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Global Warming and Climate Change

by Nick Begich

The problems associated with global warming are increasingly in the news. The importance of the problem is not fully recognized by most people because the impact on daily life is slow to materialize. This year perhaps this has changed ­ the problem has become increasingly obvious. Shifting weather patterns, significant differences in rain fall, temperature extremes and all manner of weather anomalies are now in the forefront of most people's minds. These problems will be with us for the remainder of our lives and, most likely, the lives of our grandchildren.

The effects of these changes can not be ignored. The idea of creating changes to stop the trend, and reverse it, is the subject of increasing world-wide discussion. These discussions center around the industrialization of the third world ­ a prospect which is increasing the problem substantially ­ and increased industrialization in the develop-ed nations. The environment is debated in the center of national and international politics and what was once thought of as only a problem for liberals is now being recognized as a problem for everyone.

Each time development decisions are made there are trade- offs in the environment. The debate is over the impact of industrial and automobile emissions which many believe is the root cause of the problem of global warming. In addition the deforestation of the planet is limiting the natural system's ability to absorb these man-made emissions. Indus-try, with a vested interest in the status quo, would like to say that this is a normal warming trend and not their responsibility. They assert that the problem is not their issue and they are unwilling to make significant changes. Moreover, these same industrial giants are moving their production to third world countries where there are few controls over environmental impacts. For the multinational organizations this lack of governmental control in the third world provides an economic advantage which avoids their responsibility for the costs to the physical environment. Greed exceeds rational long-term judgment.

In recent meetings in Brussels the issue of global warming was addressed by Parliamentarians from around the world. Sitting in on the discussions was of great interest to me in that a number of issues were raised in the debate. One of the issues raised by the Russian delegation dealt with the idea that some of the problem, if not the greater part of the problem, might be caused by natural processes rather than man-made technologies. When the arguments were made they generated perhaps the most heated discussions in the sessions. These arguments did not prevail however as most participants believe that man was responsible for the problem. The presentations showing increases in greenhouse gases and their correlations to decreases in the ozone layer were also shown. Perhaps the Russians had a valid point. After all, one volcanic eruption puts a good deal more into the atmosphere than any country could ever put there in the same space of time. It is clear that there are a number of natural contributors to this problem which have been increasing their discharges in recent decades. In one news report in the last year it was pointed out that in the same region of the Earth where El Niņo appears, there are about 600 active underwater volcanoes. These natural heat sources may be having a greater effect on ocean temperatures than otherwise thought and might go far in explaining what we are now seeing.

Correlations of rocket launches, nuclear testing, tidal height changes, increases in electromagnetic pollution, introduction of new technologies and chemicals and innumerable other parallel changes could also be charted in trying to assign cause and effect relationships to the problem of climate change. What is most probably the case is that these current changes are a combination of man-made and natural phenomena. The hashing and rehashing of the problem is where much of the last ten years has been spent. Little, if anything, significant has begun to reverse the trend and rebalance or correct the problem. Arguing about the problem's cause is perhaps wasting very important time.

The standard approaches of slowing growth in order to reverse the trend is always the first suggestion made by policy makers and environmental activists. The arguments against slowing growth come from industry and the third world which is trying to develop economies which are self sustaining to improve conditions for their populations. The third world depends on the development and availability of low cost energy in order to expand its economies. The trade-off for them is one of short term survival or long term degradation of the environment. The answer is always toward immediate survival. Should the industrialized countries engage in restricting this human right ­ the right to live ­ now?

A great deal can be accomplished in energy use patterns by a different approach. Development can not be stopped and should be recognized as an outgrowth of our humanity. Likewise, growth must be conducive to our long term survival. So what are the answers?

When the idea that perhaps new technology will save us is raised the "nay-sayers" suggest that we can not depend on technology to solve the problem and that we must move in other directions. While technology may not offer us the way out of the problem it is clear that it is our only short term hope. If we fail to develop technology to start to deal with the problem of climate change we will not be successful in solving the problem. Technology is not the only answer any more than conservation measures. The possibility of evolving energy systems which eliminate the problem is highly probable in the coming five to twenty years. A technology which replaces fossil fuels as the economically most efficient system is possible and could be developed. Technological solutions can be created if we focus some resources in this direction. Moreover, technology can begin to deal with some of the immediate consequences of global warming.

