POSTED: 6 MAY 2004 - 8:00am HST

Climate change too slow for Hollywood

imageabove: Poster for "The Day After Tomorrow" opening May 28, 2004

"The Day After Tommorow"
dramatizes global warming

by Bill McKibben as published in Grist Magazine

It's always been hard to get people to take global warming seriously because it happens too slowly. Not slowly in geological terms -- by century's end, according to the consensus scientific prediction, we'll have made the planet warmer than it's been in tens of millions of years. But slowly in NBC Nightly News terms. From day to day, it's hard to discern the catastrophe, so we don't get around to really worrying. Something else -- the battle for Fallujah, the presidential election, the spread of SARS, the Jacksonian mammary -- is always more immediate, and evolution seems to have engineered us for a fascination with the sudden. Hollywood ending?

Slowness, by all accounts, shouldn't be a problem with The Day After Tomorrow , a new global-warming epic due in theaters May 28. Apparently, the script posits that rapid melting of Arctic ice is enough to trigger massive changes in ocean currents, shutting down the Gulf Stream and setting off a humongous super storm. (It's a premise that seems borrowed from late-night radio host Art Bell's book The Coming Global Superstorm .) In the 20th Century Fox version, tornadoes rip through Los Angeles (targeting -- what else? -- the Hollywood sign), while a massive snowstorm pounds a puzzled New Delhi, and grapefruit-size hail batters Tokyo. The worst is saved for New York (which has already been wrecked by the film's director, Roland Emmerich, in both Independence Day and Godzilla ). A giant wave or two batters Wall Street, and then a day that began in sweltering heat turns unimaginably frigid; soon, the whole city is locked in a glacier.

So should environmentalists be cheering the news that Hollywood has finally managed a green epic? Many are. Al Gore will speak at a special premier of the film. Jurgen Trittin, the German environment minister, lambasted the Bush administration last week for its failure to ratify the Kyoto treaty, saying, "[Our] challenge is that the reality of The Day After Tomorrow should not become reality." Plenty of political commentators predict the film will drive home an election-year message that the Bush administration has been ignoring a crisis.

The underlying science is not nonsense. Arctic ice is melting, and quickly, thereby sending a pulse of fresh water into the North Atlantic. Some computer models indicate that this could weaken the Gulf Stream, bringing on regional cooling in Western Europe and the northeastern U.S. even as the rest of the planet warms. Meanwhile, extreme weather events are escalating: African floods, European windstorms, Asian droughts, and so on. All of these bad things won't happen in one day, but the scenario is not pure Hollywood contrivance, either. Climate change bites.
Photo: CDC.

There's a chance, however, that the film's depiction will set the bar too high. That is, if the reason we're supposed to worry about global warming is that it will first send a tidal wave over the Statue of Liberty and then lock it forever in an ice cube, anything less will seem ... not so bad. When, in fact, the more likely horror stories happen a little more slowly -- and a little farther away from the Hollywood hills and the Manhattan canyons. For instance: The World Health Organization estimates that the spread of mosquitoes in a warmer, wetter world will cause malaria and dengue fever to explode. The deaths won't come all at the same time, and they won't involve people who look like Dennis Quaid, but they'll be plenty real. And consider the latest statistics from the Earth Policy Institute, which note steep rises in grain prices as a direct result of harvests lowered by massive heat waves in the last few years -- again, results that are less sensational but likely to be equally tragic.

Some of the first campaigners against genetically modified foods staked their case on the chance that something truly shocking would result from the new crop strains -- some Frankenfood would poison or sterilize or mutate us all. But if that's all the worry Monsanto has to address, then it's probably home free. Now campaigners are recognizing that the real issues center on the subtler damage GMOs will do to ecologies and even more to economies, as they push small farmers off their land and benefit agribusiness. Likewise, Exxon -- and George W. Bush -- shouldn't be able to claim the lack of glaciers on Chambers Street as proof that their opponents are just scaremongers.

