Four years after this conference, it is 50 degrees in Montreal in December, which just experienced the warmest October and November on record, like much of eastern North America. Al Gore, the great white hope for the environment, is history at the moment, but he may rise again from the ashes. In any case, we scarcely heard a peep from him about global warming or anything else about the environment—his supposed signature issue— during his incredibly lame and maladroit presidential campaign, and the Bush administration has pulled the plug on everything the Kyoto conference was trying to achieve, and on many of the environmental safeguards that were achieved during the Clinton and Gore years. The future of the planet is not looking good at all, with the possibility of world war diverting attention from our stewardship responsibilities. I wrote this piece for Vanity Fair, but it was lost in the spring Oscar and Hollywood frenzy and killed that summer.
WHAT HAVE WE DONE TO THE WEATHER ?
The choice of Kyoto, the ancient Japanese capital, for the United Nations third conference on global warming last December was inspired. Its lovingly preserved twelve-hundred-year history underscored the theme of preservation, which was what the gathering was all about : trying to preserve the basic atmospheric conditions that enable life to exist on this planet. Conditions that seem to be increasingly compromised by the belching into the air of billions of tons of carbon dioxide from coal-fired power plants, car exhausts, industrial smokestacks, deforestation, and myriad other sources. The fact that Kyoto was nearly nuked in l945 (at the last moment the American Secretary of War, Harry Stimson, realizing its cultural importance, switched the target to Hiroshima)— added poignance. As if there was any need to be reminded of humanity’s destructiveness.
Everyone who came— the 2,200 negotiators and officials from more than 150 countries, the 8,000 observors, members of environmental ngo’s (non-governmental organizations), and media people knew what was on the line here. (Everyone, that is, except the 800 paid industrial lobbyists whose job was to derail the process and prevent an agreement from being reached. They were here to tell you that global warming is a nonevent, a leftist conspiracy to sabotage the American way of life.) The conference website laid it out succinctly :
“More and more, we are realizing that the Industrial Revolution has changed forever the relationship between humanity and nature. There is real concern that by the middle of the next century human activities will have changed the basic conditions that have allowed life to thrive on earth. The giant asteroid that felled the dinosaurs threw huge clouds of dust into the air, but we are causing something just as profound if more subtle. We have changed, and we continue to change, the balance of gases that form the atmosphere…. If current predictions prove correct, the climatic changes over the coming century will be larger than any since the dawn of human civilization.”
Over the last 150 years human activities have raised the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere by 25%, from 280 parts per million to 360. In the last hundred years the world’s mean temperature has risen by about one degree Fahrenheit (all temperatures in this piece are Fahrenheit). The vast majority of atmospheric scientists suspect that the two are connected, that the scenario predicted by the Swedish chemist Svent Arrhenius in l896 is coming to pass. The earth’s climate is driven by the continuous flow of energy from the sun, which arrives mainly in the form of visible light. About 30% of this energy is immediately scattered back into space. Most of the rest filters down through the atmosphere, warms the earth’s surface, and is sent back out into space in the form of infrared radiation. This is the heat thrown off by an electric grill before its bars begin to glow red. Most of this infrared radiation is trapped by gases in the atmosphere : water vapor, CO2, ozone, methane, nitrous oxide, and the three chlorofluorocarbons (cfc’s). Although these gases together make up less than 1% of the atmosphere, they are enough to cause a so-called “greenhouse effect” that keeps the planet about 48 degrees warmer than it would otherwise be. It is this that permits life as we know it to exist.
Arrhenius predicted that the world’s temperature would rise by 6 ½ to 9 ½ degrees when the atmospheric carbon doubles due to the burning of fossil fuels. Most scientists now believe that doubling will happen around the middle of the next century, and will cause a rise of 2 to 6 degrees— lower than Arrhenius’ numbers, but calamitous nonetheless. (By comparison, the planet was only 5 to 9 degrees colder in the depths of the last ice age.) This will cause an environmental Armageddon : massive extinctions, drowning of islands and coastlines and the displacement of millions as polar ice melts and sea level rises; desertification of the midcontinental agricultural zones, rampant spread of epidemic diseases, as extreme weather events— deluges, floods, heat waves, droughts, blizzards, icestorms, hurricanes, typhoons, cyclones, tornados, et al— escalate in violence and frequency. To various extents, these things are already happening.
During the downtimes at the huge, modern convention complex, set in the leafless brown foothills, I wandered around Kyoto. Some of its hundreds of temples and gardens date to the previous millenium, and are steeped in Shinto nature worship, with carp flopping in forest pools and every branch and rock, and burble just so; others are interactive Zen gardens, where you listen for the sound of one hand clapping. Rising all around them are the tacky little highrises of the modern city. In last hundred years Japan has embraced modern Western materialism with a vengeance, becoming one of the greatest consumers of the world’s natural resources, particularly fish and timber. The 126 million Japanese go through two billion waribashi, or throwaway chopsticks, a year. The wood comes from the whitest, purest-looking center part of aspens from Alberta, Canada. 80% of the tree is wasted. Mitsubishi is the big force in the waribashi business.
What happened to the Japanese reverence for nature ? I asked a young Kyoto law student who was part of a group of environmental activists. Did population growth erode traditional values ? “We Japanese revere beauty, but we have no concept of ugliness,” he offered. More light was shed by an interview in the Kyoto Visitors Guide with the Honorable Kajita Shinsho, the head priest of the environmentally-oriented Honen-In Temple. According to Shinsho, the Japanese began to separate themselves from nature in the Meiji era (1868-). “Since the human population is increasing, if we do not reduce our personal, mostly desire-driven, energy demands, then we will have an increasingly negative effect,” the holy man warned.. “In regards to greenhouse gas emissions, it would seem that the Americans are behaving idiotically, but the Americans seem to only think of whether their present economic picture will be better or worse.” His final pearl : “People have lost the power to imagine or realize truly the damage that goes on outside their field of vision when they buy things.”
Now the Japanese bubble economy, based largely on bank loans for inflated real estate, was about to burst. Bubbles were much in evidence during the ten-day congress : the European bubble, comprised of the countries of the European Union, was proposing to reduce its collective CO2 emissions to 15% below their l990 levels by 2005, which made the United States look like complete slackers. The American proposal was only to return to l990 levels between 2008 and 2012, and the U.S. is the major culprit, responsible for 25% of the human emissions. Paleoclimatologists were “retrodicting” future climate trends from bubbles of co2 and methane in ice cores from glaciers in Greenland and Anatarctica, Bolivia and Tibet.
Japan, the United States, and Australia were the three countries most off target from the treaty the 36 industrialized countries had signed at the first conference in l992 Their l996 emissions were, respectively, 9.6, 8.8, and 12.5 % above l990 levels, which every had agreed to return to by 2000. Perhaps not uncoincidentally, 1997 turning out to be the warmest year in Japan’s— and the world’s— history. Flying in for the conference, I had caught a glimpse of Mt. Fuji from the plane window. There seemed to be less snow on its slopes than I could recall ever seeing in pictures. The magnificent lone volcano looked like melting ice cream cone. This was, of course, a subjective, “anecdotal” impression that might not hold up under scientific scrutiny. But the retreat of other glaciers around the world is well-documented. The glaciers on Mount Kenya are 40% smaller than they were in l963. Three glaciers in Venezuela that were good-sized in l972 have disappeared altogether. Massive melting over the last thirty years has been recorded for the Sperry and Grinnell glaciers in Montana’s Glacier National Park. Many climatologists regard the fast-receding glaciers as the loudest “smoking gun,” the clearest early sign that global warming is here.
From the moment chairman Raul Estrada of Argentina gavelled the conference to order on the morning of Monday, December 1st, there was grand, Wagnerian drama to the event.. The negotiators knew that if they didn’t come out with a treaty that would curb the emissions of the Annex One (the industrialized) countries, who are collectively responsible for 75% of the problem, posterity would never forgive them. And so they argued and haggled late into the night in closed sessions in the many rooms of great main conference hall, trying to hammer out the bottom line. Everyone was working on little sleep. The biological clocks of most were still set to halfway around the world. William K. Stevens caught the excitement in the Times : “Rarely, if ever, has humanity made an attempt like this to exercise deliberate, collective foresight on a risk whose full impact is unclear and will not be felt for decades.” This time the energy was all of us— the modern energy and consumer grid that has spread it seductive tentacles almost everywhere, what Lewis Mumford called the Megamachine, Allen Ginsberg Moloch, the Rastafarians Babylon. Many scientists were convinced that doubling was already unavoidable, no matter what was accomplished here. In a simile that had become popular at the preliminary talks in Bonn a month earlier, preventing doubling was like “trying to turn a supertanker in a sea of syrup.”
“Every country has an excuse for doing nothing,” John Cinq Mars, head of the Pollution Prevention and Control Division of the OECD (the Organization for Economic Co-Operation and Development, a think tank for the 27 industrialized countries that signed the Marshal Plan in l947), told me. “Canada’s is we’re so big and it’s so cold. Australia’s is its near-total dependence on coal. New Zealand’s is its sheep.” Sixty million of them, sixteen for every human, which collectively huge amounts of methane, or meethane as the Kiwis pronounce it. Methane has twenty times the warming potency of carbon dioxide and accounts for 20% of the greenhouse effect, and it has already doubled. Contrary to what you might think, most the meethane comes out of the sheeps’ mouths, through burping and regurgitation.
“Russia and Ukraine have shown a big drop in their emissions because their economies are so bad and industrial production has ground to a halt,” Cinq Mars continued. “So has Germany because it has shut down its incredibly dirty and inefficient East German plants. So has England since Margaret Thatcher switched the country from coal to natural gas mainly for political reasons, to break the unions; the environmental dividends are largely coincidental. [This was why the “European bubble” was able to propose its 15% reduction.] The United States is worried that the cost of compliance to industry will be so great that it will relocate abroad. China’s and India’s excuse is you Americans got where you are by burning incredible amounts of cheap energy, now you just want to keep us down. [As one Chinese delegate complained, “You want to keep riding around two people in a car while preventing us from riding in buses.” ].”
The environmentalists were here in force, realizing that global warming is the (in William K. Stevens’ adjective) overarching environmental issue for the planet, the one that impinges on all the others— population, biodiversity, the deplorable state of the oceans. They didn’t want this historic opportunity to do something about it to be blown, and there needed to be a strong green presence to offset the power lobby. I go back with some of these activists twenty years. Maybe in the early days of the environmental movement some of them were a little full of themselves, congratulating themselves for being We Who See What is Happening, but that has long since been replaced by the deep sadness, helplessness and endemic depression that eventually overcomes anyone who Sees What is Happening on a global scale, by what might be called doom fatigue, a cousin of the disaster fatigue that afflicts humanitarian aid workers in places like Ethiopia and Rwanda. “We’re really fucking up this piece of real estate,” Elliot Norse, a marine conservation biologist, told me, and seeing it happen, badgering the politicians, keeping the pressure on, and the minute you let up it springs back to where it was, knowing that your hardwon victories are too little too late, has to get to you.
It was the third time this fall I’d run into David Suzuki, Canada’s great environmental samurai, its David Attenborough, whose nature show airs on CBC on Thursday evenings, doing his dog and pony show at scientific meetings, laying out the horrors, trying to get people to See What is Happening. In September, we had been among the scientists, religious leaders, and writers invited to cruise the horribly degraded and nearly dead Black Sea by the Ecumenical Patriarch of the Orthodox church, Bartholomew I. The patriarch had begun to see the Apocalypse in environmental terms, as a failure of planetary stewardship, and was mounting a last-ditch effort to save what was left of the creation. The next month I had run into Suzuki at a conference on biodiversity put on by the National Academy of Science in Washington, an incredibly depressing affair at which the rate the planet is going down the tubes was clearly spelled out by many of the world’s leading natural scientists. There are a lot of meetings like this these days.
“We’re horsetrading the planet,” Suzuki observed. “We’re nickel-and-diming away the future with these token little gestures. Only a 50% reduction across the board by the Annex One countries is going to turn this thing around.” He told me how the permafrost line in northern Canada has been moving steadily north, and how the boreal forest, always a net absorber of carbon, has now become, with recent fires and insect depredations, a net emitter. His private foundation was pushing something called the 20% Club, trying to get communities to commit to reducing their emissions by 20% over the next fifteen years. Regina, the capital of Saskatchewan, he claimed, is already 12% below in l988 levels and has saved over $40 million in energy costs. Toronto is 6% below its l990 levels and has created several hundred new jobs in the process. “The municipalities are showing the whole bullshit about how we can’t afford to become more energy-efficient.”
George Woodwell, one of the eminences grises, founder and director of the Woods Hole Research Institute and one of the first to sound the alarm about global warming, flew in for the climax of the negotiations . Woodwell exerted a powerful influence on my personal biogeography. It was after a conversation with him twenty years ago that I decided maybe it wouldn’t be such bad idea to move a bit north (I was living in Westchester County at the time) and bought forty acres on a mountain in the Adirondacks, three hundred miles upstate, where we built our primary residence in l988. Woodwell came by his interest as a botanist studying the carbon exchange between the forest and the atmosphere on the property of Brookhaven Labortory, in eastern Long Island . By the mid-seventies he had become interested in the role the burning of tropical forests plays in enhanced warming, a part of equation that had not been quantified and is now thought to contribute around 17%. When I met him, in l977 I’d just come back from nine months in the Amazon, researching a Sierra Club book. Brazil’s policy at the time was to invite all comers to cut down the forest, torch it, and convert it mainly to pasture for cattle. Some of the fires were unbelievable. When I got there, a forest fire bigger than Belgium was raging out on control on the Volkswagen ranch in the eastern Amazon, and I saw on the King Ranch firestorms so intense huge trees were being sandblasted into the air and landing upside down with their flared buttresses in the air like crashed rocket ships. Uncountable species that were unknown to science were going up in smoke. Tom Lovejoy, the Smithsonian Institution’s Amazon expert, estimated that a million species would be lost before they were even identified. Such total oblivion is known as sentinelan extinction. At the time I thought Lovejoy has to be exaggerating. How can he know that ? The figure now seems entirely plausible, even ridiculously conservative, when you consider than a single gram of temperate-forest soil can contain as many as ten thousand species of bacterium (and only four thousand have been identified worldwide, while fewer still have been screened for their durg potential). Woodwell said the repurcussions went far beyond that, and went on to explain the greenhouse effect.
The l997 fires in the Amazon, he now told me, were much bigger than the ones 20 years ago. They were the biggest ever, bigger even than the ones in l988, satellite fotos of which run in the New York Times (they looked like a rash of thousands of little white dots devouring the southern Amazonian state of Rondonia) first brought home the extent of fires to the American public.. And yet this fall’s fires received little publicity. People think they’re hip to the rainforest, therefore the problem is under control, which is hardly the case. Fifty acres of rainforest somewhere in the world and God knows how many species continue in smoke every minute. There was more media attention on the fires in Indonesia, which were going on at the same time and were almost as big, because they were something new, and cities of millions like Jakharta were engulfed in smoke. Five hundred Indonesians died of smoke inhalation, students couldn’t see their blackboards, two freighters collided late one morning in the pitch blackness off Kalimantan. The fires were the usual ones set by local slash-and-burn farmers to burn of their fields, plus big ones set by international logging companies (Korean, Japanese, Taiwanese, and a few American ones) taking advantage of the unusually dry conditions to burn off their scrub acreage, and partly the forest itself catching fire from these fires, which almost never happens. But this year’s El Nino, the huge pool of warm water that periodically forms in the Pacific and wreaks havoc with two-thirds of the world’s weather, was the strongest El Nino event ever recorded, the mother of all El Nino’s, and it brought severe drought to the western Pacific and central South America. Woodwell claimed that the fires this year in the Amazon and Indonesia were one of the worst environmental disasters of the century. “Taken together, they could be collectively the largest conflagration in the history of the planet. They could put an extra billion and a half tons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere.” (In recent years tropical forest fires account for 1.6 to two billion tons of the anthropogenic carbon, while the combustion of fossil fuel sends up about 6 billion tons.) The Times ran two wrenching stories about how families of orangutans were fleeing the flaming forest in Borneo, and the mothers were being clubbed to death by local peasants who were selling the children to international wildlife traders; the zoos can always use orangutans. But by now El Nino’s moisture-suppressing backlash was over, the monsoon had come, and the drought had moved down to Australia, where hundreds of thousands of acres of forest west of Sidney were.on fire.
