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It is getting hot

A book raises the temperature in the fight between those who believe and those who doubt the consequence of man's action on global warming

NASA/USGSThe melting of Kilimanjaro between 1993 and 2000NASA/USGS

State of Fear, the recently launched fiction novel by the American writer Michael Crichton, tells a story in which the fight between good and evil counterbalances radical environmentalists, evil in the role of terrorists ready to kill, against a team led by a mix of a scientist and an action film hero named John Kenner, whose arguments place in check the apocalyptic projections about the consequences of the emission of gases that cause the greenhouse effect within global warming. The author of the best seller Jurassic Park, Mr. Crichton warns that he has written a work of fiction, without links to true facts or people. But, he points out: the graphs and notes in the footnotes, referring to scientific articles, are true. Or that is to say: Dr. Kenner does not exist, but his disturbing observations are shared by various scientists. This has converted the book into the most recent fuel in the debate over climate changes, which returned to the world stage last month with the coming into effect of the diplomatic agreement that reduces the emission of global pollutants, the Kyoto Protocol.

Those who are convinced that the planet is becoming hotter, due to the smoke from industry and motor vehicles, deplored this book, as one might expect. “The conclusions are totally wrong, as well as its poor taste in comparing ecologists to terrorists”, says Martin Hoffert, a physics professor at the New York University, summing up the reaction of the vast majority of the scientific community. On the other hand the skeptics, those researchers who have doubts as to the links between global warming and the emission of gases, they do not hide their satisfaction. “The book is entertaining and deals with science on a intelligent and responsible level”, says Richard Lindzen, a meteorology professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), which is leading the caravan of unbelievers and, who, it is speculated, was the inspiration for the main character (the fictitious Dr. Kenner is also from MIT). The work, which should be launched in Portuguese by the publishing house Editora Rocco, during the second semester, has produced fire and lots of smoke in political circles. The American senator, James Inhofe, president of the Senate Commission that deals with the environment, has referred to the book as “a true history” of climate changes. The United States, the most polluting nation on the planet, has refused to sign or ratify the Kyoto Protocol and consequently to reduced its levels of emissions.

Crichton’s fiction incorporates the arguments of the skeptics. The most contentious arguments are the historical series of oscillations of temperature throughout the last few decades in American cities – incapable, said the author, of proving a warming trend of the entire planet. Statistics from the United States Historical Climatology Network show that in the city of Pasadena in California, the temperature rise was more than 3°F. However, in the desert of Death Valley, also in California, and one of the hottest places in the world, the advance was lower than 1°F. And various other places have become cooler, such as McGill, in Nevada State (1°F less), and Truman, in Minnesota (2°F lower).

Likewise , the city of New York had experimented a notable increase of almost 5°F between 1822 and 2000, but in Albany, only some 140 kilometers from there, the average temperature has fallen half a degree during this period. Crichton’s conclusion along with the skeptics: perhaps New York is warmer because it was urbanized, a phenomenon known as “heat island”. There is an identical paradox pointed to in the temperature graphs of other countries. Data attributed to the Goddard Institute of NASA’s Space Studies points to stability in the average temperatures of Alice Springs in Australia, and Kamenskoe in Siberia; warming in Tokyo in Japan, and Lahore in Pakistan, and cooling in Navacerrada in Spain and Stuttgart in Germany, among others.

For the skeptics, this data is evidence that the warming is not global and might be associated with local factors, without a link to carbon emissions. The scientists who see the hand of man behind climate changes have another interpretation. “It’s natural that some regions cool and others warm up, since climate is truly subject to regional and temporal variations – in the Amazon, for example, we have observed regional changes in rainfall patterns”, says Paulo Artaxo, a researcher with the Physics Institute of the University of Sao Paulo. “But this natural variability cannot be confused with the mounting pile of evidence that, on average, the planet is warming.” Carlos Nobre, a researcher at the National Institute for Space Research (INPI), completes: “It’s possible, indeed, that some regions of the planet get colder as a consequence of global warming. In one of the possible scenarios, the so called thermohaline circulation would be interrupted in some locations of the ocean by the warming, which could transform a part of Europe into a place as cold as Canada. However, all of the mathematical models point towards the temperature, on average, increasing.”

