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new internationalist
issue 319 - December 1999

Gathering storm

The long-range forecast for the world’s weather is less
than reassuring. Dinyar Godrej reads the signs.

‘Oh this maddening heat,’ exclaimed the woman as she came tearing across the street. In her sixties, at a guess, and wearing the merest wisp of a dress, she stopped in the shade of the booze shop’s awning and began flapping her elbows in the breeze. For the next couple of minutes she launched into an unstoppable volley of exclamations, the gist of which, my barely adequate Dutch permitting, seemed to be that this sort of thing never used to happen before. While all around us beaming sun-seekers wafted by, happy in their tans, she nevertheless had my ear.

For in her complaint I could hear the echo of my elderly parents’ rather more enervated voices. This summer the temperatures where they live in central India hovered for days in the forties. In the sapping dry heat, they both needed medical attention just to cope and could talk of little else whenever we spoke on the telephone. For them the record temperatures mean not just feeling run down, but also water shortages as reservoirs dry up before the monsoon rains arrive.

The weather as a topic of conversation has lost most of its neutrality for us – it’s no longer ‘safe’, brought up in order to make inoffensive small talk. We talk about it because it is important, because it is not a little strange. This shift is not just restricted to family; increasingly friends and acquaintances bring up the subject in order to register their unease. It’s constantly in the papers – every other day there are reports of hurricanes, droughts, floods or some other extreme weather and usually in the penultimate paragraph global warming is named as the probable culprit. Some tele-vision programme-makers have even hit upon a winning formula – strike a serious note by mentioning climate change in order to get away with the most bloodthirsty coverage of natural disasters.

But behind the headlines is a world in perpetual motion. Each year the earth receives energy equivalent to a 1,000 trillion barrels of oil in the form of sunlight.1 Much of it gets reflected right back into space by the shiny surfaces of water and ice. The rest functions as a kind of pump which drives ocean currents, evaporation, snow and rain. Trees absorb sunlight and release vapour, further fuelling the constant movement of life-giving water on our planet. Put very basically this is how the world’s weather system works. A Brazilian physicist, Eneas Salati, estimates that the energy flow each day over the Amazon Basin alone is comparable to between five and six million atom bombs.2 But despite these huge, almost unfathomable quantities, the world’s weather is quite a precisely tuned entity – knock it and devastation can result.

The stuff of havoc
Increasingly human activities are playing havoc with it. And ironically it is the stuff of all life on earth that is causing the damage. This stuff is the element carbon, the essential building block of anything that breathes or grows, whether animal, vegetable or in-between. The earth is packed with it in the form of their remains. But it also envelops the planet in the form of the gas carbon dioxide, invisible but with one remarkable quality that it shares with a few other gases – it traps some of the sun’s heat, delaying its escape from our atmosphere. In this it performs the ultimate life-giving function, keeping the world’s temperature within a small range that averages out at around 15° Celsius. All life thrives within this range, in sharp contrast to the rocky wastes of our nearest planetary neighbours.

The dance of carbon in the air is a remarkable one – we exhale it with every breath, it is liberated through volcanic explosions, fires and the decomposition of dead things. And, on the other hand, plants both on land and in the sea draw it back down in order to make their food and the oceans are constantly soaking it up. It’s a system of endless recycling – or at least it should be.

Sadly the engine of human progress, aided by that of greed, is throwing the system off-balance. By burning fossil fuels to provide us with electricity and to power our cars, we’re adding over six billion tons of the gas to the atmosphere each year – a fraction of the amount already up there, but extra nonetheless, building up year on year. Its levels in the atmosphere are predicted to reach double pre-industrial levels by 2080. Alongside this the chopping down of forests continues unabated, diminishing the earth’s ability to soak up carbon. Four-fifths of the earth’s original forests have been felled or degraded and 40 per cent of the remainder are under threat.3 This is really switching on the heat from both ends.

As carbon dioxide and the other aptly named greenhouse gases build up in the atmosphere ever more rapidly, the mercury is shooting up. Nine of the hottest years since records began have occurred since 1988 and last year went so far off the scale that it is being called the hottest year of the millennium. Globally this constitutes a rise of around 0.65Þ Celcius – which doesn’t seem like much, until you look at it more closely. First it is faster than at any point in the last 10,000 years.4 Second one has to remember that this is an average and that extraordinary highs and lows tend to get damped down by averages. And following on from that, the warming isn’t happening evenly – the temperature near the poles has risen by up to five degrees at some recording stations. In some regions where the ground has been laid bare, soaking up heat, freakish highs are occurring. Take the sub-Saharan Sahel region where summer highs have doubled in some cases. It doesn’t bear thinking about – your hottest summer day suddenly turning out to be twice as hot.

The world’s weather today is more unpredictable than it ever was, showing its violent side far more often. This is just as climate scientists have predicted – storms will become both more intense and more frequent, coastal regions will be awash with rain and will flood more often whilst the great continental interiors will dry up, summers will be hotter and winters either milder or paradoxically more severe. Dramatic flips could happen within a short span of time, not gradually, as supposed earlier. These are the headlines of today.

