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Winter's Worrisome Warmth

by: USA Today    12 January 2007

When winter finally shows up in parts of the nation that basked in oddly springlike temperatures through much of December and January, it'll be tempting to forget all about the news that 2006 was the warmest on record in the continental USA. Not so fast.

Climate scientists caution not to obsess about one month's weather or even a year's, but 2006 is part of a worrisome trend: The last nine years have all been among the 25 warmest on record for the USA, a streak that the National Climatic Data Center called "unprecedented in the historical record." For what may be the first time during the Bush era, the Center's press release used words that veteran parsers say have been edited out in the past: "A contributing factor to the unusually warm temperatures … is the long-term warming trend, which has been linked to increases in greenhouse gases."

Scientists have long agreed that the earth is warming at a troubling rate and that emissions from smokestacks, chimneys and auto tailpipes are contributors. Even President Bush, who has blocked limits on greenhouse gases on the grounds they'd burden the economy, acknowledged in 2005 that "humans (are) contributing to the problem."

Scientists disagree over how fast the earth will warm, how much the icecaps will melt, the seas rise, droughts increase and storms worsen, exactly how much is man's fault, how much is a result of long-term global temperature cycles and how strong a response is needed to reverse the trend.

But the consensus is that it's better to start now, and there are any number of ways to do that: individually, with acts as simple as replacing ordinary light bulbs with low-energy fluorescent bulbs to cut energy use, and on a national and global scale by setting emissions caps and gradually pushing utilities, factories and the auto industry away from oil, gas and coal. The European Union has proposed that by 2020, developing countries cut greenhouse gas emissions by 30%.

The cost of making such a fundamental shift seems too big and potentially too damaging to bear, but it always does. When scientists began to warn in the 1970s and 1980s that Freon and other chlorofluorocarbon gases (CFCs) were destroying the earth's protective ozone layer and creating a dangerous ozone hole over the Antarctic, there was sharp resistance to banning CFCs and finding substitutes to use in billions of aerosol cans and millions of air conditioners.

But the 1987 Montreal Protocol began a 10-year phaseout of CFCs that has reversed the trend. Industry came up with substitutes, the economy survived and scientists now say the notorious ozone hole will close by the middle of this century. Global warming is a much more complex problem, but the mechanism for solving it looks similar. The key is to acknowledge the danger and act.