“There's a wealth of real possibilities for change to a more sustainable and more human course.” – Bill McKibben, billmckibben.com on Plan B.
Chapter 4. Rising Temperatures and Rising Seas: Introduction
In 2004, Sir David King, the U.K. government’s Chief Scientific Advisor, reported some revealing new research confirming the relationship between carbon dioxide (CO 2) levels and temperature over the last 740,000 years. Analysis of an Antarctic ice core drilled to a depth of three kilometers by British scientists showed that the atmospheric concentrations of CO 2 consistently fluctuated between 200 parts per million (ppm) during the ice ages and 270 ppm during the warm intervals. This shift from ice age to warm period occurred many times and always within this CO 2 range. 1
When the Industrial Revolution began, the atmospheric CO 2 level was roughly 270 ppm. The 377 ppm registered for 2004 is not only far above any level over the last 740,000 years, it may be nearing a level not seen for 55 million years. At that time the earth was a tropical planet. There was no polar ice; sea level was 80 meters (260 feet) higher than it is today. 2
The destructive effects of higher temperatures are visible on many fronts. Crop-withering heat waves have lowered grain harvests in key food-producing regions in recent years. In 2002, record-high temperatures and associated drought reduced grain harvests in India, the United States, and Canada, dropping the world harvest 90 million tons, or 5 percent below consumption. The record-setting 2003 European heat wave contributed to a world harvest shortfall of 90 million tons. Intense heat and drought in the U.S. Corn Belt in 2005 contributed to a world shortfall of 34 million tons. 3
Such intense heat waves also take a direct human toll. In 1995, 700 residents of Chicago died in a heat wave. In May 2002, in a heat wave in India that reached 50 degrees Celsius (122 degrees Fahrenheit), more than 1,000 people died in the state of Andhra Pradesh alone. 4
In 2003, the searing heat wave that broke temperature records across Europe claimed 49,000 lives in eight countries. Italy alone lost more than 18,000 people, while 14,800 died in France. More than 15 times as many people died in Europe in this heat wave as died during the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon on September 11, 2001. 5
Among the various manifestations of rising temperatures, ice melting and its effect on sea level are drawing scientists’ attention. As sea level rises, low-lying island countries like Tuvalu and the Maldives and coastal cities like London, New York, and Shanghai will be among the first to feel the consequences. 6
The insurance industry is painfully aware of the relationship between higher temperatures and storm intensity. As weather-related damage claims have soared, the last few years have brought a drop in earnings and a flurry of lowered credit ratings for both insurance companies and the reinsurance companies that insure them. Companies using historical records as a basis for calculating insurance rates for future storm damage are realizing that the past is no longer a reliable guide to the future. 7
This is a problem not only for the insurance industry, but for all of us. We are altering the earth’s climate, setting in motion trends we do not always understand with consequences we cannot anticipate.
1. Sir David King, “Global Warming: The Science of Climate Change—the Imperatives for Action,” presented as the 3rd Greenpeace Business Lecture (London: 12 October 2004); Paul Brown, “Melting Ice: The Threat to London’s Future,” The Guardian (London), 14 July 2004; ice core study in EPICA Community Members, “Eight Glacial Cycles from an Antarctic Ice Core,” Nature, vol. 429 (10 June 2004), pp. 623–28; Jerry F. McManus, “A Great Grand-Daddy of Ice Cores,” Nature, vol. 429 (10 June 2004), pp. 611–12; Gabrielle Walker, “Frozen Time,” Nature, vol. 429 (10 June 2004), pp. 596–97.
2. EPICA Community Members, op. cit. note 1; current carbon dioxide level from C. D. Keeling and T. P. Whorf, “Atmospheric CO 2 Records from Sites in the SIO Air Sampling Network,” in Trends: A
Compendium of Data on Global Change (Oak Ridge, TN: Carbon Dioxide Information Analysis Center, Oak Ridge National Laboratory, May 2005); Brown, op. cit. note 1; Quirin Schiermeier, “A Rising Tide,” Nature, vol. 428 (11 March 2004), pp. 114–15.
3. U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), Production, Supply, & Distribution, electronic database, at www.fas.usda.gov/psd, updated 13 September 2005; Janet Larsen, “Record Heat Wave in Europe Takes 35,000 Lives,” Eco-Economy Update (Washington, DC: Earth Policy Institute, 9 October 2003); USDA National Agricultural Statistics Service (NASS), “Crop Production,” news release (Washington, DC: 12 August 2005).
4. Cindy Schreuder and Sharman Stein, “Heat’s Toll Worse Than Believed, Study Says at Least 200 More Died,” Chicago Tribune, 21 September 1995; “India Heat Wave Toll Tops 1,000,” CNN, 22 May 2002; “India’s Heatwave Toll 1,200, No Respite in Sight,” Agence France-Presse, 23 May 2002.
5. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), “Heat-Related Deaths—Chicago, Illinois, 1996–2001, and United States, 1979–1999,” Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report, 4 July, 2003; estimate of deaths across Europe compiled in Larsen, op. cit. note 3, updated with Istituto Nazionale di Statistica, Bilancio Demografico Nazionale: Anno 2003 (Rome: 15 July 2004); death toll from the 11 September 2001 attacks from National Commission on Terrorist Attacks Upon the United States, The 9/11 Commission Report (Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office, 2004).
6. Andrew Simms, “Farewell Tuvalu,” The Guardian (London), 29 October 2001; Jacopo Pasotti, “Maldives Experience That Sinking Feeling,” Science Now, 17 June 2005; Brown, op. cit. note 1; Stuart R. Gaffin, High Water Blues: Impacts of Sea Level Rise on Selected Coasts and Islands (Washington, DC: Environmental Defense Fund, 1997), p. 27.
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