History at Risk: The Crisis of the Global Climate

by Ross Gelbspan
Reposted from The Heat is Online

It is not news that climate shapes history. What is news is that the heating of our atmosphere has propelled our climate into a new state of instability. This new era of climate change could well be the most profound threat ever facing humanity. The most predictable casualty of climate change is stability—in our political systems, our economic organizations and our weather.

Perhaps because we are not experiencing heat waves of record-setting duration the public is happy to believe that global warming is a non-event. What most people don’t understand is that prolonged, detectable warming is preceded by a period of unstable climate marked by extreme and unseasonal weather.

In 1995, a panel of more than 2,000 scientists from 100 countries reported to the United Nations that Earth has already entered a new period of climatic instability likely to cause widespread economic, social and environmental dislocations—including sea level rise of up to 3 feet, increases in floods and droughts, increasingly severe storms and temperature extremes.[1]

Make no mistake. Climate change is here. Now. And its impacts have been felt over the past several years all over the world.

More than an “environmental” issue

In reporting on the issue of climate change for my book, The Heat Is On, (Perseus Books, 1997), it became clear that climate change is far more than a merely environmental issue. Its dimensions cut to the core of our economic and political lives—even to the basis of our existence as an organized civilization. The crisis of the global climate clusters around three issues of enormous scope and pervasive impact.

Its natural dimensions are of truly cosmic proportions. The 11 hottest years in recorded history have occurred since 1980. The period from 1991 to 1995 constitutes the five hottest consecutive years on record. 1997 just replaced 1995 as the hottest year in history. And the planet is heating at a rate faster than at any time in the last 10,000 years.[2]

Its energy dimension is staggering to contemplate. It requires a total transformation of the central nervous system of our civilization. To restore our inflamed atmosphere to a hospitable state requires nothing less than rewiring the entire globe—and replace every oil-burning furnace, every gasoline-burning car, every coal-burning generating plant, with renewable, climate-friendly energy sources. The earth’s fossil fuel resources have blessed us with a level of prosperity and abundance unimaginable a century ago. Today they are propelling us forward into a century of disintegration.

Finally, the economic dimension of the climate crisis centers around a widening global fault line which threatens to split humanity irreparably between rich and poor. The impact of that inequality on the global climate rests on one simple fact: if tomorrow the U.S. and the rest of the industrial world were to cut its emissions dramatically, that reduction would be overwhelmed by the coming pulse of carbon from China, India, Mexico, Brazil and all the developing nations who are struggling to keep ahead of the relentless undertow of chronic poverty.

Today while governments try to ratify emissions reductions of six and seven percent, a larger reality is being ignored. The science tells us clearly that to restore our atmosphere to a hospitable state requires us to cut emissions by 60 to 70 percent.[3]

It is a fascinating and deeply engaging set of issues that challenges both our habits and our intellects in ways that no other environmental problem ever has.

As one world-class scientist has observed, “If this unstable climate we are now beginning to see had begun 150 years ago, the planet would probably never have been able to support its current population of nearly six billion people.”

The Central Drama

This, then, is the central drama underlying the issue of global warming: the ability of this planet to sustain civilization versus the survival of the largest commercial enterprise in history. The oil and coal industries together generate around two trillion dollars a year in revenues. They support the economies of more than a dozen nations in the Middle East, Latin America, Africa and elsewhere. In the battle against their inevitable transformation or demise, their resources are virtually without limit.

Nevertheless, despite a highly pervasive and very successful industry-funded campaign of deception and disinformation, the evidence of climate change is today irrefutable.

Extreme weather events

Begin with the most apparent evidence—the relentless succession of extreme weather events all over the world. By itself, anecdotal evidence is not conclusive. But it is certainly compelling. A few selected examples from my notes:

In the spring of 1995, after five years without its normal killing frost, New Orleans was overrun by termites.[4]That summer, more than 500 people in India died from an usual heat wave.[5]Halfway around the world, the Midwest experienced its second 100-year flood in three years. At least 700 people died that summer in Chicago of heat-related effects.[6]That same summer of 1995 in Britain was the hottest since 1659 and the driest since 1721.) In fact, the 24 months from May, 1995, to May, 1997, was the driest two-year period in England since record keeping began.)[7]At the end of 1995, officials had to cancel the World Cup ski tournament in Austria for lack of snow. At the same time, residents of Sapporo, Japan, needed the army to dig them out of record snowfalls.[8]

In 1996, while floods plagued the northeastern United States, a prolonged Midwestern drought recreated Dust Bowl conditions and left U.S. grain reserves at their lowest levels in 50 years.[9]That summer, people in the northeast provinces of North Korea were reduced to eating leaves, grass and wild roots following the most extreme floods in memory.[10]At the same time, a succession of uncontrolled fires in Mongolia destroyed more than 700,000 square acres.[11]

One element of climate change involves the alteration of precipitation and drought patterns and more intense rain and snowfalls. As the atmosphere warms, it accelerates the evaporation of surface waters. At the same time, the warmer air expands to hold more water. So when the normal atmospheric turbulence comes through, it dumps much more of our rain and snow in severe, intense downpours than it did a few years ago.[12]In July, 1996, Aurora, Ill., received 17 inches of rain in one day.[13]That August, more than 60 people died during a flash flood in the Spanish Pyrenees.[14]In November, the worst floods in more than 50 years paralyzed Sofia, the capital of Bulgaria.[15]At the end of the year, Moscow experienced its warmest December in history.[16]

Moving forward into 1997, we saw a succession of very destructive ice, snow and rainstorms in the Pacific Northwest in January.[17] The worst rains in 30 years in February destroyed half of Bolivia’s crops.[18]In March, we witnessed record flooding along the Ohio River.[19]Portugal experienced its worst winter drought in 150 years which destroyed 70 percent of that country’s winter cereal crops.[20]In April, the epic flooding of the Red River devastated residents of North Dakota and Manitoba.[21]In May, a torrential rainfall in Manila in left 120,000 people homeless.[22]In July, the worst flooding in a century plagued Poland and the Czech Republic.[23] A November typhoon in Southeast Asia left 2,500 people dead or missing in what Vietnamese officials called the “calamity of the century.”[24] That same month, unprecedented flooding left more than 200,000 people homeless in Somalia and Ethiopia.[25] Last December was the coldest in Moscow in 115 years (following the previous year’s warmest December in history).[26] And in my home town of Boston we saw a 60-degree Easter Sunday followed two days later by a 30-inch snowstorm, the third largest snowfall in Boston’s history.[27]

And 1998, which began with an extraordinary ice storm that immobilized northern New England and Quebec for a month, has brought us the fires in Brazil, Mexico and Florida, killer heat waves in Texas and India, where some 4,000 people died of heat effects, Mexico’s worst drought in 70 years, flooding in China which left 14 million people homeless, the worst flooding in the history of Bangladesh which left some 30 million people homeless, and the 11,000 hurricane casualties in Central America.

