The Global Warming Debate Is Over. It’s Real, Inexorable, and Headed Our Way
In 1995, more than 2,000 scientists from 100 countries reported to the United Nations that our burning of oil, coal and natural gas is changing the Earth’s climate. Five years later, many of the same researchers are very troubled by two things: The climate is changing much more quickly than they projected even a few years ago; and the systems of the planet are far more sensitive to even a very small degree of warming than they had realized. Average U.S. temperatures, the report said, will rise by five to 10 degrees Fahrenheit (F) by the end of the 21st century.
In March, researchers at the National Climatic Data Center also published alarming findings: Until the mid-1970s, the planet had been warming by one degree F per century—a rate at which most ecosystems can adapt. But for the last 20 years, Earth has instead been warming by four degrees F per century.
That same month, researchers announced that absorption of heat in the deep oceans over the last 40 years had temporarily masked the rapidly rising temperature of the planet. The findings prompted a number of scientists to revise upward their projections of future warming.
Unintentionally, we have already set in motion massive systems with huge amounts of inertia that had kept them relatively hospitable for the last 10,000 years. We have reversed the carbon cycle by about 400,000 years. We have heated the deep oceans. We have loosed a wave of violent and chaotic weather. We have altered the timing of the seasons. We are living on a very precarious outcropping of stability, and the evidence is everywhere around us.
A Dose of Reality
Why, then, is there any doubt in the public mind about the reality of climate change? And why is this E Magazine article necessary? Why send reporters to 10 global “hot spots”—from New York City to Fiji—for firsthand progress reports on the warming world? The answer lies in the millions of dollars spent by a shrinking number of industry players to maintain the illusion of “scientific uncertainty.” Also to blame is the U.S. press, which has been too lazy to look at the science and too intimidated by the fossil fuel lobby to tell the truth.
Even as villagers in Mozambique buried casualties of the horrendous rains that swamped the country last spring, ExxonMobil declared in an ad on the op-ed page of The New York Times: “Some claim that humans are causing global warming, and they point to storms or floods to say that dangerous impacts are already under way. Yet scientists remain unable to confirm either contention.” But that is categorically untrue.
The Greening Earth Society, a creation of the Western Fuels Coal Association, takes a slightly different tack. Citing the opinion of a few “greenhouse skeptics”—most of whom are on its payroll—Western Fuels trumpets the idea that more warming and more carbon dioxide (CO2) is good for us because it will promote plant growth and create a greener, healthier natural world.
They forget to mention that peer-reviewed science indicates the opposite. While enhanced CO2 creates an initial growth spurt in many trees and plants, their growth subsequently flattens and their food and nutrition value plummets. As enhanced carbon dioxide stresses plant metabolisms, they become more prone to disease, insect attacks and fires.
The media, however, continue to report the issue as though the science was still in question, giving the same weight to the “greenhouse skeptics” as they do to mainstream scientists—all in the name of “journalistic balance.” Real balance, reflecting the weight of opinion within the scientific community, would accord mainstream scientists about 85 percent of an article and leave a couple of paragraphs to the skeptics. Only recently have journalists begun to dismiss the industry-sponsored naysayers.
Nevertheless, the news media still find it very difficult to cover the biggest story of the century and, perhaps, in modern history, thoroughly and consistently. Asked about this failure, a ranking editor at one network replied, “We did include a line like that once. But we were inundated by calls from the oil lobby warning our top executives that it is scientifically inaccurate to link any one particular storm with global warming.” The editor concluded, “Basically, our executives were intimidated by the fossil fuel lobby.”
And resistance to the solution is staggering. We need to be generating as much energy from non-carbon sources by the year 2050 as we generate from coal, oil and natural gas today, according to a peer-reviewed article in the journal Nature. That means, say the authors, that we need to begin to move toward a global energy transition within this decade and we need to pursue it “with the urgency of the Manhattan Project,” which developed the atomic bomb in less than three years.
A Simple and Inexorable Process
While climate science can be dizzyingly complex, the underlying facts are simple. Carbon dioxide in the atmosphere traps heat. For the last 10,000 years, we enjoyed a constant level of CO2—about 280 parts per million (ppm)—until about 100 years ago, when we began to burn more coal and oil. That 280 has already risen to 360 ppm—a concentration that has not been seen for 400,000 years. It is projected to double to 560 ppm later in this new century, correlating with an increase in the average global temperature of three to seven degrees F. (For perspective, the last Ice Age was only five to nine degrees colder than the current climate.)
Evidence for the build-up of heat-trapping carbon dioxide abounds: The 11 hottest years on record have occurred since 1983; the five hottest consecutive years were 1991 to 1995; 1998 was the hottest year on record; the decade of the 1990s was the hottest at least in this past millennium; and the planet is heating more rapidly than at any time in the last 10,000 years. On this point the science is unambiguous: to allow the climate to re-stabilize requires worldwide emissions reductions of 70 percent.
The politics are almost as unambiguous. Last December, Great Britain’s chief meteorologist and the head of National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) declared that the climate situation is now “critical,” urging the world to begin now to reduce its use of carbon fuels. The issue of climate change is the subject of serious debate only in the United States. When 160 nations met in Kyoto, Japan, in 1997 to forge a climate treaty, not one government took issue with the science.
Since then, findings which link the warming to our burning of coal and oil have become so robust that a number of countries are moving toward solutions regardless of what happens in the U.S. The Dutch, for one, are creating a plan to reduce emissions by 80 percent over the next 40 years. Germany is contemplating 50 percent cuts in the future. Britain announced it will cut emissions by 21 percent below 1990 levels in the next 12 years.
The view of the world’s business leaders is moving on the same trajectory. A vote by executives of the world’s largest corporations, finance ministers and heads of state who attended the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switz
erland last February was remarkable. When conference organizers polled participants on which of five different trends were most troubling, the participants overrode the choices and declared climate change to be by far the most threatening issue facing humanity.
