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A sacrifice of species

SCIENTISTS have long warned that global warming is causing such changes in habitats that many plant and animal species might not be able to survive the heat. Now, 19 researchers have predicted just how severe the impact will be if current climate trends continue: By 2050, 15 to 37 percent of the 1,103 species they studied will be extinct or beyond the point of no return. The study in a recent issue of Nature should spur President Bush and Congress to end their irresponsible neglect of climate change and its consequences.

 

Mankind is already dooming species by clearing rain forests, damming rivers, and destroying other habitats. Unchecked warming of the globe caused by greenhouse gases, especially carbon dioxide, will in many cases accelerate this process. But climate change will also take a toll on species that have been relatively unaffected by human intervention.

The researchers, led by Chris D. Thomas, a professor of conservation biology at the University of Leeds in England, hedge their predictions by noting all the uncertainties in the computer models for climate change and species adaptations. To estimate the increase in temperatures, the study used a UN projection of 2.4 to 10.4 degrees Fahrenheit by 2100. The iffiness of their conclusion is reflected in the 15 to 37 percent range in the number of species that they project would fall victim to climate change. The lower figure is based in part on more optimistic assumptions about the rise in temperature and the ability of species to relocate in the face of climate changes.

But even the more conservative estimates represent a severe acceleration in the ongoing loss of wildlife. Extrapolating the fate of the 1,103 species studied by the researchers to all of nature means that 1.25 million species -- from exotic birds to certain mold spores -- would be lost. As things stand now, conservationists estimate, about 12,000 species face extinction, with several thousands of others possibly on the brink. Among the species wiped out by global warming could be organisms with the potential to cure diseases like cancer.

George W. Bush campaigned for the presidency promising to regulate carbon dioxide emissions but quickly reneged on that pledge, rejected the Kyoto Protocol on global warming, and said voluntary efforts by US industry would reduce greenhouse emissions. But a recent Washington Post survey on such efforts found that just a few dozen US companies have signed on to the president's program and of them only 14 have managed even to set goals. In Britain, the chief scientist in Tony Blair's government, Sir David King, has criticized Bush's inaction and said global warming presents a greater threat than terrorism.

Climate change is a global problem, but it is difficult to imagine an effective response to it when the globe's sole superpower, the source of 25 percent of greenhouse gases, stays on the sidelines.

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