2. Global Warming
The heated debate about global warming
Whether we like it or not, global warming has become politicized, the subject of a contentious debate. It has entered the arena of world politics, a shadowy realm of diplomacy, economic interests, political alliances, and national security.
No ratified, international global-warming treaty agreement exists, at least so far. Extremists on both sides of the issue have hired lobbyists to influence policy makers and mounted huge public relations campaigns to persuade the average person to accept their views. The conflicting information has confused the general public, often leading to an overall apathy. And since neither side in the debate will compromise, a consensus is impossible.
When you strip away the rhetoric, the experts know little about the future severity of climate change and even less about the future physical impact in particular countries or regions. After decades of research, the model builders cannot say precisely what will happen to the climate as the result of the atmospheric build up of heat-trapping gases. They just donít know enough about the atmosphere, clouds or the oceans to predict accurately the future global climate.
The uncertainty paralyzes discussion. Scientists have to generate a wide range of possible futures, some very threatening and others less so. Not all of these outcomes are likely to be true, and none is definitive, but people tend to latch onto those that fit their preconceptions. Especially the extremists, who selectively interpret the scientific forecasts to bolster their case Ė the liberals choose doom and gloom and the conservatives favor good times for all.
The environmental organizations and their allies insist that global warming is here, a harsh and inexorable reality, and that it is due to the rise in carbon dioxide caused by coal and oil burning. The Earth, they say, has entered a resulting widespread climatic disruption that is going to get a lot worse if quick actions are not taken to reverse the accumulation of heat-trapping gases in the atmosphere.
Advocates for this view employ the full range of potential environmental disasters, suggesting that they will almost certainly occur. Deserts will expand, drought will spread, water supplies will evaporate away, rising seas will flood coastal areas and cover island nations, widespread famine will ensue as farms dry up, and heat waves and tropical diseases will threaten out health. The future, some argue, could be apocalyptic as ice caps melt and the sea level rises. The frightened public often isnít aware that most of these catastrophes will not occur for 100 years, and then only if the upper end of the uncertain scientific predictions applies.
The industries considered most responsible for global warming are the most critical of its scientific validity. The coal and oil companies, as well as the oil-producing nations, argue that the computerized climate models are crude and approximate, incomplete, inconclusive, and so flawed that their predictions of future climate change cannot be used as a basis for taking action. The risks of global warming, they therefore argue, have been widely exaggerated, and there is no proof that anything catastrophic will happen.
Moreover, even if the global temperature is rising, they argue, its cause is solely or mostly natural. The climate is always changing whether or not human beings have anything to do with it, and humans continue to be insignificant when compared to the natural forces that have determined the climate for millions of years.
The oil and gas companies insist that any future warming from carbon dioxide emissions will be moderate and that rising levels of the benign gas will be a good thing. Far from being a pollutant, carbon dioxide is a powerful fertilizer that helps plants grow. If you reduced the amount of the gas in the air, the plants would be in real trouble; they could even disappear.
This side of the debate argues that any attempt to get rid of coal and oil will cause an economic disaster; it might even cripple the global economy. With sales exceeding two billion dollars a day and trillions of dollars a year, the oil industry is indeed a powerful economic force. A significant reduction in the use of coal and oil, some say, could eliminate millions of American jobs, reduce the United Statesí ability to compete globally, interfere with the free market, and endanger the lifestyle of every American.
The same arguments, they say, apply to most of the rich industrial countries, whose economies are dependent on the fossil-fuel industry. Any regulations to curtail emissions from coal and oil burning could slow economic growth in all of these countries.
With so much money at stake, it is perhaps not surprising that the oil and coal industry have spent millions of dollars to cast doubt on global warming. After all, they are just protecting their interests. Critics argue that they have also been suppressing the true implications of global warming, somewhat as the tobacco industry did about the dangers of cigarettes. Some lawyers have even threatened a class action suit to force a reduction in the emission of heat-trapping gases.
Not every industry supports the unrestrained use of fossil fuels. The insurance industry favors restraints, fearing that their profits will fall as extreme weather increases. Floods, hurricanes and other severe storms, attributed to global warming, have already caused annual insurance losses of billion of dollars, naturally passed on to the customers by higher rates, and led to insurance policy exclusions for those living in storm-prone areas. Now entire countries are entering the fray, attempting international agreements with legally binding limits to the emissions of heat-trapping gases.
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Copyright 2010, Professor Kenneth R. Lang, Tufts University