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Panel of Experts Agrees That Humans Affect Global Climate

By Kathy Sawyer
The Washington Post
WASHINGTON

It's official. After years of alarms, an international panel of scientists and government experts have agreed in writing that human activities are affecting the global climate.

At the end of a contentious three-day session in Madrid, delegates at a meeting of Working Group I of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) spent hours debating the wording of a single key passage. At last, they adopted by consensus the following language:

"The balance of evidence suggests that there is a discernible human influence on global climate."

The word "discernible" was substituted for "appreciable" late Wednesday, according to Michael Oppenheimer of the Environmental Defense Fund, who attended the meeting. Earlier, the delegates had tried - and rejected - other options, such as "notable," "measureable" and "detectable," he said.

The process, he added, was "very exhausting."

Robert T. Watson, of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, just off the plane from Madrid, said the tedium of moving representatives of 75 governments to a consensus is worthwhile because it means that "these governments have basically bought into that statement. It will now be much harder for them to go and negotiate and say they don't agree with the science."

The six-page report, called the "Summary for Policy Makers," was finished just before midnight Wednesday (Madrid time) after delegates of oil-producers Kuwait and Saudi Arabia prolonged the process with a series of objections and counterproposals that would have weakened the language and put even more emphasis on the technical uncertainties, according to scientists who attended. (The burning of fossil fuels such as coal and oil is a primary source of heat-trapping "greenhouse" gases such as carbon dioxide that are being added to the atmosphere.)

And after it was all over, there was still an open issue. A sentence in the same section refers to "more convincing recent evidence for the attribution of a human effect on climate "

It carries a footnote indicating that "two countries," identified by participants as Saudi Arabia and Kuwait, "preferred the word "preliminary" to "recent" based on their interpretation of available scientific material. (Detailed wording to be finalized.)"

Watson predicted (correctly) that groups on all sides of the issue would try to "spin" the report their way. Still, he said the document "will somewhat change the debate." Disbelievers will no longer be able to claim the evidence for human contribution to global climate change is "totally bogus," he said, "and those who have been making the argument for years (that human activity is changing the climate) have a stronger case for national action-or international action."

As for the fence-sitters, he said, "they may now be more persuaded that actions should be taken to buy time, while we continue an aggressive research program" to accumulate better data.

The topic has been rekindled as a political issue in the United States, as the Republican-led Congress seeks to reduce spending on a range of environmental programs, including those that deal with climate change and energy use.