Originally created 03/10/01

Environmental apocalypse or Chicken Little?



Environmental forecasts are increasingly sounding a drumbeat of disaster: The earth is warming up faster than predicted, drinking water is becoming scarce in much of the world, deserts are expanding and there are fewer fish to eat in the boundless oceans.

"U.N. Scientists Warn of Climate Armageddon," screamed The Scotsman, a leading Edinburgh newspaper, after a United Nations report last month forecast dramatic and potentially disastrous climate changes before the end of the century.

The report, by the U.N.'s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, said temperatures may increase by 2.5 to 10.5 degrees in this century - much faster than previously estimated. Possible consequences include the mass death of forests, widespread coastal flooding as a result of sea level rises and more severe storms, the disappearance of countless animal and plant species, farmland turned into desert, the destruction of coral reefs and Pacific and Caribbean islands sinking beneath the sea.

The 1,000-page report was especially noteworthy because of the authority behind it - 700 of the world's leading scientists participated in its production.

Some critics say most of the dire trends, particularly climate change, have been exaggerated by environmentalists. Other problems, they say, can be fixed by eliminating government subsidies that encourage waste and replacing them with market incentives that encourage protection of valuable resources such as fish stocks and fresh water.

But climate change is just one of a number of global environmental trends that are ringing alarms:

- A report endorsed by 150 of the world's top marine scientists and released at a meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science in San Francisco last month called for the creation of a worldwide network of no-fishing zones, saying it may be the last, best hope of replenishing the Earth's depleted fish stocks and saving species.

- The International Food Policy Research Institute and the World Resources Institute, two prominent environmental think tanks, reported last month that the planet may be unable to feed the 1.5 billion people expected to be added to the globe over the next 20 years because farming practices have degraded soils, parched aquifers, polluted waters and caused the loss of animal and plant species.

- The Worldwatch Institute, an environmental think tank in Washington, D.C., in its "State of the World 2001" report in January, said that the world has reached a "dangerous crossroads."

"Signs of accelerated ecological decline have coincided with a loss of political momentum on environmental issues as evidenced by the recent breakdown in international climate talks," Worldwatch said.

- A report from the Population Information Program at Johns Hopkins University's School of Public Health, also in January, was similarly dire: "In the past decade in every environmental sector conditions have either failed to improve or they are worsening ... Without practicing sustainable development, humanity faces a deteriorating environment and may even invite ecological disaster."

- Even the CIA has joined the chorus. In an evaluation of national security threats released in December, the intelligence agency forecast that within 15 years nearly half the world's population - 3 billion people - will live in "water stressed" regions, heightening the possibility of regional conflict over water. The situation will be especially severe in the Middle East, parts of Africa, northern China, and South Asia.

China experienced water riots last summer and some experts believe the situation could eventually lead to internal instability and political chaos if allowed to continue unchecked.

Exacerbating most of these trends is population growth. The U.N. Population Program last week increased its forecast for 2050 to 9.3 billion people. The world passed the 6 billion milestone in 1999 and is gaining 78 million people annually, the equivalent of adding a city the size of Philadelphia every week.

"There is kind of a momentum built into this," said Don Hinrichsen, author of the Johns Hopkins study and a consultant to the U.N. "It's like trying to stop a moving freight train."

Is this an environmental apocalypse that will happen soon or mere alarmism on the part of Chicken Little scientists? Some world leaders are taking the forecasts very seriously.

"We would be irresponsible to treat these predictions as scare mongering," British Prime Minister Tony Blair told a World Wildlife Fund conference in London on Tuesday. "They represent the considered opinions of some of the world's best scientists. We cannot afford to ignore them."

Chinese Prime Minister Zhu Rongji unveiled China's first "green" five-year plan this week. Among other things, the plan calls for Chinese industries to recycle 60 percent of the water they use by 2005 and the planting of a 2,800-mile belt of trees to hold back the rapidly encroaching Gobi Desert.

But there has also been a lack of progress in many areas. International climate change negotiations were suspended in November after the United States and European countries could not resolve key issues on implementation of the Kyoto Protocol, a global warming reduction treaty signed by the United States and dozens of other nations in Japan in 1997 but never ratified by Congress. Negotiations are scheduled to resume in Bonn, Germany, in July.

Not everyone thinks the world is in such peril.

"These are examples of economic mismanagement," said Jerry Taylor, director of natural resource programs at the libertarian Cato Institute. "They are not examples of some underlying apocalypse that we can't escape from."

Environmentalists, Taylor said, also ignore positive global trends, such as improved living standards, greater longevity, and advances in technology.

"Ever since the '60s and the '70s we've been warned about population bombs and food running out and ecological apocalypse ... and it never happened," Taylor said.

One reason some earlier forecasts failed to come true is that governments and the public took action first, environmentalists said. And the data and knowledge available to scientists has increased exponentially in recent years.

Some scientists worry that they have done the public a disservice by being too quiet about their findings.

In a speech to the American Meteorological Society in Albuquerque, N.M., in January, paleoclimatologist Jonathan Overpeck, who studies ancient weather patterns for clues to the future, said research underway now appears to show that effects of climate change can occur abruptly, in a matter of a handful of years, rather than the gradual increase anticipated in the U.N. report.

Further, there is reason to believe that even a small amount of warming could lead to potentially catastrophic increases in sea level, said Overpeck, director of the Institute for the Study of Planet Earth at the University of Arizona.

"These problems that humankind is causing could be unprecedented in their impacts on society," Overpeck said. "Because the stakes are so high, we have to work harder to make sure society understands what is going on."

On the Net:

World Resources Institute - http:/www.wri.org

Worldwatch Institute - http://www.worldwatch.org