Union Tribune

February 10, 2003

Warming signs are everywhere
Americans ignoring the global warnings


MEDFORD, Mass. So it seems to you the autumns are growing warmer and the springs arrive earlier. That droughts stretch out longer and wildfires are more ferocious. You never saw anything like last winter's flood, and mosquitoes are carrying diseases you never dreamed would hit your own back yard.

Yet shame on you you still drive to the corner market and take steaming-hot showers.

Let us introduce you to the harbingers of global warming and to the Americans who are doing so little to prevent it.

That's what experts came to this New England town recently to discuss: How Earth's climate is heating up, how the warning signs are everywhere, and how Americans had better change their habits before droughts, floods, tornadoes, pestilence, water shortages and crop failures become a way of life.

"What you see is a sort of denial," said Ross Gelbspan, a former journalist and the author of "The Heat Is On," a book about the rapid pace of global warming. "It's not that people are saying it's not happening, but in the absence of a real clear solution, they can't totally let the bad news in because that leaves them feeling impotent."

Global warming refers to the theory that the planet's temperature is rising because of an increase in heat-trapping gases in the atmosphere, including carbon dioxide. By driving cars, using electricity and heating homes, people are adding large amounts of carbon dioxide to the atmosphere, which is trapping more heat than the Earth needs.

The result, according to the theory, is a change in atmospheric processes, which triggers a change in climate, which means a shift in weather patterns, which brings unexpected rain, dry spells and severe storms.

According to the Roper Center for Public Opinion Research, 69 percent of Americans say they understand global warming very well or fairly well. But 65 percent believe it poses no serious threat to them or their way of life.

That could be why few Americans are heeding calls to use less coal, oil and natural gas to stem global warming, said Peter Spotts, a Christian Science Monitor journalist who spoke last month at a Tufts University conference on global warming.

"We may think about saving for our retirement, or for our kids' education," Spotts said. "But when you start talking 50 to 100 years from now, there is a tendency to say, 'That's beyond my time horizon or my ability to do anything.' "

On average, each American is responsible for dumping about 22 tons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere each year twice as much as residents of Japan and Europe, whose living standards are similar. To stabilize the planet's climate, each person on Earth should produce only about 2 tons a year, according to the Greenhouse Network, a group trying to educate people on global warming.

It could be that Americans fail to take this threat seriously because they embrace what experts call common global-warming "myths." Among them:

We don't really know if the climate is changing.

Those in the oil and gas industries tend to disagree, but conference experts said there is overwhelming scientific support that the planet is warming and that we are largely responsible. In the Northern Hemisphere, nine of the hottest years ever recorded have occurred since 1990, and spring now arrives two weeks earlier in some regions than it did 20 years ago.

Even if the Earth is warming, that could help us because more carbon and higher temperatures will make plants thrive, lengthen growing seasons and lead to more comfortable weather.

Conference experts, however, tended to agree that the benefits of global warming will be overwhelmed by the costs. Changes in temperature, sea levels and rainfall patterns will mean less water for people in some regions, the loss of crops in others, increased flooding and drought, extended heat waves and more powerful hurricanes and tornadoes.

Warming also means pests can spread diseases over larger geographical regions. West Nile virus the once-exotic disease spread by mosquito bite has been blamed in the deaths of more than 200 people in the United States since 1999 and has been reported in 33 states, including California.

The warming effects are so gradual that people, plants and animals can easily adapt.

The Hadley Center, Britain's most prestigious think tank on climate change, concludes that global warming is happening 50 percent faster than believed. Though Earth's average temperature hasn't varied by more than 1.8 degrees in the past 10,000 years, it's predicted to warm by 2.5 to 10.4 degrees in this century alone.

There will be no serious consequences for hundreds or even thousands of years.

Hadley Center scientists worry that, in coming decades, global warming could redirect the ocean current that now warms the northern coasts of the United States and Europe. The result: A rapid deep freeze like that seen 11,000 years ago, and that took only four years to complete.

"New York, Boston, London, Brussels, it would be like a permanent winter, and the changes would happen so suddenly that it would be very difficult to adapt," Gelbspan said. "It's so scary that when I give talks, I don't even bring it up."

Your average person can't make a difference.

Even if President Bush last year backed the United States out of the Kyoto Protocol, the international agreement aimed at battling climate change by reducing carbon-dioxide emissions, the simplest measures can still help: driving less, turning off lights, insulating homes, using less hot water.

For example, one compact fluorescent bulb lasts as long as a dozen incandescent bulbs and prevents up to 2,000 pounds of carbon dioxide from heating the atmosphere.