A weekly series by UPI examining the potential human impact on the phenomenon of global warming.
BOULDER, Colo., Dec. 22 (UPI) -- The current issue of the journal Science lists the 10 most important scientific breakthroughs for the year 2003. Number three on the list is the emerging certainty that, like a patient in bed with the flu, the planet has noticed it is getting warmer.
"The stream of studies suggesting global warming's impact on Earth and its inhabitants surged to a flood in 2003," the journal article said, "with reports on melting ice, droughts, decreased plant productivity, and altered plant and animal behavior."
To those who do not pay daily attention to climate policy issues, there probably remains considerable confusion about what the global warming fuss might be about. Robert Balling, director of the Office of Climatology at Arizona State University in Tempe, gave a succinct description of what the debate is not about at a gathering at the Cato Institute in Washington, D.C., a couple of weeks ago.
"There is no doubt about it, that the greenhouse gas concentrations are increasing," Balling said. "There is little doubt that burning fossil fuels throughout the world is causing a very recognizable increase in carbon dioxide levels ... other greenhouse gases are also increasing in concentration. I can tell you that this is not part of the great debate."
There is, in addition, little scientific debate that the buildup of greenhouse gases -- in the absence of other feedback -- "should cause a warming on the planet earth," Balling said.
Despite these admissions, Balling can be put in the "climate skeptic" camp. He wrote a book called "The Satanic Gases: Clearing the Air about Global Warming," in which he calls climate change a vastly overrated environmental threat whose proposed solutions are worse than the problem.
Balling might have a point. Many of the climate issues are really money issues. If the globe really is warming, and if humans are partly responsible -- and if the effect is potentially devastating -- how much will it cost to fix it? What benefits will result? And, of course, whose ox is being gored?
One thing that seems clear is people in the industrialized world probably will be able to adjust to a different climate regime without great hardship.
"To the extent we know, vulnerability to external stresses are quite site specific," Gary Yohe, an economist at Wesleyan University in Middletown, Conn., told the Cato gathering. "Exposure depends on the local environment, on local conditions and on the local adaptive capacity."
Yet the impact of a climate effect -- say, sea level rise -- probably would be as severe in Sierra Leone as in Florida, Yohe said. But Floridians will have more resources to adapt while Africans will not.
Yohe drew a somewhat different conclusion from Balling, however: In the face of the uncertainty of the impacts, he said, people, both experts and mere interested bystanders, "overestimate low consequence risks and underestimate high consequence risks."
President George W. Bush rejected the Kyoto agreement on climate on the grounds that it was unfair to the United States, which would be required to cut CO2 emissions substantially, in favor of less developed countries, which would not be required to cut. Apparently fearing the overheated economic engine of Burkina Faso, the administration cut U.S. aid for Third World climate change efforts by about 25 percent in the fiscal year 2002 budget.
Whatever the facts of climate change, the issue offers an excellent opportunity to calibrate the moral compass of the industrialized world. Take a test case from the aforementioned Science article.
"In the biological realm, meta-analyses of studies or plant and animal behaviors strongly suggest that life has taken notice of warming, too," Science says. "Plants and animals around the globe have shifted their geographic ranges or changed behaviors -- such as when they bloom or lay eggs -- in ways consistent with reacting to global warming," the article said. "Climate change also seems to depress both corn and soybean production in the U.S. Midwest and plant productivity in Africa's great Lake Tanganyika."
In 2002, a World Wildlife Fund for Nature study found, for instance: "Migration rates required by the warming are unprecedented by historical standards, raising the possibility of extensive, and in many cases, catastrophic species loss."
Nina Leopold Bradley is plant ecologist who is continuing the species work of her late father, Aldo Leopold, at their farm in Wisconsin. She has a record of species arrivals and departures going back 65 years. Bradley keeps track of 300 different "items," as she calls them, on the Leopold reserve. "We are finding that half of the items are happening earlier because of the warming temperatures," she said.
Camille Parmesan, an assistant professor of integrative biology at the University of Texas in Austin, tracked checkerspot butterflies and found populations of the insects became extinct in areas where they previously had thrived and found healthy populations considerably north of earlier locations.
Humphrey Crick and colleagues at the British Trust for Ornithology analyzed more than 75,000 records for 65 bird species. They found 20 species were laying their eggs an average of nearly 9 days earlier over the period from 1971 to 1995. All of the species showed a tendency toward earlier laying.
"So what?" one might ask. Why should we worry about the breeding habits of cuckoos when we must create jobs and trade stocks?
"Uncertainty becomes the reason to do something," Yohe said. "Cost-effectiveness means you want to start as soon as you can."
Dan Whipple has covered the environment for UPI Science News and other media outlets for more than 25 years. E-mail email@example.com