Boiling Point: How Politicians, Big Oil and Coal, Journalists, and Activists are Fueling the Climate Crisisand What We Can Do to Avert Disaster by Ross Gelbspan. Basic Books, New York City, 2004. Hardback $22.00.
This is a huge subject, a long title, and a weighty bookyet it is only 200 short pages long, and easy reading. Right away I knew the author was a journalist. Journalists tend to write the best books, and Ross Gelbspan has been a reporter and editor for decades, specializing in reporting environmental news. He is also a Pulitzer prize-winning writer.
I had read about most of the environmental facts reported in this book; the natural world particularly interests me. (I majored in ecology in the late 40s.) But I had read about almost none of the backroom manipulation and corporate secret dealing that is described. I "knew" that the energy industry had highjacked the U.S. Government, and still, to read the details of some of the behind-the-scenes corruption is to read about nothing less than a horrendous criminal conspiracy against the American people. Its hard to even understand the motivation, but there it is, happening, and we have to educate ourselves and change the political picture. The time is NOW. Our very survival as a species is at stake.
We have to first educate ourselves about what is happening. People in the rest of the world have an understanding that we are on the edge of extinction, and everywhere they are doing something about it. Even the Chinese have greatly reduced their CO2 emissions at the same time as their industrial base is expanding...while we are continuing to raise ours. Saudi Arabia is doing better on energy sustainability than we are. The U.S. is purposefully committing a huge crime against all of humanity.
However, I believe that if the U.S. people knew the imminent danger, they would insist on change. This is exactly what the oil and coal industries fear, and so with their powerful crony, GW Bush, they are keeping this crucial information from the American public.
"It is an excruciating experience to watch the planet fall apart piece by piece in the face of persistent and pathological denial."
I have personally been feeling this way, and it is with great gratitude that I listen to Ross Gelbspan succinctly summarize the situation, and further, talk about alleviation. He says about this book
"It is a last-gasp attempt to break through the monstrous indifference of Americans to the fact that the planet is caving in around us."
But, Gelbspan goes on to say, his hope is to change the way we regard this threat of runaway climate change. He wants us to use this moment in history "as an unprecedented opportunity to use the climate crisis as the foundation for a common global project that would create the basis for a far wealthier, more equitable, and ultimately more peaceful world. A real solution to the climate crisis could, if properly structured, provide a liftoff toward a far more promising human future."
Gelbspans book is divided into 8 chapters, each one interspersed with a real global warming scenario, which he hopes will help us to understand the speed at which all this change is occurring.
Chapter 1, Not Just Another Issue, begins with a quote by Margaret Beckett, British Secretary of State for Environment, in April 2002:
"Weve known for some time that we have to worry about the impacts of climate change on our childrens and grandchildrens generations. But now we have to worry about ourselves as well."
The evidence is all around us in very noticeable ways. "It is apparent in the trickling meltwater from the glaciers in the Andes Mountains that will soon leave many people on Bolivias mountainside villages with no water to irrigate their crops and, after that, not even enough to drink." In fact, say scientists, at the accelerating rate at which they are melting, the worlds glaciers may be gone by 2030!
"It is visible in the rising waters of the Pacific Ocean that recently prompted the Prime Minister of New Zealand to offer a haven to the residents of the island nation of Tuvalu as it slowly goes under." They were being evacuated in 2003.
"It is evident in the floods that, in 2002, inundated whole cities in Germany, Russia, and the Czech Republic. It is underscored in the United States by the spread of West Nile virus to 42 states, and to 230 species of birds, insects, and animalsand in the record-setting 412 tornadoes that leveled whole towns during a 10-day span in May 2003. Its reality is visible from outer space, where satellites have detected an increase in the radiation from greenhouse gases."
Civilization begins and ends with climate, and the global dimensions of the amazingly rapid rate of change require us to quickly make massive changes if we want to slow it down. The U.S. has 5% of the worlds population; it contributes 25% of the greenhouse emissions. Scientists say that we must cut our use of coal and oil by 70% in just a few years. Despite the propaganda of the Bush Administration, the science is unambiguous.
In 2002, a study by many of the climate researchers published in the journal Science called for a Manhattan-type crash project to develop renewable energy sourceswind, solar, and hydrogen fuel.
In 2001, a report of the UNs Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) concluded that the climate is changing far more rapidly than scientists had previously projected.
More than 2,000 scientists from 100 countries participated in the largest and most rigorously peer-reviewed scientific collaboration in history. They reported that storms, floods, and droughts will intensify because humanitys burning of coal and oil is driving up temperatures much more rapidly than scientists had anticipated just six years earlier.
