The debate about what, if anything, to do about climate change is about to get much louder due to a confluence of strange weather, a new assessment by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, and a political transition in the United States.
By almost any accounting, the weather of 2006 has been atypical. According to the annual climate summary published by the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, 2006 was the warmest year on record for the United States and sixth warmest year on record globally. Warm winter weather in Europe has led to the cancellation of several World Cup ski competitions and open speculation about the eventual demise of the ski industry in Europe. This comes on the heels of the warmest July on record for Western Europe. Australia recorded both its warmest spring on record and its worst drought on record.
Against this weather backdrop, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change started to release the results of its fourth assessment in four volumes in February. The previous IPCC Assessment was released in 2001.
Finally, as a result of the mid-term elections held in the United States last November, the Democratic Party has taken control of both legislative chambers from the Republican Party. This fundamentally changes the political dynamic in the world’s largest emitter of greenhouse gases. One only needs to compare the views on climate change of the outgoing chairman of the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works, James Inhofe to those of incoming chairwoman Barbara Boxer to understand how the tenor of Congressional proceedings related to climate will change.
The loudest part of the debate will likely focus on the validity of the conclusions in the IPCC assessment. This challenge will be mounted by a core group of climate change skeptics. Several Web sites track these scientists and attempt to characterize their positions. Examples include: http://www.sourcewatch.org/index.php?title=Global_warming_controversy, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Global_warming_controversy, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_scientists_opposing_global_warming_consensus, and http://www.google.com/Top/Society/Issues/Environment/Opposing_Views/Climate_Change_Skeptics/.
In response to the escalating debate between the IPCC mainstream and the climate skeptics, several Web sites have emerged to keep track of the scientific claims and counterclaims. One examples is http://www.realclimate.org/. Other sites have emerged that attack the motivations of the climate change skeptics. These include http://www.exxonsecrets.org/, http://www.ucsusa.org/news/press_release/ExxonMobil-GlobalWarming-tobacco.html, and http://www.environmentaldefense.org/article.cfm?contentid=4870. For whatever reason, Exxon Mobil has recently announced that it will stop funding several groups associated with climate skeptics.
The one prediction on which we can all agree is that the debate will likely get hotter as the stakes get higher.
THOMAS M. PARRIS is a research scientist at and director of the New England offices of ISCIENCES, LLC.