I spent a lot of time with Bill McKibben, a fellow Adirondacker and former colleague at the old, William Shawn New Yorker who was “sort of the godfather of all this,” as his friend John Passacantando, the executive of the Washington-based Ozone Action, put it. It was McKibben’s
1989 book, The End of Nature, that put global warming on the map, first reached a broad popular audience with the message that our fouling of the atmosphere is soon going to catch up with us.
McKibben, I, and many others had been deeply alarmed by the summer of l988, which brought a clammy heat wave in the United States unlike anything anyone could remember
and was caused by a particularly strong la niña, the other phase of the El Nino Southern Oscillation Weather System. That year would go down as the hottest globally on record; it has since been surpassed by l995 and l997. In August my wife and I moved to the Adirondacks full-time from Mexico City. Forest fires the collective size of Connecticut were raging out of control in the American West; the beaches of Long Island were closed because AIDS-infected needles and other toxic hospital waste kept washing up on them; out to sea the dolphins were mysteriously dying. That fall brought the Exxon Valdez disaster, and we were treated to sickening scenes of oil-coated sea otter carcasses on our tv. screen.. In Europe the Mediterranean was dying; milk, produce, and the Lapland reindeer herd were contaminated by fallout from the nuclear meltdown at Chernobyl the year before. For the fourth year in a decade a blistering heat wave had parched most of North America, and forty percent of the counties in the nations were declared drought areas. One Saturday night in mid-August we were invited to dinner at the Ausable Club, a mountain resort where the old WASP elete summers. Long after the sun had gone down, it remained a hundred degrees in the dining room, but no one dared remove his jacket because the president of the club had not done so, and the men all sat there drenched in sweat.
Something was obviously very wrong. There was a mounting sense that we’d finally gone and done it, wrecked the environment for good, brought on Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring, what then-senator Timothy Wirth (now the executive director of the Turner Foundation) was calling “major systems breakdown.” The record heat was blamed on the greenhouse effect, and the greenhouse effect was in turn linked to the fires in Amazonia, even though they were less responsible than our own domestic consumption of fossil fuel ( which contributes about 22% of the anthropogenic emissions). But it was easier to blame it on the bossa nova than to confront our own egregrious role in the problem. Suddenly, everyone became very concerned abut the rain forest. The Dutch, for whom a catastrophic rise in sea level is in store if warming continues as projected, were particularly concerned about the fires.
Wondering if the whacked-out weather signaled the end of Babylon, the Megamachine, the modern experiment in scientific materialism, I started to read apocalyptic literature, to study the historical interplay of natural and political turbulence. Sometimes natural upheavals have wiped out regimes and eras. The eruption of Vesuvius smothered Pompeii (including one couple who were turned to stone in flagrante delictu). The Flood liquidated everybody but Noah and his family and their animal passengers. Sometimes upheavals have performed a more choric role : earthquakes, comets, solar and lunar eclipses attended the end of the Aztec empire, Rome, the Dalai Lamas’ dominion of Tibet, tsarist Russia, the breakup of Soviet Union. I read Shakespeare— King Lear, Hamlet, and the Tempest are loaded with metaphorical metereological fireworks. For most of history, when there was a natural catastrophe, it was seen as the hand of God, angry with his sinful flock. But this time it is a little different, I mused : the hand of God is acting through the hand of man. Or rather, God is sitting back this time and letting us do ourselves in. How in character for the Almighty, I thought. What a fitting punishment for the crime. As Edmund declares in King Lear
This is the excellent foppery of the world, that when we are sick in fortune, often the surfeits of our own behavior, we make guilty of our disasters the sun, the moon, and stars.
That fall I wrote a proposal for a book on global warming which I plannned The World is Burning. Months of travel would be required— to the Maldives, one of the lowest of the island states, which would be among the first to be drowned; to the Arctic tundra, whose melting permafrost would release millions of tons of methane, dwarfing even the contribution of New Zealand’s sheep.. I submitted the proposal to Robert Gottlieb, William Shawn’s short-lived successor, whose not unreasonable verdict was that it was “too big.” Some months Bill McKibben submitted to Gottlieb a completed manuscript on the same subject called The End of Nature, which Gottlieb published to great acclaim. I guess McKibben was meant to write that book. It was the debut of one of our most elegant essayists on nature and the environment— a national treasure, as I heard him called on National Public Radio.. That Sunday, the seventh day of the conference, happened to be Bill’s 37th birthday, and Passacantando and I took him out to one of Kyoto’s traditional restaurants. Bill looked like he could use some cheering up. This thing was devouring him. “The world will be fucked up for my daughter, “he muttered glumly. “There won’t be any snow for her to ski on.”
McKibben tried to be more upbeat in his latest recent book, Hope, Human and Wild, but what is there, when you get down to it, to be up about ? As Wren Wirth, Timothy’s husband and a veteran of the environmental wars of the last twenty years, observed, “None of the long term indicators are positive. Basically, we just aren’t moving fast enough. Nothing works. Local doesn’t work, global doesn’t work. Everything has a red flag on it. The big thing now is compromise. The timber industry wants to compromise with the environmentalists. How can you compromise when only 5% of the old-growth forest is left ?” Wren rattled off some horrific stats “Mankind is presently using 40% of the plant matter made by photosynthesis and 52% of the fresh water, and our population is about to double, at which time mathematically we will need more than twice the plant matter and fresh water. So we are headed for certain catastrophe.” McKibben’s new book, Maybe One, is about population, as in why not have just one kid, which he and his wife have committed to. Every American burns 5.35 tons of carbon dioxide per year.
We decided to forego a postprandial soak at one of the sento, the traditional bathhouses that are supposed to be the quintessential Japanese experience. None of us felt quite up to such an indulgence. “One of us should have gone to Indonesia,” an anguished McKibben told me.. “That was a big, big story, and now it’s off the screen.”
Tall, lanky, 36-year-old John Passacantando had founded Ozone Action because it is a forgotten issue, but it isn’t getting any better than the onslaught on the rainforest : last year’s ozone hole over the Anatarctic was twice as big as Europe east of the Urals. Ozone depletion from the injection of chlorofluorocarbons makes a mild contribution to global warming; the problem is that the ultraviolet radiation, which ozone screens, becomes more intense. The intensity of UVB radiation over Antarctica is now the same as that over Miami Beach. On Monday Ozone Action was releasing a new study by Andrew Blaustein, a professor at Oregon State University, who had finally found out why the long-legged salamanders of Central Oregon’s Cascade Range have been suffering a significant rise in embryo mortality and birth deformities : from ambient ultraviolet radiation. For some years the crash of the world’s frog and salamander population has been puzzling scientists. A l992 article in the New York Times Magazine predicted that half the 3800 species of frogs worldwide could go extinct in the next thirty years. The golden toad of Costa Rica, whose males are day-glo orange, has not been seen since 89, the once-abundant leopard frog is disappearing in Vermont, and in our woods, you rarely see any red efts any more. They use to be come out after rain and to be so abundant in some places, lying on the wet leaf litter, that you had to be careful to not to step on them.
The l992 article offered several theories about what was killing the off the fogs and salamanders besides Blaustein’s one about the rise in ambient UVB radiation, which was then still only a hypothesis : acid rain; David B. Wake, director of Berkeley’s Museum of Vertebrate Zoology’s theory was that the die-off is being caused by “general environmental degradation. Frogs are telling us about the environment’s overall health.. They are the medium and the message.” Another theory attributed the Central American death wave to a lethal protozoan bearing some resemblance to the one that has been killing the oysters in Chesapeake Bay.
“Isn’t it food for thought this study should be coming out at this particular moment, right in the middle of the global warming conference” “Passacantando reflected.”It’s telling us that the Montreal Protocol was too little too late, if that’s what’s happening to amphibians. We didn’t learn from it.” The Montreal Protocol, a UN-generated international agreement in l987 to reduce the global production of ozone-depleting substances, is regarded as a success story, because the United States actually signed and ratified it, unlike the biodiversity, law of the sea or, most recently, the land mines treaties.
Passacantando had learned that at two o’clock that morning a clause had been snuck in by attrition and probably with input by the timber-industry lobby (Weyerhauser et al) to the present protocol to the effect that you can have your forest counted as carbon sinks but not be penalized for cutting down the trees, so a perverse incentive for further deforestation had been worked in. The goal to return the world to 1990 levels covered only fossil-fuel emissions. There was no forest baseline and nothing about curbing the forest fires, but suddenly there was a lot of talk about forest sinks. This was a huge new loophole— getting credit for your forests could be applied to reduce your industrial-emissions reduction obligation.. Forests remove and metabolize atmospheric carbon by photosynthesis, so they take willl care of the problem naturally, the timber and power people argued, and young, resurgent forests are more effective than mature ones. Already Helen Chenwith, the anti-environmentalist Wyoming senator who has said things like “Salmon aren’t endangered because I can buy it in the supermarket,” had introduced a bill to get carbon credits for clearcutting the last old-growth forests in the Pacific Northwest.
The estimates of the sink potential of the world’s remaining forests (two thirds of the forests that blanketed the continents 8000 years ago are gone, and only 4% of the ones that.remain are protected) are wildly discrepant. According to Worldwatch Institute, the tropical forests have 80% of the sink potential, the temperate forests 17%, and the boreal forests 3%. But there has been a huge spurt of growth in the boreal forests— 10% since l980— partly because the growing season is 12 days longer; the northern latitudes have been warming about ten times faster— about one degree per decade— than the rest of the world, which is a factor of more extensive melting of snow allowing the ground to absorb more solar energy, thereby giving a boost to springtime temperatures. Partly, too, because there 4% more atmospheric co2 up in the boreal regions for the trees to absorb. The taiga is moving north, taking over the tundra. A Russian scientist, Dr. Olga Krankina, suspects that more than one fifth of 8.1 billion tons of carbon pumped out annually by human activity— the 1.8 billion tons in the equation from forest fires, the equivalent of three years of Russia’s fossil-fuel emissions— is being sequestered by the vast boreal forests in northern Siberia, whose sink capacity has been increased by a feedback mechanism from increased carbon levels in air. Other scientists attribute the northward spread of larch trees to anthropogenic carbon emissions . The European temperate forests are also growing fatter and faster than ever before, a study of trees in France suggests, but this doesn’t seem to be the case in the United States, Canada, and Russia, where fires have increased so the forests are shrinking (except in New England, where the abandonment of farming early in the century is bringing a second-growth version of the original forest to maturity.) But forest growth rates are not as great as the accumulation of carbon in the atmosphere. It’s not like the CO2 is immediately converted to plants tissue; the gas has a hundred-year residence time in the atmosphere.
It might be useful to review the global carbon cycle, or what I learned about it from Michael Oppenheimer, the senior scientist for the Environmental Defense Fund, from George Woodwell and his colleague at the Woods Hole Institute, Amory Houghton, and from the Carbon Dioxide Information Analysis Center at the Oak Ridge National Laboratory, Oak Ridge, Tennessee. The atmosphere contains a pool of about 755 billion tons of CO2 which Woodwell compared to a leaky bucket. Some of the CO2 leaks down to the oceans and is absorbed by phytoplankton, some of it to the continental land masses and is fixed by plants. About the same amount that is given off by the oceans and plants is fixed by them, a combined annual natural exchange of about 150 billion tons that fluctuates seasonally and daily (photosynthesis shuts down in winter and at night), but has been in remarkable equilibrium for the last ten thousand years, varying by no more than 5 parts per million. Until the mid-1700s the terrestrial CO2 release was entirely natural : lightning-ignited forest and grass fires, for instance; decaying plant matter; the geysers of Yellowstone emit 4.4 million tons a year, more than a typical industrial power plant. But then the natural transfer began to be disrupted first by deforestation (currently spewing 1 to 2 billion tons a year from a reservoir of 550 billion tons in plants themselves, with another 1200 billion tons locked in soil and detritus), followed by the combustion of fossil fuel (6 or so billion tons, with about 10,000 billion tons of recoverable fossil fuel still in the ground; each gallon of fuel burned adds another pound or so of carbon). Already in the 1700s Cotton Mather attributed a spate of mild winters to the burning of New England’s forests.
But the greatest CO2 sink of all is the ocean, with about a thousand billion tons on the surface, and 35,000 billion tons in its intermediate and deep waters. Chemically, the ocean could hold 90% of the atmospheric CO2 that is being added by human activities, but the surface waters are pretty much in equilbrium with the atmosphere. If you could bring up more cold water from the deep, the ocean would absorb the atmospheric CO2 faster, but there isn’t much mixing between the two, and the warmer the ocean becomes the more the north-south temperature gradient, which is the main catalyst of what mixing there is, is diminished, the more stagnant the ocean becomes and the less effective as a sink, because like water coming to a boil and evaporating as steam, CO2 become less soluble the more it is heated. Amory Cristoff, a deep-sea photographer, had this chilling observation on the future role of the oceans in the global carbon cycle : “When the oceans start to warm, that’s when you’ll really see some global warming. The earth began as a carbon dioxide planet, then the plants exploded and poisoned it with oxygen, which made it habitable for animals including us. Now maybe it’s going back to being a CO2 planet.”
The other controversial concept sparking heavy debate was that of the tradeable emission credit. If you didn’t want to spend the money to bring your operation into compliance, you could buy a “credit” from someone either at home or abroad who was below his limit, or you could offset your CO2-spewing coal-fired power plant in Ohio, say, by putting up the money to preserve some rainforest in Guyana, thus helping not the cause of carbon sinks but of biodiversity. This strategy, however, is bound to run into the same problem that Tom Lovejoy’s debt-for-nature swap scheme ran into a few years back. Lovejoy proposed that Brazil could work some of its astronomical foreign debt by creating forest reserves in the Amazon. The Brazilians complained that this infringed on their sovereignty and their right to develop their resources. You Americans got where you are by cutting and exploiting your forests; now you just want to keep us down.
The positive side of the tradeable emission credit scheme is that it would provide technology and capital to the developing countires for developing alternate-energy sources and enable them to “leapfrog” the way China, for instance, is with its telephone system : rather than install poles and wires, it is going straight to cellular phones. The Brazilian Minister of Science and Technology, Jose Israel Vargas, was excited about his country’s leapfrogging : “100,000 communities, 25 million of our people, still don’t have electricity,” he told me. “We are now devoting half of our energy-development budget to alternative generators for them— solar, biomass, microhydro, 30,000-megawatt aeolian (i.e. windmills).
Not everybody believes, or wants to believe, there is a problem, or that there isn’t a technological fix that won’t bring the runaway greenhouse effect under control, that human ingenuity won’t end up winning the day. Mobil Oil has been running very reasonable-sounding ads on the Times Op Ed page, part of a thirteen-million-dollar disinformation campaign by the power lobby, that the whole thing is exaggerated and there’s no reason to sacrifice the American economy to curb emissions whose effects on global climate are not proven. Occasionally I would spot a member of the Global Climate Coalition (whose members include Atlantic Richfield Coal, Chevron, Ford, Exxon, Texaco, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, Union Carbide, and CONRAIL) having a tete a tete in a corridor with one of the congressmen Newt Gingrich had sent to monitor the conference. Jene (sic) Robinson, the environmental resource manager for Illinois Power, the state’s number two utility after Commonwealth, conveyed to me the heartburn in the heartland about what was developing here : “Our primary concern is that things are happening too fast. We need to wait for the science to come in and the capital stock to turn over. Cars can be improved, but the industrial stock takes much longer. If the country is going to meet the 2012 deadline, Illinois’ share will be 75 million tons. But it takes time to convert coal-fired generators to natural gas, to take out all the old refigerators and air-conditioners, and even if we do all that we’ll still be 35 million tons short. We just can’t get there. 60% of Illinois is on nuclear power, and those units were on line when the baseline was set. So it’s very critical. We don’t know how we’re going to comply. It takes 1.6 million acres of switchgrass to replace one nuclear plant. That’s 3% of our farmland and we just don’t have that kind of acres to spare. And my company isn’t going to install a new coal-fired generator knowing it will have to be replaced. So if we can just push this thing back another ten years.”
