The end of the world is here

Disasters spawned by global warming are no longer science fiction, Ross Gelbspan argues in "Boiling Point" -- they're already here.

by Katharine Mieszkowski


Aug. 5, 2004 | In Scotland, hundreds of thousands of arctic terns, kittiwakes, guillemots and great skuas suddenly aren't having any babies. The culprit? Global warming has disrupted their food supply, according to the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds.

The seabirds feed primarily on sandeels, a small silvery fish that once teemed along the northern Scotland seashore. But changes in sea temperature and currents caused by the heating up of the earth's atmosphere are causing the plankton that the sandeels eat to move north, leaving no fish for the birds to eat. One bird monitor who has spent some three decades counting breeding pairs and chicks at the Scottish nesting site called the sudden failure of the seabirds to reproduce simply "unprecedented in Europe."

You don't have to be a classicist or a binocular-toting member of the National Audubon Society to read ominous portents into the sorry fate of hundreds of thousands of seabirds. As journalist Ross Gelbspan voluminously documents in his new book "Boiling Point," the first catastrophes of global warming are not something to anticipate with dread in the distant future. They're here now.

In a fast-paced, well-sourced screed, Gelbspan argues that while Americans fret about terrorism, a much worse nightmare is accelerating. Gelbspan even suggests that if the government of the United States continues to dodge and subvert the international consensus on global warming the tremendous impact of the phenomenon on the world's poor will serve to stimulate terrorism and anti-Americanism around the globe.

"The continuing indifference by the United States to atmospheric warming -- since this country generates one-fourth of the world's emissions with 5 percent of its people -- will almost guarantee more anti-U.S. attacks from people whose crops are destroyed by weather extremes, whose populations are afflicted by epidemics of infectious disease, and whose borders are overrun by environmental refugees," he writes.If this all sounds like so much alarmist hysteria, tell that to residents of the tiny island nation of Tuvalu in the southwest Pacific Ocean, all of whom have been offered sanctuary by New Zealand, since their homes will likely soon be watery to point of uninhabitable. They are global warming's first human diaspora, climate change refugees with absolutely no power to address their plight.

Wildlife around the world are already on the move. One butterfly species has shifted its range nearly 60 miles northward over the last century, as the average temperature around the world rose just 1 degree Fahrenheit. Spring itself has come earlier every year since 1960, Gelbspan reports. A study by 19 researchers from seven countries published in the journal Nature predicted that rising temperatures could doom more than one-third of the planets' species to extinction by 2050.

The news isn't all bad. One group of creatures is bound to prosper from all this warming. Insects are already spreading illnesses such as the West Nile virus, malaria, Dengue and yellow fever to new populations as their range increases.

Gelbspan reserves particular ire for journalists who have succumbed to a successful disinformation campaign conducted by the oil and coal industries, with help from the Bush administration. The goal of the campaign has been to keep the American public convinced that the scientific verdict is still out on global warming.

Some of this material is an update to Gelbspan's previous global warming book "The Heat is On," published in 1997, which exposed the so-called climate skeptics for being on the payroll of the industries whose pollution they were defending. But since the late '90s, global warming science has significantly advanced. So, if back then the industry response to the problem could be dismissed as simple spin -- business as usual -- now it amounts to "the privatization of the truth," and nothing less than "a clear crime against humanity."

The failure of the Bush administration to take action on global warming has been well documented by Gelbspan and others. But Gelbspan's critique of how the American media and the activist community have failed to adequately respond to disinformation is fresh. Gelbspan, who spent 31 years as a reporter and editor at the Boston Globe and the Washington Post, contends that until recently, many journalists lent space and credence to industry-paid scientific skeptics without ever mentioning their financial ties, making them "unwitting accomplices" to the industry's agenda -- all in the pursuit of an illusory "balance." He now argues that the American press has entered a "stage two denial" of the climate crisis, acknowledging it with occasional features about the decimation of forests in Alaska, but under-reporting the scope of the crisis, as well as the larger diplomatic, political and economic conflicts around the issue.

Gelbspan is a hard man to please on the topic of global warming. Even activists from environmental groups who are working on the issue come in for criticism -- simply because their agenda isn't ambitious enough to confront the scope of the problem. Many of the large groups are locked in Beltway politics, winning and losing specific legislative battles. Others are engaged in grass-roots efforts to educate consumers about the environmental impact of their choices. Both are missing the point, says Gelbspan.

No matter how much we carpool or how quickly we switch to compact fluorescent bulbs, we won't be able to do enough to reduce greenhouse gas emissions to avert disaster, writes Gelbspan. "By persuading concerned citizens to cut back on their personal energy use, these groups are promoting the implicit message that climate change can be solved by individual resolve. It cannot."

Such a strategy is a form of blaming the victim: "People are made to feel guilty if they own a gas guzzler or live in a poorly insulated home. In fact, people should be outraged that the government does not require automakers to sell them cars that run on clean fuels, that building codes do not reduce heating and cooling energy requirements by 70 percent, and that government energy policies do not mandate home-based or regional sources of clean electricity." Besides making elites feel ephemerally smug about their own eco-enlightenment, the real advantage in mobilizing individuals to make greener choices is that it can ultimately lead to the creation of a political base for large-scale, global action on climate change.

And this is really the scariest thing about "Boiling Point" -- not the now-familiar doomsday scenarios of melting glaciers, rising seas and mass extinctions. More terrifying is what Gelbspan thinks must happen if we are to have any hope of curbing it: massive, global international cooperation on an unprecedented level. The prospect is frightening because of how unlikely any hope of reaching it seems right now.

Gelbspan evaluates three plans to confront the issue, including the the Sky Trust plan, the Apollo Alliance and the Contraction and Convergence model. He finds them all wanting. They lack economic incentives and regulatory mechanisms to force the transition to clean energy, pander too much to coal-mining labor unions, rely too heavily on the unproven promise of carbon sequestration or only address problems in the United States. Soon, notes Gelbspan, both India and China will likely surpass the U.S. as the world's largest carbon emitters.

Gelspan's fourth way -- an "Rx for a planetary fever" -- involves stripping energy subsidies in industrialized nations from the fossil fuel industries and putting them entirely into renewable energy; creating a $300 billion fund to bring renewable energy to developing countries; and implementing a global fossil fuel efficiency standard, which would rise by 5 percent a year. In this scenario, tens of thousands of coal miners would have to be bought out or retrained. And to avoid engendering geopolitical chaos in the Middle East, the region would have to become a center of renewable hydrogen production with wind farms and solar panels in the deserts instead of oil wells.

Only regulatory measures this drastic, and involving such a level of international unity have a chance of stemming global warming, argues Gelbspan. But he also suggests that there would be an additional upside to the necessary global cooperation. The creation of a new energy infrastructure would spur new job growth and create huge new markets for multinational companies.

The scenario he paints would not only address climate change, but bring about a more equitable world, "putting people back in charge of governments and governments in charge of corporations." Thus, ultimately "Boiling Point" is not a horror story about our collective, incipient global warming doom, but, paradoxically, wildly optimistic, as Gelbspan appears to believe that such wide-scale international cooperation is possible.

Whatever happens, there's a generation of seabirds in Scotland that won't be around to find out.

About the writer
Katharine Mieszkowski is a senior writer for Salon Technology.

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