down in the past too. And by past I mean many thousands of years ago when those changes could not have been related to industry for example. Ten thousand years ago, for example, the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere nearly doubled rather rapidly, following which nothing happened, but preceding which the temperature of the earth had rapidly risen at the end of the major phase of the ice age. Now that suggests that the rise in carbon dioxide was caused by the warming, rather than the carbon dioxide increases causing warming.
"So I for one don't believe that the rules of the game have changed that fast that now carbon dioxide is a cause and in the past it was an effect. I believe that causes usually precede effects."
We visited NCAR, the National Center for Atmospheric Research in Boulder, Colorado. where climatologists gather data from weather stations around the world, combine it with historical data on weather in past years and ages, and then use some of the world’s most powerful computers to analyze this data. Dr. Stephen Schneider, author the popular book “Global Warming” and one of the world’s leading promoters of global warming scenarios, used to work here. (He is now a professor at Stanford University in California.) He and his colleagues have been testing various world climate scenarios on their high-speed computers over past decades.
In the 1960s and 70s their modeling suggested the world was going to get colder, even enter into a little Ice Age in the next century. Beginning in the 1980s, however, the results from this modeling changed and now consistently seem to point to serious warming trends in the 21st century. While the average world-wide temperatures have only risen a half a degree centigrade in the 20th century, their models predict that average temperatures world-wide will increase from 2 degrees centigrade in the most optimistic scenario to 8 or 10 degrees centigrade in the most gloomy scenarios.
Similar computer simulations, using similar climate models, have been carried out in other climate research laboratories around the world and the conclusions are similar. Unless something dramatic is done to slow and eventually to stop the accumulation of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases, the world is in for significant global warming. And sooner rather than later.
Such a dramatic rise in warming would lead to unknown but potentially catastrophic changes in countries around the world. Coastal cities might be flooded, some islands would simply disappear, rain patterns would be changed with some areas becoming wetter and others turning into deserts, hurricanes and other violent weather storms would become more common, many plant and animal species would become extinct.
If melting ice at the north and south poles should flood too much fresh water into the ocean, ocean currents and prevailing winds would change, making all of Europe a Siberian wasteland and North Africa a temperate grassland. It is even possible that, like the popular movie, “The Day After Tomorrow” the changing ocean currents would trigger a new ice age instead of a global warming.
This global warming hypothesis, as Dr. Bryson calls it, should, like all scientific hypotheses, be subject to test and debate before being accepted as reliable theory and the basis for societal action. Some of the global warming specialists however, like Dr. Schneider, believe so strongly in their models and in the seriousness of the situation that they have suggested we need to short-cut this procedure.
“On the one hand,” wrote Dr. Schneider, “as scientists we are ethically bound to the scientific methods, in effect promising to tell the truth, the whole truth and nothing but – which means that we must include all the doubts, the caveats, the ifs, ands, and buts. On the other hand, we are not just scientists but human beings as well. And like most people we’d like to see the world a better place, which in this context translates into our working to reduce the risk of potentially disastrous climatic changes. To do this we need to get some broad-base support, the capture the public’s imagination. That, of course entails getting loads of media coverage. Se we have to offer up scary scenarios, make simplified, dramatic statements, and make little mention of any doubts we might have.”
In 2001 the National Academy of Sciences released a report on climate change, prepared in response to a request from the White House. Many of Dr. Schneider’s colleagues were on the panel of 11 scientists who wrote the report which received wide press coverage and concluded that indeed global warming was real. Temperatures are, in fact, rising.
One of the 11 scientists on the panel was a critic of the global warming hypothesis, Dr. Richard Lindzen, climatologist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. While he endorsed the final report he pointed out later that the report had been much misinterpreted in the press.
As he wrote: “Our primary conclusion was that despite some knowledge and agreement, the science is by no means settled We are quite confident (1) that global mean temperature is about 0.5 degrees Celsius higher than it was a century ago; (2) that atmospheric levels of carbon dioxide have risen over the past two centuries; and (3) that carbon dioxide is a greenhouse gas whose increase is likely to warm the earth (one of many, the most important being water vapor and cloud). But, and I cannot stress this enough—we are not in a position to confidently attribute past climate change to carbon dioxide or to forecast what the climate will be in the future.”
