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Pin the Tail on the Eco-Disaster

11.14.2005 | ENVIRONMENT

A couple of months ago, Freezerbox suggested that Anderson Cooper might be due for some new windbreakers. So, we suggested, might we all. The article was green boilerplate decrying lazy inaction and willful ignorance on the part of the public and the media in the face of an obviously, and possibly catastrophically, changing climate. The column's news peg was a study in the journal Nature claiming to confirm the probable link between rising ocean temperatures and increased hurricane activity. Two weeks later, Katrina fell crashing to her knees like some angry Greek goddess of the sea and sucked the first cock in what turned out to be a violent late hurricane season orgy of wind and water in the Gulf.

Within hours Anderson Cooper was in New Orleans, slogging around in a shiny blue windbreaker.

A few readers wrote to applaud us for "predicting" Katrina, but they might as well have congratulated their grandmothers for winning a dollar at the penny slots during Senior Appreciation Week at Foxwoods. Any paper publishing regularly about the menace of climate change during the last 15 years has no doubt had an article or three appear just before a "100-year flood" or "the longest drought in living memory" or a "busier than usual" hurricane season or "unseasonably mild weather" or a "freak" blizzard. It isn't hard to predict freak weather these days. Biblical has been the norm for years.

The roll of extreme weather events and milestones has become so steady that the BBC last month gave up mentioning every new weather first; the network now simply refers people to a website that tracks shattered local heat and rain records. The list is currently waterlogged with banner numbers for October 2005, a busy month for climate change in Britain as well as the Gulf region, where as of this writing the 23rd tropical storm of the season is headed for poor little Haiti.

Though the Gulf may have gotten the most headlines, its problems haven't been unique this year. Most of the world is once again reporting historic news on the climate front. It's gotten to the point where a good way to educate the toddler in your life about global warming would be a game called "Pin the Tail on the Disaster," in which the dizzy child stumbles toward a map of the world and attempts to stick a pin in the enormous bogs recently created in Northeastern Siberia by the thawing tundra. Wherever the pin ends up, a lesson on the effects of a warmer climate results.

Take my current corner of the world, the southern cone of India. Record rains have paralyzed transport and destroyed crops throughout the breadbasket region of Tamil Nadu; even the high-tech capital of Bangalore is underwater and unplugged. The only reason I'm writing this where I am, a small town in the mountains of Kerala, is because it is not safe to leave by bus in any direction. It's raining too hard. Meanwhile, in the north of the country, record post-monsoon rains are destroying crops and sending the price of onions through the roof, forcing the government to restrict exports and import from Pakistan in an attempt to drive prices down. Onions are a very big deal over here. Delhi alone consumes more than four tons a day, and if there is anything to guarantee social instability on the subcontinent, it is a prolonged onion crisis. The wall separating climate change and social chaos in the coming decades may often be as tenuous as a staple vegetable.

As in most countries, the Indians are too consumed with fueling economic growth, quenching its energy thirst and keeping up with China to dwell on the probable causes of the rains and the floods. And so climate-related emergencies are isolated in the media; weaknesses in government preparedness and response analyzed; end of story.

But the real story, deserving as much round the clock coverage as the price of onions in India or FEMA's follies in Washington, is the silent one that never ends. It's the story of a civilization slitting its wrists in a steadily warming tub of water. No news-cycle peg should be needed for this story, though they are never lacking these days.

The need to treat the larger climate story with the same sustained attention as relief and reconstruction efforts was driven home by an October 27 New York Times piece by Andrew Revkin, titled "No Escape: Thaw Gains Momentum."

An all-too-rare example of an in-depth global warming story, the article was loosely pegged to the fact that in September, the area covered by sea ice in the Arctic region reached a record low. The congealing consensus among Arctic watchers, reports Revkin, is that the north polar climate flywheel is in motion, and it is all but certain that the region's summer ice cover will disappear completely by the end of the century, possibly as soon as 2050. This is very bad not just because it will mean to a bunch of drowned Eskimos and Polar Bears, but because a lot of heat normally bounced back into space will be absorbed by the sea, thus fueling the warming loop.

As bad as Arctic melting would be, it's nothing compared to the big momma of ice cap fears: The dreaded Greenland Thaw. Eric the Red no doubt fantasized about such a melt while trying to colonize the place with dubious Vikings, but for me Revkin's description of the Greenland cap was the scariest thing on offer this Halloween: "Rising two miles high and spreading over an area twice the size of California, this vast reservoir--essentially the Gulf of Mexico frozen and flipped onto land--contains enough water to raise sea levels worldwide more than 20 feet."

I don't have my handy sea-level calculator in front of me, but I believe that would make the New York Stock Exchange a very big turtle tank.

It's getting harder to find scientists who still declare that political action can stave off the worst endgame of a process already in motion, but Revkin quotes David Barber, an Arctic expert at the University of Manitoba who stoically holds that steep emissions cuts are still worth pursuing, even as the trend lines surge in the wrong direction: "I wish we would have started 50 years ago," said Barber, "but to not start now would be a real tragedy."

Amen.I propose we begin our renewed efforts by naming all future hurricanes after foot-dragging fossil-fuel industry executives, their largest investors and their political allies. Because even now, there's no telling how many Americans still think all these storms are acts of God, and God alone.

This article originally appeared in the Buffalo Beast.

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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