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Global warming: no time for heads in the sand

Historians in the year 2030 may well look back at the summer of 1988 and say, ``That's when the world first woke up to the seriousness of the global warming trend.'' The question is, where will they be looking back from? Not from coastal regions in Bangladesh or New Jersey, which will be under water. Not from the Maldive Islands: They will have sunk from view. And not from the Arctic icecap: It will be melting rapidly.

Or so say the worst-case computer models of global warming, according to a small group of scientists, environmentalists, and international legal experts who came from a dozen nations to the Woods Hole Research Center for a workshop on the subject earlier this month. These models show a possible rise in global temperature of 6 degrees C. by 2030. The cause: an excess of the ``greenhouse gases'' - primarily carbon dioxide - that trap sunlight in the atmosphere and warm the earth. Among the results: sea waters rise, rainfall patterns shift, deserts expand, vegetation changes.

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This is clearly one of the most serious threats facing the 21st century. Yet ``the greatest problem,'' according to Britain's ambassador to the United Nations, Sir Crispin Tickell, ``is to convince those in authority'' that something serious is happening. Rafe Pomerance of the Washington-based World Resources Institute agrees. Even though ``the warnings were clear a decade ago,'' he says, there remains ``a vast vacuum of political leadership.''

Why? In part because the issue is so daunting that the ostrich approach takes over: As Dean Abrahamson of the University of Minnesota puts it, ``There's a powerful need not to know here.'' In part it's because science cannot deliver unequivocal proof - although evidence linking fossil-fuel burning and deforestation to global warming is so clear that every major American environmental group is now reassessing its programs.

But mostly, says Noel Brown, a Kenyan diplomat who directs the North American Office of the United Nations Environment Program, the problem is that governments ``are not set up to deal'' with problems 40 or 50 years off. In the age of the quick fix, who's willing to think past the next election?

But something is afoot - 1988 is a significant year. A summer's drought and vast forest fires in North America, a miserably damp summer in England, the strongest hurricane on record in the Gulf of Mexico, devastating floods in Bangladesh - these may be unrelated to global climatic change. But they've brought home to the public a nagging question. Are weather patterns undergoing a long-term modification?

Three cheers that people are at last asking. The greenhouse effect is fast becoming a household term. But that awareness puts a burden on the environmental community to channel such public concern in fruitful ways.

How to do so? Here are four ways:

Avoid terrorizing the public with scare stories. Despair over the future will never produce forward movement. Hope, however, will - especially when coupled with solid, serious information.

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Don't overstate the scientific case. Credibility is perhaps the most valuable commodity a scientist can have. Jos'e Goldemberg, president of the University of Sao Paulo in Brazil, noted that ``scientists are like sailors on top of the mast - they can see the land before the people on the deck.'' That's true, but the ship is still steered from below. Don't imagine that seeing the land is the same as knowing how to get there: Don't presume to say science tells us how to use science.

But don't simply leave the problem to politicians. If ever the time was ripe for a grass-roots, community-level movement to change the world, this is it. ``We cannot look to our political leaders to deal with this question,'' says Michael Clark of the Washington-based Environmental Policy Institute. ``We have to look to ourselves.''

Finally, raise the sights. Don't settle for small victories. Keep the global picture in mind, so that problems of international law, global commerce, developing-world energy policies, reforestation, and third-world debt are all taken into account.

That's a tall order. But when else have the stakes ever been so high?

A Monday column