Global Warming Confusion

As debate goes public, interest groups muddy issue with endless stats.

A proposed treaty to stem global warming will mean "staggering job losses and steep increases in consumer prices." Or it could lead to 800,000 new jobs in the United States and save the average American household $530 a year.

Confused? That may be because the debate over climate change - until now an issue pretty much confined to theoreticians and lab scientists - has gone public in a big way. With a White House conference on the subject approaching, followed by December's 165-nation gathering in Japan, interest groups are jostling for influence - hence the widely different assertions about an issue that is both long-range and highly complicated.

A consortium of industry and labor groups has just launched a $13 million ad campaign warning of the costs of the proposed treaty, especially any "targets and timetables" for reducing carbon-dioxide emissions in industrially developed countries. Leading this effort are the public-relations creators of "Harry and Louise," the fictional couple who played a key role in turning public opinion against Bill and Hillary Clinton's national health-care plan.

Environmentalists have responded with a much more modest advertising effort that includes print, broadcast, and subway signs. But they've also held a series of "town meetings" around the country, organized a "summit" of scientists for the benefit of reporters, and commissioned opinion polls to gauge public awareness and concern.

All the while, industry leaders and their political adversaries are sniping at each other in the op-ed pages of major newspapers. And for the Internet-inclined, new Web sites are springing up almost daily.

The one thing the two sides agree on is the size and magnitude of the effort.

"It's getting very intense, let me tell you," says Dan Lashof, a senior scientist with the Natural Resources Defense Council.

"And it's going to get hotter," echoes Richard Pollock, who represents the Global Climate Information Project, the recently formed business and labor consortium sponsoring the ads.

In Washington, both the Clinton administration and congressional Republicans are weighing in as well.

Turning up the heat

As a prelude to its high-visibility conference - scheduled for Oct. 6 and expected to include some 200 participants - the White House has invited 100 local television weathercasters from around the United States to a presidential briefing next week. And Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt this week is touring campuses to generate student interest in global warming. Visiting Lewis & Clark College in Portland, Ore., Sunday, Mr. Babbitt likened industry naysayers to those who for years denied that health problems were connected to tobacco.

Republicans, meanwhile, have organized three committee hearings on the subject, which will give lawmakers a chance to express concern that the administration is moving too far, too fast.

At this point, it seems, the high-stakes lobbying appears to have resulted in more heat than light on a controversial issue with potentially enormous economic and environmental ramifications.

What Americans think

Opinion surveys indicate that most Americans are, at the least, concerned about the possibility of global warming. A poll and series of focus groups done for the World Wildlife Fund show that a large majority believe adverse climate change either is or will be a serious problem. Opinion tracking by the White House reflects the same belief, according to those familiar with the results.

Although industry groups and some scientists have downplayed warnings about climate change, some 2,500 scientists on the United Nations' Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) have noted a link between certain weather phenomena and carbon-dioxide increases in the atmosphere. And at least one oil industry leader, British Petroleum executive John Browne, has acknowledged "an effective consensus among the world's leading scientists and serious and well-informed people outside the scientific community that there is a discernible human influence on the climate."

Those leading the industry-labor ad campaign say their job, at this point, is not to debunk ecological concerns.

"From an environmental standpoint, if there's a problem then certainly everybody wants to do what they can to make it right," says Rick Claussen, a public relations specialist designing ads for the Global Climate Information Project, and one of the creators of "Harry and Louise."

For now, this group and others are concentrating on preventing any treaty that would force the United States and 35 other developed countries to reduce carbon emissions associated with autos, manufacturing, mining, and other activities without requiring 129 developing countries (such as China) to do the same.

This was the same concern behind a Senate resolution passed in July on a vote of 95 to 0. The measure warned the administration that the Senate would not ratify any treaty that exempts developing countries from carbon emissions cutbacks while ordering such reductions for industrially advanced countries.

Climate change crossfire

Both sides also are firing salvos on the economic impact of addressing climate change.

Last week, a labor-management group representing mining interests released an analysis on the issue. It warns that the proposed treaty would cost 1.5 million American jobs and cause consumer prices for gasoline and electricity to "skyrocket."

In another detailed analysis, however, the Union of Concerned Scientists and several other groups assert that moving away from fossil fuels and toward renewable energy sources would save consumers $58 billion ($530 per household) and create nearly 800,000 jobs by 2010.

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