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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

March 24, 1995

Air Date: March 24, 1995


Warming Up: A Look at Climate Change Science

There is a lot of scientific research behind the recent anecdotal observations that many places on Earth are getting warmer. Living on Earth checks in with a number of climate experts who study computer models. They say the findings of a number of research teams are all pointing towards warming. (11:15)

Stormy Trends: Is Weather Getting Uninsurable? / John Keefe

Insurance companies have suffered record losses in recent years as a rash of severe storms have swept the planet. Some insurers are getting involved in the debate on human induced climate change, and may call on national governments to take preventive action. John Keefe files this report. (04:27)

Whither Climate Change Policy?

Christopher Flavin, Vice President of the World Watch Institute, speaks with host Steve Curwood about the pace of climate policy action on the national level. Flavin offers criticism and praise for what certain countries are doing. (05:10)

Show Credits and Funders

Show Transcript

Copyright (c) 1995 by World Media Foundation. No portion of this transcript may be copied, sold, or transmitted without the written authority of World Media Foundation.

HOST: Steve Curwood
NEWSCASTER: Lisa Mullins
REPORTERS: Doug MacPherson, Jennifer Schmidt, John Keefe
GUEST: Christopher Flavin

(Theme music intro)

CURWOOD: From National Public Radio, this is Living on Earth.

(Music up and under)

CURWOOD: I'm Steve Curwood.

Diplomats meeting in Berlin are likely to take a go slow approach on cutting greenhouse gases, despite mounting evidence of a warming world and computer models which say we're on a dangerous path.

FIRER: Whenever a government or United Nations tries to summarize the present state of the science, they always come to the same conclusion: we see no reason not to believe the models.

CURWOOD: Also, socked by storm-related losses, insurance firms may call for action on global warming.

GODDARD: They said, and I quote, "Mankind is about to change the planet significantly and possibly irreversibly, without having any idea of the consequences that will have." That's a very strong statement to come out of one insurance company.

CURWOOD: A global warming update on Living on Earth; first news.

Environmental News

MULLINS: From Living on Earth, I'm Lisa Mullins. The GOP take-over of Congress may be bad news for environmental regulations, but it's been good news for environmentalists. A survey by Living on Earth of the 10 largest environmental groups shows that half of them had increased their membership since the November elections. Of the remaining 5, 4 said their membership had held steady. A spokeswoman for Defenders of Wildlife linked the increased interest in conservation groups with anger over Congress's threatened weakening of environmental laws.

The closure of George's Bank has spurred Massachusetts governor William Weld to ask President Clinton to declare the state's fishing grounds a natural disaster area in order to qualify for emergency aid. But calling it a natural disaster has raised the hackles of some scientists. From WBUR in Boston, Doug McPherson reports.

McPHERSON: Governor William Weld is trying to convince Federal officials that the decline is due to a naturally occurring rise in temperature and an increase in predatory fish. Natural disaster status would bring Federally-funded job retraining, unemployment benefits, and low-interest loans to economically-troubled communities whose livelihoods have depended on fishing for generations. But some scientists question whether this disaster isn't, in fact, manmade. Richard Langton is with Maine's Department of Marine Resources.

LANGTON: Certainly, any environmental influences are overwhelmed by the effect of over-fishing. It's hard to, I think, tease out the environmental influences and say with any certainty that that's really having an effect.

McPHERSON: The Federal Emergency Management Agency is reviewing Massachusetts' request, and will make a decision as early as next month. For Living on Earth, I'm Doug MacPherson in Boston.

MULLINS: US Electric Car may have run out of gas in its race to become the nation's leading producer of electric vehicles. The company recently fired a third of its work force and suspended all manufacturing following an announcement that it has lost more than $25 million in the last 6 months. Last fall, the California company said it hoped to sell 1,500 cars and pickup trucks by August, but by the end of February it had sold only 190 vehicles. The company says it's seeking new investors to keep operations running.

Toxic chemicals dumped into the world's oceans are devastating the immune system of marine mammals and raising health questions for people. In a two-and-a-half year study by the Netherlands' National Institute of Public Safety, 2 groups of harbor seals were fed herring from either the highly-polluted Baltic Sea or the uncontaminated Atlantic Ocean. Researchers discovered seals that ate the Baltic fish were much more susceptible to infectious diseases. Since the contaminated fish were originally caught for human consumption, the findings have raised considerable public concern. Peter Ross is a biologist working on the study.

ROSS: I think there is now evidence that an environmental mixture can impair immune function and certainly there are some concerns for human health implications that might stem from that.

