The Week That Was
October 2, 1999



The Canadian government has been trying to convince its citizens that a little warming would hurt them and that they should be willing to make major economic sacrifices to avoid any such possibility. That's a tough row to hoe, as pointed out in an op-ed published on the National Post. Now we have responded to a critique by Prof. Andrew Weaver of Vancouver.


If Swedish chemist Prof. Svante Arrhenius is the grandfather of greenhouse warming (ca. 1897), then oceanographer Roger Revelle, is certainly its father. Deceased in 1991, he started the remarkable series of measurements of atmospheric CO2 during the Intergovernmental Geophysical Year in 1957. As a visiting professor at Harvard, he taught a freshman course attended by then-student Al Gore, who now claims him as his mentor in his scary bestseller "Earth in the Balance." If you know the book, you may be interested in what Revelle said about global warming; it will make you less scared:

1. Excerpts from an interview in OMNI magazine (March 1984):
Omni: A problem that has occupied your attention for many years is the increasing levels of CO2 in the atmosphere, which could cause the earth's climate to become warmer. Is this actually happening?
Revelle: I estimate that the total increase [in CO2] over the past hundred years has been about 21 percent. But whether the increase will lead to a significant rise in global temperature, we can 't absolutely say.
Omni: What will the warming of the earth mean to us?
Revelle: There may be lots of effects. Increased CO2 in the air acts like a fertilizer for plants.... you get more plant growth. Increasing CO2 levels also affect water transpiration, causing plants to close their pores and sweat less. That means plants will be able to grow in drier climates.
Omni: Does the increase in CO2 have anything to do with people saying the weather is getting worse?
Revelle: People are always saying the weather's getting worse. Actually, the CO2 increase is predicted to temper weather extremes...

2. From Letters by Professor Roger Revelle:

In a July 18, 1988, letter to then-Senator Tim Wirth, Revelle cautions that "...we should be careful not to arouse too much alarm until the rate and amount of warming becomes clearer. It is not yet obvious that this summer's hot weather and drought are the result of a global climatic change or simply an example of the uncertainties of climate variability. My own feeling is that we had better wait another ten years before making confident predictions."

Revelle had made an even stronger statement just a few days earlier, in a July 14, 1988, letter to Congressman Jim Bates: "Most scientists familiar with the subject are not yet willing to bet that the climate this year is the result of 'greenhouse warming.' As you very well know, climate is highly variable from year to year, and the causes of these variations are not at all well understood. My own personal belief is that we should wait another ten or twenty years to really be convinced that the greenhouse is going to be important for human beings, in both positive and negative ways."

3. From Cosmos vol. 1, No. 1 1991. What to do about greenhouse warming: Look before you leap, by S. F. Singer, R. Revelle, and C. Starr.

"Drastic, precipitous and, especially, unilateral teps to delay the putative greenhouse impacts can cost jobs and prosperity and increase the human costs of global poverty, without being effective. Stringent controls enacted now would be economically devastating, particularly for developing countries for whom reduced energy consumption would mean slower rates of economic growth without being able to delay greatly the growth of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. Yale economist William Nordhaus, one of the few who have been trying to deal quantitatively with the economics of the greenhouse effect, has pointed out that '... those who argue for strong measures to slow greenhouse warming have reached their conclusion without any discernible analysis of the costs and benefits....' It would be prudent to complete the ongoing and recently expanded research so that we will know what we are doing before we act. 'Look before you leap' may still be good advice."


A subsidy of 1 cent per kilowatt-hour has sustained the growth of solar and wind power, with about 100,000 customers today as against 40,000 a year ago. Even so, this represents less than 2 percent of all electricity customers in California. But the $75 million fund, set up by the Legislature, is running out, and this is making green power suppliers nervous. The money had come from customers of the major utilities . And if green power rates go up, they will lose customers. As reported in the San Jose Mercury News (Sept 23), for most people, green power advocates say, money is the issue.


The Third Assessment Report of the IPCC is getting underway, with its forecasts becoming cloudier all the time. The New Scientist reports that they are ditching their previous estimates of greenhouse gas emissions and providing 40 (!) different scenarios to cover all the possibilities of population growth, economic growth and fossil fuel use. Past scenarios of CO2 emissions for 2100 were around 18 billion tons. The new report has predictions ranging from 4.3 to 36.7 billion tons. And they haven't even gotten to the atmospheric physics and climate models yet. There are just too many uncertainties about predictions of global warming, the authors say. We couldn't agree more….


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