March 1990 (vol. 6, #3)
1601 N. Tucson Blvd. Suite 9, Tucson AZ 85716 c
1990 J Orient
Socially responsible physicians have had little to say about possible causes for the thaw in the cold war. They can hardly claim credit, for the Peace Center's program has not been enacted. We have not had a freeze, a comprehensive test ban, or a new arms control agreement. Not a single nuclear weapon has been destroyed.
On the other hand, the peace activists' methods are widely used, though perhaps not exactly as intended: protesters carry signs (e.g. ``Freiheit statt Sozialismus'' Freedom, Not Socialism) and trespass on government property (e.g. East Germans seizing files from the headquarters of Stasi, the secret police). It may be that peace activists have no time for reflection or celebration. Immediate mobilization is needed to prevent the imminent destruction of the global environment, if not by war, then by another, equally dreadful threat. Or it may be that the events in Eastern Europe are simply irrelevant, the Soviet Union never having been perceived as a nuclear threat. (After all, protests continue at the Nevada Test Site.)
The new threat is fundamentally different from most medical problems that affect individuals. In the case of the latter, physicians are urged (if not mandated) to avoid treatments that have not been proved effective, or cost-effective, in extensive clinical trials.
``Can we put action on the back burner while we wait and see?'' queries Dr. Alexander Leaf,1 of Physicians for Social Responsibility. Clearly not the effects of environmental change are ``analogous to those of nuclear war.''
Predictions made by Dr. Leaf
include: (1) A 6-meter rise in sea levels due to the melting
of the polar icecaps; (2) starvation due to flooding, drought,
and possibly a CO2-induced inhibition of plant growth;
(3) deaths due to heat stroke, especially if the use of air conditioning
is curtailed; (4) epidemics caused by contaminated water, proliferating
insect vectors, immune suppression by ultraviolet-B radiation,
and the migration of unimmunized persons; (5) cataracts, cancer,
and more. Except for the nature of the climatic catastrophe,
the list bears a striking resemblance to the effects of the previous
Confirming the Diagnosis
Before searching for the etiology of a cancer, the first step is to confirm the existence of cancer. Although atmospheric CO2 has increased, the alleged rise in global temperature is not established. A compilation of 60 million shipboard measurements of sea surface temperature since 1860 shows an increase of 0.2 C over 120 years. This is within the estimated margin of error and compatible with the possibility that there has been no global warming trend at all in the last century.2
Even if there has been an increase in temperature, a correlation does not establish a cause-effect relationship. Climatic variations can result from natural factors, such as volcanic activity and changes in solar energy output.3
As to the consequences of global
warming, doomsday forecasts generally disregard the natural feedback
mechanisms that are triggered by changes in temperature. These
mechanisms include ocean currents, clouds, and the activities
of living organisms. For example, a warmer polar climate may
increase precipitation, offsetting the tendency for icecap melting.
As demonstrated by Geosat radar altimetry, the thickness of the
Greenland ice sheet is actually increasing, contrary to Dr. Leaf's
Assessing the Treatment
The ``Heat Is On'' crusade spearheaded by the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) calls for drastic changes in energy policy. To stabilize the atmospheric concentration of CO2 at current levels would require a 50 to 80% reduction in industrial emissions to be achieved without utilizing the only feasible method of electric power production that generates no CO2 [nuclear]. The price tag: annual expenditures approaching $150 billion by 2000.1 The source of the funds: defense.1
This draconian and unproved ``solution'' to a possibly nonexistent problem has many potential side effects. It would undoubtedly cause serious damage to American industry and living standards. It could also harm the intended beneficiary, the planet earth. A warming trend might actually be needed to ameliorate natural cooling that could lead to a new ice age.3 And increases in CO2 appear to be extremely beneficial to living organisms (see p. 2).6
Side effects and lack of efficacy might be absolute contraindications to radical therapy for a simple rise in CO2 levels. But the ultimate concern is Dr. Leaf's etiologic diagnosis: ``personal and national greed'' (i.e. the strength and prosperity of the US). The agenda of the peace movement thus remains the same: disarmament of the US, with or without a treaty.
