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CLIMATE: THE DEBATE IS CHANGING
By Dan Whipple
January 3, 2005
BOULDER, CO - The global warming debate will shift in the United States in
2005 because evidence that the phenomenon is real has reached a crescendo.
The catalyst for the shift is not some esoteric discovery by an atmospheric
scientist, but a fairly simple paper by a history professor, Naomi Oreskes
of the University of California, San Diego.
Oreskes has found there is a "scientific consensus" on global warming --
that is, it is real and it is being caused by humans.
Oreskes' paper's strength is its simplicity. It is something everyone can
understand, without knowing the chemistry of carbon dioxide in the
She looked at nearly 1,000 technical papers in the peer-reviewed scientific
literature and could not find a single one that disagreed with "the basic
consensus statement, that CO2 is increasing, that it is changing the
chemistry of the atmosphere, and it's having discernible effects," she told
UPI's Climate. Further, she added, these CO2 increases are the result of
There has been an avalanche of evidence indicating the effects of warming
are being felt more and more on the planet. In only the last six months:
-- The Arctic Climate Impact Assessment found winter temperatures in the
Arctic have increased by 4 degrees to 7 degrees Fahrenheit (2 degrees to 4
degrees Celsius) in the past 50 years and should go up about twice that much
more in the next hundred;
-- Arctic summer sea ice will decline by 50 percent by the end of the 21st
century, the ACIA found, with some models predicting complete disappearance
of summer sea ice;
-- Coastal native villages in the Arctic are eroding, requiring relocating
their inhabitants further inland;
-- Climate change is affecting the migration patterns, habitat preferences
and ecology of hundreds of animal species in the United States, according a
report by the Pew Foundation;
-- Floating ice shelves in Antarctica, stable for the past 13,000 years,
-- Glaciers around the world are melting at rates unprecedented for
thousands of years;
-- Glaciers in Antarctica -- previously thought to be relatively immune from
warming trends -- are thinning and speeding up dramatically.
"We're beginning to push past the normal range of climate variability of the
Holocene (post-Ice-Age period)," said Ted Scambos, a glaciologist at the
Snow and Ice Data Center in Denver. "We're seeing the first few steps, the
first few responses of a globally warming world. People will point back to
these first few years of the 21st century and say that this is when we saw
it in the polar regions."
The polar changes could mean a dramatic increase in sea-level rise, he said,
well beyond current projections.
"I don't want to mince words," Scambos told Climate. "It looks to me like we
are headed toward a more rapid sea-level rise than projected by the IPCC
(Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change) report."
In 2001, the panel had predicted a range of 4 inches to 30 inches (11
centimeters to 77 centimeters) in sea-level rise between the years 1990 and
Each piece has its critics, of course, but taken as a whole, across many
disciplines, the mounting evidence presents a strong case global warming is
real and it already is causing tangible effects that are at least
Whether the effects are serious and damaging enough to warrant potentially
expensive actions -- such as attempting to curtail CO2 emissions -- should
now become the focus of the debate in the United States and elsewhere.
Because the Oreskes paper is easy to understand, and because she did not
find even a single paper dissenting from the consensus position, there has a
flurry of Internet commentary downplaying the meaning of this consensus.
Roger Pielke Jr., of the University of Colorado's Center for Science and
Technology Policy Research, wrote in "Prometheus: The Science Policy
Weblog," that "I am amazed by the recent attention being paid to the issue
of a scientific consensus on climate change. Naomi Oreskes wrote an article
a few weeks back in (the journal) Science, claiming that a literature review
shows that a central statement of consensus reported in the IPCC is indeed a
consensus. Since that article was published, debate and discussion has taken
place on, among other things, whether it is in fact a unanimous perspective
rather than the overwhelming view of most scientists."
Roy Spencer, of the University of Alabama-Huntsville, argued on the Web site
TechCentral Station that Oreskes' definition of what issue on which everyone
apparently agreed was so weak it was nearly meaningless.
"Let's be honest about what that consensus refers to," Spencer wrote, "that
'humans influence the climate.' Not that 'global warming is a serious threat
Interpretations aside, the studies included in the Oreskes paper also show
the costs and benefits of climate change are not distributed evenly. The
climate will change differently for different regions. Some studies indicate
the United States, for instance, may come out a net winner from a warmer
climate. On the other hand, the burden is expected to fall heavily on poor
and developing countries. What else is new?
Even if humanity strides through the changes unbowed, other residents of
Planet Earth might not fare so well -- polar bears dependent on vanishing
Arctic sea ice, for example, or pikas at alpine altitudes with a lifestyle
evolved to survive in near-permanent snow cover.
Hard-headed and pragmatic policymakers usually give short shrift to policy
recommendation that cannot be measured in dollars, but these softer issues
of human responsibility to the rest of creation have been an important
driver of many environmental polices over the past 35 years. Global warming
quickly may become another one of these arenas.
Climate is a weekly series examining the science behind and potential impact
of global climate change, by Dan Whipple, who covers environmental issues
for UPI Science News.
RELATED NHNE NEWS LIST ARTICLES:
MICHAEL CRICHTON STIRS GLOBAL WARMING CONTROVERSY (1/3/2005):
THE SCIENTIFIC CONSENSUS ON CLIMATE CHANGE (12/4/2004):
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