Another Tragically Beautiful
An interview with Ross Gelbspan
by David Ross
Z magazine, February 2003
As special projects editor for The Boston
Globe, Ross Gelbspan won a Pulitzer Prize in 1984. He,s taught
at the Columbia University School of Journalism and is the author
of one of the most popular books on climate change called, The
Heat Is On: The High Stakes Battle Over Earth's Threatened Climate.
His website, www.heatisonline.org, was recently rated the best
climate-related site by the Pacific Institute.
David Ross: This summer in the Northwestern
corner of California we had a drought and some wildfires, and
strangely, this fall we haven,t had any rain in September and
October, which is very unusual for us, considering we live in
a rainforest. Do you think these events are related to climate
Ross Gelbspan: I think there,s no question
about it. It seems real clear to me that one of the first consequences
of climate change is a change in weather patterns. What happens
is that as the air warms up, it accelerates the evaporation of
surface water, which expands to hold more water. It redistributes
the moisture in the atmosphere, so you much longer droughts,
much more severe downpours, and so forth.
What you had in California in terms of
the wildfires (as we saw out here in Northeastern Canada which
was also subject to some really serious wildfires) is consistent
with this kind of drought. One-half of the U.S. was in drought
conditions this summer. At the same time, you had a 1000 people
die from a heat wave in India, and you had these horrendous floods
in Russia, the Czech Republic, and in Germany. All this is directly
related to climate change. This is the early stage of global
It,s also tied up with the spread of disease.
One of the most sensitive systems to temperature fluctuations
in nature is insects. As the weather warms up, it accelerates
the breading rates and the biting rates of insects, and it allows
them to live longer at higher altitudes and higher latitudes.
We,re now seeing mosquitoes, for instance, spreading malaria,
the West Nile virus and so forth to populations that have never
before experienced it. We,ve now seen locally transmitted cases
of malaria in northern Virginia. West Nile virus has spread to
42 states. As well as the weather changes, we,re also seeing
changes in disease patterns, changes in agriculture, and so forth.
DR: Can you explain what the greenhouse
RG: Carbon dioxide in the atmosphere traps
in heat and without it in the atmosphere, this planet would basically
be a frozen rock. We,ve had the same amount of carbon dioxide
in the atmosphere for 10,000 years"about 280 parts per million
(ppm)"until about 150 years ago when the world began to
industrialize using coal and oil. Right now, the level of this
atmospheric carbon is up to 370 ppm, and that,s a level this
planet has not experienced for 420,000 years. That is basically
an exaggerated greenhouse effect. The way it was for 10,000 years
gave us the kind of climate that made this planet hospitable
to our civilization. The amount we put up now is going to be
raising temperatures because the normal heating that usually radiates
back out into space is trapped in, because you have this thicker
and thicker carbon dioxide blanket in the atmosphere, and that
is a direct result of our burning fossil fuels.
DR: What are the greenhouse gases, and
where do they come from?
RG: There,s really one big one, and that,s
carbon dioxide. There,s also methane, which comes from landfills,
rotting garbage, animal manure and so forth. Methane and the
four other smaller ones are fairly insignificant, but the most
important one is carbon dioxide, and that comes from burning coal,
oil and natural gas. In other words, what nature is telling us
is that we have to get off of coal and oil. We have to move to
a renewable energy economy, otherwise we,re going to see very
catastrophic consequences from it.
DR: What sectors of society put out the
most carbon dioxide?
RG: In the United States, it breaks down
equally: about one-third from transportation, one-third from
our electricity generation"more than half of which comes
from coal burning power plants"and one-third comes from heating
and cooling in industrial uses. So we have to change our energy
sources across the board. It would be a lot easier if it were
only our transportation or electricity sector. What we have to
do is replace every gas-burning car, coal-burning generating
plant, and oil-burning furnace with climate friendly energy sources.
DR: What is the evidence for climate change
due to global warming?
RG: There,s a lot of evidence. The first,
most basic evidence, as I mentioned, is simply the measurable
increase in the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. Separate
from that, you have this real dramatic increase in weather extremes;
the proof of which is reflected if two places. It,s reflected
in the increase in government budgets for disaster relief, but
you can really see it in the losses to the world,s property insurers.
