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Burn, Baby, Burn 

How I learned to stop worrying and love global warming

I'm not one to deny Al Gore his day in the sun or anything.

Someone has to save us all before climate change deep fries the earth or whatever. I just think it's unfair that Gore should get such a big spotlight when he's only the latest in a long line of brave climate crusaders.

Take Donald MacMillan, for instance. Today, Gore flies around the globe battling global warming in the comfort and safety of an air conditioned jet. Not MacMillan. In 1908, a decade after the New York Times decided -- for the first time -- that the world was facing a global cooling crisis that would wipe out billions, MacMillan set out on a risky arctic voyage to Greenland to test the "menace of a new ice age."

Radio listeners and newspaper readers hung onto every word of his reports from the arctic. The presence of coal proved that the place had once been tropical, he said. But now, MacMillan reported, the unusual movements of Greenland glaciers foretold a coming icy disaster for mankind.

At the time, unusual weather patterns like dry or cool periods were blamed on global cooling -- sound familiar? -- and Time, Newsweek and others predicted agricultural chaos.

The hysteria went on until the late 1920s, when someone figured out that global temperatures had actually risen a half a degree. The Times was on it, warning of the dangers of the earth's new climate trend -- global warming.

It took the media and climatologists another 30 years to figure out what was really going on, according to "Fire and Ice," a recent Business & Media Institute study of the media's 100-year obsession with climate change. In the mid-1950s, Fortune magazine led the way. While the Times stubbornly clung to the new global warming trend well into the late '50s, Fortune had another take. In 1954, it declared global cooling was real and posed more of a danger to the country's future than even the Soviet Union.

By the mid-1970s, in the face of overwhelming consensus on the subject, the Times jumped on the bandwagon, too. One headline screamed: "A Major Cooling Widely Considered to Be Inevitable." By 1981, though, the paper's editors had again changed their position. Quoting seven government atmospheric scientists who predicted global warming of an "almost unprecedented magnitude," the Times rang the alarm bells again and the rest of the media joined in. The Times, along with some members of the scientific community -- not all, just some -- have been singing the same tune ever since.

If history is any indicator, odds are pretty good that they'll all be forecasting a cooling trend by the time I'm drooling in my oatmeal at the nursing home.

Whatever the case, it appears that today's scientists and MacMillan agree on one thing: The arctic was once tropical. The Associated Press reported last week that core samples from the Arctic Ocean floor show that 55 million years ago the North Pole was a tropical paradise with "alligator ancestors" and "palm trees." Not one but three new studies produced the same results, so it must be true.

As it turns out, the earth got a lot warmer than scientists originally thought back then when natural greenhouse gases caused a sudden spike in the earth's temperatures. The new theory is that all life on the planet didn't end just because a wonder fern suddenly blanketed the earth and devoured enough carbon dioxide to cool the earth again. But that's just a theory, of course. Scientists don't know for sure. But the authors of the recent study insist we still need to worry about global warming, because we might not get so lucky this time.

Maybe that's true, but I have a hard time believing that scientists who haven't completely figured out what happened climactically in the past or what caused it somehow know for certain what will happen in the future.

But if they've got the global warming thing right this time, the up side could be an end to the world's fuel problems. According to the US Geological Survey, about a quarter of the world's oil and natural gas reserves lie beneath the floor of the Arctic Ocean, under miles of ice that is rapidly melting in some places. The world has never been able to get to it before, but according to the German magazine Der Spiegel, if the warming trend continues, drilling could begin as soon as a decade from now. The Chinese and the Russians have already invested billions in drilling equipment and are trolling around up there with ice-breaker ships, plotting their drilling strategies.

So to that I say, burn, baby, burn.

Got a story idea? E-mail Tara at tara.servatius@creativeloafing.com.

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