In order to counterbalance the argument that the Antarctic is melting, Crichton presents data from NASA, obtained at the climate station of Punta Arenas, and which shows another paradox. The average temperature there, a little above 6.5°C (Celsius) in 1888, has been falling, to 6°C in 2004. He also makes reference to various scientific articles that show some regions of the Antarctic continent warmer and others colder.

Another argument is the melting of the snows on Mount Kilimanjaro, in Tanzania. Crichton cites articles suggesting that the melting has been caused by devastation at the foot of the mountain, not by global warming, so much so that it began to be observed back at the beginning of the 19th century. The criticism that is made towards Crichton, in this case, is that he had forgotten to cite registrations that point to the melting in the Alps, in the Andes or in the Arctic, where the Eskimo population in the north of Canada are reporting a meltdown without precedence in history. A selection of scientific literature, scientists argue, can produce results that seem correct, but contain only a part of the story.

Potential linkage
Nobody doubts that man’s action is responsible for an increase in the concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere from 280 parts per million before the Industrial Revolution to the current level of 370 parts per million – it is also a consensus the conclusion that it would be good to reduce gas emissions that increase the greenhouse effect. Furthermore, there is a collection of evidence that the planet’s climate is living through a transitional phase. Scientific publications report an average global increase in temperature to the order of 0.7°C. The year 2004 was the fourth hottest since temperature measurements began to be carried out in the world in the 19th century. And the three hottest years in recorded history were recently registered: being 1998, 2002 and 2003.

All of this is true, but the antagonistic camps interpret this data in a very differently. The majority of scientists look towards a potential linkage between industrial pollution and global warming. “Over the last thirty years, there has been strong tendency towards global warming and there is more and more data suggesting that this has something to do with gas emissions”, says James Hansen, from the Goddard Institute of NASA’s Space Studies. “In science, sometimes it is difficult for us to be 100% certain, but if we reach 95% we can act before it’s too late”, suggests researcher Paulo Artaxo.

Yet, the group of skeptics reminds us that there is no smoking gun of this association. For example, they argue that the recent warming could well have the same natural causes that, in the past, produced cycles of warming and glaciation that swept across the planet without any human action. “Never has it been proven outside of the laboratory that global warming is occurring as a direct result of an increase in carbon dioxide”, says professor Richard Lindzen from MIT. “Scientists have ample fossil evidence showing that the levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere increased when the planet warmed up. But nobody, up until now, has proven that the increase of carbon dioxide was responsible for the increases of temperature in the past”, he affirmed. The skeptics even have doubts concerning the accuracy of the statistics. A good part of the temperature measurements obtained before the 70s, they argue, could be wrong, since they were registered in urban areas by way of thermometers that today are considered unreliable.

The question that the laymen ask at this moment in time is: how can visions so different survive within the scientific environment? Doubts and questionings are natural in the academic world and it is by discussions that hypotheses are put to the test and knowledge advances. “As with many other scientific questions, conflicting evidence exists and the detractors of one or other position are accustomed to using the evidence that best suits their argument”, says the Brazilian epidemiologist Ulisses Confalonieri, responsible for the health commission of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). The organ that advises the United Nations on questions of climate and has 1,500 members, is composed, in its majority, by researchers convinced about man’s action upon global warming – reflecting the average opinion of the international scientific community. “The IPCC is not as restrictive as some critics claim, it only points clearly to the uncertainties”, says professor Pedro Leite da Silva Dias, from the Astronomy, Geophysics and Atmospheric Sciences Institute of the University of Sao Paulo (IAG-USP). “But every four years when a new IPCC survey is published, these uncertainties diminish in number.”

In the case of the debate on the greenhouse effect, the doubt was explained by a limitation of research in geophysics. “The ideal way to clear up the doubt would be to take two planets with identical atmospheres, increase the quantity of carbon dioxide in one of them and not the other and then compare the results”, argues the astrogeophysicist Luiz Gylvan Meira Filho, a professor at the Advanced Studies Institute of USP. “As it’s impossible to apply scientific method in this manner, the solution is to use sophisticated mathematical models to project the changes, which only suggest tendencies”, says  Meira. The climate models, not by chance, are another fragile link exploited by author Michael Crichton.

