You don’t need to be a climatologist to see which way the weather is heading. It’s getting warmer. Glaciers around the world are vanishing into the sky; if the current warming trend continues, Glacier National Park will be without glaciers by 2030. The Greenland ice sheet is melting at 250 percent the rate it was 10 years ago, according to a report just published in Science magazine. The Antarctic ice sheet is also shrinking, which came as a surprise to experts. In Canada, the Mountain Pine Beetle — no longer controlled by cold winters — is on its way to destroying most of the forests of British Columbia. The Canadian Forest Service says it is the largest insect epidemic in North American history, and expects it to continue to spread east and south.
But will this matter to us? Eugene Linden, a former science writer for Time, fears it will. In a just-published book called The Winds of Change: Climate, Weather, and the Destruction of Civilizations, he looks at how climate has devastated civilizations in the past, and connects that to the recent discovery, based on eons-old ice records, that “in the past, climate made many large, sudden shifts from warm to cold and cold to warm.” This he calls a “flickering climate.”
For decades scientists thought climate was like a dial that could be turned up or down without causing chaos. Now, studies of Greenland ice cores have convinced scientists it’s more like a switch, and that, if thrown, the basic structure of the climate could change hugely and rapidly, with potentially extreme winds and drops in average temperatures of as much as 18 degrees Fahrenheit in just a few years in some places. This is what Linden is trying to bring to our attention. He discussed it recently in an interview:
Ventura County Reporter: How does our state of knowledge regarding global warming compare with what people in the Middle Ages knew about the Black Plague? Are we equally ignorant?
Eugene Linden: I would say we’re ahead of the people of the Middle Ages, who didn’t understand disease theory, but we’re not anywhere near close to a full understanding of what we’re facing. Everything is a surprise right now. We think the Antarctic ice sheet should be getting bigger, but it’s not. The Greenland ice sheet is wasting far more quickly than we thought it would. But we do know that we have put more carbon dioxide into the atmosphere than at any point in the last 400,000 years, and we can normalize for everything else, including sunspot activity. Since C02 started going off the charts, crazy things have started to happen.
VCR: According to the White House, the President focuses every day on the hazards facing the American people. In ignoring global warming, is he ignoring a threat as great as or greater than Osama bin Laden or Saddam Hussein?
EL: The weather is a weapon of mass destruction. I think Bush was blindsided by Katrina because he somehow has been convinced that climate is a non-issue that doesn’t involve national security. But the fact is that Katrina did more damage than 9/11; there was less loss of life, but much greater economic damage, and we were warned about Katrina. I agree with Sir David King [the scientific adviser to Great Britain], who argues that global warming poses a greater threat to humanity than terrorism.
VCR: Regarding the dangers of a flickering climate, you write the cities would be hard pressed to maintain their infrastructure, that FEMA would be bankrupted, and that businesses would struggle to show profits. This would mean that “Governments would find tax receipts drastically reduced, and in the world’s tightly-coupled markets, financial tsunamis would rocket through the system, leaving banks and corporations insolvent. Financial panics, largely absent for over 70 years, would return with a vengeance.” Could this be worse than the Great Depression?
EL: Yeah. It would be. I put a lot of thought into that paragraph; I was very measured. And I don’t even think that’s the worst-case scenario. The worst-case scenario is simply unimaginable: mass starvation. We had one little hurricane last year that played a big role in knocking two points off the GDP in the fourth quarter, but we’re not talking about one little hurricane; we’re talking about lots of different events happening around the world simultaneously. Not to act to reduce the risk is lunacy.
VCR: What sort of prudential measures, if any, have you and your family taken against societal breakdown caused by global warming?
EL: We haven’t taken prudential measures. I’m not a survivalist. I compare our situation to that of Europe in World War II. When you think about that history, you wonder: Why on earth did people stay in Europe? But if you look at what happened, once Stalin and Hitler took control, people found there was nowhere to go. If the wheels really do come off, there will be no place to go. Somebody said to me, well, if that happens, the rich will still have their vehicles. But if nobody else has vehicles, the rich won’t be able to keep theirs either.
VCR: When did you first become interested in climate change?
