The Future in Plain Sight: Nine Clues to the Coming Instability

The Future in Plain Sight: Nine Clues to the Coming Instability

by Eugene Linden




For more than half a century, our planet has enjoyed a prolonged period of privilege and stability. Recent decades have seen some of the most extraordinary prosperity in all of human history, and we have come to view this as the norm.

But what if instability returned?

And what can we do to prevent that from happening?

In The Future in Plain Sight, author Eugene Linden lays out the nine factors that are symptomatic of instability in today's world. They include overpopulation, the widening gap between rich and poor, the resurgence of infectious disease, and the effects of a changing global climate. Linden explores these and other destabilizing forces and tells us what we can do to plan and prepare for life in an unsettled and unsettling universe.

From crises in the world's financial markets to the breakdown of natural systems that support human life, The Future in Plain Sight is a powerful look at what lies in store for us in the coming decades.

Author Biography: Eugene Linden is an award-winning journalist, social commentator, and author whose work has appeared in Time magazine, National Geographic, The New York Times, and The Wall Street Journal, among others. He serves as a consultant for the United Nations Development Program and is a former consultant to the State Department on environmental issues. He is the author of The Parrot's Lament.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780684811338
Publisher: Simon & Schuster
Publication date: 08/13/1998
Pages: 288
Product dimensions: 6.51(w) x 9.60(h) x 0.99(d)

About the Author

Eugene Linden is the author of seven books and for many years wrote about global environmental issues for Time. He has contributed to The New York Times, Foreign Affairs, National Geographic, The Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic, Fortune, and Slate. Linden has won numerous journalistic awards, including the American Geophysical Union's Walter Sullivan Award. He was named by Yale University in 2001 as a Poynter Fellow in honor of his work in environmental journalism. He lives in Washington, D.C.

Read an Excerpt

The messages the world has been getting from its atmosphere and climate have been hard to ignore, even if they are difficult to interpret.

In the early 1980s, Joseph Farman of the British Antarctic survey began getting unusual readings of stratospheric ozone above the skies of Antarctica. Ozone, a form of oxygen, is a pollutant in the lower atmosphere, but in the stratosphere it shields life on earth from lethal forms of ultraviolet radiation. The readings Farman saw during the Antarctic spring suggested that there was virtually no ozone in the skies above his station. At that time, scientists knew that man-made chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) could destroy ozone, but all the models for ozone depletion then being used predicted a slow decline, not the catastrophic numbers Farman was looking at. Initially, he dismissed his readings, thinking that his instruments were in error. It was not until 1985 that atmospheric chemists began to realize that the Antarctic skies were sending a message.

The message was that humanity had unleashed an entirely new chemical reaction in the atmosphere, a process powerful enough to punch a hole the size of North America in a shield that protects life itself. Seven years after these first readings, the international community acted, forging an agreement for the phasing out of the chemicals that jeopardized the ozone layer. Because of the long life (sixty years) of these chemicals in the atmosphere, however, humanity will be living with the still-unknown consequences of continuing ozone depletion until well into the next century.

More recently, the ice continent sent out a new signal, but this one may prove much more difficult to decode. On March 26, 1995, a massive iceberg -- measuring forty-eight by twenty-three miles -- broke off from the Larsen Ice Shelf in Antarctica. At the same time, the three-hundred-foot-thick ice shelf that bridged the Prince Gustave Channel, between Antarctica and James Ross Island, disintegrated, allowing ships to circumnavigate the island for the first time in recorded history. Elsewhere on the frozen continent, rocks poked through ice that had been buried under nearly two thousand feet of ice for more than twenty thousand years. Since the 1950s, the Wordie Ice Shelf, Antarctica's most northerly stretch of permanent sea ice, has disappeared, moving the upper limit of the ice dramatically southward. And one gigantic river of ice within the West Antarctic Ice Sheet seems to be surging toward the coast.

Some of these events, like the huge calving of bergs off the Larsen Ice Shelf, are part of the normal dynamics of ice flow. Others, however, may be signaling that human actions are beginning to have an impact on this vast and icy realm.

The cause of the breakup of the peninsular ice shelves is clear. Since the 1940s, parts of Antarctica have warmed by nearly five degrees Fahrenheit, as evidenced by records at the United Kingdom's Faraday Station. The reason for the warming is far less clear, but these rapid changes in Antarctic ice must give pause to hundreds of millions of coastal dwellers around the world. The West Antarctic Ice Sheet is half the size of the U.S. and more than three miles thick at its deepest point. Were it to break up or slide into the ocean, sea level around the world might suddenly rise by twenty feet, imperiling billions of people, inundating ports, drowning megacities like Jakarta, putting almost the entire Florida peninsula under water, and flooding millions of acres of prime coastal agricultural lands.

