not the best of news : we’re too selfish to stop global warming

Finally someone has come out and said it. We’re too selfish to make the sacrifices required to turn around global warming. Nobody wants to say this, because we want to hope that there is still time the naysayers and deniers and ignorant and indifferent– most of the world’s population, including some very rich adamant anti-warmists– will have a change of heart, or that a technological fix will be found. This distressing study is a reiteration of Garret Hardin’s thesis of  tragedy of the common, the depletion of a shared resource by individuals, acting independently and rationally according to each one’s self-interest, despite their understanding that depleting the common resource is contrary to the group’s long-term best interests.

the climate change debate III

The skeptics fall into several categories. 1) scientists with legitimate questions about a very complex issue which is being whitewashed for ideological reasons. 2) contrarians who include public intellectuals like my esteemed Vanity Fair colleague Christopher Hitchens, who asked me over dinner one night two years ago if I thought global warming was really real, and referred me to a recent (Aprilb 27/8 2007) posting by our former esteemed colleague Alexander Cockburn on his site Counterpunch. The posting is very interesting. Cockburn is definitely not a warmist. He compares the booming trade in carbon credits to the Vatican selling indulgences centuries ago. In fact there is a lot of scamming and shadiness in the carbon credit business. I’ve thought of writing about it myself. Around this time I hooked up with an old journalist friend who was now a carbon trader in London. He had just made a million-pound deal with some major polluter to plant a ten thousand acre jatropha plantation in Indonesia to compensate for its emissions. Jatropha fruits were the hot commodity in the alternative energy biodiesel fuel business. Since then an aquatic algae has been found to be even better. Who is going to verify that the trees are even planted, let alone harvested and their juicy nuts squeezed into biofuel when the trees comes to maturity ten-twenty years from now, when the entire energy picture will undoubtedly be very different and jatropha will have long since ceased to be part of the mix ?

Returning to Cockburn, he then points out the CO2 tonnage of emissions produced by humans burning coal oil and natural gas peaks in 1928 at 1.1 gigatons. By 1932 its has fallen to .88 gigatons, a whopping. thirty percent drop. “Hard times drove a tougher bargain than all the counsels of Al Gore or the jeremiads of the IPCC” have been able to achieve. This is an interesting point, especially since the current global economic downturn, now in its second year,  has reportedly also caused a 30% drop in fossil fuel emissions, or maybe all human emissions; I’d have to look the source again. You can see from Cockburn’s language how contemptuous he is of the warmists, which sets off immediate alarm bells about his objectivity. He obviously has an ideological stance, but to what extent does this have to do with his niche as a professional contrarian, and what does he really know ? He goes on to say that the parts per million of C02 in the atmosphere went from 306 to just 307 between l928 and l932. Now they are 380, so he concludes, “thus it is impossible to conclude that the increase in atmospheric C02 stems from the burning of fossil fuels” when the emissions went up 21% but the atmospheric concentration went up only 0.5%” First of all, how sound are these numbers ? While rejecting mainstream climate science in general, Cockburn accepts them without question, because they are useful for his position. Secondly, there are many other human sources of atmospheric carbon besides burning fossil fuel : deforestation, forest fires, land conversion, the charcoal stoves still used by billions, and myriad others. I would question whether the amount that from burning of fossil fuel could accurately be separated from the other sources in l928-32, or even now. I have learned to be suspicious of all numbers. As I said in my piece on AIDS in Africa (Dispatch #54), “the figures are figurative.” And thirdly, with 1.1 gigatons, 1928 was not the peak year for human fossil fuel or total carbon emissions at all, so what is he talking about ? In 2006 the International Energy Agency reported 5.7 gigatons of carbon emissions just for the U.S., and in 2007 the U.S. Energy Agency reported 6 gigatons nationally. The global amount is close to five times that. Fossil fuel burning accounts for about a quarter of that, so we’re looking at roughly five or six gigatons, minus 30% since the economic meltdown.

Cockburn concludes that because the carbon tonnage from burning fossil fuel has declined (this must be, I originally thought,  from less burning of coal in home heating systems. We had a coal furnace in Bedford, New York, though,  through the mid-fifties; but actually, see above, it hasn’t at all, it has increased prodigiously, five-fold or so), human emissions are not the culprit, what is causing the warming. He quotes a retired metereologist called Martin Hertzberg that the role of water from oceans, clouds, snow ice cover, and vapor is “overwhelming in the radiative and energy balance between the earth and the sun. Carbon dioxides and greenhouses gases are, by comparison, the equivalent of a few farts in a hurricane.” This is an excellent point, and while I still believe that the possibility of our not having a heavy hand in the current global is miniscule, and the number Cockburn is putting out seem to have been drawn out of a hat,  let me throw him and his fellow skeptics a bone  and recycle from the first Wikipedia entry another even more dramatic statement, whose veracity I have no way of knowing : “In the Ordovician period of the Paleozoic era, the Earth had an atmospheric CO2 concentration of 4400 ppm (or 0.44 % of the atmosphere), while also having evidence of some glaciation.”

