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  January/February 1998 Features:
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Sierra Magazine
Letters

WHERE'S ELVIS?

"Yawn. Another fire-and-brimstone sermon on our environmentally sinful habits and the ensuing apocalypse that they are sure to provoke." Such, I imagine, was most readers' response to Heat Wave in the September/October issue. The article's shallow (and often misleading) text and disjointed, flashy graphics provided little more than a nostalgic trip into the recent past, when hysteria and sensationalism were the hallmarks of environmental journalism. The only literary device missing from this article was some reference to aliens, three-headed babies, or Elvis' ghost.

As both an engineer and a former overseas development worker, I found that the article contained many insupportable "facts." Among them:

1. "1995 was the warmest year since global records started to be kept in 1856." I would suspect scientific devices (including measuring devices of any type) from 1956 to be of questionable accuracy, much less those from 1856. The electronic scale in your bathroom, manufactured sometime in the mid-1990s, is most probably inaccurate by two to six pounds; expect a mid-19th-century thermometer to have inaccuracies of at least that same magnitude.

2. "In Rwanda in 1987, a 2 degree increase in temperature led to a 337 percent rise in malaria rates." What? Aside from the obvious difficulty in validating the correlation between two such unrelated statistics (especially ones gathered in the dubious scientific environments of remote developing countries), the statement raises other questions: If not by 2 degrees a year, how much did the temperature rise in each year other than 1987? How did levels of combustion in the industrialized West influence a tiny and geographically distant area, and then stay within its borders? If these two facts are genuinely correlated, then shouldn't similar rises have occurred in Burundi, Uganda, eastern Zaire, and northwestern Tanzania?

3. "Another deadly threat is the resurgence of cholera, which thrives in the higher water temperatures of a warmer world." False, or nearly so. Together with mold, mildew, and the plethora of "good" bacteria, cholera (like any microorganism) prefers a warm environment to a cold one. As cholera is transmitted by human feces, cholera outbreaks most often occur in areas of acutely poor hygiene and are thus relatively rare. There are plenty of warm, deplorably dirty areas in the developing world where cholera is not a risk to the local population.

4. As for the "deadly heat waves like the one that hit Chicago in the summer of 1995, killing so many people," Chicago health officials later conceded that many of those deaths were not directly heat-related, and many of those could have been avoided. (The article made no reference to Chicago's mild summers of 1996 and 1997.)

5. Most people would agree that, in general, our perception of recent weather extremes is as much a result of greater attention paid to the weather (by the public, government, scientists, and the media) as of the legitimate warming trends themselves.

Global warming presents a mammoth challenge that we can voluntarily confront now, or be forced to confront later. Through responsible journalism, the Sierra Club can lead the way. To begin to do so, however, Sierra authors must question their sources more thoroughly, and refrain from passing on dubious "facts" to a trusting audience.
Paul M. Mack
Oak Park, Illinois

Author Paul Rauber replies: Let's examine Mack's objections in turn: 1. Yeah, my bathroom scale lies too. It does not follow, however, that the physical properties of mercury or the accuracy of thermometers have changed over the years. "There can be no question that the old measurements are accurate," says Orman Granger, a climatologist at the University of California at Berkeley. "The instruments used in 1856 and the instruments used today work the same way."

2. Despite Mack's suspicions, thermometers operate with equal accuracy in developing countries. The 2 degree temperature rise in Rwanda in 1987 was not asserted as evidence of global warming (although it may well be). Rather, my point was that the hotter climate enabled malarial mosquitoes to infest higher elevations, which led to an increase in infection. I did not mean to suggest that this effect was limited to Rwanda. On the contrary, a warming world opens up wider ranges to disease-carrying vermin.

3. "Climate-related rises in sea surface temperature can lead to higher incidence of waterborne cholera and shellfish poisoning," writes Jonathan Patz of the Johns Hopkins School of Hygiene and Public Health. "Vibrio cholera has been found to be associated with zooplankton, and blooms from warmer sea surface temperatures could expand this important reservoir from which cholera epidemics may arise." See the Journal of the American Medical Association, January 17, 1996.

4. In the September 1997 American Journal of Public Health, Steven Whitman et al. assess "Mortality in Chicago Attributed to the July 1995 Heat Wave." These epidemiologists conclude that 514 deaths during that period were heat- related. "During the heat wave, it was questioned whether the criteria used by the medical examiner to certify heat-related deaths were too broad and whether the number of deaths due to the heat was overestimated," they write. "Examination of the excess mortality data indicates that neither of these was the case and that the criteria used by the Cook County Medical Examiner's Office did not overestimate mortality due to the heat." Subsequent mild summers in Chicago are immaterial to the discussion. No model of global warming posits heat spikes that don't go away. What we can expect are more, and deadlier, heat waves like that in Chicago.

5. Today's extreme weather has nothing to do with how many people watch the Weather Channel. The 20 percent increase in "extreme precipitation events" this century is documented by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. There is no need to resort to "hysteria and sensationalism" when writing about global warming. The facts are scary enough.

ALL MY CHILDREN

I am appalled that my September/October Sierra contains a postcard to President Clinton that can be signed only by "a concerned parent." I am child-free partly because of concern for the environment, and there are many like me. You offend those who care about the earth because of other people's children, and especially other species' children.
Mary Jo Alyanak
Lodi, California

CORRECTION

In "Pockets of Paradise" (September/October) we erroneously stated that mountains in Nevada's Jarbidge Wilderness "are the headwaters for the Bruneau, Owyhee, and Salmon rivers, which flow north into the Columbia drainage." The Salmon River has not moved south; the Jarbidge's peaks actually feed Salmon Creek, a fine stream in its own right.

Sierra welcomes letters from readers in response to recently published articles. Letters may be edited for length and clarity. Write to us at 85 Second St., 2nd Floor, San Francisco, CA 94105-3441; fax (415) 977-5794; or you can e-mail us at:sierra.letters@sierraclub.org.


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