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Edition 12

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Essay

Beyond greed

IS THIS WHOLE global warming scenario real or, as some newspaper columnists like to suggest, a massive conspiracy by self-serving scientists and self-appointed environmentalists who are trying to maximise their own resources, influence and power? Interestingly, we are starting to see both prominent political figures of the "right", and even some of the international energy companies, moving to the "left" of the more reactionary media on this issue. Maybe some of those organisations have the recent legal histories of the tobacco and asbestos industries in mind. Maybe they are also realising that they must diversify and adapt if they are to survive in the long term. After all, there can't be an infinite future in marketing a dwindling, natural resource. Other energy companies, though, are in denial and do their best to frustrate debate.

At least for the politicians, my guess is that they are reacting to a real shift in public perceptions of global warming. The Federal Environment Minister, Senator Ian Campbell, is an appealing personality who certainly "talks the talk", but we shall see in the longer term whether the emphasis of the administration he represents on voluntary controls will prove an effective way to "walk the walk".

Any newspaper editor will tell you: bad news sells. My sense is that many, if not most, of us are buying into the idea that global warming is real. Television presents us with an endless catalogue of disasters: the frogs are dying, the bushfires getting worse, reports of the hottest day on record.

The problem is not so much to convince people that we have a problem as to work out how to do something about it. Living in Memphis, Tennessee, I had to have my car exhaust checked annually at a municipal testing station. If your car doesn't pass, then it costs money to make it comply. Also in Memphis, the double-hung windows of our 1903 house were made more energy-efficient by the addition of external, triple-track storm windows fitted by the previous owner as part of a government-supported initiative. The triple glass/flyscreen windows represent a simple, relatively cheap and effective "bolt on" technology available in all big United States hardware stores, but I can't find them in Australia.

We could do a lot to conserve energy in the way we build and utilise our living spaces but, because it costs money, it will take a carrot-or-stick approach to make most of us react. Every individual has a part to play. We need to focus as much on "me" as "them and they" when it comes to climate change.

 

A LITTLE HISTORY: beginning less than 300 years ago with the Industrial Revolution, we have been releasing the stored energy of forests that compacted over millions of years with ever-increasing speed. The Earth itself is billions of years old, the adaptive immune system that I study first emerged in the bony fishes about 350 million years ago, humans (Homo sapiens) have been around for 100,000 to (at most) 200,000 years, we have had mining and agriculture for less than 10,000 years and cars for about a century.

The "prosperity" in terms of access to consumer durables, international travel and so forth that most middle-class Australians and Americans now enjoy certainly wasn't the reality for other than a very small minority only fifty years ago. There is nothing immutable about our current lifestyle, and no divine right that it can or should continue. Even so-called "conservative" politicians, though, can run enormous risks if they try to introduce just the smallest element of a reality check. Look at what the 1980 oil crunch did to US President Jimmy Carter who, as a born-again Christian from the American South, is hardly a radical.

President George W. Bush tried to make the point in his 2006 State of the Union address that it's past time for the US to kick its dependence on Middle East oil. Many of us had hoped to hear that from him immediately after September 11, 2001, but better late than never. His statement went down like a lead balloon. Conspicuous, mindless consumption of this nonrenewable resource is broadly seen as an entitlement. The possibility that the couple of thousand American boys and girls from towns in rural "middle" America, the south and the Hispanic communities of the big cities who have died (many more have been maimed) in Iraq might in some way be connected to patterns of domestic oil consumption doesn't seem to have crossed into the wider US national consciousness.

The lesson is that, no matter how pervasive the global-warming argument, no matter how good the evidence, the only thing that will persuade many human beings to moderate their behaviour is to make environmentally damaging practices either expensive or illegal.

 

I'M NOT AN authority on climate change and, though I'm a working experimental biologist, this is too complex an area for me to claim any authoritative position. My professional obsession is with understanding, and hopefully enhancing, immunity to the influenza A viruses. This has assumed much greater significance as we sit and watch the extremely dangerous H5N1 bird 'flu spreading throughout the world.

Of course, if the H5N1 viruses do jump the species barrier and kill off thirty to fifty per cent of the human population it would, at least for a time, diminish the population pressure that most consider a primary driver of global warming. The number of people on the planet has increased at least fourfold over the past hundred years, sixfold from the beginning of the Industrial Revolution.

Clearly, this rate of population growth, and perhaps the current global population size itself, is unsustainable. That reality still seems to escape some religious leaders, who continue to urge their followers to out-breed the competition. Fortunately, many of the faithful either have more sense, or are too financially constrained, to follow their directions. Some economists also seem to be in total denial about the possibility that human numbers cannot continue to grow exponentially.

As we apply the new genomic sciences to the study of human evolution, we are finding hints in our DNA history of genetic "bottlenecks" where the numbers of people were remarkably reduced. The "culling factor" may well have been infectious disease. Mortality rates of thirty to fifty per cent were recorded routinely in the plague that raged repeatedly through European communities in the middle ages. Currently, about three million people (the population of Melbourne) are dying annually of AIDS, but the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) transmits at a relatively low rate and the effect on global population size is, so far, not very big.

People like me are dedicated to seeing that modern communities don't experience anything like the catastrophe of the medieval plague years. The effectiveness of the global response to the 2002-03 SARS epidemic is proof of this. Political systems, scientific expertise, business and regulatory authorities came together to protect the human community.

