Stormy weather

Floods, droughts, hurricanes and disease outbreaks -- an expert explains why climate changes give us yet another reason to find terror in the skies.

Published October 23, 2001 7:41PM (EDT)

Hurricane Mitch, the Oakland, Calif., fire of 1991 and the Chicago heat wave of 1995 are just a few of the environmental disasters that, in the last 10 years, have claimed lives and made for frightening news reports. These weather catastrophes seem to happen regularly, yet they invariably prompt nagging questions: "Is this normal? Has it ever been this hot?" If you ask a climate scientist, he will say no. To proponents of the greenhouse effect theory, at least, the last decade unleashed a dazzlingly deadly display of extreme weather events -- which is just what happens when you turn the heat up on Mother Nature.

A reporter for the Washington Post, Outside magazine and GQ, Bob Reiss believes it will only get worse. His new book, "The Coming Storm: Extreme Weather and Our Terrifying Future," examines the scientific and political conflict that's been raging since signs of the greenhouse effect appeared in the late 1980s. Reiss also lays out what it's like to live in these aggravated conditions; in heart-thumping detail, he recounts personal experiences with some of the most notorious disasters of the last 15 years -- a Nashville picnic ravaged by a tornado, a series of storms that cost billions in Europe, a drought in Sudan that practically caused a hunger riot and the potential flooding of an entire island nation.

Subtler, more insidious effects threaten us, too, and Reiss drives that point home. Most people will probably be lucky enough not to cross paths with a Midwestern tornado or to be vacationing in the Carolinas during an August hurricane. Yet, Reiss writes, "Maybe when you're sixty-five, and you get a heart attack on a hot night, it will never occur to you that at three a.m., temperatures wouldn't have been as hot if the climate hadn't changed."

Reiss spoke to Salon from his home in New York.

Extreme weather means more terrifying hurricanes and tornadoes and fires than we usually see. But what can we expect such conditions to do to our daily life?

While doing research 12 or 13 years ago, I met Jim Hansen, the scientist who in 1988 predicted the greenhouse effect before Congress. I went over to the window with him and looked out on Broadway in New York City and said, "If what you're saying about the greenhouse effect is true, is anything going to look different down there in 20 years?" He looked for a while and was quiet and didn't say anything for a couple seconds. Then he said, "Well, there will be more traffic." I, of course, didn't think he heard the question right. Then he explained, "The West Side Highway [which runs along the Hudson River] will be under water. And there will be tape across the windows across the street because of high winds. And the same birds won't be there. The trees in the median strip will change." Then he said, "There will be more police cars." Why? "Well, you know what happens to crime when the heat goes up."

And so far, over the last 10 years, we've had 10 of the hottest years on record.

Didn't he also say that restaurants would have signs in their windows that read, "Water by request only."

Under the greenhouse effect, extreme weather increases. Depending on where you are in terms of the hydrological cycle, you get more of whatever you're prone to get. New York can get droughts, the droughts can get more severe and you'll have signs in restaurants saying "Water by request only."

When did he say this will happen?

Within 20 or 30 years. And remember we had this conversation in 1988 or 1989.

Does he still believe these things?

Yes, he still believes everything. I talked to him a few months ago and he said he wouldn't change anything that he said then.

Do most scientists who believe in the greenhouse effect say that we should expect to see more environmental catastrophes in the next 25 to 50 years?

I don't think of this as a futuristic problem but as a current one. It's a problem that gets worse by increments. If you talk to Tom Karl, the head of the National Climatic [Data] Center, he's more comfortable saying that there's no weather event that's not affected by the greenhouse effect now. If you look at terrible weather events in recent years, like Hurricane Mitch, you have to ask: At what point does extra rain cross a critical threshold and become a 100-year flood? At what point does a 100-year flood become a 500-year flood? Also, there can be surprises and all of the surprises were bad ones. For example, you'll see a Level 5 hurricane instead of a Level 4.

What else has been different about the '90s?

Ten of the last 15 years have been the hottest on record. The science in the '90s was much more focused on why. Scientists around the world, in a massive coordinated effort -- ones that weren't sure whether there was a massive greenhouse effect or whether humans contributed to it at all or whether it will get worse -- have been examining the question from a hundred different angles. The issue moved from being an academic one to an unprecedented international political problem because, in the end, it will affect national sovereignty if it's shown to be as serious as I think it is. The predictions have grown more dire.

In one passage, the president of the Republic of Maldives tries to explain that the physical existence of his country is threatened. What kind of danger are they in now?

It's the first country on Earth that completely disappears as a nation if the worst-case scenarios are correct. Greenhouse effect is not theoretical to them.

When could this happen?

The Maldives are so low-lying that a storm could put them underwater. It's not a question of whether the ocean goes up a fraction of a milliliter per year and at some point in the future the Maldives are underwater. Rather, it's that one day, they will be underwater. That happened in 1987. The president woke up and the capital, which is only one square mile, was underwater. There was no storm going on. But there was a foot of water over the capital and the airport. Coral was washing back and forth across the runaway. It's not like in the Carolinas where you load up the car and drive away. In the Maldives there's no place to go.

