COMMENT BY: Arthur Hammond-Tooke, President, Multiplex International Trade & Technology Services
Climate Change Information: Truth and Consequences
Ask some twenty-something college graduates about global warming. Chances are they will tell you that it does not exist. To what extent did a failure in the quality of federal information have the unintended effect of shaping these opinions about global climate change? In retrospect, EPA's Global Warming Web initiative provoked little natural disaster mitigation. Instead, it serves as an example of counterproductive social engineering.
In 1995 EPA stretched scientific credulity by depicting a potentially catastrophic change in climate from carbon dioxide build-up. This greenhouse gas, supposedly arising from anthropomorphic factors, such as fossil fuel consumption, purportedly threatened the global population with near extinction. Only appropriate policy measures, such as restrictions and energy taxes, which EPA would impose, could reverse the changes. EPA's argument reduced to a syllogism: (a) climate change threatened human existence; (b) human energy use caused climate change; (c) changing human energy use would dispel the climatic threat to human existence. The innerence offered by the agency is that only a larger and more intrusive EPA could make the necessary changes.
How credible was EPA's global warming argument? Not much, according to affected interests, such as the energy producers, the automobile industry, and political groups espousing limited government. Because media covered the heated public debate, few Americans now believe that man-made greenhouse gas emissions can force global climate change. Backlash against EPA's simplistic depiction of global climate change may have contributed to the U.S. decision to remain aloof from the Kyoto Agreement. Many remain suspicious of EPA's motivation, which seemed to come more from the familiar expansionistic tendencies of government bureaucracy than anything.
CRE correctly points out EPA's suppression of the qualifying statements. In the United Nations' report by Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC, 1995). CRE notes that EPA's omission of cautionary statements about climatic cycles and forcing factors makes primary federal information regarding the extent and origins of global warming misleading, if not false.
Yet, scientists in this field remain cautions about climate prediction. Since 1995, they have learned much about the climate through the fossil record, submarine and icefield drilling cores, and computational models. Seven of the ten warmest years on record have occurred since 1990, according to NASA's Goddard Institute for Space Studies, which tracks climate changes. Right now, too little evidence exists to link the warmer weather to a global pattern. New evidence has emerged that two greenhouse gases, methane and carbon dioxide, played major roles in shaping the Earth's climate. (Science, Vol. 285, No. 5429: 876-79, August 6, 1999) Many uncertainties remain.
Uncertainties about the dangers of climate changes differ from the dangers caused by asteroid collisions or eruptions of major volcanoes. The probability that climate changes will adversely impact humanity on a global scale appears greater than the probability of the other events, regardless of the causes. Potentially weather-dependent impacts include undesirable changes in water, food, disease, and habitation. Strategies to mitigate the adverse effects of climatic change belong in a program for natural disaster reduction. Strategies to avert losses due to climate change fit hand-in-glove with hazard monitoring and forecasting for drought, hurricane, and flood disasters.
Congress may want to revisit the climatic change issue from a disaster management perspective. The scientific and technological knowledge to evaluate climate trends and their causes is emerging. If justified by scientific predictions, appropriate leadership and resources could raise awareness of climatic hazards and reduce the costs of mitigation measures.
Having premature, exaggerated claims become an obstacle to informed decision-making now would be ironic and unfortunate.