The Weather Makers: The History and Future of Climate Change
The Bush administration has repeatedly taken the disingenuous position that global warming is an issue awash in scientific uncertainty. For an administration whose fealty to the oil and gas industry is akin to an infant sucking on a pacifier, it simply makes more self-interested sense to ignore the obvious reality that the United States’ alarmingly high level of greenhouse gas emissions may help bring an end to life as we know it.
But playing dumb while manipulating evidence is getting harder and harder to do. As recently as this March the journal Science published a study arguing strenuously for a serious reduction of greenhouse gasses. With computer simulations projecting a rise in global temperature of four degrees by 2100, in addition to a rise of ocean levels of 13 to 20 feet, Dr. Jonathan T. Overbeck, the leader of the study, said, according to the New York Times, “People driving big old SUVs to their favorite beach or coastal golf course” should “start to think twice about what they might be doing.” Joining scientists from Harvard and Columbia Universities, Overbeck concluded, “If we don’t like the idea of flooding out New Orleans, major portions of South Florida, and many other valued parts of the coastal U.S., we will have to commit soon to a major effort to stop most emissions of carbon to the atmosphere.” Note the word “most.”
Tim Flannery’s recent book The Weather Makers might have gone to press before the most recent examples of administration obfuscation—i.e., threatening NASA’s leading scientists to shut up about the truth of global warming—but it still throws ample fuel onto the growing fire of environmental knowledge. A brilliant synthesis of “the work of thousands of colleagues,” it argues that climate change, in the most basic terms, “results from air pollution, and the size of our atmosphere and the volume of pollutants that we are pouring into it.”
Although the precise details behind warming trends are complex, these simple points are, by any measure of rationality, undeniable. Flannery’s analysis leaves us to ponder yet again the outrageous fact that Bush and the Republicans, with rare exception, have downplayed or rejected what Flannery, a world–renowned Australian scientist, and the vast majority of his profession accept as a scholarly consensus: “the threat posed by increased climate variability is a very real one.” Unless we alter our behavior, as Flannery and his thousands of colleagues are insisting that we do, “the collapse of civilization due to climate change becomes inevitable.”
Flannery’s book is a masterful overview of the prevailing scientific literature on climate change. However, preoccupied as he is with explaining the science of global warming in layman’s terms, as well as offering pragmatic prescriptions for change (what Dick the Veep would call “personal virtue”), Flannery generally avoids the cynical politics of global warming. However, a quick look to another recent book on climate change, Elizabeth Kolbert’s Field Notes from a Catastrophe, underscores the befuddling Republican tendency toward crass dissimulation. Senator James Inhofe, an Oklahoma Republican, famously declared global warming to be “the greatest hoax ever perpetuated on the American people.” President Bush, as Kolbert reports, dismissed an EPA paper critical of greenhouse emissions as something “put out by the bureaucracy.” Inhofe and other Republican hacks often trot out the science fiction writer Michael Crichton as their primary authority on the issue of climate change. Meanwhile, back on earth, scientists—generally a sober-minded lot—are screaming bloody murder. Robert Socolow, an engineer at Princeton, told Kolbert that “in most of the cases, it’s the lay community that is more exercised, more anxious [than the scientists] . . .But, in the climate case, the experts—the people who work with the climate models every day, the people who do ice cores—they are more concerned. They’re going out of their way to say ‘Wake Up! This is not a good thing to be doing.”
Flannery might avoid the political context, but he systematically lays out why what we’re doing is not, in fact, a good thing. First there’s history. In 2003 the Ocean Drilling Program penetrated 200 meters below the north Pacific floor and discovered 25-centimeter layer of mysterious ooze that, to everyone’s surprise, “revealed an astonishing tale.” According to extensive analysis of this mucky layer, scientists have learned that 55 million years ago the earth experienced “a vast, natural gas-driven equivalent of a barbeque.” This massive seafood cookout occurred after the “entire ecosystem of the deep ocean suffered a severe shock.” Waves from that shock—likely caused by the natural accumulation of the greenhouse gas methane—absorbed enough of the ocean’s oxygen to deplete oxygen levels at the ocean’s surface. As a result, “a cavalcade of creatures, most of which will never be known to us, were forced-marched off to extinction.” Because this well-studied extinction occurred as a direct result of a quick pulse of greenhouse gas into the atmosphere, “it offers the best parallel to our current situation.” It’s a parallel that takes on added urgency when you consider how quickly the earth’s temperature rose the 5 to 10 degrees Celsius needed to effect this widespread extinction—mere centuries or, maybe, just decades. Today conditions are starting to look eerily familiar. Should rates of carbon dioxide emission continue on their escalating trend at the same pace they proceeded in the 20th century (which would be amazing because they’re more likely bound to increase), “the twenty-first century would see a doubling of the CO2 in the atmosphere” from concentrations that obtained in the early twentieth century. This dramatic change “has the potential to heat our planet by around 3 degrees, and perhaps as much as 6 degrees.” Five to 10 degrees . . .3 to 6 degrees . . .massive extinctions . . .you get the picture.
