Wed, Mar

Let the Real Climate Debate Begin -- A Guest Commentary

The global warming debate is over – the Earth is warming because of human activities. So say 11 National Academies of Science from around the world together with virtually all of the world’s climate scientists, California Governor Schwarzenegger, and even most of major oil companies.

The global warming debate is over ”“ the Earth is warming because of human activities. So say 11 National Academies of Science from around the world together with virtually all of the world’s climate scientists, California Governor Schwarzenegger, and even most of major oil companies. And the American people, by an overwhelming majority, believe it’s time to take action.

For most climate scientists, this particular debate was over many years ago. The climate experienced by our children and grandchildren will be substantially different than it is today. Indeed, the next generations will see a climate unlike any since the rise of Homo sapiens.

Yet the facts about the sound science of climate change have been obfuscated by a tiny band of determined, vocal, and well-funded contrarians, with oil company support, the help of political editors of scientific reports inside the White House, and now politicians meddling with independent science.

Last month, Phil Cooney, the oil company lobbyist turned White House science "expert," was promptly hired by Exxon-Mobil after resigning under fire for changing the scientific conclusions in national climate reports. Texas Republican Joe Barton, who has reportedly received more money from the oil, gas, coal, nuclear, electricity, and chemical industry than any other member of the House of Representatives, sent letters to three climate scientists demanding their raw data showing the rising temperature of the Earth. The work of these scientists has been intensively peer-reviewed already, but their findings are so disturbing to climate deniers that they are pushing for political intimidation. Barton is being advised by the small community of climate skeptics funded by -- surprise -- Exxon-Mobil.

Stop playing politics with climate science. It is time for the real climate debate to begin. If politicians want to get involved in the debate ”“ as they should ”“ they should be asking: How bad are global climate changes going to be, what should be done about them, who should do it, and who should pay? Lots of science needs to be done, but the difficult challenges are social, economic, and political, are not scientific.


At the heart of this challenge is the question of how to maintain our economic well-being while getting away from the need to burn fossil fuels ”“ the source of most of the pollution that is altering our climate. The key is to understand that we want heat, light, refrigeration, transportation, communications, and other goods and services ”“ not to burn fossil fuels. Let’s satisfy these wants in new ways.

Unhooking from fossil fuels won’t be easy. And it won’t happen overnight. But making this shift can help the environment, improve public health, strengthen our national security, and give our economy a boost ”“ all while slowing and eventually stopping climate change.

Some in the fossil-fuel industry argue this would mean sacrificing our economy as well. Nonsense: there are renewable energy technologies for almost every human want -- and smart people working on alternatives for what’s lacking. Indeed, the thoughtful oil companies are already thinking about and planning for this transition, knowing that it is inevitable. BP is reinventing itself as “Beyond Petroleum” and has invested $500 million over the past few years in photovoltaics. Shell is investing in wind energy.

Trading my gasoline car for an electric-gas hybrid hasn’t hurt my ability to drop my children off at school or drive to a meeting. I’ve halved the amount I spend on gas, cut my contribution of climate-change-causing carbon dioxide in the air, and reduced cancer-causing pollution at the ground level. And I’d happily trade my hybrid for a car completely independent of fossil fuels, if a smart auto companies would offer a well-designed one. And I’d certainly be happier if that smart company was an American one.

Small steps are being taken, though not at the national level. New York and nine other northeastern states are working to develop limits on carbon emissions from power plants. The U.S. Conference of Mayors voted unanimously to support greenhouse gas limits. California is pushing a bipartisan initiative to place solar panels on a million homes in ten years. Montana, North Dakota, Iowa, Washington, and other states have adopted renewable energy targets and incentives. What we lack are coordinated national efforts and a national message.

Alas, there seems no sign that the Bush Administration is hearing any of this. The information on climate change that reaches the top is filtered, edited, and spun by the special interests that surround and make up the government into a problem far more difficult than it should be. The problem is easy. Let’s have the real debate about what to do next. The longer we wait to have this debate, the more challenging, difficult, and costly both the consequences and the solutions will be.


Based in Oakland, California, The Pacific Institute is an independent, nonpartisan think-tank studying issues at the intersection of development, environment, and security. Information on The Pacific Institute's funders is posted on its website.

Dr. Peter H. Gleick is a 2003 MacArthur Fellow, member of the US National Academy of Sciences Water Science and Technology Board, a lifetime member of the International Water Academy in Oslo, Norway, and President of the Pacific Institute, Oakland. Dr. Gleick did some of the earliest research on the impacts of climate change for water resources in the early 1980s. His findings, suggesting dramatic impacts of climate change for snowfall, snowpack, and runoff, still form the basis for our understanding of some important risks of climate change, despite vast improvements in models, computers, and climate analysis over the subsequent two decades. He was recently appointed to the UN-Sigma Xi Scientific Expert Group on Climate Change and Sustainable Development analyzing approaches and policies for adapting to and mitigating climate change.

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Source: An ENN Guest Commentary