Battles over global warming are being fought with sophisticated computer models. On a calm day last January, the tide came in around the Pacific island nation of Kiribati and rose higher and higher, and higher -- until it swamped scores of homes.
According to a recent article in The New York Times, there was a similar tidal surge in February. It's impossible to say whether the destructive tides were just an odd circumstance or a sign that sea levels are on the rise because of a melting of the polar ice packs.
The Alliance of Small Island States (AOSIS) says that its member countries, some of whom could literally disappear under higher seas, don't have the luxury of waiting for all the uncertainties surrounding climatic changes to be resolved before the industrialized countries take steps to reduce greenhouse gas emissions (primarily carbon dioxide) responsible for global warming.
An AOSIS proposal for a mandatory 20% reduction in greenhouse gas emissions from 1990 levels by 2005 is among the most stringent that Climate Change Treaty negotiators are set to consider this year.
The Global Climate Coalition (GCC), a U.S. industry group, says that such strong measures to reduce emissions can't be justified without conclusive scientific evidence that global warming is a serious problem. And if it does exist, there must be evidence tying it to diesel, gasoline, and other fossil fuels.
GCC is opposed to measures such as a carbon tax to reduce greenhouse emissions. It argues that such taxes would have a significant adverse effect on economic growth.
A recent GCC study concludes that efforts by developed countries to have emissions revert to 1990 levels by 2005 -- and to maintain them at that level through 2030 -- would depress global growth worldwide.
In a computer model developed for the American Petroleum Institute (API) and GCC, Charles River Associates, a Massachusetts-based consulting firm, says, "Because energy use must be reduced significantly in a relatively short time period, greenhouse gas reductions would lead to substantial GDP (gross domestic product) losses in the industrial countries undertaking the emissions limits."
Developing countries, which could not be required to curtail their emissions, would no doubt feel the economic consequences because the world is now connected by bonds of international trade, according to Charles River. In short, GDPs worldwide would also be reduced due to the economic impact of climate-change policy. For example, depressed fossil-fuel markets would even mean that energy-exporting nations would suffer losses comparable to those of the industrialized nations.
Florentin Krause, director of the International Project for Sustainable Energy Paths, attacked the Charles River study as being flawed. "Some connection between imposing an emissions cap through some sort of international agreement and what companies and people will do to innovate in the way they produce goods and services is missing," he says.
Krause argues that GCC studies fail to consider the effect of new efficiencies to accommodate the imposition of carbon taxes, and opportunities for accelerated technological innovation. "There is no justification for excluding these factors if one wants to arrive at a sound, national economic policy perspective," says Krause.
API's executive vice president, William O'Keefe, demurs. He says that the Charles River study is "highly effective in revealing the economic consequences of proposals to limit severe greenhouse emissions." He says Krause fails to mention the costs of technological innovations and how they are to be achieved. "Technology forcing rarely produces results that exceed or even equal its costs."
In the next 50 or 100 years, the wisdom or folly of measures taken or not taken to deal with global warming may be apparent, but the center of the climate-change debate today hinges on computer-model forecasts of worldwide weather patterns, temperature changes, and economic behavior well into the 21st century.