Thursday, April 30, 2009

FIRESIDE CHAT: Three Decades of the CEP Credential and Environmental Professional Certification (d)


Mechanics of Certification

Certification Program expenses are paid primarily from administrative fees to applicants and annual dues of CEPs. Environmental professionals usually download the CEP application from the ABCEP web site, as electronic information transfer is fastest and least expensive. CEPs are awarded in any of five functional areas, which represent areas of emphasis of a practitioner. Applicants have a choice of five functional areas, ranging from emphasis on technical to academic to administrative functions, as follows:

--Environmental Assessment: evaluation of risks to (or past impacts upon) the occupants of ecosystems, workplaces, or residences exerted by physical, chemical, or biological agents to which exposure may occur (or may have occurred);

--Environmental Documentation: preparation of reports, presentation of facts, and completion of other actions to establish administrative records demonstrating compliance with environmental statutes, regulations, and permits;

--Environmental Operations: management of facilities in accordance with requirements of environmental statutes, regulations, and permits;

--Environmental Planning: arrangement for future facility construction, operation, and/or management in accordance with anticipated requirements of environmental statutes, regulations, and permits (or permit renewals); and

--Environmental Research and Education: conducting and reporting on original investigations into the dynamics of environmental phenomena, and teaching about such phenomena as investigated by oneself and/or other investigators.

When completed, the application is returned to ABCEP’s office via the internet, and an administration fee is paid. Applicant files are sent to the CRB Chairperson, who assigns a Certification Review Panel (identified by a unique number). Assigned CRB members may recuse themselves if they have a conflict of interest, which happens from time to time.

Candidates arrange to have official transcripts attesting to their studies and degrees, and eight supporting letters, sent to ABCEP’s office, from which they are distributed with other application materials to the candidate’s Certification Review Panel. The Lead Reviewer arranges separate interviews with the candidate and a designated supervisor or client, at which any issues of concern expressed by Panel members may be raised. Although not all Panel members participate in interviews, each candidate is richly represented to each Panel member. Indeed, Panel members become quite familiar with candidates’ education, affiliations, experience, publication record, and abilities.

ABCEP aims for completion of candidate evaluation within about three months of application assignment to a Panel. Panel members are asked to return their reviews (‘Action Reports’) to the Lead Reviewer, ABCEP office, and CRB Chairperson within one month of assignment. The Lead Reviewer is asked to complete his/her own evaluation, as well as conduct interviews, within three months of assignment. The Lead Reviewer recommends to me as CRB Chairperson either certification or denial of certification based upon synthesis of all individual Panel member peer reviews into a single full-Panel recommendation. My role is to make the final decision to certify or deny certification based upon consideration of all peer reviews and other communications, to assure that the full-Panel recommendation was fair rather than biased. I rarely if ever have reversed a Lead Reviewer. CEP certificates are issued, signed by the Lead Reviewer and CRB Chairperson.

Certification Maintenance. To remain certified, CEPs must keep current in their field. In 1994 ABCEP established the Certification Maintenance Program, requiring CEPs to demonstrate via a point system that they have kept current by engaging in a range of professional activities. Such activities have included employment, attending conferences, teaching courses and workshops, publishing articles, and serving the profession on committees or in other ways. ABCEP’s program functioned on a five-year cycle of Certification Maintenance Point evaluation. Requirements of the Council on Engineering and Scientific Specialty Boards for our continued accreditation, however, have required ABCEP to join many if not most other professions by adopting an annual certification maintenance cycle period.

Status and Stature of the CEP Credential

As shown, the CEP credential was unique and forward-looking in 1979, its year of inception. Today it remains so. I know of no other credential that has achieved accreditation based upon such a dynamic, broad body of knowledge that is defined, not as much by a list of facts, but by a list of the journals and other sources of emerging information. CEP examinations are tailored to the specialization of each candidate via the choice of responding to five essay questions from a larger, wide-ranging list.

