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Global Warming: Whose Problem is it Anyway?
Michael Glantz

It no longer seems to make a difference who started the global warming problem, and by “problem,” I am referring to the likely enhancement of the naturally occurring greenhouse effect as a result of human activities. Those activities primarily center on the release of carbon dioxide through the burning of fossil fuels such as coal, oil and natural gas. Other heat-trapping greenhouse gases include methane, nitrous oxide and chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs).

In their march to industrialization, rich countries have basically saturated the atmosphere with these heat-trapping gases. Each year, the atmospheric concentration of carbon dioxide (arguably the most important of the greenhouse gases) increases by more than a part per million by volume. Doesn’t that sound infinitesimal? It does to me. But, infinitesimal concentrations become significant when accumulating in the atmosphere year after year, as carbon dioxide has since the onset of the Industrial Revolution in the mid-1700s.

As we settle into the 21st century, new major greenhouse-gas-producing nations are appearing on the scene, such as India and China. They want to develop their economies, and they have a right, as well as a responsibility, to their citizens to do so. But they are also going to be emitting a larger share of heat-trapping gases, overtaking the industrialized countries that have been the dominant producers of greenhouse gases in the past. Now what?

A couple of decades ago, I chose to divide the observers of global warming into three groups: hawks, doves and owls. In the mid-1980s, there were some hawks (those who are convinced beyond a reasonable doubt that human activities not only can, but also are, altering the chemical composition of the atmosphere in ways that influence global climate); some doves (those who believe that Earth’s atmosphere is so robust that it can absorb any insult that humans might do to it. Besides, if it gets really serious, either technology will save us, or we Americans can move north into Canada); and mostly owls (those who lean either toward the hawks’ or the doves’ view, but are still not sure what the truth is).

Twenty-five years later, the hawks have increased in number, while the doves are about the same with maybe a few more vocal personalities. And the owls’ numbers have reduced due to new scientific information — appearing in the media alongside scary photos of disintegrating ice sheets in the Antarctic and depletion of sea ice in the Arctic, stories about a seeming increase in various “superstorms,” and advertisements from Shell and BP telling us that they too are worried about global warming.

Since 1985, however, another category has emerged: the ostrich. The ostriches include those who refuse to think about global warming as a problem, who refuse to consider any new scientific research, and who think that someone somewhere will solve this problem before it becomes a crisis.

Global warming is not a hoax. It actually happens naturally. Industrialization processes in rich countries and now in developing ones are abetting the naturally occurring greenhouse effect.

Some say we are spinning out of control, pointing to the Arctic as a “canary in the global warming mine.” The Inuit are worried. They are on the proverbial firing line, according to scientists who remind us that a 1 degree warming in the mid-latitudes will be associated with a 3 to 4 degree warming in the higher latitudes. What we are hearing from the scientists is that we are at or near tipping points — irreversible thresholds of change — for certain species, countries and civilizations.

But although we talk a lot about doing something about global warming, we do not have a whole lot of meaningful action. “Let them eat carbon dioxide” seems to be the current response of various governments, despite words of concern. Is anyone trying to cut back on carbon dioxide emissions?

Cutting back on carbon dioxide production is much easier to say than to do. The task of cutting back worldwide is made much more difficult because of the virtual lack of participation of the United States as a leader on the global warming issue in the international community. It is hard to keep bailing out the water at one end of a sinking boat, while someone at the other end insists on drilling holes in the hull.

The business community, at-risk cities and island nations are increasingly calling for action to combat human-induced global warming. What is needed? Only an active government policy around which a coalition can rally will thoroughly address the complex issue.

Alas, the issue demands government leadership from the “bully pulpit” that calls for and wholeheartedly supports an all-out “war on global warming.” In my view, it is the only way to address the global warming problem with some sense of optimism.

Societies need to find new and more efficient ways to fuel their growing economies. The wars on crime, prostitution, alcohol, drugs and even terror are not really winnable wars. They are not winnable in the sense that views on these issues represent underlying differences of opinion. However, the physics of the atmospheresuggests that we (civilizations) are on a collision course with Mother Nature, and if atmospheric science is correct, there is little time for delay.

The war on global warming should begin now. With government support (moral and financial) and a search for new ways to keep our industries progressing without adding greenhouse gases to the atmosphere, there is a real chance for the global community to pull together.

Technology alone, especially if it is expected to be applied only at the proverbial 11th hour, can’t save us from many of the projected and foreseeable negative impacts of global warming. For an example of thinking ahead, take the Netherlands.

The Dutch have successfully fought off the floods of the North Sea for centuries, with few breaches in recent times (1953 comes to mind). The Netherlands have even contracted with the U.S. federal government for a few hundred million dollars, to assist in developing levees that can withstand certain intensities of tropical storms around New Orleans.

Despite their levee-making skills, however, the Dutch know their limits. The Netherlands is now working to develop a “Hydropole,” a city that can live on the rising waters. They know they need to do something to protect the 70 percent of the country that is below sea level, when a warmer atmosphere leads to rising seas.

Other countries need to follow by accepting the potential changes that lie ahead, and working now to plan for those changes and to curb actions that would otherwise fuel more change. Only with an aggressive war on global warming, supported by the entire international community of nations and with participation of the United States, can we learn to live within the guidelines of nature, respecting her thresholds of change by choosing not to cross them.


Glantz is a senior scientist at the National Center for Atmospheric Research in Boulder, Colo. He wrote in the April 2005 Geotimes about adaptation to climate change. E-mail: glantz@ucar.edu.

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