I think the point about extreme weather events is clear. My own informal collection includes about 150 such events in the last three years. That’s about one a week. And what is remarkable is that each one is record setting.

But anecdotal evidence does not constitute proof—until you add it to four other bodies of evidence: the warming-driven spread of infectious disease; the escalating crisis facing the world’s property insurers; the official findings of the 2,500-member Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC); and a series of profoundly troubling physical changes taking place on the planet.

The spread of infectious disease

Warming is speeding up the breeding rates of disease-bearing insects. It is also propelling them to altitudes and latitudes which were only a few years ago too cold to support their survival. Dr. Paul Epstein of Harvard Medical School reports that mosquitoes that previously could survive no higher than 1,000 meters are not being found at sites as high as 2,200 and even 3,200 meters. And they are spreading malaria, dengue and Yellow Fever to populations which have never previously been exposed and have no traditional immunity against them.[28] At current rates of warming, scientists estimate that mosquito-borne epidemics will double in the tropical regions and increase 100-fold in the temperate regions (where we live)—leading to as many as 80 million new cases a year of malaria alone in the next century.[29] Globally, the incidence of malaria has quadrupled in the last five years.[30]

The cholera epidemic of the early 1990s that infected 400,000 people just in Peru was triggered in large part by warming.[31] And changes in the climate have promoted the emergence of frequently lethal pulmonary virus in the southwest, the spread of a strain of Encephalitis and a striking increase in the Northeastern U.S. of tick-borne Lyme disease.[32] And when I was in Guatemala in March of 1998, the government declared a nationwide health alert in the face of an epidemic of cholera and other intestinal diseases. According to a full page article in the national newspaper, the drought-driven evaporation of drinking water was concentrating the amount of bacteria, and the warming from the El Nino was accelerating their breeding rates. So the government warned the public not only not to drink the water, but not even to wash vegetables or bathe in it.[33]

Escalating insurance losses

The next body of evidence involves the extraordinary and rapid escalation of damage claims from severe weather events. It is sending shock waves though the insurance industry. Those losses, which averaged $2 billion a year in the 1980s, are averaging $12 billion a year in the 1990s.[34] A direct hit on Miami or New Orleans from a warming-intensified hurricane could create $50 billion in insured losses. Given the projected 2-3 foot rise in sea levels during the next century, insurers are acutely aware that half the population of the U.S. lives within 50 miles of a vulnerable coastline. Franklin Nutter, head of the Reinsurance Association of America, echoed a number of insurance officials when he said that unless something is done to stabilize the climate, it could “bankrupt the industry.”[35] As a recent report by the insurance giant, Munich Re, concluded: “The general trend towards ever-increasing numbers of catastrophes with ever-increasing costs is continuing.”[36] As if to prove the point, a study released in November, 1998, concluded that damages from extreme weather events simply in the first 10 months of 1998 surpassed the total of all such losses during the entire decade of the 1980s.[37] 5

The scientific consensus

And then there is the official evidence of a consensus of more than 2,000 of the world’s leading climate researchers.

While the science is complex, the facts underlying the science are simple. Carbon dioxide traps in heat. For 10,000 years, the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere has remained the same—280 ppm—until roughly the turn of the century when we began burning more coal and oil. That 280 will double in the next century. A concentration of 450 ppm which most experts regard as inevitable correlates with an increase in the global temperature of 3* to 7* F. By contrast, the last Ice Age was only 5* to 9* F colder than our current climate. Each year, we are pumping six billion tons of heat-trapping carbon into our atmosphere whose outer extent is only about 12 miles overhead.

In 1995, the IPCC reported to the United Nations that it had discovered the scientific “fingerprint” of coal and oil emissions which are contributing to the warming of the planet. That “fingerprint” is graphically and distinctively different from the natural variability of the climate.[38]

That same year, a team at the National Climatic Data Center verified an increase in extreme precipitation events, altered rainfall and drought patterns and temperature extremes during the past several decades. The events they identified are precisely what the current generation of climate computer models project as the early manifestations of global warming.[39]

Research results published last summer indicate that in more of the world, the nighttime low temperatures are rising almost twice as fast as the daytime high temperatures. That also is a distinctive “signature” of greenhouse warming.[40] If the warming were part of the natural variability of the climate, the highs and lows would rise and fall more or less in parallel.

Physical changes to the planet

The final body of evidence lies in scientific findings about physical changes in the glaciers, forest, mountains and oceans:

In 1995, researchers were astonished to discover that warming surface waters had led to a 70 percent decline in the population of zooplankton off the coast of Southern California, creating an ocean wasteland and jeopardizing the survival of several species of fish.[41]

In Monterey Bay, ocean warming caused a turnover in the population of marine life, driving cold-water fish northward while warm-water fish and sea animals moved in to populate the area.[42] As ocean warming pushed fish populations northwards, atmospheric warming has pushed a whole population of butterflies from the mountains of Mexico to the hills of Vancouver.[43]

High above the oceans, most of earth’s glaciers are retreating at accelerating rates. The biggest glacier in the Peruvian Andes was retreating by 14 feet a year 20 years ago; today it is shrinking by 99 feet a year.[44]

Plants are migrating up the Alps to keep pace with the changing climate.[45]