In the fall of 2003, both climate change and financial change began to coalesce in a large way:
The entire ecosystem of the North Sea was found to be in a state of collapse because of rising water temperatures.
For the first time in recorded history, the world consumed more grain than it produced for four years in a row. The reason: rising temperatures and falling water tables.
The German government declared that the goals of the Kyoto Protocol need to be increased by a factor of four to avoid "catastrophic" changes. Otherwise, the climate will change at a rate not seen in the last million years.
The summer heat wave in Europe killed 35,000. This was not due only to the high daytime temperatures. Six years earlier, the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) had predicted that this could happen when they found that as earths temperature has been rising, the nighttime lows have been rising twice as fastthus not giving heat-stressed life sufficient recovery time.
The biggest ice sheet in the Arctic, the Ward Hunt Ice Shelf collapsed from warming surface waters. It was 3000 years old, 80 feet thick, and 150 square miles. As it broke, a massive freshwater lake held back by the ice drained away.
Scientists reported that the pH level of the worlds oceans has changed more in the last 100 years than it had in the previous 10,000 years, primarily because of the fallout from coal and oil burning. The oceans are becoming acidified.
An 18-month drought in Australia had cut farm incomes in halfand left many scientists speculating that the prolonged drought may have become a permanent condition in one of the countrys richest farm areas.
Bankers, pension fund managers, and Wall Street advisors issued a "call to action" about impending climate-driven upheavals in the worlds financial markets. At the meeting, the Treasurer of the State of California, Philip Angelides, declared, "In global warming, we are facing an enormous risk to the U.S. economy and to retirement fundsthat Wall Street has so far chosen to ignore."
Swiss Reinsurance, one of the worlds largest insurers, said that they would drop insurance from companies which were not moving very aggressively to reduce their carbon emissions.
In the face of all this, ExxonMobil announced proudly that they expected a 50% increase in carbon emissions by 2020, because of rising energy demands.
Also in 2003, many segments of American society proceeded to work on this problem on their own. The majority of states, over 100 cities, "green" campuses, and some businesses and local districts have been instituting measures to slow carbon emissions.
Unfortunately, they are totally outmatched by the enormity of big coal and big oil. In fact, currently the Federal Government is suing the State of California over its air quality standards because they interfere with the auto industrywhich has not made gas mileage more efficient in the 60 years that Ive been driving. In many vehicles, it is now less efficient.
As Gelbspan points out, we have two choices (besides blindly jumping off the cliff, like lemmings). We can regress into a primitive lifestyleor we can mount a global project to replace every oil-burning furnace, every coal-fired generating plant, and every gasoline-burning car with noncarbon and renewable energy sources.
"A properly framed plan to rewire the globe with solar energy, hydrogen fuel cells, wind farms, and other sources of clean energy would do much more than stave off the most disruptive manifestations of climate change. A global transition to renewable energy could create huge numbers of new jobs, especially in developing countries. It could turn dependent and impoverished countries into robust trading partners. It could significantly expand the overall wealth in the global economy. It could provide many of the earths most deprived inhabitants with a sense of personal future and individual purpose."
"It could be the prompt that reverses the kind of exaggerated nationalism that threatens to re-tribalize humanity. It could be the springboard that propels us forward into a much more co-operative and coordinated community."
"It could begin to put people in charge of governments, and governments in charge of corporations. It could establish equity as a universal human value and resuscitate participatory democracy as a governing operating principle that reorganizes our relationships to each other, to other nations, to the global economy, and most fundamentally, to the planet on which we all depend."
It is apparent that life as we know it will not continue long into the future. Says Gelbspan,
"We will either see the fabric of civilization unravel under the onslaught of an increasingly unstable climateor else we will use the construction of a new global energy infrastructure to begin to forge a new set of global relationships."
"If we are lucky, and visionary, these new relationships will be based far less on what divides us as a species, and far more on what unites us. Embedded in the gathering fury of nature is a hidden giftan opportunity to begin to redeem an increasingly fragmented world."
"The alternative is a certain and rapid descent into climate hell."
2012 can indeed herald in a new world. Let us use our creativity, our minds, and love, our hearts, to build it. It is time to completely embrace a world where we work together, for ourselves and for the planet.
In this book, Boiling Point, Ross Gelbspan gives an eloquent and long-overdue wake-up call to Americans. It should be required reading for all of us.