Another Tragically Beautiful Day
special projects editor for the
, Ross Gelbspan won a Pulitzer Prize in 1984. He’s
taught at the Columbia University School of Journalism and is the
author of one of the most popular books on climate change called
The Heat Is On: The High Stakes Battle Over Earth’s Threatened
This summer in the Northwestern corner of California
we had a drought and some wildfires, and strangely, this fall we
haven’t had any rain in September and October, which is very
unusual for us, considering we live in a rainforest. Do you think
these events are related to climate change?
GELBSPAN: I think there’s no question about it. It seems clear
to me that one of the first consequences of climate change is a
change in weather patterns. What happens is that as the air warms
up, it accelerates the evaporation of surface water, which expands
to hold more water. It redistributes the moisture in the atmosphere,
so you have much longer droughts, much more severe downpours, and
you had in California in terms of the wildfires is consistent with
this kind of drought. One-half of the U.S. was in drought conditions
this summer. At the same time, you had 1,000 people die from a heat
wave in India and you had horrendous floods in Russia, the Czech
Republic, and Germany. All this is directly related to climate change.
This is the early stage of global warming.
also tied up with the spread of disease. One of the most sensitive
systems to temperature fluctuations in nature is insects. As the
weather warms up, it accelerates the breading rates and the biting
rates of insects and it allows them to live longer at higher altitudes
and higher latitudes. We’re seeing mosquitoes, for instance,
spreading malaria, the West Nile virus, and so forth to populations
that have never experienced it. We’ve seen locally transmitted
cases of malaria in northern Virginia. West Nile virus has spread
to 42 states. As well as the weather changes, we’re also seeing
changes in disease patterns, and changes in agriculture.
you explain what the greenhouse effect is?
dioxide in the atmosphere traps in heat and without it in the atmosphere,
this planet would basically be a frozen rock. We’ve had the
same amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere for 10,000 years—about
280 parts per million (ppm)—until about 150 years ago when
the world began using coal and oil. Right now, the level of this
atmospheric carbon is up to 370 ppm and that’s a level this
planet has not experienced for 420,000 years. That is basically
an exaggerated greenhouse effect. The way it was for 10,000 years
gave us the kind of climate that made this planet hospitable to
our civilization. The amount we put up now is going to be raising
temperatures because the normal heating that usually radiates back
out into space is trapped in because you have this thicker and thicker
carbon dioxide blanket in the atmosphere that is a direct result
of our burning fossil fuels.
are the greenhouse gases and where do they come from?
really one big one and that’s carbon dioxide. There’s
also methane, which comes from landfills, rotting garbage, animal
manure, and such. The most important one is carbon dioxide, and
that comes from burning coal, oil, and natural gas. We have to move
to a renewable energy economy, otherwise we’re going to see
very catastrophic consequences from it.
sectors put out the most carbon dioxide?
the United States, it breaks down equally: about one-third from
transportation, one-third from our electricity generation—more
than half of which comes from coal burning power plants—and
one-third comes from heating and cooling in industrial uses. So
we have to change our energy sources across the board. It would
be a lot easier if it were only our transportation or electricity
sector. What we have to do is replace every gas-burning car, coal-burning
generating plant, and oil-burning furnace with climate friendly
is the evidence for climate change due to global warming?
a lot of evidence. The first, most basic evidence, as I mentioned,
is the measurable increase in the amount of carbon dioxide in the
atmosphere. Separate from that, you have this real dramatic increase
in weather extremes; the proof of which is reflected in two places.
It’s reflected in the increase in government budgets for disaster
relief, but you can really see it in the losses to the world’s
property insurers. The insurance industry lost an average of $2
billion a year in the 1980s to these weather extremes. They lost
an average of $12 billion a year in the 1990s. That shows that we’re
having many more severe storms, floods, droughts, and heat waves.
other body of evidence that I find very compelling—and I’m
not even going to go into computer models—are things that are
actually happening on the planet from heating. First of all, heat
expands water, so we are seeing rising sea levels right now. We
are seeing people being evacuated from their island nation homes
in the Pacific Ocean, because they’re going to be submerged
by rising sea levels.
changes ecosystems. In Monterey Bay, California, scientists documented
a complete turnover of the marine population with cold water fish
moving northward and warm water fish and sea animals moving in to
populate that area. That’s due to ocean warming of the surface
warming has pushed a whole population of butterflies from Mexico
to Vancouver. We’re seeing the migration of species, to try
to maintain the same kind of temperatures that they’re used
to. They’re moving northward, or if you’re below the equator,
also seeing warming in the deep oceans and that’s causing the
breakup of big pieces of Antarctica’s ice shelves. There was
a piece the size of Rhode Island that broke off last spring. That’s
the third piece of that size that’s broken off since 1995.