But haven’t you noticed that the weather is completely out of whack ? I asked.
“No. It isn’t a climate problem, it’s a relocation one. More people are moving to the coasts and floodplains and hurricane zones. No sky is falling.. This is not a precipitous we ought to be running around and pulling out our hair problem. There is time.”
The nuclear power industry saw an opening here, its plants not being CO2 emitters, and its lobbyists threw a big bash one evening. “People just don’t understand the relationship between nuclear energy and civil rights,” one of them, Maureen Koetz, told me. “We are emitting more C02 because more people are enjoying the life cheap energy provides. I get nervous when people start talking about politics that will change energy consumption, because it has been the engine that has driven change. I’m not beating my laundry on rocks because of it. My father, having fled Europe, repossessed cars in New York City. I’m the first in my family to be college-educated. The question is, how do we change the practices without delegitimizing the end use ? We’re not translating the issues into languages that all people can understand the outcome.”
McKibben and I went to a press conference by the 14 congressional observors whose chairman, John Sensenbrenner (R Cal) explained that they had been appointed by Speaker of the House Gingrich to find out 1) is the science sound ? 2) will the proposal work ? and 3) is it fair to the United States ?”Watching the negotiations is like watching sausage being made,” he observed. “You never want to eat sausage again.” He cited the Senate’s unanimous, 94-0 resolution earlier in the fall that climate change is a global problem, and a treaty that didn’t include the developing countries stood no chance of being ratified. Henry Waxman (D Cal), on the other hand, was for reduction, not just stabilization, and said he didn’t want the developing countries to become a scapegoat for doing nothing. George Brown (D state ?) said the developing countries must learn from the mistakes we’ve made, while we must be willing to compromise on targets. Chuck Hagel (R Neb) called the science about global warming “liberal claptrap,” while Joe Knollenberg (R Mich) said my constituency will not agree to pay for a gas tax [one of the proposals to help pay for American reduction efforts]] for something that it is not convinced exists, nor should the United States apologize for being the most productive country in the world. Name tk (R Pa) cited the industrial downturn in the western part of his state and the generations of pollution leading to the founding of GASP, a pioneering clean-air initiative, but in his opinion “the worst thing that destroys the world is poverty.”
There was a familiar aroma of double standard to the congressmens’ complaints about how the American way of life was being threatened by the attempt to make America more energy-efficient. The 3.4% of our l996 emissions was directly related to the rise in our economic growth from 1.9 to 2.1%, to the mid-nineties boom that has created a new crop of generation-x millionaires, to the prosperity that is poisoning the world on several levels (like making Nike sneakers in Vietnamese sweatshops whose workers make $2 a day and are exposed to a hundred times the locally permissible levels of the carcinogenic glue tuolomene, then selling the sneakers back to the Vietnamese for $90 a pair). Now the Department of Energy was predicting that American emissions would rise faster than previously estimated. The new “business as usual” (if nothing is done about them) annual emissions by 2010 will be more like 1,803 million tons instead of 1,722, meaning that we will have to achieve close to a 35% overall reduction to get back to l990 level rather than 30% the administration had been claiming. Part of the rise is due to the new rage for sports utility trucks (SUV’s) which have surpassed regular cars in sales but get much poorer mileage, while emitting far more greenhouses gases. And only 3% of these “urban attack vehicles,” as a friend calls them, ever get off the road.
Americans’ flagrant wastefulness was noted by early European travelers. We are such cheap energy junkies. I am no one to talk. I have five kids, my woodstove and the log walls of my livingroom leak like a sieve, and I didn’t dare tell McKibben, but we had just bought Expedition, three rows of seats, 13 miles to the gallon. It was time to get with it and control my emissions
The first thing I had to do was get myself snipped. I had to stop finding conflicts with the vasectomy appointment (I finally submitted to the procedure on December 16).. That spared the atmosphere at least 5.35 tons of carbon a year right there (the energy burned by the average American in l996; compare with the average Pakistani’s 340 pounds, and Pakistan is quite high on the food chain, the 39th biggest emitter of the world’s 198 countries). Secondly, I had to caulk the stove and the walls (which I still haven’t gotten around to doing). Thirdly, if I could make a modest proposal, offer the modern grid a piece of free, practical advice : lower all urinals. I realized after hoisting my four-year old up to the urinals at our local mall for the umpteenth that it was a complete waste of energy : mine, the energy to pump water up to the urinals, the energy to mine and pour the metal for the extra two feet of pipe. Give me a reason why a urinal can’t sit on the floor. If you multiply this by all the urinals in the United States alone, your atmospheric CO2 savings would be dramatic.
If we really wanted to do the atmosphere a favor, we should all join the Church of Euthanasia. Founded by the Reverend Chris Korda, the cross-dressing son of Simon & Schuster’s editor-chief Michael Korda, the church is headquartered in Somerville, Massachusetts and advocates as the ultimate act of environmental altruism killing yourself. Its website has detailed instructions on self-suffocation. The church’s basic tenets are castration, cannibalism, sodomy, abortion, and infanticide.
If only Americans were as concerned about global warming as they are about second-hand smoke, we might get somewhere.
Michael Mollitor, an economist at Columbia’s Lamont-Doughtery Earth Observatory, explained that “this conference is about risk-aversion insurance. How much are you willing to pay now to avert the potentially nasty and expensive things that might happen in the future as infectious disease vectors spread, sea level rises, and tropical storms become increasingly intense ?. In the early 90s theYale economist William Nordhause constructed a model of what the cost would be to the United States if we do nothing about global warming. What will be the hit on our g.d.p. over fifty years ?You have to have that figure before you can figure out how much you are willing to hedge, the carbon tax you need to finance your premium. Every country here is doing the same thing as Nordhause. If we don’t act now, what will be the cost to us, and how much do we have to pay now to hedge our bets, what premium do we pay if this proposal if solidified ? Australia has said there isn’t a single proposal on the table it’s willing to pay a premium for. Nordause figured out the short-term course was very high— I forget exactly how much— but last June, when the administration still didn’t have a plan, two thousand economists, including several Nobel prizewinners like M.I.T.’s first name Solow sent a letter to President Clinton saying do something, we can meet the cost for our goal at no cost for the economy.”
This is also the contention of energy-efficiency maven Paul Hawken, co-author of The Ecology of Commerce, which has become influential with conscience-stricken corporations.
“People talk about the price per ton— $100, $200— to not put carbon into the air,” he told me. “We’re saying the cost is negative. We would save money— up to 75% to 85% actually over first 36 months— except for the turnover of the car inventory, which will take fifteen years. Our energy system only one percent efficient.” Hawken explained how he came up with that astounding figure : “The average power-generating plant is only 35% efficient. You lose another 10 to 12% in the wires, an incandescent light bulb is only 8% efficient, the average automobile engine is 25% efficient, and when you multiply it all together, it comes out to 1% efficiency for the entire energy system which is responsible for a quarter of the world’s C02. All the noise in our cities– fans, motors, cars, tires— this is friction, waste, inefficiency. We’re double-glazing the planet.”
Phil Clapp of the D.C.-based Environmental Media Services had a similarly outrageous claim :
“You could reduce the energy waste of 120 power plants just by switching to total energy- efficient light bulbs. My question to Bill Clinton is : how many presidents does it take to screw in a light bulb?”
Over 200 top-level insurance executives from over 10 countries came to Kyoto. The industry has been hammered by the recent increase in extreme weather events, which may be influenced by global warming. Between 1980-9 it paid out two billion dollars a year for non-earthquake weather-related disasters. During the first half of the nineties, which were wracked with floods, hurricanes, cyclones, tornadoes, and other extreme events, it had to paying out thirty billion a year. Not surprisingly, a number of companies like Lloyd’s have become generous sponsors of climate research, and a curious coalition of twenty insurance groups and the 42 members of AOSIS, the Alliance of Small Island States, was calling for the greatest across-the-board reduction by the Annex One countries of any group at the conference: 20%. Only one of the groups was American. The others are all still too tied to business to break with the party line that global warming is a liberal conspiracy.
I had met with AOSIS’s chairman, Tuiloma Slade, the Samoan ambassador to the U.N., in New York several weeks earlier. “Sea level rise is, of course, the most dangerous consequence for our group of countries,” he explained. “Once an island state is taken under water, it is very difficult to reverse. The IPCC [the International Panel on Climate Change, assembled by the U.N. to study the problem] estimated that if the present level of emissions continues, there will be a rise in sea level of 15 to 95 centimers, with a mean average of 49, by the end of the next century. For many of our countries even a 50-centimeter rise is very significant. If you have been to the Bahamas, some of the Pacific islands like Kiribas, Tuvalu, Tonga, the Cook Islands; the Maldives or the Seychelles in the Indian Ocean, you know that none of them are more than two meters at their highest. This year, perhaps because of the record El Nino, an abnormally high, two-meter spring tide event completely washed over Tuvalu. Our citizens are seeing extreme conditions with alarming frequency. Epidemic diseases are spreading. For the first time, malaria and dengue fever have been reported from the cool highlands of Papua New Guinea. Storms are coming in at unusual times of year so people are not able to anticipate their crop cycles. The smaller the landmass, the greater the damage. A storm went through the Cook Islands a few weeks ago and destroyed half of the pearl industry— a major economic impact on a small economy.”
What about SamOa ? I asked. “SAmoa,” the ambassador corrected me, “is a high volcanic island, but the vast majority of the people are on the coast, as well as our infrastructure, our ports and airstrips. A 50-centimeter rise will take over our parliament building. Higher sea levels will affect the very life-force of these communities— the drinking water in their aquifers. As the sea rises, the freshwater lens is forced upwards, and the groundwater is infiltrated and becomes brackish. Tuvalu and the Maldives already have to rely on rainwater catchments. Well before people have to be relocated because of the loss of their land, they will driven out by the loss of their drinking water.
“But it is quite wrong to perceive this as solely an ‘island problem,’” he continued. “Large quantities of Louisiana and Florida will go underwater, areas in which a great many of our island states could fit. For us the consequences will be total. I suppose it is difficult for you in continental countries to appreciate our fear. We are so afraid because we have little choice.
“After the second conference, in Berlin in l995, we began to feel the need for strength in numbers, to speak in one voice, so we formed AOSIS. It was at that meeting, you recall, that the IPCC’s more than two thousand atmospheric scientists issued their now-famous statement that ‘the balance of evidence suggests that there is a discernible human influence on global climate.’ But the world community was already aware of the changing global climate by the time the IPCC’s first assessment report came out in l990. I realized that something was not right after the hurricane that struck England in l987 [a 500-year gale on October 15 that knocked down the magnificent old trees in Kew Garden and did three billion dollars worth of damage]. I was posted to London and all the ambassadors had to express their condolences to Margaret Thatcher. Usually we do it to Bangladesh. By l900 it was already evident that the island states were experiencing more frequent storms. . My own country had its worst hurricanes of the century in l990-1, of a scale that has really regressed our efforts at development. So the small island states were already alarmed by past events, and subsequent events have largely confirmed what the scientists suspected.”
I asked what he thought would be the upshot of this conference.
“The tragedy of Kyoto, I’m afraid, “is that the outcome will be dictated by short-term economic interests,” Ambassador Slade answered with a sigh. “This one is going to be fought out on the economic front. What will be accomplished is the ‘politically attainable,’ not the ‘environmentally sustainable.’ AOSIS has always maintained that the existing commitments of the industrialized countries are inadequate. The IPCC says we need cuts of 60% now to be stabilized by the end of the next century. Put in that perspective, our target of 20% is quite modest. And we are asking for only a reduction of carbon dioxide because it is the best-understood of the gases and the one that is largely responsible.”
How many of the gases should be covered in the treaty was another big issue. The United States wanted all six to be cut, but the European bubble and Japan were balking at having their perfluorocarbon emissions curtailed, because their microchip industries emit copious amounts of pfcs. Perfluorocarbons have 20,000 times the global-warming potency of carbon dioxide. “Any treaty that doesn’t cap all the gases is a phoney treaty,” Fred Krupp, the EDF’s executive director, told me.
By the end of the week tempers had frayed, and the convention center was starting to resemble a fractious Tower of Babel. “We need to see an agreement that is both strong and ratifiable, not dead on arrival,” Krupp told me. “As you know, the Senate is not known for its enthusiasm about international environmental treaties. The key issue is compliance, but yesterday one of the key compliance mechanisms, a graduated set of sanctions if a country falls short, was stripped out. At the very least the country needs to make up the shortfall, but the make good plus 20% clause was taken out. This goes right to the integrity of the whole thing.”
By the weekend the conference had reached an impasse. The United States wasn’t going to do anything unless the Group of 77, the developing countries including China and India, agreed to participate, but the Group of 77 wasn’t going to do anything until the United States came up something better than its present offer, which was basically a twelve-year-moratorium on what Clinton had agreed to do in l992. The American point was that by the second budget period, which begins in 2012, China, fueling its development with massive amounts of coal, and India– the world two largest dirty-energy, rapidly industrializing countries, will have caught up or even surpassed the United States, so they had to commit to doing something now. Ambassador Slade, whose OASIS was one with the Group of 77 on this bone of contention, told me, “The U.S. is trying to bully us while doing nothing themselves.” Apparently in an effort to get AOSIS to help pressure China and India, one of the U.S. negotiators had said words to the effect that : you go along with us or you go under. But it was New Zealand’s proposal that the Group of 77 commit to start specific reduction schedules in the second budget period that was threatening to bring down the conference. Every was sure New Zealand had been put up to it by the U.S. This was not in the program. The developing countries only had agree to voluntary vague participation sometime in the future, to “soft targets,” as the Annex One countries had in l992.. New Zealand was one of the JUSCANZ countries, Japan, the United States, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand— the non-European subset of European, the ones who don’t want to do anything— another acronym to get under one’s belt. “O Lord, please send us some verbs,” moaned Passacantando But who could blame Canada, which had come in later than even the United States, with a measley 3% reduction proposal ? A Canada a few degrees warmer would be just what the doctor ordered. The American breadbasket would become desertified and would move up to Saskatchewan. No wonder the Canadians were dragging their heels.
“Everybody knows the New Zealand proposal is completely unacceptable,” Phil Clapp fumed. “The coal that kept McKinley warm is still up there. It isn’t anything China or India contributed. If there was a budget for how much atmospheric carbon dioxide the world could stand, the United States has already taken half of it and we want half of what’s left. The G-77’s don’t become a problem till 2040 or 2050. The most they will agree to now is that by the time the [emissions credit] trading system goes into effect, in 2008 according to the U.S. proposal, they will have ceilings. That gives them time to negotiate.”
As the stalemated conference broke for a day of rest on Sunday, only the arrival of Al Gore could save the day.
The political risk of Gore’s coming to Kyoto was considerable : he could be booed off the podium. But it wasn’t as great as not appearing. Global warming is his signature issue, and his integrity, already slightly tarnished by the recent campaign-contribution investigation, is the main thing he has going for him, and if he didn’t come, what did he stand for ? Gore was caught between a rock and a hard place. He couldn’t afford to alienate the enviros, his core constituency, but he had to play ball with labor and heavy industry. Without the electoral votes of Illinois, Michigan, and Ohio, he didn’t stand a chance in 2000. An environmental martyr who flamed out in the early rounds did no one any good.