Back to dinner with Hitchens, I assured him that I had made a thorough reassessment of the evidence and was still convinced that we are the main cause  of this global warming and referred him to the IPCC’s physical science basis FAQ’s, which should answer any doubts he might have. But, looking back on it,  I said this in a way that was also ideological, as someone who was in the faith, which I did not dare to challenge, because it was part of my heroic, which was and still is to do as much for the world, particulary its biological and cultural diversity, as I can while I am here. Hitchens, with his contempt for religious belief, picked right up on my unquestioning piety, my need to believe in the greenhouse narrative, because it was a central pillar of my whole schtick, my mission, but said nothing. I for my part wondered why he had turned into a doubter. Was it part of his general swing to the right of late ?

3) the libertarians, who are right-wing contrarians. People like Alex Jones, the Texas talk show host. These guys are not even worthy adversaries. They will say anything to stir things up and get attention. And while claiming to be independent, they are in sync with the Republican philosophy, which is not to stymie individualism, free-market trickle-down capitalism.

4) the Republican capitalist oligarchy, the uncompassionate conservatives who wants the oil to keep flowing and everybody to keep consuming it and filling the sky with carbon so they can keep getting rich. Their interest is obviously to minimuze the effects of the emissions. They have at their disposal an army of right-wing bloggers and hackers and dirty-tricksters who are ready to destroy the reputations of anyone who challenges their anti-environmental ideology and will resort to disinformation if they can’t get any real goods on him. I have seen nothing about who actually hacked into the British Climate Centre’s e-mail system. That would be a very interesting and useful piece of information. One of these boys, I bet, or their buddies in Europe or Asia. These skeptics are a persuasion, just as some of the warmists are. And as Bertrand Russell said, “The most savage controversies are those about matters as to which there is no good evidence either way.” Except the evidence that the human contribution is significant is overwhelming, even if not all of it isn’t true. They know from the tobacco wars that all they have to do is keep raising doubts about the science. The hard-core, ideological skeptics represent a much smaller segment of public opinion than the hard-core ideological warmists in Europe, but in the U.S., where they are most vociferous, there are more of them, which is not surprising because we are the number-one consumers of oil. With both sides, it’s about more than just what is causing this climate problem ? Your stance on global warming correlates with your stand on abortion, evolution, gay marriage, whether you live in a red or blue state, whether you listen to NPR or Rush Limbaugh. I am beginning to think that in every society there are two basic types of people, who are as distinct as cats and dogs or men and women, and that what makes you one or the other could be genetic. And whether you are a warmist or a skeptic is more a function of the psychology of conservatism, how compassionate you are capable of being for people who aren’t as fortunate or well off as you are, what makes some people want to become prophets or draws them to apocalyptic scenarios, how upset you are about the obvious degradation of the environment and the devastation of  what is left of the world’s species and cultures,  than what is actually happening with the climate.

When the news broke that e-mails by some of Britain’s top climate scientists that were extremely damaging to the warmist cause had been hacked, I wasn’t at all surprised. I was already aware of the scientific orthodoxy, and that any scientist who questioned the greenhouse narrative did so at risk to his career. The party line was not only operative in the scientific community. When I reported to my editor that the Russian scientists seemed to have serious  and legitimate questions about the importance of the  human contribution, he advised me not to give that a lot of play, because “we have a lot invested in the reality of this.” This could be seen as evidence of what the skeptics are constantly accusing, that there is a conspiracy by the liberal media to sell the American on “the greatest hoax of all time,” as the ultra-skeptic oilstate redneck Senator James Inhofe (R-Okla) calls it.

But from what I can see, the media has been giving the skeptics much more attention than they deserve, and if anything most of the coverage has been slanted in their favour. And I am living proof that, liberal as I am, there is no liberal conspiracy. Which I hope these three blogs have made clear.

If you take anything away from this, I hope it is this : We don’t really know how big the human component is compared to the natural one. I don’t think it is possible to put numbers on either of them at this point. Let’s take the desertification of Mali, for instance, the subject of Dispatch #31. According to scientists sitting at computers in Texas, the Sahara is spreading south and shrinking the size of the wooded and grassy Sahel and causing massive drought in the region because of the increasing frequency and intensity of El Nino and of the similar periodic warming event in the tropical North Atlantic, which is due to our carbon emissions. But according to the Malian minister of the environment, the cause was that more and more trees are being cut by the exponentially growing population, the cause was local and mechanical instead of being a repurcussion of something distant and meteorological whose effects are felt all over the world. Who is right ? Who can know ? I saw  devastating effects of deforestation on my tour of the country– erosion, frehsly clearcut swaths shriveling baking in the sun into desert hardpan that nothing could take root in, vast fires sending clouds of thick black smoke into the night, blizzards of dust redder than the usual seasonal dust storms, because they were filled with particles of sun-dried lateric soil  that the wind had picked up. So I was inclined to believe the man on the ground, the environment minister, who was seeing what was actually happening, and not the guys in Texas looking at their computer models. But what do I know ? That’s how every scientific paper should start : What do I know, but here’s some new data for you.

