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Debating "Global Warming"

"People can't directly sense global warming, the way they can see a clear-cut forest or feel the sting of urban smog in their throats. It is not a discrete event, like an oil spill or a nuclear accident. Global warming is so abstract that scientists argue over how they would know if they actually observed it." — "Breaking the Global-Warming Gridlock" by Daniel Sarewitz and Roger Pielke Jr., THE ATLANTIC, July 2000

The controversy over climate change has shifted focus over the years. The main debate now is one of interpretations of science. Frequently, the method of predicting future trends is based on computer modeling, and many scientists argue that there are too many variable factors to effectively see the big picture. While some scientists who believe human activity is to blame for global warming are ready to outline specific actions to prevent more damage, skeptics are looking for more evidence to warrant change.

Scientist John Harte, featured in NOW's segment "Warmer and Warmer," has been studying the actual effects of a warming planet for nearly 30 years in Colorado to provide that evidence. By simulating a warmer world over a contained area, Harte is "looking into the future" and he is concerned about what he sees. He explains, "We often hear criticism of global warming science from non-scientists who like to point out that there's uncertainty in the climate models, and that maybe the effect won't be as bad as we project. But what this scientific experiment is showing us is that if anything, our current climate models are underestimating the magnitude of future warming." Read more from John Harte.

Many sources mark the Industrial Revolution as the beginning of current global warming. But while many scientists agree that air pollution at that time started the current trend and that human activity is to blame, others believe that climate change is part of the natural global progression, and that human activity will neither worsen nor improve our situation. Some experts have argued that the use of fossil fuels, although it may be a significant cause of global warming, is unavoidable in modern society.

Read below about the other viewpoints in the public debate over global warming. Also, learn about the history of climate change in the public eye and the latest news on the topic.

Discuss your thoughts on the topic.

Skeptical of global warming fears:In favor of a global effort to reverse climate change:
"I believe that it is fair to say that the people once labeled as 'a small band of skeptics' — those who championed the position that warming would be modest and primarily in the coldest air-masses have won the day. Many of these same scientists are now forming a new environmental paradigm. It is that the concept of 'fragile earth' must be abandoned. And it asks the impertinent question: since when is everything that man does to the planet necessarily bad?"

- Patrick J. Michaels, CATO Institute Congressional Testimony

"What would Winston Churchill have done about climate change? Imagine that Britain's visionary wartime leader had been presented with a potential time bomb capable of wreaking global havoc, although not certain to do so. Warding it off would require concerted global action and economic sacrifice on the home front. Would he have done nothing?... The uncertainty surrounding a threat such as climate change is no excuse for inaction. New scientific evidence shows that the threat from ozone depletion had been much deadlier than was thought at the time when the world decided to act. Churchill would surely have approved.

- "Blowing hot and cold," THE ECONOMIST, July 4, 2002.

"Scientists who want to attract attention to themselves, who want to attract great funding to themselves, have to (find a) way to scare the public…and this you can achieve only by making things bigger and more dangerous than they really are."

- Petr Chylek, Professor of Physics and Atmospheric Science, Dalhousie University, Halifax, Nova Scotia

"Addressing climate change is no simple task. To protect ourselves, our economy, and our land from the adverse effects of climate change, we must ultimately dramatically reduce emissions of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases. To achieve this goal we must fundamentally transform the way we power our global economy, shifting away from a century’s legacy of unrestrained fossil fuel use and its associated emissions in pursuit of more efficient and renewable sources of energy. Such a transformation will require society to engage in a concerted effort, over the near and long-term, to seek out opportunities and design actions to reduce greenhouse gas emissions."

- Pew Center on Global Climate Change

"The Little Ice Age and the Medieval Warming that preceded it from 950 to 1300 AD stand out in every temperature record as the major weather events of the last 1,000 years, and they're a hefty problem for global warming advocates. If the world was warmer in 1200 AD than today, and far colder in the year 1400, why would we blame current temperatures trends on auto exhausts?"

- Dennis Avery, Center for Global Food Issues

"Emissions of greenhouse gases and aerosols due to human activities continue to alter the atmosphere in ways that are expected to affect the climate."

- Summary for Policymakers, A Report of Working Group 1 of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change

More on Climate Change

Climate Change Science Program
The U.S. Climate Change Science Program integrates federal research on climate and global change, as sponsored by thirteen federal agencies and overseen by the Office of Science and Technology Policy, the Council on Environmental Quality, the National Economic Council and the Office of Management and Budget. The Bush administration's August 2004 report to Congress can be found on the site.

Climate Choices
A project of the Union of Concerned Scientists, Climate Changes focuses on California's future, and positions the state as a test case for exploring the impacts of climate change, noting that "emission reductions in California could help lead our nation to transition to more sustainable energy, vehicle, and land-use polices, ultimately affecting a significant percentage of world heat-trapping gas emissions." The site offers details on some of the "innovative solutions" that address global warming.

BBC News: Global warning?
The BBC's archive of articles and interactive features on global warming includes charts and maps, an energy quiz, background on the science of climate change, and more.

EPA's Global Warming Site
The EPA's site gathers information on climate, emissions, impacts, actions, and news on the topic of global warming. The site features a section on what individuals can do to make a difference.

Harte Laboratory
The Harte Lab at the University of California, Berkeley, headed by Professor John Harte, studies the effects of human actions on, and the linkages among, biogeochemical processes, ecosystem structure and function, biodiversity, and climate. His research spans a range of scales from plot to landscape to global, and utilizes field investigations and mathematical modeling. A long term goal of the group is to understand the dependence of human well being on the health of ecosystem processes. Read a recent profile of John Harte from MOTHER JONES.

Global Warming
This web site is a project of the Cooler Heads Coalition, a sub-group of the National Consumer Coalition. According to the site, "The Cooler Heads Coalition was formed in 1997 to dispel the myths of global warming by exposing flawed economic, scientific, and risk analysis. Coalition members will also follow the progress of the international Global Climate Change Treaty negotiations." The group is part of Consumer Alert — "a national, non-profit membership organization for people concerned about excessive growth of government regulation at the national and state levels."

Heartland Institute Publications
The research and outreach organization views its mission as promoting "common-sense environmentalism." The Institute presents many articles critical of the idea of global warming.

Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC)
The IPCC is the most authoritative source for statistics and figures on climate change. Visit this site to view the latest assessment reports, press releases, and graphics.

The September 2004 edition of NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC magazine focuses on the science of global warming, and the detectable evidence in today's world that nature is undergoing changes. Excerpts of many of the articles are included in the magazine's online edition.

National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association
The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association answers frequently asked questions about global warming.

Pew Center on Global Climate Change
This nonprofit organization is "dedicated to providing credible information, straight answers, and innovative solutions in the effort to address global climate change." It provides information on the science behind climate change, the potential consequences of it, a glossary of relevant terms, and other valuable material.

U.S. Global Change Research Program
This site brings together information about federally funded research on global warming, changing ecosystems, the carbon cycle, the water cycle, and much more. It contains links to hundreds of U.S. and international science organizations.

What's Up With the Weather?
In "What's Up with the Weather?" NOVA and FRONTLINE join forces to investigate the science and politics of one of the most controversial issues of the 21st century: the truth about global warming.

Additional research and resources on climate change

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