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Global warming: politics muddle policy.

Global warming: Politics muddle policy

A mixed message has emerged from a United Nations-sponsored panel studying global warming. The panel's scientific committee, which issued its final report this month, predicts global temperatures will rise dramatically in the next century unless nations halt the buildup of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. But a separate policy committee, whose final report is expected next week, downplays the urgency of the problem.

Meanwhile, several European nations continue to take the lead in preventive action by adopting specific targets for reducing emissions of greenhouse gases.

Over the past several years, scientists have actively debated the significance of the global warming threat, with a few arguing that the world will not warm at all. But the much-awaited scientific report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) -- sponsored by the United Nations Environment Program and the World Meteorological Organization -- offers the most comprehensive consensus statement yet from scientists. About 250 top climate experts from around the world helped prepare the science committee's final report.

The committee predicts that in the absence of international controls on greenhouse-gas emissions, global mean temperatures will increase by 0.3[degrees]C per decade, with an uncertainty range of 0.2[degrees]C to 0.5[degrees]C per decade. The warming would raise the global average temperature about 1[degree]C by 2025 and 3[degrees]C before the end of the 21st century, forcing humans and ecosystems to adapt. In the last 10,000 years, Earth has never warmed at such a rapid rate, the scientists note.

The science committee also estimates that sea levels will rise about 20 centimeters by 2030 and 65 cm by the end of the next century.

Only drastic action by the world's nations can stabilize the increasing accumulations of greenhouse gases and thus stave off significant future warming, the group concludes. In a Senate hearing last week on the IPCC results, NASA's Robert T. Watson, a member of the science committee, testified: "With the long-lived gases [carbon dioxide, nitrous oxide and chlorofluorocarbons], if we want to stabilize their concentrations at today's levels, it would require between a 60 and 85 percent reduction compared to today's emissions." Methane emissions would require a 15 to 20 percent reduction, Watson said.

At the hearing, Sen. Albert Gore Jr. (D-Tenn.) alleged that the Bush administration used its influence to weaken the report of the panel committee examining policy options. The United States chaired the policy committee, while the United Kingdom headed the science committee. The Soviet Union led a group examining the consequences of climate change and has yet to issue its report.

In particular, Gore faulted the policy committee for failing to list any specific goals or timetables for reducing emissions. Gore also charged that the U.S. delegation allowed representatives of petroleum-rich Saudi Arabia to dominate discussion and to block any strong statements by the policy committee.

"The U.S. delegation sat on their hands, saying very little, while the Saudis and some others blasted the hell out of any policy options that would have led to reductions," he said.

Frederick Bernthal, deputy director of the National Science Foundation and chairman of the IPCC policy committee, told the hearing the policy report lays out a roadmap for various policy options but could not include specific dates or goals, because opposition from several countries would have prevented the committee from ever reaching agreement.

Bernthal characterized the discussions in the policy committee as a "reality check" revealing that many countries lag far behind the Europeans in terms of pushing for limitations on emissions. "In my judgment, a group of countries -- to be quite candid, predominantly northern European countries -- are in danger of losing [support from] a good part of the developing world in the way this issue is being pressed," he said.

The day before the Senate hearing, the West German cabinet took the most significant step yet by any major nation on this issue, approving a unilateral plan to cut 25 percent off West Germany's current yearly carbon dioxide emissions in the next 15 years. And in May, British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher pledged to implement future reductions that would return U.K. emissions to their 1990 levels by the year 2005, "provided others are willing to take their full share."

Many environmentalists contend the United States -- the world's largest emitter of carbon dioxide -- should assume a leadership role in supporting specific reductions. Says Rafe Pomerance of the World Resources Institute in Washington, D.C., "The point is: How many more countries would be willing to move if the United States was willing to move?"
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Author:Monastersky, Richard
Publication:Science News
Date:Jun 23, 1990
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