MULLINS: The study was originally conducted to find out whether pollution played a role in the outbreak of a virus that killed 20,000 seals in 1988.

The Federal government has released its final plan to save endangered salmon on the Columbia River in the Pacific Northwest. The National Marine Fisheries Service calls it the most comprehensive plan in the 20-year history of the Endangered Species Act. From KPLU in Seattle, Jennifer Schmidt reports.

SCHMIDT: The recovery plan is the master blueprint for restoring 3 separate runs of endangered wild salmon. National Marine Fisheries Service Regional Director Will Stell says healthy salmon runs are crucial to the health of the entire region.

STELL: The decline of the salmon runs tells us that something is wrong here in the Northwest. With our environment, and with our rivers and streams. The salmon are the canaries in the coal mine for us here, and they are telling us something important and we need to listen.

SCHMIDT: The plan addresses the 4 main contributors to salmon mortality: hatcheries, commercial fishing, loss of spawning habitat, and the hydroelectric dams. Among other things, it calls for limits on the release of hatchery fish; a buy-back of commercial fishing licenses; less logging, mining, and grazing near spawning streams; and the release of more water from behind the hydrodams. But tribes, commercial fishermen, and environmentalists are critical of the plan, saying it doesn't require enough changes to the hydro system, and will not restore salmon runs to health. Crucial elements of the plan must still be approved by the Federal courts. For Living on Earth, I'm Jennifer Schmidt in Seattle.

MULLINS: The Department of Defense has underestimated military base cleanup costs by almost one-and-a-half billion dollars. That's the conclusion of a report by the General Accounting Office, which looked at 123 military sites that have been selected for closure since 1988. The report says the Pentagon is having trouble estimating project costs because the true extent of pollution on military bases is unknown. It also says since the base closures began, environmental standards have been toughened, and new clean-up technologies have not materialized as expected.

MULLINS: That's this week's Living on Earth news. I'm Lisa Mullins.

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Warming Up: A Look at Climate Change Science

CURWOOD: This is Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood.

(Radio static, followed by female announcer: "Global warming may pose more direct threats to humanity than just changing weather patterns and rising sea levels. Many researchers believe as the Earth's temperature increases, the range of deadly tropical diseases will also increase. Computer models suggest that tens of millions..." Fade out; fade in male announcer: "... say another storm is headed for northern California this weekend. At least 15 people died in storm related incidents ... " Fade out; fade in female announcer: "... researchers at the Hopkins Marine station on California's Monterey Bay have found an increase in warm water species of crabs and snails, and a corresponding decrease in cold water species. Comparing animals... ")

CURWOOD: Relentless storms. Raging floods. Changing ecosystems. Shifting seasons. More cholera, malaria, and plague. They may all be signs of a changing global climate. And preliminary evidence suggests that we may be responsible.

(Female announcer: "... one point three degrees in 60 years. The study's authors hope ... ")

CURWOOD: Scientists say it's still too soon to say for sure whether people are changing the world's climate, but the world is getting warmer, from the air at its surface to deep under the oceans. The debate over the human role in climate change is being carried on this month at a meeting in Berlin, where diplomats are plotting out the next steps for international climate policy. Many argue that because the precise human impact is still uncertain, we should be doing everything we can to keep from disrupting the Earth's delicately balanced climate. Stopping the burning of huge tracts of rain forest is not enough, they say. Oil, coal, and gas burning are even more important sources of gases which can warm up the earth. But skeptics also invoke scientific uncertainty. They say before we spend billions to switch away from gas, oil, and coal, we need more evidence that human activity is really warming the Earth. So, with all this uncertainty, what can we say for sure about climate change and global warming? What do we still need to find out? Let's take a look.

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BROCCOLI: This effect is relatively well-known.

CURWOOD: That's Anthony Broccoli, a climate researcher for NOAH, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, talking about the greenhouse effect. One thing we do know is that the greenhouse effect is real. It's what keeps the planet warm enough for life. The atmosphere acts like the glass roof of a greenhouse, letting in light from the sun and keeping some of the heat from escaping back into space. Carbon dioxide, water vapor, and certain other chemicals are potent greenhouse gases, and the more of them in the air, the warmer the Earth becomes.

BROCCOLI: We can do calculations that would show that in the absence of an atmosphere, if the Earth reflected as much sunlight back to space as it does now, its temperature would be well below zero. And the fact that our climate is much more comfortable than that is an indication that the greenhouse effect is operating. What people argue about is the extent to which that greenhouse effect can be modified by increases in the greenhouse gases.

