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Don't Dither, Conserve

THE Middle Eastern confrontation and last week's global climate meeting in Sundsvall, Sweden, are unrelated. Yet they have sent the same message - conserve energy. Efficient use of energy to cut reliance on Middle Eastern oil became a media clich'e last month. Sundsvall's less dramatic, but no less imperative, message is that the ineluctable development of global climate warming also puts a premium on conservation.

Wide agreement has emerged among atmospheric scientists that the buildup of heat-trapping gases - including carbon dioxide from burning coal, gas, and oil - is warming the planet. It's still hard to find an unambiguous warming trend today. The extent of possible future warming remains unclear. But the reports considered at last week's meeting of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change discounted these uncertainties as an excuse to delay action to curtail climate-warming pollution.

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The sessions (Aug. 27 to Aug. 30), with some 300 scientists, lawyers, and government officials attending, were the fourth meeting of the panel since the United Nations Environment Program and World Meteorological Organization created it in 1988. It precedes an intergovernmental climate meeting in Geneva this month and the Second World Climate Conference to be held in Geneva Oct. 29 to Nov. 7.

These meetings, in turn, will prepare the way for the first full-scale treaty-negotiating session, to be hosted by President Bush in Washington in February. The hope is to have a climate-change treaty ready for consideration at the United Nations environment conference to be held in Brazil in June 1992. That treaty would include restrictions on carbon dioxide emissions.

This is serious business. It gives the climate panel conclusions an action-oriented perspective that previous expert assessments have lacked.

The findings, the substance of which has been known for several months, sound familiar. The panel asserts that Earth's average temperature is likely to warm by several degrees over the next century. They find inconclusive signs that the warming may have already begun. They warn of a number of unpleasant consequences: hard-to-predict rainfall changes could bring more drought to marginal farming areas; many coastal regions and ocean islands could be swamped as melting of land-based ice and thermal expansion of the ocean raises sea level; the 21st century could have millions of environmental refugees.

Over a thousand atmospheric scientists worked 20 months on this assessment. Its unprecedented breadth and depth gives their findings special weight. What adds political relevance is their conclusion that the prospect for global warming and its consequences has a solid enough scientific basis to justify action now to curb the buildup of heat-trapping gases.

Emissions would have to be cut by 60 percent immediately to halt warming. That's not practical. But steps can be taken to slow the warming down. British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher has offered to stabilize her country's emissions at 1990 levels by the year 2005. The Bush administration worries about costs and clings to unwarranted skepticism. Yet, surely, a vigorous energy conservation program is justified today. The United States should enter the upcoming treaty negotiations with an eye to action. Politicians cannot afford to dither.

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