THE GLOBAL WARMING DEBATE GETS RELIGION

There is nothing wrong with disagreement among titans of the oil and gas industry. In fact, honest disagreement on important questions affecting the industry is healthy and good.

There is nothing wrong with disagreement among titans of the oil and gas industry. In fact, honest disagreement on important questions affecting the industry is healthy and good.

It is a fine thing that BP Amoco and Royal Dutch/Shell have made public their determinations that global warming of human origin represents a real threat meriting immediate, if costly, response.

It is also a fine thing that Exxon Mobil and its forebears have publicly taken the opposite view.

Global warming is a difficult issue. The climate is a dynamic, complex, and little-understood system. Human activity, including the burning of hydrocarbons, surely affects it. Whether the human effect is strong enough to significantly offset changes that would occur anyway is much less certain.

The questions are huge.

Has a certain build-up of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases in the atmosphere caused an apparent warming over the last century or so? Would the warming have occurred without the gas build-up as part of a natural cycle? Indeed, might cyclic warming have more to do with the gas build-up than the burning of fossil energy?

These are legitimate questions for which science does not yet provide certain answers. And there are others.

What are the roles of other apparent causes of atmospheric warming, such as solar cycles, and how do their influences compare with that of greenhouse gas concentrations? How does the climate respond to changes in gas concentrations and warmth, and to what extent do these responses offset whatever warming might occur? How much, if any, of the warming that might or might not be occurring can be attributed to human activity; therefore, how much can a change in human activity affect average global temperature? Are the net effects of warming, if it is occurring, and a build-up of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere necessarily bad?

In the global warming debate, the central point of contention at this point is uncertainty about these and other questions. To people on one side in the debate, the uncertainty is so great that remedies undertaken now-probably large taxes on the use of fossil energy-might well be altogether ineffective. To people on the other side, the risk of a worst-case warming scenario's coming true, whatever its probability, warrants action now, whatever its cost and whatever the risk that it will have no effect.

Both are reasonable positions. And both positions deserve to be heard. On a subject so large, so complex, with so much potential influence on human behavior and well-being, everyone has a stake in thorough and honest debate on all the many questions that arise.

The debate, however, can only suffer from efforts by one side or the other to turn it into a religious issue. That's happening with a coalition of Exxon Mobil shareholders based in Austin, Tex., called Campaign Exxon Mobil.

The group, most members of which are reported to have religious ties, says it will urge Exxon Mobil to "catch up to its competitors" by acknowledging that people are making the atmosphere warmer. And it wants the company to stop what it alleges to be a "campaign of misinformation" on global warming.

The group offers no scientific argument against statements by Exxon Mobil. It simply brands them "misinformation." And the implication that acceptance or rejection of the human role in suspected warming somehow puts one side ahead of the other is simply juvenile.

The religious people entering this fray no doubt mean well. But the climate change debate has to be more than the righteousness contest that it has sadly become and that they can only distort with scientifically empty proclamations in holy garb. Even the oil behemoths favoring a precautionary warming response should regret this turn in the controversy.

The well-intended religious folks behind Campaign Exxon Mobil and other such groups should study the whole debate and see what's being ignored.

Serious scientists, for example, have suggested that warming and more carbon dioxide in the atmosphere would promote plant growth. So before they leap into what should be a scientific debate but that has become a mostly political one, religious groups should consider the implications of a more-luxuriant planet for human hunger. They should consider the human hardship certain to accompany any forced shift away from fossil energy.

And they should wonder why the side of the political fight they seem so eager to join has given questions like those so little attention.

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