And in the end, it doesn’t matter how much of it is human. There are so many other imperative reasons for us to be reducing our consumption and waste stream. And every little bit helps.

the climate change debate continued

First of all, I don’t want to give the impression that I am knocking the scientists. Many of them are wonderful people, and I deeply appreciate the time they’ve given me, the conversations we’ve had, and the many things I’ve learned from them. It is understandable that some might want to overstate their certainty about certain things, because they are aware, as I am, that the situation for us and the planet is dire and critical, and we needed to get people’s attention with the most powerful statements that we can come up with. For instance, the other day the Princeton geoscientist  Michael Oppenheimer said on CNN that the link between global warming and human emissions is as firm as that between lung cancer and tobacco. The problem with this analogy is that there are many other factors in the global warming equation, known and unknown. Human emissions are certainly a significant part of it, but Dr. Oppenheimer is making it seem as if humans emissions are the main contribution. This is what the IPCC collectively declares too, but I think this is a case of scientists trying to make you think they know something they really don’t, and of adhering to what has become the scientific orthodoxy and party line. I don’t think anyone really knows, so I am immediately suspicious of anyone who says he does. We’re in uncharted waters here. If the greenhouse narrative did not exist, there would be a whole body of scientific literature with natural explanations that climate scientists would have to be in sync with.

I myself was a fervent unquestioning devotee of the greenhouse narrative, although I was increasingly aware of the subjective component in even the most rigorous hard science, until 2006, when I went to Russia to a story about the scramble for the Arctic’s rich oil deposits that are becoming increasingly accessible as the icecap melts. In Moscow I met with several eminences grises of the Russian Academy of Sciences, founded by Peter the Great in l724 (which my ancestor Johann D. Schumacher had been the first director of) who told me that the official position of the academy was the exact opposite of what everyone in the West was saying : the human contribution was negligible, and in fact the planet was cooling down. Some of the Russian metereological stations had been registering lower temperatures for the last few years. One scientist told me that 104 astronomical phenomena were also in play besides our emissions, and there were cyclical shifts in the jet stream over the western Arctic, and in the icepack, which is constantly moving, in two gyres. A lovely octogenarian glaciologist said he had been recording dramatic shifts in the size of the icepack since the 1930s, long before there was any talk of this greenhouse business, and that in fact in the early thirties, the entire Arctic coast from Murmansk to the Behring Strait had been ice-free and open to shipping, which it still isn’t today despite all the dramatic melting that is being reported, and this had nothing to do with human emissions, which didn’t really kick in till around l970.

But to what extent was this an even more toed and lockstep party line ? The old scientists were simply telling me what they had observed over their long careers, and it is natural that they would be skeptical of this new greenhouse theory, when they had recorded dramatic cyclical variation in the amount of summer ice in the Arctic. But how similar was this reactionary stance to the archaeologists whose careers had been devoted to the study of Clovis man and predicated on the assumption that the Clovis people were the first to arrive in the New World, whose applecart was upset by the discovery of Fulsom man, whose projectile points carbon-dated to several thousands years earlier than Clovis ? How bitterly they fought to discredit the findings of the new-wave Fulsom archaeologists. And to what extent was the Russian party line dictated by the Kremlin, which had an obvious interest in wanting the melting to continue and denying the human contribution so they could get at the oil and the Arctic coast would melt again and the lucrative shipping lanes would be reopened ? I was told that the academy’s anti-warmist position was dictated by its top climate guy, Yuri Israel, who was very political, and everybody had to adhere to it or else. But for the first time, the old scientists had raise legitimate doubts in my mind. It made perfect sense that a lot of other things would be involved besides our emissions.

I continued to Siberia (if you want to read the whole story, go to Dispatch #47), and in Yakutia, the capital of the Sakaha (Yakutia) Republic, I met an old communist science bureaucrat who had a bald head and pointed bearded and piercing eyes like Lenin, and he told me that the permafrost, which everything I had been reading in Western sources was supposed to be melting disastrously, was hardly melting at all, and within normal variation. A Dartmouth anthropologist who was doing a study of  the Evenky reindeer herders’ perception of global warming told me that one woman told her “global warming is something you investigators brought with you. We had never heard of it until you came.” But a Yukaghir activist told me that his people were suffering severely from the melting permafrost, which was wreaking havoc with their traditional hunting and fishing patterns and undermining their villages. I met one dissident scientist, Maxim Trifomov, who presented me with his impressive thousand-page study detailing massive melting of the permafrost. He held the Western view that the human contribution was paramount.

So who was a poor boy to believe ? I flew up to the Arctic Circle and took a boat down a river where I saw a 100-foot wall of fossil ice on one of its banks that was melting away in a warm sifting September drizzle. The ice was full of the skeletons of Pleistocene mammals which had been locked in it for ten thousand years or more, and as the ice melted away, the bones were being disgorged into the river. I pocketed the  huge vertebra of what a paleozoologist in Yakutia said was that of an extinct horse.

