The Planet Can't
By David Ignatius
The Washington Post
Climate change is real and must be addressed
now. The warnings are coming from frogs and
beetles, from melting ice and changing ocean currents,
and from scientists and responsible politicians around
the world. And yet what is the US government doing
about global warming? Nothing. That should shock the
conscience of Americans.
Actually, the Bush administration's policy is worse
than doing nothing. It has resisted efforts by other
nations to discuss new actions that could reduce
emissions of carbon dioxide before the global
climate reaches a disastrous tipping point. And it
muzzles administration scientists to keep them from
warning about the seriousness of the issue. The
administration's position is that more research is
needed - and then, as evidence grows that humans are
adding to global warming, it calls for still more
is no better. Most members apparently are waiting
for permission from lobbyists and campaign
contributors before getting serious about climate
change. The McCain-Lieberman bill to cap emissions
languishes in the Senate; Pete Domenici, the
powerful chairman of the Senate Energy Committee,
has issued a white paper calling for ideas for
legislation, but there's no word when a bill might
emerge from his committee. Meanwhile, the Senate
environment committee is also claiming jurisdiction.
So what we have in the Senate is a turf fight. And
don't even talk about the House. Maybe members would
get interested if they thought Dubai was behind
corporations such as General Electric and Citigroup
have concluded that global warming is real, and they
are beginning to mobilize their resources to do
something about it. This business activism may offer
the best hope of moving government off its duff. I
asked Tom Donohue, the head of the US Chamber of
Commerce and one of Washington's savviest political
operators, when he might commit his organization's
considerable clout to taking action on this issue.
He's still in the "needs more study" mode, but he
added, "When the time is right, we'll be as helpful
as we can." Hey, Tom, the time is right.
week brings new evidence that global climate change
is real and that it's advancing more rapidly than
scientists had expected. This past week brought a
report in Science that the Antarctic is losing as
much as 36 cubic miles of ice a year. Last month
researchers reported that glaciers in Greenland are
melting twice as fast as previously estimated. One
normally cautious scientist, Richard Alley, told The
Post's Juliet Eilperin he was concerned about the
Antarctic findings, since just five years ago
scientists had been expecting more ice. "That's a
wake-up call," he said. "We better figure out what's
don't have the luxury of ordering up more studies of
global warming. Andrew Revkin of the New York Times
reported in January that colorful harlequin frogs
found in Latin America are dying at alarming rates
because of a fungus that seems to be linked to
global warming. Doug Struck explained last week in
The Post that climate change is helping the ravenous
mountain pine beetle devour forests in British
Columbia, killing more trees than wildfires or
logging. Similar findings are stacked in a
depressing pile in my study that keeps getting
we come to the Bush administration - the folks who
once warned that it would be folly to wait so long
for evidence that the "smoking gun" might be a
mushroom cloud. Their spirit of vigilance was
applied to Iraqi weapons of mass destruction, which
turned out not to exist - but not to climate change,
which does. In a meeting in Montreal last December,
the chief American delegate, Harlan L. Watson, got
so peeved about a proposal for new global
"mechanisms" to carry out the 1992 Kyoto Protocol
that he walked out. The American side relented after
the wording was softened to "opportunities," and
there's now at least a hope for future talks about
talks about global warming.
But woe unto any administration official who becomes
so concerned about global warming that he actually
tries to sound the alarm. James E. Hansen, the top
climate scientist at NASA, found that political
minders at NASA headquarters had ordered a review of
his lectures, papers, interviews and Internet
postings after he called for quick reductions in
greenhouse gas emissions to ease global warming. A
24-year-old former Bush campaign worker who
allegedly had been involved in efforts to muzzle
Hansen later resigned - after reports surfaced that
he had fudged his resume.
America's political antics are forgivable, but not
on this issue. As evidence grows that human activity
is accelerating dangerous changes in the world's
climate, the Bush administration's excuses for
inaction are running out. History will not forgive
political leaders who failed to act on this issue,
and neither should voters.
Rain Forest Gets Too Much Rain, and Animals Pay
Jose, Costa Rica - Eduardo Carrillo was on a field
trip to Corcovado National Park with a group of his
biology students last November when he realized that
something was wrong. In just over a mile, the group
found five dead monkeys.
more were in agony, he said later - emaciated, near
death, sitting on the forest floor unable to climb a
never seen something like this," said Dr. Carrillo,
a wildlife ecologist at the University of Costa
Rica. At first he suspected yellow fever, which
swept through monkey populations in the 1950's. So
he hurried back to San JosÃ©, the capital, and
convened a team of scientists, which included
wildlife biologists, a microbiologist, a geneticist
and a veterinarian.
in the park, a relatively remote 212-square-mile
tropical rain forest preserve that stretches along
the Pacific coast and inland, reported sightings of
other dead animals, including deer, toucans, macaws
mid-November, park officials closed Corcovado to
visitors after tourists, despite warnings not to
handle wildlife, began bringing sick animals to
ranger stations in the hope of saving them.
