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Climate Scientist Becomes Reluctant Activist

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  • mtneuman@juno.com
    Global warming is unpleasant news. The costs of doing something substantial to arrest it are daunting, but the consequences of not doing anything are
    Message 1 of 1 , Dec 28, 2003
      "Global warming is unpleasant news. The costs of doing something
      substantial to arrest it are daunting, but the consequences of not doing
      anything are staggering." [Excerpt from article below.]

      Many of the casualities of global warming are already coming to pass,
      unfortunately. The window of opportunity to act is closing.

      December 16, 2003

      Listening to the Climate Models, and Trying to Wake Up the World

      DENVER � In the stormy world of climate science, Dr. Jerry D. Mahlman,
      63, is considered a giant.

      Until three years ago, Dr. Mahlman, now a senior researcher at the
      National Center for Atmospheric Research here in Colorado, headed the
      federal Geophysical Fluid Dynamics Laboratory in Princeton, N.J.

      There he studied how the earth's troposphere and stratosphere work. To
      that end, he developed mathematical models showing how natural forces and
      chemicals interact in the atmosphere. The models consistently show that
      carbon dioxide emissions are likely to heat up the air, water and land.

      It was this prediction of an overly warm future that transformed Dr.
      Mahlman into a reluctant activist. He travels the country on his own
      time, warning religious, civic and educational groups about the dangers
      of global warming.

      "I don't like having to talk to people about something they don't
      particularly want to hear," he said in an interview, "but I see what the
      climate models are telling us. I think by ignoring projections on global
      warming, we are making a negative gift to our successors � human, animal
      and plant � of enormous dimension."

      Q. Let's begin with basics. Is there actually a global warming

      A. Yes, there really is. We know that the earth's climate has been
      heating up over the past century. This is happening in the atmosphere,
      ocean and on land.

      Q. People often make off-the-cuff jokes about global warming, but why
      would a warmer earth be such a terrible thing?

      A. The serious heat wave in Europe last summer is one example of how
      warming can affect people. Also, if the climate model projections on the
      level of warming are right, sea level will be rising for the next
      thousand years, the glaciers will be melting faster and dramatic
      increases in the intensity in rainfall rates and hurricanes are expected.

      It means a summer drying out of the interiors of continents, with a
      threat to agriculture systems, planetwide. In the winter, it will rain
      more in our latitudes. There will be a major melting of Arctic Sea ice,
      and therefore a megathreat to life there. That is already happening.

      If sea levels rise as fast as we think they will, the Florida Everglades
      are doomed. Low-lying countries like Bangladesh and Holland will be in
      serious trouble. And you can say goodbye to any islands that were formed
      by corals.

      In 1979, a National Academy of Sciences report said the climate was
      likely to warm if you keep putting CO2 into the atmosphere. Though in the
      intervening years, we've gotten much more information proving this,
      little has been done since on the policy side of reducing CO2 emissions.
      All of this raises deep ethical questions. For me, the biggest one is, Do
      we accept a responsibility for the welfare of our descendants and for
      life in general 100, 200, 1,000 years from now?

      Q. With many forecasters unable to predict if it is going to rain on
      Thursday, how can you predict the weather in a hundred years?

      A. In some ways, weather prediction is harder because we are forecasting
      detailed short-term events that depend in detail upon our current
      weather. Climate projections are mathematically easier because we can
      only identify changes in averaged weather in the far future.

      I've spent most of my professional life using mathematical models to
      calculate weather and climate all over the earth using the basic laws of
      physics. We solve those equations on supercomputers to evaluate future
      climate over many, many places on the world. And we check what the
      climate models give us against data from the real world. These models
      give us the future climate projections I'm speaking of here.

      Q. How did the weather become such an important part of your life?

      A. I grew up in the high plains of Nebraska, and we had severe hailstorms
      and blizzards. They were a source of fascination to me as a kid. On the
      prairie, you are marked by the weather. I never took weather for granted.
      I wanted to understand it.

      Q. Could you be wrong with your predictions on global warming?

      A. It would be wonderful to be wrong. Unfortunately, these projections
      are based on strong science that refuses to go away. Oh sure, there are
      people insisting that warming is just a part of natural weather cycles,
      but their claims are not close to being scientifically credible. And
      while there certainly are long climate cycles, the fact is that the
      strong warming we are seeing is happening in an era of ever increasing
      CO2 emissions.

      These people remind me of the folks who kept trying to cast doubt on the
      science linking cancer to tobacco use. In both situations, the underlying
      scientific knowledge was quite well established, while the uncertainties
      were never enough to render the problem inconsequential. Yet, this
      offered misguided incentives to dismiss a danger.

      Global warming is unpleasant news. The costs of doing something
      substantial to arrest it are daunting, but the consequences of not doing
      anything are staggering.

      Q. One attempt by the international community to get a handle on global
      warming was the so-called Kyoto accords, which the Clinton administration
      supported tepidly, the United States Senate refused to ratify and the
      Bush administration openly opposed. The core of the treaty involved a
      national quota system for fossil fuel use. You've said elsewhere that
      Kyoto wouldn't have solved the global warming problem. Why?

      A. Because it was a valid first step, and only that. The best Kyoto could
      have done was lower the increase rate of carbon dioxide in the
      atmosphere, somewhat. Thirty Kyotos might do the job. The real value of
      Kyoto was to start the process of putting a brake on fossil fuel use.

      Q. Did you ever see Henrik Ibsen's "An Enemy of the People," about a
      health worker whose life is destroyed after he tells his community about
      typhoid in its water supply?

      A. I am familiar with the story. I too have been under tremendous
      pressure at times to tone down my message, to make the science appear
      less alarming. When I was head of my laboratory at Princeton, I was often
      asked to give Congressional testimony.

      In three events, two senators and a congressman � I won't give you their
      names because I consider that cheap � attacked me in the most personal
      way. They were trying to intimidate me into denying my testimony. Also,
      during my tenure in government, there were three instances where people
      in the government attempted to alter my prepared testimony. In each
      instance, I successfully challenged the requested changes as being
      scientifically insupportable.

      Q. Nonscientists often say that science will come up with something to
      counter global warming. Is this wishful thinking?

      A. So far, most of the alternatives that people are talking about have
      their own problems. We should start by curbing some fossil fuel use, of
      course. One idea you hear a lot about is called capturing carbon, where
      you burn coal and then sequester the CO2 deep under the earth. But if you
      start burying the stuff, you might be inviting other environmental
      problems. Does the CO2 ooze out? Does it leak into water systems? People
      have said, "how about putting the CO2 at the bottom of the ocean?" Well,
      what about the ecosystems there? Yet another strategy is nuclear energy,
      but the reactors can be used for making weapons of mass destruction.

      Frankly, I don't have a quick-fix answer. I do know we have a very
      serious problem, but one that won't impact our entire planet dangerously
      until you and I are safely dead � which is perhaps why so few people care
      about it.


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