We interviewed Dr. Lindzen, in his MIT office a few years before the conference, when he expanded on his critique of the global warming scenario.
"As far as the scenario goes, certain gases have been increasing. The question has been can we readily expect this to lead to significant warming. As far as I can tell, the evidence of the past, say the last hundred years, when we have already increased greenhouse substances, I should say minor greenhouse substances. Certainly the most important is water vapor, the next most important is water in cloud form. The gases like carbon dioxide and ethane are distant distant distant thirds and fourths. And they have increased significantly over the last century and if the current model were right, we should have seen approximately one degree temperature rise over the last century. It's arguable whether we have even seen a half degree and it is even more arguable whether we can relate that to carbon dioxide because it almost all occurred by 1940.
"So I would argue that based on what we have seen so far our models are wrong and are greatly overestimating what CO2 will do in the future. If you ask that the models be consistent with what we have seen so far, then by the end of the next century we will see less than a degree of warming."
Well should we then, we asked Dr. Lindzen, try to cut back on our carbon dioxide emissions?
"Certainly I wouldn't recommend very much in connection with warming. One. I don't think what we are doing for the foreseeable future with regard to warming. And I don't see that anything we could do would not be terribly effective. But second of all, even by some of the worst case models, most of the proposed actions would do nothing for warming in those models. Indeed this has been recognized to the extent that in this Intergovernmental Panel that is supposedly reviewing the warming problem, they have concluded that we will have to cut back CO2 emissions by sixty percent. Now it is true that when you get to that level of change, which is incredible, would be in the trillions and trillions of dollars, our OMB estimated trillions of dollars for a twenty percent reduction. Sixty percent is astounding. I can't believe that that number is put forward as but a statement of what may be needed but can't be done. If we're talking about small changes in efficiency, they're not going to do anything."
As you can see, not all scientists agree about global warming. Similarly there is much disagreement about steps to take to avoid possible warming.
For instance, Amory Lovins, director of the Rocky Mountain Institute, in Snowmass, Colorado would strongly disagree with that last statement of Richard Lindzen. Dr. Lovins explains just why he thinks efficiency is an important answer to global warming as well as other resource and environmental problems.
"If we use energy in an economically efficient way, it is cheaper to not burn those fossil fuels in the first place. And I think we will find a lot of scope for abating global warming and save money at the same time because it is cheaper to use efficiency than to buy the fuel."
But doesn’t that imply, as Jeremy Rifkin has said many times, a curtailed green life style where we don’t use so many resources and so much energy?
"No, no, not at all. I'm talking about energy efficiency. I don't use the term energy conservation because to most Americans that means privation, discomfort, curtailment, doing without. What I'm talking about is doing more with less by using the energy in a smarter way that saves money.
"You might think of the way we use energy as the being like the person who can't keep the bathtub full of hot water because the water keeps running out. Well, there are three things you can do about that. You can get a bigger water heater which costs a lot and still doesn't really solve the problem. Or you can give up bathing and just take sponge baths and be uncomfortable and smelly.
"Or you get a plug. They're simple and cheap. And they're evolving very quickly. In fact most of the best ways we have now to save electricity were not on the market a year ago. Five years ago I could only tell you it was cheaper to save electricity than to build and run new power stations. But now I can tell you it is cheaper to save electricity than to operate existing power stations, let alone having to build them.
"And I think we will find a lot of scope for abating global warming and saving money at the same time because it's cheaper to use efficiency than to buy the fuel.
"Also similarly there's a lot of concern correctly about acid rain, much of which comes from power plants along with the rest from cars. Well, one of the solutions proposed for this is to raise your electric bill and put diapers on dirty coal-fired the power plants. But another way to do it to use methods that many utilities are proving and making money on, is to help you get electricity- saving devices, efficient light, motors, appliances, windows, etc. So that we won't use as much electricity but do the same jobs. The utility can burn less coal and emit less sulfur and can effectively make more money because efficiency costs less than coal. And they can use some of the money they save to clean up the remaining power plants and lower the rates. So yes everybody wins."
