Reality check.

Author: Gelbspan, Ross. Source: E: the Environmental Magazine v. 11 no5 (Sept./Oct. 2000) p. 24-6 ISSN: 1046-8021 Number: BRDG00053977 Copyright: The magazine publisher is the copyright holder of this article and it is reproduced with permission. Further reproduction of this article in violation of the copyright is prohibited.

IN 1995, MORE THAN 2,000 SCIENTISTS FROM 100 COUNTRIES REPORTED TO THE UNITED NATIONS THAT OUR BURNING OF OIL, COAL AND NATURAL GAS IS CHANGING THE EARTH'S CLIMATE. Five years later, many of the same researchers are very troubled by two things: The climate is changing much more quickly than they projected even a few years ago; and the systems of the planet are far more sensitive to even a very small degree of warming than they had realized.

The long-anticipated federal report "Climate Change in America," was first leaked to the press last June, and it forecast a dire future of disappearing alpine meadows, loss of coastal wetlands and barrier islands, and a dangerous upsurge in insect-borne diseases such as malaria. Forests will be replaced with grasslands, said the government study, and water quality problems will mount. Average U.S. temperatures, the report said, will rise by five to 10 degrees Fahrenheit (F) by the end of the 21st century.

In March, researchers at the National Climatic Data Center also published alarming findings: Until the mid-1970s, the planet had been warming by one degree F per century--a rate at which most ecosystems can adapt. But for the last 20 years, Earth has instead been warming by four degrees F per century.

That same month, researchers announced that absorption of heat in the deep oceans over the last 40 years had temporarily masked the rapidly rising temperature of the planet. The findings prompted a number of scientists to revise upward their projections of future warming.

Unintentionally, we have already set in motion massive systems with huge amounts of inertia that had kept them relatively hospitable for the last 10,000 years. We have reversed the carbon cycle by about 400,000 years. We have heated the deep oceans. We have loosed a wave of violent and chaotic weather. We have altered the timing of the seasons. We are living on a very precarious outcropping of stability, and the evidence is everywhere around us.

A DOSE OF REALITYWhy, then, is there any doubt in the public mind about the reality of climate change? And why is this E Magazine article necessary? Why send reporters to 10 global "hot spots"--from New York City to Fiji--for firsthand progress reports on the warming world? The answer lies in the millions of dollars spent by a shrinking number of industry players to maintain the illusion of "scientific uncertainty." Also to blame is the U.S. press, which has been too lazy to look at the science and too intimidated by the fossil fuel lobby to tell the truth.

Even as villagers in Mozambique buried casualties of the horrendous rains that swamped the country last spring, ExxonMobil declared in an ad on the op-ed page of The New York Times: "Some...claim that humans are causing global warming, and they point to storms or floods to say that dangerous impacts are already under way. Yet scientists remain unable to confirm either contention." But that is categorically untrue.

The Greening Earth Society, a creation of the Western Fuels Coal Association, takes a slightly different tack. Citing the opinion of a few "greenhouse skeptics"--most of whom are on its payroll--Western Fuels trumpets the idea that more warming and more carbon dioxide (CO2) is good for us because it will promote plant growth and create a greener, healthier natural world.

They forget to mention that peer-reviewed science indicates the opposite. While enhanced CO2 creates an initial growth spurt in many trees and plants, their growth subsequently flattens and their food and nutrition value plummets. As enhanced carbon dioxide stresses plant metabolisms, they become more prone to disease, insect attacks and fires.

The media, however, continue to report the issue as though the science was still in question, giving the same weight to the "greenhouse skeptics" as they do to mainstream scientists--all in the name of "journalistic balance." Real balance, reflecting the weight of opinion within the scientific community, would accord mainstream scientists about 85 percent of an article and leave a couple of paragraphs to the skeptics. Only recently have journalists begun to dismiss the industry-sponsored naysayers.

Nevertheless, the news media still find it very difficult to cover the biggest story of the century and, perhaps, in modern history, thoroughly and consistently. Asked about this failure, a ranking editor at one network replied, "We did include a line like that once. But we were inundated by calls from the oil lobby warning our top executives that it is scientifically inaccurate to link any one particular storm with global warming." The editor concluded, "Basically, our executives were intimidated by the fossil fuel lobby.".

And resistance to the solution is staggering. We need to be generating as much energy from non-carbon sources by the year 2050 as we generate from coal, oil and natural gas today, according to a peer-reviewed article in the journal Nature. That means, say the authors, that we need to begin to move toward a global energy transition within this decade and we need to pursue it "with the urgency of the Manhattan Project," which developed the atomic bomb in less than three years.

A SIMPLE AND INEXORABLE PROCESSWhile climate science can be dizzyingly complex, the underlying facts are simple. Carbon dioxide in the atmosphere traps heat. For the last 10,000 years, we enjoyed a constant level of CO2--about 280 parts per million (ppm)--until about 100 years ago, when we began to burn more coal and oil. That 280 has already risen to 360 ppm--a concentration that has not been seen for 400,000 years. It is projected to double to 560 ppm later in this new century, correlating with an increase in the average global temperature of three to seven degrees F. (For perspective, the last Ice Age was only five to nine degrees colder than the current climate.).

