- Dispatches From The Vanishing World - http://www.dispatchesfromthevanishingworld.com -

the climate change debate

Everybody and his mother has been sounding off about this, but I have a few important new points to add to the discourse. First of all, full disclosure, I have to say that I have been since l975  a firm believer in climate change and that human emissions are causing a greenhouse effect that is significantly affecting the world’s climate and weather systems. But at this point I think a lot of other things are going on. It is healthy periodically, and particularly at this point, when the issue is so politicized, and so much misinformation and disinformation is being put out, to take a fresh, unaligned look at what we actually know.

The easiest way to proceed is to trace the evolution of my thinking about this critical issue, which by now is quite developed, though by no means done evolving. I will begin in  the early seventies, when I was the resident naturalist at the Marsh Memorial Sanctuary in Mount Kisco, New York, 35 miles north of New York City. On our Sunday morning bird walks we saw the first red-bellied woodpecker that had ever been reported in Westchester County. It was a male that was calling for a mate in the stand of dead mature chestnuts oaks on a rocky ridge which the trail traversed. Its unmisteakable juicy cluck was what first attracted our attention. The dead old oaks presumably offered great nesting possibilities. The red-belly was one of a number of southern species whose ranges were expanding northward, including the Carolina wren, the tufted titmouse, and the turkey vulture, which were also making their first appearances in the county. (Today there are turkey vultures in the Laurentians, an hour north of Montreal– one of many indicators that it has been getting progressively warmer since the 1970s.)

At that time the only explanation I could find for why this was happening was that the interglacial warming period, the Holocene,  which had been going on for 12,000 years, since the end of the last glaciation, was continuing. It was overdue to end, however, having gone on longer than any previous interglacials (how sound, though, is the science is on this assertion, which is still widely accepted, with paleoclimatic dates constantly being revised by new findings and some of them currently under assault ? Any time I see an assertion like it is warmer now than at any time in the last 600,000 years, or even the last  2,000 years, I know that these numbers have to be taken with a grain of salt, because they are in constant flux. We are a long way I think from having a firm understanding of what happened in the past, and  our understanding of what is going to happen is even less certain, but it is definitely not looking good). Around l975 Time magazine reported that Columbia’s Lamont Dogherty Lab was predicting that we were going to be entering the next Ice Age in the next few years. We now know (although some skeptics say it has been getting cooler since the eighties, which is complete bunk. An example of how the superpowerful and rich forces that don’t want anything to be done are using disinformation to cast doubt. A classic tactic. These guys are simply using the tobacco industry’s gamebook. They know they don’t have to advance any real argument, all they have to do is cast doubt. The Union of Concerned Scientists has an incisive paper called “Smoke and Mirrors” about this. ) that the last ten years have been the warmest on record, so  the next Ice Age is nowhere in sight although colder temperatures are being reported in some parts of the world. Does this mean that the interglacial is continuing, and that human emissions are enhancing its warming effects, or that it is ending, and human emissions are overriding its cooling down ? How important are the natural versus the human factors in global warming ? It is such a complex multifactorial process that I don’t think anybody really knows, although scientists are constantly throwing out numbers, and the media are running with them. For instance, I just read in the Montreal Gazette that a new study finds that 18% of the global warming is caused by soot, as opposed to 42% by carbon emissions. I would be  suspicious of such numbers. I don’t think there is any way anyone can know for sure, or be so specific, although all the indications, and the overwhelming scientific consensus (supposedly 98%),  are that human emissions are making a significant contribution to climate change. I would also be  suspicious of any predictions, because half of them, you realize if you’ve been on the global warming beat as long as I have, haven’t come to pass. Which doesn’t mean that the next Ice Age couldn’t kick in at any time. How about 2012 ?