Green plants, all green plants, and especially trees, take a great deal of carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere every day the sun shines. One of the ways many scientists are now working on is finding other ways to take carbon dioxide out of the air and bury it in the earth or in the oceans. Some even point out that the earth as a whole is homeostatic. That is, whenever one substance increases in the atmosphere, nature will respond to reduce that substance.
The tropical rain forests are an example of forests influencing climate. Dr. Thomas Lovejoy, biologist and researcher at the Smithsonian Institute in Washington DC explains some of the connections.
“There are three reasons to be concerned about what’s happening to the tropical rain forests. First and foremost is that somewhere between fifty and ninety percent of the earth’s plant and animal life occur in those forests. So as they are destroyed species are being lost. But these forests are important for other aspects as well. For one they are involved in regional climate. The Amazonian Rain Forest makes half of its own rainfall, so it is responsible for region, maybe even continental climate. And lastly, the rainforests hold an enormous pool of carbon so that if they’re cut and burned, they are adding to the accumulation of CO2 in the atmosphere and the problems of the increased greenhouse effect.”.
Not all environmentalists agree with Jeremy Rifkin that we need to cut back on our rich life styles by using fewer resources and adopting a green lifestyle. Here's the way Jack Barkenbus, Director of the Environmental Studies Institute at the University of Tennessee reacted to the global warming scenarios.
"Say something about global warming. We have had a very pleasant spring here in east Tennessee. It came early and temperatures have been ten to twenty degrees warmer than usual in many cases. You have not heard anything about the greenhouse effect. But had these temperatures been ten to twenty degrees warmer in the summertime, everyone would be talking about the greenhouse effect.
"And so what they do is associate global warming with bad events. The thing about the climate change issue is that some people will benefit. Some of our northern neighbors will benefit from having warmer temperatures. The Canadians presumably will benefit.
"So even though the thrust of the concern in this country is that it is an unmitigated evil, it may make it difficult to convince the international community of that. How you stand on the global warming question is essentially how satisfied you are with today's society. If you think we are not doing enough for the environment or for energy, generally those people think we should move right away because those people have other agendas they have been pushing for many years. So global warming is just another occasion to push that."
Some say if we burn the coal and oil and gas we get global warming. But if we don't burn the coal, oil and gas, we cannot support our high standard of living. Well, what can we do? Can we get both?
Physicist and engineer Ken Zweibel at the Solar Energy Research Institute in Golden, Colorado sees one way out of the energy/environment dilemma.
"Clearly one of the great excitements about photo voltaics has always been that it uses no fuel and simply sits outside and uses sunlight and it doesn't produce any pollution. It doesn't produce the familiar smoke and other waste products that we are used to in other technologies. And from the standpoint of more recent concerns like the greenhouse effect it obviously does not produce any CO2. So it is one of the major alternatives to producing a lot of electricity without polluting the environment.
"In fact to quantify it, a recent study was done in Germany where they are very seriously considering photo voltaics and increasing their federal support, that compared photo voltaics to conventional energy sources. ... And what it showed was the conventional electricity cost about twice as much in environmental impact as we actually pay. And that those costs are not in the bill that consumers pay for their electricity. If that was added to those costs for conventional electricity, photo voltaics would be very close to being competitive right now for instance with the Arco Solar Panels."
Can solar energy help all the world to higher standards of living?
"One of the critical things about the Third World is that most of the villages do not have electricity. For instance, I have heard that in India there are 500,000 villages that are not grid-connected and those are all very fertile fields for photo-voltaics. Essentially what you could have there, if you could have economic photo-voltaics, what you have there is an option there that people could use without the very high cost of connecting to the grid and without adding to pollution. Because one of the great additions to the greenhouse effect is going to come from the Third World as they start to electrify those villages that do not have electricity right now. They're either going to use conventional fossil fuels like coal or there going to have some option like photo-voltaics that doesn't add to the greenhouse effect."
Do we have to change our life style and consume less?
"I think it is a pleasure to participate in the United States high standard of living. I certainly wouldn't want to give up the things that I have become accustomed to, and that my two children have also become accustomed to. I don't want photo-voltaics or any alternative energy to be looked on as a high cost option that destroys the standard of living that we've become used to. We're attempting to make photo-voltaics inexpensive. In fact we think that photo-voltaics can drop in cost in the 21st century. There's not many options for making electricity that can make that claim. I'm excited about that and I'm not excited about reducing our standard of living."
