THE biggest question now raised by the prospect for a man-made global warming is whether or not nations can work together to soften its impact. The answer seems to be a cautious ``yes.'' It's a daunting diplomatic challenge. But national leaders are beginning to see an overriding need to preserve a livable planet. The first steps toward an international protocol to curb the pollution that drives the warming may be taken this year.
United States Secretary of State James Baker recognized the challenge last January when he told the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change: ``We face the prospect of being trapped on a boat that we have irreparably damaged.... The political ecology is now ripe for action.'' President George Bush - in a reversal of his former wait-and-see stance - last month committed his administration to seeking such action. In October, it will hold an international workshop to lay groundwork for an agreement to curb global warming.
British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, reversing the environmental indifference of her government, has declared climate change a major issue. To make the point, she held a seminar this spring in which scientists briefed cabinet officials and industrialists on the problem.
And in France, President Fran,cois Mitterrand has been taking advice from an international range of scientists to help formulate a global warming initiative that he may announce next month.
Scientifically speaking, the prospects for global warming still are poorly understood. Rising sea levels may flood some coastal areas. Rainfall patterns may change. Some presently fertile regions, such as the North American midcontinent, may become more arid. Siberia, on the other hand, may become more favorable for grain. Much more research is needed to pin down the likely extent and impact of climate change.
Yet there is wide scientific agreement that continuing to load the atmosphere with heat-trapping gases would be bad policy. Furthermore, many experts agree that we can't afford to wait for the iffy science to become less iffy to try curbing this pollution. By the time it is clear where climate is headed, it will be too late to change course.
This realization fuels the growing desire to begin to take international political action now. Richard Benedick of the Conservation Foundation, who helped negotiate the Montreal Protocol to protect Earth's stratospheric ozone layer, says that, as this realization dawns on more world leaders, the obstacles to a global-warming protocol probably can be overcome.
Mr. Benedick joined other political and scientific experts in a background briefing for the press held last week by the Coalition for Reliable Energy and the Energy and Environmental Policy Center at the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University.
As the briefing made clear, it is asking a lot of individual countries, especially developing countries, to tailor economic growth to minimize the build-up of climate-warming gases, such as the carbon dioxide released in burning fossil fuels. China, for example, depends on coal for modernization. Effective world action must involve financial aid and transfers of technology from industrialized countries to developing nations. Yet, Benedick noted, the need to preserve the common environment can be the catalyst for such economic adjustments.
Environmental issues are joining issues of security and economics as a major element in world affairs. As Robert Corell, assistant director of the US National Science Foundation has observed, ``This truly is a significant development of political thought.''