Wednesday, September 12, 2007

‘Feel good’ versus ‘do good’ on climate change

After looking at one too many projections of global-warming disasters — computer graphics of coasts swamped by rising seas, mounting death tolls from heat waves — I was ready for a reality check. Instead of imagining a warmer planet, I traveled to a place that has already felt the heat, accompanied by Bjorn Lomborg, the Danish political scientist and scourge of environmentalist orthodoxy.

It was not an arduous expedition. We went to an old wooden building near the Brooklyn Bridge that is home to the Bridge Cafe, which bills itself as “New York’s Oldest Drinking Establishment.” There’s been drinking in the building since the late 18th century, when it was erected on Water Street along the shore of Lower Manhattan.

Since record-keeping began in the 19th century, the sea level in New York has been rising about a foot per century, which happens to be about the same increase estimated to occur over the next century by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. The temperature has also risen as New York has been covered with asphalt and concrete, creating an “urban heat island” that’s estimated to have raised nighttime temperatures. The warming that has already occurred locally is on the same scale as what’s expected globally in the next century.

The impact of these changes on Lower Manhattan isn’t quite as striking as the computer graphics. The effect of the rising temperatures is more complicated to gauge. Hotter summer weather can indeed be fatal. But there are a couple of confounding factors explained in Lomborg’s new book, Cool It: The Skeptical Environmentalist’s Guide to Global Warming.

The first is that winter can be deadlier than summer. About seven times more deaths in Europe are attributed annually to cold weather (which aggravates circulatory and respiratory illness) than to hot weather, Lomborg notes, pointing to studies showing that a warmer planet would mean fewer temperature-related deaths in Europe and worldwide.

The second factor is that the weather matters a lot less than how people respond to it. Just because there are hotter summers in New York doesn’t mean that more people die — in fact, just the reverse has occurred. Researchers led by Robert Davis, a climatologist at the University of Virginia, concluded that the number of heat-related deaths in New York in the 1990s was only a third as high as in the 1960s. The main reason is simple, and evident as you as walk into the Bridge Cafe on a warm afternoon: air-conditioning. The lesson from our expedition is not that global warming is a trivial problem. Although Lomborg believes its dangers have been hyped, he agrees that global warming is real and will do more harm than good. He advocates a carbon tax and a treaty forcing nations to budget hefty increases for research into low-carbon energy technologies.

But the best strategy, he says, is to make the rest of the world as rich as New York, so people elsewhere can afford to do things like shore up their coastlines and buy air conditioners. NYT NEWS SERVICE

The weather matters a lot less than how people respond to it

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