Search this page for:
 Global Warming Effects Faster Than Feared --- Global Warming Shift Gets Cold Shoulder --- Climate, the Absent Issue

    By Maggie Fox

    Thursday 21 October 2004

    Washington - Recent storms, droughts and heat waves are probably being caused by global warming, which means the effects of climate change are coming faster than anyone had feared, climate experts said on Thursday.

    The four hurricanes that bashed Florida and the Caribbean within a five-week period over the summer, intense storms over the western Pacific, heat waves that killed tens of thousands of Europeans last year and a continued drought across the U.S. southwest are only the beginning, the experts said.

    Ice is melting faster than anyone predicted in the Antarctic and Greenland, ocean currents are changing and the seas are warming, the experts said.

    "This year, the unusually intense period of destructive activity, with four hurricanes hitting in a five-week period, could be a harbinger of things to come," said Dr. Paul Epstein, associate director of the Center for Health and the Global Environment at Harvard Medical School.

    Epstein and colleagues called a telephone news conference to raise their concerns, which they have also laid out before Congress in recent weeks.

    "The weather patterns are changing. The character of the system is changing," Epstein said. "It is becoming a signal of how the system is behaving and it is not stable."

    Experts have long said that people are affecting the world's climate, and this is no longer in any real dispute. Fossil fuels such as oil, in particular, release carbon dioxide that forms a blanket that holds in heat from the sun's rays.

    But several experts have disputed the idea that this year's hurricane season was unique.

    "Recent history tells us that hurricanes are not becoming more frequent," James O'Brien, a professor of meteorology and oceanography at Florida State University and colleague said in a recent statement.

    "According to meteorological measurements, extreme weather is not increasing."

    Sooner Than Feared

    James McCarthy, a professor of biological oceanography at Harvard University and former co-chair of the impacts group of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change agreed said it is impossible to say any one storm or drought is caused by climate change.

    But, he added, "We know that the Earth's temperature pattern is changing ... On every continent it is now evident that there are impacts from these changes in temperature and precipitation."

    Not even the most anxious scientists had predicted that some of the changes that have occurred would come so soon, he said. For example, several high-profile reports have described the unexpected rapid loss of ice in the Antarctic and Greenland.

    "They are really important components of the interactive climate system," McCarthy said. "They really should serve as a wake-up call."

    Kevin Trenberth, head of the Climate Analysis Section at the National Center for Atmospheric Research in Boulder, Colorado, said carbon dioxide levels are more than 30 percent higher than they were in the pre-industrial era.

    "Global sea level has risen about an inch and a quarter (3 cm) in the past 10 years," he added. "Most of this rise in sea level is due to the expansion of the ocean as it warms," he added, saying that 25 percent to 30 percent was from melting ice.

    Insurance companies are taking the trend seriously, said Matthias Weber, senior vice president and chief property underwriter of the U.S. Direct Americas division of insurer Swiss Re.

    "It was the first time since 1886 that we had four hurricanes affecting a single state in the same season," Weber said. "More than 22 percent of all homes (in Florida) were affected by at least one of the hurricanes."


Go to Original

    Global Warming Shift Gets Cold Shoulder
    USA Today

    Wednesday 20 October 2004

    Aside from an occasional warning, such as the environmental horror film The Day After Tomorrow, concerns about carbon-dioxide-spewing cars and factories warming the Earth have been forgotten this election season. Perhaps for good reason. An international treaty to curb emissions of "greenhouse" gases had appeared dead. And the Bush administration, which opposes the treaty because of potential job losses, has taken a laissez-faire approach to the problem.

    Now, the issue is suddenly front and center on the world stage, if not in the election. This month, Russia unexpectedly moved to join the Kyoto Protocol, which would limit emissions to 1990 levels for most industrial countries. With 126 nations aboard, the treaty can go into force.

    The resurrection of Kyoto creates an opportunity for the U.S., which emits 25% of the world's greenhouse gases, to tackle an issue that soon will be much harder to ignore. Much of the world is setting emissions standards that U.S. companies operating abroad will have to meet. And U.S.-based plants risk being left behind in adopting new technologies that not only cut emissions but also boost efficiency and lower business costs.

    That wasn't the case in 2001, when President Bush declared that the U.S. wouldn't join the treaty. His reasoning was that U.S. companies would have the toughest time meeting the standards and would have to spend billions to comply, at a cost of jobs.

    Another problem: Europeans and other nations opposed a U.S. plan to let polluting countries or factories buy credits to emit greenhouse gases from those cleaner than required - as long as the emissions on balance were reduced. The concept already is working in the U.S.

    In a third rub, developing countries with burgeoning industries and pollution - such as China, India, Brazil and even neighboring Mexico - would be exempt from the treaty, since they hadn't created the problem. They could continue to spew, gaining a competitive edge over U.S. products and jobs.

    Even if the next president refuses to join Kyoto, he still can voluntary abide by its goals and give a boost to U.S. businesses in:

  • Flexibility. The treaty now includes the U.S. trading idea. A potentially lucrative commodity market in "hot air" credits is booming. U.S.-based firms are missing out.
  • New technologies. Scores of U.S. companies, such as DuPont and Alcoa, have already begun adopting clean-air technologies. Many are finding that they're saving money by becoming more efficient, and they want to find markets for selling their technology, along with excess "hot air" credits. An extra benefit: reduced reliance on foreign oil.
  • Developing countries' compliance. The U.S. could join a drive to impose limits on China, India and other emerging industrial giants, narrowing their competitive edge.