Have they been planning for this?

It's a schizophrenic attitude probably similar to American attitudes during the nuclear age. On one hand you go about your normal life and plan your future and on the other hand you build a bomb shelter. Their schools are getting better. They're dredging their harbors, and they're also talking about moving people from one island to another in case the islands get submerged at some point.

What about doomsday predictions like coasts falling into the ocean? Are there any other places in danger like the Maldives?

Any low-lying coastal area is vulnerable to increased storms and storm surge including the East Coast of the U.S. and the Gulf area. Island nations are the most frightened nations. They always urge the greatest cuts in emissions.

What other kinds of odd environmental catastrophes will we see?

All catastrophes are odd ones. I faced a moral question when I was writing the book: What is a responsible way to present a problem? First, you have to look into it and find out whether or not it is a problem. You have to look at the science, which I did, and talk to the scientists, which I did, and then you have to come to a conclusion. At the end of the book, as a way of checking it, I had lunch with Tom Karl, the head of the National Climatic Center. He had been a skeptic. But by the time we had lunch, he was a believer. I went case by case through each of the weather events that I'd worked on -- the hurricanes and fires and tornadoes -- and in each he confirmed my suspicion that the greenhouse effect affected all of them.

One of my favorite passages -- and I say that morbidly -- was about the Oakland fire of 1991. A brush fire became a firestorm in minutes and devoured 3,000 homes. What made that fire different from other fires in the past?

You could have picked any of several fires. I could have used the New Mexico fires of 2000. I happened to use the Oakland fire. Because the winds or the heat were unusual, the fire just got worse.

How do most foresters feel about the greenhouse effect?

I doubt that most foresters would think that the greenhouse effect is in any way connected to fires. Although, of course, fire danger is worse when it's hotter and drier and when you have unusual winds -- all three of which are effects of the greenhouse effect. There have always been hot, dry windy days, but we're talking about pushing the edge of a critical threshold.

El Niño is something that happens every certain number of years. Was this most recent one different?

Whatever you can name becomes more extreme under the greenhouse effect because there's more heat, whether it's El Niño or the melting glaciers or the absorption of more heat in the ocean or how big a tornado is or what the storm surge is like in a hurricane or how much rain falls or how dry it is. Heat is fuel for climate change.

There has been a surge in tropical diseases as well?

Certainly. They're popping up in places we've never seen them before. Especially in South America and parts of Africa. The diseases are moving up mountains because the range of mosquitoes changes as the weather gets hotter. The mosquitoes can go up higher.

In the deadly Chicago heat wave of 1995, people who didn't have air conditioners fell victim. The elderly didn't realize how hot they were and died. What happened?

They'd never seen a heat wave that bad. What was really in line with greenhouse theory was the fact that the temperature didn't go down at night. Nighttime temperatures are affected more than daytime temperatures when it comes to extreme heat.

And the storms that passed over Europe in 1990 -- at the time when high winds blew hard enough to knock the roof off of a Cornwall school -- that storm was "different" too?

Yes. And certainly, those storms had a big effect, even on BP, the oil company. They acknowledged that the greenhouse effect exists, which is a big thing. If you ask the man who used to run Amoco how they came to their decision to acknowledge the greenhouse effect, one of the things he brings up are those terrible storms in Europe and Britain.

Have any other oil companies acknowledged the greenhouse effect?


And there have been other corporations that have acknowledged it.

Yes, but many corporations, not oil companies: Toyota, Lockheed, Maytag, 3M, Weyerhauser.

I thought it was interesting that the Swiss reinsurance company, Swiss RE, is conducting its own research on the greenhouse effect.

Yes, they're panicked. At Kyoto and at the climate conferences, more and more, you see representatives from insurance companies who are urging countries to do something because they have watched their losses skyrocket.

Especially in the last 15 years?

Yes, gigantic, enormous, unprecedented losses all related to weather. Those guys are desperate to figure out whether this will get worse.

These corporations jump up and say that they're going to consider being responsible, but the U.S. government still hesitates in huge ways. Which politicians have been good about it?

Tim Wirth and Al Gore were great. Under the last three administrations, the same basic dynamics have affected the way the White House has handled climate change. The EPA always thinks that the White House should do more about it, and the Treasury Department always thinks less. And the Treasury Department, regardless of whether it's a Democratic or Republican administration, worries that actions taken to alleviate the greenhouse effect will severely hurt the economy. The EPA always says no, we have to do it anyway and it could even benefit the economy -- which is my opinion.

You are very careful to note how much all this damage costs. Is there a figure for how much the '90s weather damage cost the United States?

There are all kinds of direct and indirect effects of weather damage. Rebuilding a road -- you can quantify that. People getting West Nile virus -- that gets a little tougher. Sending the military to a part of the world that has been destabilized by an environmental problem mixes it up further. Do you figure in whether the insurance rates have gone up on your home if you live in Florida or the Carolinas? Do you figure in whether your insurance has been canceled in either of those places? There are so many things.

