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Scientists propose global warming economics; economist knocks global warming science
STANFORD -- The views of the panelists, if not the disciplines they represent, seemed to answer "yes" to the question posed in the title of "Environment and Economics - Are They Poles Apart?" a panel-turned- debate sponsored by the Stanford University Alumni Association on March 21.
Climatologist Stephen H. Schneider (see separate interview), a visiting professor at Stanford, and Stanford professor Paul R. Ehrlich urged cooperation between scientists and economists in an effort to solve major environmental threats. Meanwhile, Hoover Institution senior fellow Thomas G. Moore denied the very existence of major threats.
"The science that is left in environmental issues is essentially trivial," said Ehrlich, author of The Population Explosion. "All involved scientists realize the scale of human activities is too large, and that we must take major steps now to avoid future catastrophes."
Much of the remaining action, he said, is in the area of economics, and "there cannot be any barrier between economics and ecology."
Moore, who has specialized in deregulation of the airline and freight transportation industries, took immediate issue with Ehrlich, and with environmental scientists in general. He charged that environmentalists fabricate "terror stories designed to frighten the public into extreme positions."
Moore was particularly incensed by "global-warming terror stories," which he said are based on computer models that are "mostly garbage." Moore began to describe the rise and fall of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere as if it were last week's Dow Jones average.
The debate over whether there is a significant threat of global warming, and if so what should be done about it, Schneider said, grows louder as the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development in June gets closer. The U.S. negotiating position on global warming is now being worked out, and political and economic stakes are high.
Schneider discussed what he said scientists do and do not consider controversial about the greenhouse effect and global warming. The greenhouse effect, he said, is a known scientific phenomenon: Certain gases, such as carbon dioxide and water vapor, trap heat near the earth's surface, and keep it from dissipating back into space.
It is also scientific fact, Schneider said, that there is now 25 percent more carbon dioxide and even greater amounts of other important greenhouse gases in the atmosphere than before the Industrial Revolution. The vast majority of scientists, he said, believes this rise is due to increasing numbers of people, deforestation and use of fossil-fuel-burning technologies.
"If you use the atmosphere as a free sewer for your activities, eventually things will build up," he said.
What is controversial, Schneider said, is how these extra greenhouse gases translate into temperature change. Projections vary depending on the assumptions scientists make about how much water the heat evaporates, how much of that evaporated water goes to making clouds, and what kind of clouds are made.
Depending on the answers to these and other questions, the warming effect of greenhouse gases is either increased or decreased. Scientific estimates typically range from three to nine degrees Fahrenheit of warming over the next 100 years.
Nine degrees is the same magnitude of temperature change from the last ice age, 15,000 years ago, to the present warm era, which began about 5,000 years ago. During that warming period, "sea levels rose 300 feet, some animal species and some species of trees moved literally thousands of miles," Schneider said. "Entire ecosystems came unglued."
Moore, however, contended that the projected increase is equivalent to moving from San Jose to Los Angeles and poses no significant dangers.
Therefore, he said, nothing should be done to prevent possible global warming.
"Environmental regulation for the most part raises costs and discourages economic growth," he said, and economic growth itself can best succeed in minimizing pollution.
The cost of limiting carbon dioxide emissions, he said, is far greater than any possible, unproven benefit.
Schneider argued that in assessing the risk of global warming, the most important question now is not whether the outcome is absolutely certain, but whether we can afford to lose. Steps could be taken now, he said, to limit carbon dioxide emissions by 10 to 40 percent, simply by improving the energy efficiency of buildings, lighting, automobiles and manufacturing.
The dollar savings in energy efficiency would mean a net savings for the economy, he said.
Schneider framed the main issue of the environment- economics debate as the need "to have flexibility of management in the future - and ideology is the enemy of flexibility."
To Moore the main issue was whether "we can get the world to have the U.S. standard of living, and have a cleaner world when we do it."
Ehrlich described the challenge facing scientists and economists as designing a market economy capable of judging its own scale - detecting when its size is too large for the ecological systems that support it, and making needed adjustments. The real issue, Ehrlich said, "is whether there is a chance to produce a world that will not collapse."
After the debate, slides of the Arctic were projected on the auditorium screen, casting the question of global warming in yet another light - the possible impact of global warming on unique ecosystems. A picture projected larger-than-life filled the screen: a polar bear standing on white pack ice, its muscular legs seemingly planted there, its angular head thrust forward and face stained bright red from the blood of a seal.
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