Thursday 25 September 1997
The "haze" claimed its first lives in Indonesia yesterday; officials in Jakarta announced that two people had died as a direct result of smog. On Tuesday, the air pollutant index in Malaysia stood at a record 851, on a scale where 301-500 is considered hazardous and anything higher is life-threatening. The disaster is blamed on raging forest fires, some of which were lit deliberately as a cheap and easy way to clear land.
By contrast, the totally natural phenomenon of El Nino is creating far greater havoc. The drought it has induced in Papua has killed hundreds, and left 1 million in danger of starvation. Crop and livestock losses in New Zealand alone have been estimated at $130m. All the evidence is that this is a far worse El Nino than that of 1982-83, which left 2,000 dead and caused $13bn-worth of damage.
With El Nino capable of causing such huge variations in climate, we may perhaps ask whether human behaviour really has much effect. If all the people in the world stood on the Isle of Wight and frantically squirted CFC-rich aerosols into the sky, would it really damage the ozone layer as much as one eruption of Mount Pinatubo? Perhaps not, but the lesson of Indonesia is that we cannot afford to take such risks.
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