Undoubtedly he and his staff were aware of recent polls that suggested a sea change in American public opinion : 49% see a human hand in global warming, 67% believe that something funny is going on with the weather, 65% think the U.S. should take steps now to cut emissions of greenhouse gases and not wait for other countries to agree to take steps together and are willing to accept a 25% carbon tax on gasoline to support the reduction effort. Undoubtedly he had been getting reports from the conference about the anger of the enviros, the Europeans, and the developing countries at his stance, that the United States was prepared to “walk away” from any treaty that “isn’t good for us.” If he didn’t come, Kyoto would collapse, and he would be blamed.
So he had to come, and he had to bring something with him that would break the impasse.
His speech would be the climax of the event. As one enviro put it, not only was “Earth in the Balance” (the title of Gore’s l992 book about the deplorable state of the global environment), but Kyoto and Gore were too. As Kinza Clodumar, the president of Nauru, a tiny Pacific island that faced watery oblivion unless steps were taken immediately, put it wryly in the speech immediately preceding Gore’s, “we are all waiting with bated breath” for what he was going to say.
The enviros, jaded by the impeccable rhetoric preceding previous treaties that didn’t get ratified, were experiencing unpleasant anticipatory flashes of deja vu. “This is kind of like dating an alcoholic— up and down and the same thing over again,” said Kalee Kneider, the U.S. director of Greenpeace’s climate campaign. “Bush comes for a day to Rio in l992 and promises that we’re going to reduce our emissions by 2000. And now Al is coming for a day to tell us this time we’re really going to do it by 2012.”
On Bush’s return from the Earthy Summit, then-senator Gore had eviscerated him on the Senate floor : “I would give George Bush an F. His abdication of responsibility for global environmental issues at the very time when the world is poised to address them and is facing an unprecedented crisis, which demands leadership, seems to me unforgiveable. It doesn’t come from a lack of capacity on his part, it comes from a moral and political cowardice. He knows the right thing to do, but he has turned away from his convictions for craven political reasons.” Phil Clap had dug up the speech and was poised to fax it to the New Yorker’s the Words That Come Back to Haunt You Department. He had also calculated the amount of CO2 the contrails of Air Force 2 would be injecting to the atmosphere on its round-trip flight from Washington : “1250 tons, not counting what comes out of his mouth. This equals the annual energy usage of 111 American household, or 280 cars driven 12,000 miles in a year.” Jet plane emissions, by the way, were not being factored into the treaty— another loophole. A Japanese lobbyist calculated that worldwide there are 2,000 jumbo-jet flights a day, each enriching the atmosphere with another five hundred tons of CO2.
By Sunday, day seven, phase one had been concluded. The underlings and junior diplomats had done their work. Now they could sit back and watch the ministers, who was flying in from their respective capitals, duke it out. McKibben, Passacantando, and I went sight-seeing. “If Gore’s speech is a bust, he can always make a quick fundraising sweep of the temples,” Passacantando joked darkly. McKibben was no more sanguine. “I bought Gore’s act a lot more a few years ago,” he told me. I ran into Tom Spenser, the European Union’s representative from Surrey and a distant cousin of Princess Di (“She was the junior branch,” he told me.), a bearish, bearded man who could have played Richard the Lion Heart. We had met on the Black Sea. Spenser was an old friend of Gore’s. Together they had founded GLOBE, Global Legislators for a Balanced Environment, an organization of 450-some concerned parliamentarians from all over the world. “What I find a bit odd is his being here,” Spenser told me. “Why did he come ? This is so close to his heart and I fear it’s going end up a classic Greek exercise.” Spenser
felt, however, that “New Zealand’s trial balloon having been shot down in flames” left it open for the Europeans to bring the warring parties to agreement.
If the vice-president were a bird, there is no question which he would be. His resemblance to the American eagle is uncanny : the aquiline nose, the piercing eyes shaded under the massive brow, the fearsome probity, the once-green plumage somewhat gilded by recent association with industry perhaps.. But as he took to stage of the convention’s center’s main hall, he was a haggard, stressed American eagle, seriously jet-lagged, having landed at five that morning and been up all night on the plane working on his speech. (Politicians always say this, but in this case it was credible.) A copy of the speech had been distributed beforehand. There was no carrot. He’s finished, I thought. Done for.
Gore was the fourth speaker and as the others made their speeches he slipped into his characteristic stonefaced mode, except that he looked decidedly ashen and uncomfortable. The wooden look could be an energy-conservation technique, I mused, like a computer slipping into sleep mode or screensaver. Or maybe it was a personal form of meditation. It reminded me of the vacant expression the Tarahumara Indians of the Sierra Madre habitually that I have called “zoning.” Or was he going over in his head the speech on which so much was riding ? A penny for your thoughts, Mr. Gore.
First the packed hall heard from Jose Maria Figueiras, the president of Costa Rica, under whose aegis Costa Rica has become arguably the most environmentally enlightened country on the planet. According to Tom Lovejoy, Figueiras, a bald, charismatic man in his early forties, “has finest vision of sustainable development of any national leader.” He plans for Costa Rica to be entirely off fossil fuel by 2010 and to be running on a mixture of solar, geothermal, hydroelectric, and biomass energy and 20-megawatt windfarms; he has done away with the incentives for cattle ranching that have destroyed much of the neotropical rainforest, and instituted a gas tax that subsidizes reforestation; and is moving the capital toward electric cars and trolleys. 25% of the country is national park, and the National Institute of Biodiversity is making a systematic inventory of the country’s flora and fauna, creating a centralized database for pharmaceutical, flavor, scent, and biotech companies looking for promising molecules in nature. Figueiras has made Costa Rica a pioneer in the sort of joint implementation that the United States was pushing for here. Say Norway wants to build new coal-fired power plant; so to offset the plant’s emissions, it goes in with Costa Rica for on a windfarm. As Secretary Bruce Babbit recently observed,. “The world needs a Costa Rica to show the way.”
Figueiras proclaimed the paradigm of development for the past hundred years, which has been measured by quantity of growth, to be history as of this conference. The arrival of the political leaders has brought the negotiations to a new stage, he continued, in which three things have to be accomplished : significant cuts from industrialized countries; the ones currently on the table were too low; a bridging financial mechanism that will link the industrial world with the developing world, and the environment with economic growth; and thirdly, a vow from the developing countries that they will do their best effort, a guarantee that those countries that will be financially assisted to implement projects that mitigate climate change, will do so within a policy framework that leads to sustainable devleopment. The third will be done once the industrial countries have worked out the first two. My friends, he concluded, the ball is in your court.
Loud applause, then up stepped Nauru’s president Clodumar. “For more than five thousand years, my people have inhabited what the ancient mariners called ‘Pleasant Island,’” he began. “Rainforests abounded that were home to hundreds of bird species, including our treasure Noddy bird. But the 20th century has not been gentle with our land.” Most of Nauru is guano, an accretion over millenia of bird droppings. Clodumar described how 80% of Nauru’s land surface had been scraped off and loaded on ships by Dutch phosphate miners, forcing the people to the coastal fringe, which is only two meters above sea level. “We are trapped,” he continued, “a wasteland at our back, and to our front, a terrifying, rising flood of biblical proportions. Four other island countries face similar destruction by global warming. Island countries are on the front line of the global climate catastrophe.” The willfull destruction of entire countries and cultures with foreknowledge would represent an unspeakable crime against humanity, he argued. “No nation has the right to place its own, misconstrued national interest before the physical and culture survival of whole countries. The crime is cultural genocide; it must not be tolerated by the family of nations.” Then he quoted from Ralph Waldo Emerson’s essay, “The Over-Soul” : “The supreme critic on the efforts of the past and present and the only prophet of that which must be is that great nature in which we rest as the earth lies in the soft arms of the atmosphere.” Wow. Now there was a writer.
Gore’s speech was nowhere as rousing. He is not a mesmerizing speaker. Only after reading it through did I realize that it, too, was a fine speech. First he greeted everyone in behalf of President Clinton, the American people, and the chief American negotiator, Stu Eizenstat, whose last-minute appointed was a sore point because many felt that Timothy Wirth, who was leaving the State Department to become the executive director of the Turner Foundation, should have been heading the American delegation. Wirth had fought tooth and nail for six years for real cuts, for sweeping government action, and had then himself been abruptly cut out of the negotiations; he hadn’t even been invited to Kyoto. “What an amazing slap in the face at a guy who has ridden more tourist flights working for this country,” Senator John Kerry told me. “Tim could make this thing happen. He’s done more heavy lifting for this adminstration. He saved Cairo [the U.N.’s l995 population conference] after a huge shouting match with Al [who was under a lot of pressure from the Pope over abortion].” There were all sorts of theories about why Wirth wasn’t here : a personality conflict with the Council for Environmental Quality’s feisty Katie McGinty, who had already fought with the Environmental Protection Agency’s Carole Browner earlier in the year; the pitch battle when the U.S. position was finally being formulated between Wirth and Deputy Treasury Secretary Lawrence Summer, which Summer won because, Kerry theorized, “Tim was too adamant and a more economic person was needed to cover Al’s ass.” Or because Gore didn’t want it to become Ted and Jane’s conference. Or because Gore is threatened by forceful and effective males.
If we pause for a moment, Gore continued, we can see how extraordinary this gathering really is…. We have reached a fundamentally new stage in the development of human civilizaiton, in which it is necessary to take responsibility for a recent but profound alteration in the relationship between our species and our planet. Because of our new technological power and our growing numbers, we now must pay careful attention to the consequences of what we are doing to the Earth— especially the atmosphere. … the most vulnerable part of the earth’s environment is the very thin layer of air clinging near to the surface of the planet, that we are now so carelessly filling with gaseous wastes that we are actually altering the relationship between the Earth and Sun— by trapping more solar radiation under this growing blanket of pollution that envelops the entire world. The extra heat which cannot escape is beginning to change the global patterns of climate to which we are accustomed, and to which we have adapted over the last 10,000 years.”
This sounded much like the spiel on the conference website, but that was probably coincidental.
Gore pointed out that l997 was shaping up to be the hottest year since records have been kept, followed by eight others in the last ten. “We need to heal the divisions among us…. The United States,” he assured the developing countries, “understands that your first priority is to lift your citizens from the poverty so many endure and build strong economies, but we do not want to founder on a false divide. Reducing poverty and protecting the earth’s environment are both critical components of truly sustainable development.” Here he plugged the tradeable emissions credit and joint implementation. I thought he could have scored a point with the G-77’s if he had underscored just how environmentally destructive poverty can be. In places like Madagascar, the people are being forced to cut the island’s last remaining patches of rainforest, home to the lemurs and other creatures found nowhere else, for fuel wood; forced to “destroy the future to live in the present,” as the biologist Allison Jolly has put it.
“We must reject the advice of those who ask us to believe there really is no problem at all…,” Gore continued. “We have heard others like them throughout history. ..[ most recently] the tobacco company salesmen who insisted for so long that smoking did no harm.” Then he added a paragraph that was not in the text that had been circulating : the carrot ! “And let me add this : After talking with our negotiators this morning and after speaking on the telephone a few moments ago with President Clinton, I am instructing our delegation right now to show increased negotiating flexibility if a comprehensive plan can be put into place— one with realistic targets and timetables, market mechanisms, and the meaningful participation of key developing countries.”
The plenary showed no acknowledgment of the importance of this, and Gore sat down to tepid applause. But as Newsweek reported, “while to ordinary ears that [insertion] may not sound like a rousing call to arms, in diplo-speak it meant Gore, and Clinton, were determined to get a deal in Kyoto.”
The enviros, who immediately held a press conference, were heartened. Passacantando compared Gore to “the old man in the sea struggling to bring in the big fish as the sharks are eating it alive.” Michael Oppenheimer said, “Gore came and he inserted the paragraph about flexibility. What are we supposed to do— shit on him ?”
The rest of day was a grueling round of back-to-back meetings with all the different factions from the enviros to the Global Climate Coalition to AOSIS to the European bubble and the G-77’s, ending with a round table with the American correspondents, whom he kept waiting for twenty minutes because it turned out that he had been having a quick reunion with Tommy Lee Jones, his old Harvard roommate, who happened to be in town promoting Men in Black. By the last event, a big press conference, he had gotten his second wind and was in form. What do you mean by meaningful participation ? one reporter asked. “I’ll know it when I see it,” Gore replied. Is there going to be a political debate about this in the U.S. ? “A real knockdown dragout fight that will be good for the country, high stakes and a lot of fun. But we’re not there yet.” What exactly did you mean by “ new flexibility ?” “I’m leaving the specific definition of that to be unveiled by our negotiators. It’s unusual to stake out your bottom line in a press conference before the negotiations are concluded.”
And with that he left the stage, and I dashed through the crowd, a young aide running interference for me and leading me to a row of vans which sped to a nearby soccer field where two big black helicopter were waiting, the kind that Lyndon Larouche and his followers believe are going to spearhead the U.N. takeover of America, and we were whisked off to the futuristic Kansai airport, where Air Force 2 was sitting on the tarmac. I realized that Gore had done it.
He had run the gauntlet. If the Senate was a bunch of stick-in-the-muds and couldn’t get it together, it was no reflection on him. He had done his part. “That was mighty impressive,” I observed to a trenchcoated adviser sitting beside me. “He pulled it off.”
The adviser looked pleased and relieved. “Yes,” he agreed. “It was a tough needle to thread.”
The 18-hour flight to Kyoto was a golden opportunity to get down with the vice-president, who has done more for the environment than any other American politician, particularly since I was the only journalist, indeed the only non-staff on the plane. Our careers had nearly intersected at several junctures. It was high time to finally meet.. I had been a year ahead of him at Harvard (he was class of ‘69, but we were in different houses (he was in Dunster, I was in Eliot and didn’t know each other). We almost met again in l988, this time in the Amazon, when Tom Lovejoy took him, Tim and Wren Worth, and Jack and Teresa Heinz down for a tour of the smouldering basin, whose fires were being blamed for that summer’s record heat wave in America. They were on the way to meet Chico Mendes, the leader of the rubber tappers, who offered a paradigm for saving the Amazon, an alternative to torching the forest and turning it into cattle pasture— in which the rubber tappers would go about doing what they had always done, tapping the rubbers and living sustainably in the forest. But Mendes was gunned down by pistoleiros of the ranchers, and the meeting was aborted. To the ranchers’ surprise, because they had killed Mendes’ predecessor the same way six years earlier, the world was outraged. The murder “sort of lanced the boil,” as Lovejoy put it. Chico became an instant symbol not only of the struggle to save the Amazon rain forest, but— as an editorial in the New York Times pointed out— of environmental degradation everywhere.
I happened to be in Rio, doing a piece on the city’s bankruptucy for the Times’ Sunday Magazine. Rushing to Acre, I filed a piece about the murder for VF which later became the book, The World is Burning. (I salvaged the title from the global warming proposal that had been rejected by Gottlieb and then rendered redundant by McKibben’s The End of Nature.) A chapter was devoted to the greenhouse effect and the role of the Amazon’s fires in global warming.
Four years later Gore’s book, Earth in the Balance, came out, and I reviewed it for Newsday, praising it as “a comprehensive and accessible assessment of the critically degraded state of the earth.” In it Gore says, rousingly, “The insistence on complete certainty about the full details of global warming— the most serious threat that we have ever faced— is actually an effort to avoid facing the awful, uncomfortable truth : that we must act boldly, decisively, comprehensively, and quickly.” Strangely, and I faulted him on it, Gore made no mention of El Nino. The book contained an arresting and unforgettable metaphor : you don’t kill a frog by throwing him into boiling water, because he can jump out. You place him in cold water and gradually bring it to a boil.
