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Tuesday, August 10, 2004

As the World Burns 

Via Zemblan patriot T.C.: George Monbiot of the Guardian argues that "ours are the most fortunate generations that have ever lived. They are also the most fortunate generations that ever will":
Three wholly unexpected sets of findings now suggest that the problem [of climate change] could be much graver than anyone had imagined. Work by the Nobel laureate Paul Crutzen suggests that the screening effect produced by particles of soot and smoke in the atmosphere is stronger than climatologists thought; one variety of man-made filth, in other words, has been protecting us from the effects of another. As ancient smokestacks are closed down or replaced with cleaner technology, climate change, paradoxically, will intensify.

At the same time, rising levels of carbon dioxide appear to be breaking down the world's peat bogs. Research by Chris Freeman at the University of Bangor shows that the gas stimulates bacteria which dissolve the peat. Peat bogs are more or less solid carbon. When they go into solution the carbon turns into carbon dioxide, which in turn dissolves more peat. The bogs of Europe, Siberia and North America, New Scientist reports, contain the equivalent of 70 years of global industrial carbon emissions.

Worse still are the possible effects of changes in cloud cover. Until recently, climatologists assumed that, because higher temperatures would raise the rate of evaporation, more clouds would form. By blocking some of the heat from the sun, they would reduce the rate of global warming. But now it seems that higher temperatures may instead burn off the clouds. Research by Bruce Wielicki of Nasa suggests that some parts of the tropics are already less cloudy than they were in the 1980s.

The result of all this is that the maximum temperature rise proposed by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change in 2001 may be a grave underestimate. Rather than a possible 5.8 degrees of warming this century, we could be looking at a maximum of 10 or 12. Goodbye, kind world . . . .

Writing in the Times in May, [Danish statistician Bjorn Lomborg, author of The Skeptical Environmentalist] claimed to have calculated that global warming will cause $5 trillion of damage, and would cost $4 trillion to ameliorate. The money, he insisted, would be better spent elsewhere.

The idea that we can attach a single, meaningful figure to the costs incurred by global warming is laughable. Climate change is a non-linear process, whose likely impacts cannot be totted up like the expenses for a works outing to the seaside. Even those outcomes we can predict are impossible to cost. We now know, for example, that the Himalayan glaciers which feed the Ganges, the Brahmaputra, the Mekong, the Yangtze and the other great Asian rivers are likely to disappear within 40 years. If these rivers dry up during the irrigation season, then the rice production which currently feeds over one third of humanity collapses, and the world goes into net food deficit. If Lomborg believes he can put a price on that, he has plainly spent too much of his life with his calculator and not enough with human beings.

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