Gar Smith / Earth Island Journal – 2012-11-05 11:17:28
Special to Environmentalists Against War
W2K: The Extreme Weather Era
Gar Smith / Earth Island Journal, Summer 2000
When the date rolled over from midnight 1999 to the first minutes of Year 2000, most computers continued to hum and the world’s oil-electric-silicon-based societies breathed a sign of relief.
True, there were a few glitches (the National Clock in Arlington Virginia clicked off the first day of the new millennium as January 1, 19,000), but thanks to an unprecedented $30 billion global fixit program, most banks remained open, most lightbulbs continued to glow and most fuel pumps delivered gasoline on demand.
Yet, as the millennium dawned, millions of homes were plunged into darkness. In Europe, Africa and South America, water supplies failed, food and fuel deliveries stopped. Nuclear powerplants were dangerously disrupted. Airplanes even fell from the sky.
This global cataclysm was not caused by computer circuits misinterpreting a binary code: It was caused by a new kind of threat that climatologists are calling Extreme Weather Events. Unlike Y2K (which merely threatens computer-dependent infrastructure), Extreme Weather Events have the power to destroy bridges, bury roads, collapse buildings, obliterate forests and kill people by the thousands.
Linked to the destabilizing effects of global warming, Extreme Weather (EW) is characterized by higher (and lower) temperatures, fiercer winds, deadlier floods, longer droughts, and an increased frequency of dust storms, tsunamis, storm surges, tornadoes, hurricanes and cyclones.
On March 10, 2000, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) announced that the winter of 1999-2000 was the warmest winter since the US began keeping records 105 years ago.
At the International Decade for Natural Disaster Reduction conference in July 1999, World Meteorological Organization Secretary-General Godwin O. P. Obasi stated that weather-related disasters “are costing the world economy about $50 billion per annum. These disasters have also caused suffering to more than two billion people since 1965 and three million have lost their lives.”
In its Global Environmental Outlook 2000 study, the UN Environmental Program concluded that it is no longer possible to prevent “irreversible harm” to the tropical rainforests. UNEP foresees a number of “full-scale emergencies” on the horizon.
In short, the real threat to civilization has turned out to be not Y2K but W2K — Weather in the Year 2000.
W2K Superstorms Hit Europe
In the last days of the 20th Century, a Pre-Millennium superstorm ripped off roofs and snuffed out lights from Italy to the Netherlands. Tree trunks and mudslides blocked roads. Falling trees, toppled chimneys and collapsing walls crushed and killed more than 120 people.
In Italy, a light plane encountered monstrous winds over Torino province and, yes, fell from the sky.
In the south of France, the storm snapped powerlines to three 900-MW nuclear powerplants, disabling the emergency cooling systems and forcing an emergency shutdown. The storm also flooded two of the reactors, disabling the pumps used to send water through emergency cooling circuits.
The damage was worst in France where winds as high as 136 mph killed 79 people, uprooted 1.0,000 trees at Versailles Palace and caused $77 million in damage to French landmarks including Notre Dame Cathedral and Sainte-Chapelle. The French government declared a “natural catastrophe” over two-thirds of the country and mobilized 6,000 troops to clear roads, provide emergency food and water and search for survivors.
“In the meteorological records, there is no trace of a phenomenon as violent as this,” marveled French weather service forecaster Hubert Brunet. Two million people lost power. More than 400,000 homes lost telephone service. Millions of homes were damaged. Many towns were without drinking water. Major airports were paralyzed.
W2K’s Forest-Killing Winds
The winds that hit Europe and India were forest-killers. In France alone, the blasts flattened 160 square miles of forests and destroyed 400 million trees. The National Forest Office reported a loss equal to three years’ worth of timber harvests.
Extreme weather clearcut France’s commercial forest industry to the ground. One shaken commercial forester called the storm “the most disastrous event since WWII.” The storm also destroyed forests in Germany and Austria.
Since many of the trees were 100-400 years old, it will take centuries to replace what a single extreme weather storm destroyed.
On October 29, 1999, a supercyclone struck Orissa, demolishing miles of newly planted mangrove forests. After an earlier storm devastated the region, the government of Orissa sponsored a major reforestation effort to replace the protective buffer of native mangrove forests. (The mangroves had been cleared to make room for prawn farms.)
The supercyclone was an environmentalist’s worst nightmare. One of the working assumptions of restorationists is that massive reforestation can help stabilize the atmosphere while protecting the land from storm damage.
These disasters demonstrate that we now face a new threat — superstorms so powerful that they can destroy hundreds of square miles of trees (old and new) within a matter of hours.
