Global Warming and Public Policy

What does the federal government's response to current research on global warming tell us about the relationship between science and public policy?

LINDA WERTHEIMER, host:

Here in Washington cherry blossoms are a sign of spring and they are just beginning to bloom. But for those who've been watching the signs closely, spring sprung a long time ago.

In many parts of the world, there was no winter to speak of. Fewer lakes froze in the state of Maine, in the winter months; those that did melted faster than ever. There are hornets, yes, hornets, in artic villages. Iceland, northern Russia, northern Canada, recorded their warmest Februaries ever. The Inuits are worried. One man told the Washington Post this week, someday we won't have any snow. We won't be Eskimos.

How many of these signs can be attributed to global warning? NPR's science correspondent Richard Harris joins us. Welcome, Richard.

RICHARD HARRIS reporting:

Pleased to be here.

WERTHEIMER: So Richard, can I just put that question to you straight?

HARRIS: Well, you can never take phenomenon from one year and say this is global warming. But what you can do is you can look at trends. And what we have seen in recent decades is an incredibly high number of years that have been record warm years. We've seen a lot of ice disappearing in the artic, more than has ever been seen before. We've seen a lot of things that add up to, to trends that scientists now look at and say, this is beyond just natural variation. This actually represents truly something off the charts. And most scientists now say that at least some of this can be attributed, and should be attributed, to human activities; in particular, putting carbon dioxide into the atmosphere.

WERTHEIMER: But we've all read, you know, in science books when we were kids, about the ice age, and about drastic climate changes that have happened to this planet before. And how can we be sure that this is not just simply a warmer cycle; that after a period we'll retreat again?

HARRIS: Well, I think that there will be somewhat colder spells after this warm period. I don't think we're gonna just keep seeing the temperature go up indefinitely in a straight line.

But this is outside that, that variation to a considerable extent. Ice age as you mentioned, do happen over a scale of tens of thousands of years. But they are caused by much larger phenomenon that are not occurring right now.

WERTHEIMER: The Bush Administration has not made global warming a central issue. The President did not want to sign the Kyoto Agreement, for example, on global warming. How does science fit into a policy debate, in an administration that is reluctant to look at this possibility?

HARRIS: Well, scientists made the administration confront and admit that climate change is real, it's a serious concern and it's not something that can be completely ignored. But on the other hand, having said that, the administration says we're not going to join the Kyoto Protocol, we're not going to do anything that is a binding requirement. Even if we stop all of our emissions the globe would still warm because there's so much carbon dioxide being produced in China, India, all over the world.

So the answer is, it's tough. And you ultimately need to move the world away from an economy that's based on burning fossil fuels and letting the emissions go into the atmosphere.

WERTHEIMER: Do scientists have any concerns that information on warming that comes from government agencies is, perhaps, not reliable?

HARRIS: There has been a case, a prominent case, about a scientist who was told he shouldn't speak out about global warming in his findings. And that's Dr. James Hansen from a NASA center in New York City. And this, basically, he gave a talk in San Francisco. And he was advocating some policy actions; that it's time to take action, it's time to start having a more energy-efficient country and so on.

And then when reporters said they'd like to talk to him, the, his handlers at NASA said, no, no, no, we don't want you talking about this. And ultimately, the head of NASA said, this is wrong. Our scientists should be able to speak out and Hansen is free to speak out again. Although I might say that there are other organizations within the U.S. government where it's not clear that, that this issue has been resolved as cleanly as it appears to have been in the case of Dr. Hansen.

WERTHEIMER: NPR's Science Correspondent Richard Harris, has been here in the studio with us in Washington. Richard, thank you very much.

HARRIS: It's my pleasure.

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