Some of the world’s largest oil and auto companies also acknowledge the perils of climate change and are positioning themselves for a new non-carbon economy. John Browne, CEO of British Petroleum-Amoco, announced his company is preparing to do $1 billion a year in solar commerce by the decade’s end. Shell has created a new core company to produce renewable energy technologies. Ford and Daimler-Chrysler, together with Ballard Power Corporation, have entered a $1 billion joint venture to produce fuel-cell-powered cars in the next three years. And both Honda and Toyota are marketing 60- to 70-mile-per-gallon climate-friendly hybrid cars in the U.S.
A Question of Liability
The strongest corporate concerns about climatic instability come from the world’s property insurers. During the 1980s, the insurance industry lost an average of $2 billion a year to damages from droughts, floods, storm surges, sea level rise and other extreme weather events. In the 1990s, it lost an average of $12 billion a year—$89 billion in 1998 alone. “Man-made climate change will?bring us increasingly extreme natural events and consequently increasingly large catastrophe losses,’’ an official of Munich Reinsurance said recently.
While die-hard elements of the fossil fuel lobby continue to attack the findings of mainstream science, they are becoming increasingly isolated. For years, the Washington, D.C.-based Global Climate Coalition (GCC) waged a campaign against mainstream science. But its corporate membership has hemorrhaged. Since December, the GCC has been abandoned by Ford, Daimler-Chrysler, General Motors, the Southern Company and Texaco.
The very few independent scientists who still question whether global warming is caused by human activity focus on discrepancies between temperatures in the upper levels of the atmosphere and on the ground. That doubt was put to rest in January when a panel of the National Academies of Science reported that such differences “in no way invalidates the conclusion that the Earth’s temperature is rising.”
But the case for climate change rests on a far broader base than computer models and atmospheric dynamics alone. Add the unceasing bombardment of extreme weather events wreaking havoc all over the world.
Take, for example, 1998, which began with a January ice storm that left four million people without power in Quebec and northern New England. For the first time, rainforests in Brazil and Mexico actually caught fire. The summer brought killer heat waves in the Middle East, India and Texas, where residents suffered through a record 29 consecutive triple-digit days. Mexico experienced its worst drought in 70 years.
Last year, 1999, saw a record-setting drought in the Mid-Atlantic states, with declarations of disaster in six. A heat wave in the Midwest and northeastern U.S. claimed 271 lives. Hurricane Floyd visited more than $1 billion in damages on North Carolina. A super-cyclone in eastern India killed 10,000 people. That winter, mudslides and rains in Venezuela claimed 15,000 lives. Unprecedented December windstorms swept northern Europe, causing more than $4 billion in damages. And Boston experienced a record 304 consecutive days with no snow.
Conditions are shifting rapidly, meteorologically and otherwise. Most of the public is now intuitively aware of climate change—and extremely worried about changes in the weather. Growing numbers of corporate leaders are realizing that the remedy—a world-wide transition to renewable and high-efficiency energy sources—would, in fact, create a huge surge of jobs and a dramatic expansion in the total wealth of the global economy. And national as well as grassroots political activists are at last making the climate crisis the focus of campaigns. It is too slow and too small—but it is a beginning. The issue is not whether we will mobilize around the climate crisis, but whether we will do it in time.
E will announce its findings, in a joint press conference with Washington-based Ozone Action, at the National Press Club on September 7. Call (202) 265-6738 for more information.
ROSS GELBSPAN, a veteran of The Philadelphia Bulletin, The Washington Post and The Boston Globe is author of The Heat Is On: The Climate Crisis, the Cover-up, the Prescription (Perseus Books) and maintains www.heatisonline.org.
Through a Lens, Darkly
By Gary Braasch
Climate change is happening—I have seen it with my own eyes, I see it right now.
I have stood in the empty rookeries of displaced Adelie penguins, and felt a chill from the receding ice of the Antarctic Peninsula. I saw young black spruces growing higher than ever before on boreal hillsides in Alaska, and subtle changes transform the tundra. Near my home in the Pacific Northwest, I watch the slowly melting glaciers, and in the Andes, have re-photographed 65-year-old images of great glaciers to show them wasting away. Along the coasts, I have seen rising tides and heavy storms erode beaches. In the woods of Eastern North America, I walked through spring wildflowers and spotted incoming migrant songbirds, knowing them to be arriving disconcertingly early.
I made these and other observations during 1999 and 2000 as part of a personal photographic project, “World View of Global Warming.” I wanted to get beyond the raw statistics, the charts and the predictions. I wanted to create an alternative to the numbers, the arguments over “who is to blame” and what palliative measures governments and corporations might be willing to take. I looked instead at the Earth itself, with the eyes of a natural history photographer. Global warming and climate change have been set in motion. Ecosystems and species are already reacting. In both remote locations and familiar gardens and parks, scientists are devoting their careers to documenting the effects. But this evidence is missing from the political debate and from the halls of Congress; it is rarely written about, and remains unseen by the public.
Capturing these effects on film poses a great problem. Changes have been unfolding for 50 years or more; each year’s effects are small. They are subtle and incremental, if not literally invisible. But after a year and a half of visiting scientists at their sites and hearing their passionate concerns, working with images from the past, and documenting the meticulous record-keeping of scientific field work, my photographs begin to add up.
Photography’s message is strengthened because global warming is revealed in the Earth’s most beautiful and sensitive landscapes. Treasured and threatened ecosystems and creatures are in transition. Like some early signs of heart disease or cancer in our bodies, the first effects are strongest in the extremities of our planet. The poles, the mountains, and the animals and plants on the edge of their ranges, are feeling it strongly.
I have come to believe that I am documenting one of the most crucial, overarching events of the 21st century. As it exacerbates overpopulation and food crises, climate change may affect more people than
did war in the last century. Whether or not humans are to blame, there happen to be six billion of us on the planet now—and we are deeply interconnected and affected by these changes. We are going to have to adapt to them and live through them. This is an urgent story that is just beginning to be told.