CURWOOD: But for Broccoli and most other climate scientists, the argument over how much of an impact additional greenhouse gases will have often masks the broad scientific consensus that adding more of these gases will have an effect.

BROCCOLI: If the question is will greenhouse gases produce a warming of the climate, I am quite confident that the answer is yes. Now, as for the details of that warming, how rapid it will be, whether or not there may be other things going on in the climate system that may partially offset or mask the effects of that warming, I think all of those things are very open questions.

CURWOOD: And they're also very old questions. At least one man linked air pollution to a rise in global temperature a century ago, in 1896.

FIRER: This was done in Sweden by a famous scientist who said, looking out his window, watching the smokestacks evaporating our coal mines into the air, he asked himself what this would do.

CURWOOD: Dr. John Firer is Director of Advanced Studies at the National Center for Atmospheric Research.

FIRER: He did a very simple calculation that said if we doubled the amount of carbon dioxide in the air we would heat the Earth up by an appreciable amount. I think he got a number like 4 degrees Celsius, which interestingly enough is still within the range of what our calculations today show.

CURWOOD: Today, nearly all climate scientists hold pretty close to Gustav Araneus's prediction. They say that if emissions of carbon dioxide continue as expected, some time soon in the next century the average world temperature will rise about 1 to 4 degrees Celsius, or about 3 to 9 degrees Fahrenheit. That doesn't sound like much, and individually most of us wouldn't feel a thing. But Dr. Firer says even a small change could be very disruptive.

FIRER: Civilization and plants and creatures are quite sensitive to temperature. Some trees have a very narrow range of conditions in which they can reproduce. And one of the scary possibilities of a climate change is that forests will need to migrate, as they did as the Earth came out of the last ice age. It took us thousands of years to get out of the ice age. We may be producing a change of similar magnitude in 100 years, and they may not be able to migrate fast enough.

CURWOOD: On the other hand, bacteria, insects, and other disease-bearing organisms can respond quickly, almost instantly, to changing climate conditions. And rising temperatures are an invitation for them to expand their range. That's led some scientists to blame recent outbreaks of diseases like cholera and the plague on warmer global temperatures. Other effects are predicted as well. They include more frequent and more violent storms, and the prospect of catastrophic floods from rising sea levels.

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CURWOOD: We know this: the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere has risen by 30% over the last 2 centuries. And as we've heard, there's a strong connection between the amount of carbon dioxide in the air and the Earth's temperature. But greenhouse gases are only part of the global warming equation. Oceans and clouds, vegetation and ice caps are among a host of other complex forces affecting the climate. The computer models that scientists use to predict climate conditions don't account for these factors very well, and that's contributed to a lot of the uncertainty over just how much of a problem we face. But the computer models are getting better. For instance, Dr. John Firer says they passed a major test after the 1991 eruption of Mt. Pinautubo in the Philippines.

FIRER: Pinautubo was a tragedy for the people who lived around the mountain, but for climate modellers it was a very neat experiment. The volcano put a great deal of sulfur into the stratosphere and added together, there were enough particles to reflect an appreciable amount of sunlight. And so, some of the modellers took a bold step and the moment they had a rough estimate of how much sulfur was in the stratosphere, did predictions. Said: we predict that the climate will cool a certain amount; then it will start to recover and get back on its track of steadily increasing temperature by a certain date and so forth. And so far, those forecasts turned out to be right on the button.

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Stormy Trends: Is Weather Getting Uninsurable?

CURWOOD: Computer models are designed to predict the future. But we don't need models to tell us what's going on right now. The Earth's average temperature is going up. The hottest years on record have come in the last 15 years; the upward trend was interrupted only by the Pinautubo effect. What we can't say for sure is that humans are responsible. Again, Dr. John Firer.

FIRER: The difficulty we have is that the global average temperature wanders around a lot all by itself without any help from people. The warming that has been observed is in the right direction and within the range of model predictions. But it is not yet large enough so that one can say for sure that it is caused by the addition of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases. And that's something we have to live with, because we don't have any other way to check the final results until it happens.

CURWOOD: Still, there are clues. For example, one researcher recently noticed that the normal turn of the seasons started to shift around the world, at the same time that humans started dumping large amounts of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. Changes in deep ocean currents and temperature also appear to be linked to increased carbon dioxide. John Firer says the finger of responsibility is turning toward us.

