The New York Times
Boiling Point: How Politicians, Big Oil and Coal, Journalists, and Activists Have Fueled a Climate Crisis--And Whatby Ross Gelbspan
In Boiling Point, Ross Gelbspan argues that, unchecked, climate change will swamp every other issue facing us today. Indeed, what began as an initial response of many institutions--denial and delay--has now grown into a crime against humanity. The fossil fuel industry is directing the Bush administration's energy and climate policies-payback for helping Bush get elected. But they're not the only ones to blame: the media and environmental activists are unwittingly worsening the crisis.In his new introduction, Gelbspan reveals that the outlook isn't getting better. The climate continues to change with increasing acceleration: hurricanes devastated Florida; rainfall patterns left two million people starving in Kenya; 2004 was the fourth hottest year on record. At the same time, the coal industry was planning to sabotage an effort in the Senate to begin to regulate carbon dioxide. Officials of Switzerland, France, and Canada said last year that, when the Kyoto Protocol takes effect, they intend to take the United States to court under the World Trade Organization, reasoning that the U.S.'s refusal to lower their carbon emissions amounts to an illegal subsidy-a "carbon subsidy"-on its exports. With the reelection of George W. Bush and a Republican-controlled congress, Boiling Point is more imperative than ever. Both a passionate call-to-arms and a thoughtful roadmap for change, Gelbspan reveals what's at stake for our fragile planet.
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Boiling PointHow Politicians, Big Oil and Coal Journalists, and Activists Are Fueling the Climate Crisis-and What We Can Do to Avert Disaster
By Ross Gelbspan
BASIC BOOKSCopyright © 2004 Ross Gelbspan
All right reserved.
Chapter OneNot Just Another Issue
We've known for some time that we have to worry about the impacts of climate change on our children's and grandchildren's generations. But we now have to worry about ourselves as well. Margaret Beckett, British secretary of state for environment April 26, 2002
By late 2003, the signals were undeniable: Global climate change is threatening to spiral out of control.
The six-month period from June to December 2003 brought a succession of scientific findings, climate impacts, political and diplomatic developments, and responses from the financial world that vividly underscored the urgency and magnitude of the climate crisis.
The events of that year surprised even many seasoned climate scientists-and brought home to many others the fact that, given all its ramifications, the climate crisis is far more than just an environmental issue. It is a civilizational issue.
Nevertheless, by the end of 2003, most Americans were still in denial.
The evidence is not subtle. It is apparent in the trickling meltwater from the glaciers in the Andes Mountains that will soon leave many people on Bolivia's mountainside villages with no water to irrigate their crops and, after that, not even enough to drink. It is visible in the rising waters of the Pacific Ocean that recently prompted the prime minister of New Zealand to offer a haven to the residents of the island nation of Tuvalu as it slowly goes under. It is evident in the floods that, in 2002, inundated whole cities in Germany, Russia, and the Czech Republic. It is underscored in the United States by the spread of West Nile virus to forty-two states-and to 230 species of birds, insects, and animals-and in the record-setting 412 tornadoes that leveled whole towns during a ten-day span in May 2003. Its reality is visible from outer space-where satellites have detected an increase in the radiation from greenhouse gases-to our own backyards.
Seen in its full dimensions, the challenge of global climate change seems truly overwhelming. In the absence of a compelling and obvious solution, the most natural human tendency is simply not to want to know about it.
When a crisis becomes so apparent that denial is no longer tenable, the typical response is to minimize the scope of the problem and embrace partial, inadequate solutions. Witness the voluntary approach of the Bush administration as well as the low goals of the Kyoto Protocol, which calls for industrial countries to cut their aggregate emissions by 5.2 percent below 1990 levels, by 2012. (The goal for the United States under the treaty was reductions of 7 percent below 1990 levels.)
by contrast, the science is unambiguous: To pacify our increasingly unstable climate requires humanity to cut its use of coal and oil by 70 percent in a very short time. The grudging response in the United States, and to a lesser extent, abroad, reflects more than a profound underestimation of the scope and urgency of the problem. It betrays an equivalent underestimation of the truly transformative potential of an appropriate solution. Given the scope of the challenge, a real solution to the climate crisis seems to offer a historically unique opportunity to begin to mend a profoundly fractured world.
But it all begins with the climate-and the stunningly rapid atmospheric buildup of carbon dioxide emissions from our fossil fuels. This is trapping growing amounts of heat inside our atmosphere, heat that has historically radiated back into space.
