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Global warming still up in the air as far as Georgia is concerned 

In Florida, Republican Gov. Charlie Crist confronted the threat of global warming when he launched an aggressive program to limit greenhouse gases and appointed an advisory panel stocked with scientists and environmentalists.

Out West, such red states as Arizona, Utah and New Mexico have joined with California and Oregon in vowing to reduce the percentage of their energy that comes from coal and other nonrenewable resources.

And just last week, North Carolina Gov. Mike Easley signed a law mandating that, by 2020, at least 12 percent of the state's electricity production come from renewables and energy conservation.

How about Georgia? Let's just say we're a little farther behind the curve: While 24 other states have enacted policy aimed at reducing the carbon emissions, Georgia politicians are still unsure whether all this global-warming talk is simply a lot of hot air.

Last week, members of the state House Committee on Energy, Utilities and Telecommunications walked out of a three-hour hearing with the catchy title "Global Warming: Debunking the Myth or a Need for Climate Change Policy" arguably more uncertain about the issue than they were before.

Just days earlier, state Rep. David Lucas, D-Macon, had watched a "60 Minutes" segment in which a climate expert linked the rapid melting of Antarctic ice fields to global warming. After last Tuesday's hearing, however, Lucas admits he's not sure who to believe about climate change.

"It made me question everything I've been hearing," he says. "It told me I've got to learn a little bit more about it."

Lucas' reaction isn't surprising when one considers that three of the four speakers invited to testify at the hearing were out-of-state scientists widely considered to be among the country's most prominent global-warming deniers. The fourth speaker was Georgia Tech professor Robert Dickinson, who has studied the effect of CO2 emissions on global temperature and believes warming is being caused by human action.

Dickinson says his fellow speakers were more nuanced in their message than he'd expected.

"Usually, I find that deniers rely on straw-man arguments or an exaggerated description of mainstream science, but they weren't as bad as I expected," he says. "I gather from this that skeptics aren't really attacking the science anymore, but are saying there's nothing anyone can do about global warming."

Rep. Chuck Martin, R-Alpharetta, says the presentations convinced him that much of the information he'd been hearing about global warming is alarmist, sky-is-falling hyperbole.

"I don't think we're at a tipping point yet," he says. "It told me that draconian measures that would raise electricity costs by 30 or 40 percent are not necessary, especially when other countries are doing nothing" to address the problem.

It may be tempting to chalk up last week's meeting to the same kind of anti-scientific backwardness that produced attempts in Georgia to replace the word "evolution" with the term "changes over time" in school textbooks, or to criminalize some forms of embryonic stem-cell research.

But state Sen. David Adelman, D-Atlanta, worries that the hearing could have more damaging consequences than simply providing more embarrassing evidence of, as he calls it, "the continued Alabamization of Georgia."

Adelman says he thinks this was a pre-emptive move by opponents of renewable energy standards. He plans to introduce a bill this spring that would mandate 15 percent of the state's electricity come from renewable resources by the year 2020 – a policy known as a renewable portfolio standard. It's the same measure that was adopted by the coalition of Western states and that has already been approved on a national level by the U.S. House.

Currently, about 70 percent of Georgia energy comes from huge, old-fashioned coal-fired plants, of which two – plants Scherer and Bowen – consistently rank among the nation's dirtiest in terms of carbon emissions and other pollutants.

Adelman didn't attend last week's state House hearing, but he suspects its agenda may have been influenced by the long lobbyist arm of that Atlanta-based überutility, the Southern Co.

"The Southern Co. is the single greatest impediment to a national renewable portfolio standard – and they make no bones about it," he says. "The company's argument is that the South's only resource is wood, and that's expensive."

One of the few areas of agreement between energy experts, utility executives and lawmakers is that Georgia has few options when it comes to natural resources. Hydroelectric is tapped out, solar power is minimal, and wind energy is unproven. Apart from the question mark of nuclear energy (see last week's cover article, "A new look at nuclear power"), the remaining undeveloped energy resource up Georgia's sleeve is biomass – scrap wood, switchgrass, corn stalks, peanut shells and other organic material that can be converted into ethanol or burnt for fuel.

Last year, Gov. Sonny Perdue created a new state biomass energy program (see June 13 article, "One step in the right direction") to lure private investment in the new technology. At least two companies have already obtained permits to build biomass plants in Georgia.

In fact, Rep. Jeff Lewis, R-White, is confident enough in the ability of the burgeoning biomass industry to shoulder the burden of energy production in Georgia that he doesn't believe state mandates are necessary.

"The problem I have with a renewable portfolio standard is that mandating it by a certain time could drive up the cost of electricity," he says. "Most of us believe the same goals can be achieved by market incentives, such as eliminating the sales tax on biomass materials – the market is getting us there."

Lewis' opinion is worth noting; he chairs the House energy and utilities committee that sponsored last week's hearing on global warming. Although he wasn't involved in selecting the speakers for the meeting – they were chosen by House staffers – Lewis says energy-industry lobbyists had no part in setting the agenda.

Of the three other speakers, John Christy, director of the Earth System Science Center at the University of Alabama, was featured in a documentary, The Great Global Warming Swindle; Patrick Michaels, professor of environmental sciences at the University of Virginia, is author of Meltdown: The Predictable Distortion of Global Warming by Scientists, Politicians and the Media; and Joel Schwartz is a scholar with the American Enterprise Institute, a conservative think tank.

Lewis says he's heard so much fuss about global warming lately that he wanted to hold a hearing to get some of his questions answered.

"It does us good as legislators to hear from both sides," he says, "but it is difficult for us to figure out what's right."

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