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ALARMISM HURTS ENVIRONMENTAL EFFORT

Let's try an exercise in global environmental hype. Breathe in. Now breathe out. You have just added a breath of "dangerous, heat-trapping greenhouse" gas to Earth's atmosphere.

So what? You're not going to stop breathing just because the distinguished World Resources Institute in Washington hangs the epithet "dangerous" on carbon dioxide as it adds one more press release to the paper mountain of global-warming alarms.Now before those environmentalists jump all over me, please note that I'm not out to bash World Resources Institute or to trivialize the grave environmental challenge our late-20th-century world faces. That challenge is well-documented in the "World Resources 1990-91 Guide to the Global Environment," just issued by the institute in collaboration with the United Nations Environment and Development Programs. It's published through Oxford University Press. With environmental and economic data on 146 countries, plus focus essays on such major challenges as climate change or population and health, the report is a highly valuable resource for anyone concerned about our planet.

Yet scholarly as the report is, the press releases that accompany it are not immune to the rhetoric of environmental hype. And, especially as regards possible dangers from pollution-driven global warming, such hype is counterproductive. We've had too much of it. It's become a turnoff for many policymakers, who have to make tough economic decisions in dealing with environmental problems.

It's difficult for such hard-nosed officials to consider carbon dioxide "dangerous" when animals exhale it and plants use it as an essential nutrient. Use of such an epithet makes environmentalists seem prone to exaggeration and devalues the very serious environmental problems they are trying to publicize.

In fact, the methane gas emitted by the digestive processes of humans and other mammals is a more efficient heat-trapper than carbon dioxide. And the increasing release of methane from cattle, sheep and goats, and from bacteria in rice paddies is as important a contributor to possible global warming as is the increasing release of carbon dioxide from the use of fossil fuels.

Curbing the emissions of just these two greenhouse gases alone will involve major economic restructuring all around the world. It will involve a new approach to agriculture to feed a burgeoning population. And it will involve new approaches to industrialization. This can be done only through a truly global cooperative effort in which rich nations help poorer countries find practical alternatives to traditional means of economic growth. It can be done only when industrialized nations themselves act to implement the costly waste-management, energy saving and other conservation measures needed to preserve the environment.

The scope of the problem is immense, as the new World Resources report shows. While population grows, useful water resources shrink, forests disappear at a rate of 40 million to 50 million acres a year (faster than previously estimated), and hundreds of other local and regional environmental assaults add up to an impending global tragedy. The cold hard facts of a reference like this can persuade decisionmakers to begin to act.

But environmentalists should tone down the alarmist rhetoric.