In l975-6 I spent nine months in the Amazon researching a book for Sierra Club Books (The Rivers Amazon). This was a period when vast areas of virgin rainforest, particularly in the state of Para, were being cut and burned and converted to pasture, causing the extinction of  millions of species that had not even been discovered. A fire raging out of control on the Volkswagen Ranch was reported to be bigger than Belgium. This was an exaggeration– there is a lot of exaggeration in environmental reporting; I’ve been guilty of it myself– but that doesn’t diminish the horror of what is happening.  There were many huge fires in the Amazon. I saw one on the King Ranch that was pouring thick black smoke into the sky over hundreds of square miles. It was so hot that enormous trees had been sandblasted into the air and had landed upside down, with their flaring buttresses like the fins of crashed rocket ships. Obviously, all this smoke had to be having an effect, and when I returned to the States, I learned about the greenhouse effect from George Woodwell, one of the pioneers of atmospheric carbon measurement, who was then at the Brookhaven Institute on Long Island, measuring the respiration of the trees in an adjacent forest, and later joined the Woods Hole Institute in Massachusetts. It made perfect sense, and in the years that followed the discourse about the greenhouse effect spread beyond the scientific community and there began to be more articles and t.v. segments  about it as the climate continued to warm and there were more fires in California and other extreme weather events and bizarre changes in seasonal temperature patterns became more frequent, more people began to  sense that there was a real problem and learned about the greenhouse effect. The people who were in the know, who had been on to what was happening for years, who got it, myself included, felt rather pleased with themselves, like somebody special. Some who felt the calling became prophets.  We lay people accepted it on faith, because scientists were saying it was happening, and the evidence was accumulating and getting stronger and stronger. It became a movement, whose prophets were people like Al Gore and Bill McKibben, my precocious young former colleague at the New Yorker who had written a book called The End of Nature that woke a lot of people up. I felt it was important to spread the word and you could say I was a sort of minor prophet, but I am not comfortable with movements and I do not worship at the altar of science, although I come from a family of scientists and have great respect for good science and the integrity of most scientists and their expertise. In those days I did not question the greenhouse narrative, and I still think it is fundamentally true.  I cannot believe that we do not have a huge hand in what is happening.

The summer of l988 was particularly hot. It hit 100 degrees in the Adirondack Mountains of  upstate New York, where I had moved from New Rochelle, figuring it might not be a bad idea to move a few hundred miles north, the way things were going.  It was an unnatural, clammy heat. It really felt as if we were doing something to the weather, like more confirmation of the greenhouse scenario. Marlise Simon, whose husband Alan Riding was the New York Times Rio bureau chief, published a series of harrowing front-page articles with satellite fotos of  thousands of fires in the Amazon, and this became the explanation for the wierd heat wave we were having. The 300 plus million vehicles on the road in America were doing as much as the fires in the Amazon and the rest of the tropics. But there was no talk about this, or that the U.S., the biggest consumer of oil,  was responsible for 25% of the emissions on the planet.  It was easier to blame it on the bossa nova than to confront our own egregious role in the situation.

That December, Chico Mendes, the leader of the Amazon rubber tappers’ union, was assassinated by ranchers who were clearing the rainforest from which the tappers made their living. The outrage was surprisingly global and took the ranchers by surprise, because it focused the issue of what the fires in the Amazon were doing to the world’s climate, which people waround the world were getting increasingly mad about. I wrote a piece on Chico’s martyrdom for Vanity Fair which is posted in the Past Dispatches/Ecomartyrs section.  As soon as it hit the stands, my agent was indudated with calls form Hollywood. Redford wanted the option. So did David Puttnam, who had experience in the Amazon, having done “The Mission” and worked on the extraordinary documentary, “The Tribe That Hides From Man,” about the attempt by the Vilas Boas brothers to contact the Kreen-akroare Indians.  I went with Redford, figuring you do not say no to Robert Redford, and that he would be an interesting guy to get to know, given our mutual concern about the environment, and that he had distanced himself from L.A. and moved to Sundance, Utah, and was sort of a role model for my move to the Adirondacks. I expanded the piece into a book called The World is Burning, which went into the role that fires in the Amazon were playing in heating up  the planet. It was published in thirteen countries, I think, and I made a lot of money on Chico’s murder and the greenhouse narrative, more than I have made from anything else in my carrer. But I figured I had spent so much time in the Amazon and become one of the more powerful voices for its incomparable, precious fast-disappearing species and native cultures and nearly died of blackwater fever, etc. , so it was not an inappropriate payback.

