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Diary of a Dying Planet

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Global warming is no longer a theory, some distant doomsday. It's all too real — and it's here now. Indeed, the only serious debate in the scientific community is not whether we are changing the climate, but how much and how bad will it get. "Climate-change scientists are of one mind on this," says Sir David King, chief science adviser to the British government. "We're no longer discussing whether the global warming we're observing is related to human effects. Fossil-fuel burning is leading to significant climate change. The predictions made back in the 1890s are believed to be coming true."

And so it begins. Our world is measurably warmer — by a full degree in the last century, more than twice that near the poles — and getting hotter. The twentieth century was the hottest of the last millennium. Nineteen of the twenty hottest years on record have occurred since 1980, with 2003 the third-hottest year ever. The warming projected by the IPCC for this century-between 2.5 and 10.4 degrees — is unprecedented in the last 10,000 years. As we drive our cars and burn coal to light our homes, we force more carbon dioxide, the primary greenhouse gas, into the atmosphere. CO2 concentrations are higher than they've been at any time since giant carnivorous kangaroos roamed the earth 50,000 years ago. The IPCC concluded in 2001 that "most of the observed warming in the last fifty years" could be blamed on human activity.

Some would write off the French heat wave as a tragic blip. Ditto that 2003 was the hottest European summer in 500 years. Ditto that it came so quickly after extreme floods soaked the continent in 2002, forcing the evacuation of 50,000 in Prague. But these are hardly the only blips. In March, Brazil was hit by its first-ever hurricane. Last June, a heat wave scorched India with twenty-seven consecutive days of 120-degree temperatures, killing nearly 2,000. Flooding in China that used to hit once every twenty years now recurs almost annually; a deluge last August left 4 million homeless. The American West is suffering years of record drought, and last May, 562 tornadoes struck the Midwest — 163 more than the previous monthly record. A retractable barrier built to protect London from floods was expected to be used once every three years. In 2000, it was used twenty-four times.

"One event is not evidence," says Houghton. "But if you get these happening rather often, then you begin to see a trend."

Take the world's glaciers. Kilimanjaro's permanent ice cap in Kenya — Hemingway's "Snows of Kilimanjaro" — is melting at an astonishing rate. In fifteen years it will completely disappear. Four glaciers in Venezuela already have. "These glaciers are very much like the canaries once used in coal mines," says Lonnie Thompson, a glacier scientist at Ohio State University. "They're an indicator of massive changes taking place in the climate in the tropics."

But it's not just the tropics. Ice is in retreat worldwide. Glacier National Park in Montana will be namesake-free by 2030. In Alaska, where temperatures have soared four degrees in the last fifty years, the state's permafrost — permafrost — is thawing. Oil pipelines are sinking in the softened earth, polar bears are starving, and 2 million acres of spruce have been lost to bark beetles, thriving in the lovely man-made weather. Farther north, global warming has so broken up the polar ice cap that the Northwest Passage — the mythical sea route to the Orient that explorers searched for in vain for centuries — is now a reality. In fifty years it's expected to become a major shipping channel: the so-called Panama Canal North.

At the other pole, a mass of ice the size of the island of Hawaii has broken away from the Larsen Ice Shelf. As Antarctica melts, scientists point to what the world's southernmost continent looked like 50 million years ago, the last time the globe warmed up. "We know a period when carbon-dioxide levels were higher than they are now," says King, his voice arching wryly. "The Antarctic was free of ice, and mammals roamed the Antarctic — you can find their fossils there."

British knights and U.N. scientists aren't the only ones alarmed. The insurance industry — which has a huge stake in accurately forecasting the threat — expects climate change to cause an annual $150 billion in damages within a decade. The heat wave in Europe last summer created $13 billion in losses, the floods in China wiped out another $8 billion in homes and crops, and the U.S. tornadoes cost insurers $3 billion. The human toll is also rising: The World Health Organization estimates that 150,000 people are dying each year from increases in malaria and other illnesses exacerbated by global warming. "Today, we recognize that global warming is a fact," says Chris Walker, managing director of the Greenhouse Gas Risk Solutions team for Swiss Re, one of the world's largest insurance companies. "One only has to look at the extreme summer heat in Europe or the severe droughts in the Western United States to understand that the climate has changed — visibly, tangibly and measurably."

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