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Like most of us, I think, my knowledge of physics starts to get fuzzy somewhere just beyond the law of inertia--that bodies in motion remain in motion until acted upon with an equal, but opposite force.
When it comes to global warming, I tend to fall back on that practical knowledge in hope that it will help me make a more reasonable political decision. And political decision it is. President Clinton, with the urging of Vice President Gore and with the backing of what they say are most reputable scientists, has signed the so-called Kyoto Protocol, calling on industrialized nations to dramatically reduce "greenhouse emissions" (primarily carbon dioxide) within the next 10 years to head off a catastrophe of global warming in which polar ice caps start melting, cities are inundated and cycles of drought and flood produce international havoc.
Fresh out of what scientists are saying was the most destructive hurricane season since Spain set out for the Indies, and only a year since El Nio raised general hell on the coast, doomsayers have used words such as "death in biblical proportions" to describe what might happen if we don't do something about global warming.
It does, now that they mention it, feel warmer these days, doesn't it? And, by gosh, it does seem like there have been some big extremes of weather in the last few years, wouldn't you say so? That, to me, is political inertia. The body is in motion, even if other scientific evidence suggests that the overall frequency and wind speed of hurricanes has actually declined in the last five decades, and that natural extremes in climate come along with some historical regularity. In politics, as with the Kyoto Protocol, timing is everything.
President Clinton, however, as cynical as ever, knows there is no way that the United States Senate will ever approve his agreement to the Kyoto Protocol, because to do so would force a reduction by one-third or more in the U.S. industrial output and all but cripple the American economy. At the same time, the protocol would actually encourage China and India to increase their industrial output, thus somehow leveling world social order, regardless of the impact on global warming.
It won't happen. The United States will not officially be bound by the Kyoto Protocol. But that has nothing to do with the political inertia. President Clinton and Vice President Gore go on with their doomsday grandstanding on global warming just the same, and claim to have most of the world's best scientists on their side.
By "most" and "best," however, we need to understand that includes only scientists who agree with them. Thousands of other scientists in the world, led in the U.S. by Dr. S. Fred Singer, have signed another document disagreeing with the Kyoto accord at least until there is better scientific data. Dr. Singer is an atmospheric physicist who was formerly the director of the U.S. Weather Satellite Service and devised the satellite instrumentation for measuring stratospheric ozone.
But because Dr. Singer does not agree with him about global warming, Vice President Al Gore has referred to Singer and other dissenting scientists as "the empirical equivalent of the Easter bunny." I guess that means that Gore thinks they don't exist, or that they all work for oil companies (which Dr. Singer does not).
Inertia in politics is like inertia in physics. Things keep on going until they meet an equal, but opposite force. The agreement approved by Clinton would result at best in a reduction of the most dire forecasts of warming by 0.05 degrees Celsius, a minuscule amount. The cost to the United States would be a 35 percent reduction in energy use over the next 10 years. Do you have to be a rocket scientist to figure out whether that would be worth it?
What is really going on with global warming isn't science, it's politics. And what you really need to know is that when things get going in the wrong direction, there is only one real way to get them stopped.
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Tim Findley is a freelance writer in Fallon, Nev.