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 Controls 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
citiesBangkok, 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
In the typical cautious note most
scientists sound, Patz listed a few factors his studies didnt address, factors that
would certainly make a difference in the spread of diseaselocal 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 planets 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
feverinfected 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 Epsteins 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 dont 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?
Patz, J.A., et
al., 1998, Dengue fever epidemic potential as projected by general circulation models
of global climate change, Environmental Health Perspectives, 106,
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, 409417.
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 19852000, 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
Administrations 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. Its an equation thats hard to balance.
Like Mother Nature, market forces are
hard to harness, and the market strongly favors increased use of coala cheap source
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 wont in the
On average, electricity is the
cheapest where coal power is dominant (Figure 1). Its 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. 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
And now weve embarked on a
grand experiment to "deregulate" the electric utility industry. The implications
of this trend are enormouselectricity 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 theyre 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 electricitycoalwe 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 warmingand getting a chilly reception.
The high latitudes are the place to
search for evidence of global warming because thats where the climate models say
well 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 19791996. 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. Length of
the sea-ice melt season in the Arctic.
Whats 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
Now thats an idea we can warm
1995, The Arctics shrinking sea ice. Nature, 376, 126127.
Smith, D.M., Recent
increase in the length of the melt season of perennial Arctic sea ice. Geophysical
Research Letters, 25 (5), 655658.
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 todays marketplace. Even the casual student of economics knows that
psychological factors matterin 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. 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, wed incur almost another $500
billion a year above natural energy expenses. This doesnt even account for the
indirect economic penalty.
Its easy to determine oil price
boundaries. First, lets 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 thats the low boundary. The
upper boundaryabsent global warminginspired market meddlingis 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 worlds heavy oil resources are conservatively 10
times greater than conventional oil, but they go largely untouched when oil prices are
And at a sustained price of
$30-plus/bbl, LNG, a resource thats 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 alsobut 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 promisingthat is,
cheapas 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
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
productenergy"better" must mean "cheaper" to win.
Second, cheap energy caps inflation.
Energy is the economys 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
Third, low-cost energy stimulates the
economy overall. Increased disposable income, increased tax revenues, and more money
fundamentally make environmental programs affordable. Lets face it, protecting the
environment is basically a luxury of wealthy nations.
United States is one of these. We have that luxury. Therefore, we should encourage the
fundamental factorcheap energythat makes environmental protection possible for