Global warming of the atmosphere is a "quite serious" problem, but it may be a decade before enough scientific certainty exists to deal with it, President Reagan's newly designated science adviser told Congress yesterday.
"It is a matter of considerable concern to me," William R. Graham said. "We are making strong progress now. I think that progress will continue for another decade or more."
Graham is serving as deputy administrator of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration while awaiting confirmation as head of the White House Office of Science and Technology.
His comments came a day after two senior NASA scientists told a Senate panel that evidence of a warming trend from accumulated pollutants in the atmosphere is "overwhelming" and that widespread climatic disruptions may be inevitable.
Unless the so-called "greenhouse effect" is checked, the NASA experts and other scientists said, rising temperatures will melt polar ice caps, flooding low-lying coastal areas, turning prime agriculture lands into sun-baked deserts and wreaking havoc with rainfall and seasonal patterns.
At the same time, the pollutants are destroying Earth's protective ozone layer, which screens ultraviolet rays that can damage plant and aquatic life and cause skin cancer in humans.
No administration official testifying on the second day of a Senate Environment and Public Works subcommittee hearing disagreed with the scientists' scenario. But only Environmental Protection Agency administrator Lee M. Thomas suggested that government decisions might not await scientific consensus.
"We've got to take action with a good bit of scientific uncertainty remaining," said Thomas, warning that even a small change in the Earth's temperature "could have significant environmental and health consequences . . . likely to be irreversible over a period of many decades."
Representatives of the Energy, Commerce and State departments supported Graham's call for more research, contending that efforts to control the problem are likely to encounter major economic and foreign policy obstacles.
According to scientists, the warming trend stems from emissions of carbon dioxide from fossil-fuel burning and from other industrial pollutants, chiefly a class of chemicals known as chlorofluorocarbons, widely used as refrigerants and in aerosol and foam products.
Controlling such emissions would likely mean reduced reliance on coal, which the United States and other coal-rich nations -- including the Soviet Union and China -- count on to meet future energy demands.
"Causes and effects of climate change area simply too poorly understood to warrant changes of energy policy," said Alvin W. Trivelpiece, director of DOE's Office of Energy Research.
State Department official Richard E. Benedick noted that recent efforts to negotiate worldwide controls on chlorofluorocarbons, which some scientists believe comprise as much as half of the problem, ended in "total gridlock."
That occurred, he said, when the United States and European countries insisted on their own terms, Japan saw no need for any international controls "and Third World countries showed no interest in the issue."
Asked why the United States did not take the lead in controlling greenhouse gases unilaterally, Thomas said the EPA is considering additional controls on chlorofluorocarbons in the United States.
"They are not easy steps to take," he said. "There are social and economic disruptions. There are international implications."