Volume 12, Issue 23 ~ June 3-9, 2004
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Feeling the Heat
by Jim Motavalli and Ross Gelbspan

The disaster movie The Day After Tomorrow has been dismissed by some scientists and environmentalists as too extreme and spectacular to be credible. But in presenting such an attention-grabbing scenario, the movie’s producers may be providing a valuable service. The film uses Hollywood hyperbole to fill a critical vacuum left by U.S. press, whose negligent coverage of this issue has left the American public woefully uninformed about global climate change.

Unfortunately, global warming has long since moved from science fiction to fact. While it’s extremely unlikely that New York City will be hit by an overnight deep freeze anytime soon, or Los Angeles by killer tornadoes, there are a host of gradual, on-the-ground, climate-driven changes taking place right now whose chaotic potentials are equally disturbing.

Take, for instance, the first signs of early-stage global warming: long droughts, more intense downpours, more frequent heat waves and severe storms:

  • At the same time the film was premiering in New York, torrential flooding killed an estimated 2,000 people in Haiti and the Dominican Republic.

  • Australia’s agricultural center of New South Wales is now in the second year of the worst drought in its history, which has decimated crops, cut farm incomes in half and triggered fears that this is a new permanent condition. Scientists attribute the drought to changing wind-circulation patterns due to atmospheric warming.

  • In May, 2003, the Midwestern U.S. was battered by a record 384 tornadoes in one week, a record attributed by the World Meteorological Organization to climate change.

  • Last summer more than 30,000 people died in a prolonged heat wave in Europe. While Europe may have experienced similarly intense heat waves in previous eras, the high number of fatalities last year was due specifically to one aspect of human-induced global warming.

The record is indisputable. The 10 hottest years have occurred since 1990, with 1998 replacing 1997 as number one. Last year, 2003 tied 2002 as the second-hottest year in recorded history. Atmospheric levels of heat-trapping carbon, which had remained constant at 280 parts per million for 10,000 years, have escalated since the late 19th century to 379 parts per million, a level this planet has not experienced for more than 420,000 years.

For an increasing number of people, global warming is not an academic and scientific debate but a matter of survival. From the frozen Arctic to the tropical islands at the earth’s equator, people are being affected by dramatic changes in long-established climatic patterns. As the planet warms at a rate of four degrees Fahrenheit per century, violent storms are increasing in frequency, icebergs are melting, sea level is rising, species are losing their habitats and temperature records are being broken.

Nor is there any real scientific doubt about the issue. What we know about climate change comes from a consensus of more than 2,000 scientists from 100 countries reporting to the UN-sponsored Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change in what is the largest and most rigorously peer-reviewed scientific collaboration in history.

Even the climate nay-sayers are changing with the times: Instead of claiming that the scientific evidence is wrong, they now say we have to “adapt” to global warming because there’s nothing we can do about it.

As reporters, we’ve wondered why these hugely significant events aren’t accorded more space in newspapers and on television. The answer lies in the nature of our profession, which seldom takes the long view. It excels at reporting from the scene of natural disasters but seldom pauses to look at cause and effect.

For one example, more extreme floods, droughts, storms and heat waves are occupying a much bigger portion of news budgets. When the press covers these weather extremes, it should at least occasionally insert some background, including the indisputable fact that “scientists associate this pattern of violent weather with global warming.” That would make this issue immediately more accessible to readers and viewers.

Will it take a disaster of Day After Tomorrow proportions before the reality of global warming finally takes hold of the public consciousness? We certainly hope not. We would much prefer the press to begin to do its job by covering global climate change consistently, thoroughly and in all its aspects.

Jim Motavalli is editor of E/The Environmental Magazine and of the new book, Feeling the Heat: Dispatches From the Frontlines of Climate Change (Routledge). Ross Gelbspan is author of The Heat Is On (Perseus Books, 1998). His new book, Boiling Point, will be published in July by Basic Books.

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