Science & Technology
December Tue 15, 2009
From the earth's poles to the tropics, from the oceans to the planet's most fertile farming regions, global warming could present daunting challenges. If it's real, that is. I was trained as a physician and molecular biologist, and I have no idea which models or measures of temperature trends to trust. What I do know is that even if the earth is warming, and even if it's due to human activities, any significant lowering of emissions will be too costly, too little and too late.
Reductions in the burning of fossil fuels sufficient to have even a modest impact would stifle economic growth and plunge the world into chaos. In any case, discernible effects on warming would be decades away. Actions to reduce emissions should only be undertaken if they're likely to be cost-effective, and they should be limited to measures that have desirable secondary effects as well; an example would be a shift from fossil fuels to nuclear power.
Often it's wiser to try to adapt to or mitigate a problem than to try to remove its causes.
Consider, for example, the solution that the U.K. adopted to prevent the flooding of London by surge tides that occur under certain meteorological conditions and because tide levels have been rising two feet per century. Rather than trying to eliminate the source of these tides, between 1974 and 1984 the U.K. constructed the Thames Barrier, an innovative monumental system of movable floodgates that prevents the flooding.
Similarly, in the short term, we should focus our efforts and resources on becoming more resilient and adaptive. An insightful article in the journal Nature by University of Colorado Environmental Studies Professor Roger Pielke Jr. and his collaborators pointed out that "vulnerability to climate-related impacts on society is increasing for reasons that have nothing to do with greenhouse-gas emissions, such as rapid population growth along coasts and in areas with limited water supplies." Nevertheless, the authors observe that many activists regard adaptation as being necessary only because we aren't sufficiently aggressive in preventing greenhouse-gas emissions. And they are completely correct in saying that because "most projected impacts of anthropogenic climate change are marginal increases on already huge losses," applying adaptation only to that narrow margin makes no sense.
They cite the example of the Philippines, where policymakers are wringing their hands about a possible gradual climate-change-mediated rise in sea level from 1 to 3 millimeters per year while ignoring the primary cause of enhanced flood risk. The reason for the rise in sea level: "excessive groundwater extraction, which is lowering the land surface by several centimeters to more than a decimeter [about 4 inches] per year." Perhaps more attention should be paid to ways to reduce groundwater extraction, such as desalination, wastewater treatment and recycling, collection of rainwater and the cultivation of crops that require less irrigation.
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