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Mention global warming to a group of scientists and you're almost sure to get, well ... a heated debate.
Sorting facts from emotional arguments can be a challenge, and one that will be addressed in a panel forum at the AAPG Annual Meeting on Wednesday, April 21.
"Climate Change -- Sense and Nonsense in Our Great Geophysical Experiment," will be chaired by Julio Friedmann with the University of Maryland and ExxonMobil upstream operations in Baltimore.
Friedmann has recruited four panelists from industry and academia to discuss a topic he calls "controversial, important and timely." He said he wanted to present the forum at AAPG because members are active on many levels -- as scientists in their communities and schools, and in business.
"They care a great deal about the environment and also the realities of business," Friedmann said. "They often find themselves between two constituencies."
As a result, he said, "these people can absorb an awful lot of knowledge and act quickly."
To him, the subject of climate change stirs passions because the stakes are so high.
"There is significant evidence to suggest that global warming is real, and it's bad -- it's too big to ignore," he said. "On the other hand, energy is the biggest industry on the planet. People want and need affordable energy.
"We are proud of that role," he said. "We're not bad guys."
Among many academics, global warming "is a done deal," while for many industry scientists "the jury is still out," Friedmann said. "They want more data."
Indeed, much new data has become available in recent years, he added, and it's time to revisit the topic.
Panelist Tom Wigley, a physicist trained in meteorology with the National Center for Atmospheric Research, said he hopes to add to the knowledge base that AAPG members take away from the meeting.
"I'm not passionate about it; it's facts," Wigley said. "That's all I deal with.
"When something impinges on humanity and the environment, you move a little beyond science, into attitudes and social context," Wigley said.
"I try very hard -- and my colleagues do, too -- to present as balanced a view as we possibly can. We should focus on what we're experts in," he said.
If the debate stirs emotions, the cause "is a single word, and that's money," Wigley said. "If you think some possible new policy is going to cost you money -- even if you're wrong -- you're going to be concerned.
"The good thing is that, as a scientist, money doesn't enter into it for me," he added.
Wigley said there appears to be no doubt that humans are changing the climate. Fossil fuels "do cause global warming," he said, "but there are other natural processes that complicate the issue.
"It's a difficult issue," he continued. "The United States has huge reserves of coal. The real challenge is not to throw away that resource, but use it in a way that's not damaging to the environment. It's not impossible, but it's a big issue."
Wigley said he is disappointed by the current administration's lack of response to the issue.
"It's a serious problem. It shouldn't cause us to panic, but it requires long-term effort," he said. "It's like we're driving this Hummer toward a cliff -- it's quite a long way off, but the brakes aren't so good."
Paleoclimatologist Dana Royer, a research scientist at Penn State, says the past may help point to future solutions.
Royer said his research shows a "pretty good positive correlation" between elevated carbon dioxide levels and warmer temperatures over the past 500 million years.
While some researchers "found the opposite" based on temperature records, "they didn't generate their own CO2 data," Royer said.
The information from a deeper time record than that available from tree ring studies or more modern instruments "is useful because we can see how the earth was operating at that time, say 100 million years ago, and that can shed some light on what we can expect in the near future," Royer said.
To him, the research lends credence to current global warming theories.
"Wherever the data comes out, let it lie and try not to take it personally," he said.
"There are opportunities there if we, as a society, decide to address this potential problem," Royer said.
Other panelists will include Haroon Kheshgi, climate researcher with ExxonMobil, and Dag Nummedal with the University of Wyoming Institute of Energy Research.