Almost all experts agree that energy is a key to wealth and progress in both the first and the third world. How to provide that energy with the least risk of pollution and of possible global warming is subject to debate.
Solar cells and windmills can help but they only work when the sun is shining or the wind is blowing. How can we provide a reliable energy-production base without adding to the greenhouse effect. One of the most promising, but also one of the most controversial proposals in the early 21st century is to expand the use of nuclear power. Dr. Bernard Cohen, physicist and radiation expert at the University of Pittsburgh, thinks the recent concern with global warming may open the way to expanded use of nuclear energy for producing electricity.
“Well, there's hope that it might. Certainly environmental groups which are very influential in convincing the media what the public buys, the direction of what the government does The environmental groups now seem to be more concerned about the dangers of the greenhouse effect, acid rain and air pollution--finally they're waking up to-- than they are about nuclear power. This is a very hopeful sign. Nuclear power of course completely avoids the greenhouse effect, completely avoids acid rain, and completely avoids air pollution.”
But what about the risks? Many people think nuclear power plants are too dangerous.
“Well the dangers of any technology are relative. It's possible that on the average nuclear power may eventually cause the deaths of perhaps ten people a year in the United States. On the other hand, the principal alternative to nuclear power would be burning coal. And if you produce the same amount of electricity by burning coal you would be killing tens of thousands of people per year in the United States.
“Another alternative would be to go without electricity, but this also very dangerous alternative. That way you would be reducing the lighting on the roads, increasing the number of accidents. Reduced lighting would cause more murders. There are all sorts of way in which overzealous conservation can kill people. In fact the most dangerous thing is if it stunts our economic growth leading to unemployment. Unemployment is by far the greatest threat that our society faces. Each one percent increase in unemployment would kill several tens of thousands people per year through various methods. So compared to any of the alternatives nuclear power is very very safe.”
As you can see there is much disagreement about global warming. If there is such a thing as a middle ground perhaps it is that of the late Marion Clawson, agricultural economist and forestry expert at the Resources for the Future in Washington DC.
"I'm not a specialist and I read a great deal and I think about it ... and i'm a little bit wary about being too sure of my position. In the first place there has been a great deal of exaggeration about whether warming has taken place up till now. It depends on what source of data you use, it depends on what period of time you use, etc. And most of the models that predict future warming, if you apply them to the past where admittedly we have had CO2 concentrations we should have had a marked warming and it hasn't occurred. And it raises questions in my mind about how much global warming we are likely to have. And I think two things follow from that.
"One is that we should continue to monitor it as carefully as we can. To study it, to develop new models, to be eclectic in our approach here, quantitative and questioning and not accept -- not start with the assumption that there is going to be global warming -- challenge it. And the other thing is it's going to take some time to be sure of what's happening. Matter of many years. I don't expect anything soon to be definitive.
"If there is going to serious global warming, then the question becomes, what effects will it have. Now no doubt some of the effects will be favorable. On balance they will probably be unfavorable. There was a time when the prediction was made that the ocean level would rise thirty or forty feet. Now it's been shrunk to about ten percent of that. How much could it rise? How much can we do about it? How serious ? How rapidly does it take place? How reversible is it? I don't know. My guess is that the jury is out on all of these questions. That's where I come out."
Well, the jury may be out for Marion Clawson and other scientists but a world jury of more than sixty nations met in Kyoto Japan in December of 1997 and they did make some decisions about global warming. In a conference sponsored by the United Nations, politicians, scientists, and government officials including the then Vice President of the United States, Al Gore, signed the Kyoto Agreement to take specific steps that they hoped would prevent or at least minimize global warming. The United States and other industrialized nations committed themselves to reducing carbon dioxide emissions by 6 to 7 percent below 1990 levels as a beginning step. Developing nations like India and China, however, did not commit to this goal.
The treaty was never submitted to ratification by the U.S. Senate and the United States withdrew from the Kyoto process altogether in the first decade of the 21st century. Nations that did sign and ratify the treaty are preparing for another conference in 2010 to work on a second and more restrictive version. Most of the earlier targets have not been met however, so the future of global warming, both scientifically and socially, is .... cloudy.