Global Warming Debate Moves Forward on Many Fronts

Published April 1, 1999

The government of Iceland announced in February that it would not ratify the Kyoto Protocol, becoming the first OECD country to make such an announcement. The government cited new economic forecasts indicating that Iceland’s permitted 10 percent rise in greenhouse gas emissions would not be enough to sustain its small economy, especially with several heavy industrial projects already in the works. Icelandic officials are seeking a 25 percent allotment.

New Research Points Toward Adaptation

According to a news report in the March 2 Times of London, scientists with the New Zealand National Institute of Water and Atmospheric Research have achieved dramatic success in producing a bloom of CO2-absorbing phytoplankton over a 19-square-mile area in the ocean near the Antarctic.

Just four years ago, the late American oceanographer John Martin theorized that adding iron filings to sea water–in effect, fertilizing it–would dramatically accelerate the growth of plant plankton, which in turn absorb large amounts of CO2 and emit gases important in cloud formation. When the plankton dies, it sinks to the ocean floor, carrying with it the CO2 it absorbed, thereby sequestering it.

Since Martin first described the idea, a number of experiments, including the New Zealand one, have produced promising results. A new process that creates tiny iron “beads” that float at the surface has been patented and is being tested.

Some scientists believe that increasing the numbers of phytoplankton could reduce atmospheric concentrations of CO2 by as much as 21 percent. Achieving the same reduction by emissions controls would cost trillions of dollars.

Environmentalists who oppose fertilizing the ocean on a large scale say it could upset the oceans’ ecosystem, could have unforeseen consequences, and isn’t “natural.”

Global Warming or El Nina?

In Scotland, the Daily Record and Sunday Mail Ltd (February 25) say “scientists believe” there may be a link between the avalanches this winter and global warming. Douglas Yule, cited as an “expert” with an organization called Impact Weather, says: “What we have got is La Niña leading to bad winters in Europe, and there is probably a connection to global warming but it has not been established.”

In the Northwestern United States, readers are getting a somewhat different perspective.

In a region also experiencing heavy rain, snow, and avalanches, Mark Moore, director of the National Weather Service’s Northwest Weather Avalanche Center, told the Associated Press that there are a number of theories as to why the Northwest has been socked this winter: La Niña, global warming, a return to the wetter and colder winters the region experienced in the 1950s through mid-1970s, or “it could be just a random event.”

Both The Times and The Independent reported in late February that researchers at the University of Munich, Germany, claim Autumn is arriving five days later and Spring six days earlier than it did 30 years ago. Annette Menzel of the University of Munich’s Department of Forest Science said, “ten days may not sound like much, but it represents a significant extension of a growing season [to] about 150 days.”

The claim is suspect on several grounds, not the least of which is Europe’s especially brutal winter this year. The period being used for comparison to today’s weather is a period of climate cooling thought at the time to herald another Ice Age. The researchers also conceded that a longer growing season could cause plants to absorb more greenhouse gases from the atmosphere. Nevertheless, the researchers say their findings lend “powerful support” to global warming theory.

Global Warming Hysteria in Great Britain

According to a survey released last week by MORI, a UK financial services company, nearly half of Britons surveyed say they are more afraid of global warming and pollution than they are of higher taxes, war, divorce, having enough money for retirement, going bald, losing their virility, or having the UK swallowed up by the European Union.

Farmers Lobbied to Join Global Warming Bandwagon

The Clinton-Gore Administration used the two-day 1999 National Forum for Agriculture at Iowa State University, held in late February, to rally support for the Kyoto Protocol in the farm community.

According to a March 1 Associated Press story, John Ruether of the DOE’s Federal Energy Technology Center told conferees that “as world energy use took off in the 1940s, the level of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere began to rise and temperatures climbed.”

Ruether’s statement is factually incorrect. Most of the 0.6 degree C rise in temperatures came before 1940. From 1940 to 1975, while CO2 was rising, temperatures dropped.

Michael MacCracken of the U.S. Global Change Research Program tried to sound reasonable: cut back on fossil fuels too fast and we risk our economic well-being and standard of living; cut back too slowly and we risk our environmental well-being. “We’re really faced with a dilemma,” he said.

Where the Administration sees a dilemma, farm and commodity groups, including the Farm Bureau and National Grange, see a pending disaster. Their economic analyses indicate that the Kyoto Protocol would cut U.S. farm income by 50 percent while raising farm production costs by $16 billion.

Iowa State University Provost Stanley Johnson, quoted in the Des Moines Register, said the two-day conference was designed “to help agriculture stop taking a defiant position and to look on the issue as an opportunity,” a theme Vice President Gore stressed in a speech to farm magazine editors back in December. Agriculture, said Johnson, stands to gain assistance from the government and make money by selling “credits” to polluting industries. “The train is starting to leave the station on this issue,” he said. “Agriculture should be on it.”

Candace Crandall is a research associate with the Science and Environmental Policy Project, Washington, DC,