- The Washington Times - Saturday, August 2, 2003

The Bush administration recently said it wants to do a decade’s worth of study to see what’s really behind global warming, and the instant response of an advocacy group was as unenlightening as it was unoriginal.

This plan, said the president of the National Environmental Trust, would be seen by most climate scientists as “fiddling while Rome burns.”

The need is for action, he told the press, and other environmental groups concurred, arguing that something dramatic is happening to the Earth’s climate, that something catastrophic could be a consequence and that the heart of the problem is the emission of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases.

You may not believe this — the ideological propaganda on this topic is little short of overwhelming — but there is no consensus of scientists in the field that global warming threatens a disaster immediately or even over the next 100 years and more, or that the present emission of greenhouse gases is something especially to worry about. Empirical data fail to support the dire predictions of what those gases could do, and the theory of some researchers is that any warming that does take place could be beneficial.

The greatest danger could be that the government will give in to the far-out greenies, instituting some sweeping, Kyoto-like program in the absence of any solid, scientific ground for action, and would thereby inflict the kind of economic punishment that can cause all sorts of human misery.

An exaggeration? Consider the Kyoto accords so beloved by Europeans who would have to do little to comply and who might see a benefit by the weakening of their foremost economic competitor, the United States.

The U.S. cost of this energy-stifling pact, according to a government estimate during the Clinton administration, could be as high as 2 percent of the gross domestic product a year, tens of billions upon tens of billions of dollars, and this is money, as one expert put it, that might as well be buried; the program would accomplish next to no good. Even the advocates of Kyoto agree it would curtail temperature increases just a smidgen over the next 50 years. Their argument is that this would be Step One, and that it would take Steps Two and Three and maybe more to save the world from the doom they imagine.

But the consequence of just Step One could be $2,000 a year out of the pockets of a family of four, it has been written. There would be fewer jobs and less money for other things, including food, shelter and health care. There are studies maintaining that costly, wasteful, Kyoto-style regulations can even cause an increase in mortality rates. In other words, the nonsolution to what may be a nonproblem could be a killer.

Some of the least hysterical of those who fear global warming admit the science is uncertain, but go on to observe that societies have forever found it wise to guard against uncertainties that look more likely than not and whose possible consequences would be devastating. The fault with their argument is that the most reliable data — especially facts gleaned from measuring temperatures high in the atmosphere with satellites — make their theory of ultimate catastrophe seem unlikely and also indicate there is considerable time to react if the worst should prove true.

And that brings us back to the Bush administration plan, which is required by a 1990 act of Congress and which no president has bothered with until this year. Well-conceived, well-executed, reasonably financed research could help provide the information needed to assess the causes of any warming, the long-term possibilities and the effects on the planet and human society. It could bring us to much higher degrees of certainty, perhaps even propelling us into the sorts of programs sought by those asserting that the current high emissions of greenhouse gases are to be dreaded.

Such a study would not be a case of “fiddling while Rome burns.” That is the wrong cliche. A more appropriate one is that it would be a case of looking before you leap.

Jay Ambrose is director of editorial policy for Scripps Howard Newspapers.

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