AN interesting difference of opinion - not quite a sharply defined public debate - is emerging in the scientific community over the threat to life on this planet from the de-stabilization of the world's climate. One group of scientists contends the planet is steadily moving towards a condition of over-heating. A buildup of chlorofluorocarbons (CFC's) is causing ozone depletion in the atmosphere. The depletion allows increased ultraviolet radiation from the sun to enter the atmosphere. Adding to the danger is the concentration of carbon dioxide from burning fossil fuels. Heat is being trapped on the surface of the earth - the ``greenhouse effect'' - that would otherwise be radiated back to space.
Far less familiar to the public are arguments about a serious earth cooling. Scientists calling attention to this danger don't necessarily argue against the effects of CFCs and carbon dioxide. More insistent, they say, is the danger of a rapid cooling produced by a buildup of billions of tons of ice in the Arctic and Antarctic. They assert that the same greenhouse effect that produces a temperature increase in the equatorial regions also sucks moisture from the tropics. The moisture condenses into snow at the two Poles and adds to the vast burden of ice cooling the polar oceans. The mass quantities of cold air are then distributed by oceans and wind over the entire globe. Thus, the same increase of solar radiation that causes regional warming is believed to have the ultimate effect of producing a drastic cooling with the realistic danger of a modern ice age.
Backing this view is a report prepared by the US Office of Research and Development. The main finding is that the world is cooling with possibly disastrous effects. ``If the cooling continues for several decades,'' the report said, ``there would almost certainly be an absolute shortage of food... (with) increasingly desperate attempts on the part of powerful but hungry nations to get grain any way they could.''
As though their grim forecasts were not enough, scientists are finding correlations between cold weather and the increase in earthquakes. Peter Tompkins and Christopher Bird, in ``Secret of the Soil,'' published last year by Harper and Row, write that ``ice and snow, accumulating at the Poles, press down on the planet, causing it to bulge at the seams like a balloon. This triggers the pre-stressed earthquake faults into slipping. Hence earthquakes. It also causes volcanism - potentially even more dangerous - by squeezing the molten magma and causing eruptions. The colder it gets and the more snow presses down on the Poles, the more magma is compressed, and volcanoes act up.''
What is more interesting and about these ominous forecasts is widespread agreement that humans need not be victims of them. Tompkins and Bird cite a 1982 book, ``The Survival of Civilization,'' by John Hamaker and Don Weaver. The authors called for a ``mosaic program of world-wide remineralization and re-forestation.'' Glacial gravel, of which there seems an infinite supply, could be ground up for this purpose. Tree planting would have the highest priority. Meanwhile, the National Resources Defense Council has scored a victory in its lawsuit against the US Environmental Protection Agency. The NRDC contended the new EPA regulations for protecting the ozone layer against ozone-depleting chemicals, were too lenient. EPA agreed to issue more stringent regulations on the use of CFCs.
Most encouraging is a bill introduced in Congress by Rep. Ron Dellums. Titled the ``Emergency Climate Stabilization and Earth Regeneration Act,'' it recognizes the threat of temperature change and calls for the reduction of atmospheric carbon dioxide from the present 350 parts per million to 280 ppm.
The bill also aims at world-wide soil remineralization in order to support regeneration of vegetation and to produce ``natural carbon sinks that can reduce atmospheric carbon dioxide.'' The Act seeks to accomplish its purpose within 10 to 15 years and calls on the president to put the problem and proposed resolutions before the world.
What the ecological crisis dramatizes is how primitive our living still is. We are locked into national sovereignties. It may not be enough for the US President to propose an ecology program. We need a world conference to make the great crossing from national tribalism to world community. It's not just the environment that requires attention. The way we think of ourselves and our common destiny is critical.
The big question is whether we can recognize our common interests as a species ahead of our obsessions as national warriors. How we identify ourselves may be the ultimate test of survival.