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#430 - Global Warming, Part 2: Human Consequences Of Global Warming, 22-Feb-1995

As we saw last week, the worldwide scientific community has reached
consensus that global warming is inevitable if humans continue to dump
"greenhouse gases" into the atmosphere at anything like present rates.
Greenhouse gases include carbon dioxide, methane, nitrous oxide,
chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) and a few others. These gases act like the
glass covering a greenhouse, letting sunlight in but stopping heat from
escaping, thus driving up the average temperature of our earthly
"greenhouse" sooner or later. The main contributor to the greenhouse
effect is naturally-occurring water vapor, which keeps the planet's
thermostat set at a pleasant 59 degrees or so (Fahrenheit), average.
But the main HUMAN contribution to greenhouse warming is carbon
dioxide, which is released whenever fossil fuels are burned; fossil
fuels include oil, natural gas and coal. Carbon dioxide levels in the
atmosphere have been rising relentlessly for a century.

Global warming is one of those problems that "the market" cannot fix.
In fact, as we will see, "the market" will only make the problem worse;
the insurance industry is coming to believe that global warming is
causing increased numbers of huge storms, floods, and droughts, and the
industry is already reacting to this belief by increasing premiums, and
by canceling insurance policies in certain storm-prone areas (the
Caribbean and Florida, for example).

The oil and coal corporations have little or no incentive to help the
world change over to energy sources that will avoid global warming,
such as solar power using hydrogen as a storage medium. On the
contrary, oil and coal companies are in business to do one thing: sell
oil and coal. Indeed, their corporate charters allow them to do little
else. Because the automobile industry is presently oil-based, and
because automobiles are critical to the steel, glass, rubber and
concrete industries, together the oil corporations and their allies
create a political mountain that has, so far, proven impossible to
move.

What are the effects we might expect as global warming comes upon us?
Recently, a catalog of global-warming-related events has been
published. Organized chronologically, starting in 1990, the catalog
consists of short paragraphs, written in an evenhanded style,
describing new scientific studies, new government reports, important
speeches (by insurance executives, for example), and news reports (of
floods, typhoons, etc.). Although no single piece of information in the
catalog, taken alone, is sufficient to persuade anyone that global
warming is occurring and that it has real consequences, all together
the information in this 150-page catalog is impressive and persuasive.
Jeremy Leggett and his co-editors have provided an important public
service.[1]

As any reader of this catalog will see, there is abundant evidence that
warming is occurring planet-wide, as well as in particular regions.
According to the consensus statement by scientists from 80 countries
published in 1990, the polar regions should see more rapid warming than
other regions.[2] That is what seems to be happening. For example, in
late 1993 the U.S. Carbon Dioxide Information and Analysis Center
reported that scientists from NOAA [National Oceanic and Atmospheric
Administration] find that surface temperatures at 9 stations north of
the Arctic circle have increased by about 5.5 degrees Celsius (C) [9.9
degrees Fahrenheit (F)] since 1968, increasing at an average rate of
0.24 degrees C [0.43 deg. F] each year. Measurements at a station in
Alaska confirmed the trend.[3]

During 1994, a series of boreholes in the ground in Alaska revealed
that the temperature of the soil has increased 2 to 5 degrees C [3.6 to
9 degrees F] during this century. Tree ring data from the Canadian
arctic show a 3 deg. C [5.4 deg. F] rise in temperature this century.
[4]

The British Antarctic Survey in 1994 reported that air temperatures at
the British Faraday Base on the Antarctic Peninsula have increased 0.5
degrees C [0.9 degrees F] each decade since 1947. These are the fastest
temperature changes recorded since the British began making such
measurements 130 years ago.[5]

In 1994, a Swiss study of the length of 48 valley glaciers, over the
period 1850 to 1990, revealed that all 48 glaciers have diminished in
length by 0.86 to 1.3 meters per year.[6] The glaciers on Mount Kenya
(in Kenya) receded 40% between 1963 and 1987.[7]

None of these reports, by itself, is persuasive; but combined with
several hundred others, a picture emerges of a planet that is feeling
the effects of warming --many of them bad. The Intergovernmental Panel
on Climate Change (IPCC) in its 1990 report and a series of subsequent
reports, has given the basic outlines of what we should expect: greater
extremes of weather (more and stronger storms; longer and drier
droughts; heavier rains and increased numbers of larger, more costly
floods). We should also expect altered patterns of climate and weather
--less rainfall in the interior of continents; less snowfall, and so
forth. We should also expect the seas to rise a few inches, first
because seawater will expand as it gets warmer, and secondly because
ice will flow off the land and melt.

