Earlier this summer, 500 people died during an unprecedented Chicago heat wave; last month, Russian scientists reported that venomous snakes had appeared for the first time in the far north, apparently driven by a warming environment; this month a British team predicted that 1995 will be the warmest year in human history.
What’s odd is not the heat--that’s precisely what scientists concerned about global warming have been predicting for nearly a decade. What’s odd is that no one seems to be paying attention to anything except local weather forecasts and air-conditioner ads. Certainly not to the greenhouse effect.
Ever since the last great boom in ecological interest peaked on Earth Day 20 in 1990, environmentalists have waited for some new crisis to reignite public interest. “Part of the secret to bringing about necessary change is understanding the lulls when the public’s concern is beneath the surface,” Al Gore told me in a 1993 interview, after he’d been accused by some in the media of “going AWOL” on the environment. “It’s inevitable that some combination of events will produce a new surge of public concern.”
This summer’s heat should have done it: Not only has it been widespread and deadly, it also fits perfectly with the predictions made by the global climate models that first caused widespread alarm. As early as 1988, when he set off the greenhouse debate with testimony before Congress, NASA scientist James Hansen said that during the mid to late 1990s the warming should become visible to “the man in the street.” Since then, we’ve had a brief two-year cool-down, thanks to the eruption of Mt. Pinatubo in the Philippines, and then the steady reheating of the atmosphere. 1995, says Hansen, will quite likely beat 1990 for the world’s hottest-ever year.
No one can say for certain, of course, that any particular heat wave comes from the increased carbon dioxide that our fuel-burning civilization has been adding to the atmosphere--climate is a noisy and variable system. But one can say that this is precisely what global warming is supposed to look like in its early stages, and that it is precisely the sort of weather we can expect to see more of in the years ahead--lots more, unless we begin to take dramatic steps to deal with the problem.
Why then the quiet response to one of our first real tastes of the most important environmental problem we face as a planet? For one thing, a small band of industry spokesmen and ideologues have fought long and hard to discredit the notion of global warming. Rush Limbaugh leads this band of what some researchers have called “confusionists,” citing inaccurate and misunderstood statistics to bolster his claim that it’s all a left-wing fantasy. In the current political climate, such attacks sting (I should know--Limbaugh called me an “environmental wacko” last month). And though it’s attracted little notice amid all the other clamor, Republican congressmen have tried to gut most of the funding for climate change research, perhaps scaring scientists dependent on federal grants.
So even though, in the words of Environmental Defense Fund researcher Michael Oppenheimer, the “vast majority” of climate scientists now agree that the phenomenon is inevitable and serious, the public is persuaded that it’s an open scientific question, something still up in the air. If that’s to change, more scientists will have to stick their necks out like Hansen did in 1988. They need to tell the rest of us precisely what their research means--even if it imperils next year’s stipend. Their credibility is all the more needed because Gore, the only national politician who’s ever shown much commitment to this issue, now labors under the cone of silence we call the vice presidency.
There’s a deeper reason, though, that we avoid this issue, and that’s because all the answers to it are difficult and painful. Wrong as he is about the science, Limbaugh is right about the political meaning of global warming: Solving it will require enormous changes in how we conduct our lives. It’s not like smog, where a new filter or a new regulation will do the trick. CO2 is an inevitable byproduct of burning fossil fuels, so the only way to control it is to stop that burning. A U.N. panel estimates that we need an immediate 60% reduction in global fuel use to stabilize the climate--at the moment, both in this country and internationally, we’re heading in the other direction.
That’s not to say there aren’t answers. New technologies will provide some help--renewable energy sources, for instance, that the government could help spur by raising the price of oil, gas and coal. Even more important, however, are changes in behavior. We may need solar cars, but we definitely need a transit system that elevates trains and buses and bicycles above automobiles and airplanes. I’ve been in Third World cities where great bus service has cut per capita fuel use by a third--that’s a pretty big start on the road we need to follow.
Some combination of hope and fear will have to propel these changes. At the moment, though, we have alarmingly little of either. Forget metaphors--we’re exactly like that famous frog in the pot of warm water. It’s getting hotter and hotter, but so far we’re paying no attention.