It's a hard line to draw. The story of global warming, the largest story of our time, needs dramatizing. (And a production company that spends $125 million making a movie needs a toppling skyscraper or two to draw the crowds.) But global warming isn't like nuclear war. The Day After , the Reagan-era portrayal of an atom bomb dropped on Kansas City, worked precisely because a nuclear explosion would be instant and horrifying. Global warming is even more likely to be the end of the world as we know it -- but a somewhat slower, soggier end. We may need a different lens to see it.

Bill McKibben is the author of The End of Nature and a member of Grist Magazine's board of directors. His latest book is Enough: Staying Human in an Engineered Age .




POSTED: 25 FEBRUARY 2004 - 9:00am

Pentagon tells Bush: climate change will destroy us

Iniki hits Kauai in 1992. Was it just a "warm-up" for what's to come?

Secret report warns of rioting and nuclear war

Britain will be 'Siberian' in less than 20 years
Threat to the world is greater than terrorism

by Mark Townsend & Paul Harris 22 February 2004 in The Observer

Climate change over the next 20 years could result in a global catastrophe costing millions of lives in wars and natural disasters. A secret report, suppressed by US defence chiefs and obtained by The Observer, warns that major European cities will be sunk beneath rising seas as Britain is plunged into a 'Siberian' climate by 2020. Nuclear conflict, mega-droughts, famine and widespread rioting will erupt across the world.

The document predicts that abrupt climate change could bring the planet to the edge of anarchy as countries develop a nuclear threat to defend and secure dwindling food, water and energy supplies. The threat to global stability vastly eclipses that of terrorism, say the few experts privy to its contents.

'Disruption and conflict will be endemic features of life,'
concludes the Pentagon analysis.
'Once again, warfare would define human life.'

The findings will prove humiliating to the Bush administration, which has repeatedly denied that climate change even exists. Experts said that they will also make unsettling reading for a President who has insisted national defence is a priority.

The report was commissioned by influential Pentagon defence adviser Andrew Marshall, who has held considerable sway on US military thinking over the past three decades. He was the man behind a sweeping recent review aimed at transforming the American military under Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld.

'Climate change should be elevated beyond a scientific debate to a US national security concern'
say the authors, Peter Schwartz, CIA consultant and former head of planning at Royal Dutch/Shell Group, and Doug Randall of the California-based Global Business Network.

'An imminent scenario of catastrophic climate change is plausible and would challenge United States national security in ways that should be considered immediately',
they conclude. As early as next year widespread flooding by a rise in sea levels will create major upheaval for millions.

Last week the Bush administration came under heavy fire from a large body of respected scientists who claimed that it cherry-picked science to suit its policy agenda and suppressed studies that it did not like. Jeremy Symons, a former whistleblower at the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), said that suppression of the report for four months was a further example of the White House trying to bury the threat of climate change.

Senior climatologists, however, believe that their verdicts could prove the catalyst in forcing Bush to accept climate change as a real and happening phenomenon. They also hope it will convince the United States to sign up to global treaties to reduce the rate of climatic change.

A group of eminent UK scientists recently visited the White House to voice their fears over global warming, part of an intensifying drive to get the US to treat the issue seriously. Sources have told The Observer that American officials appeared extremely sensitive about the issue when faced with complaints that America's public stance appeared increasingly out of touch.

One even alleged that the White House had written to complain about some of the comments attributed to Professor Sir David King, Tony Blair's chief scientific adviser, after he branded the President's position on the issue as indefensible.

Among those scientists present at the White House talks were Professor John Schellnhuber, former chief environmental adviser to the German government and head of the UK's leading group of climate scientists at the Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research. He said that the Pentagon's internal fears should prove the 'tipping point' in persuading Bush to accept climatic change.

Sir John Houghton, former chief executive of the Meteorological Office - and the first senior figure to liken the threat of climate change to that of terrorism - said:

'If the Pentagon is sending out that sort of message, then this is an important document indeed.'

Bob Watson, chief scientist for the World Bank and former chair of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, added that the Pentagon's dire warnings could no longer be ignored.

'Can Bush ignore the Pentagon? It's going be hard to blow off this sort of document. Its hugely embarrassing. After all, Bush's single highest priority is national defence. The Pentagon is no wacko, liberal group, generally speaking it is conservative. If climate change is a threat to national security and the economy, then he has to act. There are two groups the Bush Administration tend to listen to, the oil lobby and the Pentagon,' added Watson.

