Volume , Number 0
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The Celling of America
Organizing in Lawrence
Poor People's Organizing
Slippin' & Slidin'
High-Tech Transportation Workers
The Heat is On
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The Heat is On
The High Stakes Battle Over Earth's Threatened Climate
Addison-Wesley Publishing Company, Reading, Massachusetts, 1997; 278 pp.
Review by Genevieve Howe
If you ever lie awake at night wondering how fast were destroying the planet, you have plenty to worry about. As long as youre up, dont miss the chance to read The Heat is On. It will tell you in no uncertain terms how little time we have left to halt our dependency on fossil fuels.
The book charts global warmings fatal course and tells us how we canand mustchoose another path. Now. Not after we have found a cure for AIDS, brought peace to the Middle East, or elected the next president, but now. Yet, Ross Gelbspan does not forecast gloom and doom. Rather, he is refreshingly, almost unbelievably, optimistic.
The cause of global warming is neither unknown nor complicated. It is large-scale combustion of oil and coal. Gelbspan tells it like it is: "The problem is not difficult to understand. Each year humans pump six billion tons of heat-trapping carbon into the lower atmosphere, which is only twelve miles high. Within a few decades the atmospheric levels of carbon dioxide will double from preindustrial levels. The worlds temperature record is already bearing witness to global climate change. Since 1980 we have seen the ten hottest years in recorded history. The five hottest consecutive years on record began in 1991. The hottest year in the worlds recorded weather history was 1995. [That is now 1997.] The planet is warming at a faster rate than at any time in the last ten thousand years."
Okay, so a section the size of Rhode Island broke off the Larsen ice shelf in Antarctica, the weather has become erratic, and sea levels are rising. Is this so terrible?
The journalist/author says the catalog of anticipated effects reads like the "biblical apocalypse." We can look forward to: " More extreme temperatures, with hotter heat and colder cold, but also more intense rain and snowstorms, extraordinarily destructive hurricanes, and protracted, crop-destroying drought, particularly in the interior regions of continents. Island nations and low-lying coastal regions everywhere might disappear under rising seas. These ecological shifts would trigger outbreaks of infectious diseases, as they have already begun to do." As if this werent enough, warming leads to more warming. Droughts can lead to wildfires that burn vast areas of forest. The fires will not only add to carbon dioxide emissions but also remove vegetation which absorbs carbon dioxide.
The book is peppered with examples. Mosquitoes that used to survive only up to 1,000 feet are spreading malaria and yellow fever at 2,000 feet. In 1994, floods that normally last for two to three days in Bangladesh, lasted for two weeks and affected nearly ten million people. The same year, Great Britain had its hottest summer since 1659 and its driest summer since 1721. By March 1996, five successive years of floods, droughts, and pest attacks had decimated more than 20 percent of Laoss rice paddies. The Canadian Forest Service reports that nearly one fifth of the northern forest biomass has been lost to fires and insects in the past 20 years. "Before 1970 the forest had absorbed 118 million tons of carbon each year, more than counterbalancing Canadian fossil fuel emissions. But in the last decade that balance has shifted, and the forest has released on average 57 millions tons of carbon each year."
Gelbspan anticipates a resurgence of "totalitarianism" and "martial rule" in developing countries to control masses of refugees driven off land by drought, flood, fire, famine, homelessness, disease, and economic disruptions. "Long before sea levels rise by two to three feet over the next centuryand they are projected to continue to rise after thatthe flood of environmental refugees will likely have overwhelmed both our compassion and our capacity to help."
The author claims that today, 25 million environmental refugees roam the globe, more than those pushed out for political, economic, or religious reasons. By 2010, he expects this number to grow tenfold to 200 million.
The Heat is On offers numerous examples of what we can expect to see by 2010 if current trends continue: "...Sub-Saharan Africas already stressed food production will decline by 20 percentleaving more than 300 million people in a state of permanent malnutrition... [In the case of India] even a half-degree Celsius temperature rise will reduce the wheat crop at least 10 percent... More than half the population of the developing world could be cutting down trees for fuel and firewood... Disease outbreaks, driven by changing climate patterns, will parallel the spread of poverty and displacement."
It will come as no surprise that the World Bank and International Monetary Fund are not exactly helpful. While the Bank throws some money at renewable energy projects, it spends billions of dollars on coal plant development in India, China, and other countries. Yet, the intelligence community has begun to act. A Scientific American article published after The Heat is On revealed that the CIA is assessing the potential for destabilization due to climate related disruptions.
