The Center of the Warm

Monday morning, 9:30. Robert Balling's office phone rings. Again.
"Hey," he says into the receiver. "How's it going? Yeah, I saw. Looks pretty bad. ... I don't know, maybe ... I gotta go. Okay, bye."

Balling, 43 years old, solidly built with a healthy, Arizona golf tan, rolls his eyes as he replaces the receiver.

"Everybody's got an opinion," he says. "Everybody thinks they know what's up."

It's been a busy couple of weeks for Balling, director of Arizona State University's climatology lab. First, he was given unflattering mention in December's Harper's magazine, which called him and other greenhouse skeptics "extraordinarily adept at draining the [global warming] issue of all sense of crisis."

Then the New York Times reported that the Earth's average temperature in 1995 climbed to a record high, according to a statement issued by the British Meteorological Office and the University of East Anglia. The report stirred up suspicions anew about global warming, Balling's area of expertise.

The British data showed that the average temperature around the globe in 1995 was 58.7 degrees Fahrenheit, beating the old record, set in 1990, by .12 degree Fahrenheit.

Such a small increase may not seem like much, but increases in average temperatures are likely to cause an increase in the number of extreme weather events. For example, an average global increase of only about a quarter of a degree Fahrenheit, which humans have seen between the beginning of the industrial revolution and the present, leads to an increase of more than 40 percent in the number of July days with temperatures higher than 86 degrees Fahrenheit.

Reporters from all over were calling to ask Balling what he thought of the British data.

"We've seen an increase in the mean ground temperatures," he says. "But there's no definitive proof that that's caused by an increase in greenhouse gases, and certainly no proof that the increase in those gases is caused by human activity."

So goes Balling's line, a nondenial denial of global warming and the role of humans in creating it. As a skeptic of the apocalyptic scenarios spun by many scientists, Balling has become something of a poster boy for the Rush Limbaugh set. His 1992 book The Heated Debate: Greenhouse Predictions Versus Climate Reality, which raised questions about the validity of methods other scientists were using to make their gloomy assumptions, drew raves from the right side of the American political spectrum.

It seems to be getting harder and harder, however, to remain skeptical about global warming and its effects. In September, for the first time, the leading international panel of climatologists issued a statement saying that a period of climatic instability has begun, and it may cause "widespread economic, social and environmental dislocation over the next century."

The continued buildup of greenhouse gases in the environment, the 2,500-member panel said, could cause droughts, the spread of tropical diseases outward from the tropics, ever more violent hurricanes and tornadoes, and rising ocean levels that may submerge barrier islands and other coastal areas.

Balling harrumphs at all of the above, without ever exactly saying that none of it could happen. Despite his notoriety, and that his methods, if not his conclusions, are respected by others in his field, he is the first to acknowledge being in the extreme minority of climatic scientists. His views are summarily rejected by many of the world's leading authorities on the issue.

The reasons for his reluctance to accept conventional greenhouse wisdom are esoteric and complex, matters of degrees of precision in everything from land and ocean temperature measurements to satellite data and computer modeling techniques. Considerably less arcane are his explanations of the social, economic and professional pressures that have framed--and will continue to frame--scientific and political debate on the topic.

Polls from the 1980s through today show that most Americans believe there is a threat from mankind-induced climatic change. But studies also show that much of what the public thinks it knows is incorrect.

Balling says two things are essential to understanding climate change. First, if significant global warming occurs, it will be mostly because of an increase in the concentration of carbon dioxide in the Earth's atmosphere. Second, one of the biggest sources of carbon dioxide buildup in the atmosphere is the combustion of fossil fuels, mostly coal and oil.

Large numbers of even relatively well-educated people seem to lack a clear understanding of these facts. They are sure they see signs of global warming--but they are confused about the causes and the potential impacts.

Many people mix the issue of global warming with that of depletion of the ozone layer; they assume that climate change will cause skin cancer and that they personally can help stop it by giving up aerosols. Fewer mention conserving energy as a solution, since they don't tightly link the problem with fossil fuels.

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Dave Plank