CEPs are certified based not upon their ability to memorize lists of facts, but based upon their ability to function in a regime of fast-paced publication of research and administrative developments. In my own experience, for example, regulatory changes soon may respond to findings in recent years that airborne particulate matter (PM) can exert adverse health effects with brief (real-time) exposure (Michaels 1996, 1997, 1998; Michaels and Kleinman 2000). Regulatory limits on airborne PM currently reflect the previous belief that only longer-term exposures could damage health, resulting in today’s regulatory limits on only the daily and annual average concentrations of airborne PM. This example indicates clearly that no short-answer or multiple-choice questions will reflect our evolving understanding of the public health and regulatory issues relating to airborne PM… but essayists can conduct research into the scientific and/or regulatory literature to produce a professional-quality explication of the pros and cons of adding, say, a one-hour average to the U. S. Environmental Protection Agency’s arsenal of airborne PM regulations.

The uniqueness of the CEP credential has garnered respect and acceptance. Indeed, as a result, the CEP has earned broad recognition in hiring, salary determination, and career advancement in government, industry, consulting, academia, and the military. The military, for example, has exhibited a special interest in the CEP credential, in part because military environmental professionals must maximize their credibility among civilian populations where military base closures in or near civilian communities are planned or underway. These projects are enormous, and enormously expensive. Their costs can be mitigated significantly if base closure proposals are accepted by civilian stakeholders. In short, competence enhances credibility, and credibility enhances economy.

That reasonable people are more likely to accept reasonable proposals that are presented by credible professionals is a truism in almost any arena, not just in the military. The CEP credential has contributed significantly to validation of senior environmental professionals in many or most arenas. Having earned my own CEP in the Functional Area of Environmental Assessment has enhanced my career as an environmental professional specializing in toxic substances and assessing risks to human health potentially posed by environmental factors. I am proud of ABCEP and the CEP credential conferred on me, which have enhanced my credibility and career, just as so many of my CEP colleagues have expressed similar feelings about the positive role of ABCEP and the CEP credential in their careers.

Literature Cited

Michaels, R. A.; and M. T. Kleinman (2000). Incidence and apparent health-significance of brief airborne particle excursions. Aerosol Science and Technology, 32:93-105, February;

Michaels, R. A. (1998). Permissible daily airborne particle mass levels encompass brief excursions to the ‘London fog’ range, which may contribute to daily mortality and morbidity in communities. Applied Occupational and Environmental Hygiene, 13(6):385-94, June;

Michaels, R. A. (1997). Particulate matter policy. Science, 278:1,696 (letter); 5 December;

Michaels, R. A. (1996). Airborne particle excursions contributing to daily average particle levels may be managed via a one-hour standard, with possible public health benefits. Aerosol Science and Technology, 25:437-44, November.


The National Association of Environmental Professionals (NAEP) and involved NAEP members exhibited pioneering vision in establishing the CEP credential. They exhibited continued vision in sustaining it throughout its tenure within NAEP, and they exhibit continuing vision today in supporting the Academy of Board Certified Environmental Professionals (ABCEP) as the CEP’s new guardian. Past and present members of the Certification Review Board (CRB) and of ABCEP have exhibited admirable dedication and volunteerism in serving the CRB, ABCEP, and the environmental professions. They did so, and they continue to do so, in a manner that has preserved and enhanced our credibility over the past three decades. I especially acknowledge the inspiring contributions of my predecessors as CRB Chairperson: Sherman Rosen (1979-‘86) and Charles F. (‘Chuck’) Zirzow (1986-‘93), whose funeral at Arlington National Cemetery I proudly and sadly attended in 1997.

For published version see:
Michaels, Robert A. Three decades of the CEP credential and environmental professional certification. Environmental Practice (Cambridge University Press), 11(1):52-56, March 2009

Copyright © 2009 by The Center for Health Risk Assessment and Management, a Division of RAM TRAC Corporation

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

FIRESIDE CHAT: Three Decades of the CEP Credential and Environmental Professional Certification (c)



The problem of validating professionals, not only environmental professionals, resembles the problem of identifying a Philosopher King as guardian of Utopia in Plato’s “Republic.” Plato had strong feelings about the type of person who should serve, something along the lines of being intelligent, philosophical, objective, and benevolent… in short, much like Plato himself. Yet, selecting such an individual (other than oneself) was difficult, as the selection would depend upon the choice of selectors. The problem was recursive: a valid Philosopher King could be chosen only by validated selectors, who would have been chosen by validated selectors of the selectors, with no clear end to the chain. Few utopias, therefore, exist.

