Lyme disease will spread, northern Europe could become encased in ice, and powerful hurricanes will ravage coastal areas unless dramatic steps are taken to slow global warming, according to Paul Epstein, associate director of Harvard Medical School’s Center for Health and the Global Environment.
Speaking on another unseasonably warm winter afternoon, Epstein said, “Things are unstable.” While Rhode Island has recently taken some steps to reduce carbon dioxide emissions blamed for warming, a 60-to-70 percent decline in worldwide emissions is required to halt climate change, according to the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel of Climate Change, Epstein told the Northeast Regional Sea Grant Meeting.
Changes in the Gulf Stream’s path, caused by the combination of cooler Arctic Ocean waters from melting polar ice and warmer Atlantic Ocean temperatures, were among Epstein’s most drastic predictions during a January 11 appearance at Roger Williams University in Bristol. One model projects that northern Europe, including Ireland and Great Britain, will become icebound.
Meanwhile, wide-ranging threats to public health are occurring in the Western hemisphere, Epstein says. Altered wind patterns are bringing Sahara Desert dust to the Caribbean and Florida, increasing asthma. Higher temperatures permit malaria-carrying mosquitoes to reach higher elevations in the Andes Mountains and deer ticks with Lyme disease to expand their range, Epstein warned. Overall, diseases among all species of life have risen dramatically during the last decade, he noted.
Nevertheless, Esptein concluded, “I’m hopeful we will get lucky and re-stabilize.”
In a positive development, he noted, rising disaster losses have led some insurance companies and banks to reconsider investments in coastal areas and to lobby for policies to arrest warming trends. Worldwide losses due to natural disasters have risen steadily since averaging about $4 billion a year in the 1970s, Epstein related. In 2005, they reached a record $200 billion.
Hurricane Katrina may have pushed the system to its tipping point, Epstein stated, and the next hurricane season could prompt the federal government to act. “The money is lining up. The legal arguments are lining up and I hope Congress will line up,” he observed. “Clean energy is the first, though insufficient step,” Epstein added.
Largely due to inaction in Washington, Rhode Island has moved to reduce emissions caused by fossil fuels. In August 2005, a coalition of 17 regional environmental groups gave the state a B- for its handling of warming issues, praising the General Assembly for new laws requiring 16 percent of electricity to be produced from renewable sources by 2020 and setting energy efficiency standards for 13 items. Since then, Governor Donald L. Carcieri has further improved the state’s performance by announcing the adoption of tough California automobile emission standards, starting in 2009. Rhode Island environmentalists continue to press for more changes. This year, the Rhode Island Public Interest Group will push the legislature to add energy efficiency standards for nine more items, including home furnaces, boilers, and some electrical transformers, says RIPIRG advocate Matt Auten. In addition, Clean Water Action will lobby for more money for the Rhode Island Public Transit Authority, according to its Rhode Island director, Sheila Dormody.