Carrillo and his colleagues, as well as government
officials, worried they might have a mini-epidemic
on their hands. But tissue samples from Corcovado
spider monkeys - Costa Rica's most endangered
species of monkey - sent to a laboratory at the
University of Texas for analysis showed no evidence
of a virus or other pathogen.
story of what really happened in Corcovado, or at
least the prevailing theory, is less worrisome in
the short term than a disease outbreak, but it has
the potential to be deadly serious.
Rican researchers think the affected animals starved
to death because of a lack of available food sources
and an inability to forage for food during several
months of extreme rain and cold.
September, October and November brought excessive
rainfall, nearly twice the monthly averages, and
unusually low temperatures to many parts of Costa
Rica, especially the Osa Peninsula, which juts into
the Pacific in the south.
Corcovado averages about 24 inches of rain in
September, 31 inches in October and 20 inches in
November. In 2005, more than 39 inches fell in the
park in September, 59 inches in October, and 41
inches in November.
is impossible to know if the weather in late 2005 is
related to climate change, the Costa Rican team
studying Corcovado worries that if the climate
changes and produces more extreme weather events
like this, animal populations may not bounce back
easily, said Gustavo GutiÃ©rrez-Espeleta, a wildlife
population geneticist at the University of Costa
weather caused several problems for the monkeys.
Some fruit trees did not bear fruit during the rainy
months. Others produced fruit but it fell to the
ground early, leaving nothing on the trees for long
periods of time.
Compounding the problem, researchers say, was that
monkeys were unable to look for food because of the
have a long period of days where it's raining,
raining, raining, they just stay in the tree
waiting, and they don't eat," said Grace Wong, a
wildlife conservation researcher at National
University in San Jose.
monkeys need sun to dry off," said Ronald SÃ¡nchez
Porras, an ecologist at the University of Costa
Rica. "You can see in the tree when the monkey moves
his body to try to shake the water off. But when it
rains like this, it's impossible."
species of monkeys live in Costa Rica, and all four
are found in Corcovado.
squirrel and capuchin monkeys rely on a diet of
fruit, insects, leaves and stems; howler monkeys
mainly eat leaves. The spider monkeys consume a diet
almost exclusively of fruit, leaving them the most
monkeys in Corcovado also appear to have very low
genetic diversity, said Dr. GutiÃ©rrez-Espeleta, the
wildlife population geneticist.
been finding that when we measure genetic
variability, the spider monkey is the worst in Costa
Rica," he said.
GutiÃ©rrez-Espeleta said he believed that a genetic
bottleneck might have occurred several years ago
among Corcovado's spider monkeys, leading to
reduction in their genetic diversity.
addition to being hungry, the monkeys that died were
severely dehydrated, apparently having been unable
to venture down from the trees for water.
have stressed their immune systems to the brink,
causing parasites and infections that occur normally
to become deadly.
collected from the park showed elevated levels of
usually benign parasites, a sign, Dr.
Guttierez-Espeleta said, that the animals' immune
systems were not functioning properly.
living near the edges of the park or outside the
park in nearby privately owned rain forests seemed
to fare better than those living deep in the park,
probably because they had access to fruit trees and
other crops planted by people.
saw toucans here before, but they were fighting
outside my office because we have banana trees,"
said Marleny Jimenez, who owns the Drake Bay
Wilderness Resort, a tranquil getaway at the
headwaters of the RÃo Agujas, about five miles up
the coast from Corcovado.
Bosque del Cabo, a 650-acre private rain forest
preserve and eco-resort at the southern end of the
Osa Peninsula, also near Corcovado, most of the
property's fruit trees did not bear fruit during the
excessive rains, said the proprietor, Kim Spier.
also noticed that we had many more animals,
especially monkeys, than usual that were trying to
get into the kitchen or our fruit storage area to
steal food," Ms. Spier wrote in an e-mail message.
some estimates hold that as many as half the spider
monkeys in Corcovado died in the last few months of
2005, the scientists cannot be certain, in large
part because it is not known exactly how many
animals live in the park.
Wildlife Conservation Society and Conservation
International provided money for research into the
animal deaths and will pay for follow-up visits to
the park every other month.
Researchers will then tag monkeys to keep tabs on
troop populations and mark trees to monitor fruit
lesson is that we should document as much as
possible from now on with this kind of event and try
to establish a link to the climate change process,"
said Carlos Manuel Rodriguez, Costa Rica's minister
of the environment and energy.
several decades, Costa Rica has had a strong record
of natural resource protection, with strict rules on
what sort of resource extraction is allowed on
country uses a gasoline tax to pay landowners for
"environmental services" provided by forests on
their land, like watershed protection, greenhouse
gas mitigation, biodiversity and scenic beauty.
Rica is committed to reversing the process of
climate change," Mr. Rodriguez said, citing the
country's rain forest preservation efforts, ban on
oil drilling and interest in renewable energy.
don't see the rest of the world doing a good job,"
Corcovado's starving monkeys, the Costa Rican
scientists worry, may be early messengers of future
problems associated with a changing climate.
"It's proof," said Ms. Wong, the wildlife
conservation expert, "that sometimes we can
establish a national park and say, 'We're taking
care of animals here,' but the situation is out of
the control of humans."
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