- The Washington Times - Sunday, September 1, 2002

Perhaps the only thing steamier and smoggier than the heated rhetoric coming out of the U.N. World Summit on Sustainable Development in Johannesburg is the current state of the global-warming debate. On one side are those who believe that human activity is causing the planet to heat up, leading to flooded cities, drought-stricken fields and plagues of new diseases. On the other are skeptics who suggest that the science is far too uncertain and that the cures proposed namely the emissions strictures of the Kyoto Protocol too stringent and will do practically nothing to slow the warming. So, in which direction should prudent policy-makers steer? While much is still obscure, some points of agreement do seem to be emerging from the fog.
It is clear that since the Earth was formed, its climate has varied greatly and changed with extreme rapidity. Evidence of that can be found in everything from the historical record to ice cores taken from Greenland's ice sheet. From those cores, noted geoscientist Richard B. Alley determined that the last ice age came to an end over a course of only three years.
It is also clear that, from 1900 to 2000, the concentration of atmospheric carbon dioxide (C02) increased from an average value of 285 parts per million (ppm) to 365 ppm, (mostly a consequence of man's industrious activities). Carbon dioxide is a known greenhouse gas that is, like water vapor, it traps the sun's heat energy instead of reflecting it back into space. However, no causation has been established between that increased CO2 concentration and the slight warming in the Earth's climate that may well have happened over the past century. That's because CO2 emissions have risen consistently throughout the century, but average ground temperature measurements have fluctuated, rising slightly over the first part of the century, falling slightly through the middle and rising again through the end, for a net gain of about .6 degrees centigrade. However, temperature measurements taken from satellites and weather balloons show little, if any, global warming, a claim well-documented by Harvard astrophysicist Sallie Baliunas and others.
This indicates that current models of climate change, which forecast increases in global temperatures in rough proportion to increasing levels of atmospheric CO2, are still somewhat askew especially when it comes to predicting climatological disasters in the future. Those models also predict that global warming will start in the lower troposphere, where greenhouse energy trapping occurs. However, the best available evidence indicates that that is simply not happening. Beyond the uncertainties, current climate simulations simply cannot account for all of the variables involved.
Still, the increased CO2 levels could be contributing to the Earth's warming. There simply is not enough data to tell. Nor is it clear what sort of effects those increased levels of CO2 and increased temperatures could have. While many claim that the results will be disastrous, others suggest that global warming could be beneficial by leading to longer growing seasons and greater crop yields. In the middle are those like noted geoscientist Richard Alley, who fear that increased CO2 levels could be amplified to cause catastrophic changes in climate. There's simply no way to be certain which scenario is correct.
If there is a consensus anywhere in the climate change debate, it's that Kyoto-style strictures will cost a great deal and do very little. Skeptical environmentalist Bjorn Lomborg observed that the strict emissions caps mandated by the Kyoto Protocol would postpone the temperature increase predicted in 2100 by a total of six years and cost between $150 billion and $300 billion annually.
Mr. Lomborg and others have also noted that increased wealth allows individuals and nations to adapt to the challenges that climate change brings building up shorelines against flooding, importing food when droughts strike and developing vaccines against new diseases. He pointed out in a recent op-ed in the New York Times that the true challenge of the Johannesburg summit is "whether we can put development ahead of sustainability."
It's good advice to follow. Given the uncertainties involved, additional study on climate change is certainly called for, especially since policy changes will be necessary if serious climate changes develop. At the moment though, legislators would be wise to avoid climate-change "solutions" that promise too little and cost too much.


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