Evidence for the build-up of heat-trapping carbon dioxide abounds: The 11 hottest years on record have occurred since 1983; the five hottest consecutive years were 1991 to 1995; 1998 was the hottest year on record; the decade of the 1990s was the hottest at least in this past millennium; and the planet is heating more rapidly than at any time in the last 10,000 years. On this point the science is unambiguous: to allow the climate to re-stabilize requires worldwide emissions reductions of 70 percent.

The politics are almost as unambiguous. Last December, Great Britain's chief meteorologist and the head of National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) declared that the climate situation is now "critical," urging the world to begin now to reduce its use of carbon fuels. The issue of climate change is the subject of serious debate only in the United States. When 160 nations met in Kyoto, Japan, in 1997 to forge a climate treaty, not one government took issue with the science.

Since then, findings which link the warming to our burning of coal and oil have become so robust that a number of countries are moving toward solutions regardless of what happens in the U.S. The Dutch, for one, are creating a plan to reduce emissions by 80 percent over the next 40 years. Germany is contemplating 50 percent cuts in the future. Britain announced it will cut emissions by 21 percent below 1990 levels in the next 12 years.

The view of the world's business leaders is moving on the same trajectory. A vote by executives of the world's largest corporations, finance ministers and heads of state who attended the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland last February was remarkable. When conference organizers polled participants on which of five different trends were most troubling, the participants overrode the choices and declared climate change to be by far the most threatening issue facing humanity.

Some of the world's largest oil and auto companies also acknowledge the perils of climate change and are positioning themselves for a new non-carbon economy. John Browne, CEO of British Petroleum-Amoco, announced his company is preparing to do $1 billion a year in solar commerce by the decade's end. Shell has created a new core company to produce renewable energy technologies. Ford and Daimler-Chrysler, together with Ballard Power Corporation, have entered a $1 billion joint venture to produce fuel-cell-powered cars in the next three years. And both Honda and Toyota are marketing 60- to 70-mile-per-gallon climate-friendly hybrid cars in the U.S.

A QUESTION OF LIABILITYThe strongest corporate concerns about climatic instability come from the world's property insurers. During the 1980s, the insurance industry lost an average of $2 billion a year to damages from droughts, floods, storm surges, sea level rise and other extreme weather events. In the 1990s, it lost an average of $12 billion a year--$89 billion in 1998 alone. "Man-made climate change will...bring us increasingly extreme natural events and consequently increasingly large catastrophe losses," an official of Munich Reinsurance said recently.

While die-hard elements of the fossil fuel lobby continue to attack the findings of mainstream science, they are becoming increasingly isolated. For years, the Washington, D.C.-based Global Climate Coalition (GCC) waged a campaign against mainstream science. But its corporate membership has hemorrhaged. Since December, the GCC has been abandoned by Ford, Daimler-Chrysler, General Motors, the Southern Company and Texaco.

The very few independent scientists who still question whether global warming is caused by human activity focus on discrepancies between temperatures in the upper levels of the atmosphere and on the ground. That doubt was put to rest in January when a panel of the National Academies of Science reported that such differences "in no way invalidates the conclusion that the Earth's temperature is rising.".

But the case for climate change rests on a far broader base than computer models and atmospheric dynamics alone. Add the unceasing bombardment of extreme weather events wreaking havoc all over the world.

Take, for example, 1998, which began with a January ice storm that left four million people without power in Quebec and northern New England. For the first time, rainforests in Brazil and Mexico actually caught fire. The summer brought killer heat waves in the Middle East, India and Texas, where residents suffered through a record 29 consecutive triple-digit days. Mexico experienced its worst drought in 70 years.

Last year, 1999, saw a record-setting drought in the Mid-Atlantic states, with declarations of disaster in six. A heatwave in the Midwest and northeastern U.S. claimed 271 lives. Hurricane Floyd visited more than $1 billion in damages on North Carolina. A super-cyclone in eastern India killed 10,000 people. That winter, mudslides and rains in Venezuela claimed 15,000 lives. Unprecedented December windstorms swept northern Europe, causing more than $4 billion in damages. And Boston experienced a record 304 consecutive days with no snow.

Conditions are shifting rapidly, meteorologically and otherwise. Most of the public is now intuitively aware of climate change--and extremely worried about changes in the weather. Growing numbers of corporate leaders are realizing that the remedy--a world-wide transition to renewable and high-efficiency energy sources--would, in fact, create a huge surge of jobs and a dramatic expansion in the total wealth of the global economy. And national as well as grassroots political activists are at last making the climate crisis the focus of campaigns. It is too slow and too small--but it is a beginning. The issue is not whether we will mobilize around the climate crisis, but whether we will do it in time.