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October 14, 2004

Global Warming

Stanford professor Stephen Schneider tried to make sense of global warming threats and decision-making problems in his presentation, ” Global Warming: Do We Know Enough for Policy?” at Science 2004.

Global warming is the heating of the earth’s surface caused, in large part, by the release of gases from man-made activities such as burning fossil fuels for cars, trucks, heating — mostly activities associated with an industrialized society. These gases are changing the composition of the earth’s atmosphere and impacting the climate. According to the National Academy of Sciences, the earth’s surface temperature has increased by about 1 degree F in the past century. But industrialization has accelerated that pace dramatically. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) anticipates an increase ranging between 2.2 and 10 degrees F by the end of the century. (The low-end of this projection represents the greatest temperature increase seen in the last 10,000 years.)

A professor of biology and author of a number of books on global warming including “Climate Policy: A Survey,” Schneider displayed his personal evidence of global warming: a photo of himself standing near Mt. Kilimanjaro. Since 1912, global warming has melted an estimated 81 percent of ice blanketing the tallest mountain in Africa.

Schneider tried to answer that all-important question: How bad will the effects of global warming be? And when will we begin to see them? Environmentalists predict a doomsday of hurricanes and famine around the corner and business leaders whose companies mine fossil fuels minimize climate changes. Schneider said the impact would most likely fall somewhere in-between the two extremes.

As to when, Schneider anticipates the mid-to-latter half of this century. “What you’re talking about is this generation or the next making commitments about the ultimate long-term sustainability of the future,” he said.

While there is some disagreement about the extent of global warming, scientists agree that global warming is occurring and that man-made activities such as fossil fuel burning exacerbates the problem, Schneider said. The temperature is going up, but by how much and how fast is debatable. An increase in the earth’s surface temperature is expected to impact health, agriculture, water resources, forest wildlife, and coastal areas. Within the next 50 to 100 years, sea level is expected to rise 2 feet along most of the U.S. coast.

But, the precise impact is hard to predict.

“We’re dealing with a large amount of uncertainty and that uncertainty has to be translated honestly by scientists,” Schneider said. “The solution becomes managing information from experts.” Schneider presented about a half dozen scenarios, ranging from continuing fossil fuel consumption at the current rate to creating and implementing new, cleaner technologies for energy. He said the payback for using new technologies wouldn’t manifest itself until the latter half of the century, a time when scientists will know more about the impact of global warming.

Despite uncertainties, Schneider said measures such as energy efficiencies should be taken now.

He wants to see a more honest discussion of what to do about global warming, hoping the United States sees beyond its own affluence and economic interests and acts globally. Schneider argues that the costs and benefits of a nation’s decision on how to live with global warming should not be thought of in just dollar terms, but also in terms of quality of life. For example, in public policy, an issue can be put in the context of the greatest good for the greatest number of people. An economic version might be the greatest good for the greatest number of dollars. “From the very outset, our analytic tools are aggregating costs and benefits,” Schneider said. Such analysis should not be the traditional method of things traded in markets in proportion to the dollars, he said, “because the majority of people in the world don’t see that as an ethical principal. And many of us who do, don’t see that they don’t.”

Global warming will produce winner and loser countries. And for Schneider, American policy makers need to define if they value only entrepreneurial rights or are interested in planetary protection.

-Mary Ann Thomas

Filed under: Feature,Volume 37 Issue 4

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