An exhibition of Gary Braasch’s work documenting international climate change is on the web at: www.globalchange.org/current.htm. His global warming photography is a project of Blue Earth Alliance, www.blueearth.org.
GARY BRAASCH is a photographer who has illustrated stories for Discover, Natural History, Smithsonian, Audubon and Life. His exhibit, “Polar Thaw: Global Warming in the Arctic and Antarctic,” just completed a long run at the American Association for the Advancement of Science in Washington, DC.
China: The Cost of Coal
By Mark Hertsgaard
If you want to understand why China is a greenhouse giant, picture my friend Zhenbing Zhou. Funny, immensely charming, a great (and sometimes endless) talker, Zhenbing was my interpreter and constant companion during a recent six-week journey through China. Zhenbing was an economics instructor at Beijing’s Renmin University who had perfected his English while studying at the London School of Economics.
In 1998, a couple used a makeshift boat to go shopping in China’s central Hubei province, where Yangtze River flooding reached record heights.
Associated Press Xinhua
Despite his cosmopolitan experience, Zhenbing, like most Chinese, had been born and raised in the countryside, and his peasant background still powerfully shaped his worldview. Multiply his story by the nearly 1.5 billion people now living in China, and you’ll understand not only why China is the world’s second leading emitter of greenhouse gases—and projected to overtake the United States by 2010—but also why any efforts to deal with global climate change will fail if they do not squarely confront the issue of poverty.
Zhenbing was born in 1966, the year Mao Zedong launched China’s disastrous “Cultural Revolution.” He grew up in a remote village northwest of Beijing, near the border with Inner Mongolia. His family inhabited a mud straw hut. Too poor to buy coal, they burned dried leaves and crop stalks for heat in the winter. This, in a climate as cold as Boston’s, with temperatures that dipped as much as 30 degrees F below zero. Often the fuel was not enough, Zhenbing once told me, “so the inside wall of the hut became white with icy waterdrops, like frozen snow.”
Zhenbing’s pinched family circumstances were by no means unusual; wretched poverty was the lot of virtually all Chinese before Deng Xiaoping came to power in 1979. Deng jump-started the economy with market reforms, declaring, “To get rich is glorious.” New roads, new apartment buildings and factories—indeed, whole new cities—sprang up virtually overnight as China made up for decades of stagnation. By the 1990s, China had the hottest economy in the world.
The environmental consequences, however, were horrific. China’s modernization was powered overwhelmingly by coal, and the country has paid a terrible price. By the time Zhenbing and I began our tour in 1996, China boasted five of the world’s 10 most air-polluted cities; by 1998, its share had jumped to nine out of 10. When I visited such northern cities as Beijing and X’ian, the coal dust was so thick that the mid-afternoon sky, even on sunny days, looked like night had fallen. Incredibly, the water pollution was even worse, and the combined effect on public health was chilling. Two million deaths a year in China—nearly one of every three—was linked to air and water pollution, according to data compiled by the World Bank.
These are the economic roots of China’s gigantic greenhouse stature. And the problem is bound to get worse. Already, rising consumer expectations have made electricity blackouts chronic. Meanwhile, the population is growing by 15 million people a year, propelling demand still higher. The nation’s energy planners expect China’s coal consumption, already the world’s highest, to double, if not triple, by 2020.
All this will profoundly affect the struggle against climate change. If China’s coal use grows as projected over the next 20 years, that growth alone will increase global greenhouse gas emissions by 17 percent, all but dooming efforts by the rest of the world to achieve the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s target of 50 to 70 percent reductions. But the Chinese do not see any clear alternatives to using coal. “What else are we supposed to do?” asks Dadi Zhou, the deputy director of the State Planning Commission’s Energy Research Institute. “Go back to no heat in winter? Impossible!”
China itself will suffer grievously from climate change and, in fact, may already be feeling the effects. In 1998, flooding in the country’s Yangtze basin, home to 400 million people, made almost 14 million homeless, drowned 2,000, and destroyed 11 million acres of cropland. This year, northern China’s wheat-growing regions are suffering from the driest weather in 120 years, with severe drought causing drinking water shortages and affecting 16 million acres of farmland. In early May, 3.2 million acres of grasslands in the northwest were stripped bare by locusts, whose proliferation is encouraged by drought. The Regional Locust Prevention and Control Office predicted that a total of 6.6 million acres could be overrun by the peak of the breeding season. Meanwhile, coastal regions were bracing for ocean surges and tidal waves, which Wang Fei, director of the Department of Marine Environmental Protection, predicted would “hit the coast [in 2000] three to five times more than the last two years.”
A study by the World Bank and China’s National Environmental Protection Agency projects that a doubling of global CO2 concentrations would have the following impacts: storms and typhoons would become more extreme and frequent; much of the coastline, including the economic powerhouses of Hong Kong, Guangdong and Shanghai, would face severe flooding (an area the size of Portugal would be inundated and an estimated 67 million people displaced); and agriculture would be affected most strongly of all, with increased drought and soil erosion lowering average yields of wheat, rice and cotton and reducing production of livestock and fish.
For a country already straining to feed itself, such setbacks could be catastrophic. But if fighting climate change means a return to the poverty of the past, most Chinese would prefer to take their chances. As I was instructed countless times, filthy air and bad water were trade-offs most Chinese were prepared to make in return for a better economic life.
There are solutions, however. Dadi Zhou points out that China would use 50 percent less coal—and therefore produce 50 percent less air pollution and greenhouse gases—if it installed throughout its energy system the efficiency technologies now available on the world market. More efficient electric motors and lighting, better insulation for China’s notoriously drafty office and apartment buildings, less wasteful refrigerators and air conditioners—these are the common-sen
se, affordable building blocks of a new and healthier energy future for China.