In l997 I went to the Kyoto conference on climate change. My lengthy account of it, which includes one of the most comprehensive and comprehensible discussions of the state of our knowledge about the greenhouse effect and anthropogenic global warming at that point, is posted as Dispatch #5, “What Have We Done to the Weather ?” a title suggested by Vanity Fair’s London bureau chief Henry Porter, a dedicated environmentalist. I flew back on Air Force2 and talked for hours with Al Gore, who had a deep and detailed understanding of the global warming problem. Gore is a  thoughtful person with a very inquisitive mind, and I found our far-ranging discussion very stimulating. In person, like Donald Trump, he is very different from his public presentation, which has the unfortunate tendency to be stiff and preachy, but he’s a lot better than he used to be. He had been hip to the greenhouse effect since he was an undergraduate at Harvard and took a course from Roger Revelle, another pioneer, who had measured the atmospheric carbon dioxide at the Mauna Loa Observatory [1] on Mauna Loa [2], Hawaii, and in Antarctic and in l957 co-authored a paper  with Hans Suess [3] that suggested that the Earth’s oceans would absorb excess carbon dioxide [4] generated by humanity at a much slower rate than previously predicted by geoscientists, thereby suggesting that human gas emissions might create a “greenhouse effect [5]” that would cause global warming [6] over time.[3] [7] He was one of the first to raise concerns about the effects of all the fossil fuel we were burning. 

One of the things I took away from my discussions with many climate scientists for the Kyoto piece is that not only is all the stuff we are pouring into the atmosphere causing rising temperatures, but it is causing a big increase in the electric energy in the atmosphere, which is changing circulatory patterns like the jet stream and causing more turbulence (which is immediately, apparent whenever you fly these days. There’s a lot more turbulence than there used to be. Flying has become a lot more scary. Your plane is usually throttled by some major pocket of turbulence at least once ) and more frequent and intense extreme weather events. A  few weeks after the conference, bringing it home in dramatic fashion, New England and Quebec were hit by a massive ice storm, the first natural disaster I had personally experienced, which the piece ends with a description of.

I was becoming really apocalyptic at this point, having spent two decades going to one remote corner of the world after the other and finding that the glorious nature and fascinating tribal people I had come to see were being wiped by chainsaws, bulldozers, t.v., and other modern inventions, and by the modern world’s, particularly my own country’s,  insatiable appetite for the planet’s resources, as well as by local population growth. Now there was this other force of devastation wreaking havoc on the world’s biodiversity and traditional subsistence cultures. Global warming was pushing species across the board further north : birds and butterflies were being pushed off the British isles to extinction, newly arrived fish and other marine life were changing the ecology of the north Pacific, the red fox was crowding out the Arctic fox. See Dispatch #30, my profile of Dr. Camille Parmesan, who is tracking this. I pitched a huge five-part series to Vanity Fair on the state of the environment at the turn of the millenium and started the research. One of the parts was to be devoted to global warming.

