From The Archives

The Climes They Are A-Changin’

With the U.N. just announcing that humanity has twelve years to reverse the effects of man-made climate change, we bring you a Voice report already sounding the alarm under another Republican president sixteen years ago


From the August 6, 2002, issue of the Village Voice

It is hard not to suspect that a dirty little word lies at the center of the controversy spawned by the most recent Bush administration document on climate change. In the June EPA policy paper “Climate Action Report 2002,” the government admitted that climate change is not only real but getting worse, that human activities are the most likely cause, and that the negative consequences are real and dangerous, a clear and present threat. This dirty little word may have been the reason conservative leaders have privately pressed to have EPA administrator Christine Todd Whitman fired from her position — for producing a document that provides the most realistic, scientifically accurate picture of the problem available from current research. This dirty little word may be the main reason President Bush is eternally trying to distance himself from this itchy environmental problem, this foreign cause touted by Russians, Europeans, and Japanese. The word: liability.

In terms of scale, the climate change issue will make any sort of environmental liability lawsuit filed in national or international courts to date seem like tarts and gingerbread. Human pressures on the global climate — what scientists call anthropogenic forcings — represent a problem orders of magnitude larger than the impacts of even the most notorious environmental catastrophes of modern times — the Exxon Valdez oil spill, the 1986 accident at the Chernobyl nuclear power station, or even the disaster at the Union Carbide plant in Bhopal, India, which suffocated 10,000 people in their beds. The Netherlands faces undeniable threats from rising seas, and Bangladesh will not survive. Symptoms are already apparent in the daily headlines — islands in the South Pacific abandoned by their residents as their ground water turns salty; Connecticut-size bergs calving off the antarctic ice mass; record floods in Europe followed by more record floods. Across northern India this year, record-breaking heat storms arrived before the monsoon, raising the temperature to 123 degrees in the shade — so hot that the birds were dropping dead from the trees. Exactly as the scientists have been warning. And much earlier than most had expected, save those branded doomsayers only a few years ago. Considered in this context, the EPA document may represent the most important mea culpa of all time. The line between an “act of God” and an “action of Man” has just become significantly more blurry, with all the associated legal implications.

And then there’s that sticky bit. Things are only going to get worse. Expert opinion varies widely on the time frame for the most dramatic impacts. It could be next week — certain important factors may hang on a hair trigger. Record-breaking fires, droughts, and floods have already become annual events around the nation. It could be in a decade. Agreement is nearly universal that current trends will continue to worsen. It probably will occur within the century. This fact is largely accepted as a given even under many of the more benign scenarios for a changing climate. What is abundantly clear in the science of the matter is that we as a society are at the beginning of a long journey.

The science of climate change begins with the geological record of the paleoclimate — records of past sea-level changes, telltale signs of the cycle of glaciation and retreat, firestorm signatures carved into the skin of the earth over tens of thousands of years. Data from Greenland ice cores and sediment samples collected from bogs around the globe. Pollen records maintained over the millennia. Tree rings counting back thousand-year records of rain and drought. Geology, biology, ecology, and chemistry all working together to create a picture of the climatological history of the planet — a turbulent history marked by mass extinctions, sudden and dramatic changes in sea level, large-scale migrations of forests, storms to dwarf any of the minor maelstroms recorded in the human histories.

Today, networks of sampling buoys monitor sea surface temperatures, floating along gridworks mapping the oceans of the world. Satellite eyes peep down on cloud cover, identifying and enumerating the gases in the atmospheric column that runs from outer space to surface Earth. Global maps made to shift with time mark the changes in water resources, rivers running dry before they reach the ocean, the disappearance of the Aral Sea. In nightside snapshots, with each passing year, the ring of Amazon fires eats closer to the heart of darkness — the unconquered lands. Pollutant plumes emitted by each city on Earth stretch for tens of miles, forming confluent rivers of contaminants that flow in the winds, crossing ocean-scale distances to poison the remotest sites on anyone’s map.

