By Jeff Balke
By Aaron Reiss
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Alley says that a certain amount of carbon dioxide goes into the ocean or is absorbed by trees, and some plants might even do slightly better, but that will get you only so far. "You can get a little more carbon into standing plants, but you just can't do that forever because eventually someone's going to eat you."
Are these just skeptics putting the best possible spin on global warming? "There's some of that," he says. "As a reporter, you're required to look at both sides, and science virtually guarantees that you will find both sides." By finding the few counter voices, he says, the public gets the impression there's more controversy than actually exists.
In his experience, however, the articles written about his research tend to be pretty good, but the distortion comes in when the information travels from the science press to the talking heads and Web sites.
At a recent debate between Alley and Michaels at Penn State, Alley says Michaels said he was willing to admit humans were warming the world. Of course, "then he said you were going to love it," Alley laughs, "so it's a long way from here to UN storm troopers at the gas station." (Global warming will be "benign to beneficial," Michaels clarifies. "I choose my words very carefully.") "To have Pat Michaels say, 'Okay, we're warming the world,' to me says that most of the disagreement of human cause of climate change is now going away."
Rampton says you can chart the progress of the debate, pointing to a 1991 campaign in Minnesota by the front group Information Council on the Environment, which received funding from the Western Fuels Association. The ICE group ran ads claiming the climate was actually cooling, and compared belief in the greenhouse effect to adherence to the flat-earth theory. "Now what they're saying is that a warmer climate means more vegetation and it will be good for the earth and good for human health, but they're already moving beyond that, too."
Can Anything Be Done?
After months of harsh criticism from abroad over U.S. opposition to the Kyoto plan, the Environmental Protection Agency finally submitted a U.S. Climate Action Report to the UN in June. The report admits not only that global warming exists but that it is a serious problem. The document warns of more air pollution, public health dangers and damage to ecosystems.
"Adapting to the changing climate is inevitable," the report said. "The question is whether we adapt poorly or well."
A few days later Bush dismissed the report as bureaucratic, but it's the first hint that stage three of Therborn's theory is on the horizon.
Westbrook in general knocks computer modeling as inaccurate, but there's one simulation he's happy to highlight. Dr. Tom Wigley of the National Center for Atmospheric Research, he claims, ran a 1998 simulation that assumed full Kyoto compliance by all nations involved. He concluded that the reduction in warming by 2050 would be miniscule -- only about .13 of a degree Fahrenheit. The number of Kyotos required to make a difference, Westbrook says, means "cars go away, the trucks go away. We go back to almost living like the [Native Americans]."
Certainly any solution to address global warming will be less quantifiable and guaranteed to spark some dissent among scientists. Whether the consensus is truly to do nothing is another matter. In the age of spin, it's difficult to know where the consensus lies. As is pointed out time and again, there are vested interests on all sides, and environmental organizations have done their fair share of twisting scientific theories into sky-is-falling scenarios.
"An oil company wants to sell oil, and a scientist wants research funding," Alley says. Scientists have a desire to convince funding sources to invest more money in their research. And the scientific process can be sloppy or subject to bias and politics. "I truly believe science is about as good as humans do," Alley says. "I say, 'Are we impartial? Are we doing it for truth?' Well, we're worried about our jobs, too." But in the end, scientists have to go out and withstand the scrutiny of their peers, who possess divergent interests and biases of their own.
Rampton says that because science ultimately relies on objective reality, the truth eventually will emerge. "After nearly 50 years, the tobacco industry finally admitted smoking causes lung cancer," he says. "By the time they admitted it, the entire health community, the scientific community, had reached that conclusion for decades." In the meantime, he says, hundreds of thousands died because the industry deliberately encouraged confusion on the issue.
In the global warming debate, scientists on the skeptical side tend to be a bit older and many are retired, Westbrook notes. They no longer rely on research grants or regular employment, which means they can focus simply on finding the truth. Or it could mean they're a dying breed. Regardless, he's almost assured of continuing to find an audience willing to have him tell them what they want to hear in Houston.
Westbrook does admit to some political reasons for fearing a global warming consensus. If people demand a solution, that inevitably means government will get involved, possibly even leading to a greater role for the UN. "I'd like to see us constrain ourselves as much as we can," he says.