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MICHELE NORRIS, host:

And for one perspective on the comments made by the head of NASA, we turn to Richard Alley, professor of geosciences at Penn State. He joins us from University Park, Pennsylvania. Professor Alley, welcome to the program.

Professor RICHARD ALLEY (Geosciences, Penn State University): It's a pleasure to be here, Michele.

NORRIS: To start, let's listen to some of those comments on climate change. Today, NPR's Steve Inskeep spoke with NASA Administrator Michael Griffin.

(Soundbite of archived news)

Dr. MICHAEL GRIFFIN (Administrator, National Aeronautics and Space Administration): To assume that it is a problem is to assume that the state of Earth's climate today is the optimal climate, the best climate that we could have or ever have had, and that we need to take steps to make sure that it doesn't change.

First of all, I don't think it's within the power of human beings to assure that the climate does not change, as millions of years of history have shown. And second of all, I guess I would ask which human beings, where and when, are to be accorded privilege of deciding that this particular climate that we have right here today, right now, is the best climate for all other human beings. I think that's a rather arrogant position for people to take.

NORRIS: Again, that was NASA Administrator Michael Griffin responding to a question asking whether he had any doubt that global warming is a problem that mankind has to wrestle with.

So Professor Alley, your reaction to Michael Griffin's statement that is it quote, "arrogant" to try to slow or prevent climate change.

Prof. ALLEY: Dr. Griffin was discussing in particular optimal climate, maybe utopian world. Most of the scientific community has been asked a much more focused question, which is, are the actions of humanity now in changing the atmosphere by burning fossil fuels pushing us in a direction that will tend to hurt us or help us? To that more limited question, the scientific community has now produced a rather strong answer, which is that we are pushing in a direction that will cause more harm than good for us.

NORRIS: You know, the question of optimal climate - we're talking about climate that will determine which plants, animals, ecosystems survive. Michael Griffin also said that it is a problem to assume that the state of the Earth's climate today is the optimal climate, the best climate. That's the way he phrased that.

Could there actually be a better climate? How do you define better, and better for whom?

Prof. ALLEY: He is right about that one. I don't think we know how to define better. We have adapted, we have built, we have put ourselves to the climate that we have, and all the species in the world around us have adapted to the climate that we have. Human activities are now pushing us out of the band of variability in which nature has been for a very long time. And it's a reasonable assumption - and the science bears this out - that as we move out of what we're used to that a whole lot of things suffer from that.

NORRIS: Now, Griffin acknowledged that science has pretty well nailed down the conclusion that much of the climate change is due to human behavior, is caused by humans. Are we, sort of, tiptoeing into the realm of philosophy or theology, the tension between dominion over Earth or that question of whether it is ours to question why?

Prof. ALLEY: If we aren't, I think we should be. Energy system, the climate in which we live, how we get along with ourselves are such big questions that it would be the height of arrogance to leave them to no one but the scientists and the engineers. I certainly hope that the philosophers and the theologians are thinking about these too.

NORRIS: Is there an ethical framework for actually examining or analyzing global warming?

Prof. ALLEY: There are a lot of very bright people who are trying to put together an ethical framework for examining global warming. And we know certain pieces of it. I am not allowed to come and do my morning bathrooming in your yard because there are issues of getting along with each other and spreading disease and so on.

Right now, I am allowed to vent my tailpipe in to the atmosphere and change the climate. In the short-term, the evidence is fairly clear that most of the harm from global warming comes to people who have fewer resources. It comes to poor people and especially those living in hot places or very near the poles where they're seeing very huge changes. Eventually, the harm spreads across most of the rest of us.

NORRIS: Now, to get back to the statements made earlier today by the NASA administrator, he seems to be suggesting that some people could benefit in a warmer world. If that's true, who might benefit?

Professor ALLEY: There are winners and losers from almost everything. It's very hard to think of anything so bad that it doesn't help someone and it's very hard to think of anything so good that it doesn't hurt someone. In the short term, places that have winter and that get the airports closed by blizzards; places that have air conditioners so they can work in a hot summer; Places that have bulldozers so if sea level rises, you can move things or build walls - a little bit of warming does not hurt them very much and it might even help them a little bit. Places that are missing winter and bulldozers and air conditioning, warming does not help them. It hurts them. And so, in the short term, you do see winners and losers. The bigger and faster the change, the more losers and the fewer winners.

NORRIS: Professor Alley, thanks so much for talking to us.

Professor ALLEY: Thank you.

NORRIS: That's Richard Alley, a professor of geosciences at Pennsylvania State University. You can hear the full interview with NASA Administrator Michael Griffin and read President Bush's statement on greenhouse gases today at our Web site, npr.org.

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