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Global Warming Disease: An Epidemic of the Mind

To hear some "experts" tell it, human-induced global warming is fueling the growth of plague and pestilence worldwide. "Tropical" diseases such as malaria and dengue fever, they buzz, will devastate even previously unaffected cities like Washington, D.C., and New York.

Public health professionals, who until only recently focused primarily on preventing the spread of real diseases affecting specific individuals in actual places, have dramatically increased their funding by focusing on potential epidemics that will spread to a yet-to-be-born population living in locations where these diseases currently almost never occur.

Those whose primary expertise is devoted to the diseases in question, such as the Centers for Disease Control’s Paul Reiter, Ph.D. (who heads up the Dengue Branch and who tells us there is no evidence to support claims of imminent spread of these diseases), are seldom quoted in the popular (or even obscure) press. What gets the attention, it seems, are the fervent cries of "The sky is falling," or in this case, "The mosquitoes are coming!"

In Environmental Health Perspectives, Jonathan Patz and co-authors argue that even minor temperature changes could have devastating consequences. Patz was the first to link general circulation model (GCM) output to a dengue fever transmission model to forecast the future spread of this potentially deadly disease. GCMs, you will recall, are complex computer models that attempt to simulate climate conditions decades and centuries into the future.

GCM developers have expressed concern that their model forecasts of future temperatures are not accurate on a site-specific or regional basis. Nonetheless, Patz used future climate predictions of three GCMs for five cities—Bangkok, San Juan, Mexico City, Athens, and Philadelphia. Even though the models demonstrate that most of the warming will occur in the high latitudes and during winter, Patz drew dour conclusions for the future of the low latitudes in summer.

The prognosis for humankind? Not good. "Using GCMs," Patz writes, "we found that epidemic potential increased with a relatively small temperature rise, indicating that few mosquitoes would be necessary to maintain or spread dengue in a vulnerable population."

Grab your bug spray and check your screens for holes. "The largest area change [in the potential for dengue epidemics] would occur in temperate regions," Patz continues. "Tropical and subtropical regions would experience an increase in [dengue epidemics] or would remain unchanged."

In the typical cautious note most scientists sound, Patz listed a few factors his studies didn’t address, factors that would certainly make a difference in the spread of disease—local water systems, the amount of water stored in open containers (ideal mosquito breeding grounds), local water systems, poverty levels, the extent of urbanization, population density, efforts at mosquito control and eradication, precipitation, and international travel and migration. Despite these omissions, Patz seems determined to send this message: The United States and other industrialized nations will make the world a sicker place.

Coincidentally, an even more alarming report also hit the library shelves recently, one that concludes global warming has already caused the deterioration of our planet’s health.

Paul Epstein, a world renowned climate/health expert, with seven coauthors, listed some of the effects they claim are occurring across the globe. These include retreating glaciers jeopardizing local water supplies; plant distributions shifting up mountainsides; changing storm tracks; northward shifts in butterfly distributions; expanding malaria in the Tanzania highlands, dengue fever–infected mosquitoes in unusually high elevations; more extreme weather events; flood-generated fungal growth; swarms of whiteflies; major rodent infestations; and, yes, plagues of locusts. Global apocalypse indeed.

A few brave researchers have taken issue with some of these findings, noting that the glacial retreats and high latitude infestations are occurring in locations that are in fact not actually warming; that global warming would produce fewer rather than more extreme weather events; that carbon dioxide enhances plant growth, and on and on.

Yet most federal scientists agree with Epstein’s conclusions. Think this has something to do with the $2.1 billion the government throws at them every year?

If we are to believe these scientists, then our days are numbered. And, they want us to think that if industrial nations don’t do something drastic to stem the rising tide of climate change soon, then it may be too late for even our children to act.

But in the decades to come, how would we explain to our children that we enacted economy-crippling legislation based on popular hysteria rather than sound science?

References:

Patz, J.A., et al., 1998, Dengue fever epidemic potential as projected by general circulation models of global climate change, Environmental Health Perspectives, 106, 147–153.

Epstein, P.R., et al., 1998, Biological and physical signs of climate change: Focus on mosquito-borne diseases. Bulletin of the American Meteorological Society, 79, 409–417.

