TIDES TURNING

By Susanna Schrobsdorff
Newsweek March 26, 2006

//www.msnbc.msn.com/id/12001020/site/newsweek/

A new book predicts that climate change is likely to be abrupt and cataclysmic -- and that these sudden shifts could cripple national economies.


Last week, Britain¹s Prince Charles called climate change "the No. 1 risk in the world, ahead of terrorism and demographic change.² But the prince, a long-time environmentalist, has some unlikely competition for the year¹s most strident statement on global warming. In a Feb. 6 address to the United Nations Security Council, conservative Republican Sen. Richard Lugar called for action on global warming, citing recent advances in scientific knowledge on the subject: ³The problem [of climate change] is real and caused by man-made emissions of greenhouse gasses, including carbon dioxide from fossil fuels.² He went on to add that climate change could ³bring drought, famine, disease, mass migration and rising sea levels threatening coasts and economies worldwide, all of which could lead to political conflict and instability.²

Lugar is not the only one reassessing global warming. Last week, insurers, bruised by a devastating 2005 Atlantic storm season that saw an all-time high of 14 hurricanes, announced plans to establish a climate-change task force under the auspices of the National Association of Insurance Commissioners. Record insurance-industry losses of $30 billion from 2004¹s hurricanes in the United States were dwarfed by the more than $60 billion in insurance losses in 2005 from Hurricane Katrina alone. The industry says must recalibrate its risk models to account for the hurricanes and other severe weather from inland tornados, brushfires, ice storms and drought.

None of this is news to award-winning environmental journalist Eugene Linden. In his new book, ³The Winds of Change² (Simon & Schuster), Linden traces cycles of climate change and how civilizations have responded throughout history. He reports that these shifts tend to be abrupt and catastrophic ³flickerings,² not the gradual warming we¹ve generally expected. And while Linden acknowledges the controversy and contradictions in the science of predicting global warming, he says: ³We know enough to realize that this is a very big deal, and we know it¹s happening much faster than we expected.² NEWSWEEK¹s Susanna Schrobsdorff spoke with Linden about the science and politics of environmental change. Excerpts:


NEWSWEEK: Did the catastrophe of Hurricane Katrina affect public attitudes about environmental issues?

EUGENE LINDEN: Yes, I think Katrina was a tectonic shift. People have begun to appreciate that weather can be a weapon of mass destruction. Katrina did more economic damage than the [9/11] World Trade Center attacks. The signals have become incontrovertible and the naysayers just sound silly.

NEWSWEEK: There was a lot of speculation that the intensity of Hurricane Katrina was related to global warming. Is there any consensus on that?

LINDEN: There¹s never going to be perfect knowledge here, but we know that hot water is the energy source for hurricanes. We also know that you¹ve seen the world warm over the last few years, and hurricanes have intensified over the last 30 years. With global warming you¹d expect more intense storms, and that¹s exactly what we are seeing.

NEWSWEEK: The Bush administration been criticized for downplaying the risks of global warming. Has that changed in the wake of the costly 2005 hurricane season?

LINDEN: The Bush administration is in an extreme denial position. They have just had contempt for the problem as far as I can see. But we cannot wait until January of 2009 [when Bush leaves office] to start taking action. I think the business community will bring more pressure on them to do something. And the fact that Christian evangelicals are speaking out on environmental issues will help, as well. I think George Bush can change his mind on this. The world needs him to change his mind.

NEWSWEEK: We usually think of global warming as a very slow process. But you say it¹s happening more quickly than predicted.

LINDEN: As recently as the 1980s, most scientists thought that climate change was a gradual and incremental affair. Then with the studies on the Greenland ice core, and seabed studies and all sorts of other studies, they have confirmed that climate has tended to flip back and forth and that historically it has gone through flickering stages, between warm and cold, as it seeks a new equilibrium. These flickering stages can last decades, creating whipsaw changes in climate that could be ruinous.

NEWSWEEK: Are we prepared for sudden environmental changes?

LINDEN: If climate change was gradual and incremental, societies could deal with it and adjust their behavior to the risk. But if it¹s rapid and extreme, there¹s no society on earth that can deal with it. In fact, economists can¹t even model the impact. Most of the economic modeling you see about climate change is built on a gradual and incremental model, which doesn¹t exist in the environmental record. Even an economy that could absorb the cost of Katrina would have difficulty with a cluster of intense weather shocks -- droughts, floods and ice storms and hurricanes.

