Greenhouse Heat...

Tuesday, June 24, 2008; 12:00 AM

In the summer of 1988, a top climate scientist warned Congress that rising global temperatures were a cause for concern -- and the global warming debate began in earnest. Here's what The Post editorial board had to say.

Aug. 14, 1988

Suppose -- just as a hypothetical exercise on a hot day -- that this country were to get really serious about controlling the greenhouse effect on the climate. Suppose it were to decide that the planet is already warm enough, and it wanted to curb the changes that threaten to make it much warmer. Where, precisely, would it begin?

First, it would build on the past 15 years' successes. Since the oil crisis in 1973, this country's GNP has risen by nearly half while its consumption of energy has dropped by one-fourth. The country has proved to itself that conservation can work, and that it can work without forcing people to live less comfortable lives. But most of the progress since 1973 has been a response to soaring prices of energy. With the decline in oil prices over the past couple of years, gains in conservation have stopped and signs of backsliding are now appearing.

What to do about it? A stiff tax on gasoline would do wonders for automobile efficiency.

The next target would be power plants. Most of them are now fueled with coal, but there are ways to generate power without pouring carbon dioxide into the air. Increased reliance on nuclear energy would be essential to any serious attempt to stabilize the climate. But solar technology is developing rapidly and will soon be cheap enough to be a practical alternative for many uses. The rate of development will depend, of course, on how badly the country wants to control carbon dioxide emissions.

While Americans change the ways in which they generate electricity, they also need to reduce the total demand for it by using more efficient equipment. Industry has done a lot of that. Households have done less, and if you were to ask what private individuals can do, that's one place where you might look. It's possible to build and equip houses that will give their inhabitants all the present amenities -- the same heating, cooling and lighting -- with much less power. Congress passed legislation last year to begin the process of putting federal energy ratings on appliances, like the mile-per-gallon ratings on cars. The point is that rapid advances in cutting carbon dioxide emissions would not require a radical departure from the recent past, but only an acceleration of work already under way.

Carbon dioxide isn't the only villain. Certain exotic gases, sometimes in very small volumes, can make dismaying changes in the chemistry of the atmosphere. Once again, the precedents for progress already exist. Last year most of the world's industrial nations met in Montreal and agreed to cut their use of chlorofluorocarbons.

Speaking of international cooperation, it will be central to any realistic attempt to control greenhouse warming. North America produces one-fourth of the world's fossil fuel emissions. Even the most diligent efforts to reduce them here in the United States will have limited effects if they are not accompanied by similar action around the world.

Who's going to take the lead in the next decade's environmental diplomacy?

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