A Hard Rain

February 1, 1998

Suzanne Johnson

Residents of New York City spent much of January in shorts and T-shirts. Californians--and, often, their homes--were covered in mud. Folks in Alabama had a chance to try out their snow tires. And in New Orleans?

Well, it seemed like we needed boats to get to work most mornings. Blame most of it on a weather phenomenon that virtually has become a household word this past year: El Nino. And get used to it. According to Robert G. Watts, who holds the Cornelia and Arthur Jung Chair in Mechanical Engineering at Tulane and is director of the National Center for Global Environmental Change, El Nino weather patterns can be seen as a dress rehearsal for the effects of global warming.

In El Nino years such as this one, Watts says, water in the Eastern Pacific heats up on both sides of the equator and changes the normal direction of storm tracks. Where it's usually wet, like the Atlantic Seaboard, it's dry. And where it's usually dry, like the Southeast, there's a lot of rain and snow.

Like El Nino, global warming is expected by scientists to disrupt normal weather patterns, affecting rainfall and temperature. It won't happen next year, or maybe even within the next century. It's hard to get people excited about something they won't live to see. But it will happen, Watts says.

"You hear a lot about the scientific community being in disarray over global warming, but the majority of scientists who study climate agree that global warming is, indeed, occurring and will occur."

Watts views those skeptics even among scientists as those who are uncomfortable with the options that are presented once global warming is universally acknowledged as a problem. "The debate ought to get away from the science," Watts says. "The science is solid. We are going to have global warming, and the carbon dioxide in our atmosphere is going to double--or even triple--in the next century. "What we should be talking about now is policy. How do we reduce it? How do we deal with it?"

Those kinds of questions--addressed at a world conference on global environmental change in Kyoto last fall--make people uncomfortable, Watts says, because they produce the image of a world governing body telling us what kinds of fuel to use, the amount we can use and how we can use it.

"If you're an individualist, you find that idea really irritating," he says. "If I had to choose, would I rather have a world governing organization powerful enough to tell China to quit using coal--another huge, governmental invasion into our lives--or would I rather try to deal with the effects of global warming? Both ideas scare the hell out of me."

The escalating use of fossil fuels among China and other developing nations also makes such international legislation difficult. Even if the United States manages to cut its carbon dioxide emissions to 7 percent below 1990 levels--a move agreed on at the recent Kyoto conference--there has been no such agreement among the developing nations.

"In another 10 years at most, China will be the largest emitter of carbon dioxide," Watts says. "The developing countries are spewing out more and more emissions, and those people haven't agreed to anything. Nor can they afford to. If they're going to develop their economies and not stay poor forever, they have to have energy."

In the meantime, Watts says, a realistic approach is desperately needed. Expecting China to shut down its new coal-fueled power plants is not realistic, nor is expecting the United States to make sudden, drastic cuts in its carbon dioxide emissions without an available alternate energy source.

"Let's not just proclaim we're going to cut back on emissions," Watts says. "Let's also think about how to wean ourselves off fossil fuels in such a way that developing countries don't stay poor. Let's stop talking about whether or not global warming is going to happen and start having a meaningful discussion about how to combat it."

Watts, who recently published the book The Engineering Response to Global Environmental Change: Planning a Research and Development Agenda (CRC Lewis Press), says much has been done on the engineering front to increase energy efficiency in our everyday lives. At the same time, the engineering and scientific communities must work to make renewable sources like solar energy affordable and practical. In the meantime, there's El Nino, a gentle, late 20th-century reminder of what might become normal.

Tulane University, New Orleans, LA 70118 504-865-5000