The Week That Was December 29, 1997-January 3, 1998

An update from The Science & Environmental Policy Project

There's nothing like starting off the year with good news. Just as the health and fitness scolds are beginning to chime in about those self-indulgent pounds Americans put on over the holidays, a study pulls the statistical rug out from under them. Published this week in the New England Journal of Medicine, the study, by epidemiologist June Stevens and colleagues at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill, analyzed the fates of more than 300,000 white adults who were followed for 12 years. The conclusion? Being modestly chubby does not increase your risk for premature death--"modestly chubby" defined here as up to 100 pounds overweight.

NEJM editors explained: "...although some claim that every year 300,000 deaths in the United States are caused by obesity, that figure is by no means well established. Not only is it derived from weak or incomplete data, but it is also called into question by the methodologic difficulties of determining which of many factors contribute to premature death." And, as many researchers have observed in the hysteria over a similarly unsubstantiated health issue--second-hand smoke--the editors added: "...the medical campaign against obesity may have to do with a tendency to medicalize behavior we do not approve of."

No doubt. So-called health experts are already floating proposals to slap a federal tax on fast food to "encourage" the public into avoid fat and eat more broccoli. But according to the Washington Post, on this issue Americans are tuning out the run-amok behaviorists. In the newspaper's annual January 1 "What's In/What's Out for the New Year" article, it notes that working out is "out," liposuction is "in." It seems that what Americans want for 1998 is to have their cake and eat it too.

Down in Australia, enlightened activists are now making less cuddly elements of the animal kingdom a focus of concern. The Australian government has just placed the Great White Shark and the more placid Grey Nurse Shark on the endangered species list, meaning they can no longer be caught or killed. There are already an estimated 10,000 Great White Sharks in Australian waters, but Environment Minister Robert Hill shrugged off public concerns about "protecting" them, saying there are more deaths each year from bee stings and lightning strikes than from shark attacks. One wonders if that's with or without the shark nets around public bathing areas.

Another poster boy getting attention is the Tasmanian Devil, which according to the Australian Conservation Foundation, an activist group, is maintaining a toe-hold on existence only though captive breeding and the precarious survival of a small wild population in the southwest corner of Tasmania. That's news to Tasmanians apparently, who frequently encounter them as road kill. The Devil, known to Americans as a Warner Brothers cartoon "tornado," but locally as a land version of the piranha, is "secure" according to the University of Tasmania. Too, all native Tasmanian species are already under government protection. No matter. The flag is up! Let the "Save the Tasmanian Devil" campaign begin! We assume the funnel web spider will be next.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has proudly announced that 1997 was a record year, and we're not talking global temperature: The EPA referred the largest number of civil and criminal enforcement cases to the Justice Department in its history, and assessed the largest total amount of civil and criminal penalties in any one-year period. Among the "criminals" was Gary Malbon, vice president of Oceana Salvage in Virginia Beach, Virginia, who made the mistake of not removing freon from auto air-conditioners before crushing old cars up for scrap. According to the EPA press release on the case, Malbon faced a maximum of five years in the slammer and a $250,000 fine. Instead, the judge handed down the minimum--6 months home detention and starring in an industry lecture tour--since not even he was aware of the federal rules governing CFCs. Most of the public remains ignorant of the ratcheting down of environmental regulation, until they run afoul of it. Highly risky. In this case, EPA officials were outraged that they didn't score more blood.

On the global warming front, the journal Nature (Dec. 18) reports that Tom Wigley, senior scientist at the National Center for Atmospheric Research in Boulder, Colorado, and Ben Santer, atmospheric physicist at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in California, may have had enough of the IPCC spotlight after last year's flap over changes made to Chapter 8 of the IPCC's Second Assessment Report on global warming--changes made, according to a 1996 Nature editorial, to "ensure that it conformed" to the politically sensitive Policymakers Summary.

Of course, Nature, having since spiraled into advocacy on the global warming issue, characterized Wigley and Santer's possible departure from the IPCC in heroic terms: "Battling for science takes its toll on UN climate panel stalwarts." Nature claims Wigley and Santer have fallen victim to "US energy lobbyists," omitting the fact that objections to covert changes in Chapter 8 were first raised publicly in the Wall Street Journal by respected physicist Frederick Seitz, former president of the National Academy of Science and Rockefeller University. It further claims that opponents of the climate treaty have used the "apparent" discrepancy between surface temperature data and satellite temperature data (Yes, one goes up, the other goes down) to argue for a delay. (Well, that would seem to be a sticking point.) Wigley, in his farewell address, pledged himself to research that will help "prove conclusively that there is anthropogenic climate change." Santer hedged his career plans by saying he will not repeat his mistakes if given a second chance.

Whatever the outcome, fringe activists needn't worry. Over at the IPCC, under the new chairmanship of Al Gore acolyte Robert Watson, a decision has been made to appoint "review editors" to liaise between scientists and chapter authors, and to "sign-off" on all reports. In the next IPCC go-round, this is how Watson hopes to plug any embarrassing leaks.

Freedom of the Press is an under-appreciated asset among the smart set. Bill McKibben, author of The End of Nature, said in The Nation recently that debate is okay in journalism if the reporter is covering welfare reform or capital punishment, but applied to science such open-mindedness is "delusional." We've heard these sentiments before. German economist Ernst-Ulrich von Weizsacker, nephew of the former German president, remarked in his 1995 book Faktor Vier (Factor 4) that allowing any but IPCC scientists to comment on global warming was highly "bedenklich" (troublesome). Albert Gore, as early as 1992, was quietly suggesting to reporters that they attach little weight to scientists who question the greenhouse crisis, because such reports "undermine the effort to build a solid base of public support for the difficult actions we must soon take." Expect to hear more of this over the next year, especially if the Kyoto accord runs into trouble.

Meanwhile, everyone wants to get into the act. In the latest issue of the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, researchers at the University of Missouri-Columbia and Iowa State University claim that the number of serious assaults per 100,000 people increase by 3.7 incidents for each 1 degree F rise in temperature. Therefore, the authors conclude, "it is very possible for global warming to increase the annual serious and deadly assault rate by...about 115,000." Sounds like it's time to hire more police.

Crises aplenty next week.

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