W2K: Summer Blackouts
While floods and hurricanes are dramatic events that can knock out a country’s electrical grid, the slow, upward creep of temperatures also can cause blackouts, as overextended powergrids try to feed air-conditioning demands of exploding urban and suburban populations.
On August 10, 1996, temperatures in California’s Central Valley hit 110 F, punching electrical demands to an unprecedented 21,451 megawatts. As the mercury rose, powerlines began to stretch and sag. In Oregon, one of lines dropped onto a tree limb, and the resulting short knocked out power to 4 million people from Canada to Mexico. Five of California’s 11 powerplants were forced off-line — including both units of the Diablo Canyon nuclear power station.
Across eight Western states, transformers exploded, gas pumps shut down. ATM machines went blank and power-surge-caused fires destroyed homes and garages. People were stuck in elevators, trains, buses, and subway tunnels.
Airports, businesses, and supermarkets were disabled. Radar systems crashed, checkout counters went dead, frozen foods thawed and rotted. In Los Angeles, six million gallons of raw sewage was released into the Pacific Ocean, contaminating ten mites of coast.
Power was not fully restored for five days. Even before the Y2K bug surfaced, the lesson was clear: An economy that is dependent on fossil fuels and centralized power sources is fundamentally unstable.
The Economic Impacts
On January 14, UN Environment Program predicted that W2K events “will cause major economic impacts for an insurance industry already burdened with a 14-fold increase in insured losses in the last four decades. The economic losses from the past 24 climate or weather-related catastrophes alone have exceeded $150 billion.”
The Calgary Herald reported that “financial losses from severe weather events in Canada have increased at 10 times the rate of the country’s economic growth since the mid-’80s.” With insured losses in 1998 hitting $1.45 billion, these rapidly rising disaster costs may soon outrun Canada’s ability to finance recovery.
Hurricane Hugo pummeled South Carolina in 1989 causing $47 billion in damage. Three years later, Hurricane Andrew inflicted $30 billion in damage on Florida.
In 1998, Extreme Weather Events — floods, fires and storms — caused 32,000 deaths worldwide, left 300 million homeless and cost insurers a record $92 billion. This financial loss does not begin to describe the full impact of these calamities on human society and on the environment.
“When a community is hit by a major storm,” Sheila D. David, Sarah Baish and Betty Hearn Morrow reported in the October 1999 issue of Environment, “the entire social fabric that defines a population as a community can be severely weakened.
People relocate (some permanently), neighborhoods are destroyed, friendships are severed, support networks are broken, and domestic relationships are stressed. Schools, churches, social groups, and families are apt to never be the same.”
Long-term studies show that communities struck by natural disasters suffer increased incidences of suicides, family violence, desertions, and alcohol and drug abuse.
The insured losses do not include harm to ecosystems. Hugo damaged 4.5 million acres (37 percent) of Carolina’s forests. The Francis Marion National Forest lost 87 percent of the habitat of the endangered red-cockaded woodpecker and 63 percent of the birds.
After Hugo hit, the white ibis population crashed from 10,000 pairs to zero. More than half of South Carolina’s 54 bald eagle breeding sites were obliterated. Saltwater forced inland killed five million catfish, bream, largemouth bass and other fish. All of the unhatched eggs of Loggerhead and four other endangered sea turtle were destroyed along the South Carolina coast (first by the storm and then by subsequent efforts to restore the beach).
It’s Already Happening
In 1988, Earth Island Journal ran a cover story on the threat of climate change. “There is no advantage in waiting.” Environmental Defense Fund Senior Scientist Michael Oppenheimer warned in that issue. “If we don’t move fast, there will he so much climate warming that our policy options will be narrowed in the future.”
On June 30, 1988, more than 300 scientists from 48 countries called for a 20 percent cut in world oil consumption and a “carbon tax” on fossil fuels. The Ecologist called for canceling Third World debt in exchange for “guaranteed protection of the world’s remaining tropical forests.”
The call went largely unheeded.
Twelve years later, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) is warning that the climate is warming at “an unprecedented rate” and registering changes that were not expected to occur until far into the 21st century.
The polar ice sheets are already melting and rising seas are decimating tow-lying islands, As University of Michigan Geologist Henry Pollack told the Los Angeles Times, “Even if we don’t understand the details of what’s causing [climate change], we still have to deal with the consequences.”
