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No time to waste, says global warming expert

by Cindy Weiss - November 14, 2005

Global warming is by far the most serious threat ever faced on this planet, according to Gustave Speth, dean of the Yale School of Forestry.

“We haven’t got years to waste,” Speth said. “We’re on the verge of ruining the planet’s environment.” Yet global warming is “a bit of a yawn to the American public.”

Speth made his remarks during a lecture on “The Sacred Trust: The American Land and the Climate Emergency,” on Nov. 3, part of this year’s Teale Lecture Series on Nature and the Environment.

Speth, who advised Presidents Carter and Clinton on environmental issues and founded the World Resources Institute in Washington, D.C, said leadership on the issue is missing from both major political parties.

He said global warming is more than an environmental issue: “It’s a security threat, an economic threat, and a threat to societies. It should rank as one of the most compelling issues society should be attending to.”

Failure to do so could result in huge impacts on biodiversity, he warned. As much as half of the land area in the U.S. will not be able to sustain life as it does now, according to global warming models.

Estimates show a 60 percent increase in carbon dioxide from fossil fuel combustion by 2030 if nothing is done, he said, noting that the development of new economic powers such as China will create huge energy demands.

Since the issue was first defined 25 years ago, there has been little action, Speth said. The average global temperature in Fahrenheit has risen by 1 percent. Associated with this is a six-inch rise in sea levels due to thermal expansion, a doubling in the number of Category 4 and 5 hurricanes in the past four or five years, and permafrost melting in Siberia, which releases gases that contribute to further warming.

The World Health Organization estimates 150,000 people are dying each year because of heat waves related to global warming, he said.

The Bush administration’s argument that there is not enough evidence of global warming is spurious, according to Speth. He noted that Science magazine last year surveyed 928 peer-reviewed scientific papers on global warming in top journals and found that none disagreed that humans are warming the planet or that it is a serious issue.

While national political leadership in the United States is missing, Speth said, the logjam of inaction on global warming has begun to break up in the past two years. California has adopted a goal of reducing emissions by 80 percent by 2050, and Connecticut has committed to reducing emissions by the year 2020 to 10 percent below the 1990 levels.

Corporate policy changes are occurring too, he said: Alcoa has exceeded its emissions reduction goal, and Dupont and BP are taking steps to reduce their emissions. Banks, insurance companies, and investment firms are pressing for emissions reductions by companies they invest in, he said.

“It’s going to take bottom-up political action to get things going,” Speth said.

He urged those attending the lecture to support the Campus Climate Challenge, a national network of student-led organizations to adopt a strategy to reduce greenhouse gases.

He also urged the audience to make sure that Connecticut Gov. M. Jodi Rell adopts as policy the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative that is now before the governors of nine Northeastern and mid-Atlantic states.

“We’re all much too quiet, much too quiescent, much too passive,” he said. “We have to get action. We can’t just talk about this issue anymore.”

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