The Greenhouse Effect: Science and Policy

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Science  10 Feb 1989:
Vol. 243, Issue 4892, pp. 771-781
DOI: 10.1126/science.243.4892.771


Global warming from the increase in greenhouse gases has become a major scientific and political issue during the past decade. That infrared radiation is trapped by greenhouse gases and particles in a planetary atmosphere and that the atmospheric CO2 level has increased by some 25 percent since 1850 because of fossil fuel combustion and land use (largely deforestation) are not controversial; levels of other trace greenhouse gases such as methane and chlorofluorocarbons have increased by even larger factors. Estimates of present and future effects, however, have significant uncertainties. There have also recently been controversial claims that a global warming signal has been detected. Results from most recent climatic models suggest that global average surface temperatures will increase by some 2° to 6°C during the next century, but future changes in greenhouse gas concentrations and feedback processes not properly accounted for in the models could produce greater or smaller increases. Sea level rises of 0.5 to 1.5 meters are typically projected for the next century, but there is a small probability of greater or even negative change. Forecasts of the distribution of variables such as soil moisture or precipitation patterns have even greater uncertainties. Policy responses range from engineering countermeasures to passive adaptation to prevention and a "law of the atmosphere." One approach is to implement those policies now that will reduce emissions of greenhouse gases and have additional societal benefits. Whether the uncertainties are large enough to suggest delaying policy responses is not a scientific question per se, but a value judgment.