In the late 1980s and early 1990s the topic of the "greenhouse effect" emerged, and quickly became perhaps the most important scientific question of the era.
And according to the "popular vision," the story is simple -- greenhouse gases are increasing in concentration, their many effects are threatening the planet and drastic actions must be taken to avoid disaster.
The public has been inundated with this apocalyptic view of the greenhouse effect; the scientific literature, too, has been alive with debate about the possible results of the increasing levels of atmospheric greenhouse gases, according to Robert C. Balling Jr., director of the office of climatology at Arizona State University.
Balling has been addressing these issues as a 1999-2000 AAPG Distinguished Lecturer, with his talk "A Climate of Doubt About Global Warming."
Balling and his topic were picked by the Distinguished Lecture Committee after a presentation Balling made at a meeting of the committee on Resource Evaluation at the 1999 AAPG annual meeting in San Antonio, said Robert Millspaugh, AAPG geosciences director.
"When the Distinguished Lecture Committee was choosing speakers for this year's tour they wanted one lecturer with a background in environmental geology," Millspaugh said, "and Robert Balling was at the top of the list."
Balling said the "greenhouse gospel" preached in the popular media is typically presented as a series of interrelated climate changes and ecological disasters that stem from human-caused emissions of various greenhouse gases. This popular vision of the greenhouse effect leaves no room for benefits in the changes occurring, but rather focuses on the strong images of:
- Increased droughts.
- Melting icecaps and glaciers.
- Rising sea levels.
- A rise in severe storm activity.
These dire natural phenomena ultimately lead to global economic upheaval.
Is this popular vision of the greenhouse effect nothing more than environmental hype?
Balling said the greenhouse gospel does, in fact, contain obvious exaggeration -- and many of its predictions are seriously flawed and lack much scientific basis.
Other predictions, however, are well-grounded in solid science and should be examined.
Ultimately, he said, it is likely that most greenhouse effects will be rather moderate, and are not likely to produce ecological chaos.
"We may even find that more than a few probable greenhouse-related changes may even prove to be beneficial to the natural environment and the human inhabitants of the planet," Balling said.
Today the greenhouse effect is an issue of extremes. On one end of the spectrum are many good scientists as well as politicians, decision-makers, movie stars and environmentalists who support the popular view of global warming. At the other end are those scientists, a few politicians, a few decision-makers and no movie stars and environmentalists who question the underpinnings of the greenhouse paradigm.
And somewhere in the middle are most scientists, Balling said, who attempt to recognize the validity of arguments within the spectrum of greenhouse research -- and ultimately they will be the ones to resolve the critical questions and shape the way humanity responds to the greenhouse effect.