Unintentionally, we have set in motion massive systems of the planet (with huge amounts of inertia) that have kept it relatively hospitable to civilization for the last 10,000 years. With our burning of coal and oil, we have heated the deep oceans. We have reversed the carbon cycle by more than 400,000 years. We have loosed a wave of violent and chaotic weather. We have altered the timing of the seasons. We are living on an increasingly precarious margin of stability.
The accelerating rate of climate change is spelled out in two recent studies-one on the environmental side, one on the energy side.
In 2001, researchers at the Hadley Center, Britain's main climate research institute, found that the climate will change 50 percent more quickly than was previously assumed. That is because earlier computer models calculated the impacts of a warming atmosphere on a relatively static biosphere. But when they factored in the warming that has already taken place, they found that the rate of change is compounding. Their projections show that many of the world's forests will begin to turn from sinks (vegetation that absorbs carbon dioxide) to sources (vegetation that releases carbon dioxide)-dying off and emitting carbon-by around 2040.
The other study, from the energy side, is equally troubling. Three years ago, a team of researchers reported in the journal Nature that unless the world is getting half its energy from noncarbon sources by 2018, we will see an inevitable doubling-and possible tripling-of atmospheric carbon levels later in this century. In 2002, a follow-up study by many of the same researchers, published in the journal Science, called for a Manhattan-type crash project to develop renewable energy sources-wind, solar, and hydrogen fuel. Using conservative estimates of future energy use, the researchers found that within fifty years, humanity must generate at least three times more energy from noncarbon sources than the world currently produces from fossil fuels to avoid a catastrophic buildup of atmospheric C[O.sub.2] later in this century.
For nearly a decade after it surfaced as a public issue in 1988, climate change was regarded primarily as a remote, almost futuristic, threat based on an arcane branch of science that depended on the mind-numbing complexity and paralyzing uncertainty of an early generation of computer models whose reliability was too suspect to justify enormous policy changes.
In 1995, the issue gained prominence when the world's community of climate scientists first declared they had detected the "human influence" on the climate. That finding legitimized global climate change as a major environmental issue. As a consequence, climate change was subsequently accorded the same mix of rhetorical concern and political inaction as most other environmental issues.
In 2001, however, the issue was infused with a jolt of urgency. That January, the U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) concluded that the climate is changing far more rapidly than scientists had previously projected.
More than 2,000 scientists from 100 countries, participating in the largest and most rigorously peer-reviewed scientific collaboration in history, reported to the UN that brutal droughts, floods, and violent storms across the planet will intensify because emissions from humanity's burning of coal and oil is driving up temperatures much more rapidly than scientists had anticipated just six years earlier.
"The most comprehensive study on the subject [indicates] that Earth's average temperature could rise by as much as 10.4 degrees over the next 100 years-the most rapid change in 10 millennia and more than 60 percent higher than the same group predicted less than six years ago," according to the Washington Post.
Rising temperatures will melt ice sheets and raise sea levels by as much as thirty-four inches, causing floods that could displace tens of millions of people in low-lying areas-such as Chinas Pearl River Delta, much of Bangladesh, and the most densely populated area of Egypt.
Droughts will parch farmlands and aggravate world hunger. Storms triggered by such climatic extremes as El Niño will become more frequent. Diseases such as malaria and dengue fever will spread, the report noted.
A second working group of the IPCC-one that focused on the impacts of coming climate changes-reached the extremely sobering conclusion that "most of earth's inhabitants will be losers," in the words of the group's co-chair, James McCarthy of Harvard University.
The report concluded that poor countries in Africa, Asia, and Latin America with limited resources would bear the brunt of the most extreme climate changes. It added that economic losses from natural catastrophes increased from about $4 billion a year in the 1950s to $40 billion in 1999, with about one-fourth of the losses occurring in developing countries.
(Two years later, nature had already upped the ante. In 2003, the United Nations reported that climate impacts cost the world $60 billion that year, an increase of 10 percent over the $55 billion in climate-related damages in 2002.)
"The scientific consensus presented in this comprehensive report about human-induced climate change should sound alarm bells in every national capital and in every local community. We should start preparing ourselves," declared Klaus Topfer, director of the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP).
In the fall of 2003, a succession of events-climatic, economic, and political-coalesced into a vivid mosaic that reflects the reach and variety of climate impacts and their reverberation through our economic and political institutions.
Several developments, which are examined in more detail later in this book, were particularly ominous because of their scope:
The entire ecosystem of the North Sea was found to be in a state of collapse because of rising water temperatures.