That is not likely to happen, but there are other, more subtle changes afoot in the world's climate. For the past few years, scientists at Germany's Max Planck Institute have been puzzling over what some believe to be a steady increase in the size of waves in the North Atlantic. Waves are a creation of winds. Given the world's limited view of what takes place across the vast reaches of the world's oceans, it is difficult to determine whether waves are getting bigger, and if they are, for what reason.

Glaciers are also melting rapidly throughout the middle latitudes and the tropics, where they exist at very high elevations. It was the melting of Alpine glaciers in Switzerland that in 1992 uncovered the famous "Ice Man," who had been entombed for five thousand years. Warm-weather plants and insects are marching up mountain slopes as the freezing line moves higher. Spring is coming earlier in Siberia, and birds are migrating northward earlier through Great Britain. If breezes are stiffening, glaciers retreating, and ice sheets melting, the question arises whether earth's vast systems for distributing energy are beginning to respond to human tampering with the biosphere.

This question, and the uncertainty it injects into human affairs, has crucial bearing on the future, whether it is humans or normal fluctuations in climate that are responsible for the changes. The issue of wave size alone forces people around the world to reappraise their prospects. Actuaries charged with determining insurance rates for shipping companies must estimate whether there is increased probability of shipwrecks, coastal surveyors will have to recompile their estimates of future beach erosion, and millions of home buyers will think again about how close to the ocean they really want to be. And this is just one of myriad issues raised by the prospect that the gases released into the atmosphere by humans in this century will produce climate changes that will affect life on earth in the next.

Will climate change warm the oceans, raising sea level and inundating coastal areas; will warmer water in the tropics lead to longer hurricane seasons marked by more frequent and intense storms? Will changes in earth's heat budget alter atmospheric and oceanic currents, plunging some areas into drought and leaving others awash with rain? Will change be rapid, or slow enough that crops, forests, and creatures can adapt? If climate change should arrive, will it be noticeable at all?

Such are the complexities of climate that, long after global warming arrives (should it arrive), scientists will probably still be arguing about whether changes in climate have come about because of natural variation or because of human impacts on the atmosphere. But that has nothing to do with the impact of the prospect of climate change. Climate change has already affected the way people think about the future.

People must now live with uncertainty. Given the relationship between global temperatures and levels of greenhouse gases, people cannot ignore the possibility of climate change in planning for the future. Those whose livelihoods are affected can no longer rely on the past as a guide to determine what will likely happen to the climate in the future.

The world is already beginning to see the consequences of this uncertainty. No industry has more of a stake in knowing whether the world climate is entering a period of instability than the $670-billion global property-insurance industry. Insurance rates are prospective, meaning that they are based on estimates of risk over the coming years. Until recently, insurers looked at past incidence of hurricanes and other extreme natural events for guidance in setting rates, but an unprecedented series of natural disasters have shaken the industry, bringing a number of companies, including the giant syndicate Lloyd's of London, to the brink of insolvency. From the industry's point of view, climate change is already here. Natural disasters during the 1980s, for instance, were 94 percent more frequent than in the previous decade.

So far, the 1990s promise to be even worse. Hurricanes Andrew and Iniki together caused $19.5 billion in insured losses in 1992 and left twelve insurance companies insolvent. Hurricane Andrew's insured loss of $15.5 billion -- the total damage caused by this monster storm amounted to $30 billion -- wiped out premium income collected during the previous twenty years. The combination of Hurricane Gilbert in 1988, which cost Lloyd's of London about $1.8 billion, and Hugo, which in 1989 hit Lloyd's for $3.3 billion, and a series of other costly windstorms almost brought down the venerable insurance syndicate. The drought-intensified Oakland, California, fires of 1991 produced $1.7 billion in insured losses; more wildfires in Los Angeles two years later caused $600 million more in losses. The 1993 floods in the Midwest caused $13 billion in damage, and 1995 saw more "floods of the century" in the Southeastern U.S.

In just a five-year period, the U.S. suffered two "hurricanes of the century" (Andrew and Hugo), a "five-hundred-year flood" (the 1993 Midwestern floods), at least two "floods of the century" (the 1995 floods in the Southeast and in the Red River Valley in 1997), and "a drought of the century" (in California). And that was just the United States. A 1993 study by Munich Re, a giant reinsurance firm, estimated that windstorms and other natural disasters in 1990 produced losses of roughly $50 billion and killed fifty thousand people worldwide.

Unusual weather has indirect effects not tabulated in insurance losses. An extraordinarily long spring monsoon in India in 1994 was followed by ninety days of temperatures above a hundred degrees Fahrenheit -- a "heat wave of the century." Rodents driven into town by the extreme heat proliferated in stores of grain donated to ease suffering following an earthquake, bringing with them an outbreak of pneumonic plague that briefly panicked the city of Surat and ultimately cost India $2 billion, as tourists and businessmen alike canceled trips. The flooding and heat also spurred a dramatic increase in cases of malaria and dengue fever.

