With the Republicans in Congress vowing to kill the global warming treaty--should Clinton submit it--signed in
Kyoto, Japan it is worth noting that one of the great intellectual battles of any age is quietly underway.
At stake, some say, is nothing short of the world as we know it if countries like the US do not make
some meaningful reductions in carbon dioxide emissions very soon.
An excellent article by Brian Tokar in the December, 1997 issue of Z Magazine presents an overview of
the case for global warming; it is what one would fairly call the left. The center might be defined
as rather critical of computer models showing that global warming is underway while still quite open
to the suggestion they might be true. This is seen in the British New Scientist (7/19/97). Leading
the charge for the right-wing are the ubiquitous studies commissioned by the Global Climate Coalition (GCC), such as
the one prepared by Accu-Weather, Inc., entitled "Changing Weather?"
First, some background. Neither side is disputing that the amount of carbon dioxide (CO2) is
increasing in our atmosphere. During Earth's last Ice Age, the average concentration of CO2 in
the atmosphere was 190 parts per million, or 0.019 percent. At the dawn of the Industrial Revolution
it was between 270 - 280 ppm. And, since the start of the Industrial Revolution in the late 1700s, CO2
has risen to 350 ppm. This change reflects the highest concentration of CO2 in 150,000
years of Earth history.
Also, the US is--surprise--the worst emitter of carbon dioxide on Earth. Recently, much of the
increase in our emissions has come from the transportation sector, with trucks and sport
utility vehicles the major culprits. If you're wondering what a sport utility vehicle is,
they are the Jeeps, Blazers and 4Runners, etc., doing 90 m.p.h. on the JFX on any given day.
Of course, the automobile industry deserves their fair say. Their favorite means of expressing
their point of view is via the highly-media-quoted GCC, an alliance of auto, oil, electric and
coal interests who have raised a reported $13 million to lobby against mandatory curbs to control CO2 emissions
in the US. In the above-mentioned pamphlet, they argue that no convincing observational evidence
has been found to indicate that the acknowledged warming of Earth's surface is unusual.
This flies in the face of what Tokar says is an overwhelming international consensus that
Earth is warming at an uncommon rate. He cites a 1995 report by the UN's Intergovernmental Panel on
Climate Change as confirming a measurably rare climate change is underway. A UN report the
following year, peer-reviewed by nearly 2,000 scientists, reinforced the same conclusion.
In the GCC pamphlet, the question is raised:
"...has significant global warming [from CO2] been detected?" The
answer they provide is no: "A rapid increase [in atmospheric CO2] began in
the 1950s. But the observed global temperature rise from 1916 to the 1940s is not in phase
with this increase."
However, we have already seen that the CO2 build-up began not in the 1950s, but
during the Industrial Revolution. In contrast to the junk scientists at Accu-Weather, Inc.
finding nothing unusual with Earth's present warming trend, Tokar argues that there is
plenty of circumstantial evidence of significant warming:
Temperature measurements in many parts of
the world support the finding that the average global temperature has increased about a
degree in recent decades...Substantial melting of glaciers has already been observed from
the Alps to the Antarctic, and Alaska's permafrost is beginning to thaw. A recent study of
50 years of navigational records from southern hemisphere whaling ships offers evidence
for as much as a 25% decline in the area covered by the Antarctic ice. Various alpine
plants have been observed to be migrating to higher altitudes as habitat conditions
change...to cite a few examples.
Meanwhile, The New Scientist (www.newscientist.com) argues very effectively against
some of the arguments scientists are making for global warming. Specifically, they claim
that there is scientific evidence that the troposphere, the atmospheric region about three
miles above Earth, is either remaining the same temperature, or even cooling while the
surface warms. This, they say, conflicts with what the computerized climate models on
which all estimates of global warming depend.
The New Scientist also argues that even global warming skeptics agree that
doubling the amount of CO2 in the atmosphere will cause surface warming.
However, they believe that the amount of the increase, about 1.0 - 1.5 C° , is not
enough to be cataclysmic.
And, that Ladies and Germs, concludes the scientific portion of this article--at press
time the author has nothing further to add on that front.
However, a second theater of the climate debate certainly regards the economics of
curbing the indisputable CO2 build-up. The GCC and their allies in
Congress (e.g., the Newt) have been very successful in getting their message out in
the mainstream press that what might be the most obvious solution to slowing greenhouse
gases would be an economic disaster.
The most conspicuous solution to curbing CO2 emissions appears to be an
increase in the federal tax on gasoline, with the new revenues spent on subsidizing
public transportation and providing tax incentives to businesses which invest in "green"
While the GCC and the rest aver that such a tax increase would cripple economic growth,
it should be pointed out that the rise in GDP in the US since the early 1970s has
been an anemic 2.5%--the slowest rate since WWII. (This is the "economic boom" we
keep hearing about in the media.)
If one considers that the rise in economic growth for the last 25 years could have easily
been 3.5%--what it was from about 1870 to 1970--it is possible to believe that the
economic catastrophe that global warming skeptics claim a gas tax would bring about--has
already occurred, with devastating income inequality now ravaging our deteriorating inner
A final comment: there is no reason to believe that curbing CO2 emissions
would hurt the economy at all. Tokar quotes a pair of authors, Robert Repetto and
Duncan Austin of the World Resource Institute (The Cost of Climate Protection: a
Guide for the Perplexed) as saying that reducing fossil fuel use may
actually raise GDP significantly, rather than cause its decline.
All of which makes for interesting reading for the 25% of us who still read a