Warming has been detected in the deep oceans, causing the break up of Antarctic ice shelves[46]– and almost certainly fueling more frequent and severe El Ninos. For at least a century, El Ninos surfaced about every 4.2 years. Since the mid-1970s, however, they have become more frequent and long lasting. The El Nino which ended in late 1995 lasted a record 5 years and 8 months. That is a 1-in-2000 year event.[47] And we have yet to understand the full extent of its biological impacts. The El Nino of 1997-98, which has promoted wildfires in Indonesia and Mexico, record rainfalls in Chile and the beginnings of a famine in New Guinea, is far more severe. And many scientists now believe that the change in El Nino patterns is due specifically to atmospheric heating.[48]

A new desert has recently formed in parts of Spain, Portugal and Greece and scientists last year declared that protracted droughts, punctuated by intense, soil-eroding rains, have become the norm rather than the exception.[49]

The Alaskan Tundra, which for thousands of years absorbed methane and CO2, is now thawing and releasing those gases back into the atmosphere.[50] In Siberia and Alaska, the ancient permafrost is turning to pea soup.[51]

And in what for me is one of the most startling of these physical changes, we have actually altered the timing of the seasons. Because of the buildup of atmospheric CO2, spring is now arriving a week earlier in the northern hemisphere than it did 20 years ago.[52]

Industry’s campaign of deception

But if much of the public is ignorant of the stakes, the fossil fuel lobby is acutely aware of them. Over the last seven years, the fossil fuel lobby has mounted a extremely effective campaign of disinformation to persuade the public and policy-makers that the issue of atmospheric warming is still stuck in the limbo of scientific uncertainty. That campaign for the longest time targeted the science. It then misrepresented the economics. And most recently it attacked the diplomatic foundations of the climate convention. And it has been extraordinarily successful in creating a relentless drumbeat of doubt in the public mind.

In 1991, Western Fuels, a $400-million coal consortium, declared in its annual report it was launching a direct attack on mainstream science and enlisting several scientists who are skeptical about climate change—specifically Drs. Robert Balling, Pat Michaels and S. Fred Singer.[53]

These self-proclaimed “greenhouse skeptics” would normally not be worthy of much attention. There are only about a dozen visible ones versus a consensus of more than 2,000 of the world’s leading climate scientists. But, with extraordinary access to the media thanks to their corporate sponsors, they have been able to create the general perception that the issue is hopelessly stuck in uncertainty.

Seven years ago, Western Fuels and several coal utilities launched a half-million-dollar public relations campaign which called for local press, radio and TV appearances by Drs. Balling, Michaels and Singer. According to its strategy papers, the purpose of the campaign was to “reposition global warming as theory rather than fact.” The same document indicates the campaign was designed to target “older, less-educated men…[and] young, low-income women” in districts which receive their electricity from coal and, preferably, have a representative on the House Energy Committee.[54]

After the fraudulent ICE campaign was exposed in the media, Western Fuels spent $250,000 on a propaganda video to convince audiences that enhanced carbon dioxide is good for us—that it will benefit humanity by increasing crop yields to help feed an expanding population.[55] Unfortunately, the video overlooks two factors. The first is the bugs. Of all natural systems, one of the most sensitive to even the slightest temperature change is insects; even a slight warming will trigger an explosion of crop-destroying, disease-spreading insects. Plant biologists point out an even more unconscionable omission. While enhanced CO2 may temporarily increase yields in the northern latitudes, it will decimate food crop growth in the tropical latitudes where the majority of the world’s poorest and hungriest people live. A half-degree increase in the average temperature will cause a substantial decline in rice yields in Southeast Asia—and a drop-off of 20 percent of the wheat crop in India[56]—a country where a third of the population—more than 300 million people—live in extreme poverty.

For another example, a few months after a 1995 report by the National Climatic Data Center that documented an increase in severe weather events, the oil lobby commissioned a study by a private weather forecasting firm denying any such changes. It got quite a lot of coverage in the press—despite the fact that the latter study was a laughingstock in the scientific community. It turns out that the NCDC study was based on all the weather data in the US collected since the beginning of instrumentation—enough to fill a half million 1995-vintage PCs. By contrast, the industry study drew on data from three towns—Augusta, Ga., State College, Pa., and Des Moines, Iowa.[57]

In a similar vein, in the summer of 1997 Fred Singer put out a flurry of press announcements declaring the head of the IPCC, Dr. Bert Bolin, had renounced his previous statements and declared the science is too uncertain to justify any policy changes and denying any connection between atmospheric warming and extreme weather events.[58] When Dr. Bolin heard about these allegations, he emphatically denied them and said Singer basically made up the whole thing.[59]

The latest such attack occurred when Fred Seitz, of the ultra-conservative Marshall Institute, distributed a study by a Oregon chemist, with no background in climate research, dismissing the findings of the IPCC. The study was printed so as to resemble an official document of the National Academy of Science, leading the NAS to take the highly unusual step of publicly dissociating itself from the study and noting that, as early as 1992, the Academy’s own panel concluded “greenhouse warming poses a potential threat sufficient to merit prompt responses…as insurance against the great uncertainties and the possibility of dramatic surprises.”[60]

Misrepresenting the economics

Nor have the attacks focused solely on the science. The industry has also misrepresented the economics and attacked the diplomatic foundations of the climate convention. Several economic studies released by industry groups forecast dire economic disaster from even a modest level of emissions reductions[61]– despite a declaration by more than 2,500 economists that we can cut emissions and create more jobs at the same time.[62]

Last fall, in the months before Kyoto, the fossil fuel lobby took aim at the United Nations climate convention by demanding we renege on our diplomatic commitments and impose first-round energy cutbacks on the developing world.[63]

And as recently as April 26, a front page article in the New York Times documented the next leg of the campaign—a new $5 million campaign by the American Petroleum Institute, Exxon, Chevron and the Southern Company, to attack the findings of the IPCC and propagate a new generation of scientific falsehoods.[64]

Given the past success of the greenhouse skeptics—and the larger disinformation campaign—this latest public relations offensive should come as no surprise. The effectiveness of the fossil fuel lobby’s campaign of deception has been extraordinary. When the chairman of the House Science Committee drastically cut funding for global research programs, he cited statements by the “greenhouse skeptics” and ignored the testimony of four of the world’s most accomplished scientists.[65] The chairman of a House subcommittee said the industry-sponsored skeptics persuaded him that funding global warming research amounted to “throwing money down a rathole.” [66]

Funding the skeptics

The use of this tiny group of “skeptics” became clear in the spring of 1995 when they were forced to disclose for the first time under oath how much funding they had received from industry sources.

