Andrew Guzman and Richard Jackson spoke to the Commonwealth Club in Lafayette last Thursday about the hazards of climate change, heat waves and drought. The next day, my air conditioner nearly blew a gasket as East Bay temperatures surpassed 100 degrees.

Ordinarily I'd chalk this up to coincidence, but then Phoenix hit 119 and Palm Springs registered 122. Maybe these guys are onto something.

Climate change -- global warming, if you prefer -- is not just a worry for polar bears and future generations, they contend. Its effects will be felt by all of us, and sooner than you might think.

Guzman, a professor of law at UC Berkeley, and Jackson, a UCLA professor of public health, are unlikely participants in a discussion that usually falls to climate scientists. But their concerns are less about how the physical world will change with the buildup of greenhouse gases than what the changes will mean to mankind.

"Climate change will be the biggest health issue of my grandchildren's and great-grandchildren's lifetime," Jackson said.

Guzman explained that it will affect water supplies -- too much rain falling when it shouldn't, too little when it should. Warming temperatures in the Sierra will melt snowpacks prematurely, causing floods in the spring and dry streams in the summer.


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Jackson, who served more than a decade with the U.S. Centers for Disease Control, said the expanding heat zones rising from the equator encourage the northern migration of mosquitoes carrying malaria and West Nile viruses.

They counted off the warning signs of recent times. The 13 hottest years on record were 1997 and the last 12. A devastating heat wave in Europe killed an estimated 70,000 people in 2003. Central Valley temperatures hit 115 in 2005 and 2006. A drought across the Midwest last year wreaked havoc with farmers.

Guzman said the few remaining climate change skeptics fall into two categories: "People who have a commitment that doesn't allow for reconsideration or who have a financial interest in being a doubter, and the much larger population who are skeptics because they haven't looked at the evidence. The increase in temperatures is irrefutable."

On our current course, he said, we will pay more for air conditioning, the prices of food will spike, clean water will be harder to find and diseases will increase. But those worries pale alongside the potential toll of human conflicts.

He noted that drought was at the root of war in Darfur 10 years ago, with farmers and nomads fighting over water rights, and another battle is brewing on the southern border of Turkey, where dams on the Tigris and Euphrates rivers threaten supplies to Iraq and Syria.

"Climate change is not going to create new conflicts," Guzman said, "but it is going to make existing situations that are tense -- Israel and its neighbors, Pakistan and India -- even more dangerous."

The U.S., by itself, cannot reverse climate change, he added. But America needs to be the leader that persuades Europe, India, China, Japan and Russia to curtail emissions that threaten lifestyles and health.

Jackson envisions California as the model for change, recalling measures that remedied pollution once so bad in Los Angeles that "planes turned around because pilots couldn't see the runways."

Their presentation was enough to give a guy pause. I thought about that when the air conditioner was running all the next day.

Contact Tom Barnidge at tbarnidge@bayareanewsgroup.com.