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Updated 15 November 2004

Consequences Vol. 3, No. 2, 1997









Twenty years ago our National Academy of Science released a study of energy and climate that looked hard at the probability of enhanced global greenhouse warming, based on projections in the 1970s of fossil fuel burning in coming decades. I chanced to witness the final report of the chairman, Roger Revelle, in which he explained the panel's concerns--in a quiet voice before a hushed group of eminent scientists. At the end, he elaborated the panel's recommendations of what we must do to eliminate any remaining doubt about the reality of a change that could affect, for better or worse, every living thing on Earth.

No one in the room was surprised, for the likelihood of inadvertently modifying the climate of the planet through the growing release of carbon dioxide and other gases had been raised repeatedly in many years before. Nor was there doubt in anyone's mind about the underlying theory on which the concerns were based, nor any conceivable challenge to the run of measurements that revealed an ominous accumulation of greenhouse gases in the global atmosphere.

Much has happened since that spring day in 1977. Carbon dioxide has continued its inexorable climb, rising last year, alone, by 3.4 percent. Related or not, the temperature of the Earth's surface has continued to warm, pretty much as predicted, to levels unprecedented in recent centuries. Scientists and laboratories around the world have spent the two decades in a monumental effort to measure and model and test the questions involved. The World Meteorological Organization and the United Nations Environment Programme have for nine years mobilized hundreds of the world's best scientists to mount an assessment that is unprecedented in depth and involvement and representation, and unique in the long history of science. The consensus findings of the IPCC have driven the governments of almost all of the wealthier nations of the world-- who are mainly responsible for the buildup--to commit their citizens and industries to cut back emissions of greenhouse gases, in the face of risks to their own, short-term economic interests.

As the more altruistic step forward and others hold back, the consequences of enhanced global greenhouse warming continue to be examined and tested, including the impacts on human health around the world, as noted in Paul Epstein's article in this issue.

In our country, particularly, an opposition has mobilized itself-- aided, in part, and sadly, by a press so accustomed to reporting science as controversial that it cannot handle a problem so deep or a consensus so wide. All of us who live here need to decide whether a nation with less than 5 percent of the world's population should continue to give off nearly one fourth of the gases that contribute to global warming. Before another twenty years slips by.

John A. Eddy

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