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Facts of the Matter


Sunday, August 19, 2001

Global-warming science
by no means settled

In a previous column on global warming, I tried to emphasize the difficulties in forecasting global climate change. Although the Kyoto Protocol was never mentioned, several readers assumed that I was advocating it. This was not the case, although I did note that doing nothing was probably not the right thing. It brought to light important and fundamental differences between the workings of science and politics that make it difficult for scientists and politicians to work together to formulate policy.

In June the National Academy of Sciences released a global-warming report. An editorial in the Wall Street Journal on June 11 by Richard Lindzen, one of the authors of the report, sums up the problem. He notes that the report does not support the Kyoto "treaty," despite the fact that a summary of the report was misread and its conclusions widely misreported by the press.

The conclusion of the NAS report stated that despite some knowledge and agreement, the science is by no means settled. It stated that the authors were quite confident of three things: 1) Global mean temperature is about 1 degree Fahrenheit higher than it was a century ago; 2) atmospheric levels of carbon dioxide have risen over the past two centuries; 3) carbon dioxide is a greenhouse gas whose increase is likely to warm the earth.

Lindzen's editorial goes on to note: "We are not in a position to confidently attribute past climate change to carbon dioxide or to forecast what the climate will be in the future. ... Contrary to media impressions, agreement with the three basic statements tells us almost nothing relevant to policy decisions. ... We simply do not know what relation, if any, exists between global climate changes and water vapor, clouds, storms, hurricanes and other factors including regional climate changes, which are generally larger than global changes and not correlated with them."

This is a classic example of the interaction between science and politics. Comparatively, politics looks for short-term solutions to immediate problems. Scientists, especially earth scientists, are concerned with much longer time scales.

Science is a process whereby conclusions are reached based on data that correlate with the best understanding of the phenomenon being studied. Scientists must change their conclusions when new data contradict previous conclusions. Yet scientists must possess a healthy amount of skepticism to prevent them from too quickly embracing a new idea and throwing out the baby with the bath water.

These fundamental differences make it especially difficult for politicians to formulate policy based on scientific conclusions. The problem is further complicated when decisions that are deemed to be good for the environment may not be good for politics or for economics.

I'm not advocating that we ignore the warnings and forecasts by scientists or that we stop computer modeling and other research. But we should be concerned about the possibility of major climatic change on us, our children and their children. How much of a gamble are we willing to take with the future of the only planet we know of that can support life?

We could all be a little smarter, no? Richard Brill picks up
where your high school science teacher left off. He is a professor of science
at Honolulu Community College, where he teaches earth and physical
science and investigates life and the universe.
He can be contacted by e-mail at

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