Fighting poverty need not take a back seat to restoring environmental health. China is crucial to making that case, if only because nearly one of every four humans lives there. Make no mistake: these unfortunate souls will strive to better their lots in the years to come, which will inevitably expand humanity’s environmental footprint. The great challenge facing our species in the new century is to encourage and accommodate this mass ascent from poverty without wrecking our natural ecosystems and exacerbating the devastation of climatic change. There is no better place to start than in China.
China Environment News
Tel: (011) 8610-64916619
MARK HERTSGAARD is the author, most recently, of Earth Odyssey: Around the World In Search of Our Environmental Future (Broadway Books) and a commentator for NPR’s Living On Earth.
The California Coast: Tidepools in Trouble
By Orna Izakson
An hour past dawn, the central California sun is burning through the morning haze and the waters of Monterey Bay are rising after a 6:21 a.m. low tide. Rafe Sagarin, curly hair tousled by the unruly wind, crosses the exposed granite tidepools like a teenager negotiating a cluttered bedroom floor. But this intertidal tangle is a library to Sagarin, who knows precisely where reefs of tube snails set their mucous nets, striped sunburst anemones open their tentacles to the tides, and barnacle-like limpets farm algae for their supper.
In 1993, Sagarin counted every critter along a 108-yard line crossing the rocky intertidal triangle off Hopkins Marine Station on the Monterey Peninsula, precisely reproducing a 1930s survey by a Stanford student named Willis Hewatt. Sagarin and fellow Stanford junior Sarah Gilman heard that counting every crab, sea star and urchin along the line marked by brass bolts Hewatt pounded into the rocks might uncover something interesting. What they found was substantial species shifts in the intervening 60 years that were best explained as migration away from warming water—exactly the kind of response predicted by models of human-caused climate change.
When Hewatt first looked at the tidepools, there were no tube snails or sunburst anemones at all. When Gilman and Sagarin did the same they found reefs of the tube snails and hundreds of southern anemones. In all, 10 of 11 species previously identified as southerners increased significantly, while six of eight northern species decreased significantly. Those changes showed up regardless of what the animals ate, how they reproduced or where they sat in the taxonomic hierarchy. Meanwhile, daily temperature records show waters there warmed about 1.8 degrees F since Hewatt squatted in the surf.
While Sagarin’s study can’t definitely tie the shifts to warming water, the research is among the hardest evidence yet of long-predicted effects of climate change. Also predicted is that the sea’s surface layer of warm water will thicken, becoming more resistant to mixing with the cold, nutrient-rich waters below—which means less food for everything that lives in or off the sea.
The prestigious journal Science first published Sagarin’s findings, as well as a study by John McGowan, a professor at Scripps Institution of Oceanography in San Diego, showing what McGowan calls “the largest change ever measured in plankton productivity in the ocean.”
McGowan took 42 years of data from the waters off southern California and found a 70 percent drop in the amount of tiny animals, or zooplankton, that form the second-lowest rung of the marine food chain. That drop coincided with an overall sea-surface warming of two to three degrees F. What McGowan observed between San Diego and Point Conception near Lompoc may affect a much larger region: Although there are no long-term numbers further up the West Coast, plankton and temperature shifts tend to be parallel from British Columbia down to Baja California.
A huge hit to the base of the food chain should ripple up through fish and seabirds. But long-term fisheries data are difficult to interpret because declines can come from overfishing as much as underfeeding. Nevertheless, catches of key commercial species like sardines, anchovies, squid and mackerel declined substantially during McGowan’s study period. So did populations of sooty shearwaters, a seabird that eats young fish and large plankton, which plummeted 90 percent. “Looks like it fits in with the plankton picture, doesn’t it?” McGowan asks. Even if the changes don’t come from full-on climate change, the results show one likely consequence of a warmer world.
Further up the coast, another bird potentially faces a dire threat from climate change. The secretive California clapper rail, one of the original birds on the federal endangered species list with a current population of only 600, relies on salt marshes for its habitat.
From the hill above the visitor center of San Francisco Bay National Wildlife Refuge, the marshes look like geometric farm plots outlined by sandy dirt roads. Here, however, the roads are earthen levees and the fields are ponds used by Cargill to evaporate water and harvest salt. Those ponds once hosted vegetation like cordgrass, gumplant and salty, bitter pickleweed, which in turn provide homes for rails and the salt marsh harvest mouse, also listed as endangered.
Just east of the visitor center’s hill is a breached salt pond that was restored to marshland in 1985. It doesn’t have the complexity of the more mature salt marsh nearby, but Marge Kolar, the refuge’s manager, says rails and harvest mice are in it again already.
But behind the recovering marsh Thornton Road is filled with commuter cars, and just beyond it is Sun Microsystems, sitting on land that cost $477,000 an acre. That’s bad news for rail and mouse, since they can’t offer competitive bids and the salt marsh can’t grow over pavement if sea levels rise as predicted. In fact, Kolar says, the levees enclosing the salt ponds could become critical to control flooding of human habitat, while that of the rail and mouse slowly drowns.
Hopkins Marine Station
Tel: (831) 655-6200
Scripps Institution of Oceanography
Tel: (858) 534-3624
ORNA IZAKSON is a former environmental reporter for the Bangor Daily News and an active member of the Society of Environmental Journalists.
Fiji: The Heat’s Not Just Political
By David Helvarg
“The political climate is heating up and heading towards a real frenzy,” a man in Suva, the small third world capitol of Fiji told me the week before the country’s Indian prime minister was taken hostage by Fijian nationalists and the military declared martial law. Ironically, while ethnic tensions continue to seethe, it’s global climate change that represents the greatest threat to Fiji’s future.
Thanks to 19th century British colonial policies that brought Indian laborers in to work the sugar fields of western Viti Levu, the country
’s main island, Fiji today is roughly 51 percent indigenous Fijian, 44 percent Indo-Fijian and five percent interested observer. While Fijians tend to work in the tourism industry and Indians make up most of the 23,000 families raising sugar, both of these primary industries are now threatened by climate change.
