One of these days, probably after some catastrophe in which hundreds of people are killed, we'll start to take global warming seriously.
Every few months we get a scary update on this phenomenon and there's a sense of "Well, gee, we really should be doing something about this." But the story quickly fades and we turn our attention back to "Who Wants to Be a Millionaire," or the second coming of "Survivor," or whatever.
There's always something more pressing than global warming.
Last week's update was the scariest so far. The latest climate assessment of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change concludes not only that human activity is contributing substantially to the warming of the planet, but that the warming over the next century could turn out to be much worse than previously estimated.
A draft summary of the panel's findings was distributed to governments around the world last week. The panel, established by the United Nations to monitor and assess the most up-to-date research on global warming, said it expects the increase in the average global temperature over the next century to be between 3 and 11 degrees.
That is huge. A three-degree warming over the course of the century would probably be the fastest warming in the history of civilization. If the warming gets close to the upper end of the estimate — 11 degrees — forget about it. That's a monumental change in a breathtakingly short period of time. Scientists don't even have much in the way of theoretical data to help humans get a handle on a climate change of that magnitude. With an average temperature increase of 11 degrees, the earth would be nearly as warm as it was when dinosaurs were on the prowl.
Is anyone paying attention?
This is not a disaster waiting to happen. It's already under way. The decade of the 1990's was very likely the hottest of the last millennium. And 1998 — which had temperatures spiked by a large El Niño phenomenon — appears to have been the hottest year ever recorded. The oceans are rising, mountain glaciers are shrinking, low-lying coastal areas are eroding, and the very timing of the seasons is changing.
If you jack up the average global temperature another three or four or five degrees over the next several decades, your children and grandchildren will have enormous difficulties to cope with.
It would have been helpful to have had a thorough discussion of global warming by the presidential candidates, a give-and-take aimed at enlightening the population and generating enthusiasm for potential solutions. But that didn't happen.
Vice President Al Gore has long been an advocate of dealing aggressively with global warming, which was the focus of his book, "Earth in the Balance." He recently described global warming as a "moral issue."
The vice president helped negotiate the Kyoto Protocol, a treaty designed to reduce the release of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases. The treaty has been signed by more than 150 countries, but it has yet to be ratified by the United States or any other industrialized country.
Mr. Gore has done some campaigning on the issue and has proposed creation of an environmental trust fund, which, among other things, would provide incentives for the development of new technologies to limit emissions of greenhouse gases.
Gov. George W. Bush has been somewhat equivocal when it comes to global warming. He has acknowledged that it is a problem. But in his second debate with Mr. Gore, the governor said, "I don't think we know the solution to global warming yet and I don't think we've got all the facts before we make decisions."
Mr. Bush opposes the Kyoto Protocol, which he has said is "unfair to the United States." Nevertheless, he has offered a proposal that would require reductions in all pollutants from electric power plants, which scientists and environmental advocates see as an important step in the fight against global warming.
Whoever is elected president will have an obligation to engage this issue in a real way, and quickly. Global warming is not a fantasy. It's an accelerating crisis that poses a grave threat to the newest generations of Americans and people around the world.
Copyright 2000 The New York Times Company