I came away from this assignment with two realizations : the global warming issue is highly politicized, and it is not just caused by human emissions. The foundations of my faith had been a little shaken, but I read carefully the 35-page Frequently Asked Questions section of the Physical Science Basis section of the IPCC’s which addressed in great detail my questions and restored my faith in the greenhouse narrative. This section on the physical science basis is essential reading for anyone who wants to get up to speed in the climate change debate However, looking at the FAQ discussion now, I find several statements that I have problems with. The first is that 98% of the climate scientists in the world and every science academy in every country agree that the human contribution is the main cause. There is virtual consensus. But the Russian Academy of Sciences, one of the oldest and most hallowed scientific institution, does not agree and in fact maintains the complete opposite, so this is not true. They may have since modified their position, but at the time of the IPCC’s 2006 report, this is what is was. Secondly, that it has to be our emissions because no known natural phenomena are happening that could explain what is going on. But what about the interglacial warming period,  which we are still in because otherwise, the next Ice Age would be beginning and it would be getting colder ? What about the astronomical and atmospheric oscillations the Russian scientists told me about ? There is obviously not complete consensus, a huge grey area that science has not yet fleshed out and completely nailed down. Both sides are right, but they are examining a different part of the elephant. Wikipedia has a number of detailed, even-handed entries that are worth looking at : global warming controversy (36 pages), politics of global warming, climate change consensus (10 pages), scientific opinion on climate change (26 pages), climate change denial (9pages), and climate research unit e-mail hacking incident (15 pages; I will go into this incident in the next blog). Much food for thought.

But the scientists are not the real problem. It’s the lower-level mainstream media, which ignores  their meticulously phrased caveats and qualifications and distorts and sensationalizes their findings and turns their conclusions into black and white statements that they went to great length to emphasize they were not in a position to make. It simply gets it wrong. And once a sexy but untrue factoid is out there it gets repeated and repeated until gradually it acquires the veneer of truth. The real villains, though, are the trash and disinformation machine of the interests that are interested in being able to conduct business as usual, however polluting and damaging to the health of the planet and its life. They are the ones who are doing the most damage to the effort to figure out what is really going on.

to be continued


the climate change debate

Everybody and his mother has been sounding off about this, but I have a few important new points to add to the discourse. First of all, full disclosure, I have to say that I have been since l975  a firm believer in climate change and that human emissions are causing a greenhouse effect that is significantly affecting the world’s climate and weather systems. But at this point I think a lot of other things are going on. It is healthy periodically, and particularly at this point, when the issue is so politicized, and so much misinformation and disinformation is being put out, to take a fresh, unaligned look at what we actually know.

The easiest way to proceed is to trace the evolution of my thinking about this critical issue, which by now is quite developed, though by no means done evolving. I will begin in  the early seventies, when I was the resident naturalist at the Marsh Memorial Sanctuary in Mount Kisco, New York, 35 miles north of New York City. On our Sunday morning bird walks we saw the first red-bellied woodpecker that had ever been reported in Westchester County. It was a male that was calling for a mate in the stand of dead mature chestnuts oaks on a rocky ridge which the trail traversed. Its unmisteakable juicy cluck was what first attracted our attention. The dead old oaks presumably offered great nesting possibilities. The red-belly was one of a number of southern species whose ranges were expanding northward, including the Carolina wren, the tufted titmouse, and the turkey vulture, which were also making their first appearances in the county. (Today there are turkey vultures in the Laurentians, an hour north of Montreal– one of many indicators that it has been getting progressively warmer since the 1970s.)

At that time the only explanation I could find for why this was happening was that the interglacial warming period, the Holocene,  which had been going on for 12,000 years, since the end of the last glaciation, was continuing. It was overdue to end, however, having gone on longer than any previous interglacials (how sound, though, is the science is on this assertion, which is still widely accepted, with paleoclimatic dates constantly being revised by new findings and some of them currently under assault ? Any time I see an assertion like it is warmer now than at any time in the last 600,000 years, or even the last  2,000 years, I know that these numbers have to be taken with a grain of salt, because they are in constant flux. We are a long way I think from having a firm understanding of what happened in the past, and  our understanding of what is going to happen is even less certain, but it is definitely not looking good). Around l975 Time magazine reported that Columbia’s Lamont Dogherty Lab was predicting that we were going to be entering the next Ice Age in the next few years. We now know (although some skeptics say it has been getting cooler since the eighties, which is complete bunk. An example of how the superpowerful and rich forces that don’t want anything to be done are using disinformation to cast doubt. A classic tactic. These guys are simply using the tobacco industry’s gamebook. They know they don’t have to advance any real argument, all they have to do is cast doubt. The Union of Concerned Scientists has an incisive paper called “Smoke and Mirrors” about this. ) that the last ten years have been the warmest on record, so  the next Ice Age is nowhere in sight although colder temperatures are being reported in some parts of the world. Does this mean that the interglacial is continuing, and that human emissions are enhancing its warming effects, or that it is ending, and human emissions are overriding its cooling down ? How important are the natural versus the human factors in global warming ? It is such a complex multifactorial process that I don’t think anybody really knows, although scientists are constantly throwing out numbers, and the media are running with them. For instance, I just read in the Montreal Gazette that a new study finds that 18% of the global warming is caused by soot, as opposed to 42% by carbon emissions. I would be  suspicious of such numbers. I don’t think there is any way anyone can know for sure, or be so specific, although all the indications, and the overwhelming scientific consensus (supposedly 98%),  are that human emissions are making a significant contribution to climate change. I would also be  suspicious of any predictions, because half of them, you realize if you’ve been on the global warming beat as long as I have, haven’t come to pass. Which doesn’t mean that the next Ice Age couldn’t kick in at any time. How about 2012 ?

