The Week That Was
June 22-28, 1998

House members took an axe last Thursday to some of the Clinton Administration's environmental funding proposals, cutting $106 million from alternative energy and technology projects aimed at global warming and $593 million earmarked for Superfund toxic-waste clean-up. (Not to worry. Most of those "cleaning up" on Superfund have been lawyers.) The House bill, as passed, forbids the Environmental Protection Agency from implementing any provisions of the Kyoto Treaty without ratification; it also forbids the EPA from conducting "informational outreach or education seminars" on the treaty. As a report accompanying the bill states: "There can be a very fine line between education and advocacy of an issue." (No kidding.)

Vice President Al Gore, who began making manly noises 10 days ago when it became evident that the vote would not go well, was apoplectic--but only momentarily. Still threatening to shut down the government, he set his staff and the satellite guys at NASA scrambling to put together yet another Al Gore/global warming photo-op, this time down in Florida, where he could use drought-driven wildfires as a backdrop. To Mr. Gore, any weather-related phenomenon is pathological and evidence that--eek!--global warming is here. But we have to wonder how many of these events the television network execs can stomach. To paraphrase an old anti-war slogan from the '60s, what if Al Gore staged a photo-op and nobody came?

The embarrassing thing for the news networks is that many of Gore's "this has never happened before" factoids are irrelevant or, worse, demonstrably wrong. At his last press briefing, on June 8, he breathlessly told the press that "tornadoes have killed 122 people this year, matching the record set in 1984." But the record for tornado fatalities was not set in 1984. Tornadoes ripping through the Midwest and South on April 3-4, 1974 killed 315 people; the infamous Tri-State tornado of March 18, 1925 killed 695 people.

Unfortunately for Mr. Gore, improved storm-warning systems have reduced tornado fatalities over the years, regardless of the size of the storm. According to the most recent UN IPCC report, hurricanes are decreasing in frequency and intensity as well. For now, however, he's got a drought and forest fires. Yahoo! With thunderstorms beginning to roll through the Southeast, Gore staffers were last seen racing to get the cameras rolling, lest any rain spoil the props.

One has to wonder if a man so fear-ridden could capably lead a nation where the complex issues are legion, the perils more certain, and the consequences of poor judgment more immediate than a century or two down the road.

Moving on: Reuters reported June 23 that one of the Antarctic studies that was supposed to provide definitive proof of a looming, man-made climate catastrophe turned up little more at the first press briefing than mundane science reports. In fact, the chief scientist on the project, New Zealand geologist Peter Barrett, played down fears that "a deluge on a Biblical scale" (the latest activist buzz-phrase, courtesy of Fenton Communications) was imminent. Instead, Barrett made this rather amazing statement: "NO ONE thinks the ice sheets are going to melt in the next hundred years. But on a scale of HUNDREDS OF YEARS, it is something we should be worrying about" [emphasis ours]. What does this mean? Hundreds of years? Is the "consensus" slipping?

Elsewhere, biodiversity was getting short shrift at the fourth pan-European meeting of environment ministers in Arhus, Denmark (a get-together that, for some reason, included the United States and Canada). A spokesman for the European Centre for Nature Conservation (yet another NGO) complained to an EnviroNews Service reporter that biodiversity issues were just too far down Europe's political agenda to get rigorous attention. He criticized the "weak implementation" of the European biological and landscape diversity strategy, adopted at the last pan-European meeting three years ago, saying there was a "lack of political will" to carry it out.

Well, some scientists have been doing their best to link biodiversity to something sexier, like ozone depletion, but they keep encountering problems. The June 27 New Scientist magazine, for example, covers yet another study implicating a fungus in the apparent worldwide decline of amphibians. This time the fungus was found attacking 10 species of frogs and toads in Australia, seven species in Panama, and six species in American zoos and aquariums. Since fungi are a natural component of the ecosystem, researchers were quick to state that they don't yet know if the fungus is the primary cause of death or is killing animals weakened by other (regulatable) factors such as agricultural chemicals or ultraviolet radiation penetrating a thinning ozone layer. Which raises another point: we still don't have a study showing that there has been any change in surface UV-B from the presumed thinning of the global ozone layer, no upward trend. And as for agricultural chemicals, why not attack the fungus with a fungicide? Oh, sorry. Fungi are a natural component of the ecosystem.

If you're heading for Triton, one of Neptune's moons, you should know that the atmosphere there has suddenly warmed. A rare "southern summer," which around Neptune takes a bit longer than three months, has heated up the polar caps of Triton, turning solid nitrogen into a gas as the temperatures soared from minus 392 degrees F to minus 389 degrees F. Though Triton is 30-times farther from the Sun than Earth, scientists believe changes in frost patterns or in the reflectivity of Triton's ice may have caused it to absorb more of the Sun's heat. Of course, if they discover Tritonians operating a coal-fired power plant, that theory is out the window.

Finally, though an impending asteroid impact got a thumbs-down as the next global disaster (except in Hollywood, of course), it didn't take long for another candidate to appear on the radar screen. A June 28 Scripps Howard News Service story has medical researchers warning that prions (pronounced PRE-ons) will be the "next AIDS," "a deadly new plague that erupts unexpectedly and sweeps the globe." Prions, according to the article, have been implicated in a new form of Creutzfeld-Jakob disease in humans and "mad cow disease" in, well, cows.

Which does lead to a bit of confusion. According to the June 10 Hong Kong Standard, Dr. Sinyan Shen, editor of the journal World Resource Review and director of the Illinois-based Global Warming International Center, told attendees at the Center's 9th annual conference, held in Hong Kong, that bird flu, red tide, AND mad cow disease were all due to global warming.

Sometimes we get the feeling that there are too many scientists fighting over the same microphone.

The crisis continues...

This issue of TW^2 was compiled by SEPP Research Associate Candace Crandall

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