A two-year computer modeling study conducted by the Union of Concerned Scientists and the Ecological Society of America foresees West Coast winters becoming 5 to 6 degrees warmer and summer temperatures rising 1 to 2 degrees over the next 30 to 50 years. The computer models predict that water shortages will devastate the farming economy of the Central Valley while warming ocean waters will deplete populations of plankton, eroding the basis of the marine food chain and triggering die-offs of fish, sea birds and marine mammals.
In regions where rainfall increases, flooding has begun to flush large amounts of nitrogen into rivers, killing fish and eventually carrying deadly effluent into oceans. A report from the US Climate Forum notes that this “disruption of the global nitrogen cycle is happening even faster than the disruption of the global carbon cycle.”
NOAA’s Hurricane Research Division notes that hurricanes are already increasing in frequency and strength as they pick up energy from warmer ocean surfaces. And each ten percent increase in strength brings a doubling of the damage when the storms crash ashore.
On February 20, 2000, scientists with NOAA’s Global Change Research Program (GCRP) informed delegates at the annual meeting of the American Academy for the Advancement of Science in Washington, DC, that “human-induced climate change has already started” and was, by now, most likely beyond human control. “You can’t stop climate change, given what we’re doing right now,” said Michael MacCracken, director of the GCRP’S National Assessment Coordination Office.
MacCracken’s startling announcement was echoed by University of Maryland Scientist Donald Boesch, head of the US National Global Change Assessment. “Things are going to happen,” Boesch warned. “We’re going to have to deal with them.”
This view is shared by Randall Hayes, founder of the Rainforest Action Network. Hayes observes that “we have already entered the dangerous era of ECOSPASMS. Hang on for the ride.
“An easy transition to the “appropriate-technology, sustainable-society paradigm is an impossibility now,” Hayes believes. “We must up-the-ante to ensure that out solution scenarios are on a scale commensurate with the problem. That is why I like Mark Hertsgaard’s Global Green Deal.”
Short of an atomic blast, there is no military weapon that wreaks such massive devastation as Extreme Weather. After viewing the onslaught of Hurricane Floyd in 1999, Bill Massey of FEMA Regional Office IV in Atlanta remarked: “Now, instead of worrying about the atom bomb, we’re worried about bad weather.”
In December 14, 1998 report, the British Parliamentary Office of Science and Technology concluded that “some degree of climate change is ‘inevitable'” and urged the UK to prepare for “more frequent and severe extreme weather-related events” that would cause trade disruptions, water shortages, and outbreaks of disease, heatstroke and food poisoning.
The report noted that “climatic zones are likely to shift northwestwards by 50-80km per decade, so many species of plants and animals would have to migrate to remain in the conditions to which they are suited. Adaptive responses could include providing stepping stones and corridors of appropriate habitat along which mobile species could move.” The old conservation strategy of maintaining fixed wildlife “sanctuaries” would doom many species to imprisonment and slow extinction.
Alaska’s permafrost is thawing, forcing local and state authorities to spend millions repairing buckled roads and tipping homes. Farmers will be faced with the choice of growing different crops or abandoning their lands.
Surviving the W2K Century will require a global redesign of industry and settlement. Houses must be removed from coasts and floodplains and rebuilt. Buildings will have to be redesigned to survive stronger winds. Brick apartment buildings with black tar roofs become solar ovens in the summer: They will have to be torn down and replaced.
“Climate shocks to the world’s most important cities — such as New York, Tokyo and London — could shake up economies worldwide,” reports Scientific American writer Kathryn S. Brown. “By 2090, increasing storm surges could dunk lower Manhattan under water every few years, flooding the World Trade Center and other financial district skyscapers.”
It’s the Environment, Stupid!
The W2K threat yet to register with the presidential contenders, although President Clinton acknowledged the problem in a remarkable and underreported speech in New Zealand. “Unless we change course,” Clinton declared, “the seas will rise so high they will swallow whole islands.”
Clinton told his New Zealand audience that it was “no longer necessary to burn up the atmosphere to build economies on oil and coal.” The president also admitted that the US was the country most responsible for producing climate-changing gases.
Instead of pouring billions of dollars into an indefensible Son-of-Star-Wars missile system to defend the country from space, the US needs to invest in creating environmental bulwarks on the ground.
During the Cold War, the US built bomb shelters and stocked them with water and survival rations. Faced with a climate-wide Hot-and-Cold-War, government emergency planners should be building storm-shelters in tornado belts and hurricane zones and making sure that they are stocked with clean water, medicine and foodstuffs.
The US desperately needs a government whose policies are guided by biologists and independent scientists, not a corporate welfare state orchestrated by Big Business lobbyists.