From 1991 to 1995, Dr. Balling received about $300,000 from Cyprus Minerals, the British Coal Corporation, the German Coal Mining Association and OPEC. His book’s publication in Arabic was funded by the Kuwait Institute for Scientific Research.[67]

Michaels received $165,000 in three years from Western Fuels, the German Coal Mining Association and Cyprus Minerals.[68] Cyprus Minerals also happens to be the largest single funder of the militantly anti-environmental Wise Use movement.

Another highly visible skeptic, Fred Singer, acknowledged he has received funding from Exxon, Shell, Unocal and ARCO.[69]

Two polls by Newsweek Magazine underscore the effectiveness of this industry deception. In 1991, 35 percent of those polled said global warming is a very serious problem. But by 1996, that percentage had dropped to 22 percent.[70]

The “greenhouse skeptics” are fond of pointing out uncertainties in the science. The science, they tell us, can’t specify particular impacts in specific regions. Nor can it predict the future rates of warming—or the thresholds of carbon dioxide concentrations which will propel the climate into abrupt shifts.

The real uncertainty

They have made a living off of scientific uncertainty. But they have used it in a very selective and misleading way. Dr. Michael McElroy, chairman of Harvard’s Department of Earth and Planetary Sciences, cites a lesson about uncertainty he learned from the early days of the ozone depletion issue. While early computer models yielded estimates of the depletion, subsequent measurements by balloons and satellites found the depletion to be far worse than the worst-case computer scenario. “Just because there is uncertainty,” McElroy said, “does not imply the reality is benign. It could easily be far worse.” McElroy’s bottom line on the climate issue is this: “We have no right tampering with an immense system we don’t understand.”[71]

I would go further. Carbon dioxide stays in the atmosphere 100 years.[72] If we could magically stop all our coal and oil burning, we would still be subject to a long spell of costly and traumatic weather extremes. Moreover new research indicates that prehistoric climate changes have happened as abrupt shifts rather than gradual transitions, and that small changes have triggered catastrophic outcomes.[73] Not only are we gambling with our collective futures. We are gambling with our eyes blindfolded. We can’t even read the cards we’ve been dealt.

The risks to democracy

If you begin to think through the consequences of an unstable climate to our political world, you will probably arrive at the same conclusion as William Ruckelshaus. Ruckelshaus, who was the first head of the EPA and is currently CEO of Browning-Ferris Industries, said that “long before the systems of the planet collapse, the institutions of democracy will buckle under the pressure of a series of ecological emergencies.”[74] In fact, the threat of totalitarianism is strongest in many of the poorest countries whose ecosystems are as fragile as their traditions of democracy. It is not hard to foresee governments resorting to permanent states of martial law to respond to droughts, floods, heat waves, incursions of environmental refugees and epidemics of infectious disease.

As if to illustrate the point, in September, 1997, after four months of unbroken drought and frost, 700,000 people in Papua New Guinea left their homes in search of food and water and government officials said they were unable to deal with the situation.[75]

The consequences of climate change hold the same anti-democratic potential for the United States as well. Disruptions in other parts of the world would likely hurt our own economy, shrinking markets and impairing the flow of industrial commodities from abroad. This is not the kind of climate in which democracy flourishes. This is the kind of climate that could easily lead to food rationing, with its associated black market crime. It could lead, as well, to a military takeover of relief operations to maintain order in the face of natural disruptions. It is a fact that today the Central Intelligence Agency is assessing the potentials for political destabilization from climate-related disruptions.[76]

So the prospects for both our habitat and our institutions are very depressing and very frightening.

Which brings me to the final—and probably most controversial—section of this presentation.

Kyoto: a puny beginning

In December, 1997, the delegates to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change hammered out a global agreement to reduce coal and oil emissions. From a political point of view, the conference was surprisingly successful. Some 160 nations came together to sound an alarm about our common future. At several points, the talks nearly broke down over several major divisions—between the US and the European Union, between the developed and developing nations and between the business and environmental communities. It is to their great credit that, at the last minute, delegates managed to resolve—or at least create the illusion of resolving—those divisions.

But if we judge Kyoto not by the obstacles of diplomacy but by the requirements of nature, the Protocol is a hollow shell. Its goals of 7 and 8 percent reductions are at least an order of magnitude below what nature requires to stabilize the global climate. It is moreover deeply flawed by an emissions-trading mechanism which is unworkable and unenforceable and which, together with a system of “joint implementations” amounts to little more than a grab-bag full of loopholes to be exploited by industrial interests.[77]

Now contrast the Kyoto cuts averaging less than 7 percent with the 60 to 70 percent reductions needed to stabilize the global climate.

The critical role of inequity

Clearly there is a major disconnect between what nature requires to keep this planet hospitable—and what the diplomats and business leaders say is politically achievable and economically permissible.

And at the center of that disconnect is the monumental issue of global economic inequality between the North and South. I cannot emphasize this strongly enough: that inequality is as critical to our planet’s climate as the burden of carbon is to the chemistry of our atmosphere. The largest source of greenhouse gases in the coming decades will not be the US, Western Europe and Japan, but the developing economies of East Asia, Latin America and Eastern Europe. The coming eruption of carbon emissions from the poor world will dwarf any reductions in the North.

The fossil fuel lobby wants to address the problem by increasing trade between wealthy and poor countries. Under one proposed approach, for instance, a big emitter in the US could pay for planting trees in India to absorb more carbon dioxide and thus get credit for “emissions avoided.” Industry spokesmen tout as a “win-win” approach the sale of new US-designed coal plants to China to reduce emissions from its older, dirtier plants.[78] China might win. Westinghouse or Bechtel might win. The rest of us would lose.

Entrepreneurs in the field of alternative energy see the issue as a windfall for their industry—an opportunity to sell millions of dollars of renewable technologies to the developing world.

In fact, virtually every proposal on the table involves some sort of market-based solution to the problem. As a result, I believe, all of them will fail.

I believe the lure of the newly globalized economy in this area is lethal. Most of the business community sees the climate issue as yet another opportunity to sell yet another category of goods to developing countries who can barely afford to feed and educate their poverty-stressed populations. They are in no position to finance energy transitions.

