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New warnings of global warming disaster:
Will the U.S. still not act?

February 9, 2007 | Page 4

NICOLE COLSON reports on the latest warnings of the threat of global warming.

IMAGINE A world where as much as half the population suffers from a chronic shortage of potable water. Where global sea levels rise so dramatically that many heavily populated areas are no longer inhabitable. Where drought and famine become prevalent.

These are just a few of the outcomes predicted by a report released last week by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), a United Nations-sponsored body that has been warning about the threat of man-made climate change since its creation in 1988.

In its most recent report (the fourth released since 1990, and the work of 2,500 scientists), the panel concludes for the first time that global warming is "unequivocal" and that human activity, mainly the burning of fossil fuels, is the main force driving this climate change.

"February 2 will be remembered as the date when uncertainty was removed as to whether humans had anything to do with climate change on this planet," Achim Steiner, executive director of the United Nations Environment Program, told the New York Times. "The evidence is on the table."

 

The report is based on reviews of hundreds of studies of past climate shifts; observations of retreating ice, warming and rising seas, and other changes around the planet; and the use of supercomputer simulations to test how the earth will respond to the further increase of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere.

Past IPCC reports have used softer language, despite a near-consensus from the scientific community on the causes of global warming--largely because of resistance from heavily polluting countries, the U.S. chief among them.

The latest report states that if things continue on their current course, the world will likely face centuries of climbing temperatures, rising seas and shifting weather patterns--the unavoidable result of the buildup of heat-trapping gases in the atmosphere.

According to the report, it is "virtually certain" that the world will experience fewer cold days and nights, and warmer and more frequent hot days and nights over most land areas as a result of global warming. The report also finds that the increase in hurricanes and tropical cyclone strength since 1970 can be attributed to the industrial activity of humans.

If carbon dioxide levels continue to rise at current levels, average temperatures are predicted to rise between 3.6 and 8.1 degrees Fahrenheit by the year 2100. Such a rise in temperature, according to the report, will lead to a rise in sea level of between 7 and 23 inches by the end of the century-- which would flood many coastal and low-lying areas around the globe.

Because carbon dioxide remains in the atmosphere for hundreds of years, the report says that seas will continue to rise for at least 1,000 years to come. Snow cover is predicted to shrink, with increases in the thaw depth of most permafrost regions--which in itself will lead to an increase in greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, as methane gas trapped in permafrost is released during melting.

What else to read

The Union of Concerned Scientists Web site contains numerous resources for understanding the science and politics of global warming. For a summary of the union's findings of political interference with scientific findings on climate change, see "Atmosphere of Pressure: Political Interference in Federal Climate Science."

 

The report also finds it "very likely" that hot extremes and heat waves will become more frequent, disrupting agriculture around the globe. Subtropical regions already prone to drought may experience a further 20 percent drop in rainfall under the panel's "midrange" outlook for increases in greenhouse gases. And ocean ecosystems are likely to be threatened because seawater will become more acidic as oceans absorb billions of tons of carbon dioxide.

If current trends continue, by the middle of this century, the loss of Arctic sea ice will threaten species like polar bears and walruses--while in tropical regions entire ocean ecosystems will be threatened by changes in ocean temperature and acidity.

By 2080, the report warns, the Amazon rainforest will be threatened with collapse, and there will be a massive increase in hunger--with up to 5.5 billion people living in regions with large losses in crop production. As many as 600 million could starve, and another 3 billion will be at increased risk of water shortages.

And incredibly, some scientists believe that even this assessment is too optimistic--because it does not take into account some of the most recent studies showing an even more rapid rise in sea levels.

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"ANY NOTION that we do not know enough to move decisively against climate change has been clearly dispelled," Yvo de Boer, executive secretary of the UN's Framework Convention on Climate Change told reporters as the report was released. "The world urgently needs a new international agreement on stronger emissions caps for industrialized countries, incentives for developing countries to limit their emissions, and support for robust adaptation measures."

As Richard Alley, one of the lead IPCC study authors told the New York Times, "Policy makers paid us to do good science, and now we have very high scientific confidence in this work--this is real, this is real, this is real. So now act, the ball's back in your court."

But oil companies are still trying to cast doubt on the science of man-made climate change. According to a recent report, the American Enterprise Institute (AEI), a conservative "think tank," recently offered scientists and economists $10,000 each for articles that would attack the findings of the recent IPCC report.

"It's a desperate attempt by an organization that wants to distort science for their own political aims," David Viner of the Climatic Research Unit at the University of East Anglia, told Britain's Guardian. "The IPCC process is probably the most thorough and open review undertaken in any discipline. This undermines the confidence of the public in the scientific community and the ability of governments to take on sound scientific advice."

For its part, the AEI--which is funded in part with millions from giant oil companies like ExxonMobil--claims the jury is still out on whether or not global warming is a man-made phenomenon.

But as Ben Stewart of Greenpeace told the Guardian: "The AEI is more than just a think tank, it functions as the Bush administration's intellectual Cosa Nostra. They are White House surrogates in the last throes of their campaign of climate change denial. They lost on the science; they lost on the moral case for action. All they've got left is a suitcase full of cash."

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AS THE IPCC report was released, Bush administration officials told the media that the U.S. had played a "leading role" in studying and combating climate change--by investing in research and tax incentives for new technologies. But this has done next to nothing to curb current greenhouse gas emissions.

At the same time, Energy Secretary Samuel Bodman rejected the idea of unilateral limits on emissions. "We are a small contributor when you look at the rest of the world, so it's really got to be a global solution," he told reporters.

In reality, the U.S. is a huge part of the problem. Accounting for just 5 percent of the world's population, the U.S. contributes approximately a quarter of greenhouse gas emissions--more than any other country on the planet.

And successive U.S. administrations have put a variety of obstacles in the way of any "global solution," on the grounds that it might threaten U.S. business interests.

The Clinton administration, with "environmental" Vice President Al Gore at the helm, refused to send the Kyoto treaty on global warming--which contained extremely modest proposals to reduce increases in greenhouse gas emissions--to Congress to be ratified.

Later, the Bush administration withdrew from Kyoto entirely--claiming that the jury was still out on whether global warming was real--and allowed oil and energy giants like Enron a hand in directly crafting White House energy and environmental policy.

Prior to the release of the IPCC report, the Bush administration demanded that it be changed to emphasize the benefits of voluntary agreements rather than mandatory reductions in emissions.

The U.S.--along with the governments of China and India, developing nations whose greenhouse emissions are increasing at a fast pace--has also refused to sign on to a new international environmental body dedicated to curbing greenhouse emissions.

And late last month, a report from two watchdog groups, the Union of Concerned Scientists and the Government Accountability Project, revealed that the Bush administration has tried to muzzle scientists who raise concerns about global warming.

According to the report, based on interviews with scientists and documents obtained from the Freedom of Information Act, more than 120 scientists across seven federal agencies have been pressured to remove references to "climate change" and "global warming" from a range of documents, including press releases and communications with Congress. Approximately the same number say that Bush administration officials altered the meaning of scientific findings on climate contained in communications related to their research.

As Francesca Grifo, director of the scientific integrity program at the Union of Concerned Scientists, told the Christian Science Monitor, "It's time for the public to stand up and be angry, too. It's their knowledge, their scientists--just like Washington is their capital."

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