Turned up to eleven: Fair and Balanced

Tuesday, August 12, 2003

Global Climate Change Redux
Interesting pointers from Charles Dodgson to some stories about the very odd weather conditions in several parts of the world right now, including ridiculous heat in Europe, and very cold water off the Eastern Seaboard. He also includes a link to an article at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute about the role of ocean currents in abrupt climate change.
Now, I am certainly no expert in climate change, but one of the major things that critics of the Climate Change science point out is that there are many apparently conflicting predictions out there, including predictions of substantial warming as well as predictions of a new Ice Age (that is the link). Now, I think the criticism tends to be over the top (Andrew Northup points this out, and is much funnier than me), but it seems that a great deal of the problem stems from basic misunderstanding of the question.

It is, by any measure, a tremendously difficult thing to predict what the global climate will be like at any point in the future. Many very smart people use very complicated models to predict very general things, but that is about it. However, much of the seeming conflict comes from increased understanding of the system. Let me see if I can give an example.

A good example that is readily accessible to me might be the historical use of antibiotics. It is clear that since the introduction of antibiotics in the first half of the 20th century (counting early Sulfa drugs), they have been a tremendous boon, extending lifespans, and, coupled with childhood vaccinations, making infectious disease a significantly smaller threat in developed countries. However, the way they are used has changed a great deal. While doctors still prescribe antibiotics frequently to children, this practice is being actively discouraged by experts in the field, and attempts to curb overuse of antibiotics in animal feed are being made (I believe it has been banned in Europe and Canada, and may soon be in the US). Now, the effects of antibiotics have not changed-giving constant low doses to livestock still makes them grow larger faster, but the overall effect on human health is now better understood.

Simply put, using antibiotics in feed, and overuse of antibiotics in medicine, particularly pediatrics, has lead to substantial resistance to antibiotics in many microbes, and resurgent bacterial infections as causes of death. Gram negative and particularly gram-positive sepsis has become a very large problem, particularly in patients undergoing surgical procedures. These infections tend to be difficult to treat because they can be overwhelming to the system, and antibiotics often fail to work because bacteria in hospitals are so often resistant to antibiotics.

All of this may seem to you to have nothing to do with Global Warming, but the reality is that our perspective on Climate Change is similar to that of microbiologists and doctors in the 1950's. We know that industrial production has short and long term economic benefits, and we suspect that there are high long term costs, but we don't know how they will turn out.

Now, of course it would have been ludicrous to suggest denying people lifesaving medicines then (or now) in the name of preventing the development of antibiotic resistance. However, prohibiting use in livestock might have been very helpful, if anyone had been farsighted enough to do that. Likewise, stressing development of rapid diagnostics rather than knee-jerk prophylactic use of antibiotics might have prolonged the useful life of early antibiotics, and stemmed the crisis. Likewise, taking action now to stem human perturbation of the global climate might cost a lot less, in the long run, than dealing with the consequences later, what ever they might turn out to be.