Climate change from CO2 not to be feared

Humanity need not be at the mercy of the climate-changing effect of carbon dioxide (CO2) gas released by burning fossil fuels - coal, natural gas, and oil. Earth's climatic destiny in this respect remains somewhat within people's control.

That is the upshot of the latest expert analyses of this long-running issue. These offer a positive alternative to recent hand-wringing about the climatic outlook or a tendency to study the problem while taking no action at all.

Climatologists generally agree that CO2, accumulating in the air, will eventually raise the lower atmosphere's average temperature by a few degrees. This could make deserts of some now fertile croplands, such as the North American wheat belt. It could melt the Antarctic icecap and raise sea level enough to flood out many cities. But both the timing and the degree of any such effects are speculative and uncertain.

Thus the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) was widely criticized as being needlessly alarmist last October, when it warned of climatic change in the near future. It suggested that drastic action to curb the use of fossil fuels may be needed within this century. The EPA statement was immediately followed by a National Academy of Sciences (NAS) report urging ''caution, not alarm.'' The NAS advised postponing any action on the problem until further research clarified the question.

This was too much for Prof. David J. Rose of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He told the Monitor that he considered both panic and procrastination to be ill-advised. He believes it is time to begin coping with the problem even while trying to understand it better. ''You can't go around crying . . . (climate threat) without doing something about it,'' he said. He added that a study he then was finishing for the National Science Foundation would soon put the issue in different perspective.

Now the NSF has released that study. Its central point is that ''a significant global CO2 warmup in the next century cannot be avoided, but the extent and timing of it are to a considerable degree under our control. . . .'' By emphasizing energy efficiency and such fossil fuel alternatives as nuclear and solar power, CO2 warming can be stretched over centuries instead of coming on within less than 100 years. The NSF study calls this a ''CO2-benign'' energy strategy.

The report also notes that the degree of threat of climatic change depends partly on humanity's own life styles. It explains, ''. . . civilizations tend to organize and optimize their activities with respect to their current environment; thus, changes are on that account more likely to be harmful than beneficial.'' By following a ''CO2-benign'' energy strategy, people should be able to adapt gradually to any climate changes.

Rose was principal investigator for this study. He worked with Marvin M. Miller of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Carson Agnew of Stanford University as co-principal investigators. They acknowledge that the problem still is poorly understood. Yet they insist that the US and other nations can begin now to build an effective energy strategy for coping with the CO2 effect. They say it is time to start worldwide discussion of possible energy development , just as nations already are talking about measures to curb acid rain.

Meanwhile, a research team from the Marine Biological Laboratory at Woods Hole, Mass., and from the University of New Hampshire has pointed out another possibility for ameliorating the CO2 problem.

Plants and soils both absorb and release CO2. With a net loss of forests, for example, more CO2 accumulates in the air. In a paper published last month in Science, the team explains that careful management of forests could help limit CO2 buildup. The researchers say this possibility ''may be greater than is commonly assumed.''

Here, then, are possibilities to be explored, even while climatologists are trying to understand better the CO2 effect itself.

There is no need to fear the climatic future. And there is no need to wait on the researchers before starting to design strategies for a CO2-benign world.

We want to hear, did we miss an angle we should have covered? Should we come back to this topic? Or just give us a rating for this story. We want to hear from you.