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N.Y. Times writer tells BYU students global warming issue has no easy answers

Tom Zeller Jr.
Tom Zeller Jr.
BYU Photo

PROVO — If scientists could say with confidence that "climate Armageddon" awaited the world at midnight of 2020, there would be a lot more agreement on how to proceed, said Tom Zeller Jr., a writer and editor for the New York Times.

Because they can't, the questions continue over the definition of global warming, how it happened and who is responsible to fix it, Zeller said at a recent lecture at BYU about his coverage of the United Nations' Climate Change Conference in Copenhagen.

At the December U.N. conference, nearly 200 nations gathered to discuss the earth's warming temperatures and man's apparent role in that change.

However, after the initial, impassioned pleas to act quickly, Zeller said, the conference participants again slid back into the familiar bog of unanswered questions.

"No one could agree on how bad things are, how bad they'll be and who ought to pay what," he said. "(There are) decisions on what to do, or what not to do, on every level. How much is either side willing to gamble on being wrong? Those are much more interesting questions to me as a journalist than whether or not the planet is warming."

The issue is also complicated, Zeller said, because despite our love of beautiful, outdoor places, we still want cars, planes, televisions, heated and air-conditioned homes and varied choices in food and clothing.

"The need for heat, light and mobility is tugging against our need for clean air, water and enduring perfect places," he said. "For most of our history as an industrial species, these two drives have typically been at odds."

BYU graduate student Nathaniel Gustafson asked if it would be possible to foster an attitude of environmental stewardship through public education.

"I think that's a fantastic idea," Zeller responded. "These changes and attitudes, if we collectively agree that these attitudes are important, they're not going to take root without some kind of educational element, so yes, I think that's a great idea."

Gustafson, who's studying computer science, said he wants to end up using his computer skills to address environmental issues.

Both Gustafson and Zeller agreed that a crucial component of any education would have to include increased awareness of "externalities" — side effects of a commercial process that are not reflected in the cost of the good or service.

Bottom lines would change drastically if the cost of pollution, species extinction and resource depletion were taken into account, Zeller said.

People are slowly learning, although the process isn't quick or pretty, Zeller said.

"There will really be no end to the juggling act between our use of the planet and its preservation," he said. "Everything involves trade-off. What's happening today is we're slowly coming to realize that collectively we haven't been taking responsibility for all of the costs."