The Coastal Post - August, 1996

Global Warming Noose Tightens Economic Struggle Looms


There used to be an old joke that so-and-so was so crazy that even a psychiatrist would admit he was crazy. There are now so many indications that human activities are causing significant climate change, that even scientists are beginning to admit that maybe—just perhaps maybe—the long awaited "signal" of global warming has finally been detected.

Without "A Greenhouse Effect," life on earth would be impossible: it would be a lump of ice! What is bothersome is enhancing the natural greenhouse effect by adding heat trapping gases from burning fossil fuel and industrial processes. In this way (and others), we increase the temperature on the surface and change long term weather patterns we call "climate." Such change is expected to severely disrupt human society. A runaway greenhouse effect, an unlikely, extreme possibility, as on Venus, would result in temperatures so high that lead would melt.

Now that recognition of the problem seems near, there seems to be shaping up is a titanic struggle over what to do about it. Do we need to act? If so when? Can we determine what is the price? And who will pay it? Can we muddle through? Do humans really care about the future? Those much invoked abstractions, our unborn grandchildren?

One sign of this struggle reported here last month, was the Global Climate Coalition, a lobbying group representing U.S. auto manufacturers and energy companies, attacking the consensus statement of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) , "That the balance of evidence suggests a discernible human influence on global climate". That is, making it official.

Now the Clinton administration has signaled that it will be willing to consider goals and timetables for reducing the emission of carbon dioxide in an attempt to limit greenhouse gases. This is something the Bush administration refused to do at the last meeting of the United Nations climate convention at Rio de Janeiro in 1992, and something 73 year old Bob Dole, unconvinced on nicotine addiction, is hardly likely to worry much about.

The year 1995 was after all officially recognized as the hottest year recorded since modern temperature records have been kept and the 90s are shaping up to be even warmer than the hottest decade so far—the 1980s.

To counter a limit on emission, stories are already circulating of our gas prices going up to European levels of $5/gal and massive dislocations. Of course one might ask how we can complain when we pay one third what the Europeans pay ?

Nevertheless, if the scientists are slowly coming to the agonizing conclusion that Global Warming may have arrived, then perhaps the Doles and Gingriches might not be far behind.

Nature, the International Journal of Science editorialized on June 13, that the "Climate debate must not overheat" and on July 4, printed a long review article: "A search for human influences on the thermal structure of the atmosphere."

The article concluded that the "fingerprint of greenhouse gas induced climate change" was increasingly evident in measurements of lower atmosphere warming and stratospheric cooling. The article states in its abstract, "It is likely that this trend is partially due to human activities" and then in a gesture towards perceived critics, states "although many uncertainties remain, particularly relating to estimates of natural variability."

All that we know with certitude, "scientifically speaking", about climate is what happened in the past 150 years. Really good, plausible estimates can be made of the past, however, how much uncertainty one is willing to accept depends a lot on what is at stake for whom. That is, who is going to change, and who is going to pay how much!

It remains to be seen if the American system survives increased energy prices. How would this affect an expanding economy, an expanding population and a shrinking job market? This is not a question of putting glass bottles in one can and paper in another. It could be a question of no car, less heat and perhaps no air conditioning. Could Americans get used to not flying again? It would be hard to be bi-coastal on a train.

Another business supported lobby, the World Energy Council (WEC) released a report (New Scientist, 11 July, 1996) that most industrialized countries will not be able to reduce emissions of carbon dioxide to the 1990 levels they agreed to in Rio in 1992. CO2 emissions from burning fossil fuel rose 12 percent during the first half of this decade. Only Germany, France and the UK are likely to meet their goals.

Central and Eastern Europe have inadvertently greatly reduced emissions because their economies have collapsed, which, or course they never wanted to do. Most of the increases in emissions come from developing countries.

Speaking of Eastern Europe, Russian scientists independently confirmed cooling of the upper atmosphere, but what was surprising was the amount. (Long-term temperature trends in the middle and upper atmosphere, Geophysical Research Letters, July 1, 1996).

In analyzing weekly temperature readings from rocket launchings up to 75 kilometers in altitude since the mid 1960s, they find significant cooling from a few degrees Kelvin (K) between 30-40 km to 20 degrees K between 60-70 km. At the mesopause (87km) the cooling was 30K (this is equal to 54 degrees Fahrenheit).

The Russians conclude that, "...the stratosphere and the mesosphere may be regions with the strongest signals of global change.

Meanwhile, drought and weird weather continue. Parts of South America, West Africa and Spain are on the brink of disaster. Indeed Southern Europe is in such a long term pattern of water shortage that it seems to be turning into desert (New Scientist July 6, 1996).

Central England recorded its warmest summer since 1659. Russia and Central Asia had its warmest year ever as did Spain with a record highs of 116.6 degrees Fahrenheit for both (World Meteorological Organization).

Since the US is the largest contributor of greenhouse gases, it seems likely there will be increased pressures to reduce. What remains to be seen is whether these pressures will be accommodated under Clinton, or resisted and confined under Dole.

We can't ask others to change when we don't. Or can we?