In the beginning there was heaven and earth and darkness upon the deep and great lights and a firmament. Then there was man who was given dominion over the fish of the sea and over the fowl of the air and over every living thing that moves and over the earth itself. And the Lord looked upon his creations and proclaimed, behold it was very good.
What may be perhaps the central environmental problem of the planet is the problem of what's going to happen to the climate. Robert M. White was saying. "The climate is really the only environmental characteristic that can utterly change our society and our civilization. We do have environmental problems and they're serious ones, the preservation of species among them, but the climate is the environmental problem that's so pervasive in its effects on the society - whether it imports on the production of agriculture whether it determines the character of our energy usages, or whether it determines what's going to happen to the deserts of the world. You're dealing with what's going to happen to the earth's atmosphere, and it's so complex and has such broad impacts on society that to really get at it requires a treatment and approach that we've never been able to take in this country, let alone internationally."
White is one of our foremost weather and climate experts. For the past 14 years he's served five presidents as head of the Weather Bureau and its successor agencies, the Environmental Science Services Administration and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. A few days ago he took up a new position as chairman of the National Academy of Science's Climate Research Board.
"We have fluctuations in our weather and climate that are totally natural," he said, "that will occur without anything that man does. And then we have fluctuations in our climate which may be brought about by man's activities. Conditions like the one we're involved in now, for example, give rise to questions as to what is happening to our atmosphere, and whether we can anticipate situations like these."
Then, quietly, a reflection.:
"The other part of this is what man is doing to the climate. And there are some things that are terribly, terribly intriguing. Some of them have an ominous character to them."
The headline on my desk, emblamored accross the front page, proclaims: "COOLER. DRIER AIR ARRIVING TOMORROW." It's come, and the latest alert has passed. Also scattered across my desk are piles and piles of newspaper clipping, all on the same subject. Here's one:
AIR QUALITY HERE WORST ON RECORD
. . . COG extended the air pollution alert yesterday for the fourth straight day as the 90-degree temperatures and absence of wind caused automobile emissions to gather in the atmosphere at hazardouslevels. "This is the worst we've had yet," said David Di Julio, head of COG's air resources program. "There have been four alerts since May and I expect there will be a few more. We are getting the highest index readings we're ever had." The increase in car travel has made this kind of pollution worse rather than better since the 1970 Clean Air Act, Di Julio said . . .
That story ran two summers ago. There's something starting about these stories printed over the last two years. It's not their writing style. They are, in the mass, virtual cartoon copies, with the same phrases, same descriptions, same explanations, same warnings: Most pollution here is the resuit of sunlight reacting on vehicle exhaust to form [WORD ILLEGIBLE] (last summer) . . . And: Despite efforts by COG and EPA over the last several years, no enforceable program for limiting vehicle traffice during an alert exists. (ditto.)
They are the same, but with a vital difference. The conditions they describe get worse, the stories come more frequently.One year ago last spring: The Council of Government's air pollution alert, the earliest on history, remains in effect as . . . One year ago last summer:
AREA'S 8th AIR POLLUTION ALERT OF THE YEAR SETS 2 RECORDS
And they end, always, with the same lack of results. Again, from last summer:
'DOG DAY' TRIGGER RECORD 7th POLLUTION AIR ALERT FOR AREA
"That's Washington in August - the dog days,' a Weather Service official said . . .
Another alert? What else is new? Stagment air? Stay inside. Trouble breathing? Tough luck.
The bite from those "dog days" gets more severe, but we wearily accept it as our reality. Mark Twain, you know: Everyone talks about the weather, no one ever does anything abou it. Certainly not the government.
So here's a proposal: until we bite the dog, let's ban the news.
Robert White takes the positive view. Sure it looks bad, sure the alerts are increasing, sure the levels of pollution are rising. But look at the situation from a different perspective. What would it be like now if we hadn't taken even the steps we have? With population still rising, with automobile production increasing, with the numbers of car trips growing, think what the pollution would be like if we had no air quality act, no Environmental Protction Agency. "We would be in a desperate situation," he says.
But there is recent evidence that gives him pause. It now appears, from extensive research, that the levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere are increasing to the point that they could have a profound long-term impact on the planet, and all the life on it, "Given reasonable scenarios for the use of fossil fuels, oil reasonably be anticipated that there will be a significant rise in the world temperature of the order of let's say 6 degrees," he says.
Normal changes in world temperature from year to year are very small. A half a degree would be large. A change of only a few degrees can move the earth from an ice to a non-ice age.
"So you're talking about a chance that is very large," he says, "and a change that could impact everything one does in society . . . It may change the whole nature of the whole planet, and change how people live and how they interact with that planet. So you're talking about something this is realy a very, very fearful thing were it to come about."
That would be a change man has created.
It's is White's experience that we respond when there is fear - fear of some other government, political fear, economic fear, health fear. "We're always responding to fear after fear, and problem after problem. I call it careening from problem to problem."
Another observation : "The decay curve after disasters is remarkable. I have 14 years of experience on this and it's never failed to shock me just how fast the public reaction and concern disappear after the disaster passes."
The weather forecast for this weekend is fair. No alerts, no pollution. Live it up, or do what James Schlesinger, our so-called eneergy "czar," did recently, and look it up.
"I looked up the figures the other day," he said, "and in the first five days of July the motorists of America used more oil or more gasoline than the Army ground forces in the whole year of 1944. In the first two weeks of July we used more gasoline than the U.S. Army Air Corps in all of 1944. Just blowing it away in the 100 million cars we have here."