In l975-6 I spent nine months in the Amazon researching a book for Sierra Club Books (The Rivers Amazon). This was a period when vast areas of virgin rainforest, particularly in the state of Para, were being cut and burned and converted to pasture, causing the extinction of  millions of species that had not even been discovered. A fire raging out of control on the Volkswagen Ranch was reported to be bigger than Belgium. This was an exaggeration– there is a lot of exaggeration in environmental reporting; I’ve been guilty of it myself– but that doesn’t diminish the horror of what is happening.  There were many huge fires in the Amazon. I saw one on the King Ranch that was pouring thick black smoke into the sky over hundreds of square miles. It was so hot that enormous trees had been sandblasted into the air and had landed upside down, with their flaring buttresses like the fins of crashed rocket ships. Obviously, all this smoke had to be having an effect, and when I returned to the States, I learned about the greenhouse effect from George Woodwell, one of the pioneers of atmospheric carbon measurement, who was then at the Brookhaven Institute on Long Island, measuring the respiration of the trees in an adjacent forest, and later joined the Woods Hole Institute in Massachusetts. It made perfect sense, and in the years that followed the discourse about the greenhouse effect spread beyond the scientific community and there began to be more articles and t.v. segments  about it as the climate continued to warm and there were more fires in California and other extreme weather events and bizarre changes in seasonal temperature patterns became more frequent, more people began to  sense that there was a real problem and learned about the greenhouse effect. The people who were in the know, who had been on to what was happening for years, who got it, myself included, felt rather pleased with themselves, like somebody special. Some who felt the calling became prophets.  We lay people accepted it on faith, because scientists were saying it was happening, and the evidence was accumulating and getting stronger and stronger. It became a movement, whose prophets were people like Al Gore and Bill McKibben, my precocious young former colleague at the New Yorker who had written a book called The End of Nature that woke a lot of people up. I felt it was important to spread the word and you could say I was a sort of minor prophet, but I am not comfortable with movements and I do not worship at the altar of science, although I come from a family of scientists and have great respect for good science and the integrity of most scientists and their expertise. In those days I did not question the greenhouse narrative, and I still think it is fundamentally true.  I cannot believe that we do not have a huge hand in what is happening.

The summer of l988 was particularly hot. It hit 100 degrees in the Adirondack Mountains of  upstate New York, where I had moved from New Rochelle, figuring it might not be a bad idea to move a few hundred miles north, the way things were going.  It was an unnatural, clammy heat. It really felt as if we were doing something to the weather, like more confirmation of the greenhouse scenario. Marlise Simon, whose husband Alan Riding was the New York Times Rio bureau chief, published a series of harrowing front-page articles with satellite fotos of  thousands of fires in the Amazon, and this became the explanation for the wierd heat wave we were having. The 300 plus million vehicles on the road in America were doing as much as the fires in the Amazon and the rest of the tropics. But there was no talk about this, or that the U.S., the biggest consumer of oil,  was responsible for 25% of the emissions on the planet.  It was easier to blame it on the bossa nova than to confront our own egregious role in the situation.

That December, Chico Mendes, the leader of the Amazon rubber tappers’ union, was assassinated by ranchers who were clearing the rainforest from which the tappers made their living. The outrage was surprisingly global and took the ranchers by surprise, because it focused the issue of what the fires in the Amazon were doing to the world’s climate, which people waround the world were getting increasingly mad about. I wrote a piece on Chico’s martyrdom for Vanity Fair which is posted in the Past Dispatches/Ecomartyrs section.  As soon as it hit the stands, my agent was indudated with calls form Hollywood. Redford wanted the option. So did David Puttnam, who had experience in the Amazon, having done “The Mission” and worked on the extraordinary documentary, “The Tribe That Hides From Man,” about the attempt by the Vilas Boas brothers to contact the Kreen-akroare Indians.  I went with Redford, figuring you do not say no to Robert Redford, and that he would be an interesting guy to get to know, given our mutual concern about the environment, and that he had distanced himself from L.A. and moved to Sundance, Utah, and was sort of a role model for my move to the Adirondacks. I expanded the piece into a book called The World is Burning, which went into the role that fires in the Amazon were playing in heating up  the planet. It was published in thirteen countries, I think, and I made a lot of money on Chico’s murder and the greenhouse narrative, more than I have made from anything else in my carrer. But I figured I had spent so much time in the Amazon and become one of the more powerful voices for its incomparable, precious fast-disappearing species and native cultures and nearly died of blackwater fever, etc. , so it was not an inappropriate payback.

