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Ignoring an inconvenient truth

CNET News.com's Charles Cooper says there may be good reasons why we don't want to know about global warming. But time is running short.

Nobody wants to hear from a card-carrying worrywart at this time of the year, but after returning from a talk Al Gore delivered in San Francisco, I'm in a foul mood that's entirely at odds with the spirit of the season. Listening to the man who used to be the next President of the United States, as Gore jokingly refers to himself, can do that to you. This isn't the first time I've seen the man give his save-the-environment stump speech. If you've either read Gore's book An Inconvenient Truth or watched the documentary by the same name, you've probably got the drift of his central theme: The politicians are clueless, the public is apathetic and the environment is going from bad to worse. In other words, we're all screwed.

Actually, it's probably worse than that. Experts say unchecked greenhouse gas emissions could see global temperatures rise by 2 to 3 degrees Celsius in the next 50 years and could result in .

By now, a good part of the American body politic has become inured to the danger of global warming. Many don't even believe the threat exists.

But I'm getting ahead of myself.

By now, a good part of the American body politic has become inured to the danger of global warming. Many don't even believe the threat exists. A dear friend of long standing and considerable intelligence is typical. He has no patience either with Gore or his Chicken Little routine. Instead, he argues, global warming is a political overreaction to long-term global weather patterns, and the best thing to do is to sit tight. Mother Nature will take care of the rest.

I'm sure a lot of other level-headed Americans are of the same mind. But Gore's speech was just the highlight of the fall meeting of the American Geophysical Union. What's great about the scientists who gathered for this week-long conference is that they prefer to leave the polemics to others. For this crowd, it's all about the hard data?-and folks, the hard data scare the hell out of me.

One of the papers presented at the AGU summit this week was the prediction by the National Center for Atmospheric Research that the erosion of the sea ice in the Arctic could rapidly accelerate within the next two decades. Marika Holland, the lead author of the paper, said that the ice level is expected to remain quite stable until 2025 but "then, boom, it just goes." By 2040 or 2045, she said, only a fairly small amount of thinner ice could be left.

Boom. Kiss it goodbye...forever, or until a point so far in the future that it won't come back on any time scale relevant to the human species.

Incredibly, that story failed to make the front pages of the daily newspapers that I read?-and I read a lot of them each day. Coincidentally, the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development the same day issued a report warning that after the warmest November in memory for many regions in the Alps, climate change now threatens Europe's ski trade.

Folks, leave the Democratic-Republican, red state-blue state nonsense aside for a few minutes. To borrow that immortal line from Buffalo Springfield, something's happening here. What it is ain't exactly clear.

It's altogether human to convince ourselves that the evidence staring out from the page doesn't really matter. There are always going to be extenuating circumstances. Look at the stock market these days. Buoyant stock bulls dismiss any worries about the future because "things are different this time." Maybe they're right, but maybe it's a signal that it's time to bail.

To be sure, when it comes to global warming, there's still a patchy observational record, and natural change leaves scientists unsure whether the environment has reached a tipping point. But the evidence coming out of the AGU meeting is clear about climate change being driven by the influence of human beings. How soon, or how abrupt the resulting change will be, is open to debate. The fact that it's on the way is beyond contesting.

Americans aren't the only ones with blinders on. India is one of the world's top polluters, but it claims it's not doing any harm to the world's atmosphere. The country's politicians say that India's emissions are insignificant compared with those of richer nations.

Luckily for India--not so lucky for the rest of us--that country won't be required to reduce emission levels to comply with terms of the Kyoto Protocol. But along with China--another fast-growing industrial power?-India's carbon emissions have sharply increased over the past decade, according to a recent World Bank survey.

If none of this moves you, it should. That's why I'm compelled to devote the final column of the year to the lunacy that's clouding our collective future as a species.

Gore is persuasive when he says we have somehow convinced ourselves that we don't have to care as much about what we're doing to future generations. A formerly well-informed citizenry has turned into a well-entertained audience, one that prefers to ignore one of the most inconvenient truths of our time.