High Tide

Mark Lynas traveled the world to show that climate change is a global problem from which nobody -- whether rich or poor -- can hide.

| Wed Jun. 23, 2004 3:00 AM EDT

Thanks to rising ocean levels, the nation of Tuvalu is literally disappearing. A collection of islands north of Fiji and east of the Solomons, Tuvalu is losing its surface area as melting glaciers and rising temperatures cause the Pacific waters to rise. Scientists predict that Tuvalu will be under water within a few decades, and the country has already started a program to gradually relocate its people as the clock runs down on its existence.

Research ing his new book, “High Tide,” over three years, climate specialist Mark Lynas visited places that, like Tuvalu, have weathered the effects of rapidly accelerating climate change. He tells of drought in the formerly lush Mongolian plains, the melting of glaciers in the Andes, and widespread flooding in Britain, where he’s from. In each case, Lynas talks to locals about the changes they’ve witnessed and shows readers what’s potentially in store for them if global warming continues on its current path.

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While on a book tour in the U.S., Lynas talked with MotherJones.com about the effects of climate change, the U.S. role in international agreements, and what needs to happen to prevent the eventual destruction of the planet.

MotherJones.com: Instead of simply explaining the science behind global warming, you chose in researching this book to personally visit affected places. How did you select those particular sites?

Mark Lynas: I wanted to give a global view of what is a global problem. So I wanted to get a different site in each continent that would illustrate a different aspect of the global warming crisis. For example, in the Pacific, I wanted to talk about sea level rising and how it’s affecting the islands. In Asia, I wanted to go to China to look at drought. In the U.S., I wanted to look at hurricanes, and in Peru I wanted to look at glaciers. Then I also went to Alaska to look at the polar regions. So the point was really to show that this is a global problem affecting north, south, east and west - rich or poor - and that nobody was going to be able to hide from the climate crisis that is looming over the planet, however hard they try.

MJ.com: As someone who’s studied global warming extensively, what surprised you most, being on the ground and witnessing its effects?

ML: I went back to a glacier [in the Peruvian Andes] that my father took photos of in 1980. When I came around that hill and saw the same valley, the glacier had disappeared in totality. I was so shocked I didn’t know how to react – at first I wasn’t sure it was even the same place. I’d expected the glacier to be smaller because I know glaciers are retreating in mountain ranges right across the world, but I hadn’t expected it to disappear entirely. But there were some other dramatic things that happened. When I was in China, I got caught up in two separate dust storms, which were so strong they turned day into night. People get killed in these, and often in quite large numbers. So there were some quite dramatic events that I had to get through in order to finish the research.

MJ.com: Poorer countries in many ways pay the price for the actions of richer countries. What recourse do those poorer countries have?

ML: A country like Tuvalu – which is going to be going out of existence in the next 30-50 years – has very little recourse. Not even under international law, because, for an issue like global warming, it’s very difficult to point your finger at a specific culprit. There was a study Greenpeace did recently that suggested that the oil company Exxon/Mobil was responsible for 10 percent of all global warming in terms of the oil products it had produced over the past century or so. But even if you wanted to pursue this company, it would be very difficult on a legal basis to point to a chain of causality for which you could hold them legally responsible. The company could probably argue it was the fault of the people driving the SUVs or consuming the oil instead of itself. It’s going to be very difficult for countries like Tuvalu to gain any compensation through current legal mechanisms. In any case, what they’re focusing on is not how to get compensation after losing the battle, but to try not losing the battle in the first place – to try to stop global warming sufficiently so that they don’t get submerged. The emphasis now is on mitigating global warming and trying to stop it from accelerating out of control.

MJ.com: You talk in the book about the compromises involved in the Kyoto Protocol. Without the U.S. involved, how valuable is Kyoto?

