Experts debate the effects of a warmer world

By Todd Ackerman
Copyright 1998 Houston Chronicle
September 26, 1998

But they disagreed whether such an increase will produce the catastrophic consequences - droughts and floods, infectious disease epidemics, the loss of biological diversity - predicted by a panel of 2,000 scientists a few years ago.

"We don't have a basis for believing a warmer world would be bad," said Richard Lindzen, a Massachusetts Institute of Technology professor of meteorology who is considered global warming's leading skeptic.

"My guess is its effect would be the equivalent of having to take the umbrella out."

But Stephen Schneider, a Stanford University professor of environmental biology who advised Vice President Al Gore on global warming, said he thinks a 3-degree increase would "severely exacerbate hardships" faced by Southern Hemisphere countries and result in the "extinction of certain species."

Still, Schneider expressed surprise that even his fellow panelists who are global warming skeptics acknowledged that the 21st century will bring warmer temperatures.

Lindzen, Schneider and five other top scientists debated global warming before about 300 people in sessions at the Houston Club and The Rice.

The event, a rare bringing together of the two sides, was hosted by The Houston Forum.

The scientists bemoaned the debate's politicized nature, one they said causes the general public to believe either "the end of the world is near" or "global warming is good for you."

Lindzen worried that people often arrive at a position in 15 minutes, while graduate students take years to understand the issue.

More than 160 countries will gather in Buenos Aires in two months to finalize last year's Kyoto accord, which would legally obligate nations to reduce pollutants blamed for global warming. It calls on the United States to cut its greenhouse gas emissions by 7 percent between 2008 and 2012.

But the accord, hailed last December as a historic achievement, was criticized by the panelists as likely to have little effect.

Gerald North, a Texas A&M professor of meteorology and oceanography, said a recent study that found the accord cuts would shave only about .2 of a degree off the expected warming has convinced him to drop his support for the accord.

Even before such a loss of support, the accord faced an uphill battle politically because of the projected impact on this country's heavily energy-dependent economy.

Economic forecasting firms project it could depress U.S. economic output as much as $ 250 billion a year; increase gasoline prices by as much 50 cents a gallon and cost more than a million jobs.

If the panel meeting produced some relatively unexpected agreement, it also brought sparks.

University of Alabama scientist John Christy cautioned against reading too much into extreme weather conditions, because "extreme events occur everywhere all the time."

But he was later criticized for ignoring the erratic nature of global warming when he noted that North Central Texas is actually experiencing a cooling trend.

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