NEWSWEEK: You write about ancient civilizations wiped out by cycles of climate change. What do you say to those who question whether current warming is caused by human activities like the burning of fossil fuels?

LINDEN: If it¹s natural, we¹re really screwed; if it¹s human, which is likely, then at least we can do something about it. So I¹d be hoping it¹s man-made. The one variable that¹s really out of whack with history is the increase in carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. Carbon dioxide has marched in lockstep with global warming. The signs are all around us -- and so are the solutions.

NEWSWEEK: What are the solutions?

LINDEN: In a perfect world, it¹s a carbon tax. But you can also look at the California situation when they had their energy crisis in 2001. It was amazing how good people were in reducing their energy use. Consumers can change their buying habits on a dime. There is enormous power to address this problem. But the main thing is that internationally, we have to get China and India in the game. And because we¹re the world¹s largest emitter of greenhouse gasses, the U.S. government has to take a strong stand on this.

NEWSWEEK: What potential economic repercussions are there from climate change at this pace?

LINDEN: To put it in perspective, an El Nino [a major temperature fluctuation in surface waters of the tropical eastern Pacific Ocean] might represent a 1 degree change in global temperatures. The 1998 El Nino did about $100 billion dollars' damage to the global economy, but you have to scale up for each level of change dramatically because you pass what are called tipping points or thresholds. Katrina was only marginally more powerful than previous hurricanes, but it did over a hundred times the damage. A flood that¹s 10 percent higher than a previous flood can cause 10 times as much damage if it overtops levees. Even a 2 degree warming in the next 20 or 30 years could be incredibly ruinous just because it could impose a tax on everybody in every in terms of ice storms and disruption in weather and business.

NEWSWEEK: What kind of tax?

LINDEN: For example, if insurance starts to rise in certain areas, and it already has in coastal areas, you get repercussions for the housing market. People have huge amounts tied up in housing and an enormous number of jobs and spending are in housing. And of course the financial system, which prices these risks, has to absorb it. The system is going to shift the risk back to individuals or government -- that¹s what business does, and that¹s how risk gets aggregated. As these risks begin to become monetized, and if global warming intensifies, it could eventually cause an economy to come to a halt.

NEWSWEEK: How have insurance companies reacted to the intensity of the storms we¹ve already seen?

LINDEN: Traditionally, they¹ve only looked back at what past weather has done, but now they are starting to base rates on anticipated changes in weather. Rates in some parts of south Florida have almost doubled. Flood insurance may end up being 10 times more expensive in parts of New Orleans as it was before. And some have even pulled out of Cape Cod [in Massachusetts], which is [more than] 1,000 miles away from where Katrina hit. That¹s how risk diffuses. And if an insurance company backs out, what bank is going to assume that risk? It causes real problems up the economic chain.

NEWSWEEK: Are other industries making plans to cope with the risk of global warming?

LINDEN: One of the things we¹re seeing right now is a change in attitudes in corporate America about climate change and emissions. Jack Welch [former CEO of General Electric] was famously dismissive of climate change and global warning. But Jeffrey Immelt [Welch¹s successor at GE] has acknowledged the seriousness of it and other environmental concerns -- and that¹s one of the largest corporations on the planet. I think that big business is actually going to put pressure on the White House to actually do something on climate change and emissions because they¹d rather deal with one uniform policy than 17 different policies. And a lot of these big companies are multinationals. Even if the United States doesn¹t take the issue seriously, a lot of other places do, and they have to operate in those markets.

NEWSWEEK: You write that humans are notoriously bad at assessing risk. Is that also why we haven¹t been more concerned about climate change before this?

LINDEN: With a long-wavelength phenomenon like climate change, by the time the signals come it¹s often too late. To paraphrase [Secretary of State] Condi Rice [in her pre-war statements on Iraq¹s nuclear capabilities], you don¹t want to have knowledge of global warming come when we have a ruined economy as a result of global warming. This is science in real time. We know enough to realize that this is a very big deal, and we know it¹s happening much faster than we expected.


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