ML: It’s the foundation stone of international climate negotiations. If it dies, that will set back the U.N. process by 15 years because it’s what people have been working on since 1997. It’s quite clear to me that the Kyoto Protocol is only the very first step, because it’s actually very limited in what it calls for – only up to 5 percent cuts in emissions, when we need 80 percent cuts. But you have to be able to walk before you can run. I hope that Russia ratifies the Protocol – that at least makes it legally binding on the other countries that have ratified it. But ultimately we do need to have an international agreement that brings in the United States. Hopefully under a more persuadable president than George Bush, who is in denial about global warming, irrespective of the strength of the science. Ultimately, this will also have to include developing countries like India and China.

MJ.com: In the U.S., there are still groups like the Greening Earth Society and others trying to refute the science behind global warming. What can scientists do to get the facts out to people who hear these arguments?

ML: The scientific community is unanimous when it comes to global warming: it’s happening, it’s caused by man-made greenhouse gases, it’s going to get a lot worse over the next few decades unless greenhouse gas emissions are cut back dramatically. People who are in denial about global warming – the Greening Earth Society, the Competitive Enterprise Institute – are generally on the pseudo-scientific far right and get large payments from retrograde companies like Exxon/Mobil. The issue there isn’t one of science but one of corruption. These people are being paid to pull the wool over the eyes of the American public and disseminate misleading propaganda. I’m hoping the efforts of scientists can convince people that global warming is the problem that is going to define the 21st century and we’ve got to start dealing with it soon.

MJ.com: Can you talk about how climate change has influenced hurricanes and other violent storms hitting the U.S.?

ML: I went to talk to some of the hurricane climatologists who were working in Miami primarily. They told me the biggest change in terms of why hurricane damage is going up is not that hurricanes are getting worse, but there’s much more economic development in hurricane-prone areas of the coast. So you have to be quite clear when you’re looking at statistics for insurance industry payments and so on that you’re not getting mixed up here between economic factors and climatic factors. But it does seem like hurricane climatology is changing in the Atlantic. We’re now seeing very active hurricane seasons, and that’s something that has shifted because of warmer waters in the Atlantic after about 1995. It’s possible that the warming trend in the oceans is now beginning to affect hurricanes. Looking into the future, all the computer models show that we’ll see hurricanes with much higher rainfall, more destructive winds, and more disastrous outcomes in a warmer world.

MJ.com: What are some of the other short-term consequences of climate change that we might see in the next few decades?

ML: One consequence people are already seeing is drought. I saw a piece in a scientific journal in just the past week that said the current drought in the Midwest is worse than the 1930s Dust Bowl, and is probably the worst drought to hit the area for about 500 years. So you’re already seeing weather patterns outside the normal parameters. In the same way, the heat waves we experienced in Europe in the summer of 2003 that killed 20,000-30,000 people – that again was off the scale. These extreme events are happening much too early – they’re in the computer models, but they don’t come up until about 2050. One of the big concerns that I and lots of people studying this have is that global warming is getting too bad too quickly. It isn’t so much a case of what’s going to happen in 2050, but what’s happening now and what that heralds for the future.

MJ.com: Apart from the Bush government, what are some of the other obstacles to combating global warming?

ML: We’re all culprits in this. If you look at the per-capita emissions, Americans per person emit about twice as much as British people, who in turn emit 100 times what Bangladeshi people do. What’s absolutely clear is that those of us in developed countries are primarily the ones responsible for causing the problems. That doesn’t mean we all have an individual choice about whether to cause the problem, because we live in societies that are completely dependent on oil and coal for their energy supplies. If you’re living in L.A., it’s very difficult to go greenhouse gas-neutral, simply because of the way things have developed there for the last 50 to 100 years. In terms of the politics of this, what’s absolutely crucial now is that we have a global movement where people begin to not only face up to the issue of global warming, but face up to the reality of the actions that have to be taken. Ratifying the Kyoto Protocol is one of these things, but it’s just as important that people join up in an international movement calling for equal shares in the atmosphere and a sustainable future. It’s almost like carbon rationing – we’ve got to have equal shares. There’s a program called Contraction and Convergence that a lot of people are now calling for at an international level, that does solve this problem of inequalities between countries at the same time as getting all of the world’s countries – including India and China as well as the U.K. and U.S. – to sign up to what needs to be a global agreement.

