Global Warming: It's Time for Action

I would like to respectfully but strongly take issue with Henry Payne's op-ed article, "Is the sky falling, cooling, warming, or what?" (November 11, 1997 issue), in which he downplays global warming and potential dangers related to it, and indicates that steps taken to combat global warming can have very negative effects on the U. S. economy.

There is mounting evidence that we are already experiencing effects of global warming. All ten of the warmest years on record have occurred in the last 15 years. The hottest year in recorded history occurred in 1995. The global average surface temperature has risen 0.5 - 1.1 degrees Fahrenheit since reliable records began in the second half of the 19th century.

Researchers were uncertain until recently whether human activities contributed to the warming, or whether it reflected natural variations in the earth's climate. However, in the fall of 1995, scientists with the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, the authoritative international group charged with studying this issue, concluded that the observed global temperature increase during the last century "is unlikely to be entirely natural in origin", and that "the balance of evidence suggest that there is a discernible human influence on human climate." These conclusions are in their Second Assessment Report, a document that received contributions and peer review from over 2,500 of the world's leading climate scientists, economists, and risk-analysis experts.

The main cause of this global warming has been the increase in atmospheric concentrations of heat-trapping gases, including carbon dioxide, methane, nitrous oxides, and chlorofluorocarbons. These gases act as a "greenhouse" trapping heat radiated out from the earth. While a certain amount of these gases is natural and necessary to keep in the right amount of the sun's energy to support life on earth, current excessive amounts mean that more heat is being trapped than previously, and this is causing the earth's temperature to rise. Climate scientists have linked the increases of these heat-trapping gases in the atmosphere to human activities, especially the burning of fossil fuels (coal, oil, and natural gas), cattle ranching, deforestation, and rice farming.

Global warming has potentially very severe consequences. These include: damage to human health (the projected health impacts range from increased risk of illness and death due to heat stress and deteriorating air quality, to the rise in transmission rates of "tropical diseases" such as malaria); the loss of ecologically important plant and animal species; severe stress on forests, wetlands, and other natural habitats; dislocation of agriculture and commerce; intensified food shortages; expansion of the earth's deserts; rise in sea levels due to the melting of polar ice caps; increased number of hurricanes, floods, and other severe weather events (it is significant that the U. S. insurance industry has become a major advocate of efforts to reduce global warming because of the major payments they have had to make due to recent severe storms and flooding).

While the increased concern about global warming is very welcome, the many connections between typical American and other western diets and global warming are generally being overlooked. Current modern intensive livestock agriculture and the consumption of meat contribute greatly to the four major gases associated with the greenhouse effect. The burning of tropical forests releases tons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, and eliminates the ability of these trees to absorb carbon dioxide. Also, the highly mechanized agricultural sector uses a significant amount of fossil fuel to produce pesticides, chemical fertilizer, and other agricultural resources, and this also contributes to carbon dioxide emissions. Cattle emit methane as part of their digestive process, as do termites who feast on the charred remains of trees. The large amounts of petrochemical fertilizers used to produce feed crops for grain-fed animals create significant amounts of nitrous oxides. Also, the increased refrigeration necessary to prevent animal products from spoiling adds chlorofluorocarbons to the atmosphere.

Because of the potentially devastating impacts of global warming, more than 1,500 of the world's senior scientists, including the majority of living Nobel laureates in science, recently issued a declaration urging that the United States and other nations commit themselves to legally binding limits on the emissions of heat-trapping gases that are contributing to global warming. Reducing these emissions can improve our economy, as the reductions can be based on such strategies as improving energy efficiency, shifting to renewable energy sources, improving mass transit, preserving and planting forests, and encouraging people to shift to plant-based diets. Such approaches have the added benefits of reducing air and water pollution, creating jobs, and reducing expenditures for energy. Hence, we have little to lose and very much to gain by adopting these strategies.

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