When it comes to global warming, Americans have a right to be confused. Is it a problem or isn't it?
You don't have to look far to find passionate voices on both sides of the issue, while the amount of information and disinformation is staggering. Google "global warming," and you'll find about 13 million links. Monumental financial and political stakes further cloud the critical question: Are we, or are we not, heating up the Earth?
While the Earth has always undergone cycles of heating and cooling, some 2,000 scientists and more than 100 countries agree that the current warming trend is caused by human activity. Quick tutorial: Global warming refers to the process by which the Earth's atmosphere is warming owing to the accumulation of "greenhouse gases" (GHG), such as carbon dioxide, that are released from burning fossil fuels (gas, oil, coal) and other resources. The biggest culprits are said to be cars and coal-burning power plants.
Others say we're overreacting to a "hoax," to quote Sen. James Inhofe, R-Okla., chairman of the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works. To those in Inhofe's camp, global warming threatens not the Earth, but the economies of industrialized nations, while feeding a growing industry of environmentalists with a stake in creating fear, as author Michael Crichton suggested in his latest sci-fi thriller, "State of Fear."
With some notable exceptions, conservatives have embraced the hoax theory while liberals have cried havoc. Somewhere in the midst of such sturm und drang, we might wish to let loose the dogs of logic. If anything should be a bipartisan concern, surely the future of the Earth's climate should top the list.
Among those trying to make that happen is environmental activist Laurie David, who also happens to be the wife of "Seinfeld" co-creator Larry David. An unrelenting student of global warming, David has launched a "virtual march" on Washington in hopes of stirring Americans from their repose.
The march began Friday on Earth Day in Shishmaref, Alaska, via a Web site - stopglobalwarming.org - and will proceed across the continent for the next 362 days, ending April 22, 2006, in the District of Columbia. Among those "marching" with David is Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., who, with Sen. Joseph Lieberman, D-Conn., has sponsored the Climate Stewardship Act aimed at reducing U.S. CO2 emissions.
As the march reaches each state, David's group of science advisers will highlight local effects of global warming. In Alaska, for instance, we learn that the 600 residents of Shishmaref may have to be relocated owing to erosion some scientists say has been caused by global warming. Though others may dispute a cause-and-effect relationship, there's enough evidence to justify concern. National Geographic reported in its September 2004 global warning issue that the average temperature in Alaska has risen 2 to 4 degrees in the past 30 years. At the same time, Alaska's glaciers have begun to melt, resulting in an estimated 23 cubic miles of water running off each year, which has caused sea levels to rise. One does not have to be an alarmist to note that something is afoot.
Despite opinions that differ by diminishing degrees, the growing consensus is that global warming is real and that man is at least in part responsible. The only debatable points are the extent to which the Earth is heating up and what should be done about it.
Although the United States declined to sign the Kyoto Protocol, which calls for nations to place limits on greenhouse gases, some states and even some businesses are tackling global warming. James Rogers, chairman of Cinergy Corp. - one of the largest U.S. coal burners - devoted 32 pages of his 2004 annual report to global warming: "To simply avoid this debate and fail to understand the implications of the regulation of CO2 and GHG on our company is not an option."
Skeptics nevertheless hold sway among legislative and regulatory bodies. In the absence of unanimity, and given the certainty that politics has damaged the integrity of debate, we might resort to common sense. Given a growing body of evidence that:
- Earth is getting warmer, contributing to weather changes and other well-documented events; and that,
- Man is contributing to global warming by driving gas-guzzling cars (projections are that the number of active cars will increase from 800 million today to 3.25 billion by 2050, thanks mostly to India and China), and by burning coal (half of the electricity generated in the United States and 40 percent of the world's comes from coal);
- And assuming that reducing emissions would reduce warming trends as well as minimize our reliance on foreign oil, some of which finances terrorism . wouldn't it make sublime sense to err on the side of conservation? To provide incentives to produce and buy hybrid cars that get 40 miles per gallon? To offer companies incentives for seeking alternative energy sources?
A majority of Americans believed that the threat of Saddam Hussein was sufficient to warrant a pre-emptive strike against Iraq, that waiting for definitive proof that he had weapons of mass destruction would be waiting precisely too long. The same argument can be made for a pre-emptive strike against global warming. The dangers of waiting for definitive proof are far more severe than those posed by a pusillanimous potentate or those holding us hostage to their oil.