Ross Gelbspan

Winter 1997-1998

When Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Ross Gelbspan was researching global climate change for his book, The Heat Is On, he was hit by two revelations: First, he was bewildered by the lack of interest in the subject by the general public, even though we experience a “new, record-setting weather event virtually every week;” Second, he learned that climate change is much more than an environmental issue, that it extends into our political, social and economic realms as well – indeed, into every phase of our lives. He concluded that “we must rewire the entire globe” and replace all oil, gas, coal and other polluting sources of energy with environmentally friendly sources.

Gelbspan, speaking at MOFGA’s Common Ground Country Fair in September, listed several “extreme weather events” that give an anecdotal picture of what’s going on in the world: record numbers of people dying in a heat wave in India in 1995; the coldest April on record in Moscow in 1995 followed by the hottest June 2; canceling of the World Cup Ski Tournament in Austria in 1995 due to lack of snow; people in the North Korean provinces being forced to survive on wild roots in 1996 after record floods killed their crops; uncontrolled forest fires in Mongolia in 1996; serious rain, snow and ice in the Pacific Northwest, record flooding of the Ohio River, flooding in North Dakota and the worst flooding in the century in Poland and Czechoslovakia in 1997. And more.

About 120 events in two years set records, said Gelbspan. These anecdotes aren’t proof that global climate change is occurring, but combined with other events they strongly suggest that change may be occurring and that something should be done to reverse that change soon. The spread of infectious diseases is one area of concern. Mosquitoes that previously lived only at 1000 meters altitude are now living at 3200 meters and spreading malaria and yellow fever among people who never developed immunity to those diseases. The cholera epidemic in the ’90s in Peru was related to warmer temperatures there. The spread of tick-borne Lyme disease is another example.

Insurance companies are “feeling the heat” of weather-related disasters. Gelbspan said that the industry paid out $2 billion a year in the ’80s for nonearthquake, weather-related disasters, while in the first half of the ’90s, that figure was up to $10 billion a year. One insurance company spokesperson said that global climate change could bankrupt the property insurance industry.

Scientists are well aware of climate change and its effects. A report to the United Nations based on official evidence of 2,000 scientists said that coal and oil emissions were most closely related to the changes in weather.

These changes are affecting the earth and its organisms dramatically. In 1995, said Gelbspan, the warming surface waters killed 70% of the zooplankton off the coast of California; cold water fish are moving north; atmospheric warming is causing butterflies to move north.

The last El Niño went on for five years and eight months – a 1 in 2,000 chance event, said Gelbspan. The one that is warming now is expected to be much stronger.

Further evidence of the effects of global climate change can be seen in the record rates of the melting of glaciers; in movement of plants up the alps at record rates; in new desert formation in Europe; in thawing of the Alaskan and Canadian tundra; in the altered timing of the seasons. “Spring is arriving one week earlier in the northern hemisphere than it did 20 years ago,” said Gelbspan. Such a change can greatly affect our food supply.

The fossil fuel industry has responded to this apparent problem by unleashing a campaign of disinformation, said Gelbspan. He cited the 1991 annual report of a coal operation called Western Fuels, which said that it would attack the information provided by mainstream science. While some 2000 scientists who are studying global climate change worldwide believe that some change is occurring, a dozen “greenhouse skeptics” have “created the public perception that the issue is stuck in scientific uncertainty,” said Gelbspan. These skeptics have, for instance, tried to “reposition global warming” as something that is good for us in that we’ll be able to grow more food in northern climates; they ignore the increases in crop-destroying insect and disease populations that will accompany the change, as well as the possibility that warming could decimate crops in the tropics, where most of the world’s poor live.

These skeptics are, not surprisingly, paid by industry. One received $300,000 in five years from the coal and oil industries; another received $165,000. “Without all this money, they would be footnotes in the reports of 2000 scientists,” said Gelbspan. Instead, their testimony has been used to cut federal funding for global climate research. “They are making their living off of scientific uncertainty,” said Gelbspan.

That uncertainty may exist, but it may exist in the opposite direction that the skeptics portray. Gelbspan said he was reminded by a Harvard professor of the scientific uncertainty that accompanied the early days of ozone depletion – which turned out to be much worse than the uncertain scientists had ever predicted. “Just because there is uncertainty,” Gelbspan reported, “we can’t assume it will not be as bad – it can be worse.” The professor told Gelbspan that “we shouldn’t be tampering with a system that we don’t understand.”

Gelbspan fears the disruption of the democratic systems of our country and others in relation to global climate change. “How democratic can we expect our government to be in light of more floods, droughts, Hurricane Andrews?” he asked. “The prospects for our habitat and institutions are frightening and depressing.”

Gelbspan is also worried about the economic inequality between the northern and southern countries and its influence on curbing climate change. While Asia, Latin America and other Third World countries will be the largest sources of greenhouse gases as more production occurs there, these countries are least able to switch to renewable sources of energy. Industry wants credits, said Gelbspan; for instance, if it is allowed to sell coal-fired power plants to India, it will plant so many trees there. “Every proposal on the table involves some kind of market-based solution,” he said. “So many countries can barely afford to feed and clothe people. It won’t work. Without a partial closure of the economic gap, specifically for energy sources in Third World countries, it won’t work. We’re relying on corporations when we need mandatory and binding enforcement from governments. The business leaders don’t get it: The laws of supply and demand don’t supersede the laws of nature.”

A 10-year “Manhattan Project” to rewire the world with friendly energy sources, not oil and coal, is needed, said Gelbspan. “This would create a world-wide economic boom in renewable energy.” We also need to change our subsidizing policies, he said, and divert all money from government subsidies to coal and oil so that it supports renewable energy sources instead. Gelbspan believes that to stabilize the planet, we must reach zero emissions within 10 years: “Nature is holding a gun to our head,” he said.

To reach that goal, we must “clear away the industry generated smokescreen” and we must change the way we see ourselves: as helpless children of nature depending on her whims for survival; or no longer as children but as powerful as any force in nature and acting like adolescents. “It’s time to grow up,” Gelbspan believes.

Gelbspan said that we don’t have to ride bicycles and live in the dark to save the world. On a local level, we can show that renewable sources of energy can be used without changing our quality of life. The real changes, however, are needed at a higher level. “We need to get all renewable energies up to scale and cost competitive. Everybody should have a car if they want. They don’t care if it runs on fossil fuels or renewable.” Possible renewables include solar, wind, fuel cells that combine hydrogen and oxygen to generate electricity, hydrogen gas produced by solar panels in deserts that “do” reverse electrolysis and break water into its components. “Each region has to decide what is the right renewable technology for it. We could generate twice as much wind power in Nebraska as the United States uses now.”

He told Fairgoers to talk to their legislators. “I would love to hear of a few senators and congressmen who have the courage to say, ‘Let’s divert $25 billion from coal and oil subsidies to renewables.’”

Gelbspan ended his talk by quoting a recent issue of Science that said that we are changing the climate faster than our knowledge can keep up with it.

– Jean English

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