Ignoring global warming could prove costly

Florida hurricanes, changes in weather patterns may be crucial warning signs

National Geographic devotes 74 pages to controversial issue

William Allen, editor of National Geographic, presented the hard truth on global warming, even though it will challenge some widely held beliefs that climate change is neither real nor caused by human behavior. He anticipates angry letters and some canceled subscriptions but believes the story is too important to ignore. The September issue devoted 74 pages to the account as told by scientists who are documenting the human, ecological and economic impacts of releasing huge volumes of heat-trapping gases to the atmosphere.

Global warming is easy to discount as its most visible effects are often remote or so subtle locally they escape our attention. For many people, an earlier spring, a warmer fall or a milder winter are welcomed. The warm, dry September weather this year was delightful. But in the eyes of scientists who have spent years documenting the effects of climate change, the changes they have observed are early warnings of harsh, less comfortable conditions headed our way.

Global climate change predictions include higher ocean water levels and temperatures to fuel more frequent extreme weather events such as the hurricanes now impacting Florida and the East Coast. While these are natural events, their intensity and frequency are predicted to increase with global warming.

The federal government has committed more than $12 billion federal taxpayer dollars for relief. Economic effects of these storms are being felt throughout the country. A Quad City lumber firm reported a 20 percent increase in plywood costs due to increased demand in Florida. As Florida rebuilds, some local people have postponed remodeling projects in the face of rising building materials costs. With refineries closed by storms, gasoline prices also increased. While it is difficult to assign specific costs to global warming, a trend toward more frequent and intense storms does add credence to the concern.

Ironically, during the storms, major newspapers carried headlines highlighting how much more cars would cost if California’s efforts to reduce their releases of global warming gases were enforced. An auto industry spokesperson labeled the proposed actions as costly with virtually no benefit.

Our transportation system is a major contributor to global warming. Reducing emissions will have many economic benefits. They accrue to the society at large as cleaner air, improved health and a more stable climate. They accrue to the auto manufacturers who build fuel efficient vehicles such as hybrids. The call for cleaner cars shifts some economic responsibility for global warming back to vehicle owners contributing to the problem.

For roughly two centuries, we have been clearing forests and burning fossil fuels in ever increasing amounts. We release climate-changing gases at rates faster than ecosystems can absorb them. So far, the warming has been gradual with an average global increase of around 1degree Fahrenheit. Hidden in the seemingly small average increase are temperature extremes experienced in polar areas. The average also ignores the potential of sudden, dramatic climate change that would have devastating economic, human and ecological impacts.

You owe it to yourself to read this important story as told by members of the scientific community engaged in documenting the impacts of global warming. It is also a must read for teachers and students. Groups interested in hearing the implications of global warming for Illinois from an advocacy group perspective can contact Colleen Sarna of the Sierra Club at 312-236-0059.

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