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World: Everyone's Talking About The Weather

Prague, 19 August 1998 (RFE/RL) -- People have always tended to chat about the weather, usually at odd moments when there is nothing more important to discuss.

But in recent years the weather is becoming more and more exciting to talk about. This summer alone there have been prostrating heat and crop damage in Romania, disastrous fires in Greece, choking smog in Paris, vast floods in China, unusually heavy rains in parts of Central Asia, storms and drought in the United States.

Of course there have always been natural disasters. But these days, practically every season manages to set a record for heat or cold or wind, or wetness or dryness. Increasingly the phenomenon known as global warming is being blamed for all this.

Global warming is the apparent heating up of the earth's atmosphere by man's activities, including the stripping of the earth's tree cover and the production of so-called greenhouse gasses. The theory is still controversial, not everybody believes it's accurate, but an increasing weight of scientific evidence lends it credibility.

U.S. Vice President Al Gore last week issued a call for action to reduce greenhouse gasses, saying the evidence can no longer be ignored. Noting that July was the single hottest month on record around the world, he said you don't have to be a scientist to know that it has been dangerously hot.

The British Meteorological Office offers some statistics on the matter. It says the first six months of 1998 have been the warmest half year globally since reliable records began in 1860. Met Office spokesman Nathan Powell said:

"Provisional observations analyzed jointly by the Met Office and the University of East Anglia show that the temperature averaged over January to June 1998 has been some 0.6 of a degree Celsius greater than average. Each individual month in 1998 has so far been the warmest such month on record."

Statistics, of course, can only prove the existence of a definite trend if taken over a long period. Even if they are measured over a century, such weather figures leave room to argue that the trend shown may be temporary, not permanent. But there are other indicators in nature itself which tend to support the warming theory.

The environment organization Greenpeace says for instance that research shows the Antarctic penguin populations are moving ever southwards. In that hemisphere, moving southwards means heading into cooler regions. Similarly, there have been changes in plant patterns. Over a 25-year period, vascular plant populations on three sub-Antarctic Argentine islands increased between five and 25-fold. Such growth is linked to a warmer and longer growing season. And there are other examples of changes in flora, fauna, and Oceanic life.

What can we do to reverse this presumed trend? If it continues it will bring the melting of polar ice caps and thus world flooding. As a start, the international pact signed last December in Kyoto, Japan, binds industrial countries to cut greenhouse gas emissions by an average of 5 percent below 1990 levels by the year 2010.

Many environmentalists however much more is necessary. But how to achieve this? Mankind appears trapped in a contradiction. We strive for economic growth, and that means higher energy use. On present energy-use patterns, that means more greenhouse gasses.

Greenpeace climate specialist Bernard Huberlant says however:

"We are not condemned, we are not obliged to go for more fossil fuels if we want to keep our standard of living, we see today that we can live with the same level of comfort, or even better, using three to four times less energy".

Huberlant is of course referring to renewable energy resources, like wind power and solar power. Critics will say these alternative sources have been around quite a long time now, and have had little practical impact on the energy dilemma. But what if that merely reflects a lack of political will to make them practical? Denmark, a country which enjoys one of the highest living standards in the world, has set out to prove that mainline economic growth is compatible with alternative energy generation.

At present Denmark gets 7 percent of its electricity from wind generation, the highest level anywhere in the world, saving some 1.5 million tons of polluting carbon dioxide emissions. The government's target is to have half of all electricity generated from renewable sources, mainly wind, in the next 30 years. That would be about a third of the country's total energy needs.

Danish Environment Minister Svend Aukon considers the target completely practical. He says the switch away from coal power stations will help not only the environment but also the economy. That's because after the capital outlay for the wind turbine, the fuel -- namely the wind -- is free. In future big wind-turbine parks will be placed off the coast, thereby avoiding loss of land.

The Danes have already made the wind a paying proposition. Their fourth largest national export, worth some $525 million a year, is wind turbines. Some 12,000 people work in the wind energy industry, more than are employed by the country's fishing fleet.

Is the Danish experience unique, or could any country achieve the same results, given differing geographical factors? Greenpeace's Huberlant points to the universality of renewable energy, including solar power. Wind and sun are always present, even if in variable quantities. After all, these new sources do not have to completely replace conventional fuels. They just have to help cut down usage of polluting substances so that mankind can look forward to a sunny future -- but not a frying one.