The Bright Side of Global Warming

Despite all the doomsday reports from environmentalists about global warming, there is reason to rejoice if the earth does get warmer. In his Anti-Environmentalist Manifesto, Lew Rockwell writes: "There is no evidence of global warming, but even if it were to take place, many scientists say the effect would be good: it would lengthen growing seasons, make the earth more liveable, and forestall any future ice age."

Many researchers have studied and documented the bright side of a warming world climate trend. Thomas Gale Moore, an economist at Stanford University's Hoover Institute, is the author of Climate of Fear: Why We Shouldn't Worry about Global Warming, a book that describes the many ways that warmer weather helps human beings in all areas of life. And Moore is not alone in taking this view. Many researchers have discovered the gains that human society makes in warmer weather by studying its impact in various areas such as health and agriculture.

Perhaps the most direct and obvious benefit of warmer climate is its impact on human mortality rates. Both extreme heat and extreme coldness bring the risk of death. Statistically and historically in the West, however, winters have posed a greater threat to humans than summers have.

According to William. R. Keatinge and Gavin. C. Donaldson, two researchers at the University of London, "Cold-related deaths are far more numerous than heat-related deaths in the United States, Europe, and almost all countries outside the tropics, and almost all of them are due to common illnesses that are increased by cold." One of their studies of various regions of Europe showed that cold-related deaths outnumbered heat-related deaths by nearly ten to one.

Sherwood B. Idso, Craig D. Idso, and Keith E. Idso, researchers at the Center for the Study of CO2 and Global Change in Tempe, AZ, agree. They point out that in both cold and warm countries, the risk of both cardiovascular and respiratory diseases is higher in the winter months.

Some have suggested that in warmer weather, mosquito-borne diseases such as malaria may increase as the climate becomes more favorable to mosquito life. Historically, in England, malaria made a significant contribution to human deaths during a cold period, and declined as temperatures rose during the 19th century. The same can be said of yellow fever, dengue, and tick-borne encephalitis. Other studies show that there is either no connection between climate change and incidence of these diseases, or that they decrease in warmer weather.

The Idsos provide an explanation for this counterintuitive finding. They suggest that human-dependent "factors such as the quality of public health services, irrigation and agricultural activities, land uses practices," etc., have a far greater impact on reducing vector-borne diseases. Draining wetlands for development, for example, eliminates potential mosquito breeding grounds. Warmer weather is conducive to many of these activities.

A warmer world would also directly impact agricultural productivity, according to Moore. Warmer weather means a longer growing season, and thus greater output. It would also result in greater rainfall, providing much-needed water for plants. The risk of crop failures would decrease with shorter, milder winters.

As a result of elevated levels of carbon dioxide, the quality and quantity of agricultural products have risen as well. Given the significant role that agriculture plays in feeding people around the world, this is a huge benefit. Even if people do not consume more grown food, they still benefit from the drop in prices that accompanies an expansion of supply.

High carbon dioxide levels from industrial output, the alleged culprit behind global warming, also improve the quality of certain plants. For example, many types of plants contain antioxidants, substances that protect the body against destructive molecular radicals. In many plants, the concentration of antioxidants such as vitamin C increases significantly under higher levels of carbon dioxide. The Idsos report their findings in their article. Given the medical properties of these substances, greater CO2 levels are a very important health benefit.

This should not come as a surprise to anyone who has studied chemistry and plant biology. As part of photosynthesis, plants take in carbon dioxide and transform it into organic compounds. These compounds are what give the plant its mass, nutritional value, and other beneficial properties. As college freshmen learn in chemistry class, the rate of many chemical processes is proportional to the concentration of the inputs. A greater concentration of carbon dioxide results in a greater rate of turnover, as more carbon dioxide is converted into plant matter in a given time span. Consequently, plants grown under increased CO2 levels contain more biomass and nutrition.

Warming climates are advantageous to other forms of human activity as well. The Arctic Climate Impact Assessment (ACIA), a study prepared by the Arctic Council, found that a warmer Arctic would have more available resources. By reducing the polar ice caps, Arctic warming opens up resources that were trapped by ice to human exploration and use. In light of recent gas prices, one especially important advantage is increased access to oil deposits in the Arctic.

