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Weather special ruins doomsayers' forecast

Tuesday, April 18, 2000

By Bill Steigerwald, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

Despite what network news readers and environmental doomsayers have lead us to believe since that scorching summer of 1988, most of the science connected with the global warming "crisis" is still very uncertain.

Not to mention arguable.

Al Gore and his pals may think they know for sure what's wrong with Mother Earth's sense of balance and what scientific and political steps we fossil-fueled humans must take to fix it. But the best thing about tonight's "What's Up With the Weather?" on PBS -- besides its fair-minded, sensible and realistic approach to an issue badly skewed by high emotion and low politics -- is that it doesn't commit the sin of scientific certainty.

If anything, this "Nova"/ "Frontline" co-production is tilted toward healthy skepticism. Producer Jon Palfreman and his team carefully balance climatologists who say global warming is a looming disaster for the planet with skeptics who argue that it is not -- or that we don't know enough about the earth's amazingly complex and quirky climate system to know what to do about it.

Is the Earth warmer today than it was 1,000 years ago? It sure seems so.

Do we know why this is happening? Sort of.

Is global warming causing super-severe weather? Perhaps.

Is Earth going to get so hot that the Arctic ice caps are going to melt and flood coastal areas? Don't know.

Has the 1-degree rise in the Earth's temperature since 1900 been caused by humans burning fossil fuels and boosting the atmosphere's CO2 content? Probably.

Is more CO2 in the air a bad thing? It depends.

These questions and many others are left hanging by "What's Up With Weather?," which splits its two hours roughly in half between talking about the weather and examining alternative ways to power the necessities and playthings homo sapiens have come to enjoy.

For instance: Can we stop burning cheap but dirty stuff like coal, continue to rule out nuclear power and still realistically deliver the trillions of megawatts of power we humans need each year for our air-conditioners, toasters and evil SUVs?

Not likely.

Along with dueling climatologists, and the big global political debate over whether rich countries or poor developing countries should have to bear the cost of reducing future CO2 emissions, some great statistics are presented.

For example, each American puts 20 tons of CO2 in the air each year. An SUV alone puts in 4,400 pounds -- twice the average car's rate. And the electricity needed to power a toaster accounts for 20 pounds of carbon per year -- which combines with oxygen molecules to produce 80 pounds of CO2.

The more scientific information you get and the more arguments you hear, the more complicated and less frightening the global warming issue becomes. By the time "What's Up With the Weather?" ends, you'll know a lot more about the weather and the relative costs and benefits of energy sources. But you'll be certain of a lot less.

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