MJ.com: You mention India and China. How can the rest of the world encourage countries that are developing so rapidly to lower their emissions while growing their economies?

ML: The obvious solution is to have a clean pathway to development, where it’s not one based on fossil fuels, but which brings in renewable power or uses less energy in the development process. But again, it’s no good for Americans or British people preaching to the Chinese or the Indians about how they should develop, because that would simply aggravate the problem politically. We have to lead by example in the rich world, which is why we have to start making the biggest cuts early on. We have to be able to demonstrate to people in poorer countries that we’re not simply aiming to keep them poor in order to save the planet - that simply won’t work.

MJ.com: If John Kerry is elected president in November, what might that mean for the American role in combating climate change?

ML: Kerry isn’t calling for the U.S. to join up to Kyoto – it seems that backing Kyoto is now politically impossible. So Bush has won, to some extent, by shifting the ground and making Kyoto look un-American and therefore infeasible even for the Democratic Party. What is clear is that Kerry has a very strong record on the environment, so it’s absolutely essential – it’s battle No. 1 – to get Bush out of the White House and get Kerry in. I hope the Nader candidacy won’t upset that, and that people can unite behind John Kerry in a stronger and more positive way, because that’s the only way we’re going to get through this. If Bush remains at the leadership level in the international community, global warming is going to remain unsolved and will keep getting worse. If we have a second Bush presidency, then I get close to despairing for the future of the planet because time is running rapidly out.

MJ.com: If Bush were defeated, does it follow that other obstructionist countries would change their positions?

ML: The other obstructionist governments take their cues from Bush. I don’t think they would dare to be obstructionist if American had changed its tune. In Australia, for example, the [John] Howard government is very right-wing and anti-environmental in the same way that Bush is. But I don’t think they would keep to that line if Kerry were president. So it absolutely does come down to who runs the administration in Washington.

MJ.com: On the flip side, what governments are providing positive models?

ML: My own government in Britain is one of them. The U.K. has signed a commitment to reduce its greenhouse gases by 60 percent by 2050. In theory, that’s a very ambitious and good target to have. The problem is, of course, there’s no sign of them actually implementing it yet. Road traffic keeps rising, they’re talking about building new airports – so the policies to actually implement these targets are generally lacking. But it shows that the British government has actually thought about this and has probably got more commitment than most other governments around the world. In general, Europe is a long way ahead of the rest of the world on this, and particularly a long way ahead of the United States.

MJ.com: Which available technologies provide the best hope for reducing reliance on fossil fuels?

ML: There’s no technology that can simply substitute for fossil fuels and solve this problem – that’s quite clear. The thing about fossil fuels is they offer a very concentrated and very cheap energy source. So it takes a helluva lot of solar panels or land producing biodiesel crops to get the same amount of energy as a gallon of gas that simply pumps out of the Earth’s surface. There is no easy technological solution to global warming. It requires a whole host of different technologies at the same time as it requires major lifestyle changes and reductions in energy use. If you just take international air transport as an example, my flight from London to Seattle probably emitted something like 10 tons of greenhouse gases. There’s no visible technology that can eliminate that kind of emission, so ultimately we do need to see a reduction in air travel. On the other hand, with advances in solar technology and wind power, there are more opportunities for clean energy in the home, as well as increasingly cleaner alternatives for land transport. But as I keep emphasizing, it does require major reductions in energy use and therefore great changes in the lifestyles that we’ve become used to.

MJ.com: As you said earlier, even Kyoto only requires 5-percent reductions in emissions. From there, how do we get to a 20-percent reduction and a 50-percent and so on?

