George Claassen

'Stop listening to politicians'

2005-06-24 09:10

What are you and I doing to put a brake on the rapid and accelerating pace of global warming scientists are increasingly warning us about?

Two weeks ago the national academies of science for each of the G8 countries, as well as those of Brazil, China and India, three of the most populous countries in the world, issued a dire warning to politicians: further procrastination on the most serious threat to life on Earth, global warming, could devastate the planet.

Although the warning was mostly directed at American president George Bush's refusal to sign the Kyoto protocol to the climate treaty, drawn up as far back as 1995, the scientists' honest evaluation was in reality directed at each human inhabitant of the third planet from the Sun.

What are the stats?

What are the statistics on which scientists have based their warning?

To give just a recent example, the results of the first global assessment of amphibians, announced in December last year, showed "more than 43% of all amphibians are in decline, 34 species are reported extinct, and another 113 species have almost or completely disappeared since 1980. Nearly one-third of amphibians worldwide are threatened," as Science wrote in an editorial on 15 April this year.

According to Mark Schaefer, president and chief executive officer of NatureServe in Arlington, Virginia, a correlation could be found between the results of the amphibian study and the Stanford University study that reported that 21% of bird species are extinction-prone and 6,5% are functionally extinct. "Other studies show that 23% of mammals are threatened," Schaefer wrote in Science.

He asked scientists to "work harder to inform political leaders about the urgency of environmental challenges, aid them in developing solutions, and urge them to respond".

But Schaefer, and now the G8 scientists also, have emphasised that "placing the future of life on Earth in the hands of governments alone is a risky strategy".

The truth is, governments and politicians - Bush is the prime example - responsible for formulating policies, often simply do not care what scientists say about anything.

Ignoring scientists, and Bush

South Africa's minister of health, Dr Manto Tshabalala-Msimang, for example ignores scientists about the inefficacy of multivitamins preventing HIV progressing to Aids.

And Bush's government has ignored the Kyoto agreement and has refused to sign it. Despite the warnings of scientists.

These politicians rather turn to quackery and pseudoscientists such as the political "scientist" Bjorn Lomborg of Denmark, who has forced true environmental scientists' urgent efforts to warn about global warming two decades back after the appearance in 1998 of his misleading book, The Skeptical Environmentalist - Measuring the Real State of the World.

Lomborg is nowadays very quiet in light of mounting evidence that human activities on the world's ecosystems are destroying life.

The Millennium Ecosystem Assessment found that about 60% of the ecosystem services that support life are being degraded or used unsustainably, as Schaefer put it.

US policy 'misguided'

"US policy is misguided. The Bush administration has consistently refused to accept advice of the US National Academy of Sciences," the president of the most prestigious national academy of sciences, the Royal Society, Lord May of Oxford, told reporters early June when the G8 scientists' report was released.

"Never before have we faced such a global threat. And if we do not begin effective action now it will be much harder to stop the runaway train as it continues to gather momentum," Lord May said.

Schaefer brings it back to the "tremendous power of individual action and consumer choice through information and economic incentives".

Which brings me back to the question: in what way does every individual make a difference? Do we drive a car when we can use public transport? Do we recycle products? Do we ever think about our own humble pledge to sustain this planet for our children and their children? Or are we all leaving it in the non-caring hands of politicians?

The simple fact is they cannot be trusted with our future. It is time that each individual strengthens the hands of science by listening to what science says, and acting on it.

  • George Claassen is science editor of Die Burger, South Africa's largest circulation Afrikaans daily newspaper. His book Geloof, Bygeloof en Ander Wensdenkery: Hoe Vrees en Vals Hoop Mense Mislei, will be appear shortly at Protea Boekhuis.

  • Send your comments to George or discuss this column now in our debating forum.

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