Fiji’s director of environment, Epeli Nasome, is dressed conservatively in a white short sleeve shirt and brown business skirt or Sulu Vakataga. He has a neat graying mustache, glasses and the cautious manner of bureaucrats throughout the world, which makes what he has to say all the more disturbing.
“We can feel a change already in our weather system here, with longer droughts that impact our western division [on the main island of Viti Levu],” he tells me. “We’re having more rain, more rainy seasons with higher rainfall. Flooding has spread to the western side of the island, which is normally known as the dryer part. Reoccurring coral bleaching [in the spring of 2000] is a new area of concern, and is on a more extensive scale than we’ve ever seen before.”
During my first dive in Fiji, I notice the reef looks like a recent snow storm has passed over it: About a third of the corals are bleached, and some of the staghorn and other branching corals are wedding cake white. The worst-hit area is Beqa Lagoon south of Viti Levu, one of the most popular dive sites in Fiji, which has suffered over 80 percent potentially lethal bleaching as a result of a huge pool of warm water first spotted by U.S. satellites.
The owner of the Jean-Michel Cousteau resort on the island of Vanua Levu has also begun complaining about the state of the road into his upscale retreat, claiming it’s in such bad shape visitors may not want to return to Fiji (if rioting and armed hostage taking doesn’t drive them away first). While promising to improve the road, the Public Works Minister points out this has been one of the rainiest years ever, and bad for roads throughout the islands. Two weeks earlier, Labasa, the main town on Vanua Levu had flooded. In January of 1999, the cities of Nadi, Ba and Lautoka in the western sugar-growing region of Viti Levu also suffered major flooding. This followed an eight-month drought that devastated the sugar industry.
“Seasonal shifts are becoming more extreme,” Janita Pahalad, manager of climate services for the Fiji Meteorological Service tells me. “Another problem is that with global warming, night-time temperatures are increasing, but the sugar industry needs low night-time temperatures to increase the sucrose content of the cane.”
Pahalad has written a report suggesting that rising sea levels from global warming are also leading to increased salt water intrusion into water tables. That changes the pH level of low-lying sugar fields, which can drastically reduce their productivity.
On Fiji’s low-lying islands, salt water intrusion can come from above as well as below. On Moturki, a small island not far off eastern Viti Levu, a 1999 storm surge crossed over the island, ruining the islanders’ crops and salinating their fresh water. The 900 residents had to get their fresh water shipped in for eight months.
“In a village in [the northern island of] Laucala, they’re complaining that they’re drinking seawater. The whole [western] Yasawa island group has a huge [salt water intrusion] problem,” explains Robert Matau, a large bearded man with a round face and skeptical brown eyes. He is a former reporter with the Fiji Times and now senior sub-editor at the Post. “Newsrooms neglect the environmental story,” he tells me. “What made global warming real for me was when I returned to Kadavu [an island group south of Viti Levu] to pay my respects to my great-grandfather in 1992 and found his grave half in the ocean. Then, in 1997, a cyclone and tidal wave washed away the road, jetty and much of the area’s shoreline. Now in my mother’s village of Muani they’re moving five houses inland and trying to build a coral seawall. Two weeks ago the island’s main village of Tavuki flooded. If you’re on an island with no mountain slope, I believe you have to start thinking seriously about moving.”
Still, Fiji is not in as bad a state as the low-lying Pacific island nations of Kiribati, the Marshalls and Tuvalu, which may literally be subsumed by rising sea-levels due to fossil-fuel driven climate change. There are already diplomatic discussions underway about where to resettle the environmental refugees.
“If something is a survival issue, then it is a human right,” Dr. Shaista Shameem, an attorney and director of the newly formed Fiji Human Rights Commission, told me. She had been thinking about the links between political and cultural rights, the environment and the law, but that was before May’s government-declared State of Emergency.
While on Taveuni, I visited the Wairiki Catholic Mission, walking down a dirt road past crumbling seawalls and a few uprooted coconut palms to a shallow rocky beach that has eroded away in recent years. A bunch of young Fijian kids were playing in the water until they spotted me taking pictures and came running over to pose and shyly tell me their names and ages. With the growing tensions in the capital about to explode into violence, I couldn’t help but wonder about their future, torn between ethnic conflict and rising seas.
Fiji Ministry of Information
Tel: (011) 679-211-700
DAVID HELVARG is an investigative journalist and author of the forthcoming book Blue Frontier: The Fight to Save America’s Living Seas (W. H. Freeman).
New Jersey’s Beaches: On Shifting Sands
By Jim Motavalli
On stormy days, the wind at the tip of Sandy Hook, a former military base now turned into the bustling Gateway National Recreation Area, is enough to knock you down, and it churns the Atlantic into a froth favored by surfers but anathema to the embattled homeowners on this exposed coast.
Despite ominous reports of sea level rise, and horrific damage caused by ever-increasing storms, proximity to New York City has meant rapidly escalating land values for this region, and a determination to build right to the water’s edge.
Sandy Hook is like a finger pointed into the ocean towards Brooklyn, a beacon for the great New York/New Jersey estuary. The national park is a rare respite from a landscape dominated by beach communities and chock-a-block strip development. A former officer’s quarters in the park, not far from 19th century coastal defense emplacements, now serves as home to two organizations that are trying to protect this prosperous region from itself. The American Littoral Society and New York/New Jersey Baykeeper work together trying to preserve what’s left of a natural environment laid low by dredging, filling and construction.
Dery Bennett, the Littoral Society’s friendly and grizzled director, takes visitors on a tour of nearby Sea Bright, where relatively modest vacation homes hide behind a protective seawall built in the 1930s. There is a 100-foot-wide beach behind the wall, built not over the millennia by the workings of the tides but in 1996 by the U.S. Army Corps of En
gineers as part of a $9 billion plan to “replenish” the beaches along the 127-mile New Jersey shore.