The book offers sound evidence of the global economic tailspin we can expect if we dont switch to renewable energy sources. In the 1980s, insurance companies around the world paid out an average of $2 billion per year in weather-related property damages. In the 1990s, they paid an average of $12 billion. The failure of insurance companies would impact businesses everywhere. We may not much like insurance companies, but Gelbspan cites them as keen to jump on the bandwagon against the oil and coal industries. Insurers have already formed an odd alliance with small island nations, stretching from the Philippines to Jamaica, in fear of being flooded out of existence by rising sea levels and ripped to shreds by ever more severe hurricanes.
In spite of the hard facts, the trillion-dollar-a-year oil and coal industries have been waging a ferociously well-funded campaign to discredit global warming and to provide "greenhouse skeptics" for talk shows. Remarkably, according to Gelbspan, this campaign is being carried out with the help of about a half-dozen scientists.
Two Newsweek polls showed the effectiveness of the smear campaign. In 1991, 35 percent of the U.S. population believed that global warming was a serious problem. In 1996, only 22 percent held this opinion. But, press attention to the Kyoto conference of December 1997 pushed the believers back up above 35 percent. Gelbspan cites a reporter from the German newsmagazine, Der Spiegel: "Its only in America that there is a debate over whats happening to the global climate. In all the European scientific circles, theres no debate at all about whats happening."
Fortunately, says the optimistic Gelbspan, our destructive ways coincide with the arrival of technology needed to beat our oil and coal habit. Solar panels, fuel cells, hydrogen fuel, wind sources and other renewable forms of energy have already been adequately developed to meet our energy needs. Contrary to what smear campaigns would have us believe, new technologies are practical, less capital intensive, more labor intensive, cheaper in the long run, and reduce everyones dependency on foreign companies and foreign supplies of fuel. They will also help close the gap between rich and poor nations.
The transition can, and must, be made within ten years. This writer believes we can do it simply by stopping the $25 billion per year in U.S. government subsidies to the oil, coal, and nuclear industries and applying that money to incentives for establishing renewable energy sources.
Perhaps the most optimistic moment in the book is a quote from Ambassador H.E. Tuiloma Neroni Slade of Samoa at the Rio conference: "...the strongest human instinct is not greedit is not sloth, it is not complacencyit is survival...and we will not allow some to barter our homelands, our people and our culture for short-term economic interest." Gelbspan convinces us that if we could stop the deterioration of the ozone layer and if we could shoot holes through the tobacco lobbys arguments, that we can smother the oil and coal industries.
The Heat is On spells out the realities of global warming in eight chapters addressing evidence of current problems, the campaign to discredit global warming, the oil and coal buy-up of Congress, economic impacts of global warming, post-Rio de Janeiro diplomatic angling, headline news from the planet, the coming permanent state of emergency, and one possible course of action. A 41-page appendix provides "A Scientific Critique of the Greenhouse Skeptics."
A shortcoming of the book is its liberal use of the word "democracy." Gelbspan doesnt define what he means by this term and makes the assumption that "democracy" exists in the vast majority of countries around the world. He also neglects to mention that the small portion of the worlds population living in North America uses a large portion of the worlds energy. This pattern of excessive, wasteful consumption in the North surely plays a role in both the problem of and solutions to global warming. In addition, the book leaves the reader wanting to know more about how we get from here to there. How will we get the oil and coal industries to switch to new technologies? How will this new technology be "transferred" from developed to developing nations? How will the use of alternative energy close the gap between rich and poor?
According to the author, most gaps in the hardback edition will be filled by the updated, paperback version of The Heat is On, due out in September from Perseus Books. It will contain more detailed, sophisticated solutions, sounder economic analyses, and news from the Kyoto conference in December 1997. Best of all, it promises to offer even more good news than the original version. In the past year, British Petroleum and Shell have broken ranks with other oil companies, Sunoco and Texaco have admitted the climate issue must be dealt with, Toyota announced plans to market a car that gets 100 miles per gallon, and Ford and Daimler-Benz will soon be selling fuel cell cars. The coal industry, however, has not yet budged.For more information contact: Ozone Action, 1636 Connecticut Ave., NW, Ste 300, Washington, DC 20009-1043, (202) 265-6738.