At this point, a major new disaster scenario was getting a lot of attention : the possibility that the Gulf Stream’s thermohaline conveyor belt, which brings up warm water from the Gulf of Mexico to the North Atlantic and keeps Europe warmer than it should be at its latitude, could be shut down by the giant lens of freshwater spreading down from the fast-melting Arctic ice cap. If this happened Europe would become 14 degrees colder. The scenario kept getting more dire sand accelerated until finally some scientists were saying the system flip could happen in just two years.  Roland Emmerich ‘s blockbuster movie, “The Day After Tomorrow,” in which New York City is hit by a tidal wave followed by the chilly beginnings of the new Ice Age, is based on this negative feedback of the greenhouse effect, the shutting down of the Gulf Stream, happening. But it has happened, and the possibility of it happening has been downgraded by the IPCC to unlikely, because there is a huge  lens of Arctic icemelt in the North Atlantic, but no discernible change in the Gulf Stream, and if it was going to happen, it should be underway by now.  So that was a little disillusioning, an example of a catastrophic theory that turned out, thank god, not to have legs– at least so far. Like Paul Erlich’s 1968 best-seller The Population Bomb, according to which there wouldn’t be a human being on the planet by now,  we’re all supposed to have starved to death. Again not to diminish the fact that population (another part of my series) was a huge problem. There are far too many of us for the health of the planet and for its life-support systems to sustain. Its human carrying capacity is strained to the max in many places.

When the Gulf Stream shutting down scenario was beginning to get serious attention in the media, I made my way up to the Lamont-Dogherty lab to meet its author, Dr. Wally Broker, the man of the hour, who after years of working in obscurity was finally getting his fifteen minutes, and it had clearly gone to his head. He kept glancing at his watch as if every moment he had to spend with this lower form of life, a reporter, was unbearable– a technique I have encountered in other scientists over the years, not unlike famous or prominent people who keep you waiting for an hour, not because they couldn’t see you right away, as scheduled, but to keep you in your place. When a scientist starts glancing impatiently at his watch, I just glance at mine and say, “I’ve got 2:22. What time do you have ?” Dr. Broker actually said at one point in our interview, how can I put this in simple enough terms for you to understand ?” Rather stunned, I gave it some thought, and finally replied, “Well I’m not sure that you can, but why don’t you give it a shot ?” So when the skeptics say there is a warmist priesthood, I have to agree with them. Dr. Broker was the Grand Wizard of the moment. Religious leaders, a friend once observed, are in the business of trying to make you believe they know something they don’t. The same is true of some scientists. Science, we tend to forget because we have such reverence for it in the West, so many extraordinary discoveries have bee made,    is a belief system, a work in progress, and lots of times its conclusions, presented as unassailable hard fact, turn out to be completely wrong because the scientist, who is only human,  didn’t take some crucial factor into consideration, or worsehe distorted his findings to make them seem more important than they were. “All of us want to be the knight in shining armor,” an environmentalist observed to me about a scientist  we were working with who I discovered had inflated his conclusions to make them seem more dramatic than they were and was getting a lot of press  on the basis of this misapprehension which he had fed to the media and  made no effort to correct.

.A friend of mine, to give you an example of the not taking a crucial factor into consideration problem, was getting his doctorate in biosocial anthropology at Harvard and went to do his field work with the Efe pygmies in the Ituri Forest in what was then Zaire (This was in the 1980s. In l996 Zaire became the Democratic Republic of Congo.) He spent two years doing detailed time-allocation studies in one Efe village, quantifying how much time this woman spent grooming, how long this man spent in the forest hunting meat, and relating it to the individual’s reproductive success. In hard-core Darwinian belief, everything we do is to maximize our fitness. This is the scientific orthodoxy, and I think it is completely ridiculous. Like the hard-core Freudians who maintain that all neurosis is the result of sexual identity issues in the first few years of life. People are constantly rejecting the reproductive imperative and not having children at all, and  acting crazy for reasons than have nothing to do with Freudian theory. Not to knock Darwin or Freud, who were right about a lot of things. But orthodoxies are dangerous, and contrary to the true spirit of science, which like good journalism, is skeptical and contentious. When something is being put out that you don’t think is true, you have to challenge it. That is why it is healthy to look closely at the greenhouse narrative which has become the scientific orthodoxy in almost every country, to be constantly asking questions.

