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Greenhouse Lessons

I remember sitting in 7th-grade science learning about the greenhouse effect.

It intrigued me that when sunlight passed through glass, its wavelength changed in a way that kept it from reflecting back out. That meant that in a space with lots of glass, like a greenhouse, the light would bounce around inside and heat the air.

Even those 1965 textbooks recognized carbon dioxide, produced by burning fossil fuels, as a greenhouse gas that could warm the Earth�s atmosphere.

I learned more about greenhouse gases after 1979, when I came to work for electric co-ops. Electric utilities do loads of studying on the possible effects of energy production.

I�ve followed scientific debates about whether computer models show the globe warming or cooling. I�ve read predictions of the oceans rising over New York City and the return of dust bowls. I�ve listened to people say, �So what�s wrong with a longer growing season that gives us strawberries the size of basketballs?�

Scientists still agree that carbon dioxide is a greenhouse gas. But from there, it gets complicated.

For example, among the biggest producers of greenhouse gases: termites digesting decaying wood in the world�s forests. And the booming growth of China and India is excluded from provisions of international greenhouse gas controls. That might make political sense, but not scientific sense.

This winter�s wacky weather and last year�s movie, An Inconvenient Truth, focused attention on climate change. What should be done, and what can be done, are among the most difficult questions of our time.

The Future of Electricity column has been focusing on just that question. This month it lists ways you can use energy more efficiently. Last month, it described a leadership effort in which utilities in the United States are showing emission reduction technologies to Asian countries. Next month, it will describe a plan to reduce emissions by creating a marketplace for trading renewable energy credits.

Some say we shouldn�t worry about climate change. Some say it�s already too late to stop the planet from overheating.

My preference for action goes back to another school lesson from the media scholar Marshall McLuhan, who said, �There is no inevitability as long as there is a willingness to contemplate the future.�

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