The Future of Global Warming

Temperatures will rise by several degrees Fahrenheit by 2100 and sea levels will rise by enough to inundate many low-lying areas around the world: islands in the western Pacific Ocean, marsh areas near New Orleans, and large parts of Bangladesh, for example. But representatives of governments who were allowed to review the summary suppressed some of the most alarming aspects.

Now the IPCC has released a second report, and similar events have followed. Representatives of governments have tried to suppress some of the content. And scientists have protested vigorously

This second report focuses on the consequences to human beings of climate change. Perhaps the most striking change will be shifts in precipitation, with increasing dryness at low latitudes such as the US Southwest and Northern Mexico, northern Brazil; and throughout the Mediterranean, and increasing wetness at high latitudes, such as northern North America and northern Eurasia. Africa will suffer the most, with up to a quarter of a billion people running short of water by 2020 and yields from rain-fed crops falling by half in many countries.

As glaciers continue to melt in places such as the Andes and the Himalayas, flooding will increase at first, but as glaciers recede water supplies will decrease. Sea-level rise from melting glaciers and ice sheets will flood low-lying coastal areas, threatening tens of millions of people living on the megadeltas of Africa and Asia, such as the Nile and Brahmaputra. Extreme heat waves will become more frequent and more deadly. (The European heat wave of 2003 killed 20,000 but the more intense heat wave in India that year certainly killed even more.)

On this matter of past and future casualties the World Health Organization estimated that in 2000, for example, about 154,000 deaths around the world could be attributed to disease outbreaks and other conditions sparked by climate change. In the future, as in the past, "It’s the poorest of the poor in the world, and this includes poor people even in prosperous societies, who are going to be worst hit," stresses the chairman of the IPCC

Despite the report’s harsh vision of the planet’s future, some scientists quickly criticized it claiming that its conclusions were watered down by governments seeking to avoid taking action. "The science got hijacked by the political bureaucrats at the late stage of the game," John Walsh, a climate expert at the University of Alaska Fairbanks told the Los Angeles Times. Walsh helped write a chapter on the polar regions.

Several scientists vowed afterward that they would never participate in the process again because of the interference. "Once is enough," said Walsh, who was not present at the session in Brussels that brought in representatives of 120 governments, but he was kept aware of changes being made by emails from colleagues. "I was receiving hourly reports that grew increasingly frustrated," he told Times reporters.

The countries most active in trying to suppress the scientific conclusions in the summary come as no surprise. According to a report in Science attendees mentioned China and Saudi Arabia most often as insisting on substantial changes, while other accounts also mention Russia and the US.

Although China hasn’t contributed a great deal to the greenhouse-gas load already in the atmosphere it will become the largest contributor to carbon dioxide emissions in the near future. The US is presently the leading emitter of carbon dioxide and has been a major contributor to the greenhouse gases presently in the atmosphere. Saudi Arabia has the world’s largest known petroleum reserves and is the world’s largest exporter of petroleum. (Of seven delegates representing Saudi Arabia at the negotiations, four were dispatched by the Ministry of Petroleum.) As for Russia, its greenhouse gas emissions crashed after the collapse of the Soviet Union but have risen sharply in recent years.

As the conflict between scientists and governments was still smoldering, the IPCC released a third report which lays out a timetable for reducing emission of greenhouse gases, ways to achieve the reductions, and the financial costs. What was hailed by some analysts as the good news in this report is that governments, by acting rapidly and decisively, could stabilize global temperature at about 2.8 degrees C above pre-industrial levels with a relatively small degrease in gross domestic product. But even if governments follow this plan, and the model on which it’s based holds up, a 2.8 degree rise could condemn hundreds of millions of people to severe water shortages and leave millions vulnerable to coastal flooding.

Worse yet, given the response of some governments – among them major emitters of greenhouse gases – to the two previous IPCC reports, it’s unlikely that they’ll react with the required intensity and speed to the recommendations of the third. Accepting an immediate blow to the economy to head off a future environmental problem is a hard sell. As a specific example, from the beginning of his presidency George W. Bush has insisted that he will not take serious steps to reduce greenhouse gas emissions because it would "harm the US economy."

The third IPCC report lays itself wide open to this argument, by accepting reductions in GDP as the penalty for reducing emissions. But defining the issue this way stacks deck against lowering emissions. The bias is removed by examining the hidden assumptions in the prevailing economic model, which fails to include social costs and many others. When the cost-analysis is done honestly, a completely different picture emerges. A growing number of investigations of health effects of fossil fuel use, for example, show that those costs are enormous, and are imposed not in the future, but right now. I did a lengthy analysis of the total costs, which appears in Toward Freedom, Fall 2002. Because of limited space here, I’ll give only two striking examples.

In an early, groundbreaking investigation published in 2001 an international team of respected health scientists reviewed more than 1000 studies and concluded that patterns of "fossil fuel use. . . . are already sickening or killing millions throughout the world" in both developed and developing countries. Global air pollution, for example, causes nearly 700,000 avoidable deaths annually, as well as much larger numbers of acute and chronic illnesses and millions of person-days of reduced activity and work loss.

A second large study followed some 500,000 adults in more than 100 cities across the US for 16 years. These investigators found that combustion-generated fine particles from cars, trucks, and coal-fired power plants and factories increased the risk of dying from lung cancer, heart attack, and respiratory failure. The death rate increases in proportion to the density of the particles.

When the total cost of fossil fuel use is weighed, a remarkable conclusion is possible: even without considering global warming, there is a strong case for sharply reducing fossil fuel combustion. Had this been done as analysts became aware of the costs, both the population and the planet would be a lot healthier.