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THE HEAT IS ON: The High Stakes Battle Over Earth's Threatened Climate.\o7 By Ross Gelbspan\f7 . \o7 Addison-Wesley: 278 pp., $23\f7

May 04, 1997|MICHAEL OPPENHEIMER | Michael Oppenheimer is chief scientist and chairman of the Global/Regional Air Program at the Environmental Defense Fund in New York

Forty years ago, Vice President Al Gore's environmental mentor, Roger Revelle, warned that "human beings are now carrying out a large scale geophysical experiment . . ." on Earth. Burning coal, oil and natural gas to produce electricity, drive automobiles and power industry was causing a buildup of carbon dioxide that traps heat in the atmosphere that would otherwise escape into space. Would the result be a significant warming of the global climate?

Initial results on the "experiment" are now available. "The balance of evidence suggests that there is a discernible human influence on global climate," according to the 1996 report of the United Nations' Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, a worldwide body of 2,500 scientists assembled to advise governments on the scientific facts of life on global warming. This outcome was based on detailed analysis of historical records and super-computer simulations of temperature that show the characteristic fingerprint of human activity superimposed on the normal background of climatic variation.

To many scientists, the conclusions of this report came as no surprise because, in the decades since Revelle's warning, research has provided ample evidence that humans were inexorably changing the atmosphere. Among the key findings are that the atmospheric level of carbon dioxide has increased by 30% since the Industrial Revolution and that the Earth has warmed about one degree Fahrenheit since the latter part of the 19th century. Furthermore, samples of air trapped in ancient ice show that at earlier times, natural climate variations were closely associated with natural variations in carbon dioxide and other heat-trapping greenhouse gases, which have now attained their highest atmospheric levels in more than 200,000 years because of human emissions.

Ross Gelbspan, formerly a reporter and editor for the Boston Globe, has monitored the progress of global environmental issues for 25 years, and "The Heat Is On" bears the mark of someone who has reported on the environment for a long time and brings to the subject a deep perspective. But Gelbspan's focus is less on the details of the scientific experiment than on the sociopolitical experiment that has begun as governments attempt to grapple with solutions to the problem. In 1992, after 18 months of wrangling, governments of the industrialized countries--including the United States, Europe and Japan--agreed to make attempts to return emissions to 1990 levels by 2000. The treaty, the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, was signed at the Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro. But negotiations continue because the initial limits were insufficient, and most countries, including the United States, are expected to fail to meet the objective of the accord in any event.

A fracas that had been brewing slowly for several years broke out as fossil-fuel interests--both oil and coal companies and oil-producing nations--realized that their lifeblood was threatened: One way or another, slowing global warming means slashing fossil fuel use and replacing it with renewable sources like solar energy. Various industry combinations, dominated by fossil-fuel interests, geared up for battle. One industry group has retained its own representative, who attends the negotiations as a supposed observer but, in fact, appears to orchestrate the negotiating positions of the Saudi and Kuwaiti delegates. As oil-producing nations, Saudi Arabia and Kuwait are not thrilled about the prospect of an energy transition away from fossil fuels.

The inside glimpse at how these interests go about the business of influencing policy on an issue where global habitability is at stake is both revealing and appalling. The most troubling episode occurred when those opposed to emissions limitation launched a full-fledged public relations war that included a nasty attack on the integrity of scientists doing the fundamental research on the climate fingerprint.

Gelbspan is particularly insightful on the effectiveness with which this campaign has obfuscated the issue and dazed the body politic by deploying arguments of a handful of scientists whose views conflict sharply with the rest of the scientific community. Yet their arguments have generated columns of ink in great disproportion to their numbers and their influence among other scientists. Gelbspan blames the industry groups, who provide resources for public relations efforts that amplify fringe science in the public arena. He also takes the press to task for its well-intended adherence to a "fairness" model that is more fittingly applied to political arguments because it provides equal time to all sides. With science, unlike politics, there is usually only one truth.

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