For the first time in recorded history, the world consumed more grain than it produced for four years in a row. The reason: rising temperatures and falling water tables-both consequences of global climate change.
The German government declared that the goals of the Kyoto Protocol need to be increased by a factor of four to avoid "catastrophic" changes. Otherwise, the climate will change at a rate not seen in the last million years.
The most highly publicized impact of global warming in 2003 involved a succession of headlines from Europe about an extraordinary summertime heat wave. Scientists attributed the unusually high mortality rates not to the fact that the August temperatures were so much higher than before. The record-setting temperatures provided only a partial explanation. The link between climate change and the deaths of so many Europeans had been established in a laboratory of the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) nearly six years earlier, when researchers at NOAA's National Climatic Data Center found that, as Earth's temperature has been rising, the nighttime low temperatures have been rising nearly twice as fast as the daytime high temperatures. Before the buildup of heat-trapping carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, daytime and nighttime temperatures generally rose and fell in parallel. But as carbon levels in the atmosphere have thickened, they have tended to trap heat during the evenings, preventing it from radiating back into space once the sun has faded into the nighttime sky.
In August 2003, that finding took on an especially grisly reality. The lingering nighttime warmth in Europe that summer deprived overheated Europeans of the normal relief from blistering daytime temperatures. As a result, people were not able to recuperate from the heat stress they had suffered during the relentlessly hot days. When that brutal summer finally subsided, it left more than 35,000 people dead.
The following month, silently and out of view of most of the world, the biggest ice sheet in the Arctic-3,000 years old, 80 feet thick, and 150 square miles in area-collapsed from warming surface waters in September 2003. The Ward Hunt Ice Shelf, located 500 miles from the North Pole on the edge of Canada's Ellesmere Island, broke in two. A massive freshwater lake long held back by the ice also drained away.
The same month brought another startling-and largely unanticipated-consequence of our fossil fuel use. Scientists reported that the pH level of the world's oceans had changed more in the last 100 years than it had in the previous 10,000 years-primarily because of the fallout from emissions caused by coal and oil burning. In short, the oceans are becoming acidified.
by the fall of 2003, an eighteen-month drought in Australia had cut farm incomes in half-and left many scientists speculating that the prolonged drought may have become a permanent condition in one of the country's richest food-growing areas.
Nor was it only the planet's physical systems that felt the threat of escalating climate change. Many financial institutions also began to feel the heat in late 2003.
Pension fund managers, bankers, and Wall Street advisers-representing more than $1 trillion in assets-issued a "call to action" in November 2003 about impending climate-driven upheavals in the world's financial markets. At the meeting, which was sponsored by the United Nations, the treasurer of the state of California, Philip Angelides, declared: "In global warming, we are facing an enormous risk to the U.S. economy and to retirement funds-that Wall Street has so far chosen to ignore."
The meeting was the most elaborate effort yet by a growing group of fund managers and other finance officers to "persuade businesses to move more aggressively to identify and address problems they might face from global warming, increasingly frequent extreme weather and other climate changes that have been linked to the rapid buildup in the atmosphere of carbon dioxide and other heat-trapping gases," according to the New York Times.
Perhaps the strongest response of the financial community to the climate crisis came from one of the world's largest insurers. In May 2003, Swiss Reinsurance announced that it was asking directors and officers of its client companies what their firms were doing to reduce their use of fossil fuels. The company made clear that if those corporate officials were not moving aggressively enough to reduce their carbon emissions, they would risk losing liability insurance.
But if the increasingly visible risks were causing ripples in the financial world, they seemed the subject of an almost perverse kind of satisfaction by the world's largest oil company, ExxonMobil.
In late 2003, the oil giant announced it was anticipating a 50 percent increase in global carbon emissions by the year 2020. "Between now and 2020 we estimate increases of some 3.5 billion tonnes per year of additional carbon emissions, so it's definitely increasing," said Randy Broiles, global planning manager for ExxonMobil's oil and gas production unit.
Excerpted from Boiling Point by Ross Gelbspan Copyright © 2004 by Ross Gelbspan. Excerpted by permission.
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Meet the Author
Ross Gelbspan has been an editor and reporter at The Village Voice, and The Washington Post. He covered the U.N. Conference on the Environment in Stockholm in 1972, and addressed the World Economic Forum in Davos in 1998. As special projects editor of The Boston Globe, he conceived, directed and edited a series of articles that won a Pulitzer Prize in 1984.
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