Deep water heating is also changing the patterns of El Niños
that play havoc with weather all over the world. For hundreds of
years, El Niños recurred at fairly predictable periods, but
now they’re becoming more frequent and intense.
the tundra in Alaska, which for thousands of years has absorbed
carbon dioxide, and methane, is now thawing and releasing those
gases back into the atmosphere.
final one is the change in the timing of the seasons. Because of
the build up of carbon dioxide spring now arrives more than two
weeks earlier in the northern hemisphere than it did 20 years ago.
All these events are physical changes that have been documented
in the scientific, peer-reviewed literature and these are all consequences
of the warming of the planet.
of the hottest seventeen years on record have happened since 1980.
The five hottest consecutive years are 1991-1995; 1998 replaced
1997 as the hottest year on record; and 2001 replaced 1997 as the
second hottest year on record. The rate at which this planet is
warming is faster than anytime in the last 10,000 years.
powerful is the evidence linking global warming to human activities?
United Nations asked that question in 1988. They put together a
panel of more than 2,000 scientists from 100 countries called the
Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). These scientists
did lots of experiments to distinguish between natural warming and
greenhouse warming. In 1995, they said they had reached a consensus:
Human beings are changing the climate and it’s because of our
burning of fossil fuels. They came out with another report last
year that projects a very rapid increase in temperature in the coming
the scientific body says that the planet has only warmed about one
degree in the last century and it will warm from three to ten degrees
in this current century. To put that in context, the last ice age
was only around five to nine degrees colder than our current
climate. Each year we’re putting about seven billion tons of
carbon up into the atmosphere.
will happen if global warming continues at its current rate?
will see some very serious consequences in a relatively short period
of time. Let me give you two recent studies. One comes from the
major climate research laboratory in Britain, the Hadley Center.
What the Hadley Center said in a report they did last year was that
climate change is happening 50 percent faster than we thought because
when they originally did their computer models, they measured the
effects of a warming atmosphere on a relatively static biosphere.
But when they factored in the warming that had already taken place,
they found out that it’s compounding. As a result, they’re
saying that by 2040, most of the world’s forests will begin
these consequences of global warming that we’re already seeing—I’m
talking about the breakup of the ice shelves, the migration of species,
more intense downpours, and severe weather—that’s all
happened from one degree of warming and about a 30 percent increase
in carbon dioxide in the atmosphere.
study that came out in October 2002 in which 18 scientists said
that, taking very conservative estimates of the worlds future energy
use, these carbon dioxide levels will double and probably triple
before the end of the century. There’s no question that would
be catastrophic. We’ll be seeing agriculture failures, the
drying out of drinking supplies, big epidemics of disease, deaths
of forests and accelerating extinctions of species. We will also
see lots of political and economic consequences from those physical
are the politics of climate change? We hear little about it in the
really striking—and this is really important to understand—is
that nothing is being done about it in the United States, but in
other countries they’re extremely aware of it. The science
is unambiguous. Humanity needs to cut its emissions by at least
70 percent to allow the climate to stabilize. In Europe, Holland
has just finished a plan to cut emissions by 80 percent in 4 years.
The Germans have committed to cutting emissions by 50 percent in
50 years. The British are talking about cuts of 60 percent in 50
the U.S. the issue is not being discussed because of the lock that
the oil and coal industry have on our Congress and especially on
the Bush administration. But even before that, during the Clinton
administration, nothing was done.
oil and coal industry is one of the most powerful lobbies in the
world. One of the things that they have done is to finance a very
effective campaign of disinformation to keep everybody confused
about the issue. Every time there’s a new scientific finding
or a new story about climate change, the public relations people
from the fossil fuel industry are on the telephone with the newspaper
reporters, telling them, “Oh, there are many sides to this
story.” What got me into this is when I learned that the coal
industry was paying several scientists under the table to say that
climate change wasn’t happening.
administration policies are being called by ExxonMobil right now,
which is probably the most intransigent of the oil companies, and
also by the coal industry because if you stop and think about it,
a 70 percent reduction means the end of the coal industry. There’s
no way we can continue to burn coal. It means a total transformation
of the oil companies who have to become renewable energy companies.
They’re fighting for their survival.
need to cut our emissions by 70 percent. What that implies is a
rapid global transition to wind energy, hydrogen fuels, solar panels,
and so forth. Then you get into the question of what the cost of
those are and to think about that question, you have to realize
that this is not just a U.S. problem, this is a global problem.
Ross does a talk show on KMUD radio in CA. He’s worked on Ralph
Nader’s latest presidential campaign, corporate accountability,
U.S. imperialism, and environmental issues.