 

Of Forecasts and Failures

Back in the late 1970s and early 1980s, energy experts were predicting a dire future ahead. See for yourself what the turn of the century was supposed to hold in store:

"What seems certain, at least for the foreseeable future is that energy, once cheap and plentiful but now expensive and limited, will continue to rise in cost."—Union of Concerned Scientists, 1980

"The internal combustion spark-engine in use today may become a thing of the past long before 1994 comes around."—1994: The World of Tomorrow, U.S. News and World Report, 1973

"Conservative estimates project a price of $80 a barrel [in 1985], even if peace is restored to the Persian gulf and an uncertain stability maintained."—Energy: A special report in the public interest, National Geographic, February, 1981

"The supply of oil will fail to meet increasing demand before the year 2000, most probably between 1985 and 1995, even if energy prices are 50 percent above current levels in real terms."—Energy: Global Prospects 1985–2000, Workshop on Alternative Energy Strategies, MIT, 1977

"The oil-based societies of the industrial world cannot be sustained and cannot be replicated. The huge increases in oil process since 1973 virtually guarantee that the Third World will never derive most of its energy from petroleum."—Solar Possibilities, Dennis Hayes, Worldwatch Institute, Energy Journal: Special Issue: Renewable Energy Prospects, October 1979

"The only realistic two options for the short-term are wood and wood waste, and on-site solar technologies, such as solar heating, small hydropower, and small wind." —Energy Future: Report of the Energy Project of the Harvard Business School, Stobaugh and Yergen, Eds., 1979

"Energy conservation policies will be necessary on a massive scale to forestall shortages of both energy and material goods in the economic future years."—Energy for Survival: The alternative to Extinction, W. Clark (Anchor Books/Doubleday), 1974

"...the Carter Administration’s pledge that the nation will be getting 20 percent of its energy from the sun by the year 2000."—"A Progress Report on Alternative Energy Sources," Fortune, September 24, 1979

"In short, if we are to effectively grapple with our energy problems, we must accept an adjustment, indeed a decline, in our historic expectations. How will the American society respond to this revolution of declining expectations?" —James Schlesinger, first Secretary of Energy, Congressional Record, September 24, 1979

 

Sorry, Wrong Number

Global warmers keep expressing their desire to "dial coal out of the equation." And the Kyoto protocol has only encouraged them. But at the same time, Congress wants to lower energy prices by increasing competition in the electric industry. It’s an equation that’s hard to balance.

Like Mother Nature, market forces are hard to harness, and the market strongly favors increased use of coal—a cheap source of electricity.

Consider: Over the past 20 years, the U.S. gross national product grew about 70 percent in inflation-adjusted terms, as did our use of electricity. Coal-fired power plants provided 60 percent of the new supply. (Nuclear power comprised more than 30 percent in that time period; it won’t in the future.)

On average, electricity is the cheapest where coal power is dominant (Figure 1). It’s no shock, then, that recent analyses from the Gas Research Institute, the Energy Information Administration, and the Environmental Protection Agency all find electric competition yields more coal use.

Figure 1 (3835 bytes)

Figure 1. Average electric rates vs. share of electricity from coal for each state (excludes four states with greater than 50 percent hydropower).

The growth could be as much as 400 million tons of coal per year. The reason? Tweaking an existing coal plant to make more power is vastly cheaper than building anything new. We have lots of coal plants, and lots of coal.

And now we’ve embarked on a grand experiment to "deregulate" the electric utility industry. The implications of this trend are enormous—electricity purchases exceed all spending on local, long distance, cable, and cellular communications combined. Regardless of the myriad of critical issues, one thing is clear: The markets will chase cheap if they’re allowed.

This fact, of course, is the source of much environmentalist angst. Their solution? Push legislators to require the use of their cherished alternatives. One especially inane scheme calls for labeling electrons, such as "bad" ones from coal plants!

But these schemes run contrary to the goal of freeing up the industry by promoting competition and lower prices and raising a red flag in utility circles. If environmentalists do manage to dial out the primary source of cheap electricity—coal—we can hang up the phone on lower prices.—M.P.M.

 

Arctic Cool on Global Warming

Climatologists keep looking to the Arctic for evidence of global warming—and getting a chilly reception.

The high latitudes are the place to search for evidence of global warming because that’s where the climate models say we’ll see it first. One reason for this polar interest is the "temperature-albedo feedback mechanism." Simply put, higher temperatures cause more ice to melt. With less of this highly reflective ice around, temperatures increase that much further, and the additional heat absorbed melts yet more ice. Before you know it, sea levels rise and dudes are surfing the White House lawn.

Douglas Smith of University College, London, recently analyzed Arctic temperatures and sea-ice data using microwave sensors for the period 1979–1996. Specifically, he examined the length of the sea-ice melt season, which typically runs from June through September. It turns out that the overall length of the melt season has been increasing significantly (by about one day every two years) (Figure 1). The longer melt period is driven entirely by the September data, which show that the onset of freezing is occurring later.

Figure 1 (2954 bytes)

Figure 1. Length of the sea-ice melt season in the Arctic.

