Congratulations to Al Gore, whose Nobel Peace Prize--shared with the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC)--is certainly well-deserved. Unfortunately, the festivities have overshadowed some of the past month's less cheery climate news.
Last week, researchers at the University of East Anglia announced, in what they called a "tremendous surprise," that the world's oceans are no longer absorbing as much carbon dioxide as they used to--a development that would vastly accelerate the rate of global warming. If that wasn't scary enough, worldwide carbon dioxide emissions seem to be growing much faster than had been assumed in even the IPCC's worst-case scenarios, according to a study just published by Stanford's Chris Field. And that's not to mention the recent news about Arctic sea ice, which appears to be melting more rapidly than many scientists expected.
Recently, in The Washington Post, Danish political scientist Bjorn Lomborg argued that climate change was nothing to fear and that the effects--rising sea levels, species extinction, changes in rainfall patterns--were likely to be mild. Although that piece received prominent play in the paper's "Outlook" section, readers would be wiser to trust Judith Curry, one of the nation's top climate scientists, who penned a scathing reply a few days later. In addition to noting that Lomborg played fast and loose with scientific evidence, Curry pointed out that it is foolhardy to dismiss the possibility of "catastrophic outcomes" just because there is a relatively small probability they will occur. Indeed, the past month's worth of climate news makes one wonder if the probabilities are really all that low. While global warming skeptics often scoff at the IPCC's projections on the grounds that climate science can be uncertain, that uncertainty, to the extent it exists, cuts both ways: Things may ultimately turn out to be better than the IPCC predicts, but they also could turn out to be worse.
To a large extent, carbon emissions are growing so quickly because China and India are booming. Any attempt to mitigate global warming will have to address that fact. But there is still much room for improvement here at home. A recent Post piece brought the striking news that the Washington, D.C., area alone belches out more carbon than countries like Sweden, Denmark, Switzerland, or Finland, all of which have more people. (Sweden has twice as many people yet emits 80 percent as much carbon dioxide.) What's more, Washington-area residents are actually some of the "greener" folks in the country, producing 13. 2 tons of carbon per capita each year, compared to a national average of 20 tons.
The good news: Politicians seem increasingly aware that action is necessary. Just this month, Joe Lieberman and John Warner introduced an emissions- reduction bill in the Senate--a "centrist" measure that should get bipartisan support. The bill is far from perfect: Environmental groups have rightly criticized it for setting too-loose targets for curbing emissions. And the bill gives away too many tradable emission credits for free, offering a windfall to certain industries--such as Big Coal--and giving them too little incentive to reduce pollution and innovate. Democrats who care about global warming will have to fight hard to improve it. Still, the proposal is a step in the right direction--and, in a month full of bad news, hardly unwelcome.