Transportation also benefits from more clement weather. Heavy rain and snow during the winter disrupt both ground and air transportation, resulting in costly delays and hazardous conditions. The ACIA has also found that reduced ice caps would open up sea routes through the arctic. Currently, many freighters must take the Panama Canal to reach the other side of North America. (The ones that cannot fit in the canal must go around South America!) A shortened route through the Arctic would cause shipping costs to plummet, benefiting a multitude of industries that depend on carrying goods between continents.

The fishing industry stands to benefit as well. Moore notes a study that found that in a cooler world, fish, shellfish, and crustacean catches would decline. Turning this analysis around, he concludes that warmer climate would boost fishery productivity. The ACIA report agrees, citing the prospect of more productive fisheries in the Arctic due to the northward migration of cod and capelin, made possible by warmer weather.

On land, improved weather conditions would benefit traffic as well. Currently, winter storms are one of the biggest factors in causing traffic problems and delays. They create unsafe driving conditions. They force airports to postpone flights. If winters became shorter due to warming trends, road and airport conditions would improve massively.

A warming trend brings many benefits to economic activity. Since so many people around the world are dependent on oil, fish, transportation, and shipping, the economic advantages of warmer climate reach far and wide. As the supply of these goods rises along with temperatures, prices would fall, allowing consumers to enjoy more without paying more.

History shows that warmer weather has always been on the side of human civilization. Moore describes the role that the climate has played in primitive societies: "Primitive man and hunter-gatherer tribes were at the mercy of the weather, as are societies that are still almost totally bound to the soil. A series of bad years can be devastating." In warm years, the growing season was long and fruitful. Animals flourished, providing food for societies that relied on hunting. Disruptions in climate would have greatly reduced their means of sustenance.

In fact, climate changes may have played a key role in the transition from hunter-gatherer societies to farming societies. Moore points to the coincidence of the end of the Ice Age with the rise of agriculture and domestication about 10,000 years ago. As a result, populations that grew food could grow larger and larger without being constrained by a limited supply of wildlife.

According to Moore's book, there was little population growth in Europe during the late first millennium A.D. Mountain passes restricted trade and movement, and many settlements were abandoned. When the warmer 11th century came, towns grew and trade flourished. Marshes dried up to yield good farmland. Human life expectancy in England reached 48 by the year 1276. In Greenland, settlers even grew corn — it was truly a "green land."

This trend of warmth reversed itself starting around 1300, ushering in a Mini-Ice Age. Glaciers in North America expanded. The once-flourishing civilization in Greenland was abandoned. Europe experienced crop failures due to a shortened growing season. The coldness generated storms and turned good land into bogs and marshes. Moore believes that this cooling period even contributed to the Black Death plague. "The unpleasant weather is likely to have confined people to their homes where they were more likely to be exposed to the fleas that carried the disease," he says. "In addition, the inclement weather may have induced rats to take shelter in buildings, exposing their inhabitants to the bacillus." As a result, life expectancy in Britain plummeted to 38 by the late 14th century. He documents similar historical trends in Asia.

Human civilization prospered during periods of warm weather in history and faced hardships and setbacks during cold periods. Says Moore, "During the best of times, human populations have gone up rapidly, new techniques and practices have developed, and building and art have flourished." Although the Industrial Revolution has reduced the dependence of human activity upon the climate, warmer weather still makes a difference today.

Despite all the benefits, many scientists still claim global warming is a problem. Some of their concerns may be valid, such as the possible flooding of small islands. The question is, how can we weigh the gains against the losses? How should global warming be judged when it could be both advantageous and disadvantageous for people?

Here is where the realm of science ends. Science can tell us the bare facts about what will happen as a result of natural, physical processes. However, it cannot tell us how people will or should act in response to these processes. According to Thomas Gale Moore in an interview, global warming is not so much a scientific issue as an economic issue. People are fully capable of adjusting to new conditions — just as they have done for thousands of years. A farmer who finds that his crops can no longer grow under the new climate, for instance, could either move south or find a more suitable crop. The result of human adaptability can be seen today in the fact that people today can live in both extreme heat and extreme cold due to good insulation and air conditioning. "That's the interesting thing about human beings," says Moore.

If it turns out to be true, global warming may change the world in many ways. But as long as people are capable of acting and adjusting, they can compensate for the negative effects of warming while enjoying its positive fruits. Moore agrees: "There's no reason to think that warm weather is bad."

June 29, 2006

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