I was seated in the back of the plane, sipping Saranac beer from a cooler with a junior aide.. Across the aisle a Secret Service agent, his piece in an armpit holster, was giving me the hairy eyeball.. Soon the vice-president, who had changed into a red t-shirt, came back with his press secretary, Ginny Terzano, and joined me. Ginny explained that the conversation we were about to have was off the record— a restriction that I later asked to be relaxed, since the conservation was
almost entirely about past climate trends; Gore hardly touched on anything more recent than ten thousand years ago, except to tell me proudly that his youngest daughter had just been inducted to the Harvard Lampoon (where I had been the jester, dressing up in tights and a velvet hat with bells at the weekly dinner). He chuckled when I told him that the magazine was planning a special issue on global warming, to be called Vanity Air; the veep has a sense of fun. The way he slipped in that paragraph about flexibility was kind of like a father surprising his kids with a present.
I asked him how he had become interested in global warming, and he explained that when he was an undergraduate he took a course with Roger Reveille, who had set up the first station for monitoring atmospheric CO2, atop Hawaii’s Mauna Loa volcano in l959. By the end of the sixties, the station was recording a steady, and alarming, yearly rise in the gas. So Gore was hip to global warming a full decade before I was.
Do you know what this is ? he asked, and drew a wavy diagonal line across a napkin, tracing the rise in atmospheric carbon dioxide. The undulations were the seasonal fluctuations in the levels of the gas : in spring, he explained, when the earth tilts toward the sun, the leaves pop out and take out the CO2, in winter photosynthesis shuts down, and more of the gas stays up there.
I countered with a jagged line going up to the right-hand corner of a page in my notebook, the jags becoming more frantic, longer, and closer together toward the end. This was the famous graph of the rising world temperature that Wren Wirth told me about. After the Industrial Revolution there are more extremes, and the line rises more steeply. “Even a seven-year old can look at it and say, ‘Uh-oh. It’s going up,’” Wren said. “An irrefutable graph is a beautiful thing.”
Gore responded with two wavering parallel lines climbing steeply to converge at the right edge of another napkin, about two thirds of the way up. I had already been sent this one by his staff a year ago. It was temperature change versus C02 levels extrapolated from Antarctic ice cores, going back two hundred thousand years. There is a clear correlation : temperature is sensitive to C02.
A sharp spike 130,000 years ago showed the temperature shooting up during an interglacial warming period. More and more of such sudden spikes and crashes are being documented from the paleoclimatic archives in the world’s ice.. As it was pulling out of the last ice age, for instance, more than 11,000 years ago, the temperature of Greenland seems to have spiked upward about 9 to 18 degrees in less than a decade ! We discussed the scariest scenario on the immediate horizon : the possibility that within as soon as the next hundred years the enhanced warming could shut down the Gulf Stream, causing Europe’s temperature to plunge. He was totally aware of this, although evidently not having ancient Greek under his belt, he used the word “thermosaline,” which is really “thermohaline,” as he was talking about two events long ago when ice dams from melting polar glaciers broke, overwhelming the Gulf Stream’s thermohaline circulation pump. One of them, the largest flood event in the planet’s history, tore off land from the Laurentian Shield and formed the Gulf of St. Lawrence thirty thousand years ago. Another massive inland sea of freshwater broke over Europe ten to eleven thousand years ago, driving the technologically advanced tribes who had migrated there down to the Levant— a system flip that could have taken place in as little as two years. It was his theory— and he emphasized that it was only a theory— that this event, the interaction of technologically advanced European refugees with the propitious climate of the Levant, that led to the agricultural revolution. Later, the meltwater-swollen Atlantic burst into the Mediterranean at Gibraltar, and still later, about five thousand years ago, with the force of 500 Niagaras, the Mediterranean burst through the Bosporus into the Black Sea, wiping out the early agricultural settlements along its northwestern shores. This could have been the Biblical flood, and the one in Gilgamesh.
It was a little surreal to be having this conversation at 35,000 feet with the man who could very possibly be our next president. He was really into this stuff, really pumped up to an almost embarrassingly and unabashedly geeky degree, and God bless him, I thought. As Anonymous’s Joe Klein observed in a New Yorker profile that was just hitting the stands about then, “The public Al Gore — the guy who loves to talk about ozone depletion— may be closer to the real thing than the jokey insider whom reporters often see in off-the-record situations.”
“Isn’t it refreshing to hear a politician talk science like that,” his national-security adviser, Jonathan Spalter, observed after Gore was summoned away by a call from Eizenstat, who was at some critical point in the negotiations. It was impressive that he was able to talk about anything, observed, given the day he’d just been through. Spalter was soon telling me things that had me piqued like about the CIA’s new failed-state report that Gore had commissioned. If a country is about to implode, it’s a national-security issue, he explained, it’s in America’s interest to see it coming, because we are the ones who are probably going to have to go in there and bail it out. The report looked at the common denominators of recently self-destructed nations. It examined Samuel Huntington’s relative-deprivation model— the cognitive dissonance that between people’s expectations and a government’s growing inability to provide them. “You’ll never guess what the first indicator that a state is about to fail,” Spalter told me : “a sudden rise in infant mortality.”
We talked about the new concept of environmental security, as elaborated by the University of Toronto’s Thomas Homer-Dixon and others, the linkage between environmental deterioration, population, resource scarcity, refugee flows, and ethnic conflict. Spalter told me about the CIA’s four year-old environmental center, founded at the vice president’s urging, to study the relationship between environmental and political turbulence, and about the “environmental working group” Gore and title first name Chernomyrdin formed in l994 which is assembling a hydrographic atlas of the Arctic Ocean and studying the northward migration of the boreal forest— “a potentially huge problem in terms of pestilence and disease. The Cold War didn’t end with the fall of the Berlin Wall,” Spalter explained, “but with the evacuation of our respective missile-laden subs that had been staring at each other under the Arctic Ocean for generations and were the real flashpoint of nuclear war. Now we’re pooling our information so we can understand better what we need to understand.. The Russians have better secret satellite pictures of the taiga in Alaska and Canada than we do, and vice versa. We have better data over time about each other than we do of ourselves.”
We talked about the apparent climatic constraints on the spread of Islam, how it thankfully seems to be limited to the world’s deserts, and about Gore’s trip to China last March to create a U.S.-Chinese environmental forum and to help the country move from coal to renewable, environment-friendly sources of energy. Isn’t the air pollution in Beijing appalling ? I remarked, recalling how two Januarys ago, when I was trying to track down the kidnaped Panchen Lama kid for VF, I arrived in the city from Tibet and within hours came down with a serious sore throat. “One of our Secret Service agents went for a run and collapsed,” Spalter told me. But Beijing still doesn’t hold a candle to Mexico City, where the contaminacion can get so bad during the winter inversion that you can get hepatitis, amoebic dyssentery, and typhoid fever simply from breathing, as “fecal storms” waft in from outlying shantytowns where millions defecate in the open.
In the morning Gore came back again and we talked and sketched paleoclimate some more, than he went back to his part of the plane, and that was the last I saw of him. He was completely friendly and all, but the climate stuff, which was what we were supposed to be talking about, was also a way of keeping me at bay. My encounter with him was kind of like a Chinese meal : I was still hungry. He enveloped me in this intricate mist of paleoclimatic arcana and then slipped away before I could ask him why Timothy Wirth had been kicked off the negotiating team.
Three aides and I got up a game of hearts. I grossed them out with a raunchy joke about Mother Teresa and Princess Di that I had picked up from a female nuclear lobbyist, a colleague of Maureen Koetz.. Outside the window the shadow of the speeding plane was projected onto an altostratus cloudbank and framed by a circular, 360-degree rainbow, with a second, fainter, supernumerary rainbow around it— a rare atmospheric phenomenon knows as the Glory or Ulloa’s rings. It seemed like a good omen. Maybe the sleepless negotiators we had left in Kyoto were going to work out their differences, and the planet wasn’t going to go down the tubes after all..
Under the blanket of clouds below us, as we streaked east above the socked-in Pacific, a horrific drama was unfolding. “The Pacific is the big player,” Mark Kane, an El Nino expert at the Lamont-Dougherty Earth Observatory, had told me in October. “You can drop the Atlantic into the Pacific three times. There’s so much water it interacts with the air in a big way.”
The protagonist, which shows up in infrared satellite fotos as an angry red tongue, a huge pool of warm water, filling most of the Pacific basin, was the dread El Nino. All the indications were sugesting that this El Nino would exceed the last big one, in l982-3, which killed two thousand people and displaced six hundred thousand more and caused an estimated $16 billion in damage. Because of it, the Pacific off Alaska was ten to fifteen degrees warmer than ever recorded. Bizarre catches were being reported by the local fishermen. One boat cruised in with a green sea turtle, a tropical species. Off Seattle, a sport fisherman tied into a marlin, which you usually have to go down to Baja California to catch.
Back in September on the Black Sea, Eliot Norse, the marine conservation biologist, explained what was going on : “The expansion of the ranges of these warm-water species is due to the unusually severe El Nino that is taking shape this year. Off the coast of Peru there is a current of cold water that upwells to the surface when the easterly trade winds blow from the land to the sea. The winds blow the warm surface water west, and cold water upwells from the depths of the Peruvian Trench to replace it, bringing nutrients to the surface and fueling a whole ecosystem. The abundance of phytoplankton and zooplankton feeds the world’s largest fishery of the small, sardine-like anchoveta, which in turn feed millions of guano birds and thousands of seals. But some years the trade winds don’t blow, the upwelling stops, the anchovetas crash, and the guano birds and seals starve to death en masse. The local fishermen called this disastrous turn of events El Nino,for the Christ child, because it usually happens around Christmastime. No one quite knows why it happens : the forces that set it in motion seem to develop in the equatorial Western Pacific. There is a theory that it may have to do with the Eurasian snowmass— the amount of snow on the Tibet Plateau. The orthodox view is that El Nino is a natural phenomenon. The radical new view is that the frequency and strength of the El Nino signal is increasing— during the nineties we’ve been getting back-to-back El Nino instead of the usual every three to five to eight year episodes— is being influenced by global warming. Either way, the warming is screwing up the sea in all kinds of ways.”
As an example, Norse cited the recent collapse of Alaska’s kelp-forest ecosystem. A few years ago Jim Estes, a marine biologist at the University of California at Santa Cruz, noticed a sharp decline in the Alaskan sea-otter population which wasn’t due to the Exxon Valdez disaster because the otters were disappearing far north of the spill. The reason, Estes discovered, was that the killer whales, or orcas as they are less sensationally called, had switched their prey from Stellars sea lions to sea otters because the sea lion population had crashed, partly because of the increased fishing of its prey, pollock. Freezer trawlers, mostly Norwegian, are cruising out of Seattle and netting pollock by the millions off Alaskan waters and turning them into surimi, the artificial seafood served in artificial crab legs and hot dogs, the food of the future, boiling the pollock off their bones, macerating them, and flavoring them right on shipboard. But partly also because the warming of the Pacific is devastating the sea lions’ other food sources.
The sea otter is the keystone species in the kelp-forest ecosystem. They eat sea urchins, which graze the kelp, and when the otters are down, the urchins explode and devastate the forests, so that the many fish in the kelp forests and the eagles that depend on them also crash. This, Norse told me, is one of the longest chains of cause and effect that has been documented, a domino effect that is wiping out an entire ecosystem.
“The worldwide effects of a big El Nino,” Norse went on, “are like dropping a cannonball into a bucket of water. It makes big waves everywhere. Dry areas become wet, and there is catastrophic flooding, “ such as Poland, Turkey, Germany, Somalia, the Pacific Northwest, the Ohio River (which flooded eighteen states), the Red River at Fargo, North Dakota (which topped its previous level observed a century ago), have experienced in the last twelve months, such as the Sudan and Peru are experiencing now. All these are what meteorologists call “teleconnections,” or “feedbacks,” of El Nino. Another teleconnection, later in the fall, brought a week of torrential rain, ending the two-year drought in northern Chile’s Atacama Desert, which is usually so dry that NASA used it last year to test Martian robots, and producing an explosion of vegetation such the initially jubilant locals had never seen before. But the resultant explosion of rodents caused an outbreak of hanta virus, which is lethal to humans who inhale it in fumes from mouse droppings. Similarly, unusual moisture related to El Nino produced the hanta virus that killed a number of Navajos in New Mexico in l993.
Other El Nino feedbacks brought the drought conditions leading to last fall’s epic fires in Indonesia and the Amazon, and in early December, as the conference was in progress, a record 236-mile-per-hour gale that swept through Sri Lanka, six miles-per-hour stronger than the previous record-holder, clocked on Mount Washington. On the day of Gore’s speech, the first of the violent storms that El Nino brings to Southern California hit Huntington Beach, and we heard the news that people were paddling around the downtown in rowboats.
That fall, El Nino entered the vernacular. Letterman and Leno had competing El Nino skits.
Newspapers ran cartoons with skits like “I got my ears pierced and Dad went El Nino..” and “Not tonight, honey, I’ve got El Nino.” As I drove through New Jersey in early November, a local mayor was campaigning for reelection on the radio : “I’ve never raised a single tax, but now my opponents are accusing me of global warming, El Nino, and every tax since the Boston tea party.” “Los Angeles’s scam artists have scented the windfall,” an Angeleno friend told me. “Flood insurance and roofing are out of stock. Initially the roofers solicited business. You found their flyers under your door. But now they’re getting hoity-toity, harder to schedule than your Mercedes mechanic.” I had reached my friend on the cell phone in his Jaguar. He was on the way to his three o’clock masssage. “Got to stay loose for El Nino,” he told me cheerily.
As we entered the new year, Fran Drescher in one episode of her sitcom, “The Nanny,” hears El Nino is going to dump buckets on New York City, and they all go to Niagara Falls. Tom Callahan writes in Golf Digest about “The Year of the Tiger [Woods]” : “He was phenomenal. He was fallible… He was at the top of the money list. He was at the bottom of the rough. Whether in the majors or at the Ryder Cup, everything swirled around him. He was El Nino.” Dan Rather has almost nightly bulletins on the El Nino Watch on the CBS Seven O’clock News. On January 21 allegations of President Clinton’s affair with Monica Luweski hit the air waves, and Daniel Schorr observes on National Public Radio that “allegations of perjury and obstruction of justice have raised President Clinton’s troubles to new, El Nino-like levels.” A Brazilian friend tells me there is a new excuse for showing up late to work in Rio : El Nino me atrapalho. El Nino held me up.
Columbia’s Lamont-Dougherty Earth Observatory is perched on the basaltic columns of the Palisades. It’s a community of classic eggheads, or cones as they’re known in Los Alamos. The dress code is what might be called geogrunge— greasy sweatshirts, sneakers, wild hair, the hoary daft Einstein look. One scientist, when I came for a visit in October, wondered what Vanity Fair was doing here— scoping out the ten worst dressed ?
I asked Mark Kane whether that morning’s USA Today was correct in blaming “El Meano,” as the reporter had dubbed it, for the ten inches of snow that had just hit Colorado— a record blizzard for that time of year.. “An early storm— a lot of precipitation ahead of schedule. The suggestion is yes.”
On the other hand, El Nino had blown the top off the rest of the hurricane season in the Carribean. So maybe a really strong El Nino isn’t so bad, I suggested. “Depends where you live,” Kane said. “If you live on the East Coast you’re probably not going to be so upset about it. But even here, the lack of nor’easters the last few years personally seems out of the ordinary. My impression is that it’s warming and people are still saying no.
“The nineties have this queer cluster— ” he continued, “five consecutive El Ninos in a row. There is nothing like it in this century except for the l911-14 cluster, then there was a doozer in 1879 which brought India the worst famine in its history. But the monsoon is normal this year.” He pulled out a computer-generated map of the Pacific.
