Global Warming Research: Learning from Past Mistakes

Article excerpt

Will studies on greenhouse gases drag out for a decade - as did the acid rain debate - while policy decisions are implemented without them?

Predictions are that the atmospheric concentration of carbon dioxide ([CO.sub.2]) from the burning of gasoline, coal, and other fossil fuels will double by the middle of the 21st century, causing the average temperature of the Earth to rise by about three-eight degrees Fahrenheit. While this may be good news to winter-weary Northerners, the potential ecological and climate impacts of such a temperature increase could be devastating. Radically altered precipitation patterns, coastal inundation from sea-level rise, and the extinction of plant and animal species are among the concerns of many who have studied the situation. It is no wonder that global climate change has become the most important environmental issue on the world agenda and the key focus of international policy deliberations.

At the same time, there are many uncertainties. The predictions could be wrong - two decades ago, for instance, it appeared the Earth was cooling. If warming does occur, it may not be nearly as severe as predicted or as quick to happen. That could leave ample time for people and ecosystems to adapt to any changes. However, the uncertainties cut both ways. What if climate change occurs faster than expected or if impacts prove more severe? The results could be catastrophic.

Actions to address the dilemma would require worldwide reductions in the amount Of [CO.sub.2] and other so-called "greenhouse gases" (mainly methane, chlorofluorocarbons, and nitrous oxide) which, like [CO.sub.2], trap heat in the atmosphere. European nations, especially the Scandinavian countries, have called for immediate cutbacks in such emissions to stabilize the buildup of these greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. Reductions would be achieved primarily by a decrease in fossil fuel consumption that would come through taxes on fuels or their carbon content, or through less demand as a result of improvements in energy efficiency.

The current situation on global climate research bears a distinct resemblance to the situation roughly a decade ago. In the early 1980s, international calls from Canada and northern Europe for reductions in the sulfur dioxide emissions believed responsible for acid rain largely fell on deaf ears. The U.S. economy was pinched by a recession which especially had hurt the industrial Midwest. Instead of immediate action, the Reagan Administration favored a program of research to understand the effects of acid rain and ways of controlling it. For a full decade, the National Acid Precipitation Assessment Program (NAPAP) labored at this task.

However, the 10-year, $500,000,000 program to guide U.S. policy on acid rain control proved largely irrelevant when the time came for action on the new Clean Air Act Amendments in 1990. While NAPAP's scientific accomplishments were praised, the inter-agency program created by Congress to inform public policy had failed in its primary mission - providing policy-relevant information in a timely manner.

The US. appears to be headed down the same ill-fated path in dealing with the more difficult and far-reaching environmental issues associated with global warming. While the resources devoted to global-climate change research are laudable, this program appears to be following the precedent set by NAPAP - i.e., the current research agenda will produce a lot of good science, but be largely irrelevant to the policy decisions the US. and other nations will face over the next decade.

How can a multi-billion-dollar research project involving some of the best scientific minds fail to help produce better public policy? Answers to this question may be found by examining the lessons learned from NAPAP and the current plans for global change research.

The acid rain debacle

In the early 1970s, a number of U. …