Our Feverish World
Hurricane Floyd sent millions scurrying from their homes in south Florida, but damage from Floyd's 110 mph winds was child's play compared to the wrath of Hurricane Mitch in 1997. More than 11,000 people died when Mitch slammed into Central America.Hundreds of thousands lost their homes, hospitals, schools, farms and access to clean water in Nicaragua, Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala. Yet just a few hundred miles north, most Americans barely knew there was a tragedy south of the border.Yet tragedy has come whirling home to America, with five hurricanes in the past three years spinning out of Hurricane Alley on the Atlantic coast. And scientists claim that rising temperatures in the Atlantic Ocean will incubate more storms in the years ahead. Storms which are more powerful and destructive.Yet there's not a thing to worry about, according to conservative pundits and the spokesmen of the energy and automobile companies which create the greenhouse gases that are warming our world. From their side of the fence, our feverish world is simply a fluke that's been repeated many times throughout history.HEAT WAVE "The strongest hurricanes in the present climate may be upstaged by even more intense hurricanes over the next century as the earth's climate is warmed by increasing levels of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere," claims a study by the NOAA (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration).Global warming has been blamed for everything from this summer's two-foot drop in Great Lake water levels to the mile-wide tornado which killed 50 people in Kansas two years ago. Something big is going on: 1995 was the hottest year in Mother Earth's history. And since 1981, the world has endured nine of the hottest years in the past century -- five have been the hottest since the 1500's.Globally, the earth's average temperature has risen only one degree over the past century. This modest increase has divided scientists on whether to sound the alarm on global warming, and the "greenhouse effect" caused by the 7 billion tons of carbon dioxide which the human race pumps into the atmosphere each year.SCIENCE SPEAKSIn 1995, a panel of 300 scientists issued a 2,000-page United Nations report claiming that human activities are at the root of global warming. The International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) recommended that governments cut the use of fossil fuels such as coal, natural gas and oil, by more than 50 percent to avoid disasters of biblical proportions.Those problems might include the disappearance of many islands and coastal cities as sea levels rise from melting polar ice caps.The IPCC claims that sea levels will rise by at least one foot in the next 50 years. If the oceans rise as much as three feet, as some scientists predict, much of southern Florida and Bangladesh will be submerged, along with many coastal cities such as Los Angeles and New York.Warmer oceans, in turn, will contribute to even more melting of the ice caps, flooding coastal areas for centuries. More than 160 nations have voiced concerns to the U.N. over rising sea levels and the threat of inundation. And 29 island nations, such as Tonga and Tarawa in the southern Pacific, have appealed for an immediate 20 percent worldwide cut in fossil fuel emissions to avoid being washed out of existence.BUG CITYOther problems relate to insects and disease. The IPCC report claims that mosquito and disease-carrying insects are on the rise around the world due to warming trends. Up to one million people could die each year from malaria alone in the next century.For agriculture, global warming is a mixed blessing. Rising temperatures have brought rains of up to 100 inches to the deserts of South Africa and South America. Yet Oklahoma and Texas have suffered their biggest droughts in 100 years. Droughts also threaten the rain forests of Central America.Speaking of droughts, high temperatures and a lack of condensation also resulted in water levels falling by as much as 27 inches in the Great Lakes this year.WET & WILDDespite the droughts, ours is a rainier world than it used to be. According to the National Climatic Data Center, there are an average of six more rainy days in the U.S. each year than there were prior to 1970. For many scientists, our wetter, warmer world is a verification of the greenhouse effect.The greenhouse effect has been part of the earth's atmosphere for more than a billion years. Natural gases in the earth' s atmosphere, such as carbon dioxide, nitrous oxide, ozone, methane and water vapor, trap the reflected heat energy of the sun. This 12-mile deep blanket of gases creates a natural greenhouse that keeps the earth at an average of 60 degrees -- a pleasant environment for sustaining life.That environment has been jeopardized by the addition of billions of tons of carbon dioxide pumped into the atmosphere by everything from automobiles to gas furnaces and coal powered electric plants. There has been a 30 percent increase in carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere over the past century, according to the IPCC.SCIENCE VS. VESTED INTERESTYet the unusual weather of the past 10 years "has nothing to do with global warming," claims David A. Ridenour, writing in a Dec. 1998 article for the Conservative News Service. Ridenour and other