By Chris Flavin
25 July, 2006
Weather-related disasters like
Hurricane Katrina—or the intense heat wave now hitting the United
States—are on the rise. The toll of these catastrophes is exacerbated
by growing ecological stresses and the future health of the global economy.
The stability of nations will be shaped by our ability to address the
huge imbalances in natural systems that now exist. While governments
and businesses around the world are beginning to take action to stem
the damage, our future demands more aggressive responses.
Earlier this month, we at
the Worldwatch Institute released a new report, "Vital
Signs 2006-2007," examining trends that point to unprecedented
levels of commerce and consumption, set against a backdrop of ecological
decline in a world powered overwhelmingly by fossil fuels. In 2005,
the average atmospheric carbon dioxide concentration increased 0.6 percent
over the high in 2004, representing the largest annual increase ever
recorded. The average global temperature reached 14.6 degrees Celsius,
making 2005 the warmest year ever recorded on the Earth’s surface.
Our report shows that some
40 percent of the world’s coral reefs have been damaged or destroyed,
water withdrawals from rivers and lakes have doubled since 1960, and
species are becoming extinct at as much as 1,000 times the natural rate.
While ecosystems can be overexploited for long periods of time with
little visible effect, many ultimately reach a “tipping point”
after which they begin to collapse rapidly, with far-reaching implications
for all who depend on them.
Abrupt change was evident
in southern Louisiana and Mississippi in 2005. For decades, the flow
of the Mississippi River had been altered, the wetlands at its mouth
destroyed, and massive amounts of water and oil extracted from beneath
the delta. Only an unheeded minority noticed that this gradual destruction
of natural systems had left New Orleans as vulnerable as a sword-wielding
soldier on today’s high-tech battlefields. Thanks to a combination
of human and geological causes, a city that was at sea level when the
first settlers arrived in the 18th century had sunk as much as a meter
below that level when the hurricane season began in 2005.
have jumped from an average of 97 million a year in the early 1980s
to 260 million a year since 2001. This mounting disaster toll has several
causes, including rapid growth in the human population and the even
more dramatic growth in human numbers and settlements along coastlines
and in other vulnerable areas.
Climate change may be contributing
to the rising tide of disasters as well, according to several scientific
studies published in 2005. Three of the 10 strongest hurricanes ever
recorded occurred last year, and the average intensity of hurricanes
is increasing, recent research concludes.
This is not surprising, considering
the main “fuel” driving hurricanes is warm water. Temperatures
in the Gulf of Mexico were at record-high levels in the summer of 2005,
turning Hurricane Katrina in just over 48 hours from a low-level Category
1 hurricane to the strongest Atlantic storm ever recorded. (In September
2005, Hurricanes Wilma and Rita each broke Katrina’s record as
the strongest storm ever in that region.)
Yet all of this is merely
a foreshadowing of what is to come. The concentration of carbon dioxide,
the main greenhouse gas that is driving climate change, has reached
its highest level in 600,000 years, and the annual rate of increase
in cardon dioxide levels is accelerating, according to atmospheric measurements
taken in 2005.
Scientists are beginning
to shed their usual reserve in the face of ever-more alarming evidence.
In early 2006 James Hansen, the lead climate researcher at NASA, and
five other top climate scientists warned that “additional global
warming of more than 1 degree C above the level of 2000 will constitute
‘dangerous’ climate change as judged from likely effects
on sea level and extermination of species.”
If either the Greenland or
the West Antarctic ice sheet were to melt, hundreds of millions of coastal
residents would be displaced—effects a thousand times the scale
of the New Orleans evacuations. In the Shanghai metropolitan area alone,
40 million people could lose their homes. Large sections of Florida’s
peninsula would simply disappear.
If melting ice and catastrophic
storms are not enough to bring on an energy transition, the oil market
is offering a helping hand. Oil prices in 2005 and early 2006 gyrated
wildly, flirting several times with over $70 a barrel, the highest prices
in real terms in more than 20 years. The cause is simple: geologists
are no longer finding enough oil to replace the 83 million barrels being
extracted each day.
However, the reality of a
new energy era has begun to sink in. In the United States, sales of
large sport utility vehicles have plummeted, while those of hybrid-electric
cars have doubled in little more than a year. And in China, govern¬ment
leaders have responded to rising fuel prices by increasing the tax on
large vehicles and mandating higher levels of efficiency.
None of this has yet been
sufficient to bring energy markets into balance. But signs are now growing
that the world is on the verge of an energy revolution. The already-rapid
growth of renewable energy industries has accelerated in the past year,
with ethanol production increasing 19 percent, wind power capacity 24
percent, and solar cell production 45 percent.
The energy technology growth
surge is propelled by scores of new government policies and by surging
private investment. And it is attracting major commitments by multinational
companies such as General Electric, Siemens, and Sharp, while also becoming
one of the hot¬test fields for venture capitalists, who are financing
scores of small start-up firms. Even oil companies are getting into
the act: BP and Shell are both investing in solar energy and wind power.
These developments are impressive
and are likely to provoke far-reaching changes in world energy markets
within the next five years. But the change is still not fast enough
to bring on the broader changes in the global economy that could stave
off imminent ecological and economic crises. Government leaders and
private citizens will have to mobilize in an unprecedented way if we
are to have any chance of passing a healthy and secure world on to the
Chris Flavin is president
of the Worldwatch Institute. Next month, the Institute's World Watch
magazine will publish a special issue devoted to the lessons of Hurricane
© 2006 TomPaine.com