Eugene Linden: The Winds of Change are Blowing

Eugene Linden’s book, The Winds of Change: Climate, Weather and the Destruction of Civilizations (Simon and Schuster) has only been out for a month, but already it’s in its fourth printing. That is, one hopes, an indication that the public’s interest in global warming is accelerating, even as the planet itself is sending increasingly desperate signals. Linden argues that climate has acted as a “serial killer” in the historical record (from the Assyrians and Minoans of 700 BC to the Vikings in the 14th century), and its most savage outburst may be just ahead of us. The New York Times praised the book for its focus on “fundamental human certitudes, not least of them the reluctance of editors and television producers to illuminate tough, confusing issues when snap judgments will do. And [Linden] appreciates the value of complex, ambiguous data in forging roundabout paths to new discoveries.”

Eugene Linden: "Climate has been through history a weapon of mass destruction."© Marion Ettlinger

E recently talked to Linden, a veteran environmental journalist who has published six other books and written for Time,, Atlantic, New York Times Magazine, Conde Nast Traveler, the Wall Street Journal, Fortune and the Los Angeles Times.

Eugene Linden: You know, I was late delivering this book. Had I been on time it would have sunk without a trace. I think the climate had been sending signals you can’t ignore. This summer was kind of a tipping point, with Katrina and Rita and all.

E: Do you think there will be lasting public interest in climate change? Many books on the subject have not fared well.

Yes, I agree there’s been a certain lack of interest. In 2003, 35,000 people died because of the heat wave in Europe. Imagine if that happened in the United States. I think we would have awakened to climate in 2003 if that happened. The Europeans really think we’re nuts over here for being so oblivious. Well, Katrina was our European heat wave, and it destroyed a great city. New Orleans will come back a third of the size it was.

My point is that climate has been through history a weapon of mass destruction. We have a hard time grasping that. We live inside those little snow globes that you turn upside down. Climate is context, so it’s hard for us to imagine it. But I think the combination of the destruction of New Orleans and the destruction of energy supply lines was a lesson in how vulnerable we are in this kind of thing, how unprepared.

You describe the standard climate change template for the national media. How the newspapers, radio and TV put together stories including quotes from the naysayers, without saying that those naysayers represent about 100th of one percent of scientific consensus. So the “take away,” as you call it, is that climate is complex, it won’t be a problem that will affect anyone’s life for a long time, and there’s nothing we can do about it.

Yes, and “scientists disagree.” I think that’s the brilliance of their winning game, not to take it head on. Mostly they say, “Lets let the scientists sort it out,” ignoring the fact that the scientists have already sorted it out. Lots of people think that climate change is still open to debate. In the last couple of years, the press did an abysmal job of conveying scientific alarm. It’s doing a better job now. As an analogy, I don’t know if I say it in the book but I’ll say it now, when somebody does a story on the dangers of smoking they don’t feel obligated to find scientists who work for Philip Morris to say that the dangers are minimal.

There is the same level of consensus in the scientific community that climate change is a threat as you have on smoking being a danger to your health. Yet it’s been only very recently that the issue has been on the public agenda. During the Carter administration, there was a report that said that unless we take action to control greenhouse gas emissions, we will see changes in climate by the end of the century. That meant 2000, and they were right on the money.

When the public reads that an ice shelf the size of Rhode Island is drifting in the ocean, what do people think?

I don’t think it means that much to the public, because they don’t know how ice shelves are supposed to behave. It’s all happening very quickly, and it’s not just ice shelves. The Washington Post had a front-page article on warming of the north country, beetle infestations and wild fires in Alaska, too. And every week, there’s a new story about disappearing ice up north or melting glaciers, extreme floods, droughts and storms. People are beginning to connect the dots. And there are economic signals, from the insurance companies, for instance. I heard the other day that in some areas of New Orleans, flood insurance that was $400 per year is now about $7,000 per year. And because of the five hurricanes that hit Florida in 2004, insurances rates doubled in the southern counties. So it’s insurance, not interest rates, that is putting homes out of reach for some people. Those kinds of signals can be ignored only for so long.

That’s particularly true in the reinsurance business. I visited Swiss Re, which is very concerned about the issue and has a dedicated global warming unit. I also wanted to ask: How much of a problem is it that there is a vacuum at the top, with the President of the U.S. denying the reality of climate change and not investing anything in it?

It’s a huge problem. Internationally, we can’t expect China and India to do anything if the world’s largest emitter of greenhouse gases doesn’t take the problem seriously. Instead of a government trying to motivate people to control greenhouse gases and understand the problem, they cut back on research. I think about this all the time, and I don’t know who Bush thinks he’s helping at this point. Some 86 evangelical groups have just made this eloquent statement, basically saying we shouldn’t be interfering with God’s creation. That’s what happens when you conduct a science lab experiment on a planetary scale. Big corporations have split off, too. General Electric changed its tune towards climate change, oil companies are taking it seriously, big utilities are concerned. So who is Bush helping? My answer is that it’s a combination of ideology—he’s got a blinkered view of this—and his dislike of environmentalists. But the coalition of the willing on this issue is even more ragged than the coalition of the willing on Iraq.

Given where we are, and where Bush is, how do you think it’ll play out?

I think we’re going through rapid change, meaning the big businesses have awakened to this thing. And the media is behaving better, taking it more seriously, as it’s becoming impossible to ignore. It was very frustrating in the 1990s, but it’s less so now. People are trying to get their arms around it. And basically the naysayers end up looking idiotic and out of touch, or basically in the pay of special interests. It speaks volumes that the naysayers you find today are the same guys you found 10 to 15 years ago. It’s not like there are any new voices out there. Their numbers are dwindling, and they’re having less of an impact on the debate.

What I detect is a shift from denying the reality of climate change t

o talking about what they call “adaptability,” essentially saying it is real but there’s nothing we can do about it. Projecting 30 years ahead, where do you think we’ll be in 2035?

We could be over 500 parts per million of carbon dioxide (CO2) in the atmosphere. We’d have more carbon in the atmosphere than at any other time since our evolution as a species. We’ll have created an entirely new climate formula on this planet. If we had 500 parts per million of CO2, it equates to two degrees Centigrade warmer. Think about that. At that rate, no one could be certain that we wouldn’t trip some trigger in the climate system that would bring about a larger change. We can’t bargain with nature and say, “Look, we’ll throw you a bone if you keep it to two degrees Centigrade.” It’s just idiotic. That amount of warming could trigger a very severe El Nino.

In Andrew Revkin’s new book about the Arctic, The North Pole Was Here (Kingfisher), he talks about the process by which melting polar ice turns a white reflecting surface into a dark, absorbing one, which accelerates the global warming process.

Yes, you have these feedbacks, which cause huge amplifying effects. If you melt the permafrost, you release methane. If you heat up the north country, you have peat fires, which put more carbon in the atmosphere. You can set the stage for all sorts of runaway effects. Economists simply can’t model an abrupt climate change, so they’re basically looking for keys under the streetlight. We will have to try and ride the roller coaster, but it’s a crowded ride with six billion people on it. We have the ability to look back and learn from history. We understand the process of climate change, and we have the technologies to change direction, and yet we’re acting as blinkered as all these past civilizations. I use this Chinese saying, “If you don’t change direction, you end up where you’re headed.” And we’re not changing direction, so we’re going to end up where we were headed.

Research assistance by Jayasudha Joseph.

JIM MOTAVALLI is editor of E.


Audio interview with Eugene Linden

Winds of Change