Ominously for democracies, Plato’s problem proved intractable. Ominously for many professions, including environmental, multiple certifying organizations have appeared, raising the thorny platonic issue of how each profession might select a valid Philosopher King. Can the environmental professions select a certifying body trustworthy and trusted among consumers of their services? Toward that end, certifying organizations have enhanced the credibility of their professional credentials via accreditation by organizations that serve multiple professions under one umbrella.

In April 2004 ABCEP’s CEP credential received accreditation by the Council of Engineering and Scientific Specialty Boards headquartered in Annapolis, Maryland. ABCEP’s accreditation, reviewed periodically, has been maintained consistently. The Council accredits Certified Industrial Hygienists and other widely-recognized professionals. Its Member Boards include the following not-for-profit certifying organizations (see

--AACE International,
--Academy of Board Certified Environmental Professionals,
--American Academy of Environmental Engineers,
--American Board of Health Physics,
--American Board of Industrial Hygiene,
--American Indoor Air Quality Council,
--American Society of Professional Estimators,
--Board of Environmental, Health & Safety Auditor Certifications,
--Building Inspection Engineering Certification Institute,
--Certified Environmental, Safety and Health Trainer Board of Certification,
--Institute of Hazardous Materials Management,
--Institute of Professional Environmental Practice,
--National Academy of Forensic Engineers, and
--Society of Wetlands Scientists Professional Certification Program.

Philosophy of CEP Candidate Evaluation

The philosophy underpinning evaluation of CEP candidates is special. Most fundamentally, evaluation is conducted via peer review, in contrast to other credentials that are awarded based upon results of a short-answer or multiple-choice examination. CEP applicants must show evidence of having earned a college or university degree from an accredited institution, that is, one whose accreditation is recognized by the Council on Higher Education Accreditation, which weeds out ‘diploma mills’. ABCEP assumes that CEP candidates who earned such a degree were tested sufficiently via fact-based short-answer and multiple-choice questioning in their fields of expertise and beyond. Accordingly, CEP candidate examinations are conducted via essay questions completed without supervision and submitted whenever ready.

Peer review serves well in selecting CEPs from among the population of applicants, just as it serves well in selecting candidates for public office in our representative democracy, in which a broad electorate of peers can vote. Peer review also underpins the American justice system, in which defendants are judged by a jury of their peers. It underpins our system of evaluating professional manuscripts submitted for publication in academic and technical journals. In short, peer review, which is the best solution yet devised to solve the platonic problem of selecting a Philosopher King, is embodied in democratic government, in the jury-based justice system, in the academic publication system… and in evaluation of candidates for the CEP credential.

The CEP is special also in facilitating self-evaluation by potential applicants before they apply. This is accomplished by publicizing all essay examination questions (on ABCEP’s web site, from which applicants choose five to answer. In the CEP evaluation system, questions are not sprung on candidates by surprise. Unlike correct-or-incorrect multiple-choice or short-answer questions, essay responses are tailored to each candidate’s professional experience. Essay responses facilitate evaluation of the degree of depth and clarity of the candidate’s thinking, and his or her ability to communicate and persuade. More than being correct or incorrect, CEP candidate essay responses are judged by their quality and credibility, much like a manuscript submitted for publication. Each essay question is no more a surprise to the applicant than is the question addressed by a manuscript submitted for publication by a prospective author. In both cases a professional-quality product is expected and, if not provided, the result typically is rejection.

Three side benefits result from public availability of CEP examination essay questions. First, exam security is assured: no potential applicant conceivably can gain advantage over any other by obtaining prior knowledge of exam questions, as each potential applicant has equal prior access. Second, the ability to evaluate one’s readiness prior to application is enhanced. Third, the rejection rate of CEP candidates is, I believe, relatively low. When last calculated, the rejection rate was about 10 percent. This low number probably reflects the decision of less-prepared potential applicants to develop further professionally before actually applying for the CEP credential.