What was seen in Brussels was the standard approaches to the problem: reduce consumption, conserve forests and substitute fuel supplies. The problem is that this is not happening fast enough. Even if we could stop virtually all growth, as some of the most radical would propose, this is not going to solve the problem nor is it politically realistic. Slower growth is not going to happen at all unless the right incentives are created which balance basic immediate human needs against long term environmental thinking. The problems of environmental degradation can not be resolved without addressing economic development. Polarized debate has been fruitless and will only result in increasing the complexity of reaching solutions.

During the energy crisis of the early 1970's there were incredible initiatives established for solving the problem of energy dependence. Creativity was stimulated by providing innovative organizations with both incentives and resources for creating solutions to the problems associated with energy independence. The issue of energy independ-ence was a major issue for the United States at that time while for much of the rest of the world it had always been a problem. Energy costs for the United States and other countries became the greatest drain on national wealth as cash was exchanged for oil. Today, the problem continues to grow as significant portions of every nation's wealth is traded for oil. The energy crisis never ended in the 1970's, it only shifted to a slow and insidious economic crisis in the sense of resource distribution. Once oil supplies were freed up and gas was flowing again at the pumps ­ the impact of the events were for the most part forgotten.

Now the downstream effects of the problem of twenty-five more years of oil dependence has created another crisis. A climate change crisis which can not be resolved with just a few more dollars a barrel. The crisis of climate change is already disrupting all economic systems, food production and contributing to an accelerating cycle of decay of natural systems once thought of as stable.

The arctic environments always show impacts early. These areas can be thought of as the "canary in coal mine" sounding the alarm of silence when death approaches. The alarm is sounding again in the Northern regions. This year in Alaska we are experiencing unprecedented warming. The blame is being placed again on El Niņo, ozone depletion and industrialization. In Alaska the water temperature in the ocean has risen 10-15 degrees Fahrenheit. Never, in as long as records have been kept, has this great a change been felt. It is not a subtle change. It is so profound it is effecting the entire system and it is still early in the cycle. The impact of this kind of change can not be quickly dismissed ­ all terrestrial systems are inseparably linked to one another.

In an article in the New York Times a year or so ago there was discussion about the possibility of an Antarctic meltdown causing sea levels to rise by as much as several hundred feet. This idea was discussed and quickly dismissed in the same way as early reports of the climate change trends when first raised a decade ago. In Brussels the estimate for the rise in ocean heights was more on the order of two or three feet in the next fifty years. Who's right? Even a few months ago the idea of ocean temperatures in the Arctic rising by 10-15 degrees would have been dismissed as crazy. Yet, this is exactly what is happening right now. Will this effect other systems? Will this impact the rest of the country?

Look at the situation emerging right now. It does not matter if you live in Europe, the United States or the third world, we are all in the same predicament and we must act now. We should act without fear and by carefully consid-ering our options. We are proposing some ideas which many may think too radical for implementation. However, these are put forward to stimulate thought. These are some of the things which could be immediately addressed:

  1. The World Bank, international groups, private organizations, national governments and others should provide economic resources for immediately advancing alternative energy technologies. The same organizations should also provide funding for projects which can mitigate the current trends which are the result of climate change or are contributing to the problem.
  2. A special fund should be established to protect "whistle- blowers" who have knowledge of industry or government -withheld technologies which could add to solutions or increase the possibility of developing alternatives to current energy production systems. It should be made a crime against humanity to withhold knowledge which could provide low cost energy.
  3. National governments should establish special funds for the acquisition of energy innovation technologies if they are not produced by patent holders within five years of their discovery. Such acquisitions would be placed in the public domain with any developers using the technology paying the owners of the patents perhaps a 1-3% royalty until the patents expire. This would compensate investors while ensuring maximum benefits to society. There has been much talk about suppressed energy technologies and this might help eliminate the problem by forcing knowledge into production. Greed can not be allowed to dominate the energy industry.
  4. Technology demonstration projects should be funded for the third world and industrialized countries. These projects should be clustered around resolving the problem of both the causes and effects of global warming.
  5. Technologies should be advanced which more efficiently use the energy systems we now have. Insulation technology, superconductivity, and other conservation technologies should be implemented.
  6. The funding sources which provide the resources for the exploration of these new technologies should not be "give-away" programs. They should to the greatest extent possible be programs that are based on sound management and with economic incentives for the investors. Perhaps tax conces-sions could be made available for the investors in innovative technology, provided that the returns were reinvested into the technology or a percentage dedicated to damage repair programs such as reforestation or rain forest preservation.

This essay is not intended to be exhaustive or conclusive. It is intended to increase debate and make suggestions which could be considered. Restating the problem is not the answer ­ attacking the problem with solutions is the only answer.

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