Polar alarum

The recent alarum over the melting of polar ice caps was over as quickly as a northern lights flareup. First the Environmental Protection Agency told the press that carbon dioxide (CO2) released by burning coal and oil would cause serious climatic warming sooner than expected. Significant effects might be felt within a decade, an EPA official warned. This was immediately denounced by a number of experts, and by presidential science adviser George Keyworth as needlessly alarmist. Then the National Academy of Sciences issued a much calmer statement saying there is a potential for such warming but that the watchword should be ''caution, not panic.''

Thus the EPA report was largely dismissed out of hand.

This is unfortunate.

That report, as distinct from the public announcement of it, does make an important point. Unlike the academy study, which focused on the scientific aspects of the problem, the EPA report explored how energy policy should be changed if CO2 warming is eventually adjudged a serious threat.

Taken on their own terms, the two reports are not all that different in their scientific conclusions. Both find a strong likelihood that CO2 accumulating in the atmosphere could warm the climate by several degrees over the next century. Both stress that such projections now are uncertain. Both call for giving high priority to more research.

The question facing the Congress and the Reagan and succeeding administrations is whether or not plans should be made to curb the use of coal.

The academy ducks this issue, saying nothing is to be lost by waiting for more knowledge before taking any definitive action. The EPA does not advocate precipitous action either. But it does urge that future energy options be seriously studied and makes a first cut at doing this. It concludes, among other things, that various degrees of restriction, including a total ban on coal, could retard the warming. The EPA's specific conclusions are by no means definitive. But they should stimulate discussion and research.

In retrospect, what EPA officials felt they had to gain by hastily releasing their study to the press, accompanied by alarmist statements about melting ice caps and drowning coastal cities, escapes us. They should have known the academy study was about to be issued and should have coordinated the announcements. As it is, the EPA now is widely seen as having tried to preempt press attention by reviving old ill-founded fears of imminent climatic disaster.

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