The CEP also is special if not unique in revolving around a Certification Review Panel whose activities are coordinated by a Lead Reviewer. Each CEP candidate is evaluated by such a Panel, to which fully seven members of the (currently 34-member) Certification Review Board are assigned. The large size of each Panel protects candidates against the possibility of a ‘rogue review’, as just over half of all respondents must favor certification; one dissenter will not prevail. Further, the Panel system preserves independence of peer reviews by directing all reviews to the Lead Reviewer, who is the only team member who sees the full scope of Panel member responses.


or see:
Michaels, Robert A. Three decades of the CEP credential and environmental professional certification. Environmental Practice (Cambridge University Press), 11(1):52-56, March 2009

Copyright © 2009 by The Center for Health Risk Assessment and Management, a Division of RAM TRAC Corporation

Sunday, April 26, 2009

FIRESIDE CHAT: Three Decades of the CEP Credential and Environmental Professional Certification (b)


The CEP Credential

To validate senior environmental professionals, the CEP credential (CEP, for Certified Environmental Professional) was instituted by the National Association of Environmental Professionals (NAEP), a membership organization that was founded in 1975. By 1976 NAEP had 400 members (on its way to upwards of 3,000), and by 1978 a Code of Ethics and Standards of Practice that in later years gained recognition (in Federal Court) for the environmental professions generally, that is, among environmental professionals, whether or not they were CEPs or members of NAEP.

NAEP instituted its Environmental Certification Program, conferring the CEP credential, in 1979, and appointed Sherman J. Rosen as the first Certification Review Board (CRB) Chairperson. Charles F. (‘Chuck’) Zirzow succeeded Sherm Rosen in 1986. I succeeded Chuck Zirzow in 1993.

The Certification Program could not remain within NAEP. An antitrust case in Federal court established the precedent that certifying organizations must serve entire professions, not just members of a particular professional organization. Although NAEP had ceased requiring membership for CEP candidates, the Certification Program also had to become administratively independent of its parent membership organization in all matters involving certification. Ultimately, NAEP divested itself of the Certification Program, in 1993 forming ABCEP, which substantially adopted NAEP’s Code of Ethics and Standards of Practice. In 1999 NAEP incorporated ABCEP as a separate, 501(c)(6) not-for-profit corporation (see Fig. 1 for a timeline of events relating to the CEP credential).

ABCEP By-Laws define these purposes:

(1) to periodically evaluate professional standards to which environmental professionals should adhere,
(2) to maintain a certification credential for meritorious environmental professionals,
(3) to evaluate candidates applying for certification,
(4) to bestow upon candidates found to be meritorious relative to applicable professional standards
the status of Certified Environmental Professional (CEP),
(5) to maintain and enhance the credibility of the CEP credential,
(6) to render the CEP credential available to qualified environmental professionals by all means
consistent with the Academy’s Bylaws; and
(7) to do everything necessary, proper advisable, or convenient for the accomplishment of the Academy’s
purposes and objectives and to do all other things incidental to them or connected to them that are
not otherwise forbidden.


or see:
Michaels, Robert A. Three decades of the CEP credential and environmental professional certification. Environmental Practice (Cambridge University Press), 11(1):52-56, March 2009

Copyright © 2009 by The Center for Health Risk Assessment and Management, a Division of RAM TRAC Corporation

Friday, April 24, 2009

FIRESIDE CHAT: Three Decades of the CEP Credential and Environmental Professional Certification (a)

The main purpose of the CEP credential (for Certified Environmental Professional), now three decades old, is to validate senior environmental practitioners. The CEP was instituted by the National Association of Environmental Professionals (NAEP) in 1979, in an era of rapid growth in population, pollution, environmental specialties, and specialists. NAEP is a membership organization that was founded in 1975. Antitrust legislation and legal opinion, however, soon required professional certifying organizations to become independent of their industry’s membership organizations. Accordingly, in 1993, NAEP established ABCEP as an independent certifying body conferring the CEP on meritorious senior environmental professionals. To establish credibility among practitioners outside of NAEP, and enhance credibility among consumers of environmental services, ABCEP also obtained accreditation. The CEP was accredited in 2004 by the Council of Engineering and Scientific Specialty Boards. Evaluation of CEP candidates is based upon peer review, as in the American justice system, requiring trial of defendants before a jury of their peers; and as in the academic peer review system for evaluating manuscripts submitted for publication. These and other special features of the CEP, such as in-depth candidate evaluation via interviews and essays, have earned broad recognition of the CEP credential in government, industry, consulting, academia, and the military.

