The Heat is On
Addison-Wesley Publishing Company, Reading, Massachusetts, 1997;
Review by Genevieve Howe
If you ever lie awake at night wondering how fast we’re destroying the planet, you
have plenty to worry about. As long as you’re up, don’t miss the chance to read The
Heat is On. It will tell you in no uncertain terms how little time we have left to
halt our dependency on fossil fuels.
The book charts global warming’s fatal course and tells us how we can—and
must—choose another path. Now. Not after we have found a cure for AIDS, brought peace
to the Middle East, or elected the next president, but now. Yet, Ross Gelbspan does not
forecast gloom and doom. Rather, he is refreshingly, almost unbelievably, optimistic.
The cause of global warming is neither unknown nor complicated. It is large-scale
combustion of oil and coal. Gelbspan tells it like it is: "The problem is not
difficult to understand. Each year humans pump six billion tons of heat-trapping carbon
into the lower atmosphere, which is only twelve miles high. Within a few decades the
atmospheric levels of carbon dioxide will double from preindustrial levels. The
world’s temperature record is already bearing witness to global climate change. Since
1980 we have seen the ten hottest years in recorded history. The five hottest consecutive
years on record began in 1991. The hottest year in the world’s recorded weather
history was 1995. [That is now 1997.] The planet is warming at a faster rate than at any
time in the last ten thousand years."
Okay, so a section the size of Rhode Island broke off the Larsen ice shelf in
Antarctica, the weather has become erratic, and sea levels are rising. Is this so
The journalist/author says the catalog of anticipated effects reads like the
"biblical apocalypse." We can look forward to: "…More extreme
temperatures, with hotter heat and colder cold, but also more intense rain and snowstorms,
extraordinarily destructive hurricanes, and protracted, crop-destroying drought,
particularly in the interior regions of continents. Island nations and low-lying coastal
regions everywhere might disappear under rising seas. These ecological shifts would
trigger outbreaks of infectious diseases, as they have already begun to do." As if
this weren’t enough, warming leads to more warming. Droughts can lead to wildfires
that burn vast areas of forest. The fires will not only add to carbon dioxide emissions
but also remove vegetation which absorbs carbon dioxide.
The book is peppered with examples. Mosquitoes that used to survive only up to 1,000
feet are spreading malaria and yellow fever at 2,000 feet. In 1994, floods that normally
last for two to three days in Bangladesh, lasted for two weeks and affected nearly ten
million people. The same year, Great Britain had its hottest summer since 1659 and its
driest summer since 1721. By March 1996, five successive years of floods, droughts, and
pest attacks had decimated more than 20 percent of Laos’s rice paddies. The Canadian
Forest Service reports that nearly one fifth of the northern forest biomass has been lost
to fires and insects in the past 20 years. "Before 1970 the forest had absorbed 118
million tons of carbon each year,…more than counterbalancing Canadian fossil fuel
emissions. But in the last decade that balance has shifted, and the forest has released on
average 57 millions tons of carbon each year."
Gelbspan anticipates a resurgence of "totalitarianism" and "martial
rule" in developing countries to control masses of refugees driven off land by
drought, flood, fire, famine, homelessness, disease, and economic disruptions. "Long
before sea levels rise by two to three feet over the next century—and they are
projected to continue to rise after that—the flood of environmental refugees will
likely have overwhelmed both our compassion and our capacity to help."
The author claims that today, 25 million environmental refugees roam the globe, more
than those pushed out for political, economic, or religious reasons. By 2010, he expects
this number to grow tenfold to 200 million.
The Heat is On offers numerous examples of what we can expect to see by 2010 if
current trends continue: "…Sub-Saharan Africa’s already stressed food
production will decline by 20 percent—leaving more than 300 million people in a state
of permanent malnutrition… [In the case of India] even a half-degree Celsius temperature
rise will reduce the wheat crop at least 10 percent… More than half the population of
the developing world could be cutting down trees for fuel and firewood… Disease
outbreaks, driven by changing climate patterns, will parallel the spread of poverty and
It will come as no surprise that the World Bank and International Monetary Fund are not
exactly helpful. While the Bank throws some money at renewable energy projects, it spends
billions of dollars on coal plant development in India, China, and other countries. Yet,
the intelligence community has begun to act. A Scientific American article
published after The Heat is On revealed that the CIA is assessing the potential for
destabilization due to climate related disruptions.
