Temperatures Rising

Jan. 1, 2002
Michael Boyle’s article in this issue examines whether greenhouse gases, such as carbon dioxide and methane, contained in the soil can be released to the atmosphere in significant quantities through accelerated erosion. Here we were, blaming the rampant burning of fossil fuels, heavy industry, and gas-guzzling cars, and now the global warming issue comes home to roost in our own industry. Boyle-wisely, perhaps-doesn’t enter into a discussion of the realities of global warming, acknowledging that it’s still a matter of debate among scientists (and, we could add, politicians). For many, though, the issue is settled, one way or the other, and scientists, environmentalists, and political groups on both sides are vying for the public ear. For example, a four-year-old organization called the Center for the Study of Carbon Dioxide and Global Change acknowledges that CO2 levels are on the rise and that global temperatures are increasing but denies a link between correlation and causation. The center claims increased CO2 levels from the burning of fossil fuels are actually helping the biosphere through the “aerial fertilization effect”: “Indeed, it’s been win, win, win for all of life.”In a position paper titled “Energy, Carbon Dioxide and Earth’s Future: Pursuing the Prudent Path,” the center asserts, “It would be an affront to reason . . . to impose draconian measures that would bring severe economic hardship upon nearly all the people of the world. . . . Our advice to policy makers who may be tempted to embrace Kyoto-type programs is simply this: Don’t mess with success! Fossil-fuel-derived energy has served us well in the past, and it will serve us well in the future.”There is highly charged rhetoric on both sides of the issue, as is perhaps inevitable when presenting complex information to a general public that might lack the patience to sort through the complexities of the arguments with so many other day-to-day concerns competing for their attention. Many people, in trying to hold the correct views and do the right thing, have accepted pretty much on faith that catastrophe certainly awaits us in the next century if we don’t stop global warming: rising sea levels, lower crop yields, desertification. At some later point, many of these same people become aware that the issue is not so clear-cut and that the facts don’t necessarily support all the conclusions they’ve been led to, and a predictable backlash occurs. Last year, in one of the higher-profile turnings, a Danish statistician named Bjorn Lomborg published The Skeptical Environmentalist: Measuring the Real State of the World, in which he argues that many of the world’s so-called environmental crises are greatly exaggerated. The former Greenpeace member contends that the risks of global warming have been overstated and that even if the Kyoto Protocol were carried out in full, it would delay the process only minimally, while the hundreds of billions of dollars necessary to achieve this questionable benefit could be better spent. In fact, uncertainty has always been built into the issue of global warming. Both sides acknowledge that computer modeling of the Earth’s atmosphere is not sophisticated enough to predict the climatic future and its effects with certainty. The United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change bases its action on the precautionary principle: We might not be able to establish definite proof of cause and effect, and we can’t know what the precise results of climate change will be, but if we wait until everything is known, we will have lost our opportunity to act. Given such high stakes, we must begin now. This reality-the need to act before all the facts are in-holds true for almost anything we attempt, and without a willingness to move ahead while constantly reassessing our actions based on new data, we are paralyzed. For the small part our own industry plays in the carbon dioxide cycle, we have a responsibility to present such facts as are available-and the educated guesses we can make based on them-as plainly as possible. Last September, while speaking at a Borders bookstore in England, Bjorn Lomborg received a pie in the face from a reader who took exception to his arguments-a dramatic response, certainly, but we can make a more articulate contribution to the dialogue.