Greenhouse effect is not only long-term problem we ignore

REMEMBER those plans of Winooski, Vt., to erect a transparent geodesic dome over the city to control the climate? The outer world doesn't hear much about Winooski's dome anymore. Perhaps that's because the ``greenhouse effect,'' that worldwide invisible dome of carbon dioxide and other gases, is back in the news.

In case you missed it, a congressional subcommittee was told last week that the greenhouse timetable is speeding up. The upper atmosphere gaseous buildup, which is calculated as likely to raise Earth's average temperature and melt polar ice, is occurring more quickly than expected, according to one government-funded study.

Instead of protecting Winooski from winds and snow squalls off Lake Champlain, some engineers are concentrating on futurist schemes to protect Manhattan, Tokyo, and other coastal cities from becoming Venices. And protecting Venice from heading toward King Canute and Atlantis.

The problem -- for both world leaders and world citizens -- is how to assess such long-range assessments.

Do we spend trillions, only to find unexpected geological and astronomical factors have changed the variables in the equation?

Or do we uneasily continue business as usual, only to find the fertile plains of the major continents turning to semi-deserts, and the great coastal trading cities desperately hiring Dutch dike-builders?

Any thorough examination of options should tell leaders, legislatures, and the public that more funding should go into further -- more conclusive -- research. And that includes research into how best to cope with future change. That applies to many other areas of long-range preparedness requiring national and international decisions.

It's understandable that both leaders and publics should be wary of grandiose public engineering. Within recent memory, they have been frightened by forecasts that we were within a few decades of running out of economically recoverable petroleum. Ditto other mineral resources. Ditto world food. Instead (or really because of such reports), today's leaders face oil, grain, and other commodity gluts.

Before World War II, many demographers expected the US population to level off at 150 million. They were wrong by at least 60 percent.

Faced by such expert forecasts gone wrong, many leaders lapse instead into following the polls and their short-term political interests. They not only give the public what it wants at the moment, but frequently provide a moral/scientific justification for public apathy.

Examples:

Slacking off on the filling of the US strategic petroleum reserve. Gas and oil prices are low. That should encourage either bargain buying to fill the reserve or more sensible oil policy in general. It has done neither because the White House and Congress are generally lulled by temporary glut.

Failure to include strong new savings incentives in tax-reform legislation. In fact, both personal and corporate saving and investment incentives have been lessened at a time when America faces increased industrial/technological competition.

Underfunding of fusion-power research. This flies in the face of (1) what is known about future petroleum costs; (2) post-Chernobyl hesitance about funding fission power plants; and (3) concerns about accelerated carbon-dioxide buildup if societies depend on coal and petroleum.

Relaxed attitudes about coastal and barrier-island building, rebuilding after storms, and government seawall construction. These fly in the face of engineering and climate studies, as well as actuarial common sense. The same may be said of our neglect of building-code improvements in tornado and hurricane zones. Fairly simple framing reinforcement and roof attachment requirements could save many structures and casualties.

A perceptive profile of French President de Gaulle concluded that he had unusual long-range vision but stumbled over the furniture because he didn't watch his present political footwork. The opposite might be said of too many of today's politicians. They watch the polls. They have superb footwork. They often ignore any impact beyond their term in office.

There is no one magic remedy for this problem. But some means of improving the probability of good decisionmaking are available. For superpower and small power, for democracy and autocracy, leaders would do well to see that their machinery of science and economic advisers is first rate and listened to. That it is central to decisionmaking.

This means seeing that the chief science adviser and the chief economic adviser are widely experienced and draw on tough-minded associates representing a wide variety of approaches within each discipline.

It would also help to have the science and economic advisers from major nations meet regularly. And do so quietly, away from the pressures of ideology and politics.

Earl W. Foell is editor in chief of The Christian Science Monitor.

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