FIRER: Whenever a government or United Nations tries to assemble the best group of scientists they can to summarize the present state of the science, they always come to the same conclusion; it's happened 7 times in the United States with 7 different committees. It's happened in the United Nations 3 times. With minor differences they all say the same thing: we see no reason not to believe the models.

CURWOOD: But note Dr. Firer's double negative. He admits it's a device scientists use when they want to hedge. And it appears a hedge is as good an answer as we're going to get. In a civil court, the weight of the evidence is enough to decide a case. A criminal court requires a higher standard: proof beyond a reasonable doubt. But in hard science, proof means beyond all doubt. If we are the culprit in global warming, absolute proof may remain elusive for decades. So, what course should we set in the meantime? That's where many scientists step aside and hand off to government leaders.

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CURWOOD: The biggest factor weighing in against taking strong steps on climate change is money. As we've said, many politicians and business leaders argue that converting from oil and coal could be enormously expensive. But there are also potentially huge costs to moving too slowly; and at least one industry thinks it may already be paying for the effects of climate change. The insurance business has been hammered by huge, weather-related losses in recent years. And many in the industry think it's more than just a run of bad luck. As John Keefe reports, insurers may be taking a more aggressive role in the climate change debate.

(News broadcasts. A man speaks: "The wind has blown in the windows on one side and the hurricane..." Fade out; fade in woman's voice: "The center of Hurricane Andrew is now in the Gulf of Mexico headed for the American Gulf Coast..." Fade out; fade in man's voice: "...everything that could stand up was on the ground..." Fade out; fade in man's voice: "The storm has blasted the roof off a high school in Patterson where 120 people took refuge..." Fade out; fade in President Bush's voice: "I will be declaring today that Florida is a disaster area..."

KEEFE: When Hurricane Andrew ripped through the Bahamas, South Florida, and Louisiana in August of 1992, it cut a $16.5 billion swath in the world insurance market. Many insurers paid out far more than they took in for hurricane coverage, and 6 companies folded in the storm's wake. Before 1989, no natural disaster cost the insurance industry more than a billion dollars. In the last 6 years, Andrew was just 1 of 15 to top the billion dollar mark. Others include Hurricane Hugo, the Midwestern floods of 1993, and 2 wind storms in Europe. Increasing development and rising property values account for some of the higher claims, but the sheer number of weather events is up as well, and that has rattled an industry built in part on the careful study of climate history. Now, some insurers are taking a serious look at whether climate change has contributed to their losses. Richard Keeling is an underwriter at Lloyd's of London.

KEELING: We started getting concerned, you know, why was this happening? Now, we employ climatologists who would say, you know, this could be just a natural cycle and we've hit a rather nasty run of catastrophic losses. But privately they turn 'round to us and say look, we can't prove it at the moment, but the body of opinion is growing quite considerably that the world is getting a more dangerous place.

KEEFE: Warning signs also came from 2 other European firms, Swiss-Re and Munich-Re. These re-insurance companies play a large role in the worldwide business of insuring insurance companies, and have a stable of researchers studying climate. Sarah Goddard has covered the global warming issue for Lloyd's in-house magazine One Lime Street. She says that in 1990, Swiss-Re scrapped earlier predictions of weather stability, and warned that climate change may be responsible for the industry's record losses.

GODDARD: Now, in the same year, Munich-Re also published a specific report entitled "Wind Storm." And in that one, they said, and I quote, "For the first time in the history of our planet, mankind is about to change the climate significantly and possibly irreversibly, without having any idea of the consequences that will have." That's a very strong statement to come out of one insurance company.

KEEFE: Such statements are understandably welcomed by environmental groups, and Greenpeace scientists have met with insurance representatives to discuss climate change. They see the industry as a potential trillion dollar partner in an effort to slow global warming. Companies could, for example, place their huge financial holdings into climate-friendly investments, or they could promote alternative fuels and more efficient building codes in the same way they pushed for automobile air bags and fire codes. Franklin Nutter, President of the Reinsurance Association of America, says such measures would be premature. Still, he says, there may indeed be room for change, as insurers review how they rebuild weather damaged areas.

NUTTER: To the extent that the industry finds that there are energy efficient ways to do that same thing, to achieve those same goals, and have a positive effect on global warming or greenhouse gas emissions, it seems to me a win-win for everyone. For the industry in making a contribution that may not have a dollar effect on its bottom line, but may have very much of an effect long-term on weather events.

KEEFE: But in general, insurers are wary of taking any action based on climate change. Again, Richard Keeling at Lloyds.

KEELING: At the moment the insurance business of the world has not really made up its mind whether this is a serious threat or not. You find funny enough in Europe, people taking it much more seriously than I think in America.