The luncheonette in downtown Sea Bright displays some starkly revealing aerial photos. One, taken in the early 1990s, shows a town with no beach to speak of, thanks largely to the effects of that seawall. The other, from last year, shows a wide expanse of sand. Bennett, who points out “public access” stairways along the seawall that were erected by the Corps but lack any nearby parking, joins Baykeeper Andy Willner as a major critic of the quick fix. Not only does the massive effort to pump in sand benefit only a few wealthy homeowners, they say, but it also encourages even more dangerous shoreline development. And, they add, it’s ultimately folly because global warming-induced storms and rising tides will likely wash it all away in the next decade.
Orrin Pilkey’s classic book The Corps and the Shore, written with Katharine Dixon, details how jetties, seawalls, groins and other desperate maneuvers offer only temporary respite from the natural effects of erosion and shifting coastline—and ultimately make things worse. The same thing is true of imported sand. New Jersey beaches, the authors write, can expect only a one- to three-year lifespan, and there is damage to coral, water clarity and bottom-dwellers.
“There’s a natural process called littoral drift,” explains Willner as he provides a pickup-based tour of Sandy Hook’s windswept charms. “Sand from ancient granite mountains like the Appalachians was carried down by glacial action to create the beaches. Once here, it moves north in a predictable, inexorable fashion, reshaping the coast as it goes. What you see today is the result of millions of years of geological evolution, but people expect that process to stop when human infrastructure is introduced. They’re putting homes and beach clubs on mobile land. And they’re taking a crapshoot that those natural processes won’t happen in their lifetimes. When it does, they’re always surprised.”
The speed with which the ocean reclaims its own is exacerbated by rising tides. According to Norbert Psuty, a coastal geomorphologist with the Department of Marine and Coastal Sciences at Rutgers University, deeper in-shore waters means more powerful waves, which move more quickly and retain more energy. In the last 100 years, the New Jersey coast has sunk 16 inches, through a combination of tectonic plate depression and sea level rise. “Almost everything we have along the coast is at risk sooner or later,” says Psuty. “We’ve been fortunate not to have taken any direct hits lately.” Stephen Leatherman, who directs the Hurricane Center at Florida International University, puts it another way: “The erosion rates are going to accelerate in the future, which means the cost is going to go up exponentially to maintain these beaches. And no one seems to have figured it out yet. It’s like a great big secret.”
There are no easy answers on the Jersey shore. According to the Philadelphia Inquirer, property that was worth $8.7 billion in 1962 is now worth $34.3 billion when adjusted for inflation. In 1945, George Lippincott bought a house with 1.2 acres in coastal Avalon for $500, raising the money by selling a single rare stamp. This year, Lippincott’s descendants put the property on the market for $3.5 million. The coast is now fully developed, with the result that a “100-year storm” would be far more devastating today than it would have been 50 years ago. Taxpayers will foot much of the bill for any rebuilding, since flood insurance is federally guaranteed.
Tourism brings in $12 billion annually to the New Jersey shore. In Sandy Hook, Dery Bennett’s stand against beach replenishment has put him at odds with the business community, which sees the sand as vital to its busy tourist season. Real estate lobbyist Ken Smith calls Bennett “a lousy misanthrope” for opposing more coastal development, and Bennett returns the volley by labeling Smith “a shill for the real estate industry.” Is agreement likely in the face of such polarization?
Climate scientists predict that sea level in New Jersey could rise an additional two feet in the next 100 years, with predictable havoc wrought on that priceless real estate. Chances are, people will retreat to higher ground, but then come back to rebuild with federal help. But the time is fast approaching when we may have to abandon all those beautiful homes, beach clubs and resort hotels, because they’re built on rapidly shifting sands.
American Littoral Society
Tel: (732) 291-0055
New York/New Jersey Baykeeper
Tel: (732) 291-0176
JIM MOTAVALLI is editor of E and author of Forward Drive: The Race to Build “Clean” Cars for the Future (Sierra Club Books/Random House).
Australia: The Reefs Are Going Down Under
By David Helvarg
Magnetic Island is like Catalina with death adders. “They like to lie under piles of leaves,” Ann Tager advises, as she shows me her wooded backyard. The most visited of the Great Barrier Reef islands, Magnetic is a half hour ferry ride from the city of Townsville, half way down the 1,200-mile length of the reef. Rich in birds and wildlife, it’s home to adders, pythons, rock wallabies, sea eagles, flying foxes, curlews, koalas and equally cute marsupial possums. It also has its own living reefs, but no longer in Nelly Bay.
The hottest year on record, 1998, saw a global outbreak of coral bleaching, as coral reefs’ thermal tolerances were exceeded by a combination of gradually warming sea temperatures spiked by that year’s El Ni—o phenomena.
The idea that climate change is accelerating El Ni—o warming and the La Ni—a ocean cooling that follows has become a subject of scientific concern. The U.S. State Department’s Coral Reef Task Force reported that the unprecedented 1998 global bleachings were a direct result of climate change caused by the burning of fossil fuels.
“When we saw 1,000-year-old coral colonies bleaching and dying, that’s something new, at least in recorded human history,” agrees Paul Hough, a friendly, sun-reddened Magnetic Island resident and research scientist with the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority.
Hough specializes in coral reproduction. “I was looking at the corals that didn’t die, and found their reproduction was down to 40 percent of normal the first year after the bleaching and was at 80 percent the second year. Now they’re experiencing 1.5-degree below normal water temperature from La Ni—a, so we’ve had a four-degree swing in four years. And with greater frequency and severity of El Ni—os, that’s going to make it more difficult for corals to recover from these impacts. I think we’re seeing not a crash, but a slow decline of the [reef] system.”
My visit to Magnetic Island followed the two wettest months in North Queensland’s history. Big gum trees and foliage were still down from Cyclone Tessa, which struck two weeks earlier. The island’s once-healthy Nelly Bay reef is one of Hough’s seven study sites. “The cyclone following repeated blea
chings was the final nail in its coffin,” Hough tells me. I decide to visit it anyway.