Evolution of Environmental Professional Certification

Environmental professional certification programs evolved from earlier forms of validation including apprenticeships, training programs, education programs, and licensing. In the Industrial Revolution, would-be professional artists and artisans apprenticed themselves to practitioners who had earned favorable reputation. Generations of mentors and students proved themselves by practicing their trades and, if they did what they did well, they did well. Our Information Age, however, has imposed new requirements on many practitioners. Beyond training they might need certificates attesting to training, degrees attesting to learning, and licenses allowing them to practice. The Information Age, ironically, was compensating for information inadequacy, as the number of practitioners and specialties grew, and as the distances over which practitioners were recruited expanded more rapidly than word of mouth, and so more rapidly than reputation.

With population growth also came space and resource limitations, increasing urgency of land use and pollution issues, and environmental practitioners to address them. They were a new breed of professional, with expertise drawn from the pedigreed disciplines, from sciences and social sciences such as physics, biology, chemistry, political science, and communications. Environmental professionals were hybrids, each mongrel breed combining a unique combination of characteristics drawn from the traditional pedigreed disciplines. New rules emerged for accepting them.

In Darwinian fashion, as demand for environmental services increased, so did the number of specialists to fill them. In response, new forms of validation arose, such as college degrees that credited ‘life experience’, though the validity of these validations was itself uncertain. The growing public need to qualify environmental practitioners, coupled with the proliferation of specialties and specialists, together created a niche for organizations conferring environmental professional certification, including ABCEP: the Academy of Board Certified Environmental Professionals, which offers the CEP credential, now three decades old.


or see:
Michaels, Robert A. Three decades of the CEP credential and environmental professional certification. Environmental Practice (Cambridge University Press), 11(1):52-56, March 2009

Copyright © 2009 by The Center for Health Risk Assessment and Management, a Division of RAM TRAC Corporation

Friday, April 17, 2009

FIRESIDE CHAT: Health Care Reform (c)


Besides egalitarian risk-sharing vs. profit-motivated risk-minimizing, a second fundamental issue must be considered in public policy on healthcare financing: the cost of government bureaucracy vs. the cost of private bureaucracy. The preponderance of experience suggests that competition in our capitalist economic system increases efficiency, whereas government administration diminish it. Partly for that reason, the U. S. Postal Service was transformed into a quasi-public corporation (not quite privatized) decades ago, but few would argue that its efficiency has been increased, given the sustained rise in postal prices at rates exceeding inflation.

With the above considerations in mind, I prefer hybrid healthcare delivery and financing systems, drawing upon private and public funds and regulated to conform with reasonable public policy objectives. More important, this seems to be the preference of the Obama Administration. Intrinsic to accepting a continued role for private-pay/private-insurance models in healthcare is the question of how to reconcile the goals of public policy vs. business where they conflict (which is not everywhere).

One example of the need to reconcile conflicting interests is: if health insurers can seek information about potential subscribers as a basis for deciding whether and at what price to insure them, how can patients’ privacy be protected? In our digital age, clearly, obstacles exist. Such obstacles, however, do not diminish the need to formulate policy, just as defining your property rights is important even though robberies constitute inevitable obstacles to assuring your rights. If a physician learns that you are infected with HIV, for example, is he or she obligated to maintain your privacy, even though you might obtain inexpensive medical insurance if the information is suppressed? Is the physician obligated to private insurers, or to the public? Is he/she obligated to report the information to public health authorities to protect other members of the public against transmission of your HIV infection? What is the physician’s obligation to a fetus, or to public coffers, when the HIV-infected individual is a pregnant female, or her husband or her mate?

I don’t pretend to know the answers to these questions. I do seek to impart the complexity of issues relating to healthcare and healthcare reform. As efficiencies increase, as by digitizing medical records and archiving them for future use as needed, these and other complexities will increase.

