2005-09-24 - International Source: IPS
Has the United States reached a tipping point on global warming, as yet another destructive hurricane uproots millions of its citizens? Several recent scientific studies have found a clear link between global warming and increasingly powerful storms over the past 35 years. "The (George W.) Bush administration will not allow that link to be made," Vicki Arroyo, director of policy analysis for the Virginia-based Pew Centre on Global Climate Change, told IPS. While it is impossible to directly blame Hurricane Katrina or Hurricane Rita on human-induced climate change, the science shows that warmer oceans and rising sea levels are producing stronger hurricanes, Arroyo said. Arroyo's Arlington, Virginia home is filled with relatives from New Orleans who do not know when or even if they can return. "People on the Gulf Coast are beginning to wonder what's going on," she said. Hurricane Rita is expected to strike the Gulf Coast east of Houston, Texas on Saturday, a little more than three weeks after Hurricane Katrina killed more than 1,000 people, flooded the city of New Orleans and caused damages in excess of 200 billion dollars. As of 2100 GMT Friday, Rita is still some 200 kilometres from its Texas landfall, but the hurricane's heavy rains have already pounded New Orleans for several hours, some levees have failed and the city is re-flooding. Meanwhile, in Pres. Bush's home state of Texas, millions have fled the oncoming storm in near panic, clogging highways for hundreds of kilometres. "The recent science has clearly linked higher storm intensity to climate change," said Peter Frumhoff, a senior scientist in the Global Environment Programme of the Union of Concerned Scientists. Other studies have shown that the social, economic and environmental costs of climate change will be "staggering" if action is not taken now to reduce carbon dioxide emissions from fossil fuels, Frumhoff said in an interview. "We can't engineer solutions to all the impacts of climate change. It's much easier and less expensive to reduce CO2 [carbon dioxide] emissions," he explained. To prevent the worst consequences of future climate change, reductions of 80 percent or more are needed, Frumhoff said. "The longer we wait to act, the greater those reductions will have to be," the scientist added. The Kyoto Protocol, an international treaty that calls for nations to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, took effect in February. However, Pres. Bush has refused to submit the treaty to Congress for ratification because he says industrialised nations like the United States are unfairly singled out. The United States produces about one-quarter of the world's greenhouse gases, with Texas alone regularly exceeding France in annual emissions. While the Bush administration remains in denial, other voices in Congress and at the state level are expressing concern, Frumhoff said. "My hope is that out of these tragedies in the Gulf region, we will start talking about this." Europeans also know their climate has changed and that they are witnessing global warming right now, says Ken Caldeira, a climatologist and ocean chemist at the Carnegie Institution's Department of Global Ecology. In recent years, Europe has been hit by extreme weather events, including flooding in 2002 that cost billions of dollars, a heat wave in 2003 that killed thousands, and near record floods again this summer. "I don't know if the hurricanes this year will be our tipping point," Caldeira told IPS. What he does know is that the current path the United States is on could mean the Gulf Coast region will be battered by ever more powerful hurricanes for hundreds of years into the future. "I can't prove that scientifically, but it's not unreasonable to say this is possible," he warned. However, the science is strong enough now to show that fossil fuel emissions are having an impact on the global climate system and if it continues, there will be major impacts, he said. "We can't say we don't know what we are doing," Caldeira said. "The real question is: 'How risky do we want to be with the future?'" Caldeira's own research into what will happen if all of the world's remaining fossil fuels were used reveals a frightening and unrecognisable future. The global average temperature will rise another 12 degrees C, sea levels will be metres higher, and the oceans will become increasingly acidic and unable to support life, he said. He acknowledges that predicting all the changes, especially at the regional and local levels, is impossible. However, "in 100 or 200 years, the Earth won't look much like it does today," he said. Caldeira estimates that Washington could make the necessary emissions cuts with investments in resources that would cost less than the country's military budget. While that is a lot of money, it would be a small fraction of the U.S. GDP, he said. However, the administration's current climate policy is to let future generations deal with the problem, he said. "What if the ancient Romans had done the same thing 1,000 years ago, and here we are today with acid oceans and drastically changed climate? How would we feel if those Romans knew this would happen and they went ahead regardless so they could enjoy their luxurious fossil fuel-driven lifestyles?" he asked. "We could spend a little now to avoid a major future risk." While the necessary emissions cuts will be a major undertaking, there does not have to be a huge change in U.S. lifestyles, Caldeira insists. It's more like a jump in gasoline prices -- painful at first, but it soon becomes normal. And a little pain, considering the consequences, ought to be welcome. "We have only one planet and we're gambling it right now," the scientist said.