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Toledo Blade: Climate-Change Voice of Reason is Gone

By Tom Henry
Toledo Blade
Toledo Blade Editorial Writer and Columnist Tom Henry discusses the late Dr. Paul Epstein's contributions to showing the impacts of climate change, and how organizations like Ceres are continuing his mission.
Toledo Blade: Climate-Change Voice of Reason is Gone

Dr. Paul Epstein was one of the nation's pre-eminent experts on the public-health effects of climate change.

I've been fortunate to have met some people with brilliant minds during my three-decade journalism career. One such person was Dr. Paul Epstein, a physician who recently died at his home in Boston of lymphoma, at the tender age of 67.

Dr. Epstein, associate director of the Center for Health and the Global Environment at Harvard Medical School, was one of the nation's pre-eminent experts on the public-health effects of climate change.

People don't just want to know how climate change affects polar bears. They want to know what's at stake for them.

Starting in the early 1990s, Dr. Epstein linked climate change to the probable rise of West Nile virus, encephalitis, and other infectious diseases, to more ragweed, more noxious algae in western Lake Erie, and higher incidences of asthma and other smog-triggered respiratory ailments.

He showed how coal-fired power plants put particles in the air that carry pollen and other allergens deep into the lungs, possibly explaining the worldwide asthma epidemic since 1980.

Dr. Epstein also was one of Nobel laureate and former Vice President Al Gore's advisers on the Oscar-winning 2006 documentary An Inconvenient Truth.

"Paul was truly a pioneer in the area of climate change and infectious disease," Mr. Gore recently told the New York Times.

The scientific consensus on climate change is rock solid. Those who still have doubts should follow the money trail.

Major corporations acknowledge the realities of climate change. Several have helped the U.S. Action Climate Partnership lobby for a moderate strategy to reduce emissions. The belief is that climate legislation is inevitable, and the business world has been held hostage by continued anxiety over how to address it.

Last month, a group of 285 investors representing more than $20 trillion in assets -- the Investor Network on Climate Risk -- called upon the private sector to invest more heavily in climate-change solutions.

Investor support for climate action has more than doubled since November, 2008, when 150 investors with $9 trillion in assets first came together to support government legislation to address climate change, according to Ceres, a national coalition of investors, environmental organizations, and public-interest groups.

Ceres, in a report issued in September, also found that there is a consensus in the insurance industry that climate change will trigger more extreme weather events. The report cited "the potential for significant market dislocations and potential contraction" in the economy, because insurers admit they don't have a cohesive plan to manage financial risks of climate change.

Consider also what's being said by the nonprofit group CNA, its military advisers, and other paid consultants of the U.S. government. In 2007, CNA's military advisory board identified climate change as a security threat because of its propensity to bring more frequent and stronger weather events. It believes that climate change could lead to more conflicts for limited resources and greater migration.

Last month, the Nobel Prize-winning Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, a United Nations group composed of 1,500 of the world's top climate scientists, issued a report that established stronger links between climate change and most forms of violent weather except tornadoes, by far nature's trickiest event to predict.

Some -- though not all -- of the anticipated increases in duration and intensity are attributable to the rise of man-made greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, according to the panel. The most prevalent greenhouse gas, carbon dioxide, is at the highest level it has been in centuries.

"Risk has already increased dramatically," said Maarten van Aalst, director of the International Red Cross/Red Crescent Climate Centre in the Netherlands and one of the study's lead authors.

Yet science continues to be overcome by politics, with naysayers confusing gullible laymen and office-holders with the argument that climate change is some odd Democratic Party conspiracy -- even though many moderate Republicans agree it isn't -- or a figment of Mr. Gore's imagination.

The closest the world has come to an international agreement to curb climate-altering emissions is the Kyoto Protocol that was signed in Japan in 1997. It is now outdated and expires at the end of 2012. Nearly 200 nations agreed in South Africa earlier this month to replace it with a better climate treaty by 2015, but former President Bill Clinton never took the original pact to Congress for ratification while he was in office because of fears it would be rejected.

On Monday, the weekend after the South Africa talks ended, Canada announced it will become the first nation to pull out of the Kyoto agreement, putting hopes for a global agreement in further doubt.

Climate change is not about a bunch of granola-munching hippies with nothing better to do than fabricate doomsday scenarios about the environment.

It has united most of the world's top scientists, plus much of the military, the business community, and the religious community.

Dr. Epstein did his part but, sadly, Americans still haven't taken the issue seriously enough.

Tom Henry is an editorial writer and columnist for The Blade.

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