Thursday, March 13, 2008

A negative effect of Global warming we can relate to

Republican Politics, American Style
Published on March 6th in Metro Eireann By Charles Laffiteau

Last week I discussed political climate change in the US and by now Metro Eireann readers will also know how accurate I may or may not be at providing political climate change forecasts. As such this provides me with a lead-in to this week’s column which deals with the ecological version of climate change.
Last week, I had the privilege of being invited to present a paper based on my Masters dissertation at the 2008 International Conference on the Human Dimensions of Global Climate Change which was being held in Berlin this year. This conference brings together many of the top environmental researchers and scientists from around the globe for a series of plenary sessions as well as specific discussion panels dealing with all facets of global climate change, not just the increasing levels of CO² emissions which are the main cause of global warming.
Some of these other global climate change issues that research scientists are also grappling with include problems like deforestation, desertification, melting glaciers and polar ice caps, rising sea levels and costal erosion as well as coral reef destruction and plant and animal species extinctions. But the many negative impacts of global climate change that those of us involved in this research can validate as facts are very difficult for the average man, woman or child in the industrialised world to grasp because they don’t really experience any negative consequences from them. At least, not yet they haven’t.
Here in Ireland we have all had some recent exposure to one of the more benign consequences of global warming and by that I mean our increasingly mild winter seasons. While China has received a great deal of media attention this winter because of the unprecedented winter snows that disrupted its annual Lunar New Year holiday celebrations, the trend worldwide over the past decade has been towards warmer, milder winters, particularly in the countries in the Northern Hemisphere. In fact 9 of the 10 warmest years on record in both the US and the UK (the countries with the oldest meteorological records) have occurred in the past decade.
Mind you as a resident of Ireland for the past year and a half, I am not complaining about the warmer winter weather. In fact I must confess that I rather enjoy it as I suspect many of you do as well. But having said that I also think you should be aware of some of the less benign consequences that attend the issue of global climate change. I will begin by pointing out a couple of the downside risks to the milder winters we have been experiencing in Europe and in North America due to the warmer temperatures.
The warming of the more temperate land areas in the Northern Hemisphere has expanded the growing range and season for some of the plant species we depend on for food like wheat, corn, barley, rice and oats to name a few. But it has also extended the range, life cycle and habitable areas for certain insect species such as the pesky mosquito. With friendlier and larger habitats for mosquitoes there also comes an increase in mosquito borne infectious diseases like the West Nile virus from Africa.
Unknown in North America before 1999, in just four years the US death toll from the West Nile virus went from 7 people in 1999 to 284 in 2002 and it can now be found in every state except for Hawaii and Alaska and in all of the southern Canadian provinces except for British Colombia. This century’s more frequent summer heat waves in North America appear to increase the number and rate of infections because they contribute to mosquito activity and breeding. So why should people in Ireland be concerned about infectious African tropical diseases given the fact that the West Nile virus appears to be confined to North America and Africa?
Because closer to home here in Europe there are African immigrants spreading a different tropical disease called chikungunya, which is normally found in the Indian Ocean region of Africa. But the immigrants spreading this disease, which is a less debilitating relative of the much more dangerous dengue fever, are not humans. These African immigrants are mosquitoes, more specifically tiger mosquitoes, which thanks to global warming have been expanding their range north across Europe. Since its arrival in Italy three years ago, the tiger mosquito has now spread out across Southern Europe into countries like France and Switzerland and it is now thriving in a warming Europe.
Last summer in a town in Northern Italy called Castiglione di Cervia, over 100 villagers suffered for weeks with high fever, excruciating bone pain and physical exhaustion. These are the symptoms of chikungunya, a disease that had previously been seen only in the tropics near the Indian Ocean, and by the end of September chikungunya had been diagnosed in nearly 300 Italians in the areas around this village of 2000 people. My concern for Ireland and those of us who live and travel in Europe is that if chikungunya and the tiger mosquito that transmits it can now survive and spread in Europe, there is no reason why much more devastating tropical diseases like malaria and dengue, cannot as well. Global warming doesn’t sound quite so benign now, does it?
In the US we also have seen the range of the fire ant expand from the south western US to the north and east so they can now be found throughout the southern US and into the lower portions of the mid west. Warmer temperatures are also aiding the spread of aggressive and dangerous Africanized bees northward across the US, which is having devastating effects on the domestic bee population which pollinates many of my homeland’s orchards and gardens. In future columns I will discuss other aspects of global climate change that I believe readers might be able to relate to because they are more likely to experience the effects of them within the next decade.

Charles Laffiteau is a lifelong US Republican from Dallas, Texas who is now completing his University of Texas MA dissertation in Dublin following his graduation from DCU( on March 29th) with a MA in Globalisation. He will begin a PhD research programme in Environmental Studies in October.

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