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Here Comes the Sun

08.03.2005 | ENVIRONMENT

If those proverbial future history books ever get written, we'll all have nameless cameos as codefendants in Climate v. Industrial Man. The whole gang will be there on the page, billions of us pleading insanity or begging for mercy from that most unmerciful of activist judges, Momma Nature.

At the moment, it looks like the bitch is throwing the book at us.

The truth is, it's looked like that for a while now. As a young environmental reporter in the mid-90s, I remember attending climate symposia where scientists tried to explain the dizzyingly complex models they used to predict the effects global warming might have in the coming century. I always started doodling when they went much beyond Popular Science, but I took enough good notes to know that pretty much everything predicted by mainstream climate scientists at the time has come to pass.

It's a small reward to remember the Panglossian prattle of the mainstream economists who were often asked to participate in the post-conference debates. Some ex-Nixon advisor from the local B-school would inevitably be on hand to guffaw at the more pessimistic scenarios, then lecture everyone about the damage overreaction, or any action, would do to the economy. Sometimes these economists would point to an obscure study claiming to show that climate change would actually be a net boon to humanity. Russia would sprout a citrus industry; Americans would save on winter heating costs. Chilean wines would gain texture.

But these guys were always the clowns of the show, dancing around science that even then was pretty solid (or so it seemed to the 2400 scientists who made up the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change). Now that science is even more solid, and no amount of creative editing in the White House by dead-ender MobilExxon agents will change that.

Today's layman can forgo those impossibly complex climate models and simply exercise some good old-fashioned Scottish empiricism. Snow cover is disappearing at a startling clip from Mt. Kilimanjaro to the Alps. Tundra is thawing from Siberia to Saskatchewan, releasing carbon dioxide stored in the ground (feedback loop #1). Ocean temperatures are rising, releasing water vapor, a potent greenhouse gas (feedback loop #2). Hurricanes are thus arriving bigger and badder over the Gulf of Mexico with the regularity of Air Mexico flights. Record-breaking heat waves are intensifying and stretching out, with nightfall bringing little respite. Record rains are flooding more corners of the globe more often. Staple harvests are either leveling out or falling in many countries due to drought and heat. (For an expert walk through this last and most underreported phenomenon, see Lester R. Brown's Outgrowing the Earth: The Food Security Challenge in an Age of Falling Water Tables and Rising Temperatures, W. W. Norton, 2005.)

Here in New York, the statewide average for the month of June was 5.5 degrees higher than normal. Summer records have been smashed up and down the Eastern seaboard, straining electrical grids and forcing school districts to cancel summer classes. Dozens have died in the Southwest. Cattle are dropping like flies in the Badlands. All told, the National Weather Service estimates that more than 200 heat records have been broken in the U.S. in the past two weeks alone.

None of this is all that extraordinary in the context of the last decade. Visit the archives at your local library and open a recently bound volume of newspapers at random. There's certain to be a wire blurb about extreme weather wreaking havoc somewhere, or some group of eggheads issuing a dire warning connecting to some alarming new piece of evidence of polar melting, rising ocean temperatures or species death. It won't often make page one above the fold, but dig and you'll find it.

Take this week. The latest egghead warning comes from MIT climatologist Kerry Emanuel, who argues in the new edition of the journal Nature: "The large upswing [in hurricanes] in the last decade is unprecedented and probably reflects the effect of global warming," in particular a one-degree rise in average ocean surface temperatures. According to Emanuel, the accumulated power of hurricanes in the Atlantic basin has more than doubled since 1970, with the steepest increase beginning in 1995. Natural cycles can at best account for only part of this.

Yet you still don't see that much weather coverage reminding us that all of this stuff is of a piece. Extreme weather in 2005 is given the Superbowl treatment like it was 1955; lights, camera, action until the next big story--all crisis, no context. Oh, look, it's Anderson Cooper in a windbreaker again, squinting and pointing to some palm trees about to snap. If the extreme event happens to occur in an incongruous month, like snowfall in May, it is just called "unseasonable" and left at that. Where would 21st-century tv news be without the word unseasonable?

Lacking something dramatic like hurricane winds or steaming elderly corpses, reporters are sometimes forced to get creative in framing extreme-weather events. What can you say about record-breaking but nonlethal heat, without referencing the bigger picture? Not much. But you can make it snappy, even happy. One of my favorite pieces of global-warming journalism so far this summer is a July 30 Newsday piece on the Northeast heat wave. The reporter doesn't ask any scientists about climate change, but offers an upbeat assessment from an upstate apple farmer, who says the pummeling heat is darn good for sugar content. Stop worrying, start picking.

Coverage of the politics of climate change is often just as bad. In a piece entitled, "On Capitol Hill, a Flurry of GOP Victories," the Washington Post lumped last week's passage of a regressive energy bill into a discussion of the transportation bill, the veteran's bill, a gun law and CAFTA. USA Today framed its page-one story on the bill in kitchen-table terms of what it means for gas prices.

But gas prices aren't the story here. Neither is GOP strength, or Democratic weakness. The story is the ongoing failure of both parties to elevate renewables to the status of a 21st-century Manhattan Project. In June, 11 national academies of science representing every G8 nation signed the unforgivably dry understatement: "The scientific understanding of climate change is now sufficiently clear to justify taking prompt action."

We've heard this warning a hundred times already, yet the only "prompt action" taken by the House was to kill Senate proposals for mandatory emissions cuts and steep increases in the funding for renewables.

In lieu of emissions limits, the final draft of the Energy Policy Act of 2005 offered a 20th-century-style cornucopia of tax breaks, subsidies and incentives to the fossil-fuel and nuclear industries, with renewables coming in a distant third like a panting Jimmy Carter. Out of $8b in breaks, only $415m will go to clean alternatives.

Also missing from the House bill is a mandatory percentage goal for renewables in the nation's energy mix, known as a Renewable Portfolio Standard. Such fixed targets have long proved themselves at the state level, including in New York. The production tax credit for renewables, meanwhile, was grudgingly extended a measly two years; a whopping $1.8b is earmarked for the Willy Wonka project of making coal "clean."

One of the few bright spots on the bill is a section requiring the Department of Energy to establish a Climate Change Technology Program to speed up interagency coordination of new technologies and research. Of course, the fruits of this research would be increased many times over if the dollar numbers in the bill were flipped to the advantage of renewables, but it's better than nothing.

The scary thing is that it's 2005, and we're barely beyond using "nothing" as a comparative benchmark for progress. Someone get Anderson Cooper a new set of windbreakers. He's gonna need them. And so are we.

About the Author
Alexander Zaitchik co-founded Freezerbox in 1998. He has reported from more than a dozen countries for publications such as the International Herald Tribune, Bulletin of Atomic Scientists, Wired, the San Francisco Chronicle, The Believer, and many others. He lives in New York City.
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