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A Nobel Prize in Economics a Climate Change Denier Might Love

It has been a scary month in climate science. Hurricane Michael and a frightening report from the U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change underlined the potential costs of human-caused global warming. Then to add insult to injury, William Nordhaus won the economics Nobel Prize. Nordhaus wa...

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The Octopus and the Orangutan
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The Future In Plain Sight
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Silent Partners
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Affluence and Discontent
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GLOBALFEVER

CLIMATE CHANGE THREATENS MORE THAN MEGASTORMS, FLOODS AND DROUGHTS. THE REAL PERIL MAY BE DISEASE
BY EUGENE LINDEN


Monday, Jul. 08, 1996
Floods. Droughts. Hurricanes. Twisters. Are all the bizarre weather extremes we've been having lately normal fluctuations in the planet's atmospheric systems? Or are they a precursor of the kind of climactic upheavals that can be expected from the global warming caused by the continued buildup of CO2 and the other so-called greenhouse gases? Scientists are still not sure. But one of the effects of the unusual stretch of weather over the past 15 years has been to alert researchers to a new and perhaps even more immediate threat of the warming trend: the rapid spread of disease-bearing bugs and pests.

Climate change, whether natural or man-made, may already be spreading disease and pestilence, according to a host of new studies, including a major report being prepared by the World Health Organization and other international institutions for release this summer. Malaria, for example, has been flourishing in recent years owing to unusually hot weather. Similarly, climate disruptions may be giving new life to such ancient scourges as yellow fever, meningitis and cholera, while fostering the spread of emerging diseases like hantavirus.

Underlying all these outbreaks is the same Darwinian mechanism: unusual weather such as dry spells in wet areas or torrential rains in normally dry spots tends to favor so-called opportunistic pests--rodents, insects, bacteria, protozoa, viruses--while making life more difficult for the predators that usually control them. Episodes of extreme weather are routinely followed by outbreaks of plagues, both old and new. Among the most recent examples:

CHOLERA. In 1991 a freighter coming from South Asia emptied its bilges off the coast of Peru. Along with the wastewater came a strain of cholera that found a home in huge algal blooms stimulated by unusually warm ocean waters and abundant pollution. The microbe then made its way into shellfish and humans. So far, the epidemic has infected over half a million people and killed at least 5,000.

HANTAVIRUS. In 1993 a six-year drought followed by heavy rains produced a tenfold increase in the population of deer mice in the American Southwest, leading to an outbreak of a deadly form of pulmonary hantavirus. The disease, which first appeared on a Navajo reservation, has since spread to 20 states and killed 45 people, nearly half of those infected.

PLAGUE. In 1994 a long monsoon in northern India followed by 90 consecutive days of 100[degrees]F heat drove rats into the cities. In Surat, they caused an outbreak of pneumonic plague. The ensuing panic killed 63 people and ultimately cost India $2 billion.

DENGUE FEVER. The coastal mountain ranges of Costa Rica had long confined dengue fever, a mosquito-borne disease accompanied by incapacitating bone pain, to the country's Pacific shore. But in 1995 rising temperatures allowed Aedes aegypti mosquitoes to breach the coastal barrier and invade the rest of the country. Dengue also advanced elsewhere in Latin America, reaching as far north as the Texas border. By September the epidemic had killed 4,000 of the 140,000 people infected.

Of all the infectious diseases humans will have to contend with as the world gets warmer, malaria may be the worst. Malaria is already the world's most widespread mosquito-borne illness. Rising temperatures will not only expand the range of Anopheles mosquitoes, but make them more active biters as well. Paul Epstein, an epidemiologist with the Harvard School of Public Health, notes that a temperature rise of 4 [degrees] F would more than double mosquito metabolism, forcing them to feed more often. A 4 [degrees] F rise in global temperatures could also expand malaria's domain from 42% to 60% of the planet. When temperatures rise above 104 [degrees] F, mosquitoes begin to die off--but at those temperatures, so do people and the crops on which they live.

Humans often make matters worse for themselves by the changes they make in their local environments. Unusually warm waters played an important role in the cholera epidemic that hit Latin America in 1991, but the outbreak was also exacerbated by sewage poured into the waters off Asia and Latin America, the destruction of pollution-filtering mangroves in the Bay of Bengal and overcrowding in the cities.

The same synergies that empower microbes also weaken our defenses against them. Heat, increased ultraviolet radiation resulting from ozone depletion, and pollutants like chlorinated hydrocarbons all suppress the disease-battling immune systems--both for humans and for other animals. Epstein, who is one of the principal authors of the upcoming WHO study, notes that in recent years variants of the class of viruses that includes measles have killed seals in the North Sea, lions in the Serengeti and horses in Australia--three very different animals widely scattered around the globe.

A common denominator in each case: abnormal weather had caused malnutrition, weakened animal immune systems and spurred the reproduction of viruses. Epstein also notes that once ordinarily benign microbes invade weakened animals, they can become sufficiently deadly to invade healthy populations. The real threat for people, says Epstein, may not be a single disease, but armies of emergent microbes raising havoc among a host of creatures. "The message I take home," he says, "is that diseases afflicting plants and animals can send ripples through economies and societies no less disastrous than those affecting humans."