Some aspects of global warming are not often discussed. For example,
the secondary consequences of heat waves, droughts, and storms. In
Papua, New Guinea in 1994, flooding brought the threat of influenza,
malaria and dysentery in the affected human population.[8] In the
midwestern U.S. in the summer of 1993, some of the people rebuilding
their homes after the flood reported that they and their neighbors had
come down with meningitis and hepatitis A.[9] That Mississippi flood
had other unexpected consequences; according to U.S. Geological Survey
(USGS), tremendous quantities of herbicides washed off the land and
into the river.[10] At the height of the flood, according to USGS, the
river was carrying 12,000 pounds of atrazine per day past Thebes,
Illinois, where the agency took measurements. Atrazine is an herbicide
that interferes with the endocrine system in wildlife and humans.[11]
In addition to atrazine, the river was carrying other agricultural
poisons in higher-than-normal concentrations: cyanazine, alachlor, and
metolachlor. Furthermore, dozens of "Superfund" chemical waste dumps
were flooded in Kansas, Nebraska, Iowa and Missouri, adding to the
toxic soup carried downstream.[12] At the outflow of the Mississippi in
the Gulf of Mexico, a "dead zone" developed over 6000 square miles, a
"fishing wasteland" where fish and other sea life could not survive
because of sewage, urban runoff, and agricultural poisons.[13]

Unusual weather brings many unexpected side-effects. In Australia in
1993 and again in 1994, mild winter weather extended the breeding
season for rodents and insects; then a wet summer and a long, mild
autumn increased the food supply for these pests. In July, 1993, mice
ravaged crops in south Australia, costing farmers $100 million;[14] in
the worst-hit areas, there were more than 100 mice per square meter.
[15] (A square meter is approximately a square yard.) Furthermore, the
combination of drought, high temperatures, and mice loosened the soils
over a large area, allowing winds to strip off 20 to 30 million tons of
valuable topsoil and move it out to sea.[16] In 1994, Zimbabwe suffered
a plague of rodents and insects because their natural predators
(snakes, frogs, small birds and owls) had been killed off by drought.
[17] Drought affects human health as well. In New Zealand, as a long
drought worsened in 1994, authorities made preparations for managing
epidemics of hepatitis A, diarrhea, and cholera.[18]

The World Health Organization (WHO) has suggested that many diseases
will increase as the earth's average temperature increases, mainly
because disease vectors (carriers) such as mosquitoes and rats will
thrive in warmer temperatures. Malaria, schistosomiasis (bilharzia),
and dengue fever are likely to increase, says WHO. Elephantiasis,
onchocerciasis (river blindness) , African trypanosomiasis (sleeping
sickness), yellow fever, and Japanese encephalitis are also likely to
increase, says WHO.[19]

The IPCC in 1994 estimated that global warming is likely to have its
severest impacts on humans by diminishing agricultural output and
making food scarce. Shifting climatic zones northward will increase the
arid zones and thus diminish the land available for crops. Rising seas
will cover much good farmland, further reducing available croplands.
Increased numbers of pests (rodents and insects) will take a greater
toll than at present. In sum, said the IPCC. "it is likely to be an
enormously difficult task for [hu]mankind, not only to limit climate
change to a tolerable level, but also to simultaneously achieve
sufficient food production for a still rising world population."[20]

And we face these deteriorating prospects, world-wide, chiefly so that
the oil and coal companies can report acceptable quarterly profits to
their shareholders.

--Peter Montague

=====

[1] Jeremy Leggett, editor, THE CLIMATE TIME BOMB; SIGNS OF CLIMATE
CHANGE FROM THE GREENPEACE DATABASE (Amsterdam, Netherlands: Stichting
Greenpeace Council, 1994), pg. 154. Hereafter cited as TIME BOMB. This
extraordinarily useful volume is available for $25.00 from: Greenpeace,
1436 U Street, N.W., Washington, D.C. 20009; phone (202) 319-4444. To
request information about a semiannual update to this volume, send e-
mail to lyn.goldsworthy@green2.dat.de, or send regular mail to The
Climate Impacts Unit, Greenpeace International, P.O. Box 800, Surry
Hills, New South Wales 2010, Australia. Leggett is one of the
scientists who make up the IPCC; see note 2, below.

