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Humans fiddle while the planet heats up

Author of upcoming report on global warming, Stanford scientist Terry Root pulls no punches about what she says is happening before our eyes.

Terry Root is a familiar name to environment watchers--especially when the subject concerns global warming.

Root, a senior fellow at Stanford University, is co-author of a report on climate change that will be discussed at an international conference later this week in Belgium.

The report, "Climate Change 2007: Impacts, Adaptation and Vulnerability," investigates how global warming is already affecting the animal and plant kingdoms.

In an interview with CNET on the eve of the conference, Root outlined her concerns about global warming as well as how a complex scientific question has been politicized.

Q: How do you think global warming is going to impact the plant and animal kingdoms?
Root: Global warming isn't something in the future; it's already happening. The species that lay eggs in the springtime, they are laying eggs earlier. There are species that migrate back in the springtime, they are coming back earlier, and flowers are blooming. Daffodils are coming up now much earlier than they used to, and the change that has happened is about three weeks in the last 30 years. So it's about a week per decade, and that is quite a change when you only think that we've had a 0.7-degree-centigrade increase in temperature--and we are talking about now that it could possibly go as high as 6 degrees C. That really is quite a concern because that can lead to extinction of various species.

The species that are going to be most vulnerable are the ones that are very, very specialized and the ones that have very small ranges. The ones that are on the top of mountains, for instance right now; as the globe warms, they want to move up in elevation, but there is no place for them to go. So they are going to end up going extinct, and we have already seen some of that happening.

How would we know the tipping point, and when it would be irreversible?
Root: In biology, each species has what you would call a tipping point, and some of them are very close to the tipping point already and some of them are not. The species that are not very close to tipping points right now are things that live with us in our cities, like raccoons and skunks and things like that, but there are several species that are very rare already and that is something to worry about. For some species it certainly has already been the tipping point, for the butterfly that is moving up in Baja California, the tipping point has been reached. For other species that are able to move through Tijuana or San Diego, they are doing fine.

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So each species has its own different way, and that actually is one of the things that I am most concerned about because the species communities that we know today are not going to move together up north or up in elevation. One species is going to go one way and one species is going to go the other way, and this one is going to go fast, and that one is going to go slow, and one is not going to move at all, and so we have this tearing apart of communities, and it's tearing apart the biotic interactions of the species. So if we have a predator-and-prey relationship, if the predator moves, that's good for the prey because it can go up in abundance. But if the prey is a pest on our crops, then we don't want to have that happen.

How is global warming going to affect the food crops?
Root: When we are talking about crops, there are going to be very many different things affecting our crops that we have to worry about. We could have more pests because the predators are moving out of the way as I just said, then we could also have stress in the crops themselves because it's warmer. We can have stress in the crops because there is not as much water, and so you put all of those things together and our crops could actually be in danger.

What about humans? How would they be affected by global warming?
Root: Well, humans are smart enough a lot of people say, they just go indoors and have their air-conditioning. But that doesn't work. There are lots of people on this planet that do not have air-conditioning. So how are people really going to be affected? There is a whole wide range of things, like disease, that are going to be changing dramatically. We are going to have stresses because we are not going to have enough water. People will be stressed because it's going to be so warm.

Can you specify some of the diseases?
Root: The diseases are a little bit tough to understand because humans have been trying to suppress them, obviously. But now global warming is saying the vectors that are carrying the disease are able to move into new places where they have never been before...With malaria, it's changing; with dengue fever, it's changing; with hantavirus, it's changing. What we need to do is figure out how to control those and encounter what the global warming is doing.

Why do you think there continues to be so much resistance to evidence showing a correlation between carbon emissions and global warming?
Root: We could have done a lot more to work on the connection between the global warming and carbon. But there has been a real strong disinformation campaign that has been out there and has tried to actually confuse the public. People love to be in denial, but we can't have that anymore. A lot of people are going to be hurt monetarily, and we have to worry about that aspect, too.

Can we solve the problem of global warming?
Root: The answer to that is yes. The trouble is the time period within which we are going to be able to do that. Right now, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has put forward various scenarios, various stories that could happen in the future, and one of them is saying that if we have a very cooperative world where technology is traded very easily, then by 2050 we will indeed be able to decrease the amount of greenhouse gases going into the atmosphere. If we continue on business as usual, that's not going to happen for about a 100 years or so. So it really depends upon what we as people do and we can't--we can't--do that, and each one of us can do something. That will make a huge difference.

Too much has been talked about. What should be the action time?
Root: Right now. We have to actually start doing things as soon as we possibly can because what's happening is that we are putting enough greenhouse gases into the atmosphere that it is going to affect generations--many, many generations down the line. There is a new report out by Royal Society, which is a bunch of scientists in England, and they are saying that what we are doing right now is going to affect 500 generations from now. That is a very, very long time. People need to understand that what we are doing now is affecting people in the future.

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Are you satisfied with the research being done in environment sciences?
Root: Well, I am not sure I would even agree with that. Some of the developed countries have done quite a bit, and if you look at what our government is wanting us to look at and see how much money we put into the filthy research for global warming in America, it looks like a very large number. But if you break it down into what is actually being funded, very little of it is coming to various scientists. So, it's a bit of smoke and mirrors.

How do you see the contribution of developing countries in addressing this problem?
Root: Right now what we are saying is that it is the U.S. and other developed countries that have caused most of this problem. The developing countries have caused very little. As for the developing countries, they should not go through the Victorian revolution as the U.S. and the rest of the developed world has done. They should leapfrog over into the future. They can have cell phones instead of wires, make cars that are more efficient; they don't need to go through having coal-fired power plants; they can do natural gas, solar, wind, all sorts of different things, but they need help. They can't do it on their own.

What would be the three things you would like to see happen immediately?
First, I would like for us to stop having so much greed. Because if we have less greed, we will have more cooperation, and that will help us to get a better planet. Second, I think if we stop tribalism, that will also make a big difference instead of saying "that's their fault; we don't need to worry about them." A power plant in Beijing is the same as a power plant in Boston. It puts the particles into the air and the gases into the air, and it's affecting all of us. The third one, I think what I would like is for people not to be afraid of trying to solve a very large problem. This can be solved by breaking it into small pieces, and we can do that. We just have to do that.

What should be the focus of researchers to help stop global warming?
Root: We need to be spending a lot more money on energy possibilities, on wind, on solar, on geothermal. We are spending so much on nuclear and on coal in subsidies; take those subsidies and put them into the research for these others. It will make a huge difference.

What have you done yourself?
Root: Well, my husband and I have just done a big remodel of our house, and we did it green. We have put in energy-efficient windows, insulation, a special roof, a timer on our heater so that it isn't on all the time, and we have only florescent light bulbs in our home. Now, if we weren't going to do a remodel, we wouldn't have done them. They would've cost us too much. But when you are doing it. The other thing we do is we drive a hybrid, and I love driving the hybrid. I live close enough to my work that I walk. It's these little things that make a big difference.