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Global Meltdown

Global Meltdown
July 1, 2007

by Andrew Revkin


NEW YORK CITY – In the intellectual equivalent of a pro-wrestling “smackdown,” two teams of combatants enter a plush, packed auditorium on the Upper East Side for a debate titled “Global Warming Is Not a Crisis,” staged by a group called Intelligence Squared U.S.

The climate-change debunkers include Richard S. Lindzen, 67, a meteorologist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology who claims that human-caused warming is inconsequential, and Michael Crichton, 64, the novelist and moviemaker. Crichton stirred the climate debate with a 2004 novel, State of Fear, in which the bad guys were radical environmentalists trying to scare the world about global warming in order to line their pockets. Opposed are three climate scientists: one from NASA, one from a leading university, and one from a private group called the Union of Concerned Scientists. Most of the night focuses on their differences, mainly concerning the value of quick, aggressive cuts in greenhouse gas emissions.

Richard C.J. Somerville, 66, a veteran University of California, San Diego, climatologist, attacks the “not a crisis” position. “[A crisis] does not mean catastrophe or alarmism,” he says. “It means a crucial or decisive moment, a turning point, a state of affairs in which a decisive change for better or worse is imminent. Our task tonight is to persuade you that global warming is indeed a crisis in exactly that sense. The science warns us that continuing to fuel the world using present technology will bring dangerous and possibly surprising climate changes by the end of this century, if not sooner.”

But Crichton insists that pressing real-time problems trump an iffy, long-term one. “Every day 30,000 people on this planet die of the diseases of poverty,” he tells the crowd. “A third of the planet doesn’t have electricity. We have a billion people with no clean water. We have half a billion people going to bed hungry every night. Do we care about this? It seems that we don’t. It seems that we would rather look a hundred years into the future than pay attention to what’s going on now.”

What’s largely lost in the sparring—Crichton’s team prevails in an audience vote—is that the debate has not been about whether humans are contributing to rising temperatures. Crichton and Lindzen, both of whom consider former vice president Al Gore and his allies alarmists, readily agree that human-generated greenhouse gases warm the earth. Indeed, the list of people accepting the need to cut these gases includes former foes of environmentalists. One convert is evangelist Pat Robertson, who said on his 700 Club TV program last year that “it is getting hotter and the ice caps are melting and there is a buildup of carbon dioxide in the air.… We really need to do something on fossil fuels.” Another conservative taking warming seriously is former speaker of the House Newt Gingrich. “The evidence is sufficient,” he said in April, “that we should move toward the most effective possible steps to reduce carbon loading of the atmosphere.”

What’s driving the change in attitudes is a steadily growing body of scientific evidence on human activities and warming. A report released earlier this year by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change—made up of hundreds of the world’s leading climate experts—said with 90 percent certainty that most of the warming since 1950 has been driven by the buildup of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases. The report concluded with “high confidence” that human-caused climate change was already affecting regional conditions from the poles to the Tropics, and that hundreds of millions of people could be harmed by coastal flooding, dwindling water supplies, and shifting weather patterns within a few decades. The changes could also drive many species toward extinction, particularly those with rapidly shrinking habitats, such as polar bears. Warming in this century, by many estimates, could be between three and eight times the warming in the 20th century, when the planet’s average temperature rose just over one degree Fahrenheit in all. The United States was among 113 countries that endorsed the report.

The new report also predicts a mix of consequences, not all bad. More rainfall and longer growing seasons will likely benefit higher latitudes for decades, while less rainfall and harsher droughts are likely in some of the world’s poorest places—most notably, Africa. An open-water Arctic Ocean in summers, while posing a threat to polar bears, could create new intercontinental shipping lanes thousands of miles shorter than existing ones.

What the debate comes down to is not whether changes are coming but when they’ll occur—and how severe they’ll be. There is serious scientific disagreement about such vital questions as how fast and far temperatures, seas, and storm strength could rise. Warmer waters, for example, could lead to more Katrina-strength hurricanes. Yet new studies find that hurricanes might be torn apart by wind conditions associated with, yes, rising temperatures. This uncertainty is not humanity’s friend, experts say, especially as the global population crests in coming decades, putting ever more people at risk of flooding, famine, and other climate-driven threats.

“We’re altering the environment far faster than we can possibly predict the consequences,” says Stephen H. Schneider, 62, a Stanford University climatologist who has been working on the puzzle of humans and climate for more than half his life.

Schneider has long believed that responding to the greenhouse challenge is as much about hedging against uncertain risks as it is about dealing with what is clearly known. And the risks, as he sees it, are clear: there is a real chance things could be much worse than the midrange projections of a few degrees of warming in this century—and any thought that more science will magically clarify what lies ahead is probably wishful thinking.

When he lectures about global warming these days, Schneider often asks listeners about a more familiar risk. “How many of you have had a serious fire in your home?” he begins. In a crowd of 300 or so, usually three or four hands rise.

His next question: “How many of you buy fire insurance?”

Hundreds of hands go up.

For Schneider that pattern shows how well people deal with uncertain but potentially calamitous risks in their daily lives. The trick lies in transferring that same behavior to dealing with a risk facing our common home—the planet itself.