- The Washington Times - Thursday, March 15, 2007

From the Earth’s poles to the tropics, from the oceans to the most fertile farming regions, global warming could present daunting challenges. Europe attempted to meet a week ago when 27 governments agreed to cut greenhouse gas emissions by 20 percent, and to commit the EU to generating a fifth of its energy from renewable sources by 2020.

Not to be outdone by unwisdom from across the pond, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi had already created a new congressional committee “to raise the visibility” of global warming and “report legislation” by June. “We already have many of the technology and techniques that we need to reduce global warming pollution, and American ingenuity will supply the rest,” she intoned. She’s wrong.

A significant lowering of emissions would be too costly, too little and too late. Reduced burning of fossil fuels sufficient to have even a modest impact would create havoc with economic growth. In any case, discernible effects on warming would be decades away. We really need to focus our efforts and resources on becoming more resilient and adaptive.

As noted recently in an insightful article in the journal Nature by University of Colorado Environmental Studies Professor Roger Pielke Jr. and his collaborators, vulnerability to climate-related impacts on society is increasing for reasons that have nothing to do with greenhouse-gas emissions, such as rapid population growth along coasts and in areas with limited water supplies, which exacerbates impacts of droughts. Nevertheless, they observe that many activists regard adaptation as necessary only because we aren’t aggressive enough in preventing greenhouse-gas emissions and that, because most projected impacts of anthropogenic climate change are marginal increases on already huge losses, applying adaptation only to that narrow margin makes no sense.

They cite the example of the Philippines, where policymakers are wringing their hands about a possible gradual climate change-mediated rise in sea level of from 1 to 3 millimeters per year, while they ignore the primary cause of enhanced flood risk, excessive groundwater extraction, which is lowering the land surface by several centimeters to more than a decimeter per year (100 millimeters equals 1 decimeter, or about 4 inches). Perhaps more attention should be given ways to reduce groundwater extraction, such as desalination, wastewater treatment and recycling, collection of rainwater and cultivation of crop plants that require less irrigation.

In a similar vein, the authors say “nonclimate factors are by far the most important drivers of increased risk to tropical disease,” although such risk “is repeatedly invoked by climate-mitigation advocates as a key reason to curb emissions.” They cite a study finding that without factoring in climate-change effects, “The global population at risk from malaria would increase by 100 percent by 2080, whereas the effect of climate change would increase the risk of malaria by at most 7 percent.”

Mr. Pielke and his colleagues criticize the political obsession with the idea that climate risks can be reduced by cutting emissions, because it distracts attention from other, more cost-effective approaches. However, for many activists, emissions reduction has become an article of faith: Al Gore dismissed adaptation as a kind of laziness, an arrogant faith in our ability to react in time to save our skins.

Doctrinaire activism and command-and-control policymaking are inimical to resilience; they jeopardize our survival as individuals and our success as a society.

The need for resilience in both the private and public sectors is not new. The buggy-whip manufacturers had to adapt and begin supplying automobile components to Henry Ford’s assembly line, or perish. More recently, the U.K. built the Thames Barrier, a monumental system of movable flood gates that prevents the flooding of London by surge tides that occur under certain meteorological conditions and because tide levels have been rising by 60 centimeters (2 feet) per century.

How resilient will preeminent farming areas be to a warming trend? Agriculture will adapt for example, by adjusting what gets planted where. Crops that require cooler temperatures will increasingly be cultivated at higher elevations, on northern exposures, or closer to the coast. We have already observed a similar phenomenon in Germany, where the growers of wine grapes have begun to exploit higher temperatures: Because of the northward migration of Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot grapes, during the last five years the proportion of locally made red wines consumed by German consumers has increased from 17 percent to 27 percent.

Technological advances will help, too: Gene-splicing techniques already are used to enhance the resistance to drought and other stresses of many kinds of crop plants.

But here again, public policy has impeded innovation and, thereby, our ability to adapt. Gene-splicing technology, which offers markedly enhanced precision and predictability compared to its predecessors, is grossly over-regulated. As a result, the additional expense to perform field trials with gene-spliced plants causes the technology to be underutilized by academic and industrial scientists. Worse still, in response to mendacious and irresponsible activism, some local jurisdictions have banned entirely the cultivation of plants or seeds improved with these techniques.

Resilience is in short supply these days, and there is plenty of blame to go around. Politicians tend to be short-term thinkers, their purview often limited to the next election, and many seem to care less about the public interest than about scoring political points. Moreover, many are just not very smart and are often particularly challenged in science and logic.

If individually and collectively we are to meet economic, environmental and public health challenges, we need plenty of options and opportunities for innovation and the wealth to pursue them. In society, as in biology, survival demands adaptation. But in large and small ways, unimaginative, shortsighted politicians and benighted activists have conspired to limit our options, constrain economic growth and make real solutions elusive.

Henry I. Miller, a physician and molecular biologist, is a fellow at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution. His most recent book is “The Frankenfood Myth.”

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