Climate debate isn’t about action, it’s about knowledge

Astrophysicists Sallie Baliunas and Willie Soon of the Harvard Smithsonian Center conducted a review of more than 200 past studies on climate change, including 102 with information about whether the 20th century was the warmest.

Their results: Only three studies found it was. Sixteen were equivocal, 79 showed periods of at least 50 years that were warmer than any 50-year period in the 20th century, and four showed that the warmest conditions were in the first half of the 20th century, before significant human contributions to greenhouse gases occurred.

This is just one example of scientific uncertainty. There are many others demonstrating that the science of climate change is far from settled. Neither I nor anyone else knows whether over the course of this century the climate will be a scientific curiosity or a serious ecological threat. If it becomes a serious threat, today’s so-called renewable energy sources may not be the best solutions.

Low- or no-carbon energy sources are decades — not years — away from being affordable, efficient and reliable substitutes for current fossil fuels, which provide 85 percent of our energy needs.

The potential of a renewable-based economy may seem boundless, but it has real practical limits. An article in the prestigious journal Science evaluated the currently available technologies and concluded that replacing fossil fuels was likely to be the technology challenge of the century.

What’s needed? A planning process that ties action to knowledge, invests in new knowledge and adjusts actions as we learn. New knowledge is needed to better understand the true nature of the climate risk and to identify and develop the most promising technologies for addressing it.

The Bush administration and private industry already seem engaged in just such activity. The president’s 2004 budget contains $4.4 billion for science, research and incentives for new energy technologies, including fuel cells and carbon sequestration. As Klaus S. Lackner of Columbia University has said, capturing carbon dioxide might prove more economically viable than attempting to replace its creation through solar or other renewable energy projects.

Finally, major corporations have put $250 million into Stanford University’s Global Climate and Energy Project in hopes of pinpointing truly promising energy technologies that will lower greenhouse gas emissions.

The current climate change debate isn’t about action or inaction. It is about whether proposed actions are consistent with our state of knowledge and other important societal priorities. Our nation should not be frightened into adopting unknown and unproven technologies until they can contribute to healthy economic growth and until we better understand the impact of human activities on our climate system.


This article appeared in The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, January 6, 2004, p. A11.

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