    What has become clear since the last presidential campaign is that the debate over whether the Earth is warming has evaporated, replaced by one about how to cope with its looming effects. The potential economic costs of doing nothing - devastated farming, rising sea levels and severe weather patterns - would far outweigh those required to address the problem.

    Several states consider global warming so serious that they've stepped into the vacuum. California, for one, wants a 30% cut in vehicle-tailpipe emissions by 2015.

    The rest of the world, in other words, has moved on. The Day after Tomorrow may only be a nightmare dreamed up by Hollywood, but the U.S. can create its own pragmatic scenario for attacking a real-life threat.


Go to Original

    Climate, the Absent Issue
    By Mark Hertscaard
    The Nation

    01 November 2004 Issue

    Every once in a while there is good news in this troubled world, and the choice of Kenyan environmentalist Wangari Maathai as this year's Nobel Peace Prizewinner is one such moment. The timing could not be more apt. The choice of Maathai was announced near the end of a US presidential campaign that has resolutely ignored the greatest danger facing humanity, global climate change. Her selection thus stands as an implicit rebuke to the environmental backwardness of America's political and media classes. It also represents an explicit assertion that, as the Nobel committee put it, "Peace on Earth depends on our ability to secure our living environment."

    The Bush Administration remains in denial about climate change even though its closest overseas ally, British Prime Minister Tony Blair, said in September that climate change is the single biggest long-term problem his nation faces. Blair's top scientific adviser, David King, has gone further, declaring that climate change is the biggest threat civilization has ever faced - bigger even than the global terrorism that dominates headlines and obsesses George W. Bush. King warned in July that there is now enough carbon dioxide in the atmosphere to melt all the ice on earth, which would put most of the world's biggest cities under water, starting with low-lying metropolises like New York, London and New Orleans. "I am sure that climate change is the biggest problem that civilization has had to face in 5,000 years," King said. Even Shell Oil chairman Ron Oxburgh admitted in June that he is "really very worried for the planet."

    Climate change is to the twenty-first century what the nuclear arms race was to the twentieth: the overriding threat to humanity's continued existence on this planet. And it is already killing people. In the summer of 2003, some 15,000 people died in France from an unprecedented heat wave. No single weather event can be definitively attributed to climate change, but such heat waves are exactly what scientists expect as warming intensifies. If climate change is not moderated, more will die in years to come - either directly, through more destructive storms and droughts, or indirectly, through declines in food production and the spread of infectious disease.

    Yet except for two brief references to the Kyoto Protocol during the Bush-Kerry debates, climate change has been absent from the presidential campaign. Kerry criticized Bush for walking away from Kyoto without mentioning that he himself also opposes the protocol (though Kerry pledges that, as President, he would re-open negotiations and fix what he considers its flaws). Bush sounded almost proud of having rejected Kyoto, which he claimed, incorrectly, would hurt the US economy.

    Although parts of the media have woken up to the danger - Business Week and National Geographic ran cover stories on it this past summer - most US journalists still don't get it. At best, they see climate change as just one of many environmental issues. At worst, they are still fooled by industry propaganda casting doubt on the science behind claims of climate change. Television networks approach the issue with a particular conflict of interest. As Robert Kennedy Jr. has observed, cars are the leading source of US greenhouse gas emissions, but car ads are the leading revenue source for US television networks.

    Thus climate change remains marginal to the political debate in the United States. Public awareness and policy-making lag years behind the rest of the world, as the impending implementation of the Kyoto accord, without US participation, illustrates. (Now that Russia supports Kyoto, the United States and Australia are the only major industrial countries outside the protocol.) Some state and local governments are reacting; California recently required that automakers increase fuel efficiency 30 percent by 2009. But progress is incremental when it needs to come at hyper-speed.

    Which is where the example of Wangari Maathai offers hope. The 64-year-old biologist is Kenya's assistant minister for environment and natural resources, but she has spent most of her life as a grassroots activist and critic of the former US-supported dictatorship of Daniel Arap Moi. Maathai's great innovation was to create the Green Belt Movement. This radical but practical program pays poor women to plant tree seedlings in their communities; 30 million trees have reportedly been planted since the program began in the late 1970s.

    The selection of Maathai for the peace prize generated controversy in Norway from critics who said that honoring an environmentalist diluted the meaning of peace work. But that criticism was contradicted by a United Nations report issued a week earlier, showing how deforestation and water scarcity - which are exacerbated by global warming - have repeatedly led to armed conflict in Africa.

    Maathai's Green Belt Movement is based on a holistic analysis of the intertwined problems of war, poverty, environmental degradation and lower status for women. (Kenya had one of the highest birth rates in the world when Green Belt was founded in 1977, in part because women thought their only option in life was to bear children.) Green Belt puts money in women's pockets, boosting their independence and the educational prospects for their children. Meanwhile, the planting of trees replenishes the forests that are the foundation of Kenya's agricultural productivity and the primary fuel source for its poor. And thanks to photosynthesis, the new trees also fight global warming by absorbing carbon dioxide.

    Like the best political ideas, Wangari Maathai's Green Belt program is specific yet universal, grounded in intellect but insistent upon action. Its underlying principles are the very ones needed to build a sustainable, and therefore peaceful, future: restoration of ravaged ecosystems, expansion of economic opportunity for the poor, a guarantee of equal justice for all and strengthening of democracy. The Nobel committee lauded Maathai for work that has transformed the lives of countless Kenyans. But her achievements also suggest how the rest of the world, including the vastly richer United States, can combat climate change, if only it wakes up and tries.