The insurance industry lost an average of 2 billion a year in
the 1980,s to these weather extremes. They lost an average of
12 billion a year in the 1990,s. That shows that were having
many more severe storms, floods, droughts, heat waves and so
The other body of evidence that I find
very compelling"and I,m not even going to go into computer
models"are simply things that are actually happening on
the planet from heating. First of all, heat expands water, so
we are seeing rising sea levels right now. We are seeing people
being evacuated from their island nation homes in the Pacific
Ocean, because they,re basically going to be submerged by rising
Heat changes ecosystems. A little south
of where you are, in Monterey Bay, California, scientist documented
a complete turnover of the marine population with cold water
fish moving northward and warm water fish and sea animals moving
in to populate that area. That,s due to ocean warming of the
Atmospheric warming has pushed a whole
population of butterflies from Mexico to Vancouver. We,re seeing
the migration of species, to try to maintain the same kind of
temperatures that they,re use to. They,re moving northward, or
if you,re below the equator, southward.
We,re also seeing warming in the deep
oceans, and that,s causing the breakup of big pieces of Antarctica,s
ice shelves. There was a piece the size of Rhode Island that
broke off last spring. That,s the third piece of that size that,s
broken off since 1995. Deep water heating is also changing the
patterns of El Niños that play havoc with weather all
over the world. For hundreds of years, El Niños recurred
at fairly predictable periods, but now they,re becoming more
frequent and intense.
Additionally, the tundra in Alaska, which
for thousands of years has absorbed carbon dioxide, and methane,
is now thawing and releasing those gases back into the atmosphere.
The final one that I,ll mention right
now is the change in the timing of the seasons. Because of the
buildup of carbon dioxide, spring now arrives more than two weeks
earlier in the northern hemisphere than it did 20 years ago.
All these events are physical changes that have been documented
in the scientific, peer-reviewed literature, and these are all
consequences of the warming of the planet.
Let me run some temperature numbers by
you. Sixteen of the hottest seventeen years on record have happened
since 1980. The 5 hottest consecutive years are 1991-1995. The
year 1998 replaced 1997 as the hottest year on record. The year
2001 replaced 1997 as the second hottest year on record, and the
rate at which this planet is warming is faster than anytime in
the last 10,000 years.
DR: It seems pretty clear that the globe
is warming. How powerful is the evidence linking global warming
to human activities?
RG: The United Nations asked that question
in 1988. They put together a panel of more than 2000 scientists
from 100 countries called the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate
Change (IPCC). These scientists did lots of experiments to distinguish
between natural warming and greenhouse warming. In 1995, they
said they had reached a consensus: Human beings are changing
the climate and it,s because of our burning of fossil fuels. They
came out with another report last year that projects a very rapid
increase in temperature in the coming decades.
Basically, the scientific body"it,s
very important to remember that this is rigorously, peer-reviewed
science"say that the planet has only warmed about 1 degree
in the last century, and it will warm from 3-10 degrees in this
current century. To put that in context, the last ice age was
only around 5-9 degrees colder than our current climate. Each
year we,re putting about 7 billion tons of carbon up into the
DR: What will happen if humanity continues
to emit billions of tons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere
and global warming continues at its current rate?
RG: We will see some very serious consequences
in a relatively short period of time. Let me give you 2 recent
studies. One comes from the major climate research laboratory
in Britain, called the Hadley Center. What the Hadley Center
said in a report they did last year was that climate change is
happening 50 percent faster than we thought because when they
originally did their computer models, they measured the effects
of a warming atmosphere on a relatively static biosphere. But
when they factored in the warming that has already taken place,
they found out that it,s compounding. As a result, they,re saying
that by 2040, most of the world,s forests begin to die. Instead
of absorbing carbon dioxide, they begin to omit it.
All these consequences of global warming
that were already seeing"I,m talking about the breakup of
the ice shelves, the migration of species, more intense downpours
and serve weather"that,s all happened from one degree of
warming and about a 30 percent increase in carbon dioxide in
Another study that came out in October,
2002 in which 18 scientists said that, taking very conservative
estimates of the worlds future energy use, these carbon dioxide
levels will surely double and probably triple before the end
of the century. There,s no question that would be catastrophic.