I head down to the beach past stately banyan trees, hoop pines, coconut palms and a sign that reads: “WARNING—MARINE STINGERS—are Dangerous—Flood sting with vinegar. If breathing stops give artificial respiration.”
Luckily, I’ve borrowed a stinger suit (what we Yanks call a dive skin) from Ann’s husband Jeremy, who’s also coordinator of the North Queensland Conservation Council. I swim out to the black buoy that marks Hough’s research site and begin free diving. The bottom is a rubble field of broken branch corals, dead bleached and gray silt-covered hard corals, and a few small fish. A burrowing clam is encased in the limestone skeleton of a dead rock coral. Its blubbery mantle is striped and spotted with the blue, purple and green colors of healthy symbiotic algaes, giving it the look of a fashion model posing in a cemetery.
“Climate impact has happened. The four most serious bleaching events were in 1987 and 1988, 1992, 1994 and 1998—which was the biggest,” explains Katharina Fabricius, a bright, vivacious research scientist with the Australian Institute of Marine Science, also a Magnetic Island resident.
“Corals can take a fair amount of disturbance—they’re not fragile,” she tells me. “But if these disturbances become more frequent, weedy species will take over. You already see branching species replacing massive slow-growing brain corals. We lost a 1,000-year-old coral head off Pandora Reef in ‘98. These reefs are really the canaries in the coal mine, and you now see a whole ecosystem being impacted.”
I tell her I know an Antarctic scientist who thinks his penguins are the canaries for climate change. “Ten years ago people were blas? about this being a pristine area,” she says. “Now with climate change even the most conservative projections are pretty bleak. And if the Australian government wants to sell brown coal, they may not be likely to consider alternative fuels or solar or other changes that need to take place.”
In fact, local environmentalists are now fighting a plan to start mining shale oil in the rainforests of North Queensland, arguing that the last thing the world needs is new sources of fossil fuels. Still, not everyone is convinced.
“In many ways the jury’s still out on the global climate effect on coral bleaching,” claims Virginia Chadwick, a former regional tourism minister and the political appointee who chairs the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority. “Not to say this apparent correlation between bleaching and temperature isn’t a worrying trend,” she adds. “From a local management agency point of view, we’re wondering about adaptability, about corals’ ability to adapt to temperature changes.”
“We’ve no evidence corals can adjust to rapid temperature changes—maybe over hundreds of thousands of years, but that’s not the scale we’re now dealing with,” counters Fabricius.
Having seen dead coral, I decide to take a dive trip to Kelso, one of the outer reefs that’s recovered from the little bleaching it did suffer in ‘98. It’s nice to be in a living aquarium again, with big coral walls and bommies (coral heads) and canyons littered with fish: There are purple starfish and cushion-like sea cucumbers, trigger, trumpet, red emperor and unicorn fish, and lots of bright juvenile fry hugging the reef for protection. A black-tip reef shark cruises past adding a dash of predatory grace to the mystery and magic of a healthy reef.
“Ours is a large reef region, more robust than the Florida Keys or the Caribbean with over 420 species of corals, six to seven times as diverse as your Atlantic reefs,” Paul Hough explains to me. What does that mean in terms of long-term projections, I wonder. “Larger, more diverse communities [like the Great Barrier Reef] will last longer,” he says. “North America’s gonna get hammered.”
Australian Institute of Marine Science
Tel: (61-7) 47534444
North Queensland Conservation Council
Tel: (61-7) 4771-3226
New York City: An Island Ecology
By Sherry Barnes
New York City, with more than seven million people, spills out over 378 square miles of land separated by such waterways as the Hudson, East and Harlem Rivers, Long Island Sound and the Atlantic Ocean. The city, one of America’s most diverse urban centers, is held together by a complex network of public works infrastructure, including roads, toll bridges, subway tunnels, water mains, gas lines, and millions of miles of telephone and television cables and electrical conduit.
It’s a difficult city to run on a good day: In 1996, a “report card” prepared by the city’s former U.S. Army Corps of Engineers chief gave New York’s infrastructure failing grades, particularly for its aging water mains and solid waste treatment system, which dumps raw sewage into city harbors during storms.
So what happens when things get really bad? On December 11, 1992 a nor’easter storm hit the great city head on. With wind gusts of up to 90 miles per hour and water surges eight-and-one-half feet above mean sea level, New York’s transportation infrastructure sputtered to a halt. Four million subway riders were stranded. Franklin Delano Roosevelt Drive, the main highway along the east side of Manhattan, flooded up to four and one-half feet in some areas, and LaGuardia International Airport, only seven feet above sea level, grounded flights for the day. In the end, the federal disaster assistance totaled $233.6 million, according to Environmental Defense.
Was the storm a once-in-a-century fluke? Unlikely. In August of 1999, a single early morning thunderstorm crippled the city’s transportation and drainage system once again. Since global warming brings with it the certainty of rising sea level and stormier weather, the city’s aging infrastructure and delicate natural balance face unheard-of challenges.
Vivien Gornitz, associate research scientist at NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies, points toward a rectangular box jutting out of the Hudson in lower Manhattan, near a guarded U.S. Coast Guard booth. “That tide gauge uses an acoustic device to record the level of the sea’s surface,” she explains. “It takes a reading every six minutes.” Gornitz and other researchers from Columbia University, New York University and Montclair State University in New Jersey study the Metro East Coast (MEC) Region, which includes greater New York, Northern New Jersey and Southern Connecticut, for the U.S. National Assessment of the Potential Consequences of Climate Variability and Change for the Nation.
One of the things that troubles Gornitz is all the recent construction at the water’s edge. “Look, you can see it’s on both sides of the river,” she gestures, her arm taking in both sides of the Hudson just north of the World Trade Center. Gornitz fears that all the luxurious waterfront condominiums and
commercial businesses are taking a risk that will increase dramatically as the new century progresses.