“El Nino is an interaction between the ocean and the atmosphere, a cycle. What causes El Nino is the last El Nino, or its cold phase, La Nina. When it’s warm in the eastern Pacific it’s because the layer of warm water on the surface, the thermohaline, is deeper than usual. It deepens to around three hundred feet, the length of a football field. Usually the cold, deeper water is within ten-twelve meters. This has a powerful influence on marine biology. Most of the ocean is desert. You push the phytoplankton-rich water down, the anchovetas are in trouble. So are the seals and guano birds.”
His characterization of the event jived more or less with Norse’s..
What causes this thickening of the thermohaline ? “When it is thicker in the eastern Pacific it’s thinner in west. It’s like water sloshing back and forth a box. But when it warms up in the east the cold-warm temperature contrast diminishes and the trade winds weaken. The equatorial trade wind system collapses and you get.becalming at the ‘horse latitudes,’ as 17th-century Spanish navigators called them because their horses on deck would die of thirst and have to be thrown overboard. The causalities are not established. There is a theory about the size of the Eurasian snowmass, but the most solid thinking is that the tropical Pacific is the prime mover. Causality is a problem. When you’ve got a crooked roulette wheel and bet on a certain number, it comes up more often than it should, and now we’re getting mostly El Ninos. It works like that when you tilt the odds in the mid latitudes.
“In California,” he continued, “there are two extremes : the jet stream splits and part of what usually avoids the coast comes slamming in. But sometimes it just misses. The historical record of what El Nino does in that part of the world only goes back to 1882. This year we are supposed to be facing the most horrendous event of all time except for one in the twelfth century that wiped out the Moqui civilization in Peru. You can see the seawater marks on their temples. But what I don’t understand is when you warm up the planet, the El Ninos should become weaker. There is no good case for them to become more frequent and severe.”
He hastened to add, as he rushed off to teach a class at Columbia, that “as a scientist I give you the properly qualified assessment of where we stand because we hold ourselves to a very high standard of certainty. But we don’t want to wait until we’re 98% certain. What’s the best guess (not the way science is usually couched)? I think global warming is inevitable. There is evidence that there are more extreme events. These are these things we don’t understand terribly well. The models are still crude. Should we control emissions ? Yes. We had a huge defense establishment on the off chance of a Soviet attack. During the oil crisis in l973 the Japanese dealt with it by economizing their use of fossil fuels, their economy soared, and we had one of our more difficult periods. We need to understand how their economy improved when it became more energy-efficient. Personally we buy insurance. Why shouldn’t the whole planet do something ?”
Kane’s colleague, Steve Zebiak, developed the first model for El Nino ten years ago, and is still working on it. He told me that “a change in the El Nino cycle and the weather it brings could be the clearest manifestation of global warming,” but pointed out that “El Nino has a rich spectrum of variability by itself. The events in recent years do not stand out as something beyond natural variability and due to increased CO2, but this is not to say that concept of global warming is not correct or that it could not be having an important impact on El Nino. We just don’t know how. It depends on changes in the deep ocean. It could get stronger or weaker. El Nino has global consequences, but it isn’t the only thing in the world.The North Atlantic oscillation and the monsoon have their own variability. But El Nino is the most important, strongest, and best understood source of year-to-year variability.”
If Zebiak’s seemed to be still grappling with his stance, Timothy Wirth offered a less ambiguous showbiz image : “El Nino is the trailer [the preview] of the movie, global warming.” But the strongest endorsement of a linkage came from Kevin Trenberth, at the National Atmospheric Research Center in Boulder, Colorado. “El Nino refers to a warming of the tropical Pacific Ocean and global warming is heating associated with an increase in greenhouse gases,” he told me in a telephone interview. “At this point, you simply can’t separate one type of warming from the other. They’re going to intersect and interfere with one another. It’s just a question of what form it’s going to take.”
Trenberth’s described El Nino as “a key part of the climate system “ whose basic role is “to get heat out of the tropics.” This is also what the Gulf Stream does, and it, too, could be dramatically affected by global warming, if the horrific scenario “retrodicted” by Kane and Zebiak’s cantankerous colleague Wallace Broecker comes to pass. (Broecker resented having to take the time to explain his work to another ignorant layman, and this one from a “woman’s magazine.” How dare I come to his office demanding an interview without having first familiarized himself with his work ? “You can call me an asshole. I don’t care what you print, but I’m not going to do this,” he kept prefacing his answers to my questions.)
By extrapolating core samples from the Greenland icecap Broecker has discovered that the climate of the last eight thousand year has been remarkably stable— except for the last thirty years, during which it has been warming dramatically. Over the previous hundred thousand years there were often abrupt shifts ”suggesting that the Earth’s climate system has several distinct modes of operation and can shift from one to another in a matter of a decade or so,” he told me. Broecker fears we could be headed for such a system flip or reorganization : global warming could shut down the “oceanic conveyor belt” which transports heat from the West Indies to the British Isles via the Gulf Stream (because the melting of polar ice would disrupt the stream’s salt density gradient), in which case there would be a 10 degree drop in temperature, and London and Paris would become like Spitzbergen. “Whether there will be a warming I have no doubt,” Broecker told me. “But whether it will be on the high side or the low side, I can’t say. Possibly the whole thing will go unnoticed, or it will make the world so warm in the next hundred years that the ocean’s thermohaline circulation will experience a mode shift. If our mid-continental breadbaskets dry out we won’t be able to support the fifteen billion people expected by the end of the next century. Several degrees warmer could make the tropics uninhabitable, above our body temperature. What we’re doing is a gigantic experiment whose outcome we don’t know. We’re playing Russian roulette with the climate. The climate is an angry beast, and we’re poking it with sticks.”
Sir Robert May, the U.K.’s chief scientific adviser (“a small man with a lot to say,” as one of his colleagues describes him), is taking the possibility of the oceanic conveyor belt shutting down in the next hundred years very seriously. “The Gulf Stream transports toward the British Isles ‘free heat’ amounting to 27,000 times its total power-generation capacity,” he told me. “There could be a huge drop in our temperature. Paradoxically, global warming could lead to sudden, drastic cooling. Carbon dioxide’s hundred-year residence time in the atmosphere is a huge argument for early action, because what is done today will be amplified out of all proportion in 50 years. But our institutions don’t cater to early action. They take a let’s wait and see attitude, and ten years could be the difference in being able to rectify the situation.”
“England’s weather records,” Sir Robert went on, “go back 337 years, and in the past ten years there have been three 500-year storms. The incidence of gales has increased 30%. Three of the last five years have been the warmest in our history.” He gave me a copy of his tersely-worded “Note on Climate Change,” which found that “the warming has, over the past couple of decades, extended beyond the bounds of our estimates of natural variability.” A statement that many of the more cautious atmospheric scientists are not yet ready to make.
I asked about the impact of climate change on biodiversity. “In England it translates to asking the wildlife species in our agricultural zones to get themselves up and move north fifty miles a decade, which is faster than anything in the fossil record,” Sir Robert told me. “Some species would be able to handle it and move smoothly. But the blues and the swallowtails [these are butterflies], which are tied to particular patches of their food pants, can’t move that fast. You can’t move whole assemblages in time, and what will be lost is something more disturbing than just some pleasing natural artifacts for the emotional and spiritual gratification of societies that can afford to appreciate them.” (This reminded me of the time ten years ago when I was snorkeling off Madagascar and spotted large speckled cowrie sitting on the reef. Diving down, I grabbed it and holding it up to the local fishermen who had taken me out in his outrigger, I gasped, “God, isn’t it beautiful,” and he just looked at me with bemusement, as if to say, “Sure, boss, if you say so.”)
. “If you ask what are the services that global ecosystems provide,” Sir Robert went on— “soil formation, water supplies, nutrient cycles, waste processing, pollution, and much else, they far exceed the global GNP. A major recent assessment has put a figure, necessarily very rough, for the economic value of ‘ecosystems services’ at between ten to 34 trillion pounds per year, with a best guess of 21 trillion pounds. This is roughly twice the conventional GNP, at around 11 trillion per year.”
At the rate of fifty miles a decade, many of Britain’s species driven north by global warming will soon reach the edge of the land and become extinct. Cases of climate-driven migration elsewhere are being carefully monitored : a Rocky Mountain butterfly called Edith’s checkerspot is moving north with amazing speed, study plots on the floor of Monterey Bay that were set up in the thirties now have a completely different, southern California mix of seaweeds and invertebrates. Cases of alpine species being driven off mountaintops as the coniferous forests moves up their slopes and take over their summits are expected. Some of the unique endemic species driven off the “sky islands,” the isolated mountain ranges around Tucson, Arizona, will not be able to make get across the interstate and will disappear, just as during the ice ages species driven south by the growing cold hit the massive wall of the Alps and died out at the base of the mountains. The outlook for the creation is not rosy.
Another climate-driven disaster in the making that could dwarf even the shutting down of the Gulf Stream is the possibility that the Western Antarctic Ice Sheet might break off, which could happen at any time and would cause sea level to rise five to ten meters. “WAIS [as the people who are watching it refer to it] has not budged since warming began, but when it does start to slip, it will happen very fast, and a very large amount of ice will find itself in the ocean, and you can say goodbye to the Maldives and Bangladesh,” Elliot Norse told me. “The break-off will be a non-linear response to linear input. Nature works most often by the straw that breaks the camel principle, or as Malcolm X said of Kennedy’s assassination, by the chickens coming home to roost.”
I contacted John Behrendt, an expert on WAIS and a colleague of Kevin Trenberth at the NARC in Boulder. He began by explaining the difference between an ice shelf and an ice sheet. The Ross Ice Shelf is already floating. It freezes into pack ice in winter and is open in the summer. WAIS, however, is grounded, attached to the Ross Sea’s continental shelf, a marine-bed ice sheet that has been there for the last 20 or 30 million years, flowing off at its edge and being remade by snow. It is a huge chunk of snow and ice, 500 miles long by 500 wide and about 9,000 feet thick (12,000 feet at its thickest point), about half of which is below sea level. Six ice streams flow beneath it, and it is already sliding on mud, “like syrup poured on a table,” Behrendt explained, toward the Ross Ice Shelf and the open water beyond at the rate of 1200 feet a year. Global warming or the active volcanos under the sheet, could cause it to deglaciate, to break off and collapse, as happened with the Laurentide Ice Sheet a hundred thousand years ago and is happening now with the glaciers at the Glacier Bay National Park, Alaska, which are rapidly breaking off and slipping into the sea. “If WAIS deglaciates and surges out into the sea, sea level will equalize all over the earth at about six meters, or twenty feet, higher than it is now,” Behrendt estimated. “But it is controversial that it will even do this,” he cautioned, “and it would take several centuries at least to effect the rise. It’s the snow and ice that is above sea level that will break up into icebergs that will gradually melt and cause the rise.” Whew, I thought. There’s time on this one. Norse had made it sound as if the rise could happen in a quickly as a year.
Behrendt suggested I talk to his colleague, Mark Meier, an authority on sea-level rise, for a second opinion. Meier told me that in the last 100 years the sea has been rising by about two millimeters a year— “more than in the past, and it will rise by more in the future. One third is due to the heating and expansion of the mix zone, the top hunded meters, one third is due to glaciers melting, and the other third is from what ? Tk.”. As far as WAIS was concerned, he confirmed that “it’s the top 4500 feet that matters, and the expected sea level rise from their melting cannot happen quickly. It will take hundreds of years. But already,” he said, “global warming is causing many of the ice shelves that are already floating to break up and drift out to sea as icebergs. This will relieve some of the back pressure on the ice streams that feed the shelves and will draw down the ice sheets from the [Antarctic] continent. The mid-range estimate for sea-level rise over the next century is twenty inches.”
The negotiators worked 48 hours straight, and the conference ran on into an unscheduled 11th day until finally everyone was kicked out of the conference because another convention was coming in. The final agreement was that the United States will reduce its emissions to 7% below l990 levels by 2012, Japan to 6%, and the European bubble to 8%. “I can’t really convey the drama, the compelling nature of this tripartite negotiation between the world’s fiercest competitors making decisions that would deeply affect the relative standing of their economies,” said the icy, charmless Stu Eizenstat in a press conference. The Japanese had been holding out for 5% until a call from Gore shamed them into capitulating; are you really going to let this treaty collapse because you, the host country, were unwilling to compromise by one percent ? he asked their prime minister. The most contentious issues— the trade or sale of emissions permits between countries, and the “meaningful participation” of the developing countries, remained unsettled due to the continued recalcitrance of China, India, and Saudi Arabia. The United States was still hoping to knock a hundred million tons off its obligation by trading credits with Russia. In an op-ed piece in the Times, Michael J. Sandel, a professor of government at Harvard, lamented how the emissions trading scheme would enable the rich countries to buy their way out of their commitment. The United States, for instance, might find it cheaper to pay to update an old coal-burning factory in a developing country than to tax its own gas-guzzling sport utility vehicles. The permits were “just another cost of doing business,” he complained, and “a hundred-dollar fine for throwing a beer can into the Grand Canyon is not going to deter a wealthy hiker. Turning pollution into a commodity to be bought and sold removes the moral stigma that is properly associated with it.”
But at least the process had been kept alive; the remaining details would be worked out at the next round of talks in Buenos Aires in October. Gore had not betrayed the cause after all. The 7% cut was his idea, and even the decision to come had been taken against the advice of his staff.
Three cheers for mankind, I said to Wren Wirth.
Back at his office in Washington, Phil Clapp offered his post-game analysis : “The U.S. negotiating team started delivering on some central things. The Europeans and Japanese wanted market-based mechanisms. The Europeans were pushing for a 33% limit on trading outside your own country, the U.S. wanted 50%. We still have to define trading. The real reduction number for the U.S. will be more like 2-3%. It will be influenced by how sinks are defined. The language is ambiguous. It has to be worked on in Buenos Aires. It is not the Kyoto protocol, but the Buenos Aires protocol that will go to the Senate for ratificiation, and it will look substantially different.”
When will it be submitted ? I asked. “After the president signs the treaty (he has up to March of 99 to do), there is no deadline for when the Senate has to ratify it.. Say Clinton signs right after Buenos Aires. There is an. automatic one-year delay during which the State Department goes over the treaty to make sure there is no conflict in protocol with U.S. law and that U.S. law contains sufficient statutory authority to implement it. If doesn’t already have it, the treaty will be sent to the Senate accompanied by proposed legislation. Says it goes to the Senate in November ‘99. They could argue about it interminably. There are still some international treaties from the Reagan era sitting in the Foreign Relations Committee.”
Yipes, I said. You mean the treaty has to get past Jesse Helms ?
“You better believe it,” Clapp said. “So to answer your question, if the treaty is going to be ratified— and that’s a big if— it is not going to happen before this year’s congressional elections and maybe not until after Clinton leaves office. It won’t happen until 2000 at the earliest. Then, to go into effect, it has to be ratified by at least 55 countries who are collectively responsible for at least 55% of the emissions.
“But the president has pledged to already proceed with legislation for domestic reductions,” he reassured me, “such as a utility restructuring bill that includes carbon dioxide-reduction measures, and stronger standards of energy efficiency for newly manufactured appliances, which he and the Department of Energy have the authority to do under the l987 and l992 energy-cut laws. So the United States can make significant reductions even while the treaty is being shaped and ratified. The hard stuff for Gore politically has been done. What remains is to make the treaty less objectionable to industry. Gore came and did what he had to do and he did it against the advise of virtually all his advisers, and that’s courage.”
Of course there was hollering from the expected quarters. Chuck Hagel, the Nebraska Republican who was one of the congressional observors, declared, “Anyway you measure this, this is a very bad deal for America.”. William O’ Keefe, chairman of the Global Climate Coalition, said the treaty gave “ an international body control over our economic well-being” and compared it to unilateral disarmament, and Gingrich himself said the United States “surrendered” to pressure in Kyoto. “It is profoundly wrong that 134 countries were allowed to vote on a treaty by which they will not be bound,” he complained. Heavy industry from cars to coal to steel to electricity were already joining with organized labor to fight the proposal. A big battle looms in the Senate. Even John Kerry pronounced the treaty “dead on arrival. What we have here is not ratifiable in the Senate in my judgment” because of the failure to get guarantees from the developing countries. More millions of dollars will be spend on lobbying and advertising. Already the power lobby has been putting out scare figures : 3 million American will be sent to the unemployment line in the first 10 years, energy costs and consumer prices will be driven up, at least $10 billion will be drained from the U.S. economy. At this point, at least 20 senators are unlikely to sign the treaty under any circumstances. Newt and co hope to bury it as they did health care.