Unseasonal rain after a two-year drought washes away topsoil in a matter of hours in Ethiopia's Sidamo province.

All change
And everywhere life is struggling to adapt. Alpine plants are climbing up the mountainsides in order to find cooler temperatures, tropical fish are muscling in on Mediterranean waters threatening native species with extinction, people in the mountain regions of Rwanda and Kenya are developing malaria and yellow fever because mosquitoes have suddenly found the temperatures up there aren’t quite as cool as they used to be. Women from Alaskan indigenous communities out picking greens to preserve for winter have discovered to their horror an entirely new pest clinging to the leaves – the humble, yet hungry, caterpillar. Seafaring birds from the same region are flopping dead from hunger as fish move further out in search of cooler waters, beyond the birds’ range.

From Aotearoa/New Zealand to the highlands of Peru, glaciers are retreating at a ferocious rate causing the eventual drying up of the rivers they feed. North Korea is already in its fifth year of famine brought on by storms and floods, with the number of people dead crossing the two million mark. In Bangladesh there is a widespread acceptance that seasonal floods are worsening and people have built raised fields with freshwater ponds stocked with fish to help them sit floods out. But such preparedness begs a question: with Bangladesh’s fertile coastal plains at risk of sinking under the sea by the end of the coming century, who and what will feed the dispossessed people? Already the number of environmental refugees worldwide has been estimated at 25 million, more than the total of all other refugees. Fleeing into adjoining lands they are largely invisible to the rich West.

Africa, the continent that has the greatest food problems already, is predicted to suffer the most from drought and creeping deserts. A country like Egypt would be sandwiched by disaster – with the sea and salinization eating up its coast and aridity spreading across the interior.

We have to pull our heads out of the sand now, before the changes start spiralling out of control. Here is a hypothetical but entirely probable doomsday scenario. As greenhouse gases build up in the atmosphere, temperatures rise. Forests begin to dry and die back or burn. Felling continues apace, diminishing their ability to draw down carbon dioxide. Areas under ice melt to expose the earth below, which begins to soak up the sun’s heat instead of reflecting it. Long-frozen tundra vegetation begins to decompose releasing more carbon dioxide and methane. The seas, swollen by rising temperatures and melting polar ice, swallow densely populated coastal regions. With warming they also begin to lose their ability to absorb carbon dioxide and could start releasing the gas already dissolved in them – estimated at 50 times the amount contained in the atmosphere... You get the picture. As vicious circles go this one is hard to beat.

Ostrich arena
So where is the battle for the world’s weather being fought? In the political arena, where an ostrich tendency seems to predominate. No matter how hard scientists and environmental activists and you and me shout, politicians will ultimately make the decisions that could halt this madness – or not.

The story goes back to 23 June 1988 when James Hansen, a climate scientist with NASA’s Goddard Institute, warned a Washington meeting that the world was getting warmer due to the build up of greenhouse gases, and an increased tendency for droughts and floods was to be expected. Quite coincidentally he made his speech on the hottest day of the year in the US at a time when the Midwest was in one of its worst droughts. (It was also nearly a century after Swedish scientist Svante Arrhenius had first made the link between climate change and industry’s emissions of carbon dioxide.) Hansen’s speech was a spur to the setting up by the United Nations of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, a body of over 2,500 scientists from around the world. Seven years later this vast group reported back, confirming ‘a discernible human effect on global climate’.

During that time this global body of scientists had improved the models by which they made predictions about weather to come. To prove they weren’t guessing in the dark, they ran the models backwards into the past and found their predictions matched to a T weather events that had already taken place. The message was clear: human emissions of greenhouse gases must slow dramatically and our reliance on fossil fuels must stop.

It wasn’t a message the trillion-dollar-a-day oil and coal industries4 were eager to hear and they launched their propaganda offensive – by aggressively promoting on every possible media platform a handful of discredited sceptical scientists whom they had funded, by instigating personal attacks on prominent IPCC scientists and by peddling disinformation. In the US the latter went from alarming stories about outrageous energy bills if the status quo were disturbed to funding the teaching of ‘how petroleum improves the quality of life’ to schoolchildren.5

When the world’s governments met in Kyoto, Japan, towards the end of 1997 to discuss emissions reductions, the multi-million-dollar PR scare-mongering went into overdrive. Each nation came to the bargaining table with barely masked self-interest. The Alliance of Small Island States, whose member countries are at risk of sinking under rising seas, demanded the highest cuts in emissions – 20 per cent below 1990 levels. The Prime Minister of Tuvalu decried as ‘utterly insensitive and irresponsible’ the suggestion by some countries that it would be cheaper to relocate the population instead.6

The US, the world’s largest emitter of greenhouse gases, and Canada insisted that Majority World countries should also pledge reductions. To which Zhong Shukong, the Chinese delegation leader, replied: ‘In the developed world only two people ride in a car and you want us to give up riding the bus!’ Entirely true, as Los Angeles alone has more cars than the whole of China. Australia, fearing the costs of regulating its energy-intensive mining industry, argued for and secured an increase rather than a reduction in its emissions. And of course the wealthy oil-producing countries in the Middle East set their faces firmly against any proposal that would threaten their livelihoods.