The Senate’s denial

In the summer of 1997, the US Senate voted 95 to 0 to reject the treaty because it exempts the large developing nations from the first round of emissions cuts.[79] And last fall, the fossil fuel industry launched a $13 million ad campaign to reinforce that resistance.[80] What the industry lobby, as well as many Senators, must stop denying is that most developing nations are too burdened by debt, poverty and social instability to absorb energy restrictions. India, for instance, sells electricity through state electric boards. Those boards were breaking even until the early 1980s, when the country decided on a national policy of food self-sufficiency and began subsidizing grants of electricity to small farmers. Today, as a result, India’s electric boards are in virtual bankruptcy. All that stands between order and breakdown in that country is her vast coal reserves. To impose substantial emissions restrictions on India without providing alternative sources of energy is to invite economic and social chaos.

The fossil fuel lobby tells us repeatedly that the exemption of the developing countries will cost us jobs in our domestic coal and oil industries. But that argument cuts both ways. If we do impose significant energy restrictions on the developing countries, we will see lots of job losses at Boeing, Gillette, Coca Cola and all those companies that see their future earnings growth coming from emerging markets.

The real truth is that if we in the North don’t get this right, we will suffer severe economic damage whether or not we impose energy restrictions on the nations of the South.

Some hopeful signs

This is not to deny some recent and hopeful signs. In the last few months, some important corporate players have begun to acknowledge the climate crisis. Days after the Kyoto Conference, Ford announced in would invest more than $400 million in a joint venture with Daimler Benz and Ballard Power Systems to begin producing fuel-cell driven cars.[81]The chairman of British Petroleum announced his company expects to be doing $1 billion in solar energy commerce within the decade.[82]And Shell also announced its intention to invest $500 million in renewable energy technologies. [83]

(It is worth nothing here that a switch to renewables implies no decline in our living standards. An economy based on hydrogen, fuel cells, photovoltaics, solar, biomass, wind and super-efficient gas-fired co-generation technology could provide all the energy we require today and more. All renewables need to become economically competitive with fossil fuels are mass markets, mass production and economies of scale.)

But for the initiatives of BP, Shell and others to work, these companies need the protective regulatory leadership of the world’s governments to level the playing field to help them decarbonize their energy services and position their companies to play prominent roles in a new energy economy.

Without a comprehensive system of mandatory and binding enforcement it would be extraordinarily difficult for these corporate leaders to sacrifice the competitive position of their company or their industry. I believe it would be impossible for them to keep their eye at the same time on the bottom line of profitability and the upper reaches of our carbon-burdened sky.

The law of supply and demand vs. the laws of nature

The fact that most shareholders and directors focus exclusively on near-term cost reveals a basic short-out in the logic of the marketplace. It denies the fundamental fact that the global environment circumscribes and supports the global economy. We can not negotiate emission levels and rates of economic growth with the biosphere. Unfortunately, the laws of supply and demand do not supersede the laws of nature. And when those two sets of laws collide, the physical planet is the court of highest appeal. If you believe the costs of changing our energy diet are too high, understand this: the costs of not changing will be incalculably higher.

One pathway to a future

I believe we need a Manhattan-type Project to rewire the world in a 10-15 year period to replace all our coal and oil-fired energy sources with climate-friendly, non-polluting technologies.

The oil lobby tells us that even a 15 percent reduction in emissions would cost us more than 3 percent of our GDP.[84] What they don’t tell is us is that a global energy transition would create millions and millions and millions of jobs all over the world.

If every country were given the technology and the resources to train workers to manufacture and install climate-friendly energy sources, it would create an unprecedented world-wide economic boom. It would begin to reverse the economic gap between the North and South. And in a very short time, the labor-intensive renewable energy industry would absolutely eclipse high technology as the central driving engine of growth of the global economy.

Last year, as I mentioned, more than 2,500 economists declared that we can cut emissions—up to 30 percent by some estimates—simply by implementing a series of efficiency and conservation measures with a net gain in jobs to the economy. To attain the next 40 percent, however, requires a radical departure from the way we have been doing business. An unregulated market approach is far too gradual and uneven to address the challenge. And the conventional political process, with its negotiated comprises, will—predictably and depressingly—yield nothing more than a new arena of perpetual economic warfare in which industries and nations will devote their energies to pushing the economic pain off themselves and onto their neighbors and competitors. That is clearly the least productive response to the challenge that faces us all.

A more productive response might involve the type of international governance the Montreal Protocol provided for the chemical industry. The primary reason that public-private partnership was successful in eliminating ozone-destroying chemicals was simple. As the economist David L. Levy has pointed out, the same companies that made the destructive chemicals were able to produce their substitutes, with no negative impact on their competitive standing within the industry.[85]

The job of the energy industry now is to configure itself in the same way. It will be difficult. In producing CFC substitutes, the chemical companies did not have to develop new processes and technologies. But energy is a different story. Renewable energy sources derive from very different technologies than extractive techniques. Photovoltaics are based on semiconductor technology; wind power draws on turbine technology and electronics. And many renewable sources are implicitly decentralized, off-grid, stand-alone technologies. So it will call on a great deal of corporate will and ingenuity.

The good news is that the renewable energy industry today is young and fragmented. There is no Microsoft of renewables. Given the emerging nature of the industry, there is today a moment of opportunity and an abundance of expertise for the energy giants majors to decarbonize their energy supplies. To accomplish this, the next phase of the Kyoto Protocol should establish an international agency to determine—in concert with the world’s major oil and coal companies—an enforceable timetable of 10 to 15 years for this transition.

Three strategies for survival

The elements for this transition seem available now.

First, I think we need to divert the approximately $21 billion the federal government (and the $300 billion spent by governments all over the world) to subsidize fossil fuels and divert those subsidies to the renewable energy industry.

