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Global Warming: Scientists Argue About Need For Urgent Action

(epa) Scientists preparing for a climate-change conference in Canada next week are already arguing about the need for tougher international action to slow global warming. The 12-day conference follows a recent U.S. scientific report confirming that the Arctic ice cap is shrinking more rapidly than previously believed. Experts and government officials from about 190 countries are set to meet in Montreal starting on 28 November to will talk about how to replace the UN's Kyoto Protocol. That 1997 deal is seen as just a tiny first step toward curbing rising emissions of heat-trapping gasses from power plants, factories and cars.

Prague, 25 November 2005 (RFE/RL) -- Some participants at next week's conference say they will use recent data on melting Arctic ice to urge tougher efforts against global warming by the United States and developing countries like China and India.

In 2001, U.S. President George W. Bush pulled the United States of out of the Kyoto Protocol, saying it was too costly and wrongly excluded developing countries.

But since then, there has been growing evidence about the potential for global havoc from melting polar ice and rising sea levels.

Melting Ice

In September, an ice report produced by the U.S. National Snow and Ice Data Center confirmed that polar ice has contracted to its smallest size in at least a century. The findings also support a report last year by 250 experts who predicted Arctic ice could disappear entirely during summers within the next 100 years.

Bill Chameides, chief scientist for the U.S.-based Environmental Defense Fund, is among those who think shrinking polar ice could portend worldwide disruptions.

“The evidence that we are seeing with regard to hurricanes and global warming, the stuff that we are seeing that is going on in the Arctic in terms of melting ice, are just two signs that, in fact, the global warming process is occurring," Chameides told RFE/RL. "It's occurring probably faster than we thought it was. And we really need to get serious about making some real changes to offset some irreversible and rather unfortunate effects.”

Chameides notes two other recent studies. At the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, meteorologist Kerry Emanuel used storm and temperature data to show that the destructive potential of tropical storms in the North Atlantic and Pacific has doubled during the past 30 years.

Bigger Hurricanes

Meanwhile, a study by Peter Webster and his colleagues at the Georgia Institute of Technology found a sharp increase in the number of category 4 and 5 hurricanes during the past 35 years.

Chameides says both studies reinforce each other, suggesting a strong link between global warming and more powerful hurricanes.

“The devastation caused by Hurricanes Katrina and Rita, for example, is consistent with what we might expect to see as a result of global warming," Chameides said. "Very likely in the future we will see Katrina and Rita and those kinds of hurricanes are a harbinger of what we might see more commonly in the future.”

Bob Correll, a senior policy fellow at the American Meteorological Society, says he thinks a lack of true understanding about the impact of global warming has prevented the issue from becoming a priority for world leaders.

“As the Arctic ice melts -- particularly glaciers and the ice pack of Greenland -- it will cause the sea level rise. We expect upwards of a meter of sea level [rise] to occur during this coming 100 years," Correll said. "These processes have profound implications for the whole planet. It is not just the loss of polar bear or the difficulties [native North American] Inuits losing their lifestyle. It is profoundly important to the planet at large.”

Correll says a 1 meter rise would be enough to devastate islands and coastal areas around the world. He says the need for urgent efforts to diversify energy sources and limit energy consumption cannot be overstated.

“It took about 150 years for us to get this level of CO2 and these increased temperatures," he said. "But it will take 1,000 years to correct it -- even if we stop emitting carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases.”

But not everyone is convinced about links between global warming and stronger hurricanes.

“That's a perfectly natural conclusion to draw from all of this but it isn't necessarily one that stands up to scientific investigation," said Bonner Cohen, a senior fellow at the Washington-based National Center for Public Policy Research. "Particularly when you look at the forces behind Atlantic hurricane activity and you see this is cyclical in nature and takes place whether the temperatures are going up or down.”

Kyoto 2?

Cohen is highly critical of the UN's Kyoto Protocol, which is designed to regulate the emission of pollution in developed countries. He argues that the Kyoto plan is more about restricting U.S. economic development than addressing pollution on a global scale.

“Global demand for energy is going to soar in the decades to come," Cohen said. "A treaty designed to limit the use of energy or shift the energy sources to unnamed, vague renewables, and things like that is simply not going to be possible.”

But Cohen also has critics. Several media watchdog groups on the Internet warn that Cohen's credibility is questionable. They note that Cohen has in the past purported to do independent writing on health subjects for a journal that reportedly received funding from a big tobacco company.

The Kyoto treaty, which took effect earlier this year, was originally signed by former U.S. President Bill Clinton. But it was never presented to the U.S. Congress for ratification.

Some U.S. officials want a non-regulatory agreement that is formed outside the United Nations. Supporters of the original Kyoto treaty are calling for a kind of "Kyoto 2" as a way to continue emission regulations beyond 2012 -- and extend them to include some developing countries.