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Diary of a Dying Planet

Killer heat waves. Melting glaciers. Floods that strand millions of refugees. Global warming is not some futuristic doomsday. It's already here - and the death toll is rising

August 19, 2010 12:10 PM ET

From the devastating floods in Pakistan to the massive wildfires and deadly heat in Russia, which have conspired to fill the morgues in Moscow , we're now living in an era of Weather of Mass Destruction. And it has human fingerprints all over it.

The New York Times recently ran this front page story linking this summer's weather extremes to climate change. In so doing, it reprised a subject I covered in my first Rolling Stone feature... six years ago.

From the vault, take a look at "Diary of a Dying Planet" from the June 10, 2004 issue of Rolling Stone. It holds up depressingly well.


The hospitals and funeral parlors of paris could not keep up with the dead. As morgues filled to overflowing, delivery trucks were pressed into service and bodies stowed in their refrigerated bays. The city set up inflatable tents, chilled to prevent the corpses from rotting, yet still they came — casualties by the hundreds, then thousands. In desperation, the government requisitioned a former produce market and lined the concrete floor of its cavernous warehouse with 700 army cots, arranged in tight green rows. For many victims, Rue des Glacieres — Refrigerator Street — became their next-to-final resting place.

The victims did not perish in a chemical leak, a train bombing, a ricin attack. The dead — as many as 15,000 in France alone, 30,000 in Europe at large — succumbed to something far more primordial. They died of heat. For ten freakish days last August, Paris became Death Valley, with temperatures surpassing 104 degrees. Nights offered no relief: On the murderous eve of August 11th, even the low temperature hovered near 80. And so they cooked. Hyperthermia. Elevated body temperature. Dehydration. Nausea, cramping, exhaustion. The elderly were the most vulnerable. Some literally keeled over while walking up stairwells. Others — so weakened by a week and a half of extreme heat — died quietly in their apartments, announcing their passing only by the stench of their decay. In another moment in the world's history, the massacre might have been chalked up to an "act of God." But these deaths had man's fingerprints all over them. And not simply in the stifling medieval architecture of Paris, the dearth of air conditioners, the inadequate emergency response. Man may well have been responsible for the heat itself.

Global warming. It doesn't just make the world hotter — it makes the weather more extreme. Droughts are longer, torrents heavier, flooding more severe. Heat waves are turned up to eleven. "Because of our fossil-fuel burning, we are changing the climate," says Sir John Houghton, former co-chairman of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, the United Nations scientific organization that is literally the world authority on global warming. In 2001, the IPCC forecast that Earth would soon see "higher maximum temperatures, more hot days and heat waves" — causing increased mortality in "older age groups and the urban poor." Two years later, Europe was hit by Extreme Summer 2003.

Houghton, a mild-mannered knight, insists he's "not a hyping sort of person." Yet as the scientist surveys the recent string of heat waves, floods and other extreme weather wracking the planet, he concludes that they are the "most obvious manifestations" of global warming in our time. "These are the biggest disasters we know in the world," Houghton says. "They cause more death, more economic loss." Little wonder, then, that Houghton offers a stark analogy to underscore the threat posed by global warming. "I have no hesitation," he adds, "in describing it as a weapon of mass destruction."

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