An early warning of climate change

The Scotsman and The New Zealand Dominion, June 27 1988

There is, of course, no reason to panic. Scientists, after all, are not the sort of people who deal in panic. They deal in hard facts and tough conclusions. Even so, the three sober-suited scientists I went to see in Washington gave every indication that in a thoroughly sober and scientific way, they were just itching to get their hands on the nearest panic button and hit it very hard. But they could not quite do it.

Their subject was the Greenhouse Effect – the gathering of carbon dioxide and other gases in the upper atmosphere which let in the heat from the sun and trap it like a gigantic greenhouse, so that the Earth starts to heat up and the whole planet is gripped by an unpredictable chain reaction of ecological horrors.

It was like watching a schizophrenic sandwichboard man. One minute, the message was clear – “The end is nigh.” Then they would turn round and there was another message – “At least, it probably is.”

The effect was rather frightening, particularly because these were not the scientific equivalent of sandwichboard men. They were extremely well-informed experts in climate and ecology who were presenting the results of a United Nations study of the Greenhouse Effect which was, in turn, based on two workshops attended by scientists and government specialists from all over the world.

They started off in hesitant mood, juggling statistics and pointing at graphs. Global temperatures could rise by 0.8 degrees Celsius every ten years, they said. That is, if we burn a lot of fossil fuels and aggravate the situation.

If that happened, the heat would expand the water in the oceans, and glaciers could melt into the sea; sea levels could rise by 24 cms every decade. It would depend, they said. The figures could be quite different. This was only a model. But slowly the message began to come through.

“We could get a very, very rapid rise in warming… Early in the next century, temperatures may be higher than anything mankind has ever experienced… It is already too late to prevent an irreversible warming on some scale… If sea level were to rise by a meter in 50 years, it would mean the most extraordinary distortion of the human habitat.

“The potential for social and economic disruption is just extraordinary… It is very hard to see how there is any country in the world or any group of people that gains from raising sea level this way… Think of the Mississippi delta, southern Florida, the mouth of the Ganges where 24 million people live, Bangladesh, Venice. These places are very vulnerable and may well be submerged.

“If temperatures rise by one degree centigrade, it moves the zone of climate by 60 to 100 miles. Agriculture is displaced. Natural vegetation migrates…Arid zones are likely to expand. It could dry out, say, Iowa… Unlimited warming is not tolerable by ecosystems… These conditions are so unprecedented that simply no-one believes the models we have built.”

For all of the mights and maybes, these sober-suited gentlemen were talking about the sort of disaster that used to exist only in B movies of the 1940s.  One of them, Dr George Woodwell, an ecologist, brought the problem all the way home to 1988 by pointing out that the four warmest years in modern history have all occurred in the 1980s and – he put it in characteristically careful form – this was ‘consistent with the Greenhouse Effect’. So, too, he added, was ‘the anomalous weather we have had this Spring’. I was hoping he would not say that.

Almost every evening on the television news, the forecasters stand in front of their satellite photos with their computerised projections and their live radar images and announce that another batch of weather records has just been kicked into history. In June alone, Washington started off 21 degrees colder than normal and ended up 12 degrees hotter . “Area Weather Defies Season,” as the headline in the Washington Post put it. Last July was Washington’s hottest ever; this one is already being forecast as unusually hot and dry.

But the discomfort of the nation’s capital is nothing compared to the trouble the weather is causing in the rest of the country. The northern Great Plains, and large parts of the Midwest, the West and the Southeast have been pummelled by intense heat and a lack of rain. Two thirds of the land mass of the USA is now gripped by a drought which, in some areas, is moving into its third year.

The Mississippi River is down to its lowest level in 127 years, and 800 barges have been backed up, unable to pass through the shallow water. In west Texas, the streams have dried up and farmers are stripping the thorns off prickly pear cactus so their cattle can chew out the moisture inside.

