Climate Change Warming the Bench

The Washington Times (Washington, DC), July 9, 2006 | Go to article overview

Climate Change Warming the Bench


Byline: Patrick J. Michaels, SPECIAL TO THE WASHINGTON TIMES

Last week, as Washington floated away in a summer torrent that reporters glibly blamed on global warming, the Supreme Court agreed to hear Massachusetts v. Environmental Protection Agency, the mother of all climate changes cases.

The case represents a proceeding of several state attorneys general, environmental groups and others arguing current law requires the federal government to classify carbon dioxide the main global warming gas as a "pollutant."

But is carbon dioxide a "pollutant," a harmless byproduct of human activity, or even an adjuvant? No one knows. There has never been a truly comprehensive study of the net effects of powering our world on fossil fuels.

Here is one example of the complexity that the court will have to confront in deciding carbon dioxide's fate.

On one hand, a body of scientific research claims that, by spreading malaria, global warming kills 150,000 people each year. The logic is simple. Plasmodium falciparum (the responsible parasite) can be transmitted when temperatures exceed an average of 59 degrees and rainfall is greater than 6 inches for two consecutive months. So, rising global temperature will increase malaria, right?

Wrong. In a 2002 piece for the scientific journal Nature, Oxford University's Simon Hay writes that where malaria shows major increases in Kenya, for instance there is no associated temperature or precipitation trend. There also are plenty of places in the United States that meet the climatic criteria for malaria, but in which the disease is virtually absent. And in the 19th century, when global temperatures were about 1.4 degrees lower than now, malaria was endemic over most of the country, all the way up into Canada.

"Economic, social and political factors can therefore explain recent resurgences in malaria and other mosquito-borne diseases," Mr. Hay wrote, "with no need to invoke climate change."

Then there's the other side of the coin, rarely considered: How many lives have been saved in our carbon dioxide-emitting societies?

Since 1900, life expectancy in the industrialized Western world has roughly doubled. Assuming 2 billion people have passed through that world since, that's equivalent to saving a billion lives. …

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