In l997 I went to the Kyoto conference on climate change. My lengthy account of it, which includes one of the most comprehensive and comprehensible discussions of the state of our knowledge about the greenhouse effect and anthropogenic global warming at that point, is posted as Dispatch #5, “What Have We Done to the Weather ?” a title suggested by Vanity Fair’s London bureau chief Henry Porter, a dedicated environmentalist. I flew back on Air Force2 and talked for hours with Al Gore, who had a deep and detailed understanding of the global warming problem. Gore is a  thoughtful person with a very inquisitive mind, and I found our far-ranging discussion very stimulating. In person, like Donald Trump, he is very different from his public presentation, which has the unfortunate tendency to be stiff and preachy, but he’s a lot better than he used to be. He had been hip to the greenhouse effect since he was an undergraduate at Harvard and took a course from Roger Revelle, another pioneer, who had measured the atmospheric carbon dioxide at the Mauna Loa Observatory on Mauna Loa, Hawaii, and in Antarctic and in l957 co-authored a paper  with Hans Suess that suggested that the Earth’s oceans would absorb excess carbon dioxide generated by humanity at a much slower rate than previously predicted by geoscientists, thereby suggesting that human gas emissions might create a “greenhouse effect” that would cause global warming over time.[3] He was one of the first to raise concerns about the effects of all the fossil fuel we were burning. 

One of the things I took away from my discussions with many climate scientists for the Kyoto piece is that not only is all the stuff we are pouring into the atmosphere causing rising temperatures, but it is causing a big increase in the electric energy in the atmosphere, which is changing circulatory patterns like the jet stream and causing more turbulence (which is immediately, apparent whenever you fly these days. There’s a lot more turbulence than there used to be. Flying has become a lot more scary. Your plane is usually throttled by some major pocket of turbulence at least once ) and more frequent and intense extreme weather events. A  few weeks after the conference, bringing it home in dramatic fashion, New England and Quebec were hit by a massive ice storm, the first natural disaster I had personally experienced, which the piece ends with a description of.

I was becoming really apocalyptic at this point, having spent two decades going to one remote corner of the world after the other and finding that the glorious nature and fascinating tribal people I had come to see were being wiped by chainsaws, bulldozers, t.v., and other modern inventions, and by the modern world’s, particularly my own country’s,  insatiable appetite for the planet’s resources, as well as by local population growth. Now there was this other force of devastation wreaking havoc on the world’s biodiversity and traditional subsistence cultures. Global warming was pushing species across the board further north : birds and butterflies were being pushed off the British isles to extinction, newly arrived fish and other marine life were changing the ecology of the north Pacific, the red fox was crowding out the Arctic fox. See Dispatch #30, my profile of Dr. Camille Parmesan, who is tracking this. I pitched a huge five-part series to Vanity Fair on the state of the environment at the turn of the millenium and started the research. One of the parts was to be devoted to global warming.

At this point, a major new disaster scenario was getting a lot of attention : the possibility that the Gulf Stream’s thermohaline conveyor belt, which brings up warm water from the Gulf of Mexico to the North Atlantic and keeps Europe warmer than it should be at its latitude, could be shut down by the giant lens of freshwater spreading down from the fast-melting Arctic ice cap. If this happened Europe would become 14 degrees colder. The scenario kept getting more dire sand accelerated until finally some scientists were saying the system flip could happen in just two years.  Roland Emmerich ‘s blockbuster movie, “The Day After Tomorrow,” in which New York City is hit by a tidal wave followed by the chilly beginnings of the new Ice Age, is based on this negative feedback of the greenhouse effect, the shutting down of the Gulf Stream, happening. But it has happened, and the possibility of it happening has been downgraded by the IPCC to unlikely, because there is a huge  lens of Arctic icemelt in the North Atlantic, but no discernible change in the Gulf Stream, and if it was going to happen, it should be underway by now.  So that was a little disillusioning, an example of a catastrophic theory that turned out, thank god, not to have legs– at least so far. Like Paul Erlich’s 1968 best-seller The Population Bomb, according to which there wouldn’t be a human being on the planet by now,  we’re all supposed to have starved to death. Again not to diminish the fact that population (another part of my series) was a huge problem. There are far too many of us for the health of the planet and for its life-support systems to sustain. Its human carrying capacity is strained to the max in many places.