By early June, 84 of Indiana’s 92 counties had been declared disaster areas. Parts of Illinois, Wisconsin and Iowa are also official farm disaster areas. The cotton crop in Louisiana, which should be knee high by now, is barely brushing its owners’ shins. Minnesota has lost 150,000 acres of forest in nearly 2,000 fires since January 1.

North Dakota has had less rain in the last nine months than in any nine-month period since the Dust Bowl years of the 1930s. San Francisco in the West and Atlanta in the East have both ordered water rationing. And summer is only just starting.

Farmers who cannot feed their livestock are slaughtering and selling their herds. Farmers who have no top-soil left on their land are not bothering to plant – unless they are due to get farm-support payments from the Government in which case they are planting in the knowledge that they will harvest only money, but no crop.

The commodities market has gone haywire with brokers queuing up to buy soya bean and grain futures, hoping to cash in on rising food prices later in the year. An analyst at Shearson Lehman Hutton in New York said:”Usually we can expect some part of the nation to experience abnormally low rainfall each year, but the area affected this season has been vast.”

The US Agriculture Secretary, Richard Lyng, did his best to calm the farming community when he appeared before a Senate committee earlier this month. “It is a little bit too soon to say the country is facing a grim disaster,” he said. But he conceded that this was “a very, very serious drought” and that “it has been disastrous in some places”.

Lyng’s attempt at optimism is motivated more by politics than meteorology. He acknowledged that longer-range forecasts for July and August say America should expect more heat than normal and less rain than normal. “The Corn Belt is the most reliable farming area in the world,” he said. “But here in mid June it is being threatened.”

Lyng’s main concern is that the federal government is going to have to bail out the farmers whose business is being busted by the drought. So far, he is resisting pressure from the farmers’ lobby. “The best thing for us to do is pray for rain,” he told the Senate committee.

The curious weather extends far to the south where American researchers in Antarctic scientific stations have been watching in wonder the progress of an enormous iceberg, some 90 miles long, which has broken off the coast line and is now lumbering north west towards shipping lanes at a tenth of a mile an hour.

The iceberg, which is known as Berg 9, is so large that its collapse into the water is calculated to have raised the level of the Earth’s oceans by the thickness of ten playing cards. It also obliterated the Bay of Whales in the process. Yet it is only one of three or four equally huge islands which have split loose from the ice shelf in the last two years.

An oceanographer at Columbia University, Stanley Jacobs, said: “If you look just at 1986 and 1987, there have been some extreme events. You couldn’t have the ice breaking away at this rate every year or the ice sheet would soon be seriously out of balance.”

There is, of course, no proveable link between Berg 9 and the Greenhouse Effect. Nor can the American drought be tied in with any certainty. They are just so many interesting anomalies.

The real message from the scientists in Washington was that there were so many signs of impending disaster that the only sensible course was to jump the credibility gap and start acting. Dr Michael Oppenheimer, an expert on the atmospheric physicist, said: “It is not a problem for the 21st century. It is a problem for now.”

They argued that governments must cut back dramatically on the burning of fossil fuels which are the greatest single source of the ‘greenhouse gasses’ and, in the meantime, identify the areas which are most at risk from flooding and try to protect them. They want international co-operation and speedy action and a rational programme – in fact, most of the things which governments are worst at.

Dr George Woodwell, an avuncular figure, said: “These political boundaries are difficult to cross and will be more difficult to cross as governments and nations become more jealous of the resources they own.”

The more they spoke, the more clear it became that the scientists’ uncertainty was not the result of intellectual cowardice or pedantry. The uncertainty was, itself, the most powerful aspect of what they were saying

As Dr Woodwell put it: “We are leaving a period when the Earth and the human enterprise have passed through substantial climactic stability over centuries, and we are entering a period of very rapid change. We are moving into a series of unknowns, a period when we are quite unable to say with confidence what the consequences will be.” There is, of course, no reason to panic.