Second, I think we need to substitute a fossil fuel efficiency standard for the mechanism of emissions trading. (Currently, electrical production from gas-fired cogeneration is attaining efficiencies of 90 percent—versus the 35 percent from oil and coal combustion.) Simply by phasing in increasingly stringent efficiency standards for each energy-use sector, we would create an instant market for renewables and efficiencies without compromising any of our energy needs. And were we to eliminate the subsidies and regulations designed to protect inefficient coal and oil use, we would create a true marketplace that rewarded free energy competition according to the dual standards of economy and efficiency.[86]

Finally, I think we need to use a variation of the Tobin Tax to finance the transfer of climate-friendly technologies to the developing world. Such a tax would amass revenues from the commerce in international currency transactions which, today, totals about $1.3 trillion every day. A .025 percent tax on those transactions would generate from $150 to $200 billion a year to finance windmill plants in India, fuel cell factories in Russia, vast photovoltaic, hydrogen-producing farms in the Middle East, solar assemblies in El Salvador and super-efficient, gas-fired cogeneration plants in South Africa.[87]

That is a vision I believe we should strive to realize in the wake of Kyoto. But unfortunately there remains the stumbling block of political stalemate.

Several senators have said that without an uprising of popular support, they will not be able to counteract the influence of the fossil fuel lobby in Congress and, as a result, the Kyoto Protocol may never be ratified by the Senate.

Unfortunately, there is a political conundrum here. While the US is home to many, many very energetic and effective grass-roots groups, virtually all of them have mobilized around a local issue—a toxic waste facility, a landfill, an asphalt plant that threatens local air and water quality. Unfortunately, the global environment is everyone’s second home. However, several NGO leaders returned from Kyoto resolved to forge a national coalition of all these local grassroots groups around the climate issue. Conditions are changing quickly and I think the timing for this kind of an initiative is at hand.

All over the country—and, for that matter, the world—the public is extremely alarmed about our increasingly unstable and violent weather. They are worried about their futures—and their children’s futures. Given the attention focused on the issue by the media in the run-up to Kyoto, the issue of climate change is finally on the public’s radar screen. And despite the relentless campaign of disinformation by the fossil fuel lobby, we are now seeing companies like BP, Sunoco, Shell, Texaco and Ford breaking ranks within the industry.[88]

So, given the emerging awareness of the public, the fissures within the fossil fuel industry, and the media backlash against the deceptions of the fossil fuel lobby, I think there is a new climate of political possibility.

We have the technology. We have the institutional mechanisms. What we need now is the will to think big and make it happen.

I am not an economist. I am not wedded to any of the details of my proposal—save for the goal of virtual zero emissions within fifteen years. What my reporting has taught me, however, is that any solution must have the same scope and sweep as this. Business-as-usual will most likely mean the fracturing of civilization—and the end of democracy as a practicable form of government.

We have long since passed the point at which there is any reasonable doubt as to whether or not there is a problem. It is time to clear away the industry-generated smokescreen of deception and decide together—on the basis of accurate and truthful information—what to do about it.

Finally, in addition to our energy diet, I believe we must tackle another change which may prove even more difficult. I think we must change, in a very fundamental way, the self-image we have shared since we first became a rational species.

For most of our history, we have thought of ourselves as helpless children of nature, dependent on her whims for our shelter and survival.

Today, at the brink of the 21st Century, we are no longer children. Somewhere in the recent past, with the growth of our population and the power of our technology, we have grown into a collective force as powerful as any force of nature. We are no longer mere inhabitants of the planet. We are also it shapers.[89] And as we continue to act like adolescents by testing its physical limits and denying the destructive consequences of our newfound, adult power, we are putting our entire history at risk.

While we treasure our past, it is time to stop denying our impact on the present. It is time, as well, to honor our responsibilities to the children. I believe the time is here for all of us all over the world to finally grow up.

Copyright 1999 by Ross Gelbspan

Ross Gelbspan retired several years ago after a 31-year career in journalism as a reporter. As special projects editor of The Boston Globe, he conceived, directed and edited a series of articles that won a Pulitzer Prize in 1984. In 1995, he co-authored an article on climate change and the spread of infectious disease which appeared in the Outlook Section of The Washington Post. His article on climate change, which appeared on the cover of the December, 1995 issue of Harper’s Magazine, was a finalist for a National Magazine Award. In 1997, he published a book on the global climate crisis titled: The Heat Is On: The High Stakes Battle Over Earth’s Threatened Climate (Perseus Books). The book has also been published in German, Italian and Portuguese. (An updated U.S. paperback edition was published in 1998 (Perseus Books), as: The Heat Is On: the Climate Crisis, the Cover-Up, the Prescription). Visit his website: The Heat is Online.


1 Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report: Summary for Policymakers: The Science of Climate Change, IPCC Working Group I, November, 1995.

2 Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report: Summary for Policymakers: The Science of Climate Change, IPCC Working Group I, November, 1995. “Global-scale temperature patterns a climate forcing over the past six centuries,” Michael E. Mann, Raymond S. Bradley and Malcolm K. Hughes, Nature, Vol. 392, April 23, 1998

3 Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report: Summary for Policymakers: The Science of Climate Change, IPCC Working Group I, November, 1995.

4 The Boston Globe, May 29, 1995, “When Winters Go Frost-Free, It’s Bug Easy.”

5 Reuters News Service, July 11, 1995

6 Reuters News Service, July 17, 1995

7 The New York Times, April 19, 1997, “This Dehydrated Isle, Demi-Desert, This England.”

8 Newsweek Magazine, Jan. 22, 1996 “THE HOT ZONE: Blizzards, Floods Hurricanes: Blame Global Warming”

9 The New York Times, May 20, 1996, “Worst Drought Since ’30s Grips Plains.”

10 The New York Times, “U.N. Says North Korea Will Face Famine as Early as This Summer,” May 14, 1996.

11 The Boston Globe, “Snow, used to fight fires, kills cattle in Mongolia,” May 12, 1996.

12 Scientific American, “The Coming Climate,” by Thomas R. Karl, Neville Nicholls and Jonathan Gregory, May, 1997.

13 The New York Times, July 20, 1996, “Rain of Biblical Proportions Pours Out of Midwest Skies.”

14 The New York Times, “Flash Floods in Spanish Pyrenees Kills Scores,” Aug. 9, 1996.

15 Reuters News Service, “Floods Kill Two in Bulgaria, More Rain Coming,” Dec. 2, 1996.

16 The Boston Globe, Dec. 5, 1996, “Muscovites wondering: Will winter never end?”

17 The Boston Globe, “Helicopters assisting flooded West,” Jan,. 4, 1997. The New York Times,”Sun Shines Over Devastation As Northwest Floods Recede,” Jan. 5, 1997.