From the other side were statements from environmental groups like the World Wildlife
Fund, which characterized the treaty as “a flawed agreement that will allow major polluters to continue emitting greenhouse gases through loopholes.”
The president had this to say to his Republican critics : “I see already the papers are full of people saying, ‘The sky is falling, the sky is falling, it’s a terrible thing.’ Every time we’ve tried to improve the American environment in the last 25 or 30 years, somebody has predicted that it would wreck the economy. And the air is cleaner, the food supply is safer, there are fewer toxic waste dumps. And the last time I checked, we had the lowest unemployment rate in 24 years.” Without waiting for ratification, Clinton included in his budget and State of the Union message specific proposals for $5 billion in tax incentives and research to promote energy efficiency.
Winning the Senate’s consent to the treaty will be his overriding environmental task this year..
To comply with a 7% cut we will need more efficient cars, which account for one third of our emissions, and this is already happening. In response to anticipated competition, Ford has announced that its SUVs will be 40% cleaner in l998 at an extra cost of only $100 per vehicle, and that it is investing $420 million in developing with a German car manufacturer and a Canadian alternative-energy company a fuel cell car whose exhaust will be water and little else, and General Motors, having fiercely but unsuccessfully opposed the treaty, has unveiled prototypes of several mid-size cars that will get up to 60 or 80 per gallon. Global warming may still be a hypothesis, but it is encouraging when even the c.e.o. of Ford says, “When you double the carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, something has to happen.”
The problem with gaining acceptance for global warming is not only conservative politics and business interests, but that there is still a lot of what scientists call “noise,” incomplete and contradictory information. Are we in an interglacial warm phase, or have we begun to enter the next ice age (this was the big scare twenty years ago, but the theory has few adherents today) , but the cooling is being overridden by human amplification of the greenhouse effect ? Are we in a climatic optimum (a period of warmth) or a pessimum (a cold spell), and what governs these cycles ? The Farmer’s Almanac, which has as good a track record about the weather as the computer-generated g.c.m.’s (general circulation models) modern forecasters rely on, is predicting a cold, wet 21st century. Because of a natural cycle that comes every 720 years, the almanac claims, we’re due to return to the Little Ice Age of the 1280s. But Gerald Bond of the Lamont-Dougherty lab has radio-carbon dated grains of sand in ocean corings and found evidence of cold spells occurring regularly over the last 32,000 years, every 1,400 to 1,500 years.
Is the warming we’re currently experiencing just a temporary blip ? What is the role of sunspots (which periodically flare up and increase the intensity of the sun’s energy), of fluctuations in the earth’s orbit (which some think played a role in triggering previous ice ages) ? To what extent are sulfate aerosols, another byproduct of burning coal, masking the effects of warming ? Have the past eight thousand years been remarkably stable climatically, as Wallace Broecker maintains, or have there in fact been, as his colleague name tk argues, proonged droughts and other extreme events severe enough to disrupt human civilization, like the 25 year- drought that drove the Anasazi from their cliff dwellings in Arizona at the end of the 13th century ? Are the extreme weather events that seem to be increasing in severity and frequency “stochastic,” random visitations still within the realm of natural variability, or are they “anthropogenic,” caused by human mucking up of the global weather engine ? What is the role of water vapor, by far the most powerful of the greenhouse gases, and cloud cover ? (According to Sir Robert May, “the effect of cloud cover seems to be very variable, depending on local conditions and the kind of cloud. Clouds reflect some solar radiation back to space, so reducing the global warming effect. However, they counter this by acting as a blanket for thermal radiation from the earth’s surface, thus increasing average temperatures. Which of the two effects dominates depends on cloud temperature, height, and optical properties [whether it is ice or water, thick or thin]. In general, low clouds cool global climate, whereas high clouds tend to increase temperatures.”)
A small but vocal group of scientists rejects the entire hypothesis that an increase in carbon dioxide from human activities is warming the planet. George Woodwell calls them “tobacco scientists,” because most of them have consulted for the petroleum industry. The most respectable and “statured” of these naysayers is Richard Lindzen, an M.I.T professor who studies theoretical climatology and the physics of weather. Lindzen admits to having taken travel money from a consortium called Western Fuels so he could testify at a Senate hearing on global warming chaired by Al Gore, but he assured me his motive for challenging the prevailing wisdom of his peers about there being a “discernible human influence” on global climate is purely that there are still a lot of unanswered questions. “I got into this in l988 because the newspapers were saying ‘all scientists agree’ and I knew many of my colleagues were intimidated by public perception and peer pressure. No one who was young in the field dared speak out. They wouldn’t have been published. So I felt it was essential for someone who was tenured like me to ask questions. We’ve spent billions and the l995 report is vastly less certain than the l990 one.”
“He’s a colorful guy,” Mark Cane told me. “If he gets people mad, maybe there’s something to what he’s saying.” It was obvious, after talking with him for more than an hour on the phone, that Lindzen enjoyed playing the gadfly, the contrarian. I sensed that I could have gotten him going and suddenly injected, “but of course you don’t dispute the fact that the earth revolves around the sun,” and he would have found some reason for taking exception to the statement. Lindzen’s politics seem welll to the right of Attila the Hun’s. He claims the Russian Revolution had far more impact on civilization than the direst global warming scenario ever would.
According to Ross Gelbspan, the author of The Heat Is On, a recent book that lays out the
science and the controversy still swirling around global warming, Lindzen arrived at his belief that global warming is basically a nonevent partly from his own studies of atmospheric water vapor.
Some years ago Linden theorized that atmospheric convection currents would transport water vapor through certain cloud formations into the upper atmosphere. There it would be dried out, in effect, imposing an upper limit on the vapor buildup that would otherwise have fueled atmospheric warming. Fears of a runaway greenhouse reaction, he concluded, were unfounded. After satellite and balloon observations disproved the theory that the drying of upper level water vapor would produce a cooling effect and counteract atmospheric warming, he retracted it in l991. But in l995 he was saying again that greenhouse warming would not occur because of the cooling effect of water vapor, and he attacked the then head of the IPPC, John Houghton, who had drafted the “discernible human influence global” statement and gotten the panel’s 2000 scientists to endorse it, for being “motivated by a religious need to oppose materialism.”
Lindzen pointed out that the climate models had predicted that an increase of 80 parts per million of atmospheric carbon dioxide over the last hundred years would cause an increase in the world’s temperature of 2.7 degrees Celsius, when in fact, it only rose only .9 degrees, and there was virtually no warming for the United States, less than a half degree. “What does that tell you ?” he asked. “I’m saying the last century is within natural variability, and if you double the CO2 you’re only going to get a half of a degree rise more. C02, you see, is not as important in the greenhouse effect as water vapor. A 4 to 8% rise in relative humidity, which can happen in a few hours, equals a doubling of C02. But the physics of water vapor is complex. The models assume feedbacks from water vapor amplifying warming but the physics says water vapor is what’s left over after rain, and every textbook says the efficiency of precipitation goes up with temperature.”
What about the increase in extreme events ? “There isn’t any,” Lindzen retorted. “The National Climatic Center has been publishing monthly bulletins of severe weather in the U.S. for the last thirty years. You can pick up any month in l962 and find these strange events. If there are any fluctuations, it’s because there was a different editor.”
The National Climatic Center in Asheville, North Carolina has the hardest data— detailed temperature and precipitation records for the whole world, some going back three hundred years. Dr. David Easterling, one of NCC’s climatologists, told me that Lindzen was correct : in the last century the world has warmed about .9 degrees, and the United States less than half a degree. This doesn’t seem much, but the average rise in the last ten thousand years has only been 1.8 degrees every thousand years, and at this rate, at the end of the next century, when doubling is expected to be reached, it will be 2.6 degrees warmer— a rise that would cause major disruptions. “We’ve also been looking at how hot it gets in the day, and how cool at night. The days haven’t been getting significantly hotter, but at night since l950 for most of the world it has become 1.8 degrees warmer. That’s a lot for the night.” Many proponents of global warming point to this second finding as one of the most dramatic “smoking guns.” The mid-July heat-wave that killed more than 560 people in Chicago in l995 was so deadly because the temperature, which reached 106, hardly went down at night. “There was so much moisture in the air, it wasn’t able to cool down,” Easterling explained.
As for the monthly bulletin of extreme weather events, Easterling said it was too anecdotal to draw conclusions from.
Another unanswered question is how is global warming is affecting the jet stream, the river of air that runs completely around the world and was first discovered by the Japanese, who during the Second World War sent paper balloons with incendiaries to Oregon on it. “The temperature gradients between the tropics and the polar regions determine the location of the jet stream, which is the world’s weather engine. It directs the flow of moisture-laden air, which determines weather patterns,” Richard Kleeman, another scientist at Lamont-Dougherty told me. “A lot of synoptic systems, storms, and cold fronts develop as instabilities off the structure.” The question is, what will happen as warming causes the gradients to diminish ?
An Aussie, Kleeman felt “great sympathy” for the house metereologists of Chicago’s commodity-brokerages who gambled last summer that an El Nino-induced drought in Australia would ruin the wheat crop and drive up American wheat prices. When the subcontinent’s September rains fell normally, the brokers took a shellacking.. “They naively assumed that El Nino is a hundred-percent sure-fire predictable, when it’s a fundamental fact of nature that weather is unpredictable beyond a certain point.”
It was this fact that spawned Ed Lorenz’s chaos theory. A metereologist at M.I.T., Lorenz, while struggling in l961 with a primitive computer model for long-range weather forecasting, accidentally discovered what he called “the butterfly effect.” A small perturbation can have devastasting consequences on the other side of the world. The motion of a butterfly’s wings over area 51, Nevada, U.S.A., can eventually cause a storm over the Bermuda triangle. The existence of inummerable, unmeasurable little effects like this is what Lorenz refers to as chaos. If you want to know more about the theory, I recommend James Gleick’s superb book, Chaos.
Chaos is what make a mockery of the attempts to model the weather, of what Gleick describes as “the Laplacian fantasy of deterministic predictibility,” to the entire notion on which the Western rational world view is predicated, that there is a fixed, replicable state of reality out there that obeys, and can be reduced to, certain rules and laws if only we can figure out what they are. When in fact the weather is non-linear, completely flakey, chaotic, everything that adjectives like “mercurial” and “nebulous” imply. It is more like a Japanese koan, a Zen riddle (the most famous is “what is the sound of one hand clapping?”) that is “dark to the mind, but radiant to the heart,” and is designed to frustrate and short-circuit intellectual problem-solving. Which is why whenever I hear a weatherman say, “the temperature is ten degrees warmer than normal,” I wonder what he is talking about. What is his baseline of normality ? 50 years ago ? 100 ? 1000 ? 100,000 ?
Examples of chaos are all around us. When Air Force two stopped to refuel at Elmendorf Air Force in Alaska, I fired up my pipe and studied the random traceries, the catspaws of snow swirling across the tarmac. That was chaos. So was the smoke curling from my pipe. Clouds are a prime example. Gleick describes a stormy afternoon at Los Alamos, New Mexico, “when the sky shimmers and trembles with the electricity to come, the clouds stand out from thirty miles away, filtering the light and reflecting it, until the whole sky seems like a spectacle staged as a subtle reproach to physicists.” The impact of chaos on the world’s weather engine and on its biological systems is huge and ultimately unknowable. Late every August over the last ten years, for instance, I have been going to a mossy platform in the woods behind our house to see if any chantrelle mushrooms have appeared. The number of chantrelles and where they pop up is always different, influenced by a host of factors— the amount and sequencing of precipitation over the summer, where the light breaks through the balsam-fir canopy, the availability of nutrients, variations in the fertility of the mychorrizal root system under the forest floor, of which the chantrelles are the fruiting bodies, and a host of other factors about which I haven’t a clue. It’s a classic chaotic situation. Predicting where and how many chantrelles are going to appear in any given August I suspect is impossible. How are the epic gridlocks in Lagos, Nigeria affecting Alaska’s Stellar’s sea lion population ? In some way, undoubtedly, but who knows ?
The science may not be completely in, but this is nothing new. Academia is usually several decades behind what is really happening. I realized this when I was an undergraduate in the late sixties and took a course in geology. My personal interest, as a mountain climber, was in orogeny, how mountains are built. But the only explanation the geological establishment accepted at the time was the upwarping of geoscynclines, the “baked-apple theory” (silt is washed by rivers on to the continental shelf, which eventually slumps under their weight; a depression forms, the edges contract, and it is uplifted, much like the repoussé wrinkles of a baked apple). Not until the seventies was the theory of plate tectonics (the earth’s surface is composed of fluid plates that keep ramming into each other; for example, the boot of Italy slammed into Europe and heaved up the Alps) finally embraced by the mainstream. Currently a battle is raging in archaeology between the Clovis firsters, who insisted that there were no humans in the New World prior to remains of Clovis man, found in New Mexico 11000 years ago, and the heretics who are producing a growing body of evidence that man arrived in the Americas far earlier, which the firsters continue to find reasons to reject, just as the defenders of an early site Clovis man replaced did early in the century.
Eventually the dam will break on Clovis man, just as it will on the hypothesis of enhanced global warming. More science is coming in all the time. Lonnie Thompson, for instance, a paleoclimatologist from the Byrd Polar Research Center at Ohio State University, has been taking ice cores from high tropical glaciers. He has some from Tibet that show the past fifty years have been the warmest in the last ten thousand, and others from Bolvia that show the past 50 years have been warmest in the last 6,000. Because 50% of the earth’s land mass and 80% of its population are located in the tropics, and the warming of these land masses will produce the greatest amount of moisture that will have the greatest effect on global temperature, Thompson feels that it is imperative to core these fast-melting glaciers; they will yield the most telling data. He is also convinced that a warmer climate may induce a permanent El Nino.
The same message is coming from so many sources— melting glaciers, dying frogs, drowning island states, ice cores, the recent spate of revved-up, back-to-back El Ninos— that it is becoming impossible to ignore. After a while the growing body of evidence, even if much of it is anecdotal, reaches a critical mass and begins to have statistical weight. But what does it for me, what makes me willing to take the leap and buy into the idea that human emissions are heating the planet and changing the weather, is the increase in the frequency and violence of extreme weather events— that I and many others have been noticing anecdotally, and metereologists have been working up statistical data on over the last ten years— sudden deluges, floods, blizzards, unseasonal frosts, heat waves, droughts, tornados, supercaines, typhoons, cyclones, hailstorms, icestorms.
The National Climatic Center’s David Easterling is a fellow convert. “I think warming is a reality,” he told me. “It has been warming since the seventies except for two years after the eruption of Mount Pinatubo in l991 [which spewed an estimated 20 million tons of sulfur dioxide into the stratosphere up to about fifteen miles where they circulated around the world and deflected the sun’s rays, reducing the mean global temperature by two degrees for the next two years]. Something is going on. The question is whether it’s severe enough to cause major problems. And it isn’t just the warming, it’s the rainfall changes that are already starting to occur. We’ve seen an increase in heavy rainfall events, defined as two or more inches in twenty-four hours, and of rainfall in general, particularly in the more northerly latitudes of the United States and Canada, which are consistent with rising temperature.”