One might take the very harsh view that preserving human populations is counter-productive for the health of the planet, but it is only by assuring people in (particularly) the developing world that their children will survive that we can expect them to reduce family sizes. Stability, progress and good health go hand in hand.

 

THE FACT THAT warning bells about the dangers of global warning are being sounded loudly by all the national academies of science should cause us to think that we may be facing a substantial problem. The academy memberships are comprised largely of prominent, established scientists elected on the basis of achievement. As a consequence, they tend to be conservative, and try very hard to be responsible, to work effectively with their respective national governments and to be seen as the reservoir of informed scientific opinion. The most prestigious is probably the US National Academy of Sciences (NAS), which was established by President Abraham Lincoln exactly for those purposes.

The much older (1660) British national academy, the Royal Society (RS) of London, provides the model for the Australian Academy of Science (AAS), the organisation based around the igloo dome on the edge of the Australian National University campus in Canberra. The NAS, the RS and the AAS have all contributed, with other prestigious academies like the sciences section of the Académie Française, to issue joint reports on global climate change. In addition, each of these organisations has groups working continually on specific aspects of the problem. You can access much of this via Google, and the printed versions of their various reports are available for purchase or in good libraries. Most are readable, and don't require that you be a scientist to understand what is being said.

Beyond that, what is worth reading on this issue? There are some very committed Australian scientist communicators who focus on environmental issues, particularly Ian Lowe and Tim Flannery. Jared Diamond'sCollapse (Viking, 2005) is, along with his Guns, Germs and Steel (Norton, 1997), a must-read for anyone who cares about the big themes of how human societies are shaped by, and shape, their environments.

Over the past three years, I've seen some good, in-depth, well-researched investigative articles on the environment, and other "off the top of the head" opinion pieces that both plumb the depths of intellectual dishonesty and show a profound, and arguably deliberate, ignorance of how science works and the nature of the world around us.

Television does a great job when it comes to conveying the acute reality of natural disasters and environmental catastrophes. But, in fact, some of the more spectacular horrors, like the Boxing Day tsunami, have nothing to do with either global warming or, as some of the more despicable clerics claimed, God's wrath, though they may be described as "acts of God" by the insurance industry. The fact is, tectonic plates moved, threw up a mountain under the ocean and caused a tidal wave.

It still isn't clear to me that global warming was a major player in the devastation of New Orleans by Hurricane Katrina. The incidence of the severe storms and hurricanes that can result when a low-pressure system comes in contact with a warmed ocean has been increasing dramatically in Florida and the Gulf of Mexico over the past decade or so. The next few years will no doubt tell us whether this is part of a continuing trend or just a consequence of some sort of climate blip that happens from time to time. A factor in evaluating this will be the development of ever more sophisticated computer hardware and software for environmental monitoring and prediction. The better and more comprehensive the data sets, the faster we can crunch the numbers, the more sophisticated our understanding and our capacity to deal both practically and intellectually with these very complex issues will become.

My bet is that much of the pressure to enhance these types of analytical tools will come from the insurance companies that stand to lose so much in many global-warming scenarios. By steadily increasing premiums, the insurance industry may also prove to be well ahead of both the political and the scientific communities when it comes to changing public behaviour that impacts on, and reacts to, global warming. That may already be happening in Florida.

Science is all about measurement, and numbers matter a great deal. What numbers should we look for?

The fact that atmospheric carbon dioxide levels have been rising rapidly since we started burning large quantities of fossil fuels at the beginning of the Industrial Revolution seems incontrovertible. Much of the "back-information" has come from the measurement of gas levels in, for example, air bubbles trapped in ice formations. Everyone is aware of this, and we should expect to continue seeing such numbers published.

The evidence that mean global water and air temperatures are increasing also seems valid, but this can be a very confusing area, even for the experts. My naïve perception is that cloud effects can cause confounding, and unpredicted, consequences. As the warming of the deep ocean proceeds, the "tractor" of the Gulf Stream that makes life more temperate for much of Britain and north-western Europe may stop, leading to a transient "ice age" in those areas.

A key factor to monitor for the oceans is evidence of species loss, particularly corals that are likely to bleach and die if mean water temperatures rise more than two degrees. We can expect that Australia's marine biologists will be watching this very closely.

The other parameter that affects the health of the oceans is acidity. Ocean acidity gives an objective measurement that is directly related to atmospheric carbon dioxide levels and thus human activity, which is why people who argue that global warming is a scam never mention acidity. Atmospheric carbon dioxide combines with water to give carbonic acid, a "weak" acid that in turn initiates further acidification pathways. We are familiar with this from acid-rain scenarios. The consequences can be disastrous for many ocean life forms, like corals, that need to make calcified shells. Again, Australia's marine biologists and climate scientists, working from the tropics to the Antarctic, are incredibly important monitors of this situation.

The melting of glaciers, the northern and southern polar icecaps and the Greenland icesheet also provides a spectrum of parameters than can readily be measured by, for example, satellite mapping. Again, as a society, we must ensure that this information continues to be freely available and, as individuals, we need to keep these numbers in our consciousness.

If you are a young person reading this, I would like to persuade you that one of the best things you can do is to spend at least a little of your time learning biology and some of the chemistry and physics that affect the environment. It's your future, and the future of the children who come after you, that we are talking about. Strength comes through knowledge and insight. It's great to have an emotional commitment to the environmental movement but it will mean a lot more to you and you will be much more effective if you can back up that commitment with at least some understanding of the underlying science. 


From Griffith Review Edition 12: Hot Air © Copyright Griffith University & the author.

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