We,ll be seeing agriculture failures, the drying out of drinking
supplies, big epidemics of disease, deaths of forests and accelerating
extinctions of species. We will also see lots of political and
economic consequences from those physical changes.
DR: What are the politics of climate change?
We hear little about it in the corporate media. Our government
doesn,t appear to be doing anything about it, so how come nothing,s
being done about it?
RG: What,s really striking"and this
is really important to understand"is that nothing is being
done about it in the United States, but in other countries they,re
extremely aware of it. The science is unambiguous. Humanity needs
to cut its emissions by at least 70 percent to allow the climate
to stabilize. So, in Europe for example, Holland has just finished
a plan to cut her emissions by 80 percent in 4 years. The Germans
have committed to cutting emissions by 50 percent in 50 years.
The British are talking about cuts of 60 percent in 50 years.
It,s only in the U.S where nothing is
being done and the issue is not being discussed simply because
of the lock that the oil and coal industry have on our Congress
and especially on the Bush Administration, but even before that,
during the Clinton Administration, nothing was done.
The oil and coal industry is one of the
most powerful lobbies in the world. One of the things that they
have done is to finance a very effective campaign of disinformation
to keep everybody confused about the issue. Every time there,s
a new scientific finding or a new story about climate change,
the public relations people from the fossil fuel industry are
on the telephone with the newspaper reporters, telling them,
"Oh, there are many sides to this story. What got me into
this is when I learned that the coal industry was paying several
scientists under the table to say that climate change wasn,t
happening. A poor reporter who,s doing his story on deadline
has no way of knowing that there,s this kind of corruption going
Basically, the Bush Administration policies
are really being called by ExxonMobil right now, which is probably
the most intransigent of the oil companies, and also by the coal
industry, because if you stop and think about it, 70 percent
reductions means the end of the coal industry. There,s no way
we can continue to burn coal, and it means a total transformation
of the oil companies who have to become renewable energy companies.
They,re fighting for their survival.
Caller: There,s no question that there,s
global warming. The question is, what is causing it? There,s
also no question that weather patterns are not understood. As
far as the Kyoto protocol on climate change, the questions are:
Why would we accept that? What would be the cost to our society
as a whole and couldn,t that money be better spent elsewhere?
RG: Let me give you a couple of the experiments
the IPCC did to find out what was causing it. First of all, they
mapped the areas in the atmosphere where the warming was taking
place, over land, water, cold areas and warm areas. That yielded
a very specific pattern, which is graphically different than
the pattern of natural warming. It,s greenhouse warming, very
Let me give you one other experiment that,s
really simple. As the temperature has been rising, the nighttime
low and the wintertime low temperatures have been going up twice
as fast as the daytime high and summertime high temperatures.
The reason for that is the greenhouse gasses are trapping in
the nighttime and wintertime warmth that would naturally radiate
back into space. In other words, if it were natural warming, the
high and low temperatures would sort of rise and fall in parallel,
but that,s not happening.
I,ll give you one other experiment. There
are a number of researchers who reconstructed the global climate
for the last 1000 years. They went back a couple of hundred years
using instruments, tree rings, coral, ice cores and various ways
they can tell what the temperatures have been. They found that
from the year 1000 until about 1865, the planet was actually
cooling very slightly, and all of a sudden, after 1865, the temperature
begins to skyrocket. It goes up faster than it has in 10,000
years, and that change corresponds exactly with humanity,s beginning
to industrialize using fossil fuels"the industrial revolution.
There really is no question among scientists working on global
warming as to what is causing it"we are.
That leads into the caller,s second question,
which I think is the important question: What should we be doing
about it and what are the costs involved? Clearly the costs of
inaction are not bearable. This isn,t me saying it. This is the
insurance industry saying it. The biggest insurer in Britain
last year said that, unchecked, climate change could bankrupt
the global economy by 2065. The biggest insurance company in
the world, a German company called Munich Re Insurance, has said
that in the next couple of decades, the cost of these climate
impacts will cost us all about 300 billion dollars a year. That,s
the cost of not doing it.