A small but persistent group of critics, many of them supported by the oil and coal industries, still don't buy it. S. Fred Singer, president of the industry-funded Science and Environment Policy Project, argues that Epstein and his colleagues fail to note the positive health benefits of warmer nights and winters. Others, like John Shlaes, executive director of the Global Climate Coalition, suggest that when the world is faced with the pressing health problems stemming from overcrowded cities and the collapse of sanitation systems, the threat of disease caused by climate change may seem like a minor concern.

No one disputes the role of poverty and overpopulation in spreading disease. That is no reason to ignore the warnings sounded by Epstein and his colleagues, however. Scientists first raised alarms about climate change in the late 1980s, but the international community has taken few concrete steps to address the problem. The world is gambling, in effect, that problems in the future will not be serious enough to warrant inconvenience in the present. With each passing year, the future gets closer and that bet gets bigger.

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Short Take

In Memorium: Koko the Gorilla

Koko the gorilla died on June 19. She and a female chimpanzee named Washoe (who died in 2007) played an outsized role in changing how we view animal intelligence. Their accomplishments inaugurated deep soul-searching among us humans about the moral basis of our relationship with nature. Koko and Washoe have made it much more difficult for us to treat animals as commodities, in any way we wish.

I knew the two great apes when I was young and they were young, and I”ve closely followed the scientific, philosophical and moral upheavals they precipitated over the last five decades. In the 1960s and ’70s, they learned to use American sign language, and they came to understand that words could be combined to convey new meanings. It threw the scientific world into a tizzy, implying that sentience and languagewere not ours alone, that there was a continuum in higher mental abilities that linked animals and humans.

The problem for science remains unresolved: 3,000 years into the investigation of signal human attributes and we still don’t have rigorous ways to define language and intelligence that are agreed on and can be empirically tested. There remain a number of scientists who don’t think Koko and Washoe accomplished anything at all. Even if a scientist accepts one of the definitions of language that do exist, it’s nearly impossible to test it in animals because what is being examined is inherently subjective, and science demands objective, verifiable results.

Consider how hard it is to prove a lie beyond a reasonable doubt in court. Then consider trying to prove lying in an animal in accord with the much stricter standards of science.

As difficult as proving it may be, examples of apes lying abound. When Koko was 5, I was playing a chase game with her. When I caught her, she gave me a small bite. Penny Patterson, Koko’s lifelong foster parent and teacher, was there, and, in sign language, demanded, “What did you do?”

Koko signed, “Not teeth.”

Penny wasn’t buying it: “Koko, you lied.”

“Bad again Koko bad again,” Koko admitted.

“Koko, you lied.” But what was Koko’s intent — a central issue when it comes to proving a lie. What was actually going on in her head when she made the gestures for “not teeth?” As if that weren’t inscrutable enough, one of the guiding principles of scientific investigations of animal intelligence is what’s known as Morgan’s Canon: Scientists must not impute a higher mental ability if a behavior can be explained by something more primitive, for example, simple error.

Analogously, about 50 years ago, on a pond in Oklahoma, Washoe saw a swan and made the signs for “water” and “bird.” Was she simply noting a bird and water, or was she combining two of the signs she knew to describe an animal for which she had no specific word? The debate continued for decades and was unresolved when she died.

Since Washoe made those signs, there have been many more instances of apes combining words to describe something, but these examples still don’t prove they can combine words to arrive at a novel term, even if it seems obvious that they can. Faced with these ambiguities, many scientists have moved to studying whether animals can accomplish specific cognitive tasks, and a welter of credible findings show sophisticated abilities in animals ranging from crows to elephants.

Although science struggles with questions of general intelligence, language and intent, the public is in the “it’s obvious” camp, readily accepting evidence of animal sentience. The latest objects of fascination are the octopus — a relative of the clam! — and fish. Stories of cephalopod escape and problem-solving regularly go viral, and to the consternation of sushi lovers , John Balcomb’s book, “What a Fish Knows,” provides copious evidence that fish know a lot.

We tend to see animals as either personalities or commodities, or sometimes, both. When I wrote about octopus intelligence, I was amused by one octopus-oriented website that divided its space between stories of smart octopuses and recipes for cooking them. Perhaps the most extraordinary example of our schizophrenic view of animals occurred some years back when a chimp colony that included sign-language-using apes was disbanded and many of these onetime celebrities were shipped to a medical research lab to be used in Hepatitis B and AIDS drug testing.

I knew these chimps too, and visited them in their new environment. They were desperate to communicate with their human captors, but the staff didn’t know sign language. So insistent were Booee and Bruno with their signing that one handler put up a poster outside the cages showing some basic signs to help the humans respond. When I was there, three days after Booee had arrived, he was signing agitatedly for food and drink. But what I think he really wanted was reassurance: If the humans would respond to “gimme drink,” things were going to be OK.

Teaching Koko, Washoe and other animals some level of human and invented languages promised experimenters insight into the animal mind. But the animals seemed to seize on these languages as a way to make their wishes — and thoughts — known to their strange, bipedal wardens, who had no ability or interest in learning the animals’ communication system. For Koko, I believe, sign language was a way to make the best of a truly unnatural situation, and so she signed.

Science doesn’t know if great apes can invent terms or if they tell lies. And the tension between whether we view and treat animals as personalities or as commodities lives on. The truth is, Koko, Washoe and many other animals who have had two-way conversations with the people around them shatter the moral justification for the latter.



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