[2] J.T. Houghton and others, editors, CLIMATE CHANGE. THE IPCC
[INTERGOVERNMENTAL PANEL ON CLIMATE CHANGE] SCIENTIFIC ASSESSMENT
(Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 1990).

[3] Quoted in Leggett, cited above, pg. 136.

[4] Jeremy Leggett, THE CLIMATE TIME BOMB...APRIL-JULY, 1994 UPDATE
(Surry Hills, New South Wales, Australia: Greenpeace International,
1994) [cited hereafter as UPDATE], pg. 5, quoting H. Beltrami and D.
Chapman, "Drilling for a past climate," NEW SCIENTIST Vol. 142, No.
1922 (April 23, 1994), pgs. unknown.

[5] Jeremy Leggett, UPDATE, cited above, pg. 11, citing a Reuters wire
service story June 24, 1994.

[6] Leggett, UPDATE, cited above, quoting J. Oerlemans, "Quantifying
Global Warming from the Retreat of Glaciers," SCIENCE Vol. 263 (April
8, 1994), pgs. 243-245.

[7] Leggett TIME BOMB, cited above, pg. 93, quoting S. Hastenrath and
P.D. Kruss, "The dramatic retreat of Mount Kenya's Glaciers between
1963 and 1987: Greenhouse forcing," ANNALS OF GLACIOLOGY Vol. 16
(1992), pgs. 127-133; and "Greenhouse Indicators in Kenya," NATURE Vol.
355 (1992), pgs. 503-504.

[8] Jeremy Leggett, UPDATE, cited above, pg. 10.

[9] For example, Chris Offutt, "Troubles Rise as the Water Drops," NEW
YORK TIMES September 1, 1993, op-ed page.

[10] U.S. Geological Survey (USGS), "One Year Later: Facts and Figures
from the 'Flood of '93", press release dated July 8, 1994. Contact:
Rebecca Philips at (703) 648-4460 at USGS in Reston, Va.

[11] U.S. Geological Survey (USGS), "Agricultural Chemicals Reported in
Mississippi Floodwaters," press release dated August 30, 1993. Contact:
Donovan Kelly: (703) 648-4460 at USGS in Reston, Va. And see R.
Rajagopal, HERBICIDES IN WATER RESOURCES DURING THE GREAT MIDWESTERN
FLOOD OF 1993 (Iowa City, Iowa: Geography Department, University of
Iowa, September 9, 1993.). Phone for Professor Rajagopal: (319) 335-
0160.

[12] "Midwest toxic sites at risk," ENGINEERING NEWS RECORD August 2,
1993, pg. 11.

[13] Reported in GREENWIRE August 5, 1993, story #6. GREENWIRE is a
"daily executive briefing on the environment" published on-line; phone
(703) 237-5130.

[14] Jeremy Leggett, UPDATE, cited above, pg. 4.

[15] Jeremy Leggett, TIME BOMB, cited above, pg. 115.

[16] Jeremy Leggett, UPDATE, cited above, pg. 10.

[17] Jeremy Leggett, TIME BOMB, cited above, pg. 156.

[18] Jeremy Leggett, UPDATE, cited above, pg. 11.

[19] Jeremy Leggett, TIME BOMB, cited above, pg. 144, quoting A.J.
Michael, PLANETARY OVERLOAD: GLOBAL ENVIRONMENTAL CHANGE AND THE HEALTH
OF THE HUMAN SPECIES (Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press,
1993).

[20] Jeremy Leggett, UPDATE, cited above, pg. 8.

Descriptor terms: carbon dioxide; methane; cfcs; greenhouse effect;
atmosphere; air pollution; global environmental problems; global
warming; fossil fuels; oil; natural gas; coal; storms; floods;
insurance; solar energy; drought; hydrogen; automobile industry; steel;
glass; rubber; concrete; arctic; antarctic; glaciers; weather; sea
level rise; oceans; new guinea; usgs; atrazine; pesticides; herbicides;
mississippi river; gulf of mexico; australia; superfund; zimbabwe; new
zealand; who; world health organization; agriculture; pests; rodents;
insects;