Science

What Planetary Emergency?

Dispatch from day two of the International Conference on Climate Change in New York

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March 9, New York—Assume that man-made global warming exists. So what? That was the premise of a fascinating presentation by Indur Goklany during the second day of sessions at the International Conference on Climate Change. Goklany, who works in the Office of Policy Analysis of the U.S. Department of the Interior and is the author of The Improving State of the World: Why We're Living Longer, Healthier, More Comfortable Lives on a Cleaner Planet, made it clear that he was not speaking on behalf of the federal government.

Goklany's talk looked at three common claims: (1) Human and environmental well-being will be lower in a warmer world than it is today; (2) our descendants will be worse off than if we don't stop man-made global warming; and (3) man-made global warming is the most important problem in the world. Goklany assumed that the United Nations' Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change's (IPCC) consensus view on future temperature trends is valid. For his analysis, he used data from the fast track assessments of the socioeconomic impacts of global climate change sponsored by the British government, the Stern Review on the Economics of Climate Change, global mortality estimates from the World Health Organization (WHO), and cost estimates from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.

From the Stern Review, Goklany took the worst case scenario, where man-made global warming produces market and non-market losses equal to 35 percent of the benefits that are projected to exist in the absence of climate change by 2200. What did he find? Even assuming the worst emissions scenario, incomes for both developed and developing countries still rise spectacularly. In 1990, average incomes in developing countries stood around $1,000 per capita and at aroud $14,000 in developed countries. Assuming the worst means that average incomes in developing countries would rise in 2100 to $62,000 and in developed countries to $99,000. By 2200, average incomes would rise to $86,000 and $139,000 in developing and developed countries, respectively. In other words, the warmest world turns out to be the richest world.

Looking at WHO numbers, one finds that the percentage of deaths attributed to climate change now is 13th on the list of causes of mortality, standing at about 200,000 per year, or 0.3 percent of all deaths. High blood pressure is first on the list, accounting for 7 million (12 percent) of deaths; high cholesterol is second at 4.4 million; and hunger is third. Clearly, climate change is not the most important public health problem today. But what about the future? Again looking at just the worst case of warming, climate change would boost the number of deaths in 2085 by 237,000 above what they would otherwise be according to the fast track analyses. Many of the authors of the fast track analyses also co-authored the IPCC's socioeconomic impact assessments.

Various environmental indicators would also improve. For example, 11.6 percent of the world's land was used for growing crops in 1990. In the warmest world, agricultural productivity is projected to increase so much that the amount of land used for crops would drop to just 5 percent by 2100, leaving more land for nature. In other words, if these official projections are correct, man-made global warming is by no means the most important problem faced by humanity.

Next up on the impacts panel was Paul Reiter, head of the insects and infectious disease unit at the Institut Pasteur in Paris. Members of the global warming fraternity frequently worry that climate change will exacerbate the spread of tropical diseases like malaria. Reiter began his talk by pointing out that malaria was endemic in Yakutsk, the coldest city on earth, until 1959. In 1935, the Soviets claimed that malaria killed nearly 4,000 people in Yakutsk, a number that dropped to just 85 in 1959, the year that the disease was finally eradicated, in part by using the insecticide DDT.

Reiter then described a vast new research program that he is participating in, the Emerging Diseases in a Changing European eNvironment, or EDEN project. Sponsored by the European Union, the EDEN project is evaluating the potential impacts of future global warming on the spread of disease in Europe. The EDEN researchers have been assessing outbreaks of various diseases to see if they could discern any impact climate change may be having on their spread.

Reiter cited a recent analysis of the outbreak of tick-borne encephalitis in the early 1990s in many eastern European countries. The epidemic occurred shortly after the fall of communism, when many former Soviet bloc countries went into steep economic decline. After sifting through the data, it became apparent that the tough economic situation forced many eastern Europeans to spend more time in forests and farms trying to either find wild foods or grow more food on farms and in gardens. This meant that their exposure to deer ticks increased, resulting in more cases of encephalitis. Since the epidemic was coincident with the fall of the Soviet empire and the end of the Cold War, one of Reiter's colleagues quipped that it was caused by "political global warming." Reiter noted that 150 EDEN studies have been published so far and that "none of them support the notion that disease is increasing because of climate change."

Finally, Reiter pointed out that many of the claims that climate change will increase disease can be attributed to an incestuous network of just nine authors who write scientific reviews and cite each other's work. None are actual on-the-ground disease researchers and many of them write the IPCC disease analyses. "These are people who know absolutely bugger about dengue, malaria or anything else," said Reiter.

The final presenter of the panel was Stanley Goldenberg, a meteorologist with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's (NOAA) Hurricane Research Division in Miami, Florida. Again, he stressed that his views were his won, not that of any government agency. Goldenberg is particularly annoyed by former Vice President Al Gore's repeated claim that man-made global warming is making hurricanes more numerous and/or more powerful. For example, at the U.N. Climate Change Conference in Poznan, Poland in December, Gore flat out stated, "The warming ocean waters are also causing stronger typhoons and cyclones and hurricanes."

Goldenberg acknowledged that hurricanes have been more numerous in the North Atlantic in the last decade. But when one looks at the data from the 20th century two, factors stand out. First, the number of hurricanes has increased So have sea surface temperatures. QED: global warming causes more hurricanes, right? Not so fast, says Goldenberg. The perceived increase in the number of hurricanes is actually the result of observational biases. With the advent of satellites, scientists have become much better at finding and identifying hurricanes. In the first half of the 20th century, he pointed out, if a storm didn't come close to land, researchers would often miss it.

The second factor is that researchers have identified a multi-decadal pattern in the frequency of hurricanes in the North Atlantic. There was a very active period between 1870 and 1900, a slow-down between 1900 and 1925, another active period between 1926 and 1970, a period of fewer storms between 1970 and 1995, and the beginning of a new active period around 1995. According to Goldenberg, this new active period will probably last another 20 to 30 years. Goldenberg was a co-author of a 2001 study published in Science which concluded:

Tropical North Atlantic SST [sea surface temperature] has exhibited a warming trend of [about] ) 0.3°C over the last 100 years; whereas Atlantic hurricane activity has not exhibited trend-like variability, but rather distinct multidecadal cycles….The possibility exists that the unprecedented activity since 1995 is the result of a combination of the multidecadal-scale changes in the Atlantic SSTs (and vertical shear) along with the additional increase in SSTs resulting from the long-term warming trend. It is, however, equally possible that the current active period (1995-2000) only appears more active than the previous active period (1926-1970) due to the better observational network in place.

Since this study was published, much more data on hurricane trends has been collected and analyzed. "Not a single scientist at the hurricane center believes that global warming has had any measurable impact on hurricane numbers and strength," concluded Goldenberg. He also suggested that some proponents of the idea that global warming is exacerbating tropical storms have backed off lately. Clearly the former vice president hasn't gotten the news yet.

Yesterday, Bailey walked among the climate change skeptics and reported on talks given by Czech Republic and European Union president Vaclav Klaus and MIT climatologist Bruce Lindzen. Read about it here.

Tomorrow: The last day of the International Conference on Climate Change will feature presentations on the Pacific Decadal Oscillation's effect on global temperature trends, the economic impacts of carbon rationing, and how policymakers deal with scientific information.

Ronald Bailey is Reason magazine's science correspondent. His book Liberation Biology: The Scientific and Moral Case for the Biotech Revolution is now available from Prometheus Books.

Bonus video from the conference: Rep. Tom McClintock (R-Calif.) on the contradictions inherent in much of green policy: