As a reporter you have gone from covering New York politics to global warming. Is it fair to say you’ve moved from one disaster to another?
That’s not a bad way of putting it. In covering both I’ve seen people look some fairly obvious truths right in the face and dance around them. That was part of covering Albany and it is central to why we are nearing a crisis on global warming.
What, in a nutshell, is global warming?
Scientists have understood the basics for more than 100 years. Certain gases in the atmosphere have the property of allowing physical light to pass through them, blocking infrared radiation. This prevents the planet from being frozen. If there were no greenhouse gases, the earth would be 0 degrees Fahrenheit all the time. So what we call the natural greenhouse effect makes the planet habitable. The problem is that if you add to those greenhouse gases, with carbon dioxide emissions, for example, you block more and more light on its way out to space, and that increases the earth’s temperature.
The crucial thing to understand (and it may be counterintuitive) is that the earth is always radiating heat back out toward space. Using climate models, scientists can arrive at what an eventual temperature rise will be from any given concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere.
That is oversimplified. There are also a lot of feedback mechanisms in the climate system. So when you warm up the planet, the air gets warmer, and warm air can hold more water vapor, which is another greenhouse gas. So you get a lot of effects combined and on top of each other, which is why climate modeling can be somewhat complicated.
What have we learned in the last five or 10 years about climate that is new and relevant?
The major thing is that there is a big lag in the climate system, because the earth heats up until it achieves its energy balance, but melting ice takes a lot of energy and time. Try to melt an ice cube on the stove and you’ll see. Imagine heating up an ocean. So it is a very slow process to heat the world. That’s the time lag.
Climatologists expected to see a clear signal of global warming emerge from what they call noise (noise includes all the static and randomness in climate, hot years, then cold years, so you have to look at things for a long time to get any clear pattern). People predicted that around the year 2000 we would start to see this signal from the data. That is exactly what has happened. When you look at global temperatures using a sophisticated network of monitoring stations, you see that they have been going up not every year, but nearly. The 1990’s was the hottest decade on record. In the scientific community some people had said: the theory of global warming is very strong, but until I see the evidence I can’t be sure of it. Starting in 2000, they said: I see the evidence and I’m convinced.
Most of the damage you describe in your book occurs in Arctic areas, where few people live. Why should people elsewhere be concerned about the thawing of permafrost?
There is no boundary between the poles and those of us who live at the temperate latitudes. The changes at the poles eventually will affect us all. The poles are warming up faster than the temperate latitudes because we’re melting a lot of ice up there. Ice is very reflective; it reflects sunlight. But once you melt it, you get water or rock, a dark surface that is very absorptive, so the amount of heat being absorbed there increases.
Earth has a sort of energy budget, and that energy is constantly being moved around. It gets moved by currents, for example. A huge transfer of energy is going on all the time. Once you start to change these things, it can cause unpredictable effects.
I was at a very good talk the other day where someone was listing clear, measurable, statistically significant changes happening in the mid-Atlantic and New England: earlier and earlier spring flowering dates, later fall frosts, less snow cover and changes in the times that frogs are mating. While so far those changes are not life-threatening, if spring flowering dates keep moving up and up, eventually you have no winter. That would affect a huge number of [animal and plant] species.
Because of the way we live in the modern world, we are very divorced from where we get our food and other natural systems that support us. Yet we are all supported by the natural world and its web of relationships. You don’t know when it’s going to start crashing. That’s really the ultimate worry: that what scientists refer to as the biological services, and the rest of us refer to as food and water, are going to crash. There is a relationship, for example, between warmer weather and a decline in the apple crop. A lot of crops need a hard freeze in winter. Wheat needs one. It is possible that you could develop crops that don’t need a freeze, but it’s possible that you could not.
You visited Alaska, Greenland, Iceland and the Netherlands and saw how people’s day-to-day lives are being adversely affected by climate change. Which disturbs you most?
What stuck with me because it is really dramatic and it is at the end of the earth.... I visited some native Greenlanders. We were very far north, 65 degrees north latitude, in a town that has been populated for a long, long time. Every year the bay would freeze over all winter long, and people would move up and down the coast on dogsleds. But for the last few winters the bay has not frozen over. So, first, there is no way to get from place to place. Second, the residents were just stunned. Generations and generations of people have lived there and been frozen in for four and five months each winter. To not have the bay freezing over was truly an extraordinary experience for them. It has certain good points—they can fish all winter—but they were not happy about it. They were watching their world turn upside down.
Since people flock to warm climates for vacations and retirement, why is it problematic when the earth’s average temperature warms up a few degrees?
People joke: New Yorkers won’t have to go to Florida anymore; Florida will just come to them. But the fact is that once New York is the temperature of Florida, it is also going to be under water. People have to realize that the climate system is very delicate. We’ve lived in a time of unusual climate stability; and we’ve developed cities and civilizations that depend on things being a certain way: monsoons in a certain season, rain in certain parts of the country where we farm, inhabiting low-lying coastal areas.