Any of these specific events could be the result of chance and normal fluctuations in climate, but other changes seem to be happening on a global scale. Nine of the warmest years in this century have occurred during the last eleven years. During the past century, sea level worldwide has risen between four and ten inches, driven by an increase of one degree Fahrenheit in average temperatures and the melting of glaciers around the world. Stephen Leatherman notes that sea level is now at the highest mark in the past five thousand years, and is rising at a rate ten times faster than the average during that period.

The rate of rise over the last century has been two millimeters a year. This does not sound like much, but it is enough to be causing erosion of 90 percent of America's beaches. The one-foot rise in sea level, as has happened along much of the Eastern U.S. because of accompanying subsidence of the land, causes beaches to recede an average of two to three hundred feet, reducing the barriers that protect the $2 trillion in insured property along the Atlantic and Gulf coasts of the U.S. Thus insurers must worry about an apparent increase in the severity and frequency of storms at the same time that beach defenses are disappearing and seas are rising.

Many scientists don't expect global warming to begin to show its effects for a few decades, but some of the changes in the current global climate provide a vivid preview of what is to come. On September 16, 1991, Typhoon Mirielle swept across Japan, the first severe storm to hit that nation in thirty years. The storm left behind $5.4 billion in insured losses, and gave the Japanese insurance industry religion about global warming. A study by the Tokyo Marine and Fire Company asserted that the storm had several unusual features, including extremely low central air pressure, extreme speed, and a path that diverged from the customary track of typhoons in that region. The insurance company suggested that storms similar to Mirielle might become more frequent with global warming.

Some scientists are convinced that changes in the weather already bear the signature of human impacts. Thomas Karl, director of the National Climatic Data Center, headed a study that examined one very likely consequence of the greenhouse effect -- an increase in the frequency of extreme rainfalls. As temperatures rise, there is more potential energy for storms, and the atmosphere's ability to hold moisture increases as well. Defining as "extreme" storms that produced more than two inches of rain in a twenty-four-hour period, Karl found that, since 1976, such events have occurred roughly 3 percent more frequently in the U.S. than during any comparable previous period in this century. The period from 1980 to 1994 showed a 4-percent increase over previous fourteen-year periods.

Karl, who is taken seriously by all sides of the debate because he launched his study as a skeptic of predictions of global warming, is 90-95 percent certain that this steady increase in extreme weather events provides evidence that the greenhouse effect is beginning to alter the world's climate. From an insurer's point of view, the cause really does not matter. What matters is that the world seems to be changing, and if these changes persist, insurers face the prospect of ever-increasing losses. A study by Travelers Corporation of Hartford, Connecticut, estimates that even a modest .9-degree-Fahrenheit increase in global temperatures by the year 2010 could produce a twenty-day extension of the hurricane season, a 33-percent jump in hurricane landfalls in the U.S., and a 30-percent rise in catastrophic losses. Even a small strengthening of storm winds can produce dramatically higher insurance claims. By one estimate, a wind-speed increase of only five knots would have doubled the $3 billion in losses incurred during a 1987 storm in Europe.

No wonder insurers are retreating from coastal properties and islands around the world. Following a series of costly hurricanes, Allstate and Prudential stopped writing homeowner policies in coastal areas of Florida. Travelers, which lost $240 million because of Andrew, stopped writing policies in parts of Florida and pulled out of coastal areas in Connecticut and New York as well. Where, for political reasons, insurers cannot pull out, they have raised rates. Between 1989 and 1993, the price insurers pay to protect themselves against catastrophic losses rose 400 percent in the U.S., 650 percent in the U.K., and 1,000 percent in Japan. In the Pacific and the Caribbean, major insurers have pulled out of many island markets altogether; this in turn has cooled the ardor of banks to write mortgages, since lenders risk losing their investment with the next storm.

One ironic, and telling, aspect of the insurance industry's reaction to the prospect of global warming is that in this case the business world is far less cautious about predicting more intense and frequent storms as a consequence of global warming than is the scientific community. Though few scientists dispute Karl's assertions about rainstorms, some, like J. D. Mahlman of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, argue that an increase in the number and intensity of major weather events is possible, but not yet supported by evidence. The reaction of the insurance industry shows, however, that such "possible" future consequences have very real effects on present-day behavior: nature provides an industry in the line of fire with a preview of how costly those consequences might be in the years to come.

Inevitably, insurers' and banks' changing attitudes toward climate will begin to affect the purchasing and political behavior of ordinary people, changing their views both of nature and of risk. As the costs of extremes in climate ripple through society, people in the developed world will also rediscover that climate, fair or foul, is the context for all human activity, and that nature is more than a backdrop. This reorientation will have profound effects on everything from demographics to religion.

Copyright © 1998 by Eugene Lindon

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