Scientific Spam on Climate Health Effects

By Kennedy Maize

Washington, D.C., April 28, 2001 — Having spent decades as a Washington reporter, I’ve read more government reports that I can count. Paper is policy currency in D.C.

But this week’s interagency report – A Human Health Perspective on Climate Change is the loopiest I can recall. This report, honchoed by the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences (one of the National Institutes of Health), claims, without anything remotely resembling evidence, that global warming could (note the conditional) increase the frequency or severity of a range of diseases including cancer, heart disease, food contamination, neurological disorders and mental health.

And if my wife had wheels, she’d be a bicycle.

It’s is clear what the aim of this report is. In Washington, it’s known as trolling for dollars. The life scientists, seeing the federal money flowing to meteorology, climatology, atmospheric physics, are attempting to dip their hand into the dollar stream.

The report – done by an ad hoc group including NIEHS, the Environmental Protection Agency, NOAA, State, Agriculture, and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention – is not coy about its aims. The report notes that prior examinations of purported health effects of global warming were extrapolations. “The purpose of this paper is to identify research critical for understanding the impact of climate change on human health….”

The tactic is the scary scenario, long employed by the advocates of doing anything and everything to attempt to prevent the unpreventable. “Climate change,” says the report, “may (my emphasis) exacerbate existing cardiovascular disease by increasing heat stress, increasing the body burden of airborne particles, and changing the distribution of zoonotic vectors that cause infectious diseases linked with cardiovascular disease.” Then, again, it may not. Give us dollars and let us try to answer the questions.

Here’s the entirely dubious take on mental health: “By causing or contributing to extreme weather events, climate change may result in geographic displacement of populations, damage to property, loss of loved ones, and chronic stress, all of which can negatively affect mental health.” But those phenomena already exist and mental health professionals have no clue how they actually affect the mental health of individuals or populations.

Possibly troubling to some greens and alternative energy advocates, the report also raises the specter that exotic materials used in photovoltaics, advanced batteries, and alternative fuels may increases incidences of cancer. “Very little is known” about these risks, says the report, again calling for more research (we’re talking federal dollars here).

Of course, very little is known about all the topics raised in the report. The likelihood that more research dollars would shed light on the topics is simply not credible. We know so little about the causes of cancer (not one disease), heart disease (ditto), asthma, and so forth. The chances that the ability to suss out how a warmer world would affect the diseases strains credulity far beyond the breaking point.

A disclaimer on the title page of the report (in type so small it is barely legible) states, “The content, views, and perspectives presented in this report are solely those of the authors, and do not reflect the official views, policies, or implied endorsement of any of the individual participating federal agencies or organizations.” This is boiler plate, and entirely disingenuous. It is “wink-wink, nudge-nudge” stuff.

NIEHS published the report and it resides on the agency’s web site. The paper was also published in Environmental Health Perspectives,” which says a lot about the state of peer review in climate science. Peer review in climate science, as several reports have observed, more often resembles a “circle of friends” than a rigorous examination of the science. If the report were a grant application to NIH, this garbage would be laughed out of the review committee.

But the audience is not NIH; it is the public and Congress. The presumption is that if the government says it is so, it must be.