The most conservative climate change model used for the MEC study doesn’t allow for rising greenhouse gas emissions; it merely projects the effects of the current rate of sea level rise. It predicts that, by the end of the century, we will be seeing 100-year floods every 50 years. “In the worst-case scenario, it could be as often as every four to five years,” Gornitz adds. And to further exacerbate the problem, the greater New York area is still experiencing land subsidence triggered by the glacial retreat that occurred more than 10,000 years ago.
“It really would become a serious economic burden for the city,” says Klaus Jacob, senior research scientist at Columbia University’s Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory. “The current flood insurance program doesn’t account for 100 years from now, and that’s no way to plan for the future, especially a sustainable one.”
The borough of Brooklyn, now home to over two million people, was once largely marshland, but the re-designing of this landscape for exclusive human use has taken away a valuable, natural protection in times of flood. “If you could imagine just putting a big sponge in front of lower Manhattan, that’s what it would be like if there was a wetland there,” explains Alex Kolker, a graduate student studying ecology and evolution at the State University of New York at Stony Brook.
One way to limit the loss of these flood barriers is to give coastal areas room to migrate inland. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation oversee current waterfront development. But according to Ellen Kracauer Hartig, a research associate at Columbia’s Center for Climate Systems Research, applicants can apply to bypass these regulations, and permission is frequently granted. “At this time, the state gives out those permits easily,” she says. That’s an understatement. In 1998, the Corps rejected only 3.2 percent of major wetlands projects.
Global warming has also begun to affect the city’s health. “In New York City, asthma rates in some neighborhoods are among the highest in the nation,” explains Pat Kinney, an environmental health scientist at Columbia’s Joseph L. Maleman School of Public Health. Kinney points out the well-established connection between air pollution, temperature, and rates of hospitalization and death. “What is new, is seeing how it all relates to climate change,” he says, adding that raising the temperature in urban areas like New York, where there is limited vegetation to reflect heat and lots of concrete to absorb it, exacerbates health problems.
According to a 1996 American Meteorological Society report, an average of 300 people a year die of heat stress in New York City. And there’s a socioeconomic factor, too, explains Kinney: “Poor people, and especially elderly poor people, are most vulnerable to heat stress.” Other potential problems are the spread of vector-borne diseases that thrive in warmer temperatures, and increased levels of ozone, a respiratory irritant chemical, at the ground level.
Coordinated planning for these eventualities has been minimal. Rae Zimmerman, a New York University professor and director of the Institute for Civil Infrastructure Systems, cautions that there is little cooperation between city agencies affected by climate change, and long-range planning is often the first thing cut from squeezed budgets.
Because congressional action is necessary for national global warming legislation, say climate change crusaders, the outcome of the November elections is crucial. But Klaus Jacob notes sardonically, “Whether Congress wants to address it or not, sea level will rise.”
Metropolitan East Coast Assessment
Tel: (212) 678-5626
Antarctica: The Ice Is Moving
By David Helvarg
Puking penguins and global warming may not, on their face, appear to have much in common. But as I discovered on the Antarctic Peninsula, a 700-mile long tail of ice and rocky islands jutting up towards Latin America, scientific evidence is often where you find it.
Torgersen Island, Antarctica, with its thousands of squawking, flipper-flapping penguins, combines the pungent odor of a cow barn with the sound levels of a hip-hop concert. Plus most of the birds here, parents and chicks alike, have managed to stain themselves the color of red Georgia clay with their krill-rich guano. But down by the water’s edge porpoising adelie penguins are jumping ashore clean, wet and plump from the icy Southern Ocean.
Approaching these full-bellied birds is Dr. Bill Fraser, a rangy scientist and 25-year ice-veteran from Montana State University. Working here on the highest, driest, coldest continent on Earth he has become one of the world’s leading authorities on penguins. He’s in his usual uniform of beater bill cap, blue fleece jacket and deeply stained boat pants and boots.
“Looks like the birds are having problems finding food this year,” he tells me. “Normally it takes them six hours, but now we’re finding they’re spending as much as 16 hours a day foraging for krill.”
How does he know the birds’ diets and the availability of their prey? One method is a technique called diet sampling. Fraser snares one of the foot-and-a-half tall adelies in a long-handled net, reaches in and extracts it by a flipper-like wing. He walks over to where fellow researchers Matt Irinaga and Donna Patterson have set up their diet-sampling equipment.
Patterson kneels on a padded board and takes the bird between her knees. Fraser has a big insulated jug full of warm saline water around 100 degrees F (the same temperature as the bird’s stomach). He dips the tip of an attached plastic tube into mineral oil so as not to hurt the bird’s throat and slips it down its gullet. He then runs water through the tube with a hand pump until the bird starts to gurgle. At this point, they pull the tube and the bird starts upchucking krill. They hold it tail end up until it empties out into a bucket. After they right the bird, it shakes its head vigorously, getting regurgitated krill on everyone’s boat pants and fleece jackets, before it belly-slides and paddle-walks away, looking somewhat indignant (as penguins often do).
Returning to the bucket, the trio uses kitchen strainers to drain and pack down the post-penguin krill. They slip it into ziplock baggies before we head back to Palmer Station in a fast black rubber Zodiac raft, the perfect vessel for maneuvering through Antarctica’s choppy subfreezing waters and chunky brash ice.
“Some birds are eating Chysanoessa Macrura, a smaller species of krill, which means they might be having a hard time finding their regular prey,” Fraser explains back at Palmer, the smallest of three U.S. Antarctic research bases run by the National Science Foundation. He is using tweezers to point into a tray full of partly digested krill on the lab table in front of him. Patterson and Irinaga are tweezering through similar trays. The group needs to analyze about 50 little pink shrimp-like krill to get a good
representation of each bird’s diet. Krill, the most abundant animals in the world in terms