EL: I’ve followed this issue forever, but back in l988 we had that incredibly hot summer in Washington during which [Senator] Tim Wirth [D-Colo.] held hearings that put the issue on the map. Scientists first started speculating about this issue decades earlier, and George Woodwell and Roger Revelle started to raise alarms about loading the atmosphere with carbon, and accurately predicted that without action on greenhouse gases, the weather would be changing by 2000. If we’d listened back then, we might not be seeing the effects we’re beginning to see now.
VCR: You quote Wallace Broecker of Columbia University on Greenland ice: “Through the record kept in Greenland ice, a disturbing characteristic of the Earth’s climate system has been revealed, that is, its capability to undergo abrupt switches to very different states of operation ... ” Could such an “abrupt switch” lead to a decades-long El Niño?
EL: That would be one of the possibilities. I’m hedging on El Niño because there are still a lot of unknowns about how El Niño links with other climate cycles, such as the Pacific Decadal Oscillation. Some speculate that El Niño might be a delivery system for global warming ... if you change the geometry of atmospheric circulation over the Pacific, for instance, it might lead to a shutdown of the California Current, and in short order you’d have no more redwoods.
VCR: A prominent climatologist at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Bill Patzert, jokes that El Niño has always been part of our climate and ought to be called “El Niñcompoop,” for people who aren’t prepared for its effects. Is it possible that a decades-long El Niño wouldn’t be so bad?
EL: El Niño barely budges the needle as a climate change event. Even the big l998 El Niño that caused $100 billion damage represented a global temperate change on the order of one degree. The threat is change many times that magnitude.
VCR: Most people don’t realize that the consensus IPCC [Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change] projections in the 21st century, although sometimes criticized for being too extreme, are actually very middle-of-the-road.
EL: The fact that the international consensus statement from the IPCC was as strong as it was is something of a miracle, but you know, consensus doesn’t matter to nature. Nature isn’t going to say, well, the humans made their best effort to reduce emissions, and we’ll try to meet them halfway.
VCR: What reaction do you hear from scientists on this?
EL: Enormous frustration. They feel they’ve done all they can do, but no one seems to be listening. Thomas Karl in a 2003 paper in Science wrote that we are now entering the unknown, with potentially catastrophic consequences.
VCR: A reporter for ABC, Bill Blakemore, blogged recently that the few reporters who cover this beat exclusively often find themselves checking in with colleagues, partly “to do some mutual therapy.” Has the story taken a psychological toll on you?
EL: I haven’t talked about it that much with other reporters, but I understand why you might need a support group, because we’re kind of out in the wilderness on this subject. Every time something dramatic happens, such as the collapse of an ice shelf in Antarctica, then the experts get wheeled out of storage, but then something else happens, and the story gets pushed to the back burner.
VCR: Do you ever hear complaints that reporting on this issue is too negative, too depressing? Or is that the kind of question you only get from Californians?
EL: The complaint that the issue is too depressing seems kind of silly to me. Either climate change is a threat, or it’s not. Our emotional reaction to the facts is irrelevant. The only thing that matters is what we’re doing, and we’re doing nothing. The issue ought to be galvanizing.
VCR: In your book, you write that the coverage of global warming has been “fitful” and “timid.” Can you talk a little about the reporting on this issue?
EL: You used to see the same four naysayers trotted out in every story to supply the contrarian view, long after the scientific consensus was settled. It never seemed to dawn on anybody that it was the same four guys dismissing it, whereas any number of scientists are eager to talk about the threat. I’d like to believe the media is getting over that. When you see a story about the dangers of smoking, you don’t see a reporter on a story about tobacco searching out someone to say that smoking is good for you, but even though the consensus on global warming rivals the consensus on the dangers of smoking, reporters still feel that obligation.
VCR: But it’s not just reporters who are at fault, is it?
EL: A lot of the confusion is the result of a well-organized effort effort to mau-mau editors by fossil fuel companies who did not want to see the U.S. join the international effort [to control C02 emissions]. And the attention-span of editors is like an eight-year-old’s: they’re always looking for the next story. The media and the public look at the story as something far off in the future, but what happens if the future comes up and taps you on the shoulder?
