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Climate change top concern for 21st century

The subject of climate change returned to the news in recent weeks with President Bush's proposal for curbing greenhouse gas emissions. Michael Oppenheimer, Princeton's Albert Milbank Professor of Geosciences and International Affairs, recently spoke with Princeton University staff writer Steven Schultz about the mix of science and policy that underlies the climate change issue.

Oppenheimer joined Princeton this semester after 20 years at Environmental Defense, a private, not-for-profit research and advocacy group. For the last five years, he was the organization's chief scientist and manager of its global/regional air program.

He is the co-author of "Dead Heat: The Race Against the Greenhouse Effect," published by Basic Books in 1990. Oppenheimer currently is teaching a graduate course, “Earth’s Atmosphere: Theory and Practice.”

How concerned should we be about climate change?

Climate change is the top environmental problem of the 21st century. If nothing is done to restrain the emissions that are causing the buildup of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, then our children and grandchildren are likely to experience a global warming unprecedented in the history of civilization.
     And Earth is already starting to change. The climate is now significantly different than it was 100 years ago, even 30 years ago. Although one can't assign the cause of the weather in any one season to the overall global trend, what we've seen this winter is consistent with the sort of changes that are going to occur more and more frequently.
     Signs of the trend include the observations that lakes and streams ice over later in the fall and melt earlier in the spring. Glaciers are in retreat worldwide. Springtime is coming significantly earlier. So the trend of global warming, which has been building since the start of industrialization, is starting to have consequences that are perhaps not yet terribly painful, but are certainly becoming noticeable to the average person.

The complete Q&A appears in the Weekly Bulletin.

"We have only one world, and we're doing a massive experiment on it," Michael Oppenheimer said in an interview. He added, "It's the height of optimism to think that these changes can continue without substantial risk that they will have disruptive consequences."

photo: Denise Applewhite



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