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By George F. Will
Sunday, April 2, 2006

So, "the debate is over." Time magazine says so. Last week's cover story exhorted readers to "Be Worried. Be Very Worried," and ABC News concurred in several stories. So did Montana's governor, speaking on ABC. And there was polling about global warming, gathered by Time and ABC in collaboration.

Eighty-five percent of Americans say warming is probably happening, and 62 percent say it threatens them personally. The National Academy of Sciences says the rise in the Earth's surface temperature has been about one degree Fahrenheit in the past century. Did 85 percent of Americans notice? Of course not. They got their anxiety from journalism calculated to produce it. Never mind that one degree might be the margin of error when measuring the planet's temperature. To take a person's temperature, you put a thermometer in an orifice or under an arm. Taking the temperature of our churning planet, with its tectonic plates sliding around over a molten core, involves limited precision.

Why have Americans been dilatory about becoming as worried -- as very worried -- as Time and ABC think proper? An article on ABC's Web site wonders ominously, "Was Confusion Over Global Warming a Con Job?"

It suggests there has been a misinformation campaign implying that scientists might not be unanimous, a campaign by -- how did you guess? -- big oil. And the coal industry. But speaking of coal . . .

Recently, Montana Gov. Brian Schweitzer flew with ABC's George Stephanopoulos over Glacier National Park's receding glaciers. But Schweitzer offered hope: Everyone, buy Montana coal. New technologies can, he said, burn it while removing carbon causes of global warming.

Stephanopoulos noted that such technologies are at least four years away and "all the scientists" say something must be done "right now." Schweitzer, quickly recovering from hopefulness and returning to the "be worried, be very worried" message, said "it's even more critical than that" because China and India are going to "put more carbon dioxide in the atmosphere with conventional coal-fired generators than all of the rest of the planet has during the last 150 years."

That is one reason why the Clinton administration never submitted the Kyoto accord on global warming for Senate ratification. In 1997 the Senate voted 95 to 0 that the accord would disproportionately burden America while being too permissive toward major polluters that are America's trade competitors.

While worrying about Montana's receding glaciers, Schweitzer, who is 50, should also worry about the fact that when he was 20 he was told to be worried, very worried, about global cooling. Science magazine (Dec. 10, 1976) warned of "extensive Northern Hemisphere glaciation." Science Digest (February 1973) reported that "the world's climatologists are agreed" that we must "prepare for the next ice age." The Christian Science Monitor ("Warning: Earth's Climate is Changing Faster Than Even Experts Expect," Aug. 27, 1974) reported that glaciers "have begun to advance," "growing seasons in England and Scandinavia are getting shorter" and "the North Atlantic is cooling down about as fast as an ocean can cool." Newsweek agreed ("The Cooling World," April 28, 1975) that meteorologists "are almost unanimous" that catastrophic famines might result from the global cooling that the New York Times (Sept. 14, 1975) said "may mark the return to another ice age." The Times (May 21, 1975) also said "a major cooling of the climate is widely considered inevitable" now that it is "well established" that the Northern Hemisphere's climate "has been getting cooler since about 1950."

In fact, the Earth is always experiencing either warming or cooling. But suppose the scientists and their journalistic conduits, who today say they were so spectacularly wrong so recently, are now correct. Suppose the Earth is warming and suppose the warming is caused by human activity. Are we sure there will be proportionate benefits from whatever climate change can be purchased at the cost of slowing economic growth and spending trillions? Are we sure the consequences of climate change -- remember, a thick sheet of ice once covered the Midwest -- must be bad? Or has the science-journalism complex decided that debate about these questions, too, is "over"?

About the mystery that vexes ABC -- Why have Americans been slow to get in lock step concerning global warming? -- perhaps the "problem" is not big oil or big coal, both of which have discovered there is big money to be made from tax breaks and other subsidies justified in the name of combating carbon.

Perhaps the problem is big crusading journalism.

georgewill@washpost.com


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