George Will and Global Warming

from Wildlife Promise

0 4/27/2006 // By Larry Schweiger

Unknowingly, George Will has written perhaps the best rebuttal so far to his own distorted view of global warming science. In his April 2 column (“Let Cooler Heads Prevail”) (http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2006/03/31/AR2006033101707.html ) Will attacks the consensus statement from 11 national academies and many other scientists that urge that action be taken on global warming, Will wrote: “Suppose the Earth is warming and suppose the warming is caused by human activity. Are we sure there will be proportionate benefits from whatever climate change can be purchased at the cost of slowing economic growth and spending trillions? Are we sure the consequences of climate change — remember, a thick sheet of ice once covered the Midwest — must be bad?”

Good question. Let’s fast forward to Will’s April 23 column, “Arizona’s Thirst for Ingenuity”  (http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2006/04/21/AR2006042101623.html). Here, Will takes on the issue of western water issues arising from “11-year drought in the Southwest that may be the worst in 500 years.” Well, hold on a minute. Is it possible that this drought, which surpasses even the dust bowl years, could possibly be related to global warming?

It does not take an atmospheric scientist to understand that hot temperatures increase drought conditions by increasing both evaporation and transpiration. Doesn’t the fact that the ten hottest years on record have all occurred in the past fifteen years suggest that global warming has lent a helping hand to this extreme drought? You bet.

Scientists have long warned that more severe and frequent droughts would be among the impacts of global warming. The Bush Administration itself, despite its aversion to doing anything about global warming, nevertheless warned in a 2002 report to the United Nations that warming conditions are “…likely to cause many interior portions of the country to experience more frequent and longer dry conditions.” And, according to the highly respected National Center for Atmospheric Research, droughts have doubled globally in their reach over the past thirty years, thanks in large part to warmer and direr climate patterns fueled by global warming pollution.

Like the increasingly intense hurricanes ravaging our coasts, the western droughts are vivid illustrations that we have procrastinated too long in curbing global warming pollution. George Will dismisses the drought in his Arizona-focused article, noting that the residents of Phoenix are “remarkably untroubled.” But others haven’t been so lucky.

The extreme drought conditions have turned America’s southwest in to a tinderbox. The same 2002 Bush Administration report warned that “drying is likely to create a greater susceptibility to fire.” Recent wildfires have laid claim to a million acres and left a dozen dead in their wake.

George Will focuses on the water-hogging impacts of Tamarix, an invasive species of vegetation that sucks water supplies dry and displaces native vegetation degrading wildlife habitat. What Mr. Will may not realize, however, is that scientists out of Stanford University have identified Tamarix as precisely the type of invasive species that will flourish and expand as global warming weakens the long-established, native ecosystems that lie in their path.  A 2002 Standford study concluded that increasingly dry and warmer conditions brought about by global warming would allow Tamarix “to spread to areas currently too moist for it to invade” in eight Western states.

George Will and I share abundant optimism in the ability of America’s engineers to take on any challenge but we differ on the path that they should take.

Will’s Arizona column sings the praises of visionaries who can surmount any problem, even those of a 500-year drought. He expresses confidence in our ability to introduce new breeds of pests to America’s West to feed on Tamarix with a precision that will leave native ecosystems and wildlife habitat untouched. He also cites a scientist who boldly asserts that a new industry of cloud seeding to force rainfall where it wouldn’t otherwise occur will not unbalance precipitation elsewhere in the nation.

Unfortunately, Mr. Will’s optimism comes to a screeching halt when it comes to our ability to embark on a new energy future that prioritizes clean and secure energy technologies over the gas guzzling and highly polluting technologies of the 19th and 20th centuries. It’s a peculiar brand of conservative orthodoxy that lauds a privatization of water and mineral rights but rejects any notion of Congress shifting the current largess it bestows on the oil and coal industries toward cleaner energy alternatives that will not only slow global warming, but also wean us from our dependency on foreign oil.

Is George Will’s view on global warming that we can cope by unleashing government scientists to introduce new breeds of pests into our great outdoors, and government engineers to reap rainfall from the skies?

I must confess that my optimism also has limits. While America’s engineers can take on any challenge, some challenges, such as extending America’s generations-old water wars to the skies, may be best left untouched.