those proverbial future history books ever get written,
we'll all have nameless cameos as codefendants in Climate
v. Industrial Man. The whole gang will be there on the
page, billions of us pleading insanity or begging for mercy
from that most unmerciful of activist judges, Momma Nature.
the moment, it looks like the bitch is throwing the book
truth is, it's looked like that for a while now. As a young
environmental reporter in the mid-90s, I remember attending
climate symposia where scientists tried to explain the dizzyingly
complex models they used to predict the effects global warming
might have in the coming century. I always started doodling
when they went much beyond Popular Science, but I
took enough good notes to know that pretty much everything
predicted by mainstream climate scientists at the time has
come to pass.
a small reward to remember the Panglossian prattle of the
mainstream economists who were often asked to participate
in the post-conference debates. Some ex-Nixon advisor from
the local B-school would inevitably be on hand to guffaw
at the more pessimistic scenarios, then lecture everyone
about the damage overreaction, or any action, would do to
the economy. Sometimes these economists would point to an
obscure study claiming to show that climate change would
actually be a net boon to humanity. Russia would sprout
a citrus industry; Americans would save on winter heating
costs. Chilean wines would gain texture.
these guys were always the clowns of the show, dancing around
science that even then was pretty solid (or so it seemed
to the 2400 scientists who made up the UN Intergovernmental
Panel on Climate Change). Now that science is even more
solid, and no amount of creative editing in the White House
by dead-ender ExxonMobil agents will change that.
layman can forgo those impossibly complex climate models
and simply exercise some good old-fashioned Scottish empiricism.
Snow cover is disappearing at a startling clip from Mt.
Kilimanjaro to the Alps. Tundra is thawing from Siberia
to Saskatchewan, releasing carbon dioxide stored in the
ground (feedback loop #1). Ocean temperatures are rising,
releasing water vapor, a potent greenhouse gas (feedback
loop #2). Hurricanes are thus arriving bigger and badder
over the Gulf of Mexico with the regularity of Air Mexico
flights. Record-breaking heat waves are intensifying and
stretching out, with nightfall bringing little respite.
Record rains are flooding more corners of the globe more
often. Staple harvests are either leveling out or falling
in many countries due to drought and heat. (For an expert
walk through this last and most underreported phenomenon,
see Lester R. Brown's Outgrowing the Earth: The Food
Security Challenge in an Age of Falling Water Tables and
Rising Temperatures, W. W. Norton, 2005.)
in New York, the statewide average for the month of June
was 5.5 degrees higher than normal. Summer records have
been smashed up and down the Eastern seaboard, straining
electrical grids and forcing school districts to cancel
summer classes. Dozens have died in the Southwest. Cattle
are dropping like flies in the Badlands. All told, the National
Weather Service estimates that more than 200 heat records
have been broken in the U.S. in the past two weeks alone.
of this is all that extraordinary in the context of the
last decade. Visit the archives at your local library and
open a recently bound volume of newspapers at random. There's
certain to be a wire blurb about extreme weather wreaking
havoc somewhere, or some group of eggheads issuing a dire
warning connecting to some alarming new piece of evidence
of polar melting, rising ocean temperatures or species death.
It won't often make page one above the fold, but dig and
you'll find it.
this week. The latest egghead warning comes from MIT climatologist
Kerry Emanuel, who argues in the new edition of the journal
Nature: "The large upswing [in hurricanes] in
the last decade is unprecedented and probably reflects the
effect of global warming," in particular a one-degree
rise in average ocean surface temperatures. According to
Emanuel, the accumulated power of hurricanes in the Atlantic
basin has more than doubled since 1970, with the steepest
increase beginning in 1995. Natural cycles can at best account
for only part of this.
you still don't see that much weather coverage reminding
us that all of this stuff is of a piece. Extreme weather
in 2005 is given the Superbowl treatment like it was 1955;
lights, camera, action until the next big story—all crisis,
no context. Oh, look, it's Anderson Cooper in a windbreaker
again, squinting and pointing to some palm trees about to
snap. If the extreme event happens to occur in an incongruous
month, like snowfall in May, it is just called "unseasonable"
and left at that. Where would 21st-century tv news be without
the word unseasonable?
something dramatic like hurricane winds or steaming elderly
corpses, reporters are sometimes forced to get creative
in framing extreme-weather events. What can you say about
record-breaking but nonlethal heat, without referencing
the bigger picture? Not much. But you can make it snappy,
even happy. One of my favorite pieces of global-warming
journalism so far this summer is a July 30 Newsday
piece on the Northeast heat wave. The reporter doesn't ask
any scientists about climate change, but offers an upbeat
assessment from an upstate apple farmer, who says the pummeling
heat is darn good for sugar content. Stop worrying, start
of the politics of climate change is often just as bad.
In a piece entitled, "On Capitol Hill, a Flurry of
GOP Victories," the Washington Post lumped last
week's passage of a regressive energy bill into a discussion
of the transportation bill, the veteran's bill, a gun law
and CAFTA. USA Today framed its page-one story
on the bill in kitchen-table terms of what it means for
gas prices aren't the story here. Neither is GOP strength,
or Democratic weakness. The story is the ongoing failure
of both parties to elevate renewables to the status of a
21st-century Manhattan Project. In June, 11 national academies
of science representing every G8 nation signed the unforgivably
dry understatement: "The scientific understanding of
climate change is now sufficiently clear to justify taking
heard this warning a hundred times already, yet the only
"prompt action" taken by the House was to kill
Senate proposals for mandatory emissions cuts and steep
increases in the funding for renewables.
lieu of emissions limits, the final draft of the Energy
Policy Act of 2005 offered a 20th-century-style cornucopia
of tax breaks, subsidies and incentives to the fossil-fuel
and nuclear industries, with renewables coming in a distant
third like a panting Jimmy Carter. Out of $8b in breaks,
only $415m will go to clean alternatives.
missing from the House bill is a mandatory percentage goal
for renewables in the nation's energy mix, known as a Renewable
Portfolio Standard. Such fixed targets have long proved
themselves at the state level, including in New York. The
production tax credit for renewables, meanwhile, was grudgingly
extended a measly two years; a whopping $1.8b is earmarked
for the Willy Wonka project of making coal "clean."
of the few bright spots on the bill is a section requiring
the Department of Energy to establish a Climate Change Technology
Program to speed up interagency coordination of new technologies
and research. Of course, the fruits of this research would
be increased many times over if the dollar numbers in the
bill were flipped to the advantage of renewables, but it's
better than nothing.
scary thing is that it's 2005, and we're barely beyond using
"nothing" as a comparative benchmark for progress.
Someone get Anderson Cooper a new set of windbreakers. He's
gonna need them. And so are we.