Over the course of the past decade, many interests have entered the melee of debate on the issue of ongoing anthropogenic climate change. Energy companies arguing that nuclear power is the only acceptable answer. Advocates of wind power, sun power, wave power, volcano power. Oil producers. Automobile manufacturers. Coal men. The stakes involved in the debate over climate change do not come any higher. The largest industries of humankind, energy and transportation, are directly implicated. Virtually every activity in the life of the global, modern-day consumer is involved. Many natural responses to the changes we cause act only to exacerbate the problem — for example, the recent thaw of northern permafrost exposed a new source of greenhouse emissions. In the media, conventional scientific thinking is denounced as extremist, while members of the smoke-’em-if-you-got-’em school of scientific inquiry are awarded the chairmanships of well-heeled think tanks and lobbying empires to quibble, to hem and haw, to delay and filibuster.

However, as the Bush administration discovered, scientific theories have a way of proving themselves, regardless of whether policy makers and corporate heads believe them or not. And the daily news is beginning to heap ample evidence that the unequaled hubris at the core of this ever expanding, all-consuming 21st-century technotopia has stirred forces that are well beyond any sort of normal climatic fluctuation or temporary readjustment of weather patterns. One cannot wish away elementary thermodynamics, basic geophysics, fundamental biology, or essential fluid dynamics.

Already we have seen the unfolding of many of the events described by some of the climate change “extremists” — massive wind storms that pummel Europe, leading to hundreds of deaths, and the destruction of millions of acres of established forest. Unusual winter tornados ripping through the U.S. Latin America struck by storms that killed tens of thousands and destroyed decades of infrastructure over the course of a few days. Entire nations sinking into famine as unprecedented droughts choke crops in the fields. Record-breaking floods becoming annual events in mainland China. The permafrost under northern Europe beginning to melt from under vast regions that have not known a real thaw for tens of thousands of years. These are the milestones many experts consider symptoms of problems that can only grow worse as the Leviathan Climate gains more thermal momentum, growing more turbulent, more unpredictable as established climatic patterns change and shift.

Even some of the largest energy corporations on Earth have begun to accept the science of climate change, quietly withdrawing their support for rabidly anti-climate-change PR campaigns and beginning to trumpet their investment in renewable fuels. The response from the international insurance industry has been as mercenary as would be expected. Many large insurers have begun advising industrial clients with facilities in low-lying coastal regions to begin armoring their plants with systems of protective dikes and coastal constructions. The need for action is no longer questioned by the wise investor.

The uncertainties and confusion over climate change bear comparison to a series of scientific discoveries and theories that culminated in one of the highlights of the end of the 19th century: the discovery of radiation. The scientists who first worked with radioactive materials knew they were onto something, but they were working in the dark — manipulating and adjusting their notions to suit anecdotal evidence. When a researcher suffered burns to his leg from a vial of radium carried in his trouser pocket, scientists discovered that there was some danger involved in handling these new types of materials. Rapid commercialization of the technology led to the development of fluoroscopes, which allowed customers in shoe stores to examine the bones of their feet with live-action viewing devices — subjecting even passersby to massive doses of radiation. Health drinks were concocted that contained uranium, the new wonder of wonders and miracle cure-all. In beauty shops, women with excess facial hair could have their faces bathed in X rays until the hair fell out. Only years later, as the cancers began twisting the jaws of women around the country, did the public become aware of how dangerous radiation could be — and that was years too late for anyone to wish away their troubles.

And despite the occasional media attention to climate change, real responses and actions remain fairly hard to come by even among countries that support the 1997 Kyoto Protocol, aimed at limiting human emissions of greenhouse gases. Most national governments face significant economic obstacles to the implementation of the guidelines, with no nation currently on track to achieve compliance. Continuous growth of national economies is absolutely mandatory for survival in the highly competitive markets evolving under current trends toward globalization. Economic growth is linked directly to energy consumption and higher emissions of greenhouse gases. Emission limits for individual nations under Kyoto are set at 5 percent below those of 1990, but in virtually every country on Earth, economic growth has raised emissions to well above those ancient figures. Compliance with Kyoto would entail substantial shifts in the largest national economies, with the U.S. taking the biggest hit of all as the biggest polluter of all.