VCR: Climatologist James Hansen did get coverage lately, but for being muzzled by a public relations official from the Bush Administration ... not for what he advocated, which is an end to the construction of new power plants.
EL: You’re right, he has been covered more for being muzzled than for anything else ... but Jim Hansen had the guts to stand up to the administration and say you’re not going to muzzle me, and it totally backfired on them. What you’re seeing these days is that the muzzlers and the naysayers are looking more and more like idiots. For years they were out there saying, “Don’t believe your eyes on the melting glaciers,” looking at these temps from the stratosphere or whatever, but the evidence of warming is so incontrovertible now that this isn’t working any more.
VCR: In your book, you write that one of the world’s biggest insurance companies, Swiss Re, has warned some of its clients, such as ExxonMobil, that they may drop coverage for liability on climate change-related lawsuits if Exxon continues to oppose action to reduce emissions. Will they act?
EL: As soon as Swiss Re sees that liability for climate-change related lawsuits is a serious possibility, they will likely take some action. If they see some clear paths for action, and [statistical] outlier corporations that refuse to respond, then they will call for an exclusion in their insurance for directors and officers. That’s what they’ve told me, and I’ve been talking to insurance executives on this issue since the early 1990s. If you as a corporation are going to knowingly court the risk of lawsuits, why should we, the insurance company, be responsible? One executive compared it to the situation with asbestos, where damages were apportioned according to market share. Since ExxonMobil is estimated to produce 1 percent of the CO2 emissions around the world, that’s a lot.
VCR: In Winds of Change, you write of insurance companies “off-loading” increased risk caused by global warming. Have you seen any evidence of that?
EL: Insurance rates in southern Florida have already doubled. We’re already seeing off-loading of risk. Insurance executives are taking this seriously. They were blindsided by 9/11 and bore that risk for free, and they took a big hit. That has opened their eyes to other risks they’re insuring for free. It’s complex, because insurance uses past behavior to assess violent, extreme events, but the past is no longer a guide to the future. We’re seeing insurance costs rise in anticipation of more frequent and extreme climatic events. For example, in Massachusetts, which is facing increased hurricane risk, the [state] FAIR plan rates have risen in anticipation of more claims.
VCR: You wrote a piece on a flickering climate for Fortune magazine in January. What kind of response did it receive?
EL: Fortune ran the piece because they think their audience is getting interested in these issues, and it got a very big response, and mostly positive. Even the Wall Street Journal takes this issue seriously on their news coverage; it’s the editorial page that’s in cloud-cuckoo land.
VCR: Some of the facts of climate change are, as you say, very complex and even paradoxical. Is it too complex for the average citizen to understand?
EL: It’s not complexity. It’s that in the 17 years since global warming was first explained, the issue has been muddied by disinformation. If people think this is something that’s far off in the future and a matter of debate, they’ll wait for the scientists to sort it out. But if people realize that the scientists agree, then I think they’ll be perfectly capable of understanding the threat.
VCR: As I read this book, it’s about 50-50 whether the switch toward a flickering climate will be thrown.
EL: We don’t know what the tipping point is. I say that having surveyed scientists on this question intensely. We do know that we’re headed for 550 parts per million [of CO2] and probably more, but nobody knows where the runaway effect begins, and nobody can tell you that 550 ppm equals two degrees of warming. [Currently the world is at about 380 ppm of atmospheric CO2; in 1950, it was at about 310 ppm; in 1850; it was at about 280 ppm.] There are so many unknowns. We can only hope that we’re not seeing the beginnings of a transition to a flickering climate right now.
VCR: In your book, you get depressed when you see the comparison between us as a species and fruit flies, because we seem equally blind to our environment. Where, if anywhere, do you see hope?
EL: Katrina opened our eyes to the destruction potential of extreme weather, just as the heat wave of 2003 that killed 35,000 in Europe opened eyes over there. We should have some advantage over past civilizations that fell because of climate change in that we can look back at their example as well as better understand how changing climate might impact our future. The scientists have done their job. We just have to listen, and I have to believe we will. There’s an old Chinese proverb: If you don’t change direction, you end up where you’re headed. Makes sense to me.
[This piece ran as a cover story in the Ventura County Reporter this week, and will run in one or two other papers in Southern California next month.]