Climate Change and the Drought
Air Date: Week of September 10, 1999
Living On Earth’s political observer Mark Hertsgaard (HURTS-guard) talks with Steve about the summer's biggest environmental story: the weather. When it comes to recognizing a link between global climate change and the hot temperatures and massive droughts, he says we've got our heads in the sand.
CURWOOD: Joining us now to talk about the latest environmental news is Living on Earth's Mark Hertsgaard. Hi, Mark.
HERTSGAARD: Hi, Steve.
CURWOOD: Hey, thanks for giving up your camping trip and coming in and talking with us today. I know, trying to get in those last days of summer is something we'd all like to do.
HERTSGAARD: Yeah, it was great. I was out in the Sierra Nevada mountains.
CURWOOD: Uh huh. Up above the snow line there?
HERTSGAARD: Well, I was camping last Thursday, actually, at 7,500 feet and hiked up to 8,500 feet, and in full sunshine there were huge snowbanks. It was really wonderful.
CURWOOD: Isn't that great? You know, we could have used some of that
snow out east here all summer. I mean this was really hot. You've been talking to scientists about this summer. Can you give us the bad news?
HERTSGAARD: Well, it just confirms what everybody's own experience tells. Which is that this has been one of the worst summers in American history. In fact, the scientists are saying that the drought in particular was the second worst drought that struck the United States in the last 100 years. I think equally worrisome, though, is that there have been a lot of heat-related deaths. The numbers are still coming in, but in early August the official count was 271, and this is something we're going to see more and more of as the heat gets worse in summers to come.
CURWOOD: So, it's going to get worse, the scientists that you're talking to say.
HERTSGAARD: That's the other thing, that this is part of a trend toward more extreme summers, again, throughout the 20th century. Hotter and hotter temperatures ranges, longer and longer droughts. So this is what we've got to look forward to in a globally-warming world.
CURWOOD: And this is affecting the entire world, not just us in the United States, of course.
HERTSGAARD: No, of course. In fact, I think one of the biggest developments of this summer was that two tiny Pacific islands actually disappeared beneath the rising sea levels. This is something people have been talking about ever since global warming first got on the radar screen, that because of the melting glaciers and the expanding oceans, that we would begin to disappear underneath the ocean. Well, it's finally started to happen out there in the Pacific Ocean. Two small islands. And we're seeing this also up in the Arctic. The Arctic is now warming three to five times faster than the rest of the planet, and it is having a devastating effect on the ecosystems there. In particular, the walrus population has been decimated because their food is becoming scarce. And then finally, one other, I think, very important development: in Europe, butterflies are moving north. Twenty-two out of 35 species have shifted their ranges 20 to 150 miles to the north over the last decades, precisely because of warming temperatures. This is important because butterflies are very delicate creatures, as we all know, and they're a little bit like the canaries in the coal mine. They are warning us about what is coming down the pike because of global warming.
CURWOOD: Well, these examples you're giving us, Mark, are of relatively unpopulated areas involving wildlife. What kind of impact are scientists saying is going to happen in areas with large numbers of our species, people?
HERTSGAARD: Big report out of India recently says that the Himalayan glaciers are going to be melting over the next 40 years, and the scientists at Nehru University are predicting absolutely devastating floods along the Ganges and Indus river valleys. Of course, these river valleys are home to hundreds of millions of people. So, it could be an enormous loss of life there. And this ties in with a report that Red Cross came out with this summer, too, where the Red Cross has said that they are now expecting poverty and environmental degradation to begin to reinforce one another, to create what the Red Cross calls "super-disasters." Like Hurricane Mitch. Hurricane Mitch was a storm, but it was made much, much worse by the fact of deforestation down there in Central America, and that's what the Red Cross is predicting for the years to come: enormous super-disasters and hundreds of millions of what they call "environmental refugees."
CURWOOD: Well, Mark, tell us what's going on, then, in terms of the political response to these changes.
HERTSGAARD: Not much is the short answer, although I've been so gloomy here, let me at least throw in one piece of good news --
CURWOOD: Yes, please!
HERTSGAARD: -- which is that -- at least I think this is very encouraging. The economic data that came out of the United States government for last year shows that we do not need to be producing ever-increasing amounts of energy to keep our economy healthy. Last year economic growth was about 3.9 percent, but our energy growth was only 0.4. So clearly we do not have to keep going in this direction. Unfortunately, I'm afraid that most of our leading institutions have yet to get the message. Al Gore, for example, the Vice President, climate change is his signature issue and yet he's been virtually silent this entire summer. His own political advisors are telling him privately that it looks like he is running away from this issue. At the same time, we've got on the Op Ed page of the New York Times Mobil Oil running a four-part series of advertisements about climate change, and saying, at the very time that hundreds of people are dying from heat and drought, that climate change is still not proven, and it's not clear that we have to do anything about this. And then finally, I must take to task a bit my own colleagues here in the media. I've been very struck by how little attention has been paid to the causal relationship between this summer's heat and global warming. There have been a couple of stories but, you know, the weather was the biggest, probably the biggest news story of this summer, and yet no one pointed out the obvious connection between that and global warming. I think that's a major failing on the part of our colleagues.
CURWOOD: Mark Hertsgaard is Living on Earth's political observer. Thanks, Mark.
HERTSGAARD: Thank you, Steve.
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