Another Kind of Cataclysm: Incremental Climate Change

The Coming Storm: Extreme Weather and Our Terrifying Future , by Bob Reiss. Hyperion, 323 pages, $24.95.

Hurricane Watch: Forecasting the Deadliest Storms on Earth , by Dr. Bob Sheets and Jack Williams. Vintage, 331 pages, $15.

Environmentalists trying to convince Americans of the dangers of global warming have had a tough job: Because of our temperate latitude, huge continental interior and vast wealth, we are less vulnerable than any nation on earth to the early effects of climate change. If, as scientists expect, global temperatures rise five or six degrees this century, we will be as devastated as anyone else–but by then, it will be too late to do much about it. How to convince us now of the threat, so that we will change our ways?

Well, you could always play the dead-ROTC-cadet card. Bob Reiss, a former reporter for the Chicago Tribune , opens his history of the politics of global warming with the story of a tornado that hit Nashville in April 1988–a tornado that toppled a tree on a young man named Kevin Longinotti as he attended a picnic for fellow Vanderbilt University students. In the time-honored tradition of feature writers everywhere, we learn what Longinotti was wearing (baseball cap), how many courses he was taking (triple major) and how he spent his free time (tutoring underprivileged kids). And yes, it hits hard when he dies.

Mr. Reiss’ book, which provides the most readable and intelligent summary of global-warming science and politics I have read, stops every few pages for another such vignette: English schoolchildren diving under their desks as winter storms rake the sceptre’d isle, Honduran banana growers clinging to rafts as Hurricane Mitch washes away their families. We are forever learning what people had for breakfast before they died, what they said to their wives as they left to deliver crucial scientific papers. It’s a valiant effort to make people actually care about global warming, in the same way that the TV movie The Day After tried to make nuclear war real in some visceral way. Or think how The New York Times’ comprehensive obits for everyone in the World Trade Center have hammered home the exact human cost of terrorism. If the news about our climate happened to reach an Oprah kind of audience, which seems unlikely, it might do a great deal of good.

But the problem is that global warming won’t mostly manifest itself as a series of titanic cataclysms, but rather as a grinding erosion of the planet’s support systems. Mr. Reiss seems to recognize this: When a smirking New York Times reporter asks him “So, ha ha, are we all going to die?”, he responds that “just some people will die, and probably, living in a wealthy country, one of them won’t be you. Probably you won’t be the one to catch malaria or dengue fever in Minneapolis, San Francisco, Baton Rouge, Bangor. Probably you won’t be one of the people caught in a storm surge while stuck on a highway….Probably … the worst you’ll suffer from climate change will be a shift in where you take vacations, a rise in your tax bills to pay for rebuilding after disasters, a surge in insurance rates, possible water and energy shortages, and a few less animals or forests to watch on National Geographic TV specials, since they won’t exist anymore.”

This seems to me optimistic: Changes of the scale now being predicted by the world’s climatologists will probably trigger political upheaval that will scar us all. But it does capture the difficulty of trying to make the greenhouse effect kick you in the gut. Bangladeshis will certainly be swept away by rising waters–but Bangladeshis die by the truckloads in floods already, and we don’t pay much attention. It is unlikely their worsening plight will yield the changes in our lifestyle it probably should. Here at home, it’s a stretch to try and find actual living victims. You can claim, plausibly, that storminess will increase as the temperature warms, but (as Mr. Reiss points out) linking particular storms to global change is impossible.

This is particularly true of hurricanes. Dr. Bob Sheets, whose visage is familiar to aficionados of the horizontal-rain-and-whipping-palm-trees school of storm coverage, and Jack Williams, who must take credit for developing USA Today ‘s vivid weather page, point out correctly that the world’s top climate scientists have not been able to predict what will happen to cyclones. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, which has been confidently pessimistic about everything from the spread of disease to the increase in drought, says the science of hurricanes is still too problematic to allow a forecast: Upper atmospheric temperatures, for instance, might actually fall as the surface warms, which would tend to decrease hurricane activity.

In some broader sense, though, this surprisingly well-written and even charming history of hurricane forecasting suggests another approach to making Americans care about what we’re doing to the planet. (And “we,” of course, is quite literal–we Americans supply a quarter of the carbon dioxide heating the globe.) Messrs. Sheets and Williams pretend to think of hurricanes as deadly and terrifying and so forth, but clearly they have a serious crush on their subject. They describe with enormous fondness the most harrowing flights into the eye walls of the great storms, and there is an unmistakable wistfulness in their tone when they recall the great hurricane years, when one lady after another slammed into the Keys or the Gulf. And in this they’re not alone–as the success of the Weather Channel makes clear, this country is filled with people who have a visceral affection for the weather, for the extreme and even the fairly mundane processes of the natural world.

It is this very orderliness of the planet that we stand poised to upset, and somehow Americans find this troubling–poll after poll shows we actually want global warming stopped, even if it creates expense–and that is not, I think, because of any particular fears for our own well-being and safety. It is because of a quasi-religious sense that we are tampering with the globe in ways we shouldn’t be. It’s the same reason that, even after Sept. 11, we viscerally oppose drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge–not out of fear for caribou or for Eskimos, but out of fear of our own limitless appetites, a sense that we’ve somehow gone too far.

Some years ago, when the Endangered Species Act was up for reauthorization in the House, the big environmental groups premised much of their campaign on a series of pragmatic arguments: Somewhere in the DNA of some species, there may be some cure for some disease you may get. This is the same sort of argument that Bob Reiss makes, I think, when he describes the picnic destroyed by the tornado–and it is certainly effective, at least to some degree. But the lobbying that carried the day on the Endangered Species Act came from the Evangelical Environmental Network, which ran an ad campaign showing some squid or ivy and saying, simply, “God made it. We tend it. That settles it.”

Given the skillful intransigence of the corporate and political classes (which Mr. Reiss, following on the work of Ross Gelbspan, unveils in all its shameless avarice), it may take some similar understanding of the sheer scale of this problem to turn the tide. It’s not so much that it will disrupt particular lives if the planet warms at the predicted rapid rate. It’s the realization that it will disrupt life itself that might finally move us.

Bill McKibben, author of The End of Nature (Anchor), is currently a visiting scholar at Middlebury College. Another Kind of Cataclysm: Incremental Climate Change