One very robust prediction of global warming is that we will experience sea level rise. When you start warming up the oceans, they expand. I’m not talking about whether the Greenland ice sheet will melt, just about thermal expansion of water. Clearly this is already happening. According to some of the projections, a lot of places where people might like to live, like Florida, may not be there anymore.
That’s the first dire prediction you have made: a rise in sea level, which leads to flooding.
That’s not even debatable. It is absolutely going to happen. Sea-level rise predictions for this century are a couple of feet; but people are looking at what is happening in Greenland and Antarctica and are saying that those predictions are too low. We’re looking at very dramatic sea level rise.
Will that contribute to more hurricanes as bad as Katrina or worse?
That’s complicated. Warm water definitely fuels hurricanes; and the warmer the water is, the more it is like throwing fat on a fire. But global warming can also produce wind effects that can rip hurricanes apart. So scientists do not predict more hurricanes, but that a greater proportion of the hurricanes that do form will reach Category 4 and 5. Not frequency, but intensity will be greater.
You report a whole list of societies and cities in antiquity—the Mayans, the Old Kingdom of Egypt, a city of 30,000 in Syria—that were destroyed through natural climate change, mostly drought. How much control do we humans exert? Are we simply speeding up the inevitable?
We’re not speeding up the inevitable. We’re doing things very much out of keeping with the natural cycle. There were these naturally caused climactic shifts in the past that led to unpredictable outcomes. Climate shifts were sometimes caused by cold snaps that lasted several hundred years and led to 200-year-long droughts that wiped out societies.
Now we are causing changes that overwhelm the forces that usually cause climate change, like variations in solar radiation and volcanic activity. Those things will start to seem negligible compared to what we’re doing. For better or for worse, we do have a lot of control over the system.
What are the main culprits?
We are burning fossil fuels: coal and oil and natural gas. If you add the coal and oil together, you get most of the global emissions of carbon dioxide. That’s the major change. Records from ice cores show exactly what the atmosphere looked like over the course of the last 650,000 years. We know that carbon dioxide levels now are substantially higher than they have been at any point in that period. That is well established and beyond debate.
In the U.S. about 40 percent of our carbon dioxide emissions come from electricity production; another 40 percent come from transportation (cars, trucks, etc.); and 20 percent are from miscellaneous uses.
The title of your book, Field Notes From a Catastrophe, implies that we’re in a catastrophic situation already. Is that an alarmist view?
I hope it is alarmist. Climate scientists will tell you that there is a threshold in the climate system, and after you cross it, really bad things can start to happen. For example, the melting of the Greenland ice sheet has enough water to raise global sea levels by 23 feet or so. Given the time lag, it is very hard to know where that threshold is until you’re on the other side of it. Then it’s too late. Most scientists will tell you that we do not have a lot of time to turn this around. At the very least, that means stabilizing global emissions of carbon dioxide. But really we need to start reducing them dramatically. We don’t have long to avoid a catastrophe.
Many people would say that technology and human adaptability will enable us to adjust to climate changes. What do you think?
There are 6.5 billion people in the world, and we’re rapidly heading toward seven or eight billion. It is possible that a society with a lot of resources, like the U.S., could move everybody away from the coasts. But we’ve seen the devastation that one storm, Katrina, caused. I don’t see how technology allows you to live on water.
We are talking about people all around the planet though, so adapting to change becomes very difficult. Where’s the wheat belt going to be? Maybe it will be in Canada. People talk about winners and losers, but today’s winner is tomorrow’s loser. This thing doesn’t stop. Adding greenhouse gases to the atmosphere doesn’t mean that you get a new climate. No, you get a constantly changing climate.
One scientist I interviewed said, “When people talk about adaptation, I ask, ‘What are you talking about? Adapting to the climate conditions in 2020? The climate conditions in 2040? In 2060?’ Because this is going to keep on changing.”
Science has spurred nations to ban the gas that depletes the ozone layer.
Yes, but that’s the only heartening example out there.
In the book you discuss conservation in Burlington, Vt., and in various states. How much can be achieved by people turning off lights and buying smaller cars?
A lot can be achieved on a personal level. People could probably cut their carbon dioxide emissions by 10 or 20 percent without radically altering their lives. And if every person did that, it would help a lot. Our national obligation under the Kyoto agreement was roughly a 20-percent cut (to return to the 1990 levels). I advocate people changing their lives because it helps. It prepares them for an inevitable future, and it creates markets for high-efficiency appliances and products. All of this is important. But we still need systemic change. Until you make big systemic changes, you aren’t going to reach the emission levels we need.
You are saying that climate change is a macro-issue. If you had the ear of the U.S. president (this one or the next one), what advice would you give him or her?
I would give really simple advice: that the United States has got to lead by example here. We are a tremendous part of the problem. We produce 25 percent of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions with less than 5 percent of the world’s population. The global problem cannot be addressed in a practical or political sense unless we are committed to trying to solve it. I think we have a moral and political responsibility in our country that is very high. We’re not talking about changes that are going to affect only our own lives, or our kids’ lives, but will last generations and generations and generations. Once you melt the Arctic ice caps, you do not get them back. Carbon dioxide has an average lifespan in the atmosphere of about 100 years. Once you put it up there, it stays.