We had a heavy rainfall event in our neck of the woods two Novembers back, which produced the worst recorded floods in Adirondack history. It started raining buckets on the afternoon November 11, 1996, and when it finally let up the next morning, bridges and culverts had been swept away, roads were gone, and hamlets like Peesleeville and Black Brook were completely cut off. Our town got six inches and incurred millions in damage. A year and a half later some of the bridges are still out.. But this was only one of several wierd weather events that have happened since we moved up here. The heave weave of ‘88, the March blizzard of ‘93, when the snow drifted twenty feet over the sliding glass door on our second-story deck and we were marooned for three days, until Ray Manley finally came up with his backloader and dug us out. The following January 16, when it hit 65 degrees, and the Reverend MacFarlane Fish and I played golf. The blowdown of July 15th, l995, when a derecho, a rare straight-line windstorm with gales of a hundred miles per hour or more, knocked down in less than half an hour virtually all the trees in a swath a hundred miles long by three hundred yards wide, mostly in the northeastern part of the park. There have been several 80-degree swings in 24 hours since we’ve been here, which old-timers tell me never used to happen. And our region isn’t known for being particularly unstable. It’s isn’t in an earthquake zone or a tornado belt.
I spend half my time traveling around the world, and everywhere I go people have a similar litany of recent bizarre visitations and the same question : are they a harbinger of worse to come, preliminary fireworks for a much bigger show, the unraveling of the entire weather system ? The only word for what is happening is koyanisqaatsi, a Hopi Indian term meaning out of whack, out of joint, discordant, discombobulated, everything going faster and faster. Like the week after I got back from Kyoto, an unprecedented ten inches of snow fell in Mississippi, but meanwhile up in South Dakota it was shirt-sleeve weather, and people were out hitting golf balls. The weather has become like a man who has sprouted breasts passionately entangled with a woman who has suddenly broken out with a beard.
A partial catalogue of the past year’s “anomalies,” as these extreme events are also called, should suffice to reinforce the point. Yuma, Arizona gets its entire mean annual rainfall in an afternoon as the remains of Hurricane Nora sweep through in late September.. A few weeks later, the town of Beeksher, Israel, suddenly finds itself kneedeep in hail, which has never happened. Months earlier, on Easter Sunday, l997, Boston gets its third-largest blizzard— thirty inches— on Easter Sunday. A few days later it is sixty degrees. A similar pattern (the worst early blizard since l957, killing fifty thousand head of cattle; the following week it’s back up to sixty) repeats itself in Denver in late October. A mid-January frost strikes the interior of Florida and northern Mexico. Arkadelphia, Arkansas is hit by an F4 twister that takes nearly 30 lives; another F-4 twister claims 27 victims in Jarrell, Texas; Tropical Storm Danny dumps more than 12 inches on Mobile, Alabama; Cyclone O1B rips through eastern Bangladesh in mid-May, leaving a million people homeless; typhoons Opal, Peter, Rosie, and Tina take turns battering Japan. Shattering storms wallop the Iberian Peninsula; fast-rising floods kill at least 31 people in the aptly-named Spanish province of Extremadura, the usually-parched province whence the conquistadores hailed. The world-record, 236 mile-per-hour gale sweeps through Sri Lanka.
I asked George Woodwell what’s with all these extreme events of late ? Is it that the atmosphere is a closed system, so that when you heat it up it becomes like a pressure cooker, and all this violent energy tries to escape and shoots out in every direction ? Sort of, said Woodwell. “As the earth warms, it has a greater capacity to evaporate water, and the water vapor contains latent heat energy which circulates around the globe and is released when the vapor condenses, driving winds and contributing to storms. The higher latitudes are getting heated more rapidly than the middle ones by a factor of two to three, and may be getting wetter. Precipitation is being dumped in great gobs. But at the same time the midcontinental arid zones, the deserts of the Southwest and Southeast Asia and their eleven counterparts in the southern hemisphere, are expanding, and the world’s breadbaskets, its commodity–producing belts, are being desertified. Climatic zones are changing and migrating at the same time.”
On New Year’s Eve I called a friend who lives in Richmond, outside London, and she said, “It’s so warm here it’s peculiar. The hedgehogs are breeding like mad.” I called a friend in Dallas, where it was sixty degrees and a flash flood, unheard of in winter, had just swept through, taking several lives. “It’s a wonder there are no tornados,” she observed. But chez nous we were en plein hiver. The mercury that night went down to 25 below. We had forty people over and danced till dawn. A thought crossed my mind, and not for the first time : wouldn’t it be grand, a great prank by the cosmic prankster, if all this global-warming business turned out to be a hoax ?
The following morning I called Tom Lovejoy, and said, “We’re having a little trouble getting worked up about global warming up here. It’s 25 below.” And he said, “Don’t confuse the climate with the weather.” The usual definition of weather is that it is the day to day stuff, the quotidian dishing up of atmospheric theatrics, the daily installment of the ongoing soap opera, which is climate, the long-term trend. “The weather” is a conversation starter or filler, a perfunctory exchange of banalities with people one doesn’t know very well about the elements from which we have largely succeeded in insulating ourselves. I like David Laskin’s definition : is the subjective experience of climate. “Weather is our internal experience of daily atmospheric change,” Laskin writes in his book, Braving the Elements : The Stormy History of American Weather. “It is a human fabrication– a compound of rainfall and ritual, economics and air pressure, science and superstitition, desire and expectation..” Wallace Stevens addresses this strong subjective component in his poem, “The Snow Man” :
One must have a mind of winter
To regard the frost and the boughs
Of the pinetrees crusted with snow;
And have been cold a long time
To behold the junipers shagged with ice,
The spruces rough in the distant glitter
Of the January sun; and not to think
Of any misery in the sound of the wind,
In the sound of a few leaves….
Which is just how everything looked in the Adirondacks a few days later.
The Great Ice Storm of ‘98
The weather had been sending mixed signals about what kind of a winter it was going to be.
A prolonged Indian summer made for an unseasonably warm October. The warmth brought forth a strange hatch of some kind of insect with shiny green wings and body that neither I nor anyone else had ever seen in these parts before. I looked them up and discovered that they were green lacewings. In a corner of the ceiling of my office there was a cluster of maybe fifty lady beetles— not the native ones, but an introduced Asian species, larger and more orange, which has been making its way from house to house; the Fishes up in Lake Placid have them, too. I wondered if these adorable exotic creatures posed any health hazard associated, and if their recent arrival on the scene was climate-related. Lyme disease, which can cause chronic debilitation of the nervous system if untreated and is transmitted by a tiny tick, the size of a period, has made it to our county, probably in the fur of dogs brought up by downstaters to their weekend houses; it was supposed to be too cold for the ticks up here, but now they have turned up on the local deer. Hanta virus may be next. A hunter in western Pennsylvania, apparently infected by rodent droppings in the woods, succumbed to it in October.
Climate Change and Human Health, a joint study by the World Health Organization, the World Metereological Organization, and the United Nations Environmental Programme, is loaded with charts and tables tracing the worldwide spread of cholera, malaria, dengue/dengue hemorraghic fever, hantavirus pulmonary syndrome, eastern equine encephalitis (which killed several people in Connecticut two summers ago; the vector is the tiger mosquito, introduced in a shipment of tires from Asia in l985 and now established in more than half of the continental forty-eight states); yellow fever (nearly eradicated, it is catching its second wind in northern South America), plague (resurgent in central Africa and Mongolia), a new human and equine marbilovirus in Australia, Crimean-Congo hemorraghic fever on the Black Sea, criptosporidiosis and meningiococcal meningitis in the British Isles. Climate change is enhancing the vectorial capacity of these diseases in several ways : cold-resistant vectors are moving north, blood feeding is being extended into the winter months, temperature increase is affecting vectors’ metabolic processes, so that blood feeders need to feed more frequently; biting rate increases can in turn lead to increase in egg production. Extreme events are helping to spread these disease : gales are dispersing anopheles mosquitos, blackflies, and sandflies, heavy precipitation events are enhancing breeding by creating more stagnant pools, floods are causing breakdown of sanitation, lack of clean fresh-water, over-crowding among survivors, collapse of local health-care infrastructure, lack of effective epidemiological monitoring, and a greater incidence of diseases associated with fecal-oral transmission. An El Nino-related flood in Bolivia brought a 70% increase in salmonella; another in Recife, Brazil produced an outbreak of heptospirosis; a typhoon in the United States produced an outbreak of balantidiasis; acute hepatitis E followed catastrophic floods in Sudan. El Nino is also implicated in a bloom of neurotoxic shellfish poisoning off North Carolina of a type previously confined to the Gulf of Mexico, as well as in the eastern encephalitis outbreak, and an epidemic of polyarthritis caused by Ross River virus in Australia.
Just as I was deciding that this was going to be another nothing winter, a late November blizzard dumped 14 inches. I noticed a flock of white-winged crossbills on our road, pecking gravel to grind up seeds with in their gizzards. You only see them when severe winter conditions have driven them down from Canada, so I changed my mind, and my new forecast was bolstered by the years-end cold snap. But then a few days later it went back up to 35. On January 8 the mercury hit 65 degrees in Central Park,, eclipsing the mark of 64 that had stood for 61 years. Meanwhile a calamitous record blizzard, with drifts of six to 10 feet, hit Roswell, New Mexico, stranding and freezing in place thousands of cattle and sheep. Fierce winter storms lashed a broad area of Europe, tearing roofs off homes. Thousands of trees were downed by winds of up to 110 miles per hour in England, freak tornados damaged a thousand homes in southern England and 230 buildings in northern France, and blasts of cold, Siberian air spread deep into the Indian subcontinent, killing at least 121 people in Bangladesh.
Then it was our turn.
It hit Canada first— a biblical icestorm, of a magnitude not existing in anyone’s living memory or on any of the record books, crumpled like toothpicks the high-tension steel tranmission towers that march across the bleak, boreal landscape of Quebec, and by Monday three million Canadians, including most of Montreal and Ottawa, were without power. The storm moved south, overwhelming the grid as it went. By Tuesday Plattsburgh, an hour north of us, the Tijuana of Quebec, with probably more square feet of shopping mall per capita than any other city in New York State, was experiencing an unscheduled vacation from Babylon. We got it on Wednesday. All through the night we lay awake listening to the heartrending sound of trees snapping in two. The conifers were most resilient. The shadbushes, whose slender, wavering grey wands were the most breakable, took the greatest beating. They would be a great loss to the cedar waxwings who gorge on their red berries in July. It was as if we were in a war zone, Mogadishu. I called a neighbor. “All my birches are gone,” she sobbed. “My verticals.”
There were three episodes of glazing over the next two days. The first coated every branch and twig in the forest with a thin glaze of ice, the thickness of, say, a pipette. By the end of it the entire forest looked as if it were sheathed in test-tubes of glass. The temperature hovered at freezing, and as rain fell to the frozen, snow-covered ground, it immediately turned into ice. At sunset on Friday the sky was filled with rolling thunder, and for a few minutes it became like summer, and we were actually pelted with hail. By Saturday the storm was over. In its aftermath thirteen inches of rain fell on North Carolina. A 60 mile-per-hour wind flipped a tractor trailer in Wilmington, N. C.. Flood victims were rescued by helicopter from roofs and treetops in eastern Tennesee.
We counted ourselves lucky to be out of power for only six days (some of the 30,000 homes in the five northern counties had to wait four weeks to be restored), to have a gas stove so that we could cook and a woodstove in the livingroom to huddle around. On the second day I hacked my way with an ax through a glittering maze of tree trunks and branches that had fallen across our road and made it to the Grand Union in Elizabethtown, the county seat, which was cut off from Plattsburgh and couldn’t be re-provisioned. Already there was no fresh milk, and the aisles were full of dazed hillbillies who had come out of the woodwork to stock up on food. The scene was like the Depression, like a Walker Evans shoot in the Dustbowl. 1500 National Guardsmen were deployed in camouflaged Humvees to help the region get back on its feet. Niagara Mohawk, the utility company, had 276 line crews working around the clock, some coming from as far away as Binghampton. The fire departments became emergency shelters with people who had no heat crashing on cots. My friend Nathan Farb, the Adirondacks’ premier nature photographer, spent the days documenting the disaster for his next show, which he had decided to call “The Stations of the Cross.” “This is Nature’s last walk,” he told me. “We’re crucifying Nature with our collective greed. I’ve never bought into global warming, but this has really murdered the forest.”
For some reason, our phone never went out. I called the office and spoke with Bernice, the fourth-floor receptionist. We’re getting the wrath of El Nino up here, I told her. “Well we’re not having much wrath here,” she said. “It’s sixty degrees,” and she added, proudly, “New York still works.”
“Is this the wrath of El Nino, or what ?” I asked Jerry Bell, a climatologist at the Climate Prediction Center in Camp Springs, Maryland. “El Nino is one player,” explained. “A huge El Nino like this affects the westerly flow of air across the continent. You can’t attribute individual events to El Nino, but El Nino sets up the large-scale flow pattern of the jet stream within which individual storms evolve and move. Normally the main winter storms come in off the ocean to the Pacific Northwest, but during an El Nino year the jet stream shifts south and extends farther east so the storms come in at the latitude of central California, and that’s why we’ve all these record blizzards across New Mexico and all the way through the South [as we speak a mammoth blizzard is paralying the southern Appalachians]. What happened with this storm is that a large-amplitude, slow-moving weather system embedded within this El Nino-modified flow pattern pumped a lot of warm, moist , tropical air from the Gulf of Mexico up the eastern seaboard and all the way into Canada. Usually this tropical air only gets as far north as southern New England. We get ice storms all the time in the D.C. area. The tropical air pushed over the cold layer of Canadian air, which was only a thousand feet thick, creating a frontal boundary ripe for precipitation. A big tropical rain fell through the cold layers, which is why you got the ice.”
What about the thunder and the hail ? I asked. “They result from warm air being pushed up in an unstable way. Hail is the condensed ice in thunderclouds. They can have substantial life up there until they finally get big enough to fall through the clouds in a downdraft.”
Neither the thunder nor the hail were particularly surprising, Bell continued, but it was “unheard
of to have a tropical rain fall into a cold layer on such a continental scale, and unique to have a massive icestorm like this so far north. It wouldn’t have been like this if the El Nino flow pattern hadn’t pumped the tropical air all the way up there.”
But Bell did not believe that global warming was involved in creating “the huge El Nino” . “I have no basis for answering whether this is a global warming issue or not, but I just have a strong gut feeling that global warming is not implicated,” he said. Why not ? I asked.
“Because we’ve had strong, prolonged El Ninos in the past and because the natural variability of the El Nino period is so great that you can’t isolate a global-warming signal. You can’t say it’s warming, so it must be global warming. There are so many other factors, like the South Oscillation.”
Whatever happened, it was deeply unsettling to have the entire system completely overwhelmed like that. One felt so helpless and dependent. It was like a death rehearsal. It was interesting to watch how the community reacted to this environmental shock, to suddenly having the rug pulled out from under it. For the first few days it was kind of an adventure. We were all sitting around our woodstoves and calling each other to come on over for drinks, and everybody pitched in to help the people who didn’t have any heat. (The owners of the Hungry Trout, a local restaurant, started a generator in his basement, was quickly overwhelmed by carbon monoxide fumes, and was dragged comatose out of the house by his dog.) But by the end of the storm, after a week of hypothermia, people began to lose their civic spirit and the latent divisions in the community start to come to the surface. One woman, who lived in Kerosene Heights, the poor local people’s part of town, which for some reason was the last part to be restored, accused Niagara Mohawk and our new town supervisor of making sure that the rich summer people got power first. Imagine what our town would have turned into if it had been cut off, without food or fuel, for a month or two. It would have become like the Hutus and the Tutsis.
But by January 20th everyone was back on the grid, and whatever animosities had briefly bared themselves were carefully tucked back under the surface. A fresh snowfall covered all the mangled branches, and the Adirondacks became an innocent winter wonderland. There was a good snow base and the skiing was great. Nathan Farb called, ecstatic : “This is the best winter we’ve had in years.”