Sunday, January 29, 2006

More on the Global Warming Debate

The following is from "Debate on Climate Shifts to Issue of Irreparable Change: Some Experts on Global Warming Foresee 'Tipping Point' When It Is Too Late to Act" by Juliet Eilperin, The Washington Post, January 29, 2006.
This tipping point debate has stirred controversy within the administration; Hansen said senior political appointees are trying to block him from sharing his views publicly.

When Hansen posted data on the Internet in the fall suggesting that 2005 could be the warmest year on record, NASA officials ordered Hansen (James E. Hansen, who directs NASA's Goddard Institute of Space Studies) to withdraw the information because he had not had it screened by the administration in advance, according to a Goddard scientist who spoke on the condition of anonymity. More recently, NASA officials tried to discourage a reporter from interviewing Hansen for this article and later insisted he could speak on the record only if an agency spokeswoman listened in on the conversation.

"They're trying to control what's getting out to the public," Hansen said, adding that many of his colleagues are afraid to talk about the issue. "They're not willing to say much, because they've been pressured and they're afraid they'll get into trouble."

But Mary L. Cleave, deputy associate administrator for NASA's Office of Earth Science, said the agency insists on monitoring interviews with scientists to ensure they are not misquoted.
Who do you believe, the scientist or the political appointee from the Bush Administration?

Many years ago, I was the government officer responsible for a workshop on the health effects of global warming. I came out of the meeting convinced that the public health professionals don't understand the situation.

I think the impact of Hurricane Katrina is an example. Current estimates suggest both that global warming will raise sea level and increase the strength of hurricanes (and perhaps in some areas their frequency). We saw what happened when parts of New Orleans below current sea level were inundated by water flowing through levies broken by the force of a large storm. More than 1,000 people died in the event, and hundreds of thousands were displaced, having lost much of what they owned. Were that to have happened in a country with no social safety net, and a more dense population, more might well have died in the aftermath of the storm from hunger and disease than actually perished directly.

We worry about a flu pandemic, as well we might. I point out that the worst flu pandemic in human history occurred at the end of World War I. Certainly there seemed to be a strain of flu causing that pandemic that unusually combined elements that allowed its rapid transmission with those that made it especially lethal. But surely the impact was increased by the fact that it occurred during wartime, when many social and health systems were already stressed. I would expect transmissible diseases to be much more of a threat in a world stressed by the need to respond to major climate change. Today, it has been estimated, 17 million people die each year because they are too poor to live. They die of preventable or treatable diseases, because there was no money to prevent or treat their eventually fatal disease. How many more would die each year if the societies of developing nations are overstressed by the effects of global climate change?

Famine is not caused by the lack of food in the world, but by the inability of societies to move food from where it exists to where hungry people live. If we start seeing major shifts in rainfall patterns and temperature patterns, it seems likely to me that there will be crop failures, and indeed some agricultural lands that will no longer support agriculture. If our food distributions continue to fail to get food to the hungry, and there are more people hungry due to the effects of climate change, there will be more famine.

Migration may be expected from newly inundated areas, and a lot of the world's population lives in low lands near the coasts. More migration is to be expected from agricultural areas where the climate changes, and existing agricultural technologies are unable to meet the demands of the new climates. If these kinds of changes also encourage war and civil strife, those will in turn entrain more migration. Migrants are often at high risk of poor health, and increase migration may entrain still more death and disease.

The rich avoided Katrina, driving their luxury cars to expensive hotels during the storm, and using their wealth to cushion the after effects of the catastrophe. So too, I don't expect the rich to suffer the worst consequences of global climate change. It is the poor I worry about. But the poor outnumber the rich by a huge margin! And, I suspect, they will suffer greatly in the coming century because we are not taking adequate steps now to reduce green house gas emissions.

Keeping leading government scientists from effectively warning the public of the dangers that research is uncovering is not a good idea!

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