Greenhouse-gas emissions .

Gordian knot
Out of this tangle of positions emerged, not surprisingly, a low target of 5.2 per cent below 1990 emissions (for individual country positions, see graphic above). Not quite the 60-to-70-per-cent reductions scientists had called for, which would mean in effect a phasing out of fossil fuels. Viewed optimistically this could be seen as a start, because no-one expects an overnight lop.

But let’s just consider the country everyone is watching – the US. Having agreed to a seven-per-cent cut, the actual reduction after a spot of creative accountancy could be as low as three per cent, much of which could be further shaved by emissions trading. But even so, there has been not a squeak about ratification from the Clinton administration two years down the line, even though the President has gone on record saying that a 20-per-cent reduction could be achieved just by wasting less energy.7 This is because the Republican-dominated Congress has been thoroughly wooed by the oil and coal lobby and takes up cudgels to defend the ordinary American’s right to pollute as though it were sacred. Congress does this despite the fact that the Americans it claims to represent are increasingly making the connections between tornadoes, droughts, weird overnight epidemics, explosions in the insect and rodent populations and the weather. Hypocritically making a big show that developing nations should clean up their act, they actually seem to encourage the exact opposite (see Smokescreen).

How to make a difference
1 The move away from fossil fuels needs to come at a national and international policy level. We can make our political representatives feel the heat and demand commitments to radically reducing emissions.
2 To get the message across we need to learn about the issues surrounding global warming and climate change as well as renewable sources of energy and inform others about them.
3 Our own energy consumption is the best starting point. Electricity can easily be saved by using energy-efficient appliances and switching off any that aren’t needed.
4 Biking, walking or using public transport makes a real difference. So does cutting down on the number of journeys and ensuring that if we have to use a car it is fuel efficient.
5 Supporting public transport and campaigning for it to be made fast, frequent and cheap will help us all.
6 Governments need to support renewable initiatives so that we can have real choice as energy consumers.
[Based on Greenpeace guidelines]

Oddly enough the most radical voices in this you-first game are not just those of environmental activists, but of the IPCC scientists. They argue that poverty reduction needs to become a priority for rich nations, as poor people are often pushed into degrading their environment to meet their needs, magnifying the impacts of extreme weather. The West, they say, must provide technical know-how and financial support to Majority World nations so they can switch to cleaner forms of energy without sacrificing their developmental goals. In truth despite these countries’ political position that due to their tiny historic contribution of greenhouse gases (less than ten per cent) the West cannot lecture them, many would welcome being less dependent on oil and coal.

Already a southern Indian wind farm with 2,000 turbines is the second largest in the world. In Kenya more rural households get their electricity from solar energy than from the national grid. Vietnamese farmers are making biogas, which burns relatively cleanly, from farmyard waste. Such projects are starting up around the world, empowering people by letting them take control.

But nothing short of an energy revolution is needed. The technology already exists to meet all the world’s energy needs cleanly, it’s just crying out for funding. Pushing current subsidies for fossil fuels worth $300 billion towards renewables is the kind of action required. Jobs lost in the oil and coal industries would be more than compensated for by the new jobs created.

Already renewable energy is one of the fastest growing sectors in the world. Two oil giants – British Petroleum and Shell – have trumpeted their comparatively small investments in solar energy. They are no doubt just testing the waters, seeing as they and the rest of the world’s fossil-fuel companies have already located reserves four times the amount that can be safely burnt.8 But perhaps it is also a sign of wanting to get in early on a good thing.

What is urgently needed is for more business and world leaders to think in the same way, regardless how dodgy their motives. For as the Argentine climate negotiator Raul Estrada Oyuela put it: ‘We are all adrift in the same boat. And there is no way that only half the boat is going to sink.’4

1 Climate Change: Awareness and Action by Dave Mussell, Juleta Severson-Baker and Tracey Diggins(Pembina Institute for Appropriate Development, 1999).
2 Quoted in ‘Eradicating Amazon rainforests will wreak havoc on climate’ by Peter Bunyard, The Ecologist, Volume 29 No 2, March/April 1999.
3 The Independent 16 September 1999.
4 The Heat Is On: The Climate Crisis, The Cover-up, The Prescription by Ross Gelbspan (Perseus Books, 1998).
5 Report for the NI by Christian Huot, 1999.
6 Shuzo Nishioka, ‘Fairness and Local Environmental Concerns in Climate Policy’ in Fair Weather: Equity Concerns in Climate Change edited by Ferenc L Tóth (Earthscan, 1999).
7 United Nations Association of the USA website http://www.unausa.org/programs/gcc.htm
8 Greenpeace carbon budget calculations, May 1999.

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New Internationalist issue 319 magazine cover This article is from the December 1999 issue of New Internationalist.
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