Earth’s temperature is on the rise, researchers say, and environmental watchdogs are howling, hoping it’s not too late to avert negative effects that could range from melting icecaps to mass extinctions.
Some scientists, however, now think global warming is irreversible (.pdf). In light of this sobering view, certain economists and scientists are searching for a silver lining. While the good news they find might not be global, some researchers believe the benefits of Earth’s warming will help compensate for the harmful consequences.
Benny Peiser, a social anthropologist at Liverpool John Moores University, is one such academic.
“From a purely evolutionary point of view, warm periods have been exceptionally good to us. Cold periods have been the troublesome ages,” Peiser said. The possible positive side effects of global warming have researchers like Peiser ready for changes to come.
Earth’s temperature is expected to rise 1.4 to 5.8 degrees Celsius between 1990 and 2100, according to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, or IPCC. One area where this warming could aid society is in terms of health.
In Britain alone, scientists estimate between 20,000 and 40,000 deaths a year are related to cold winter weather. A report (.pdf) from the United Kingdom’s Faculty of Public Health found that the number of cold-weather deaths increase by approximately 8,000 for every 1 degree Celsius the temperature falls. Peiser estimates there will be only 2,000 more deaths a year due to an equal rise in temperature, because humans adapt better to hot climates and can rely on air conditioning.
“And Britain isn’t even that cold of place in the world respectively,” said Peiser.
Kert Davies, research director for Greenpeace, doesn’t buy this argument.
“It’s underestimating the illness and mortality caused by the heat,” he said. He points to the European heat wave of 2003, in which an estimated 10,000 people died in France. Part of the severity and length of that heat wave is attributed to global warming.
There is also speculation that warmer weather will bring a surge of malaria or bacterial diseases to hotter areas of the world, potentially devastating human health. While Peiser admits the price of global warming will differ for every region of the world, “the benefits outweigh the costs by far,” he said.
This could be especially true in regions of Russia where the harsh winters can kill hundreds in a single city.
Another area of contention is the economy. Various studies performed to evaluate the economic impact of global warming have reached different conclusions. The IPCC, for example, cites a loss of gross domestic product for developing countries due to global warming, and mixed consequences for developed nations.
But a group of 26 scientists and economists who contributed to The Impact of Climate Change on the United States Economy, a book edited by Yale University professors Robert Mendelsohn and James E. Neumann, begs to differ.
Fred Singer, president of the Science & Environmental Policy Project, a group that has consistently voiced doubts about the veracity of global warming projections, thinks the IPCC report (.pdf) is wrong because “it deals with only part of the problem.”
Singer agrees with conclusions of The Impact of Climate Change. The book finds that a moderate warming will have a positive economic impact on the agriculture and forestry sectors. Since carbon dioxide is used by plants to capture and store energy, there may be a fertilizing effect as levels of the gas rise. This, combined with longer growing seasons, fewer frosts and more precipitation, among other factors, could benefit some economic sectors.
The book “is a very thorough study covering different economic sectors,” said Singer. “It deals just with the U.S. but should apply to all areas at mid-latitudes, while Canada and Siberia would benefit greatly.”
While the IPCC report agrees with some of Singer’s conclusions, it disagrees that the end result will be a definite gain in U.S. GDP.
Environmentalists, meanwhile, are skeptical whether increased carbon dioxide and extreme summers will really benefit plants.
“The science has proven that plants can thrive for a bit with more CO2 but it eventually stresses them,” said Greenpeace’s Davies. “The net benefit in the long haul is not positive.”
Another economic boost could come from the establishment of new trade routes as a direct result of global warming.
As rising temperatures melt glaciers in the Arctic and particularly in Alaska, threatening indigenous creatures like the polar bear, a new, faster trade route could open up. The Bering Strait, a legendarily difficult passage for ships, could become an oceanic highway between the hemispheres as ice sheets disappear.
While the indigenous Inuit may lose exotic animals, business investors in the Arctic region (a former oxymoron) are anticipating an influx of everything from tax revenue to tourism. The seldom-used strait is set to become the Suez Canal of the north, cutting down travel time between Europe, America and Asia by as much as one-third.
Experts predict the passage will be open for year-round travel within a decade. Less fuel will be consumed using this route, but Davies warns that increased use will foster the exploitation of Arctic mining and fisheries, further eroding the environment.
“None of the benefits that could be obtained by opening this route can be matched by losing animals like the polar bear,” he said.
A final potential upside to global warming is that with every degree Celsius warmer our planet gets, we could have up to 20 percent more calamari. Phillip Lee, director of the National Resource Center for Cephalopods, points out that squid are extremely sensitive to temperature, and individual cephalopods react to warmer weather by developing a larger body mass.
Squid, which are mostly protein, can grow significantly faster than other animals. The largest squid ever captured was 16 feet long and weighed in at 330 pounds. But stories of monster squid up to 60 feet have been around since the 1800s.
Lee does think there is a downside to the extra sushi, though.
“We aren’t sure what’s going to happen to the actual population numbers,” he said. It’s possible that the increased warming could adversely affect the squid in an unpredictable way, such as limiting their food source, but Lee is confident that warmer weather will make individual cephalopods larger.
Even so, no one is casting global warming as an all-out success story. With every change in climate comes a change in the ecosystem and economic sectors. Still, while optimists know not every outcome will be positive, they believe the overall effect will make us think back to the hysteria and wonder what the fuss was about.
Others remain adamant that the overall implications of warming will be a detriment to the globe.
“If you live in a place like Ottawa you might like a longer summer, but we have to think wider about this subject and the overall consequences,” said Davies.