"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
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
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
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;
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