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Diary of a Dying Planet

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This apocalyptic vision is not a prediction, Schwartz insists, but rather a scenario at the "outer edge of plausibility." To him, the report represents a climatic version of September 11th — a "low-probability, high-impact event" that can change the world. But while he isn't convinced that the worstcase scenario will come true, he is concerned that those who focus on gradual warming "have the wrong mental map." Schwartz points to a wall-size reproduction of an antique map of North America that looms over the reception desk. It's an odd sight: California is drawn as an island. Maps like these, he says, were in circulation for 160 years before anyone caught the mistake. For Schwartz, the map offers an object lesson in the dangers of conventional wisdom.

Challenging the conventional thinking on climate change, Schwartz argues that abrupt change is more likely than gradual warming. Complex systems such as the Earth's climate "don't change state gradually," he says. "Think about igniting a rocket motor. You don't gradually go from gases flowing to things exploding. You put some fuel in there, you light it and it pops. That's what happens." The same process, he says, applies to a gas such as carbon dioxide.

Schwartz says there is no doubt about what must be done to prevent catastrophe. "In my opinion, we should dramatically lower greenhouse gases — particularly CO2," he says. "I don't think there's any other choice — other than civilizational collapse."

In January, some of the world's top scientists and engineers gathered at the Isaac Newton Institute in Cambridge, England, to explore how technology might slow global warming and stave off planetary meltdown. John Shepherd, who organized the conference as director of the Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research, admits that some of the ideas being considered by scientists "are big and rather scary, and some may even appear to be crazy."

That's putting it mildly. Some engineers proposed releasing billions of metal-coated balloons to filter out the sun. Others want to launch "orbiting deflection systems" — monumental mirrored satellites — to shield ourselves from solar radiation. More-modest suggestions included erecting skyscraper-size "scrubbers" in cities across America to reduce carbon dioxide or using marine algae to absorb it. Or how about deploying a fleet of oceangoing whisks to churn up sea foam and spray it into the atmosphere, increasing cloud cover and cooling the planet?

If many of the ideas sound absurd, that's because they are. Shepherd argues that we need to evaluate — and in some cases toss out — such options as soon as possible. Otherwise, politicians may be tempted to postpone action on global warming, waiting for technology to bail us out.

In fact, the world's leading scientists agree that it's already too late to halt global warming entirely. "We can't prevent some damage," says Stephen Schneider, co-director of the Center for Environmental Science and Policy at Stanford University. Even if we were to magically end CO2 emissions tomorrow, the gases that we've already unleashed will continue to raise temperatures for another 150 years. "That's unpreventable," Schneider says.

By starting now, however, we can still prevent many of the more catastrophic effects of global warming. If we're ambitious, we may be able to keep the concentration of carbon in the atmosphere below 450 parts per million — only 70 ppm higher than today. That should be enough, scientists say, to prevent the Greenland and West Antarctic ice sheets from melting and eventually submerging the world's coastal areas.

Much of the industrialized world is already taking action. Even though the Bush administration withdrew from the Kyoto treaty, Europe is moving ahead with one of its central planks. Starting in 2005, firm limits will be placed on the total amount of carbon dioxide that can be released into the atmosphere. Industries that reduce their emissions can then "trade" their unused limits to other businesses like a commodity. That creates a financial incentive to curb pollution — and pushes industry and government alike to seek out cleaner forms of energy. In 2003, the world invested $9 billion in wind power. Germany now generates twice as much energy from wind as the United States, and Spain will soon surpass us.

But limiting global warming will take a combination of aggressive policies — and the full participation of the United States. "The United States emits something like one-fourth of the world's carbon dioxide," says King, the British science adviser. "There's little doubt we need American leadership." Increasing fuel standards is essential: Cars, trucks, ships and airplanes account for almost a third of global emissions. Planting more forests would help absorb carbon in the atmosphere — China is currently spending $8 billion to plant nearly 9 million acres of new trees. Even a little energy efficiency would help: The amount of energy burned by 9 million American homes could power 19 million in Europe. Ultimately, though, putting the brakes on global warming will mean shifting to energy sources that are less destructive to the atmosphere. Even Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, the world's most famous Hummer fan, has called for investment in a "hydrogen highway" in California, paving the way for CO2-free cars.

"We don't have to do it all overnight," Schneider says. "It's a problem we can fix by a whole series of consistent and increasingly small steps. We can get there over a generation." The problem is, the Bush administration refuses to acknowledge that humans are changing the climate, let alone mount a full-scale campaign to head off disaster. "They do not have a credible plan, either domestically or internationally, for addressing the problem," says Michael Oppenheimer, a climatologist at Princeton University. They argue that they don't want to address global warming, he says, "because the science is shaky. And that approach is indefensible, because the science isn't shaky."

Even when moderates in Congress have tried to fashion a compromise on global warming, Bush has stood in their way. Senators John McCain of Arizona and Joe Lieberman of Connecticut joined forces last year to introduce a measure that would have capped carbon emissions well below the Kyoto levels and allowed industries to trade pollution rights. "Every day there is no action on this issue," McCain warned, "the more serious the consequences will be." But the White House opposed the plan, claiming it would cost $106 billion to implement — even though the EPA put the price tag at only $2 billion. The bill lost by twelve votes.

On a recent morning at Stanford University, the cool air hangs heavy in the palm and eucalyptus trees on the sprawling campus — a welcome relief from another record heat wave in the Bay Area. Stephen Schneider is hard at work in a concrete laboratory complex near the Rodin sculpture garden. His office, like his hair, is a perfect academic catastrophe. Few people have done more to awaken the world to the realities of global warming than Schneider, the recipient of a MacArthur "genius" grant. He knows that measures such as the one proposed by McCain and Lieberman won't stop global warming, but they would at least slow it down. And that's not nothing.

"Slowing it down matters," Schneider says. "The faster and harder you push on the ecological system, the more harm to nature — and the more the likelihood of surprise."

What kind of surprises?

Schneider considers the question. "If you had asked me one year ago how many people could have died in France by the most exaggerated heat wave — souped up by global warming — that I could imagine, I would have looked at Chicago in 1995," he says. That year, a similar heat wave killed several hundred people. "I would have said 500 — max," Schneider says, shaking his head. "And I would have been off by a factor of thirty.

"I'm talking about nasty surprises," he adds. "Are there more of those lurking? Undoubtedly."

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