Copyright © 2009 by The Center for Health Risk Assessment and Management, a Division of RAM TRAC Corporation

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

FIRESIDE CHAT: Health Care Reform (b)


When a private-pay system encounters public policy, a fundamental conflict of interests rears its ugly head. The public has a justified interest in coverage for illnesses that cost big bucks to treat, whereas profit-motivated insurance companies have an equally justified interest in minimizing expenses for such illnesses. AIDS, as a significant example, is expensive and getting more expensive as a result of increased longevity and concomitant treatment time. So, if an insurance company learns that you are infected with HIV, the microbial cause of AIDS, it assigns you to a high-risk category and may deny coverage, or charges you more for coverage because you have a ‘pre-existing condition’. I termed this policy “equally justified,” not because it is right or best for the nation, but because it reduces healthcare premiums for individuals in low-risk groups generally, and the pursuit of profit is intrinsic to our capitalist system.

The overall cost of healthcare at any specified level is externalized, not reduced, under such a system. If public policy demands coverage for individuals known to be afflicted with diseases that are relatively expensive to treat, then the cost is born by the taxpayer. That is, the taxpayer subsidizes insurers who exclude high-risk groups from among their clientele. Ultimately, low-risk groups benefit from private insurance because premiums are lower, and high-risk diseases, while having a lower than average incidence in the group, still are covered if they occur. These groups, therefore, have an interest in preserving private-pay/private-insurance models.

In light of the above, the fundamental conflict of interest between private vs. public healthcare financing models is seen to reside in the economic cost of distributing risk among everyone vs. carving out low-risk groups who pay less privately and high-risk groups that taxpayers must underwrite. One complication is, of course, that individuals subscribing to private insurance, or paying for healthcare privately (‘self-insuring’), also pay taxes for public insurance such as Medicare and Medicaid, even though they don’t use them, or use them less. This complication can and should be accounted for in detailed economic models of healthcare financing, but is difficult to quantify in general because private medical treatment is subsidized by from public funding to a variable degree under different models. Most notably, our tax system provides a standard deduction (also variable) for medical treatment and, if you self-insure or subscribe to private insurance, you may itemize and receive an even higher deduction than the standard deduction from your taxable income, which would be diminished on your tax return by all or some fraction of the amount that you paid for medical care.

Besides egalitarian risk-sharing vs. profit-motivated risk-minimizing, a second fundamental issue must be considered in public policy on healthcare financing: the cost of government bureaucracy vs. the cost of private bureaucracy.


Copyright © 2009 by The Center for Health Risk Assessment and Management, a Division of RAM TRAC Corporation

Sunday, April 12, 2009

FIRESIDE CHAT: Health Care Reform

The Obama Administration has advocated renewal of efforts begun under the Clinton Administration to reform healthcare in the U. S. As conceptualized, reform includes a host of issues, prominently among them the issues of how much healthcare should be made available, to whom it should be made available, and how it should be financed. At one extreme is socialized medicine, with countries such as the United Kingdom and Canada adopting it. Experience with socialized medicine has been mixed, with problems including long waiting periods for appointments with physicians and inadequate quality of care. Private physicians have filled in, for those who could pay, effectively creating a stratified system with at least two tiers based in part upon social attributes that proponents of reform typically would reject as being appropriate under an ideal, egalitarian healthcare system as envisioned.

At the opposite extreme is a healthcare system based solely upon a private-pay (including private-insurance) model. In private-pay models, financing for medical services is on your own dime, or on the dime of your insurance company, which gets its dime and more, constituting its profit, from you. The essence of an insurance model is the concept of risk pools, in which high-risk individuals are identified and either excluded or forced to pay more for insurance coverage. The gold lies in low-risk pools, consisting of people belonging to groups that statistically make below-average demands on the healthcare system. These especially include employee groups, because employees are healthier on average than those not employed, a phenomenon well known in public health as the ‘healthy-worker effect’.

When a private-pay system encounters public policy, a fundamental conflict of interests rears its ugly head....


Copyright © 2009 by The Center for Health Risk Assessment and Management, a Division of RAM TRAC Corporation

Saturday, April 4, 2009

FIRESIDE CHAT: Global Warming (b)


The more general answer involves species other than humans, which should be of concern to people for reasons beyond our dependence on them for ecological services that contribute to our survival and the quality of our existence. As climate changes, habitats migrate or disappear. As New York get warmer, its cold-loving birch trees will die (mine have already), and their habitat boundary will migrate north. As northern areas warm, the range of cold-loving birches will also migrate vertically, restricting birches to mountainsides. This example of habitat migration can be repeated many times, each time substituting the name of a different species whose habitat locally will no longer be suitable as global warming progresses. Organisms that cannot migrate, such as plants, will die in place (their survival as a species will depend upon seed dispersal to a receptive habitat). Populations that cannot invade and colonize new habitats quickly enough will die. Many species will go extinct.

