Another Tragically Beautiful Day

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,, 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 change?

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 warming.

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 effect is?

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 forth.

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 sea levels.

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 surface waters.

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 atmosphere.

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 the atmosphere.

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 on.

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 specifically.

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 future.

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 Environmentalists.

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 to go.

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

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