Published on Monday, February 21, 2000 in the Philadelphia Inquirer
Scientists Warn: Deal With It, It's Too Late To Stop Global Warming
by Seth Borenstein
WASHINGTON - Global warming is so real and hard to stop that Americans will have to learn to cope with a hotter and quite different lifestyle in coming generations, a panel of scientists is saying after more than three years of research.
That means changing the way the West's water supply is managed, cutting down trees in Southern forests to keep them from dying out, beefing up public health programs, building higher bridges, and rethinking massive environmental restoration projects, such as the proposed $7.8 billion cleanup of the Florida Everglades, the experts said yesterday in a sneak peek at a still-unfinished report.
"If you're smart, you can try to avoid the worst consequences" of global warming, said Michael C. MacCracken, director of the National Assessment Coordination Office of the U.S. Global Change Research Program, which was launched by then-President George Bush in 1989.
"You can't stop climate change, given what we're doing right now," MacCracken said.
Although America must reduce its use of fossil fuels - which scientists say triggers global warming - past carbon dioxide emissions have already started the heat and its problems, he said.
The focus on preparation is a shift from the long-running political debates about whether climate change is real and whether carbon-dioxide emissions should be reduced.
The first overall national assessment report will not be finished until summer, but heads of groups that studied how global warming will alter coastlines, water management, forests and public health discussed preliminary findings yesterday at a convention here of the American Association for the Advancement of Science.
"It's really intended to be an announcement that things are going to happen - or are already beginning to happen - and we're going to have to deal with them," said Donald Boesch, president of the University of Maryland's Center for Environmental Science and head of a group that studied global warming's effects on the U.S. coastline.
For example, global warming could cause floods in some places once every 20 years as serious as are now seen there once every 100 years, said Peter Gleick, president of the Pacific Institute for Studies in Development, Environment and Security, co-chairman of a team that examined water issues.
"The Southeast, it looks like, is going to be the big loser in all of this," said Steven McNulty, a U.S. Forest Service program manager in North Carolina who oversaw the forest study.
There, both the Atlantic Ocean and Gulf of Mexico are rising 1 or 2 millimeters a year, which may not sound like much, but on barrier islands such as Miami Beach or Hatteras Island, the rise in the sea interacts with the slope of the sand to yield a change in sea level of as much as 4.5 feet a year, he said.
Making matters worse, Boesch said, much of the land along the East and Gulf Coasts is sinking, especially in the Mississippi Delta and South Florida.
Northern and Midwestern cities will have more health problems from climate change, especially heat-related deaths, said Jonathan Patz, a public health professor at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore who directed the health study.
Although preventable, more heat-related deaths occur farther north because northern areas tend to lack air conditioning and other heat-reducing facilities, Patz said.
More than 700 people died in Chicago in a 1995 heat wave. And a study of 44 U.S. cities said that even once people get used to hotter weather, heat-related mortality could increase by 70 percent to 150 percent, according to Patz. But those heat-related deaths may be balanced by reduced winter-related deaths, he said.
Increased air pollution in hotter weather, especially in the North and Midwest, also could cause health problems. And Patz is worried about a possible increase in diseases spread through mosquitoes, rats, food and water. But he said the issue of the health effects of global warming was so new that studies had not yet yielded specific predictions.
The Gulf and East Coasts share a problem: massive government projects to restore water in wetlands to the levels of a few decades back, Boesch said.
But with rising sea levels and saltwater encroachment, that may not be possible, Boesch said.