Do you think the public will get angrier if the government doesn't take action on global warming?

There have been financial analysts who have suggested that the public will be so angry when global warming is proven, that they will seek legal retribution against oil or coal companies the same way they did against tobacco companies. People are always angry when they've been fooled, so if they start to think so, then they'll do something.

What was also shocking about many of these disasters in the U.S. was that it didn't seem that the government was responsive enough to the damage. In the Missouri floods of 1993, they needed $12 billion and the federal government gave them $6 billion. Are we thinking progressively about this at all?

George W. Bush doesn't believe that global warming exists. He said it in his debate with Al Gore. He's not sure if the greenhouse effect exists. That's the derivation point of federal policy. If you look at the new energy policy, it favors coal plants and suggests deregulating some of the old Clean Air Act. Look at the way the Republicans have refused to change the fuel requirements on SUVs.

Do you think that Clinton did what he could? Were his initiatives derailed?

There are two schools of thought on that. One is that the administration caved to the Treasury Department, and the other is that the Clinton administration would never have been able to get anything through Congress. Even the Kyoto Protocol, which the Clinton administration negotiated and signed, was never brought to the Senate for ratification. They voted something like 95 to nothing that they wouldn't ratify it. In many ways, the Clinton administration's hands were tied. But in some ways they weren't aggressive in terms of using the White House as a bully pulpit for educating Americans. Clinton and Gore talked about it a lot, but I think they could have been more aggressive.

Do you blame oil and coal companies for influencing our politicians?

I don't blame corporations for the greenhouse effect. What we're really talking about are the energy habits of Americans. You and I and most people we know use more energy than we should. We run our heat, we leave our lights on, we keep our computer on, we have a bigger car. We're energy and power gluttons. The movie "A.I." starts off showing New York under water and talking about the greenhouse effect and what happened in the past. The movie starts in the future. But then if you look at the energy habits of the people in the movie, you realize that they didn't learn anything.

It's a gigantic question of supporting research and development of alternative forms of energy. It's unlikely that the people in the U.S. are going to cut back that extremely, but what the administration should be doing is coming up with a space program-size project for new kinds of energy.

BP has a solar energy project. They were expecting to have solar energy panels in 2001 on all their U.S. BP stations as a way of demonstrating how effective it could be. I'm unsure whether they're still on schedule because I haven't seen any of these things yet, but that was their hope. The reason they wanted to do that was because if you put a solar energy system on your house, it's tremendously expensive. One way to cut down on the expense is if you mass produce it. BP is trying to jump-start that.

The problem is eventually you're phasing out fossil fuels and that's where you cut down on the greenhouse effect. And the funny thing is, whoever develops a solar energy program will be our trillionaire country of the future.

Are Americans the biggest abusers?

Yes, Americans are the biggest users of energy.

Didn't a U.S. senator express surprise to the head of India's Tata Institute when he learned how little energy the average Indian used compared to the average American? He said something like, "How do you manage?"

Well, in India "headload" -- how much wood you can carry on your head -- is a legal term. They don't talk about kilowatt hours. But India and China will be big consumers of energy in the next 50 years.

It seems like at this point there are two questions: Is the earth warming? And, are humans causing that warming? Everyone believes that the answer to the first one is yes, right? Or are there still scientists and skeptics -- besides lawyers for coal companies -- who will say that this isn't happening?

Definitely. That's the nature of scientists. They disagreed the day before the moon rocket went off and the day before the first nuclear explosion and before the first heart transplant. The problem is that politicians on one side use this disagreement as an excuse to do nothing. Since there's never going to be complete agreement, we might go forever on this. There are scientists who believe that the role of clouds will alleviate the warming. And those who say we're still coming out of an ice age. And those who believe that natural climate variation is responsible for the weather and not humans. And those who believe that even if humans are involved, the effect is so minuscule compared to the natural one that the whole thing is ridiculous to talk about.

But the models do show that since industrialization the earth has changed at a faster pace than it used to. To what extent are we too late?

Too late?

Have we set forth changes in the earth that we can't reverse?

I don't know. At what point do you hit critical threshold? See, these are the scary questions that are not being addressed, and these are the scary questions that we're not even taking out insurance against. What happens if there's a runaway greenhouse effect?

If we wanted to reverse the greenhouse effect, how much emissions would we have to cut back?

Globally, the figure is something like 70 percent. What we want to do is hold it back while we develop alternative forms of energy. Carbon is increasing in the atmosphere, the automobile industry is surging in China, the world population is exploding in Asia, developing countries want the same thing that we have in America -- they want air conditioning and a car too. Every single manufactured item you can think of contributes to the greenhouse effect. If you buy a pair of shoes, it came from a factory. The factory needed energy. You order water in a restaurant; it comes out of a faucet that was produced and that took energy. This conversation on the phone. uses energy. My computer's on and, look, I left the light on. It's true. I'm going to go turn it off.

By Suzy Hansen

Suzy Hansen, a former editor at Salon, is an editor at the New York Observer.

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