Hot As Hell

An Interview With Ross Gelbspan, Author Of Boiling Point: How Politicians, Big Oil And Coal, Journalists, And Activists Have Fueled The Climate Crisis—And What We Can Do To Avert Disaster

Laura Sanchez
7 min read
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Forget the candy-colored terror alerts. Forget the queasy economy, the ghastly mess in Iraq and Bush's endless fear mongering. On a global scale, they're just distractions from the really scary problem: global climate change.

The reality of global warming is supported by an overwhelming scientific consensus, and every new report says it's happening faster than previously expected, with polar and oceanic regions already seriously damaged. Journalist Ross Gelbspan's newest book describes the threat in clear and vivid language, and outlines an elegant solution.

Gelbspan will speak and sign his book on Wednesday, Sept. 29, at 7 p.m. at the First Unitarian Church, 3701 Comanche NE. For information, call 296-4885. For the sake of full disclosure, you should know that I'm a member of the group bringing Gelbspan to New Mexico. I interviewed him by phone.

How'd you get interested in global warming?

I collaborated with a guy from Harvard Medical School on an article about climate change and the spread of infectious disease. I was thinking, “Gee, this climate change stuff is really heavy. Maybe I should write a book about it.”

After the article ran, I got a bunch of letters from readers who said, “We don't believe the climate's changing.” They referred me to the work of several scientists. When I read the work of these “greenhouse skeptics,” I was persuaded climate change was a nonevent, stuck in scientific uncertainty.

But I had set up appointments with several other scientists, and as a courtesy I kept them. They completely turned my head around. They showed me how these skeptics were really misrepresenting the situation by using very selective data, actually using false information in some places. So it got me really upset as a reporter. I didn't get into this because I love the trees—I sort of tolerate the trees. I got into it because I really believe that in a democracy we need honest information.

I was fortunate enough to find out that these greenhouse skeptics were getting paid sort of under the table by the coal industry. And then I said, “Well, you know, if there's a cover up going on, what are they covering up?” And that's when I got into this subject in a big way.

What's the most convincing evidence that humanity's carbon emissions are contributing to the global heat increases?

That's real simple. It's known that carbon dioxide in the atmosphere traps in heat. And for 10,000 years we've had the same amount in our atmosphere—about 280 parts per million. About 150 years ago the world began to industrialize. That 280 ppm is now up to 379 ppm. And at the same time temperatures are going up. Temperatures track carbon dioxide real closely. The 10 hottest years on record have happened since 1990. There's a very clear correlation between the buildup of carbon dioxide and some other gases in the atmosphere and these temperature increases.

Some people say that's just a natural cycle and has nothing to do with human action. What's the rebuttal?

In 1988 when it became clear temperatures were rising, the United Nations put together a body of 2000 scientists from 100 countries and said, “Tell us why this is happening. Is it part of the natural cycles of the climate or is it due to human activities?”

This body, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, did a whole bunch of experiments, and they also correlated experiments by other scientists around the world. In 1995, they said, “We have found the human influence on the climate, and in particular, it's due to our burning of coal and oil, which is building up carbon dioxide in the atmosphere.”

One study found that nighttime low temperatures are rising twice as fast as daytime high temperatures, which is specifically a signature of greenhouse warming. If this were natural and not greenhouse warming, the highs and lows would rise and fall in parallel.

Is global warming making hurricanes worse?

Climate scientists don't say that we're going to have more hurricanes, but that we're going to have stronger and bigger hurricanes. Hurricanes are fueled by warm waters, and the surface waters of the oceans have been warming in a very, very marked way. I think the scientific community generally agrees that the intensity of these hurricanes has really been enhanced by warming surface waters, caused by global warming.

Considering the Bush administration's environmental record, are we doomed if the Bush administration gets four more years?

It would certainly be going in the wrong direction. And I think that the climate and energy policies of the Bush administration are essentially being dictated by the industry, by ExxonMobil and Peabody Coal. Would I say we're doomed? Not necessarily, because I think there will be enormous pressure from Europe. Holland has just finished a plan to cut her emissions by 80 percent in 40 years. Tony Blair has committed the United Kingdom. to cut by 60 percent in 50 years. The Germans have committed to cut by 50 percent in 50 years. Science says we have to cut by 70 percent. When Bush withdrew the U.S. from the Kyoto Protocol, he triggered a real rage in Europe. And that rage is still there. It's been papered over temporarily because of the terrorism coalition, but it's still very strong.

I've heard some officials from other governments saying, “Look, if we're all agreeing to cut our emissions and America is not, then we're going to argue in the World Trade Court that America is carbon-subsidizing its products. And therefore, we're going to ask that they be taxed, and made much less advantageous and commercially less competitive.”

Some European insurance agencies are requiring their clients to reduce carbon emissions. What about the United States?

Big property insurers in Europe are very, very politically active on this stuff. They're always taking out full-page ads in the newspapers and doing all this public education. And they're calling for an immediate 20 percent carbon reduction.

In the U.S. the property insurance industry is basically keeping its head down and sort of covering its behind financially. U.S. companies are making coastal insurance prohibitively expensive because of sea level rise and stronger storms. They're not insuring known storm corridors anymore.

If you could put a “countdown” clock in Times Square, where would you set the deadline date when we have to take serious action to survive this?

Well, that's the whole point—I don't know. All the signs look like it could be almost too late to avoid really serious dislocations. Look at how rapidly the glaciers are disappearing; look at the tremendous increase in extreme weather events. Look at these ice fields breaking off Antarctica and the Arctic, and migrations of animals and insects and birds all over the world toward the poles in search for temperature stability. Once these really big systems of nature get set in motion, they keep moving until they snap into a new kind of equilibrium. And I don't know where we are there. I don't think the scientists know. So it sort of throws us back on a kind of existential ignorance. We just have to hope things aren't too late and move as rapidly as we can to start doing the right thing.

Does it hurt the fight against climate crisis to label it an environmental issue?

Absolutely. Last year the Pentagon issued a major planning report that said, as climate change progresses, we can look forward to mass human migrations, lots of wars and all kinds of political chaos. This Pentagon report essentially recategorized climate change from an environmental problem to a national security threat. It really needs to be spoken of in those terms.

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