The Hottest Year Yet

OK, all you movers and shakers and impeachers in Washington, here's a hypothetical scenario that I hope might shift your attention to something important.Suppose the stock market starts to sink, slowly, subtly, with ups and downs, but the dominant direction is down. Suppose over an extended, agonizing time the Dow-Jones drops by 30 percent. Then in one day it plummets another 10 percent.You'd ask what's going on, right? You'd call in every economic expert you could find.Suppose that all but a handful of experts tell you the problem is not investor hysteria, it's the real economy, which seems to be gravely out of balance. Businesses are falling apart, supplies aren't coming in, customers and competitors are shifting around in unpredictable patterns, debts aren't paid, contracts aren't honored, standard practices that used to grind out goods and services and profits and wages have stopped working. The cause of this chaos is just one economic sector, a bunch of large, old firms on the edge of technical obsolescence, who, grasping at their own survival, are crazing the entire business world.A few experts hotly deny this. They claim that everything's fine, and even that economic chaos is good. You find that they are in the pay of the trouble-causing sector, so you stop listening to them. (I am assuming, dear movers and shakers and impeachers, that you yourselves are not similarly paid.)End of fictitious scenario. Beginning of analogous facts.All scientists, even those in the pay of biased sources, agree that carbon dioxide in the earth's atmosphere has been rising. It's now more than 30 percent higher than it was a century ago. No one disputes the fact that carbon dioxide traps heat. Unsurprisingly, the earth is getting hotter. There are ups and downs, but the trend is clear.Last year, 1998, broke the global temperature record by almost a half degree Fahrenheit, which in climate terms is a huge leap. Previous hottest years, the last two of which were 1995 and 1997, broke the record by small fractions of a degree.Last year also saw in many parts of the world raging forest fires, torrential rains and mudslides, floods, droughts, failed crops, and hurricane Mitch, which killed over 20,000 people.These weather disturbances are plausible, though not proven, consequences of a climate thrown out of balance. The doubters (in the pay of oil and coal companies whose products, when burned, release carbon dioxide) say they were caused by a strong random weather event called El Nino. El Nino arises from an unusually warm Pacific Ocean and is itself consistent with global warming.The doubters are having a hard time summoning evidence for their side, as glaciers melt and Antarctic ice shelves fracture. Last year they lost their strongest talking point, temperature measurements from satellites, which disagreed with earth-based measures and actually indicated a cooling. It turns out that those results were warped by the fact that the satellites are slowly descending in orbit. When the data are corrected for altitude, they show a warming too.The most striking evidence is coming from nature. People may be in denial, but plants and critters are noticing changes and trying to respond. A new article in Science magazine shows that the consequence can be chaos in living systems.Since 1970 scientists at the Central Plains Experimental Range in northeastern Colorado have measured a total average temperature rise of 2.4 degrees F. Over that same period the dominant buffalo grass has markedly declined, while sedges and other plants have taken over. Buffalo grass is unusually tolerant to drought and grazing; it supplies up to 40 percent of the diet of cattle on the shortgrass range.That ecosystem shift is just one of many noted on land and in the ocean. Since different species react to temperature changes in different ways and at different rates, living systems are being disassembled, some critters dying back, others taking over, others moving out. Dr. Jerry Melillo of the Ecosystems Center at Woods Hole says in Science, "Over the next 100 years, the ideal range for some North American forest species could shift as much as 300 miles to the north.... The sugar maple could be lost from New England by the end of the next century."If the economy were falling apart, you would certainly ask, do we NEED this industry that is causing so many problems? If you were told no, much of that industry's output is simply wasted and there are cleaner, better substitutes for everything it produces, you would know what to do.First you would stop subsidizing it. With the hundreds of billions of dollars you save, you could help consumers install energy efficient and solar-based devices, thereby encouraging the energy technologies of the coming century.You would help workers and communities bound to the dying industry through a transition to more secure livelihoods.To demonstrate global leadership, you would not only ratify the Kyoto climate treaty, you would push to strengthen it, because it goes less than ten percent of the way toward a stabilized atmosphere.If it were the economy, you'd act in a minute. The economy can't survive for a minute without the life-support systems of the planet.So what are you waiting for?(Donella H. Meadows is director of the Sustainability Institute and an adjunct professor of environmental studies at Dartmouth College.)


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