He cites a scientific paper published in the year 2000 by the American researcher Christopher Landsea, a specialist in hurricanes, from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), according to which the models were incapable of forecasting the phenomenon El Niño observed during the years 1997 and 1998. “Nobody knows how much the temperature is going to rise over the next one hundred years. The computer models have produced results that vary by 400%, in a sign that any forecast is possible, and that nobody knows exactly what they are talking about”, says Crichton. “It’s natural that the climate models have variable results”, bites back Carlos Nobre, from INPE. “This is the best instrument that we have available. They are used in meteorology and nobody disqualifies them because that cannot say with certainty where the rain is going to fall. On the contrary, we are learning to interpret these variations”, he says. Professor Pedro Leite da Silva Dias, from IAG, also defends the models: “How can we live with uncertainty? For example, using what today is called forecasting by grouping, in which a large number of simulations, with different models, is used to generate the possible scenarios. The average of this grouping is much closer to reality than any single isolated model.”

In real life, conflicts between the two groups are frequent, and at times produce below the belt punches. Two Australian statisticians were recently accused of exaggerating the economic growth projections of poor countries that uphold the forecasts of global warming. They were accused of siding with the “skeptics”, which, in the vocabulary of the contenders, comprise the insinuation of receiving money from the polluting industries in order to confuse the debate. In February, the skeptics sponsored a meeting in the United Kingdom during the same week in which the representatives of the other group were meeting with the Prime Minister, Tony Blair.

Even the IPCC itself was recently the scenario of a public fight. Kevin Trenberth, head of the committee on hurricanes, suggested a link between climate change and the wave of powerful hurricanes that swept the planet last year. Christopher Landsea, the same person cited in Crichton’s book for criticizing the models on El Niño, resigned his position on the panel in protest against what he called “political manipulation”. “Trenberth has no reason to say this. Because of his declarations, the neutrality of the IPCC has been lost”, stated Landsea. Trenberth accused Landsea of joining the skeptics. But he recanted among his peers. He explained that the climate changes could affect the intensity of hurricanes, due to the higher ocean temperatures, but not the number of occurrences. In State of Fear, Crichton shows statistics suggesting that the peak of the hurricanes in the United States over the last decades occurred during the 40’s.

“Bad investment”
The debate catches fire whenever it leaves the scientific arena and moves to a political discussion on the economic consequences of a reduction in gas emissions. The Kyoto Protocol, a major conquest for the environmental and scientific movement which came into force last month, is one of the focal points of disagreement. Author Michael Crichton vocalized one of the skeptics’ arguments. He cited as a reference an article in the magazine Nature of October 2003, according to which the effect of the Protocol will be a reduction in temperature of 0.02°C by 2050. The IPCC estimates are higher, but not one exceeds 0.15°C. The data is real, but it does not weaken the resolve of the agreement’s defenders. “Kyoto could have imperceptible effects on the climate, but we’re dealing with the first important diplomatic instrument to reduce gas emissions. This is a first step, which will be followed by other initiatives more wide spread and embracing in the near future”, says Paulo Artaxo from USP. The models suggest that, in order to obtain an expressive effect on the climate, it would be necessary to reduce gas emissions by up to 60%, a price that currently no country wishes to pay. “The essence of the Kyoto Protocol is that it’s leading towards the creation of a new technological paradigm in the industrialized world, which will reduce the global emission of gases”, suggests researcher Carlos Nobre from INPE.

Crichton’s book does not avoid the question: is it worthwhile to cease industrial growth in order to attain such a modest effect on climate? Or would it come out cheaper to adapt to the changes? Another fire-eater on the skeptics’ team is the Danish statistician Bjorn Lomborg, author of the polemic book The Skeptical Environmentalist: Measuring the Real State of the World, says, most decisively, that it is not worthwhile. Recently, Lomborg fired up the debate at a meeting in Copenhagen of a group of prominent economists, among them three Nobel Prize winners, there to discuss solutions for the main problems on the planet.

One of the results of the meeting was a document that had pointed as priorities incentives to confront AIDS and malaria and to promote sanitation in poor countries, to the detriment of the war against global warming  – described as a “bad investment”. “Combating the greenhouse effect is an initiative of high costs and low benefits”, said Lomborg. The debate could progress with respectable arguments from one side and then the other. Scientists say that the investment will pay off, as it will prevent catastrophes such as the extinction of species and will avoid future generations from paying the price of not having looked after the planet’s health over the last one hundred and fifty years. The skeptics ask for proof. There is a point to which Crichton’s book can be called partial. He presents the skeptics as voices suffocated in a world in which the environmentalists dominate policies and dumfound the critical vision of scientists. The vitality of the debate shows that this panorama is distant from reality.