conservative pundits claim that earth's weird weather is an anomaly which has recurred for millions of years."Global warming theory advocates have argued that this year's heat waves were the result of global warming, as though the U.S. had never experienced hot weather before," he states. "This year's hot weather didn't even set records. North America's record high was reached on July 10, 1913, when Death Valley hit a sweltering 134 F. None of the other seven continents broke records either. Africa hit its record high in 1922, Asia in 1942, Australia in 1889, Europe in1881, South America in 1905, Oceania in 1912 and Antarctica in 1974. So much for 'record' temperatures being linked to global warming."Ridenour also notes that there have been more devastating storms than Hurricane Mitch."Proponents of the global warming theory have also erroneously assumed that the high death toll from Hurricane Mitch is evidence that human activities are warming the planet beyond acceptable levels," he writes. "To drive this point home, NOAA scientists recently announced that Mitch was the deadliest hurricane in the Atlantic basin since 1780, when a hurricane that struck Martinique, St. Eustatius and Barbados killed 22,000 people. But even if this were the case, setting a 218-year hurricane fatality record is hardly evidence that global warming is underway. For one thing, the 1780 Caribbean hurricane occurred during the Little Ice Age, when the planet was close to 1 F cooler than it is today. Since twice as many people lost their lives to that hurricane as lost their lives to Mitch, hurricane fatalities seem to be a poor measure of the planet's temperature."THE COMING BATTLEOn the other side of the ideological fence, progressives see warming as a serious threat and a campaign issue. In September, Vice President Al Gore raised a flap on conservative talk shows after speaking to a class of fifth-graders on the perils of global warming. It's a pet topic for Gore, who wrote the cautionary book "Earth in the Balance" on the subject. Rush Limbaugh was so incensed by the incident that he called the children "young mush skulls" on his radio show.Yet as evidence piles up, energy companies have been put on the defensive. Public relations campaigns are underway to put a positive spin on the warming trend. Often these campaigns rely on the research of scientists funded by the energy companies themselves.In 1991, for instance, the Western Fuels Association (WFA) produced a video called "The Greening of Planet Earth," which claims that the excess carbon dioxide in the atmosphere will fertilize plant life around the world (plants consume carbon dioxide for energy). This theory goes that the earth will become a lush paradise, thanks to beneficial pollution.Given the fact that the WFA provides 20 million tons of coal each year to electric utilities, however, its "Greening of Planet Earth" video hardly seems objective.Some energy corporations also raise the specter of economic catastrophe if the world cuts back on fossil fuels. A 20 percent-cut in fossil fuel emissions "would bring on a full-scale economic depression," claims William O'Keefe, vice president of the American Petroleum Institute.LITTLE ACTIONFor the short term, the coal, oil, electric and automobile industries seem to have little to fear, due to government inaction.Seven years ago, 160 countries pledged to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions to the levels of 1990 by the year 2000. Yet the United States, which is the world's biggest atmospheric polluter, has actually increased its greenhouse gas emissions, and modest proposals for cutbacks have stalled in Congress.World-wide, greenhouse gases have risen from 5.3 billion tons in 1985 to more than 7 billion tons in 1999. Of that amount, the U.S. burns an average of five tons per year for every person in the country.To ward off climate disasters of biblical proportions, the IPCC estimates that the world will have to cut its gas emissions by as much as 60 percent in the coming decades. Unfortunately, action against global warming may come too little, too late. Many gases, such as carbon dioxide, have lifespans of up to lOO years. Environmentalists claim the greenhouse effect will take decades to control, even with immediate decreases in emissions.And while countries such as the U.S. may eventually switch to solar and alternative technologies, the world will still be plagued by emissions from underdeveloped nations such as China, Brazil, India, Mexico and the Philippines, which have taken on manufacturing while adding millions to their populations.THE BRIGHT SIDEAwareness of the problem is the first step to its solution, and with more hurricanes and droughts predicted, Americans may not need much environmental preaching to get the message."Climate of Hope," written by Christopher Flavin of Worldwatch Institute, claims that once the problem of global warming is widely acknowledged, corporations around the world will rush to embrace energy-saving and solar technologies to reap the profits of refitting the world.More importantly, perhaps, putting an end to global warming means taking individual action -- walking to work, bicycling, buying an energy-efficient car or furnace. With 6 billion people riding our fragile earth through the hostile reaches of space, every little gesture adds up to lifesaving consequences.