The book offers sound evidence of the global economic tailspin we can expect if we
don’t switch to renewable energy sources. In the 1980s, insurance companies around
the world paid out an average of $2 billion per year in weather-related property damages.
In the 1990s, they paid an average of $12 billion. The failure of insurance companies
would impact businesses everywhere. We may not much like insurance companies, but Gelbspan
cites them as keen to jump on the bandwagon against the oil and coal industries. Insurers
have already formed an odd alliance with small island nations, stretching from the
Philippines to Jamaica, in fear of being flooded out of existence by rising sea levels and
ripped to shreds by ever more severe hurricanes.
In spite of the hard facts, the trillion-dollar-a-year oil and coal industries have
been waging a ferociously well-funded campaign to discredit global warming and to provide
"greenhouse skeptics" for talk shows. Remarkably, according to Gelbspan, this
campaign is being carried out with the help of about a half-dozen scientists.
Two Newsweek polls showed the effectiveness of the smear campaign. In 1991, 35
percent of the U.S. population believed that global warming was a serious problem. In
1996, only 22 percent held this opinion. But, press attention to the Kyoto conference of
December 1997 pushed the believers back up above 35 percent. Gelbspan cites a reporter
from the German newsmagazine, Der Spiegel: "It’s only in America that
there is a debate over what’s happening to the global climate. In all the European
scientific circles, there’s no debate at all about what’s happening."
Fortunately, says the optimistic Gelbspan, our destructive ways coincide with the
arrival of technology needed to beat our oil and coal habit. Solar panels, fuel cells,
hydrogen fuel, wind sources and other renewable forms of energy have already been
adequately developed to meet our energy needs. Contrary to what smear campaigns would have
us believe, new technologies are practical, less capital intensive, more labor intensive,
cheaper in the long run, and reduce everyone’s dependency on foreign companies and
foreign supplies of fuel. They will also help close the gap between rich and poor nations.
The transition can, and must, be made within ten years. This writer believes we can do
it simply by stopping the $25 billion per year in U.S. government subsidies to the oil,
coal, and nuclear industries and applying that money to incentives for establishing
renewable energy sources.
Perhaps the most optimistic moment in the book is a quote from Ambassador H.E. Tuiloma
Neroni Slade of Samoa at the Rio conference: "…the strongest human instinct is not
greed—it is not sloth, it is not complacency—it is survival…and we will not
allow some to barter our homelands, our people and our culture for short-term economic
interest." Gelbspan convinces us that if we could stop the deterioration of the ozone
layer and if we could shoot holes through the tobacco lobby’s arguments, that we can
smother the oil and coal industries.
The Heat is On spells out the realities of global warming in eight chapters
addressing evidence of current problems, the campaign to discredit global warming, the oil
and coal buy-up of Congress, economic impacts of global warming, post-Rio de Janeiro
diplomatic angling, headline news from the planet, the coming permanent state of
emergency, and one possible course of action. A 41-page appendix provides "A
Scientific Critique of the Greenhouse Skeptics."
A shortcoming of the book is its liberal use of the word "democracy."
Gelbspan doesn’t define what he means by this term and makes the assumption that
"democracy" exists in the vast majority of countries around the world. He also
neglects to mention that the small portion of the world’s population living in North
America uses a large portion of the world’s energy. This pattern of excessive,
wasteful consumption in the North surely plays a role in both the problem of and solutions
to global warming. In addition, the book leaves the reader wanting to know more about how
we get from here to there. How will we get the oil and coal industries to switch to new
technologies? How will this new technology be "transferred" from developed to
developing nations? How will the use of alternative energy close the gap between rich and
According to the author, most gaps in the hardback edition will be filled by the
updated, paperback version of The Heat is On, due out in September from Perseus
Books. It will contain more detailed, sophisticated solutions, sounder economic analyses,
and news from the Kyoto conference in December 1997. Best of all, it promises to offer
even more good news than the original version. In the past year, British Petroleum and
Shell have broken ranks with other oil companies, Sunoco and Texaco have admitted the
climate issue must be dealt with, Toyota announced plans to market a car that gets 100
miles per gallon, and Ford and Daimler-Benz will soon be selling fuel cell cars. The coal
industry, however, has not yet budged.
For more information contact: Ozone Action, 1636
Connecticut Ave., NW, Ste 300, Washington, DC 20009-1043, (202) 265-6738.