In Search of Climate Problems

by | Apr 28, 2003

Ross Gelbspan celebrated Earth Day 2003 with publication of his op-ed in the Boston Globe wherein he opines about the damage global warming will inflict upon earth’s ecosystems. True to form, he proposes fixes that will at the same time cure any number of global problems, not only climate change but Third World poverty, threats […]

Ross Gelbspan celebrated Earth Day 2003 with publication of his op-ed in the Boston Globe wherein he opines about the damage global warming will inflict upon earth’s ecosystems. True to form, he proposes fixes that will at the same time cure any number of global problems, not only climate change but Third World poverty, threats to public health, and joblessness. Climate change long has been the keystone locking in place Gelbspan’s belief structure. Therefore, it comes as no surprise that the policies he prescribes include carbon taxes, travel taxes, proliferating wind farms, more solar “assemblies,” and beefing up the Kyoto process. But there’s a fundamental flaw in this — there is no over-arching problem.

Gelbspan proclaims, “Many of the new and recurring epidemics are fueled by a warming atmosphere, which is accelerating the disappearance of species, spawning weather extremes, and driving shifts in biological systems. Intensifying climate change portends increased mortality from heat, especially in urban areas, more disease from increasing insect populations, destruction of food crops from extreme weather events and pests, and the increasing scarcity of drinking water.” While there is no scientific support for such a statement, there is research that provides different perspectives on several of Gelbspan’s environmental crises.

Let’s begin with his assertion that many of the new and recurring epidemics are fueled by a warming atmosphere and his reference to more disease from increasing insect populations.

This appears to be a not-so-subtle way of suggesting to credulous readers that malaria, SARS, and West Nile virus are related to global warming. As we’ve pointed out time after time, malaria was endemic throughout most of the United States and east of the Rocky Mountains in the late nineteenth century. At that time the average temperature in North America was about a degree or so cooler than it is today.

In 1878, about 100,000 Americans were infected with malaria. About a quarter of them died. By the 1950s, malaria was eradicated in the United States even though the climate by then was warmer than it was in the 1880s. The key to malaria’s eradication was technology. Air-conditioning, use of screened doors and windows, and the thinning of urban population into suburbs using automobiles to commute to work in urban centers largely were responsible for malaria’s decline (Reiter, 1996).

What of West Nile virus? Since its introduction in metropolitan New York City in the summer of 1999, West Nile rapidly has spread throughout most of the United States. Projections for this year are that it will advance into Canada. This is not a sign that the U.S. and Canada are progressively warming. Rather, the vector for West Nile is mosquitoes; wherever there is a suitable host mosquito population, an outpost for West Nile virus can be established. Changes in North America’s climate are not to blame because our climate measurably is no different in 2003 than it was in the 1990s when West Nile found its way to our shores. Therein lies the key; West Nile virus was introduced into an environment favorable to its spread. There was no West Nile virus in North America until it was introduced to an already resident mosquito population.

Similarly for every disease Gelbspan seems to suggest will worsen because of global warming, there is a wealth of data highlighting the fact that climate plays a tiny role in the cycle of disease. Climate’s role is so tiny and ill-defined that applied technology (improved sanitation, hygiene, infrastructure, and even lowly window screens) proves to be a far better way to control vector-borne diseases than attempting to “do something” about the climate (Reiter, 2001).

More egregious is Gelbspan’s claim concerning heat-induced human mortality. “Intensifying climate change portends increased mortality from heat, especially in urban areas,” he writes. That he dare make such a statement serves only to demonstrate an embarrassing failure on his part to keep up with current scientific literature. Two papers published within the last six months demonstrate how sensitivity to extremely hot weather by populations in several major U.S. cities has been declining for at least the three or four decades (Davis et al., 2002; 2003).

Urban populations are becoming increasingly immune to the impacts of heat waves and other high temperature events. Increased use of air-conditioning, medical advances, and enhanced community awareness are primary reasons why. Specifically, this peer-reviewed research concludes that the “finding of a more muted mortality response of the U.S. populace to high [temperature] values over time raises doubts about the validity of projections of future U.S. mortality increases linked to potential greenhouse warming.” (Davis et al., 2003).

Gelbspan also is aware of (and is dismissive of) thousands of studies that describe the benefits to plants — especially food crops — from an increasing atmospheric concentration of carbon dioxide. He prefers to assert that enhanced CO2 will lead to “destruction of food crops from extreme weather events and pests.” There is scant science to support such a claim.

One is also forced to wonder, if precipitation has been increasing over the United States during the past hundred years (and it has), where there is support for his claim for an “increasing scarcity of drinking water” due to changes in climate. Other public policy issues such upstream diversions, groundwater pumping for irrigation, superceding riparian claims, and State’s rights clearly have something more to do with water scarcity than does a changing climate.

It seems to us that Gelbspan catalogue of climate problems only seems to stop when he stops listing them or his editors decide they’ve allocated sufficient space to them, even for an Earth Day.

References


Davie, R.E. et al., 2002. Decadal changes in heat-related human mortality in the eastern United States. Climate Research, 22:175-184.

Davis R.E. et al., 2003. Decadal changes in summer mortality in U. S. cities. International Journal of Biometeorology, DOI 10.1007/s00484-003-0160-8.

Reiter, P., 1996. Global warming and mosquito-borne disease in USA, The Lancet, 348:662.

Reiter, P. (2001). Climate change and mosquito-borne disease, Environmental Health Perspectives, 109:141–161.

The Greening Earth Society responds to news coverage of climate-change advocacy that seeks to portray weather events and hypothetical climate scenarios generated by computer-based climate models as "climate reality."

The views expressed above represent those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of the editors and publishers of Capitalism Magazine. Capitalism Magazine sometimes publishes articles we disagree with because we think the article provides information, or a contrasting point of view, that may be of value to our readers.

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