Anyway my friend returned to Harvard with his hard-won data and started writing his thesis when new information from the village came from the next doctoral student studying its inhabitants that 80% of them had gonorrhea. So his data was worthless. And this was before AIDS was even identified and given a name. But it was already taking its toll in Zaire. So it could have been a factor, too. He had failed to take into consideration the STD factor. Two years of work down the drain.

So what I’m saying is that the imposition of rigid methodologies to produce data supporting a particular point of view, which all science does, sometimes produces results that are off the mark. Another anthropologist did his doctoral thesis on the Cayapo Indians of the Amazon. His task was to find evidence of Levi-Strauss’s thesis that cooking is what makes us human, what civilizes and socializes us and distinguishes us from animals– a very French hypothesis. He ran the thesis by his subjects, and they told him that it was complete rubbish. The Harvard anthropologist’s doctoral thesis adviser, who sent him on his ill-fated mission to the pygmies, was Irven Devore, who had done  pioneering biosocial work on baboons and concluded that their social structure was male-dominated and hierarchical, with alpha males at the top of the pyramid, betas under them, and gammas at the bottom, and the higher you were on the male pecking order, the more females you got to inseminate. But then Sarah Hrdy, a biosocial anthropologist with feminist leanings, destroyed Devore and showed that baboon society is actually run by the females. Hrdy accused Devore of projecting the hierarchical male-dominated structure of academia, with the big professor balling all his female graduate students,  on to the baboons. Similarly the anthropologist Napoleon Chagnon, whose books on the stone-age Yanomamo were standard fare on undergraduate reading lists, overemphasized their violence because violence was sexy, it got grants, and that was what we wanted to hear, that we have always been violent, when in fact sure they raid each other’s villages, but there is much more going on with the Yanomamo, as I knew, having spent time with them. Chagnon was guilty of projecting what he wanted to find on to his subjects, as I wrote in a blurb for a book that exposed the shoddiness of his science and contested the picture of the Yanomamo  he was presenting to the world. (My use of the word projection was cited by the American Heritage on-line dictionary, which I was rather proud of).  The problem I have with science is that it only accepts as real what is has been able to quantify, measure, and classify, and the framework that it is imposes on what it is looking at is confined by narrow discipline boundaries (which don’t exist “out there” in the “real”), so it is missing a lot, and it has a reductive, materialistic vision of reality. Science is great, in terms of the technological progress is brings, but Western materialism is also what has brought us to this critical stage in our history on the planet. Scientists are all too often like the blind men each of whom is touching a different part of the elephant. The communication between  different disciplines is usually not good. The answer that the anthropologist is looking for is over there in botany, but he can’t go there.

Computer modeling is fraught with the possibility that some crucial factor that no one has even envisioned at this point, like the Harvard anthropologist,  may not have been taken into consideration. I have seen predictions based on computer modeling that the sea is going to rise three feet, or even eighteen feet, by the end of the century. I just saw two meters yesterday.  Most of these predictions are based on the assumption that the Greenland ice sheet is going to continue melting at the rate it is now. But the one thing, the only thing, that is certain about climate change, about everything really, is that nothing about it is constant. Everything is in flux. Nothing is permanent. Heraclitus and Buddha on the other side of the world realized this thousands of years ago. There world is going to be a very different place in ten years, and in 100 years it will be unrecognizable. There are several scenarios by which global warming could actually end up make the world colder. The shutting down of the Gulf Stream seems unlikely at the moment, but another scenario compares the earth to a refrigerator, which stays cold by constantly  giving off heat. If the earth keeps giving off heat the way it is doing, it is eventually bound to get colder. This makes sense, and while I hate to give the reactionary skeptic machine any ammunition, at various times in the past, the world has apparently been much hotter when the CO2 readings were much lower, and vice versa.