SELECTED REFERENCES (additional
information available on request)
1. Leaf A: Potential health effects of global climatic and environmental changes. N Engl J Med 321:1577-1583, 1989.
2. Has the globe really warmed? Technology Review Nov/Dec 89, p. 80.
3. George C. Marshall Institute: Scientific Perspectives on the Greenhouse Problem, 1989.
4. Zwally HJ et al.: Growth of Greenland ice sheet: measurement. Science 246:1587-1589, 1989.
5. Zwally HJ: Growth of Greenland ice sheet: interpretation. Science 246:1589-1591, 1989.
6. Idso SB: Carbon Dioxide and Global Change: Earth in Transition. IBR, 631 E. Laguna Drive, Tempe AZ 1989 (over 2000 references).
In response to these calls, Acting Director Robert Morris, always a staunch supporter of civil defense, promised that he would not permit the burial to proceed. When I visited FEMA last week, John McKay, head of the Office of Civil Defense, personally assured me that the mobile shelter display would remain intact-as long as Robert Morris is in charge.
(At present, no one knows who will be appointed to fill Julius Becton's position as the Director of FEMA. Mr. Morris wants the job. But the new director could be someone who is completely unknown to FEMA staff, and who may or may not support attack preparedness.)
The mobile shelter has been used very effectively in numerous classes attended by civil defense personnel. Stu-dents-and some instructors-have responded with great enthusiasm. At the same time, the shelter has been an intense annoyance to certain bureaucrats who oppose shelters and do not like reminders of FEMA's mission to provide for homeland defense.
After several unsuccessful attempts to obstruct use of the mobile shelter, a plan was developed to remove the shelter from its trailer and partially bury it in a ``shelter park,'' where it could not be seen from the campus. One entry would be covered with earth, making ventilation impossible while providing no protection against blast or radiation. No electri-city for lighting the display is available at the site, and no power cable was to be installed.
In contrast to the usual leisurely procedure for competitive bidding on government projects, the burial was planned in great haste. The specifications were available only days before bids were due. One small contracting firm obtained them via Federal Express. Although initially calculating that the excavation could be done for less than $1000, the contractor was unable to submit a bid.
``I couldn't even come up with a left-handed figure,'' he said. ``No specifications or dimensions were given that would make a reasonable estimate possible.''
The contract was awarded for a sum of $40,000-about twice the cost of the mobile display, including the trailer and the Swiss ventilation system.
The ultimate fate of FEMA's only exhibit of equipment designed to protect Americans against blast, radiation, and chemical or biological warfare remains unknown.
Lime still works for neutralizing acid, whether in soil or lakes, whether caused by farming or industry, and is much cheaper than ever more stringent controls on power plant emissions.
Thousands of laboratory and field experiments have shown that an increase in CO2 (the raw material for photosynthesis) nearly always leads to a significant increase in vegetative growth and development. At the same time, CO2 causes partial closure of the stomatal pores of the leaves, decreasing transpiration (water loss). A doubling of the CO2 concentra-tion causes a doubling of water use efficiency in nearly all plants. Higher CO2 concentrations increase the resistance of plants to a variety of stresses, including both high and low temperatures, diseases, salinity, and air pollutants.
Increasing the growth of vegetation brings many benefits besides the obvious direct increase in agricultural productivity. These include stabilization of the topsoil, preventing erosion; a decrease in groundwater pollution as increased organic material in the soil adsorbs chemicals; and an enhanced soil capacity for neutralization of acid.
Some believe that a CO2-induced ``greening'' of the earth is demonstrably in progress, citing as examples improved yields of wheat and soybeans. Improved abilities of satellites to monitor green-leaf biomass as well as ocean productivity should permit tests of this hypothesis.
Besides reviewing the evidence for the beneficial effects of increasing concentrations of CO2, Sherwood Idso, a research physicist with the USDA's Agricultural Research Service at the US Water Conservation Laboratory in Phoenix, has presented an extensive critique of climate models used to predict catastrophic global warming. He calls the doomsday predic-tions ``data-free speculation.''
In a recent Tucson debate with a proponent of drastic CO2-lowering measures, Idso noted that it is the greenhouse effect that makes the earth habitable. Current increases in CO2 are enabling the biosphere to ``lift itself up by its bootstraps.'' Interfering with this process on the basis of physical models that neglect biology could cause serious harm.
On the other hand, 57% of methane, another greenhouse gas, is anthropogenic. Such sources include cattle (16% or 40-110 megatons per year), biomass burning (15%), rice paddies (15%), and natural gas and mining losses (11%). (Access to Energy, March 1990).