Should an ancient mother lode of sub-oceanic ooze fail to motivate action, one might consider the golden toad. In 1987 an amphibian expert witnessed a gorgeous reproductive orgy of golden toads take place in a sink-sized water hole in a Costa Rican rainforest. The spectacle was enhanced both by the females, whose bright orange bodies contrasted sharply against the dark brown mud, and the fact that the golden toad (the males are the golden ones) had only been discovered in 1966. Unfortunately, what appeared to be an encouraging example of vigorous species perpetuation (133 frogs in a single puddle!) turned out, on closer observation, to be a raucous going away party. As the scientist observed, the orgy—which typically lasted for weeks—ended after only five days because the necessary breeding pools dried as quickly as they formed, “leaving behind desiccated eggs already covered in mold.” Assessing the situation in his journal, the scientist concluded, “the dry weather conditions of El Niño are still affecting this part of Costa Rica.” Two years later, a lone male returned to the breeding site and, as Flannery puts it, “held a lonely vigil.” He was the last of the golden toads ever to be seen. Golden toads are now considered extinct.
Naysayers of global warming have always trotted out the canard that no species has ever gone extinct as a result of global warming. If there was any good to come from the golden toad’s demise, it was the successful effort among scientists to directly link its extinction to global warming. The Costa Rican researcher’s reference to El Niño, it turns out, was right on the mark. Since 1976, because of the accumulation of greenhouse gases, El Niño cycles have become abnormally long, regularly extending for a length of time that typically would have freakishly happened once every thousand years. The effects of El Niños vary according to time, place, and other geographical conditions. In Costa Rica, however, it led to increasing streaks of mistless days, with 1987 experiencing a “critical threshold” of moisture loss. Golden toads had evolved highly permeable skin that allowed them to absorb mist as they wandered about during the daytime. These mistless days, however, left them “exquisitely vulnerable” to extinction, which is exactly what a 1999 Nature article concluded had happened in response to rapid climate change. As Flannery writes of the toad, “We had killed it with our profligate use of coal-fired electricity and our oversized cars just as surely as if we had flattened its forest with bulldozers.” This connection, moreover, opened the floodgates for amphibian experts throughout the world to link thousands of extinctions and near-extinctions to the ravages of climate change, thereby undermining the “skeptics'” sensationalized claim that the threat to wildlife was yet another case of whiny environmentalists crying wolf.
One can almost hear the jeers coming from our ecologically challenged, intelligent design-supporting fellow citizens—”Alter our behavior to save a bunch of toads? Yeah, right!” Even more daunting than the threat of global warming to the amphibian world, however, is the verifiable impact climate change is having on severe weather events. As Flannery’s title implies, humans are now in the business of making weather. Using highly efficient models (which Flannery maybe spends a little too much time explaining), scientists predict that by 2050 “human influences on the environment will surpass natural influences.” In other words, “there will be no more ‘acts of God,’ only human-made climate disasters.” Recent suggestions about what these disasters might look like are grim. The most politically relevant case in point would be hurricanes, which, Flannery writes (the book evidently went into proofs before Katrina), have increased in frequency and intensity in recent years, with 1996, 1997, and 1999 seeing double the hurricanes occurring annually in the twentieth century. In 1998—the year ocean temperatures regularly hit 30 degrees Celsius—we saw Mitch, the most powerful hurricane to develop in over 200 years; in 2002 we saw the first ever South Atlantic hurricane; and in 2004 we saw one of the worst storm seasons ever in Florida. Beyond hurricanes, there’s heat—2003 was the hottest European summer on record, and heat-related deaths outnumbered all other weather-related deaths in the United States that year. And then there’s flooding. Warmer air is capable of holding greater amounts of water vapor, a condition which—combined with commercial development—has intensified flooding to such an extent that, according to Flannery, over 150 million people worldwide now suffer the effects of flooding annually. This figure is in stark contrast to the 1960s, when only 7 million people were affected.
Americans like to see themselves in a world of their own, isolated from the habits and patterns that pervade the rest of the world. In the case of climate change this impulse is especially true. All of these factors boil down to the depressing reality that the United States, which comprises 5 percent of the world’s population, emits 25 percent of the world’s greenhouse gas. Given the overwhelming evidence in support of human-induced global warming, Americans must, should these trends be reversed (and they can), alter their behavior. There’s no magic bullet. As Flannery explains in no uncertain terms: We should trade the SUV for a hybrid, reduce our reliance on coal, seriously explore sources of energy that do not emit greenhouse gases, and develop a virtuous ethic of conservation so powerful that no corporation can get away with behaving like an environmental thug.
The most disturbing aspect of global warming is that its effects do not emerge gradually. As many scientists put it, the process of climate-induced extinction happens like the flip of a light switch. The current builds and builds with minimal impact and then, suddenly, the room goes dark. The current is building and we cannot afford to ignore the experts. Duly, we’ve been warned.
James E. McWilliams, an Austinite, is an assistant professor at Texas State University who dreams of the day when light rail will take him to and from work. He’s not holding his breath.