The cost of meeting the Kyoto targets
is minimal. The problem is, the Kyoto targets are very low. They
call on countries to cut emissions by 6-7 percent while the science
says we have to cut them by 70 percent. So, Kyoto wouldn,t be
expensive. We could do it mostly through efficiencies, mostly
just by cleaning up a lot of waste in our energy systems, but
that wouldn,t get us very far.
We really need to cut our emissions by
70 percent. What that implies is a rapid global transition to
wind energy, hydrogen fuels, solar panels and so forth. Then
you get into the question of what the cost of those are, and to
think about that question, you have to realize that this is not
just a United States, problem, this is a global problem. Even
if we in the United States, Europe and Japan cut our emissions
dramatically, we would still be still be overwhelmed by the carbon
dioxide coming from India, China, Nigeria and so forth.
If the world wants to survive with a coherent
civilization, it has to make the kind of investment in a new
energy economy that will be global. What that will do is create
so many jobs, especially in poor countries, that it will turn
impoverished countries into robust trading partners. It will
expand the amount of wealth in the entire global economy. In fact,
we would end up with a much more wealthier and peaceful world
by doing it.
We would definitely have to take the 20
billion dollars in subsidies that the federal government spends
on coal and oil and put them into renewable energy, and let the
oil companies use that money to retrain and retool their workers
so they become aggressive developers of fuel cells, wind farms,
solar panels and so forth.
I think there are ways for this to happen
that could really increase living standards, purchasing power
and everything else, especially in developing countries, but
I think you need to see this as a project of at least several
decades. If you look at it that way, I think it would probably
be the most profitable investment we could make in our collective
Same caller: It,s just not true that there,s
agreement among scientists on global warming. Sure we need to
transition to renewable energy sources and we will do that. It,s
just a question of how we do that and the rate at which we do
that. I would like to refer listeners to a book called, "Skeptical
RG: What the gentleman said about how
we do this is really what the question is, but in terms of his
not accepting the science, I can tell you two things categorically.
One, the head of the IPCC has said, definitively, there is no
dispute among scientists working on this issue about the larger
trends of what,s happening to the planet. There are a lot of
disputes about second level scientific issues, but there,s no
dispute about the larger trend toward human-induced global warming.
The other thing that I would like to point
out, as I said, countries like Holland, Britain and Germany are
preparing to make huge cuts, and really change their whole energy
systems, and I doubt these countries would make these commitments
if they had any real doubts about the validity of the science.
DR: What can we do individually or collectively
to reduce our carbon dioxide emissions and thereby slow down
or stop global warming?
RG: I really think this is more of a political
question, than a lifestyle question. First of all, I,m not advocating
that we all sit in the dark and ride bicycles. We,re use to a
certain amount of energy, and I think we need that kind of energy
to have a productive society, and a productive economy. Even
if all of us turned off all the lights, all the time, and only
drove when we had to, that would not solve the problem.
I think what really needs to happen is
political action to empower governments to change energy subsidies,
and to regulate the oil companies into this transition. I've
talked to several oil company presidents, and they say, "We
can do this. We can become renewable energy companies, but we
have to be regulated by the government so we do it all together
without losing any competitive standing within the industry.
I would think that political action, such as asking your candidates
about it, asking your press about it, is really the best way
I'd like to make one other point. There
are some real serious splits within the oil industry already.
British Petroleum, which believes very strongly in global warming,
is the world,s biggest seller of solar systems. Shell Oil has
just put a billion dollars into a new renewable energy company.
So there are huge oil companies that know that this is happening
and know it has to happen, and they,re sort of having an internal
industry war against companies like ExxonMobil that are trying
to burn the last drop of oil they can get there hands on. I think
there are opportunities for political action knowing that these
different interests lie in different directions. I think that
knowledge can also be used.
David Ross does a talk show on KMUD radio
in Redway, CA. He,s worked on Ralph Nader's 2000 presidential
campaign, corporate accountability, U.S. imperialism, and environmental
issues. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.