Scientists from several Western nations are clamoring for a crash program to develop clean energy that would rival the Manhattan Project and the Apollo mission to the moon.
Writing in today's issue of the journal Nature, scientists from North America and Europe predicted that global warming will soon become the environmental equivalent of the Cold War as the world's increasing reliance on fossil fuels releases more carbon dioxide and other heat-trapping pollutants into the atmosphere.
The 11 scientists urged negotiators at environmental talks scheduled to begin Monday in Buenos Aires, Argentina, to push for a mobilization of scientific resources to develop alternative forms of energy, such as solar, wind and nuclear power.
"Developing and commercializing carbon-free power technologies by the mid-21st century could require efforts, perhaps international, pursued with the urgency of the Manhattan Project or the Apollo space program," said Martin Hoffert, a physicist at New York University.
No more than 20 percent of today's energy use comes from carbon-free sources.
The Nature paper is unusual because it contains broad policy recommendations. Normally, the journal publishes straightforward scientific studies.
Last year, governments meeting in Kyoto, Japan, agreed to emission reductions by the United States, Japan, the 15-nation European Union and 21 other industrial nations. The nations are to cut their output of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases to 5 percent below their 1990 levels by 2012.
This year, negotiators for 166 nations are meeting to determine how each country will achieve the reductions.
To some, rising annual average temperatures in the 1990s amount to early proof that global warming has arrived and that the current treaty won't protect nations from climatic upheaval during the 21st century.
Some scientists said global warming is inevitable and no amount of effort not even a crash program will prevent it.
"We will experience a substantial amount of further climate change even if we make huge cuts in emissions," said Martin Parry of University College in London.
Others said there are many ways of reducing global warming without mobilizing scientists worldwide.
Energy conservation and efficiency, such as greater use of cleaner-burning natural gas and nuclear power, might be a cheaper solution, they say. Smokestack and tailpipe controls, as well as planting trees, can reduce pollution, too.
Countries can also provide utilities with financial incentives to invest in experimental technologies.
In Toronto, at the annual meeting this week of the Geological Society of America, university and industry analysts warned that the United States and others must soon find transportation fuels besides gasoline, and shift electricity generation away from coal and oil.
Even optimists at the meeting agreed that demand for crude oil will outstrip production by 2020 and that worldwide reserves will be exhausted by 2100. Oil shortages and higher prices will make the world a more dangerous place, they warned.
"Our children and grandchildren are going to be mad at us for burning all of this oil," said University of Colorado energy forecaster Jack Edwards. "Renewable energy sources are where we need to be headed."
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