18 The New York Times, “Bolivia Rains kill 16 and Wipe Out Crops,” March 5, 1997.

19 The Boston Globe, “Thousands flee flooding in four states”, March 9, 1997.

20 Reuters News Service, “Winter drought destroys Portuguese cereal crops,” April 29, 1997.

21 The Washington Post, “Flood Victims Cheer Clinton’s Pledge of Aid,” April 23, 1997.

22 Reuters News Service, “Rain, floods force 120,000 Filipinos to flee,” May 17, 1997.

23 The New York Times, “With Nearly 100 Dead, Floods Keep Raging in Central Europe,” July 21, 1997.

24 Reuters News Service, “Vietnam sends mayday for typhoon ‘calamity,'” Nov. 10, 1997.

25 The New York Times, “Rain Is a New Agony for Somalia, As Villages Are Suddenly Islands,” Nov. 19, 1997.

26 The Boston Globe, “Moscow freeze hits 18 below,” Dec. 16, 1997.

27 The Boston Globe, April 3, 1997.

28 “Climate, Ecology, and Human Health,” Paul R. Epstein, M.D.,M.P.H., Consequences, Vol. 3, No. 2, 1997.

29 “Potential impact of global climate change on malaria risk,” Martens, W.J.M., Niessen, L.W., Rotmans, J., Jetten, T.H.,and McMichael, T.J. Environmental Health Perspectives, vol. 103, 1995.

30 “Resurgence of a Deadly Disease,” Ellen Ruppel Shell, The Atlantic Monthly, August, 1997

31 “Global Climate and Infectious Disease: The Cholera Paradigm,” Rita R. Colwell, Science, Vol. 274, Dec. 20, 1996.

32 “Climate, Ecology, and Human Health,” Consequences, Vol. 3, No. 2, 1997, Paul R. Epstein, M.D., M. P.H. The Boston Globe, April 4, 1997, “The Greenhouse Effect: A Global Experiment with Human Subjects,” Eric Chivian, M.D. and Paul R. Epstein. M.D., M.P.H., Center for Health and the Global Environment, Harvard Medical School.

33 “Salud en alerta por temor a epidemias,” Prensa Libre, Guatemala, March 20, 1998.

34 Data from Munich Reinsurance, cited in “Climate of Hope: New Strategies for Stabilizing the World’s Atmosphere”, Christopher Flavin and Odil Tunali, Worldwatch Institute, 1996.

35 Author interview with Franklin Nutter, March 20, 1996.

36 “Annual Review of Natural Catastrophes—1996,” Munich Reinsurance.

37 “’98 storm damage cost $89b, study says,” The Boston Globe, Nov. 28, 1998

38 Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) Report: Summary for Policymakers: The Science of Climate Change, IPCC Working Group I, November, 1995. Also: “A search for human influences on the thermal structure of the atmosphere,” Nature, Vol. 382, July 4, 1996, B.D. Santer, et al.

39 “Trends in U.S. Climate during the Twentieth Century,” Consequences, Spring, 1995, Vol. 1, No. 1, Thomas Karl et al.

40 “Temperature Range Narrows between Daytime Highs and Nighttime Lows,” Science, July 18, 1997, David Easterling et al.

41 “Climatic Warming and the Decline of Zooplankton in the California Current,” Dean Roemmich and John McGowan, Science, Vol. 267, March 3, 1995.

42 “Climate Related, Long-Term Faunal Changes in a California Rocky Intertidal Community,” J.P. Barry, Chuch Baxter, et al., Science, Feb. 3, 1995. “Study Suggests Some Sea Creatures Responding to Changing Climate,” Associated Press, March 2, 1995.

43 “Climate and species Range,” Camille Parmesan, Nature, Vol. 382, Aug. 29, 1996.

44 “Late Glacial Stage and Holocene Tropical Ice Core Records from Huascaran, Peru,” Lonnie G. Thompson and Ellen Mosley-Thompson, Science, Vol. 169, July 7, 1995. Also: “Glaciological Evidence for Recent Warming at High Elevations,” p. 209-210. Prepared by L. Thompson and E.. Mosley-Thompson for 76th American Meteorological Society Annual Meeting: Symposium on Environmental Applications.

45 Second National Climate Report of the Austrian Federal Government, Vienna, 1997. Also: “Recent changes in tropical freezing heights and the role of sea surface temperatures,” H.F. Diaz and N.E. Graham, Nature, Vol. 383, July 18, 1996. Also: “Biological and Physical Signs of Climate Change: Focus on Mosquito-borne Diseases,” Bulletin of the American Meteorological Society, Vol. 79, No. 3, March, 1998.

46 “Recent Atmospheric Warming And Retreat of Ice Shelves on the Antarctic Peninsula,” D.G. Vaughan and C.S.M. Doake, Nature, Jan. 25, 1996. In January, 1995, a Rhode Island-sized section of the Larsen Ice Shelf in Antarctica broke off; in March, 1998, another section of the same shelf, characterized as the size of Connecticut, also broke off the ice shelf. Also: “Listen Up! The World’s Oceans May Be Starting to Warm,” Antonio Regalado, Science, Vol. 268, June 9, 1995.

47 “The 1990-1995 El Nino-Southern Oscillation Event: Longest on Record,” Kevin E. Trenberth and Timothy J. Hoar, Geophysical Research Letters, vol. 23, no. 1, Jan. 1, 1996. Also: “El Nino and Climate Change,” Trenberth and Hoar, Geophysical Research Letters, Aug. 15, 1997 (preprint).

48 “Is Global Warming Driving El Nino?” Patrick Mazza, Sierra, Vol. 83, No. 3, May/June, 1998.

49 “Deserts on Our Doorsteps,” New Scientist, July 6, 1996.

50 The Boston Globe, “In Alaska’s northern tundra, scientists find cause for concern,” March 15, 1993. Findings of George W. Kling, University of Michigan, presented at meeting of American Geophysical Union, Dec. 15, 1996.

51 The Boston Globe, “Alaska is feeling the heat,” Sept. 15, 1997

52 “Increased Activity of Northern Vegetation Inferred from Atmospheric CO2 Measurements,” Charles Keeling et al., Nature, Vol. 382, July 11, 1996.

