|Science & Environmental Health Network|
Science, Ethics and Action in the Public Interest
Guest Viewpoint - Climate change: Keep focused on the big picture|
By Joshua Skov
The Register-Guard, Eugene OR – November 2, 2004
The recent hurricane season is related to climate change and global warming. Unfortunately, our news media are not sharing this complex connection with us, even as disaster strikes dramatically in Florida, the Caribbean and elsewhere.
As a remedy, I offer three simple themes to accompany people's future reading about hurricanes: First, human actions are related to rising temperatures. Second, global warming is really about a changing climate. And last, despite uncertainty, we know enough to act as a society to head off the dangerous disruption, and there are good examples of how we've done so in response to similarly grave challenges.
Don't get me wrong: We don't know everything about global warming and climate change. Scientists will always be working out the details. Indeed, perhaps it is the mammoth uncertainty that should scare us most.
But uncertainty is not the same as lack of causality. Causality is well established. In fact, there is broad scientific consensus that climate change is happening, and that human-caused emissions of carbon dioxide (mainly from the use of fossil fuels) and other heat-trapping "greenhouse gases" are a component of rising temperatures.
This warming is the main character, but it isn't the entire plot. The real story is the change of climate resulting from rising temperatures; hence, the increasingly frequent use of the phrase ``climate change'' instead of ``global warming,'' which seems to imply a benign trend.
These changes are not for the better: Melting polar ice caps probably will contribute to sea level change. The drought in the semiarid West is one of the most extreme on record. The temperature rise in the North Sea has set in motion a chain of events by devastating plankton populations, reducing certain fish species and starving the birds who live on the fish. And of course, violent weather events - such as the hurricanes, tropical storms and flooding we've seen this year - are on the rise.
Uncertainty is no reason for inaction. If you don't believe me or the scientists, look at world's giant reinsurance companies, which insure the world's insurance companies and suffer from such trends. Natural disasters have hit insurance companies hard - we have experienced more than $1 trillion in weather-related losses since 1990, a dramatic increase over the recent past.
Swiss Re, the world's largest reinsurer, created a Greenhouse Gas Risk Reduction Unit and gave it authority to initiate fundamental change inside the company. Swiss Re also regularly convenes action-oriented conferences among the world's largest companies, regulators from many countries and environmental advocacy groups. Many other companies and organizations are taking action to reduce their contributions to climate change.
Can you link any particular pack of cigarettes to a particular case of lung cancer? Never. Can you link a particular application of pesticides to a particular birth defect? Never. But we have taken strong policy actions with broad, well-established health and economic benefits because we see the bigger picture. We have restricted the sale of cigarettes and banned certain pesticides. We know enough to know that we're better off because of these actions.
So here we have three themes to carry with us whenever we read about hurricanes, droughts, erratic rainfall and other ecological shifts that bring major economic and social consequences: The planet is warming; the warming is leading to disruptive changes; and we know enough now to take action to reduce our impacts.
When the likely consequences of climate change make the headlines, we have a collective responsibility to point out the connection. Our news sources, in particular, have a responsibility to help us link important trends to our everyday lives. So when you see the next hurricane report, treat yourself (and anyone within earshot) to the bigger picture: our actions, a warming planet, a changing climate, consequences for all of us.
Joshua Skov, an economist, is research director and a principal of Good Company (www.goodcompany.com), a sustainability research and consulting firm based in Eugene. He recently served on the Eugene Water & Electric Board's citizen committee to review its Integrated Electric Resource Plan.
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