The global economic meltdown has reportedly reduced our global carbon emissions by 30% since September, 2008– a huge boon to the effort to reduce greenhouse gases that no one foresaw two years ago, and a far more effective mitigation than anything that will be hammered out at Copenhagen. Could this be an adaptation, an unconscious collective response to the growing sense of impending doom, that we’ve cooked our own goose, hoisted ourselves by own petard with our hyperconsumption ? But it is an example of an unanticipated factor having a dramatic effect that the climate scientists are not going to see because economics is not there field.

And what about the huge savings in heating oil, gas, coal, and wood, that global warming is bringing in the northern climes ? Another mitigating negative feedback  (for the rising temperature narrative)  I haven’t seen anything about that, or– on the other side of the equation– how much carbon dioxide is 6.8 billion of us each taking 26,000 breaths a day adding to all the other sources of anthropogenic emission ? It must be considerable. The only person I have talked to who has thought about this is Wangari Maathai, the Nobel-prize-winning Kenyan woman who founded the Green Belt Move. She says each of us has to plant nine or ten trees to take out the C02 that all our exhalations put into the air over our lifetime.

Continued population growth is a major factor in the continued global warming, if  our emissions are the main cause, but what if there were a pandemic that wiped out many, most, or all of us. Something like the 1918 flu pandemic which killed six percent of the population ? The death toll of this H1N1 pandemic is only in the tens of thousands (reported) globally, and it seems to be petering out, but sooner or later, some influenza virus or other infectious microbe could come along that could be really lethal. This is how populations that get out of hand are taken care of by nature : some pathogen wipes them out. Or here’s something that occurred to me when I was working on a story on the impact of the Internet on sexual behavior : a percentage of the male population that could be growing is not having sex with real women but getting themselves off by watching cyberporn. From the point of view of our survival as a species, if a growing number of males are being removed from the breeding pool and becoming cyberwankers, this is not such a bad thing. It could even be seen as another unconscious collective adaptation,  perhaps even as an example of group selection (which is not accepted by hard-core Darwinists), whereby the individual sacrifices his chance to reproduce for the good  of the group, in this case the entire species. The classic example are the Iraqui suicide bombers during the time of Sadam Hussein, whose family was given five thousand dollars– more than they would make together in most cases in the entire lifetimes– for the loss of their son. Or the remote, isolated island in the South Pacific whose population got out of hand in the early twentieth century, so  the young men went off in their canoes into the unknown on a “great adventure” which for most of them was certain death, as the nearest island was hundreds of miles away.

I throw out these possibilities to emphasize how complex, perhaps incalculably complex the global warming equation  is. And these are only a few of the possible human factors. The natural ones start with a huge meteor strike or volcanic eruption, which would blot out the sun and depress temperatures dramatically. Not only extreme weather events, but tectonic events, seem to be ominously on the rise, in both frequency and intensity. El Nino is becoming more frequent and intensity, perhaps beefed up by human emissions, and there is a similar cyclical warming event in the north tropical Atlantic that sucks the wet season’s rain out of the Amazon basin and dumps it into the Caribbean. In 2004 it caused a record drought in the Amazon, and exacerbated the hurricane season in the Gulf of Mexico, Hurricane Katrina.  I go into this in Dispatch #39. The entire Amazon basin could be savannified, as it has been in the past, not so much because of deforestation, mechanical removal of the trees, as because of increasing droughts from this Atlantic warming event. This is one positive feedback. Another one is happening in the Arctic, where the melting ice and snow are exposing more tundra and open water, more black surface area, so the albedo or reflectivity of the white snow and ice is reduced, and the Arctic warms up and melts all the faster. But if things continue the way they are going, more tsunamis, monsoons,  hurricanes, earthquakes, floods, droughts, and other natural disasters will kill more people– a negative feedback.

But even if the science isn’t completely in about how much of the current warming is due to our emissions, and it may never be because it is such complex equation,  there are many other urgent reasons for reducing our consumption and waste stream, many things a modern person can do as an individual. ….

to be continued