ML: We need 80-percent reductions, and 100-percent in the longer term. We need to phase out fossil fuels altogether. The issue is obviously the time scale for that. We need to have dealt with this problem by 2050, so we need emissions to peak within the next 5-10 years. That’s why I say it’s so urgent, because right now all the trends are going in the wrong direction. Emissions are increasing constantly, the carbon accumulated in the atmosphere doubled over the last three years. That’s why it’s so important that Bush doesn’t win again. If we lose another four years, then we’re getting very close to this precipice where we’re going over the point of no return, if you like. The big danger with global warming is you get to a threshold where the impacts begin to accelerate and begin to take on their own momentum by positive feedback. So you might get methane coming out of bogs or permafrost regions in the north. You may get forests burning down and therefore releasing more carbon. And all of these things begin to take on their own momentum, which humanity is powerless to stop. So we’ve got to make sure we don’t cross that threshold.

MJ.com: What will it take to get industries like oil companies and auto manufacturers to change their practices and lower emissions?

ML: To put a price on carbon. In the U.S., at the moment, it’s free to emit pollution into the atmosphere. We have to make sure that companies are paying the price of their pollution, and that gives them a big incentive on the balance sheet to bring down their greenhouse gas emissions. The second thing is tradable permits have to be implemented internationally, and this is where I come back to the rationing system I was mentioning before. You have to have a global budget set of how much greenhouse gas emission is allowed, and companies and individuals would be rewarded permits within that which they could trade. Then everyone has an incentive to reduce their emissions as much as possible because they can just sell them off. Just having taxes or having individual bits of legislation isn’t enough of an ambitious framework. We need something much more rigorous and wide-ranging.

MJ.com: Can you explain more about how tradable permits would work?

ML: The Contraction and Convergence idea is you set a limit on what the concentration of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere is allowed to reach – and that’s a political decision which will have to be taken by all countries. Once you’ve got that budget for greenhouse gases, the next question is how you allocate it. Of course, you have to allocate it fairly amongst all of the world’s population, and that’s the convergence point – you converge to fair shares per person within this budget. So you get sustainability and you get equality within the same equation. People who aren’t using their full allocation – like most Bangladeshis – would then be able to trade it internationally to people who’d want to use more, like most Americans. So you get major international currency flows from rich countries to poor countries – rather like you do with the oil industry nowadays – so that would also help solve global poverty while binding poorer countries into this process, which is absolutely essential.

MJ.com: If Kerry manages to defeat Bush, what steps should he take early on to tackle climate change?

ML: What Kerry needs to do if he wins the presidency is to declare and openly acknowledge that global warming is a critical issue affecting the American people just as it affects all the other people of the world, and declare the intention of the United States to become a major player in tackling the global warming crisis. Once this intention has been expressed, we can start looking at some of the action that needs to take place in terms of reopening negotiations with the understanding that the Americans will be acting in good faith rather than taking an obstructive role as they have so far. Hopefully, with serious American leadership, the world can unite around a much more ambitious set of targets for reducing greenhouse gas emissions and we can actually look to a future where we don’t have to be panic-stricken about what lies ahead for our children in terms of the more catastrophic scenarios that envisage war, conflict, the collapse of civilization and devastating things like that. We can have a win-win situation where all our lifestyles are improved. By eliminating fossil fuels, we get a cleaner environment, healthier cities, better air quality, and we leave a world for our children that is healthy, that can sustain itself and sustain humanity. That’s the prize a Kerry presidency would hopefully begin to move toward.

MJ.com: Even if the world commits to fighting global warming, to what degree can it be scaled back at this point?

ML: Global warming is already irreversible, in the sense that even if all greenhouse gas emissions stopped tomorrow, we’d probably still see another degree and a half or so of warming. So even if all emissions stopped, we’d still see double the warming we’ve already experienced. And that does mean the loss of many more glaciers, possibly the extinction of large numbers of species, the death of coral reefs and the loss of island nations like Tuvalu. That’s the best we’re ever going to get.

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