What’s particularly interesting about the graph is the decreasing trend since 1987, during this supposed "warmest decade on record."

In considering this recent downward trend in melt season length, Smith writes, "The more recent accelerated decrease in ice extent [shown by other researchers and touted by apocalysts] is therefore more likely to be the result of anomalous atmospheric circulation rather than amplified global warming."

Now that’s an idea we can warm up to.

References:

Johannessen, O.M., 1995, The Arctic’s shrinking sea ice. Nature, 376, 126–127.

Smith, D.M., Recent increase in the length of the melt season of perennial Arctic sea ice. Geophysical Research Letters, 25 (5), 655–658.

 

Stop Worrying About Oil Prices

Oil prices are a global bellwether for all energy costs. Perhaps more important, the price of oil is a psychological benchmark in today’s marketplace. Even the casual student of economics knows that psychological factors matter—in the stock market, for example.

So how low can oil prices go? The price per barrel could fall into the single digits. If history is any indicator (and it is), oil prices seem to hover between $8 and $20 a barrel, with a one-century median of $14 per barrel (Figure 1).

Figure 1 (4019 bytes)

Figure 1. Oil price per barrel, 1890 to 1998, in 1998 dollars.

The variation in the "natural" range for oil prices is not trivial. A swing from $20 down to $14 per barrel (abbreviated bbll) represents a global drop in energy costs of $135 billion a year. If oil stayed up around $30-plus/bbl, then globally, we’d incur almost another $500 billion a year above natural energy expenses. This doesn’t even account for the indirect economic penalty.

It’s easy to determine oil price boundaries. First, let’s look at the costs of new production, which set the low end. Oil & Gas Journal estimates the average start-up cost at $5 to $10 a barrel, counting exploration, extraction, and so on. The amount of money needed to bring oil to market and the time required to recover the initial investment add another $5 to $8/bbl. The final market price, then, is $10 to $18.

So that’s the low boundary. The upper boundary—absent global warming–inspired market meddling—is set by two resources: liquefied natural gas (LNG) and oil or tar sands.

If oil producers believed they could sustain a price of $30-plus/bbl, then others would find it worth the trouble of refining low-grade oil and tar sands. (The world’s heavy oil resources are conservatively 10 times greater than conventional oil, but they go largely untouched when oil prices are low.)

And at a sustained price of $30-plus/bbl, LNG, a resource that’s usually burned as waste, would start to flood the market. Because LNG requires liquefaction and specialized tankers, LNG is extraordinarily capital-intensive, costing nearly twice that of oil today. So no one pursues it unless energy prices are high in the long-term.

When oil prices are high, you have to add emerging technologies that convert natural gas directly to gasoline to the equation. All these other sources coming on line, combined with competition-inspiring lost market share for traditional oil, would have to cause a price collapse.

There are of course many geopolitical and social factors that impact oil prices also—but these tend to work within these basic boundaries. Over the very long term, technological progress is the determining factor (see "Junk Forecasts," p. 4). And there is every reason to believe the future looks at least as promising—that is, cheap—as the past in this regard.

The problem for environmentalists is many of their cherished conservation and alternative energy programs are predicated on high and rising prices. Buried deep within their energy schemes are silly oil price assumptions.

Low oil prices alarm environmentalists because they will, they say, discourage conservation and encourage driving. Low prices make solar, wind, and other favored renewables look expensive. Which they are. In fact, low oil prices are good for the environment for three simple reasons.

First, cheap energy will inspire cheaper alternatives. If and when windmills and solar cells beat $14/bbl oil, who will complain? Fundamentally, new technologies replace old ones over time when the new ones are better. (So much for environmentalists’ claims that renewables are nearly competitive with conventional fuels.) "Better" can mean new capabilities at higher prices (aircraft beat ships even at higher prices after World War II). But when it comes to the same product—energy—"better" must mean "cheaper" to win.

Second, cheap energy caps inflation. Energy is the economy’s single largest commodity, accounting for more than 65 percent of our total expenditures. Low prices keep inflation in check. This is good news! Inflation not only robs savings, but prevents capital investment. Without investment in new equipment, there can be no technological progress. This single most powerful environmental factor is unpredictable in its specifics, but highly predictable in its overall effect.

Third, low-cost energy stimulates the economy overall. Increased disposable income, increased tax revenues, and more money fundamentally make environmental programs affordable. Let’s face it, protecting the environment is basically a luxury of wealthy nations.

The United States is one of these. We have that luxury. Therefore, we should encourage the fundamental factor—cheap energy—that makes environmental protection possible for others.—M.P.M.