When the Gulf Stream shutting down scenario was beginning to get serious attention in the media, I made my way up to the Lamont-Dogherty lab to meet its author, Dr. Wally Broker, the man of the hour, who after years of working in obscurity was finally getting his fifteen minutes, and it had clearly gone to his head. He kept glancing at his watch as if every moment he had to spend with this lower form of life, a reporter, was unbearable– a technique I have encountered in other scientists over the years, not unlike famous or prominent people who keep you waiting for an hour, not because they couldn’t see you right away, as scheduled, but to keep you in your place. When a scientist starts glancing impatiently at his watch, I just glance at mine and say, “I’ve got 2:22. What time do you have ?” Dr. Broker actually said at one point in our interview, how can I put this in simple enough terms for you to understand ?” Rather stunned, I gave it some thought, and finally replied, “Well I’m not sure that you can, but why don’t you give it a shot ?” So when the skeptics say there is a warmist priesthood, I have to agree with them. Dr. Broker was the Grand Wizard of the moment. Religious leaders, a friend once observed, are in the business of trying to make you believe they know something they don’t. The same is true of some scientists. Science, we tend to forget because we have such reverence for it in the West, so many extraordinary discoveries have bee made,    is a belief system, a work in progress, and lots of times its conclusions, presented as unassailable hard fact, turn out to be completely wrong because the scientist, who is only human,  didn’t take some crucial factor into consideration, or worsehe distorted his findings to make them seem more important than they were. “All of us want to be the knight in shining armor,” an environmentalist observed to me about a scientist  we were working with who I discovered had inflated his conclusions to make them seem more dramatic than they were and was getting a lot of press  on the basis of this misapprehension which he had fed to the media and  made no effort to correct.

.A friend of mine, to give you an example of the not taking a crucial factor into consideration problem, was getting his doctorate in biosocial anthropology at Harvard and went to do his field work with the Efe pygmies in the Ituri Forest in what was then Zaire (This was in the 1980s. In l996 Zaire became the Democratic Republic of Congo.) He spent two years doing detailed time-allocation studies in one Efe village, quantifying how much time this woman spent grooming, how long this man spent in the forest hunting meat, and relating it to the individual’s reproductive success. In hard-core Darwinian belief, everything we do is to maximize our fitness. This is the scientific orthodoxy, and I think it is completely ridiculous. Like the hard-core Freudians who maintain that all neurosis is the result of sexual identity issues in the first few years of life. People are constantly rejecting the reproductive imperative and not having children at all, and  acting crazy for reasons than have nothing to do with Freudian theory. Not to knock Darwin or Freud, who were right about a lot of things. But orthodoxies are dangerous, and contrary to the true spirit of science, which like good journalism, is skeptical and contentious. When something is being put out that you don’t think is true, you have to challenge it. That is why it is healthy to look closely at the greenhouse narrative which has become the scientific orthodoxy in almost every country, to be constantly asking questions.

Anyway my friend returned to Harvard with his hard-won data and started writing his thesis when new information from the village came from the next doctoral student studying its inhabitants that 80% of them had gonorrhea. So his data was worthless. And this was before AIDS was even identified and given a name. But it was already taking its toll in Zaire. So it could have been a factor, too. He had failed to take into consideration the STD factor. Two years of work down the drain.

So what I’m saying is that the imposition of rigid methodologies to produce data supporting a particular point of view, which all science does, sometimes produces results that are off the mark. Another anthropologist did his doctoral thesis on the Cayapo Indians of the Amazon. His task was to find evidence of Levi-Strauss’s thesis that cooking is what makes us human, what civilizes and socializes us and distinguishes us from animals– a very French hypothesis. He ran the thesis by his subjects, and they told him that it was complete rubbish. The Harvard anthropologist’s doctoral thesis adviser, who sent him on his ill-fated mission to the pygmies, was Irven Devore, who had done  pioneering biosocial work on baboons and concluded that their social structure was male-dominated and hierarchical, with alpha males at the top of the pyramid, betas under them, and gammas at the bottom, and the higher you were on the male pecking order, the more females you got to inseminate. But then Sarah Hrdy, a biosocial anthropologist with feminist leanings, destroyed Devore and showed that baboon society is actually run by the females. Hrdy accused Devore of projecting the hierarchical male-dominated structure of academia, with the big professor balling all his female graduate students,  on to the baboons. Similarly the anthropologist Napoleon Chagnon, whose books on the stone-age Yanomamo were standard fare on undergraduate reading lists, overemphasized their violence because violence was sexy, it got grants, and that was what we wanted to hear, that we have always been violent, when in fact sure they raid each other’s villages, but there is much more going on with the Yanomamo, as I knew, having spent time with them. Chagnon was guilty of projecting what he wanted to find on to his subjects, as I wrote in a blurb for a book that exposed the shoddiness of his science and contested the picture of the Yanomamo  he was presenting to the world. (My use of the word projection was cited by the American Heritage on-line dictionary, which I was rather proud of).  The problem I have with science is that it only accepts as real what is has been able to quantify, measure, and classify, and the framework that it is imposes on what it is looking at is confined by narrow discipline boundaries (which don’t exist “out there” in the “real”), so it is missing a lot, and it has a reductive, materialistic vision of reality. Science is great, in terms of the technological progress is brings, but Western materialism is also what has brought us to this critical stage in our history on the planet. Scientists are all too often like the blind men each of whom is touching a different part of the elephant. The communication between  different disciplines is usually not good. The answer that the anthropologist is looking for is over there in botany, but he can’t go there.