'You've got a President who says global warming is a hoax, and across the Potomac river you've got a Pentagon preparing for climate wars. It's pretty scary when Bush starts to ignore his own government on this issue,' said Rob Gueterbock of Greenpeace.
Already, according to Randall and Schwartz, the planet is carrying a higher population than it can sustain. By 2020 'catastrophic' shortages of water and energy supply will become increasingly harder to overcome, plunging the planet into war. They warn that 8,200 years ago climatic conditions brought widespread crop failure, famine, disease and mass migration of populations that could soon be repeated.

Randall told The Observer that the potential ramifications of rapid climate change would create global chaos. He said.
'This is depressing stuff. It is a national security threat that is unique because there is no enemy to point your guns at and we have no control over the threat.'

Randall added that it was already possibly too late to prevent a disaster happening.He said.
'We don't know exactly where we are in the process. It could start tomorrow and we would not know for another five years.
The consequences for some nations of the climate change are unbelievable. It seems obvious that cutting the use of fossil fuels would be worthwhile.'

So dramatic are the report's scenarios, Watson said, that they may prove vital in the US elections. Democratic frontrunner John Kerry is known to accept climate change as a real problem. Scientists disillusioned with Bush's stance are threatening to make sure Kerry uses the Pentagon report in his campaign.

The fact that Marshall is behind its scathing findings will aid Kerry's cause. Marshall, 82, is a Pentagon legend who heads a secretive think-tank dedicated to weighing risks to national security called the Office of Net Assessment. Dubbed 'Yoda' by Pentagon insiders who respect his vast experience, he is credited with being behind the Department of Defence's push on ballistic-missile defence.
Symons, who left the EPA in protest at political interference, said that the suppression of the report was a further instance of the White House trying to bury evidence of climate change.
'It is yet another example of why this government should stop burying its head in the sand on this issue.'

Symons said the Bush administration's close links to high-powered energy and oil companies was vital in understanding why climate change was received sceptically in the Oval Office. 'This administration is ignoring the evidence in order to placate a handful of large energy and oil companies,' he added.

Also from 22 February 2004 Observer

Key findings of the Pentagon

Future wars will be fought over the issue of survival rather than religion, ideology or national honour. By 2007 violent storms smash coastal barriers rendering large parts of the Netherlands inhabitable. Cities like The Hague are abandoned. In California the delta island levees in the Sacramento river area are breached, disrupting the aqueduct system transporting water from north to south.

• Between 2010 and 2020 Europe is hardest hit by climatic change with an average annual temperature drop of 6F. Climate in Britain becomes colder and drier as weather patterns begin to resemble Siberia.

•Deaths from war and famine run into the millions until the planet's population is reduced by such an extent the Earth can cope.

•Riots and internal conflict tear apart India, South Africa and Indonesia.

• Access to water becomes a major battleground. The Nile, Danube and Amazon are all mentioned as being high risk.

•A 'significant drop' in the planet's ability to sustain its present population will become apparent over the next 20 years.

•Rich areas like the US and Europe would become 'virtual fortresses' to prevent millions of migrants from entering after being forced from land drowned by sea-level rise or no longer able to grow crops. Waves of boatpeople pose significant problems.

•Nuclear arms proliferation is inevitable. Japan, South Korea, and Germany develop nuclear-weapons capabilities , as do Iran, Egypt and North Korea. Israel, China, India and Pakistan also are poised to use the bomb.

•By 2010 the US and Europe will experience a third more days with peak temperatures above 90F . Climate becomes an 'economic nuisance' as storms, droughts and hot spells create havoc for farmers.

•More than 400m people in subtropical regions at grave risk.

•Europe will face huge internal struggles as it copes with massive numbers of migrants washing up on its shores. Immigrants from Scandinavia seek warmer climes to the south. Southern Europe is beleaguered by refugees from hard-hit countries in Africa.

•Mega-droughts affect the world's major breadbaskets, including America's Midwest, where strong winds bring soil loss.

•China's huge population and food demand make it particularly vulnerable. Bangladesh becomes nearly uninhabitable because of a rising sea level, which contaminates the inland water supplies.