53 1993 Annual Report, Western Fuels Association.

54 ICE public relations campaign documents in author’s possession.

55 Video titled “The Greening of Planet Earth” in author’s possession. See also: “Hearing on Global Change Research: Global Warming and the Biosphere,” of the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation, 102nd Congress., 2nd session, April 9, 1992.

56 “Potential Impacts of Climate Change on Agriculture and Food Supply,” Cynthia Rosenzweig and Daniel Hillel, Consequences, vol. 1, no. 2, Summer, 1995.

57 “Changing Weather? Facts and Fallacies About Climate Change and Weather Extremes” Accu-Weather, 1995, distributed by Global Climate Coalition.

58 E-Wire Press Release, S. Fred Singer, Science and Environmental Policy Project, June 23, 1997

59 Open letter by Dr. Bert Bolin, Geneva, June 26, 1997 (in author’s possession).

60 Advocacy Mailing Draws Fire,” Science, Vol. 280, April 10, 1998. The New York Times, “Science Academy Disputes Attack On Global Warming,” April 22, 1998.

61 “World Economic Impacts of US Commitments to Medium Term Carbon Emissions Limits,” Charles River Associates, Feb. 27, 1997, released by Global Climate Coalition.

62 The Economists’ Statement on Climate Change, March 1, 1997.

63 Press release by Global Climate Information Project, “New Ad Campaign Aims to Increase Awareness of Proposed U.N. Climate Treaty,” Sept. 9, 1997. Release describes new $13 million campaign to reinforce opposition of U.S. Senate to ratifying Kyoto Protocol.

64 The New York Times, “Industrial Group Plans to Battle Climate Treaty,” April 26, 1998.

65 Report of the Committee on Science, House of Representatives, on H.R. 3322, Omnibus Civilian Science Authorization Act of 1996, May 1, 1996.

66 Subcommittee on Energy and Environment of the Committee on Science of the House of Representatives: Hearing n Scientific Integrity and the Public Trust: Case Study 2—Climate Models and Projections of Potential Impacts of Global Climate Change, 104th Congress, Nov. 16, 1995. Report No. 31.

67 Rebuttal Testimony of Dr. Robert C. Balling, Before the Minnesota Public Utilities Commission, In the Matter of the Quantification of Environmental Costs Pursuant to Laws of Minn. 1993, Chapter 356, Section 3. March 15, 1995.

68 Rebuttal Testimony of Dr. Patrick J. Michaels, Before the Minnesota Public Utilities Commission, In the Matter of the Quantification of Environmental Costs Pursuant to Laws of Minn. 1993, Chapter 356, Section 3. March 15, 1995.

69 ABC News Nightine #3329, Feb. 24, 1994: “Is Environmental Science for Sale?”

70 Newsweek Magazine, “Running on Fumes,” Dec. 8, 1997.

71 Author interview with Dr. Michael McElroy, April, 1995.

72 Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report: Summary for Policymakers: The Science of Climate Change, IPCC Working Group I, November, 1995.

73 Author’s 1997 interview with Dr. Paul Mayewski, Dr. Paul Mayewski, director, Glacier Research Group, Institute for the Study of Earth, Oceans and Space, University of New Hampshire. Also: “Sudden Changes in North Atlantic Circulation During the Last Deglaciation,” Nature, Vol. 356, April 30, 1992, Scott J. Lehman and Lloyd D. Keigwin. Also: “Chaotic Climate,” Scientific American, November, 1995, Wallace S. Broecker. Also: “The Great Climate Flip-Flop,” by William H. Calvin, The Atlantic Monthly, January, 1998.

74 Author interview with William Ruckelshaus, May 9, 1996.

75 Reuters News Service, “Death toll climbs as El Nino grips Papua New Guinea,” Sept. 11, 1997.

76 Environmental Flashpoints Workshop, Consequences of Environmental Change—Political, Economic, Social, Nov. 12 -14, 1997, sponsored by: Director of Central Intelligence Environmental Center.

77 Among others who are skeptical about the usefulness of emissions trading is John Henry, ceo of Power Navigator, a Washington, D.C.-based company that profited substantially by brokering sulfur dioxide trading allotments within the U.S. In an interview, Henry said that international carbon trading—given the lack of ability to monitor so many sourcepoints and the absence of a national regulatory enforcement mechanism—will “give the mechanism of emissions trading a bad name.”

78 Author’s interview with John Schlaes, executive director of the Global Climate Coalition, May 30, 1996.

79 The New York Times, “Senate Passes Resolution on Global Warming,” July 26, 1997.

80 Press release by Global Climate Information Project, “New Ad Campaign Aims to Increase Awareness of Proposed U.N. Climate Treaty,” Sept. 9, 1997. Release describes new $13 million campaign to reinforce opposition of U.S. Senate to ratifying Kyoto Protocol.

81 Reuters News Service, “Ford to Invest in Effort to Power Autos With Fuel Cells,” Dec. 16, 1997.

82 The New York Times, “On Global Warming, Some in Industry Are Now Yielding,” August 5, 1997.

83 Reuters News Service, “Shell to invest $500 million in renewable energy,” Dec. 1997.

84 “World Economic Impacts of US Commitments to Medium Term Carbon Emissions Limits,” Charles River Associates, Feb. 27, 1997, released by Global Climate Coalition.

85 “Business and International Environmental Treaties,” David L. Levy, California Management Review, Vol. 39, No. 3, Spring 1997.

86 For more elaboration on the use of a fossil fuel efficiency standard, see Turning Off the Heat, by Thomas Casten, Prometheus Books, 1997.

87 The Tobin Tax: Coping with Financial Volatility, edited by Mahbub ul Haq, Inge Kaul and Isabelle Grunberg, Oxford University Press, 1996.

88 The Washington Post, “Oil Executives Are Shifting Their Stance,” March 3, 1998. Reuters News Service, “Sun Oil Backs Clinton’s Climate Change Plan,” Dec. 4, 1997. The Earth Times, “Good Corporate Citizenship,” interview with Peter I. Bijur, ceo of Texaco.

89 “Human Domination of Earth’s Ecosystems,” by Peter M. Vitousek, Harold A. Mooney, Jane Lubchenco and Jerry M. Melillo, Science, Vol. 277, July 25, 1997.