Computer modeling is fraught with the possibility that some crucial factor that no one has even envisioned at this point, like the Harvard anthropologist,  may not have been taken into consideration. I have seen predictions based on computer modeling that the sea is going to rise three feet, or even eighteen feet, by the end of the century. I just saw two meters yesterday.  Most of these predictions are based on the assumption that the Greenland ice sheet is going to continue melting at the rate it is now. But the one thing, the only thing, that is certain about climate change, about everything really, is that nothing about it is constant. Everything is in flux. Nothing is permanent. Heraclitus and Buddha on the other side of the world realized this thousands of years ago. There world is going to be a very different place in ten years, and in 100 years it will be unrecognizable. There are several scenarios by which global warming could actually end up make the world colder. The shutting down of the Gulf Stream seems unlikely at the moment, but another scenario compares the earth to a refrigerator, which stays cold by constantly  giving off heat. If the earth keeps giving off heat the way it is doing, it is eventually bound to get colder. This makes sense, and while I hate to give the reactionary skeptic machine any ammunition, at various times in the past, the world has apparently been much hotter when the CO2 readings were much lower, and vice versa.

The global economic meltdown has reportedly reduced our global carbon emissions by 30% since September, 2008– a huge boon to the effort to reduce greenhouse gases that no one foresaw two years ago, and a far more effective mitigation than anything that will be hammered out at Copenhagen. Could this be an adaptation, an unconscious collective response to the growing sense of impending doom, that we’ve cooked our own goose, hoisted ourselves by own petard with our hyperconsumption ? But it is an example of an unanticipated factor having a dramatic effect that the climate scientists are not going to see because economics is not there field.

And what about the huge savings in heating oil, gas, coal, and wood, that global warming is bringing in the northern climes ? Another mitigating negative feedback  (for the rising temperature narrative)  I haven’t seen anything about that, or– on the other side of the equation– how much carbon dioxide is 6.8 billion of us each taking 26,000 breaths a day adding to all the other sources of anthropogenic emission ? It must be considerable. The only person I have talked to who has thought about this is Wangari Maathai, the Nobel-prize-winning Kenyan woman who founded the Green Belt Move. She says each of us has to plant nine or ten trees to take out the C02 that all our exhalations put into the air over our lifetime.

Continued population growth is a major factor in the continued global warming, if  our emissions are the main cause, but what if there were a pandemic that wiped out many, most, or all of us. Something like the 1918 flu pandemic which killed six percent of the population ? The death toll of this H1N1 pandemic is only in the tens of thousands (reported) globally, and it seems to be petering out, but sooner or later, some influenza virus or other infectious microbe could come along that could be really lethal. This is how populations that get out of hand are taken care of by nature : some pathogen wipes them out. Or here’s something that occurred to me when I was working on a story on the impact of the Internet on sexual behavior : a percentage of the male population that could be growing is not having sex with real women but getting themselves off by watching cyberporn. From the point of view of our survival as a species, if a growing number of males are being removed from the breeding pool and becoming cyberwankers, this is not such a bad thing. It could even be seen as another unconscious collective adaptation,  perhaps even as an example of group selection (which is not accepted by hard-core Darwinists), whereby the individual sacrifices his chance to reproduce for the good  of the group, in this case the entire species. The classic example are the Iraqui suicide bombers during the time of Sadam Hussein, whose family was given five thousand dollars– more than they would make together in most cases in the entire lifetimes– for the loss of their son. Or the remote, isolated island in the South Pacific whose population got out of hand in the early twentieth century, so  the young men went off in their canoes into the unknown on a “great adventure” which for most of them was certain death, as the nearest island was hundreds of miles away.

I throw out these possibilities to emphasize how complex, perhaps incalculably complex the global warming equation  is. And these are only a few of the possible human factors. The natural ones start with a huge meteor strike or volcanic eruption, which would blot out the sun and depress temperatures dramatically. Not only extreme weather events, but tectonic events, seem to be ominously on the rise, in both frequency and intensity. El Nino is becoming more frequent and intensity, perhaps beefed up by human emissions, and there is a similar cyclical warming event in the north tropical Atlantic that sucks the wet season’s rain out of the Amazon basin and dumps it into the Caribbean. In 2004 it caused a record drought in the Amazon, and exacerbated the hurricane season in the Gulf of Mexico, Hurricane Katrina.  I go into this in Dispatch #39. The entire Amazon basin could be savannified, as it has been in the past, not so much because of deforestation, mechanical removal of the trees, as because of increasing droughts from this Atlantic warming event. This is one positive feedback. Another one is happening in the Arctic, where the melting ice and snow are exposing more tundra and open water, more black surface area, so the albedo or reflectivity of the white snow and ice is reduced, and the Arctic warms up and melts all the faster. But if things continue the way they are going, more tsunamis, monsoons,  hurricanes, earthquakes, floods, droughts, and other natural disasters will kill more people– a negative feedback.

But even if the science isn’t completely in about how much of the current warming is due to our emissions, and it may never be because it is such complex equation,  there are many other urgent reasons for reducing our consumption and waste stream, many things a modern person can do as an individual. ….

to be continued