Middle Stance Emerges in Debate Over Climate
- The new posture of pseudo-conservatism?
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January 1, 2007
Middle Stance Emerges in Debate Over Climate
By ANDREW C. REVKIN
Amid the shouting lately about whether global warming is a human-caused
catastrophe or a hoax, some usually staid climate scientists in the
usually invisible middle are speaking up.
The discourse over the issue has been feverish since Hurricane Katrina.
Seizing the moment, many environmental campaigners, former Vice President
Al Gore and some scientists have portrayed the growing human influence on
the climate as an unfolding disaster that is already measurably
strengthening hurricanes, spreading diseases and amplifying recent
droughts and deluges.
Conservative politicians and a few scientists, many with ties to energy
companies, have variously countered that human-driven warming is
inconsequential, unproved or a manufactured crisis.
A third stance is now emerging, espoused by many experts who challenge
both poles of the debate.
They agree that accumulating carbon dioxide and other heat-trapping
smokestack and tailpipe gases probably pose a momentous environmental
challenge, but say the appropriate response is more akin to buying fire
insurance and installing sprinklers and new wiring in an old,
irreplaceable house (the home planet) than to fighting a fire already
Climate change presents a very real risk, said Carl Wunsch, a climate
and oceans expert at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. It seems
worth a very large premium to insure ourselves against the most
catastrophic scenarios. Denying the risk seems utterly stupid. Claiming we
can calculate the probabilities with any degree of skill seems equally
Many in this camp seek a policy of reducing vulnerability to all climate
extremes while building public support for a sustained shift to
nonpolluting energy sources.
They have made their voices heard in Web logs, news media interviews and
at least one statement from a large scientific group, the World
Meteorological Organization. In early December, that group posted a
statement written by a committee consisting of most of the climatologists
assessing whether warming seas have affected hurricanes.
While each degree of warming of tropical oceans is likely to intensify
such storms a percentage point or two in the future, they said, there is
no firm evidence of a heat-triggered strengthening in storms in recent
years. The experts added that the recent increase in the impact of storms
was because of more people getting in harms way, not stronger storms.
There are enough experts holding such views that Roger A. Pielke Jr., a
political scientist and blogger at the University of Colorado, Boulder,
came up with a name for them (and himself): nonskeptical heretics.
A lot of people have independently come to the same sort of conclusion,
Dr. Pielke said. We do have a problem, we do need to act, but what
actions are practical and pragmatic?
This approach was most publicly laid out in an opinion article on the BBC
Web site in November by Mike Hulme, the director of the Tyndall Center for
Climate Change Research in Britain.
Dr. Hulme said that shrill voices crying doom could paralyze instead of
I have found myself increasingly chastised by climate change campaigners
when my public statements and lectures on climate change have not
satisfied their thirst for environmental drama, he wrote. I believe
climate change is real, must be faced and action taken. But the discourse
of catastrophe is in danger of tipping society onto a negative, depressive
and reactionary trajectory.
Other experts say there is no time for nuance, given the general lack of
public response to the threat posed particularly by carbon dioxide, a
byproduct of burning fossil fuels and forests that persists for a century
or more in the air and is accumulating rapidly in the atmosphere and
changing the pH of the oceans.
James E. Hansen, the veteran climate scientist with the National
Aeronautics and Space Administration who has spoken out about climate
dangers since 1988, has recently said that scientists have been too quiet
If we want to avoid producing a different planet, we need to start acting
now, and not with paltry steps, he said in a recent e-mail exchange with
a reporter and other scientists. It seems almost to be a secret that we
cannot put all of the fossil-fuel CO2 into the air without producing a
different planet, and yes, dangerous change. There are people who dont
Debate among scientists over how to describe the climate threat is
particularly intense right now as experts work on the final language in
portions of the latest assessment of global warming by the
Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.
In three previous reports, the last published in 2001, this global network
of scientists operating under the auspices of the United Nations has
presented an ever-firmer picture of a growing human role in warming.
Studies used to generate the next report (portions are to be issued in
February) have shown a likely warming in the 21st century unless
emissions of greenhouse gases abate at least several times that of the
last centurys one-degree rise.
But substantial uncertainty still clouds projections of important impacts,
like how high and quickly seas would rise as ice sheets thawed.
Recent drafts of the climate report used a conservative analysis that does
not project a rise most people would equate with catastrophe, scientists
involved in writing it say. Other experts say this may send too comforting
Dr. Hulme insists that it is best not to gloss over uncertainties.
In fact, he and other experts say that uncertainty is one reason to act
as a hedge against the prospect that problems could be much worse than
His goal, Dr. Hulme said, is to raise public appreciation of the
unprecedented scale and nature of the challenge.
Climate change is not a problem waiting for a solution (least of all a
solution delivered and packaged by science), but a powerful idea that will
transform the way we develop, he said in an e-mail message.
Dr. Hulme and others avoid sounding alarmist, but offer scant comfort to
anyone who doubts that humans are contributing to warming or believes the
matter can be deferred.
These experts see a clear need for the public to engage now, but not to
panic. They worry that portrayals of the issue like that in An
Inconvenient Truth, the documentary focused on the views of Mr. Gore, may
push too hard.
Many in this group also see a need to portray clearly that the response
would require far more than switching to fluorescent light bulbs and to
This is a mega-ethical challenge, said Jerry D. Mahlman, a climatologist
at the National Center for Atmospheric Research in Boulder, Colo., who has
studied global warming for more than three decades. In space, its the
size of a planet, and in time, it has scales far broader than what we
go-go Homo sapiens are accustomed to dealing with.
Dr. Mahlman and others say that the buildup of carbon dioxide and other
greenhouse gases cannot be quickly reversed with existing technologies.
And even if every engine on earth were shut down today, they add, there
would be no measurable impact on the warming rate for many years, given
the buildup of heat already banked in the seas.
Because of the scale and time lag, a better strategy, Dr. Mahlman and
others say, is to treat human-caused warming more as a risk to be reduced
than a problem to be solved.
These experts also say efforts to attribute recent weather extremes to the
climate trend, though they may generate headlines in the short run,
distract from the real reasons to act, which relate more to the long-term
relationship of people and the planet.
Global warming is real, its serious, but its just one of many global
challenges that were facing, said John M. Wallace, a climatologist at
the University of Washington. I portray it as part of a broader problem
of environmental stewardship preserving a livable planet with abundant
resources for future generations.
Some experts, though, argue that moderation in a message is likely to be
misread as satisfaction with the pace of change.
John P. Holdren, an energy and environment expert at Harvard and president
of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, defended the
more strident calls for limits on carbon dioxide and other heat-trapping
I am one of those who believes that any reasonably comprehensive and
up-to-date look at the evidence makes clear that civilization has already
generated dangerous anthropogenic interference in the climate system, Dr.
Holdren said. What keeps me going is my belief that there is still a
chance of avoiding catastrophe.
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