Are carbon-dioxide molecules emitted from the tailpipes of cars different from those spewed by fossil-fueled power plants? Uh, no. But that apparently was a question asked by a senior White House official who has been influencing U.S. climate-mitigation policy, according to a nice piece of investigative journalism in last Friday’s Washington Post.

I don’t know about you, but I find such putative ignorance about the science of greenhouse-gas emissions to be fairly troubling.

The gist of the Post story was that the Bush Administration has been putting political pressure on federal researchers for a long while to tone down any claims to data or assessments that global warming might have significant health and economic consequences. The ostensible reason: Such a conclusion would hamstring the President’s policy agenda or at least that of the Vice President and the Office of Management and Budget to hold off any regulation of greenhouse-gas emissions during George Bush’s term in office.

One unidentified source in the Post story charged that in policy deliberations, OMB’s chief lawyer, Jeffrey A. Rosen, asked whether carbon-dioxide emissions from a car’s tailpipe might be considered differently than those from a power plant you know, because the molecules might be different. The news story says Rosen was informed that the molecules were, in fact, identical.

Leaving aside the story’s descriptions of back-room bargaining and unethical if not illegal muzzling of federal officials, you have to ask whether the administrators charged with tackling what many believe to be the issue of the century (how to slow global warming) are up to the task.

Let’s face it: Climatology is complicated. The chemical interactions that affect the rates at which greenhouse gases are building up in the atmosphere can be pretty complicated. The physics of radiative transfer of solar energy can get pretty complicated. So, if someone can ask about whether a three-atom molecule essentially comes in flavors that reflect its source, do we have much hope of his understanding potential drivers of climate change and the extent to which warming might accelerate over the lifetimes of our children?

Let’s just say that the political wrangling described in the Post’s story doesn’t inspire confidence.

Janet Raloff

Janet Raloff is the Editor, Digital of Science News Explores, a daily online magazine for middle school students. She started at Science News in 1977 as the environment and policy writer, specializing in toxicology. To her never-ending surprise, her daughter became a toxicologist.

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