Faced with the specter of the Y2K computer glitch, the world’s leaders demonstrated their ability to marshal vast amounts of money and energy to forestall a threat to banking and commercial interests.
A similar effort to re-engineer the world economy to run on renewable solar power (wind, sun and wave) is possible and long overdue. It is the only way that the world can hope to survive the W2K Century. It is time to close the book on the dying carbon economies of the 20th century
On March 9, 2000, British Deputy Prime Minister John Prescott unveiled a national plan to reduce UK greenhouse emissions by more than 21 percent by 2010. Prime Minister Tony Blair declared that this goal was “not negotiable.” The UK has committed to produce ten percent of its power from the wind by 2010 and has created a 10 million [pounds sterling] Climate Change Centre to help England survive W2K’s “twister and blister” extremes.
The policies are already working. By years end, Britain’s global warming emissions are expected to drop 15 percent below their 1990 levels.
“Developed countries have an obligation to take a lead,” Prescott stated. “Climate change results from our actions in the past, and we must lead the way in dealing with the consequences.”
UK Environment Minister Michael Meacher warned: “We have got to take early action if we are to avoid the worst effects of climate change and buy time to adapt.” If we fail to act, Meacher stated, within a generation, the world will experience widespread hunger, floods, water shortages, and the destruction of the Amazon rainforest.
The goal of the UNEP is to stabilize atmospheric C02 levels at 550 parts per million — or about five tons for everyone on Earth. (The average US resident is responsible for nearly 20 tons of C02 gases each year. The US, the world’s leading producer of greenhouse gases, still has not ratified the Kyoto Protocol on Climate Change.)
As Earth Island’s Climate Solutions Project wrote in 1999: “The global climate crisis, perhaps the greatest challenge in the history of civilization, calls upon us to act decisively and without delay. We must rapidly transition from fossil fuels to clean energy.” This effort should be pursued “with the urgency of the Manhattan Project or the Apollo space program.”
And it should be a major issue in the 2000 presidential race.
South America — “The Climate Has Gone Mad”
In May 1999, five northwest Mexican states were declared disaster zones after the longest drought in memory killed crops and cattle. Five months later, torrential rains raked Mexico, unleashing floods that killed at least 400 and left 300,000 homeless. InterPress Service reported that one phrase was heard more than any other in the aftermath of Mexico’s drought/flood tribulations: “The climate has gone mad?
A study from Mexico’s National Autonomous University warns that “Mexico will be one of the countries hardest hit by global warming.” In 25 years, Mexico may experience 54.5 C temperatures and desperate citizens will flee north to the US and Canada “in search of better climactic and environmental conditions.”
In December 1999, floods left as many as 20,000 dead, 35,000 homes demolished and 150,000 homeless in Venezuela. According to NOAA, “Large swatches of Venezuela’s northern coast were swept away.” Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez toured the area and lamented, “There are bodies in the sea, there are bodies under mud, there are bodies everywhere.”
India — The Age of Supercyclones
On October 29,1999, a “supercyclone” with winds topping 175 mph, ravaged Orissa, India. Some 1.5 million were forced from their homes and as many as 15,000 may have died. The floods killed 8,238 buffaloes, 78,104 sheep, 78,728 goats, 10,381 carves and nearly one million chickens. Three months after the disaster, human corpses still littered the landscape — apparently preserved by the combination of seawater and chemicals spilled from storm-damaged storage tanks.
Africa — W2K Puts an End to the “Mozambique Miracle”
In March 2000, Mozambique became Africa’s Honduras — an entire country wiped off the map by extreme weather. After weeks of rain flooded the country, Hurricane Eline erased it. At least 30,000 were left homeless.
This marked the end of the “Mozambique Miracle.” Since 1996, the economy had been growing at a phenomenal 10 percent per year. The fall harvest would have made the country serf-sufficient in food for the first time in 20 years. Record crops were washed away in record floods. Rampaging rivers scattered many of the 5 million unexploded landmines planted during the civil war.
Eight years of steady progress were wiped out in a matter of days. Major roads and rail lines were destroyed. More than 3,000 mites of new roads will have to be rebuilt from scratch. Repairs could cost $65 million. At the same time, Mozambique had to pay interest on debts to Northern banks — a staggering $1.4 million per week.
In neighboring Zambia, rains forced the opening of floodgates on the Kariba Dam, displacing 15,000 people and sweeping away fields of maize and bananas. At the same time, a tropical storm pummeled Madagascar, killing scores of people and displacing 600,000 — half of them children.
COPYRIGHT 2000 Earth Island Institute
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