Those inclined to tout the potential
benefits of global warming would do
well to take a look at the news items
about the frightening weather in
southern Europe last week.
All week there were stories about
the extreme heat and the raging wildfires it triggered. Temperatures
reached as high as 120 degrees and
dozens of people died. In some places
the problems were worsened by
drought. According to The Associated
Press, "The sizzling weather accompanied the worst drought to strike the
Balkans in 50 years, which has already caused record crop losses
since it began in late May."
Ambulances patrolled streets in
southern Romania to pick up some of
the many individuals who fainted in
temperatures that were well over 100
degrees. Soldiers were deployed in
western Bulgaria to fight a major
forest fire. At least 10 people were
reported dead from the heat in Turkey. Intense fires raged on a number
of islands in the Aegean. And wildfires in Italy consumed hundreds of
acres of forest in the southern Gargano region.
No single weather event can be
attributed to global warming. But
this is the kind of terrible weather
that scientists have long predicted
would accompany the warming of the
planet. That warming is not only well
under way, it is accelerating.
There will be some benefits for
some people from global warming. A
study commissioned by the federal
government said, for example, that
the U.S. could see increased crop
yields in some parts of the country
and that they could lead to falling
food prices. But that modest benefit
would almost certainly be overwhelmed by the potentially devastating aspects of the warming that will
occur here and around the world if
nothing substantial is done about the
buildup in the earth's atmosphere of
heat-trapping gases like carbon dioxide.
That same federal study, released
just last month, warned of destructive storm surges, chronic erosion of
the U.S. coastline, extreme water
shortages in some places, and frequent and severe flooding in others.
The authors of the study said it is
very probable that continued thawing
of the permafrost and melting sea ice
in Alaska would cause continued severe damage to its forests, buildings,
roads and coastlines.
A word of caution is in order for
anyone who thinks global warming is
a good thing: be careful what you
"People who argue that global
warming will be beneficial are missing two central points," said Dr. Michael Oppenheimer, chief scientist of
Environmental Defense, a national
research and advocacy organization.
"First, until the greenhouse gases
are brought under control, the climate is going to continue to warm, so
you're never going to be at your
optimum climate for very long. If the
balance of milder winters versus hotter summers is struck in a direction
that's favorable to somebody at some
particular time -- well, just wait. The
benefits will be ephemeral because
it's going to get warmer. In that
situation, today's winners are very
likely to be tomorrow's losers, which
means nobody wins over the long
The second point, said Dr. Oppenheimer, is the more important one.
"Global warming is a problem that
cannot be looked at from the point of
view of a few individuals in a few
isolated places. We are now one globalized world. If the climate in general
is hurting large swatches of humanity, there is no way any particular
group that thinks it's benefiting can
escape from what is happening in the
world as a whole. We are too interconnected for that.
"For example, it's been projected
that declines in agriculture, particularly in low-latitude areas, could create large masses of environmental
refugees. The rest of the world will be
affected by those movements of human populations.
"The same thing can happen as a
result of sea-level rise. Bangladesh is
having terrible problems in this area.
It has a population of about 120 million in an area the size of Wisconsin,
and there is already border tension
between Bangladesh and India. A significant chunk of Bangladesh is projected to go underwater in the next
100 years. Where are those people
going to go? There's no room left."
It is possible -- not easy, but possible -- to mount an international effort
to cut the emissions of greenhouse
gases to an extent that would ward
off a global catastrophe. It's possible.
But there is not a lot of time left.
Copyright 2000 The New York Times Company