Despite global acceptance that these consequences of global warming will occur, the bigger picture of a planet that will survive notwithstanding the stress often is emphasized, especially in academia. In my long experience, academia is a place that rewards perspectives in proportion to their breadth. If I say billions of people will die because of global warming, some academic someplace in academia will say "but the planet will survive these natural cycles." I think survival of life as we know it on our planet is at risk and, recognizing the risk, we are likely to respond adaptively to preserve many if not most members of our species and some if not most of our planet's ecosystems. Given the inertia of global warming, we already are committed to significant further warming no matter what we do. I don't know if we still can save arctic or coral reef ecosystems, but we can and probably will save many others.

As expressed in the title of the 1936 Charlie Chaplin silent movie, we are living in "Modern Times." Does art imitate life; does life imitate art? Is current global warming unremarkable in the history of our planet? In the 2004 movie "I Robot" (adapted from Isaac Asimov's series of nine short stories about 'positronic robots') Dr. Alfred Lanning cautions: "You must ask the right question." Is unremarkable global warming in the history of our planet remarkable for us? That is the right question. The right answer is: “You better believe it is.”

Copyright © 2009 by The Center for Health Risk Assessment and Management, a Division of RAM TRAC Corporation

Friday, April 3, 2009

FIRESIDE CHAT: Global Warming

In recent decades, denial that human activities have significantly accelerated natural global warming in our post-glacial era has emerged, but finally dwindled with release recently of a series of multinational consensus reports by the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (UN IPCC). These reports hammer the final nail in the coffin of deniers' main premise, that global warming occurs cyclically, and naturally follows global cooling and periodic glaciations ('ice ages'). As glaciation proceeds, tropical climates contract toward Earth's equator, while temperate and arctic climates expand.

The near extinction of global warming denial has given rise to the next line of defense by the same people, representing the same short-term interests. That is, we humans may be contributing significantly to global warming, but we are doing so after a recent ice age, so the result of our contribution to global warming still will produce temperatures and sea levels that are well within the cyclical range of global experience. A major scientific leg of this argument is the arguable (though not generally accepted) claim that solar activity cycles over a relatively short time frame (decades rather than millennia) account for much of global warming observed since the year 1900. By extension, solar evolution might have accounted for terrestrial climate cycles, relegating human activities to a secondary role in causing recent global warming. The subtext, sometimes implied rather than stated, is that human activities still cannot be viewed as planet threatening. Here I examine this particular claim, rather than debunk timeworn arguments used previously to deny significant human contribution to global warming.

We are about 200 years past the beginning of the Industrial Revolution and about 10,000 years out of the most recent ice age, which began about 70,000 years ago and peaked about 20,000 years ago. Clearly, human life was and remains compatible with glaciation. We are about 120,000 years out of the most recent interglacial period (between the two most recent ice ages). Also clearly, human life was and remains compatible with global warming as experienced in the most recent interglacial period. So, why worry about 200 years of industrial activity?

My answer is that natural cycles dictate that we will live and die, and our children and theirs will do the same… but we should not be complacent about the quality and duration of their existence. We especially should not compromise theirs to improve ours. We live now, not 120,000 years ago. New York City was built on once-flooded land, but the next cycle of rising sea levels will affect 10 million people in the New York Metropolitan Area. I don't know the exact number 120,000 years ago (before telephones, telephone books, and the US Census), but I'm sure that the number was a lot closer to zero than to a million, and probably a lot closer to zero than to a thousand. This statement can be repeated many times, each time substituting the name of a different coastal metropolis. Further, expansion of deserts, shortages of drinking water, and emergence of disease are additional stresses that will kill a significant fraction of people in non-coastal areas globally, especially in the tropics, where the effects will be most pronounced and the countries affected least equipped to adapt… and that's just the anthropocentric answer.


Copyright © 2009 by The Center for Health Risk Assessment and Management, a Division of RAM TRAC Corporation