- The Washington Times - Monday, January 17, 2000

It was no doubt a coincidence that about the same time the latest scary report on global warming was coming out, a scientific journal was warning of the dangers of mass hysteria. The New England Journal of Medicine, citing a case in Tennessee in which fears of some unseen environmental threat led to an outbreak of illness for which no agent has ever been found, suggested exaggerated concerns may have set off the health problems. "In a previous era, spirits and demons oppressed us," the journal editorialized. "Although they have been replaced by our contemporary concern about invisible viruses, chemicals, and toxins, the mechanisms of contagious fear remain the same."

That's something to keep in mind as regulators and lawmakers ponder the significance of last week's report from the National Academy of Sciences, which suggested that the surface of the Earth had warmed in the last 20 years. The panel was trying to reconcile data showing that while the Earth's surface has been warming, satellite data showed no increase in temperatures in the atmosphere that one would have expected.

It's an important discrepancy politically. Those who fear global warming and want regulations to limit man-made contributions to it emphasize warming surface temperatures. Critics of climate-change theory cite satellite data to show warming doesn't exist.

In the end, the panel couldn't reconcile the two. Unknown factors, possibly volcanoes, may be cooling the atmosphere, "masking" the overall warming of the planet, the panel said. But that's no reason to dismiss warming on the planet surface. "There is a high level of confidence among the panel members that the surface temperature is indeed rising," said John Wallace, panel chairman and professor of atmospheric sciences at the University of Washington.

Does that mean man is to blame for the increase? No, the panel said. Nor, added Mr. Wallace, "are we saying it's necessarily going to continue to accelerate in the future." What the panel wants now, as scientists always do, is more and better research into the problem. That doesn't exactly sound like a call to environmental arms. But activists, who routinely resort to fear tactics to justify their ends when science fails, naturally see it as the last word on the subject; now it's time to crack down on industries, autos and anything else whose emissions contribute to climate change, lest the globe boil over.

Skeptics remain skeptical in part because the data themselves mask another fascinating finding. It seems that while much of the world has warmed over the last century, the United States hasn't. Why? It's not as though the sun doesn't shine here. Scientists speculate that data from this country are more reliable because they do a better job of taking into account the so-called "heat-island" effect. Monitors near urban areas tend to show warmer temperatures than do rural areas because cities tend to reflect, rather than absorb, the heat. So unless the monitors take that bias into account, the data they report is misleading.

Citing such bias, George Taylor, president of the American Association of State Climatologists, played down the academy's latest report. "My current bottom line: While human activities doubtless influence climate (on a local, regional, and even a global scale), the human-induced climate change from expected increases in greenhouse gases will be a rather small fraction of the natural variations. I don't foresee global warming causing big problems. I believe that even if we controlled every molecule of human emissions we would still see substantial climate change, just as we always have."

Lawmakers should consider such comments an inoculation against contagious fears of global warming.

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