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Earth's `cosmic shock'

AUSTRALIAN geoscientist Keith Cole has an apt phrase to describe the environmental challenge humanity faces. Earth, he says, is suffering ``cosmic shock.'' By that he means the often-stated fact that ``Earth has now been changed by humans to an extent which is competing with nature.'' And some of those changes are doing no good.

Scientists such as Cole have warned of this for some time. Now with rising concern over global warming, ozone holes, ocean pollution, and the like, the environmental changes themselves are forcing the issue on public attention.

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The pressure is on to do something about this massive environmental challenge. But when scientists themselves have only begun to understand the problem, there are no quick fixes.

For example, Cole, who is at La Trobe University in Melbourne, is a leader in the International Geosphere Biosphere Program - otherwise known as Mission to Planet Earth. This massive research effort, which aims to find out exactly what we are doing to our global environment, will take one to two decades to come up with answers. Yet we can't wait that long to begin to clean up our environmental act.

This puts political leaders in the awkward position of having to respond to a rising sense of urgency with programs that must continue for decades but must continuously adapt to new scientific knowledge.

In the United States, Sen. Timothy Wirth (D) of Colorado is trying to do this with ambitious legislation designed to slow global warming by reducing emissions of heat-trapping carbon dioxide, promoting energy conservation, and exploiting renewable energy sources. He says he doesn't expect his bill to pass in exactly its present form. But it should be a focus for bipartisan discussions that could produce a program to begin the kind of long-term effort needed.

Wirth says he is convinced that maintaining a livable environment will be a major political theme of the 1990s. He notes that he is getting an unprecedented response from members of Congress from all parts of the US political spectrum who want to co-sponsor the bill.

The bill is wide ranging. It includes such specifically domestic aims as energy conservation in federal buildings. It also covers such global objectives as holding a world conference on reducing emission of heat-trapping gases and more US help to curb world population growth. The bill may be unrealistic in setting a goal for 20 percent reduction in carbon dioxide emissions by the United States over the next 12 years. It would be a major achievement just to hold these emissions to present levels - a point Wirth concedes.

The real importance of Wirth's bill is as a nucleus around which the emerging political will to act on the environmental challenge can crystallize in concrete programs. Ultimately, the ``cosmic shock'' we're inflicting on our planet is a shock to human thinking - a challenge to transform the way we live on Earth and become responsible environmental managers. This will be one of the most profound cultural transitions humanity has ever made.

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A Tuesday column. Robert C. Cowen is the Monitor's natural science editor.

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