KEEFE: In America, Vice President Gore last month asked a group of insurance executives to look at climate change issues from their industry's perspective. The group will bring insurers and scientists together to discuss all sides of the issue and will report back to the Vice President later this year. For Living on Earth, I'm John Keefe in Washington.

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Whither Climate Change Policy?

CURWOOD: If insurers get involved, they could pump new life into the efforts to cut greenhouse gas emissions. But for the time being, that effort is barely showing a pulse. For instance, the current negotiations in Berlin are expected to produce little movement away from the vague language of the 1992 International Climate Change Convention. Christopher Flavin has been observing the international climate policy debate as Vice President of the World Watch Institute in Washington, and is becoming more and more frustrated.

FLAVIN: It's become clear that the industrial countries in particular are paralyzed on this issue now. You have a more conservative trend in many governments. You have probably somewhat less public attention to the issue of climate change now than we had a few years ago. And the industrial lobbies have been extremely active behind the scene, particularly the fossil fuel lobbies in terms of trying to dissuade industrial countries from action.

CURWOOD: How about the United States? How are we doing?

FLAVIN: There has been a significant shift in terms of stated policy, in terms of the rhetoric that comes out of the White House and other agencies under the Clinton Administration. But I think certainly, given the high expectations, it's fair to say that the actual policies are rather disappointing. The Clinton climate plan is sort of a loose collection of many different policies. It is now clear that the Clinton Administration is going to not to meet its own weak goals. And then beyond that, it is also now looking quite likely that the Congress, the new Republican Congress, is not even going to fund the very minimal climate programs that are already in place. So it is looking like the world's largest carbon dioxide emitter is going to go on increasing those emissions for at least some time to come.

CURWOOD: How are the developing countries doing in general meeting the threat of global warming?

FLAVIN: The developing countries are not required under the treaty to limit carbon dioxide emissions in the near term, and most of them argue that it's basically their right to do what the industrial countries have done in the past: to industrialize and to heavily use fossil fuels as they industrialize. Fortunately, there are plenty of business leaders and environmentalists and others in the developing world that are beginning to understand that they may be better off economically in terms of their local environments as well as helping to protect the climate, if they begin to shift, at a relatively early stage, to solar and wind energy, for example, which most developing countries have in abundance. So despite the fact that there is not much going on on the climate issue per se in terms of changing policies in developing countries, there is a lot of development of wind and solar energy that is beginning to take place. And I would particularly single out India, which of course is the world's second largest country in terms of population, has been a heavy user of coal in the past, but now is one of the world's largest markets for solar and wind energy technologies.

CURWOOD: In your view, what has to happen to focus the attention of the world on this problem, to speed up this process of abating carbon dioxide emissions?

FLAVIN: Well, unfortunately, if you take history for a guide, it's likely that it will require some significant crisis that really ends all of the scientific debates and brings this issue to public attention in a way that it has not reached in the last several years. If you look at the really substantial success that we've had in addressing the ozone depletion issue, the very strong efforts to reduce and eliminate chlorofluorocarbon emissions were driven by the fact that we had a sudden, totally unexpected hole in the ozone layer open up over Antarctica. And the question that not only climate scientists but policy makers are beginning to ask is what is the hole in the ozone layer equivalent going to be for the climate issue? And I think that there is a very great possibility that we will see some unwelcome and perhaps even catastrophic climate event occur at some point in the future, which will completely change the political dynamics surrounding this issue.

CURWOOD: Christopher Flavin is Vice President of the World Watch Institute in Washington, DC.

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CURWOOD: Do you think there's enough evidence to act now about global warming? Let us know. Our phone number is 1-800-218-9988. Or you can zap us a message over the Internet. We're at LOE@NPR.ORG. Our postal address is Living on Earth, Box 639, Cambridge, Massachusetts 02238. Transcripts and tapes are $10.

CURWOOD: Living on Earth is produced and edited by Peter Thomson. Our coordinating producer is George Homsy. The associate producer is Kim Motylewski, and our production team includes Deborah Stavro, Constantine Von Hoffman, Jan Nunley, Julia Madeson, Jessika Bella Mura, David Dunlap, Heather Corson, and Alex Garcia-Rangel. Our engineers in the WBUR studio are Keith Shields and Frank DeAngelis. Special thanks to Jane Pipik. Michael Aharon composed our theme.

Living on Earth is a project of the World Media Foundation, and is recorded at the studios of WBUR, Boston. I'm Steve Curwood, executive producer.

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