As a result, most national governments have failed to establish the aggressive regulations needed to achieve the greenhouse emissions reductions required for real progress. Even in nations that have attempted to take the lead on climate change, enforcement of lofty policy initiatives has proved a nearly impossible task. In the single remaining superpower on Earth and the confirmed largest emitter of greenhouse gases, the sitting administration blindly refuses to have anything to do with climate change. Its recommendation? Pretend the problem does not exist. Act as though the science is not valid. We’ll all adapt. You know…somehow.

In the long term, the symptoms of the disease will become pronounced enough to convince even the most reluctant Americans that climate change is not some sort of flim-flam invented by a bunch of grant-greedy eco-kooks. Perhaps some sort of limit should be established for the level of destruction we will allow before action is taken on climate change. The destruction of agriculture in California, say, or the permanent loss of New Orleans, Miami, and a few other coastal cities by the year 2050. Of course, by the time these limits have been reached, the time to do anything about the climate problem will have long passed. The Leviathan Climate will have awakened then, and there will be no apologizing to the grandchildren or turning back. No amount of money will prove sufficient. No amount of spin doctoring will be able to stem the mounting losses. Issues of liability will become moot as the planetwide catastrophe gathers steam.

Recent data obtained from the tens of thousands of monitoring buoys networked across the world’s oceans have underscored the critical role played by a phenomenon known as the Thermohaline Circulation — a massive conveyor belt of heated water carried from the tropics to the northern latitudes via the currents of the Atlantic Ocean. Some researchers believe that this current system may be the trigger that initiates the cycles of glaciation, the ice age trigger. Certain evidence suggests that this circulation may be extremely sensitive to changes, shutting down in response to minor pressures. Other evidence suggests that the thermohaline may be disrupted by the formation of a large lens of freshwater sitting atop the saline waters of the oceans around Greenland and Iceland. Such a lens is currently forming in the North Atlantic as a result of the melting of glaciers and ice sheets in the north. There is no way of currently knowing or predicting what may come next.

However, given the consensus for action on climate change expressed by the majority of the other industrialized nations, the U.S. will find itself in an increasingly difficult position as the lone holdout against responsible and progressive action on the climate problem. Already, international accord on the Kyoto Protocol in the absence of U.S. support signals a shift in the post–Cold War paradigm that has dominated the international political arena for a decade. The Kyoto agreement was formulated based on a fundamental tenet of democratic public law, the concept of the commons — property belonging in equal measure to all citizens for all time. Leadership on this issue must value the hard commitments required of democratic thinking, and not simply trot out the term to justify the current mania for saber rattling. Perhaps “superpower” status is no longer a given for any individual nation. Radical backlash against U.S. policy, or rather lack of policy, on the climate change problem can only be expected to grow as the symptomatic evidence grows, as the record-breaking storms unleash their fury, as the droughts consume the harvests of dozens of nations, as the rivers either flood beyond all parallel or run dry as a bone, as coastal regions lose their war against the encroaching sea. Not the stuff of science fiction. The stuff of Science.

And as all the proponents of action on these issues agree, the Kyoto Protocol is really nothing more than a symbolic gesture, a nod to the fact that future agreements will be required, that more extensive regulations will be established, and that the problem has only begun to be addressed. Responsible and mature leadership will be required to guide nations around the globe through the admittedly difficult adjustments that will be expected of each and every citizen, every local government office, and all levels of the federal government of each nation on Earth. Unfortunately, for an alarming number of Americans, the “environment” has been reduced to the strip of lawn and the manicured shrubs they pass on the way from the parking lot to their climate-controlled office buildings, or between their climate-controlled automobiles and their climate-controlled homes.

A serious tremor in the accepted order of things would arise from the multinational imposition of economic sanctions against the U.S. for failure to comply with the regulatory regime to be established under Kyoto. The most obvious medicines for the problem, such as aggressive energy conservation and protection of forested regions, are direct threats to the de facto capitalist economic principle of infinite economic growth to meet ever increasing demand in a world of infinite space and resources. Humanity, as a species, has reached a time in its evolution when it must begin to consider its own limits — beyond race, beyond economic politics, beyond any form of enlightened thinking of the past. The Bush administration is right on one thing: Adaptation is the only answer to these new realities. Rigid ways of thinking, old ways of thinking, no longer apply. A new paradigm is needed, at the very root of the culture. Those who fail to bend will be broken. The science of the matter will see to that.