It’s Going to Get Hotter: Global Warming’s Looming Catastrophe



Ross Gelbspan, “The Heat is On: The High Stakes Battle Over Earth’s Threatened Climate.” Addison-Wesley, 1997. 278 pp. $23.


Global warming is not a speculative theory about something that may or may not happen in the future.

The 2500 leading climate scientists of the world, brought together by the United Nations in a body called the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, announced in a series of reports beginning in 1990 that the earth is warming, primarily as a result of the “greenhouse” effect caused by the trapping of the sun’s heat by the emissions from coal and oil burning.

Already there have been extreme changes in the weather. In fact, since 1980, the hottest 10 years on record, the hottest consecutive five years (1991-1995) on record, and the hottest year (1995) on record have all occurred. The earth is heating up at a faster rate than at any time in the last 10,000 years.

The panel, one of the most authoritative bodies of scientists ever convened, warned of a rise in average global temperature of six to eight degrees Fahrenheit in the next century. This is about the same rise that occurred from the time of the Ice Age of 20,000 years ago until now.

The panel further stated that, unless in very short order fossil fuel emissions are reduced by from 50 percent to 70 percent from 1990 levels, there will be “extreme high temperature events, floods (caused by melting glaciers and ice caps), and droughts, with resultant consequences for fires, pest outbreaks, and ecosystem[s].” These are “likely to cause widespread economic, social, and environmental dislocation.”

This is the message of Ross Gelbspan’s book, published in 1997. A Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist who is a science writer and an investigative reporter, Gelbspan writes clearly and vigorously, documenting what he has to say from scientific sources.

Gelbspan reveals that the so-called greenhouse skeptics consist of a dozen or so scientists financed by the trillion-dollar-a-year global coal and oil industries that taken together form the biggest enterprise in history.

This financing, generally unadmitted until they were placed under oath, came from such sources as Exxon, Shell, ARCO, Sun Oil, the Western Fuels Association, the German Coal Mining Association, the British Coal Corporation, the government of Kuwait, and various lobbying groups set up by domestic and foreign coal and oil interests.

Some of these scientists have connections with ultra-right organizations such as the John Birch Society and the church of the Reverend Sun Myung Moon.

Despite their background, however, and the fact that they did not publish in scientific journals, where their arguments would have been subject to review by their peers as a condition for publication, their writing and testimony have been given prominence in the media and before Congress, serving to suggest that there is scientific uncertainty about global warming.

Not only is there, however, near-unanimous belief among climate scientists that global warming is here and will increase greatly in the near future, but many believe that it will increase at an ever-accelerating rate. Drought, desiccation, and accompanying fires, brought about by global warming, will destroy large tracts of forest that absorb carbon dioxide. This in turn will lead to a further greenhouse effect, creating an increasingly intensified warming.

In any event, the increasing manifestations of global warming have already caused important segments of big business, driven by their own interests, to begin arraying themselves against Big Oil and Big Coal. In the forefront is the insurance industry.

Between 1980 and 1989, the insurance industry had to pay less than an average $2 billion a year for property damage caused by the weather; between 1990 and 1995 it had to pay an average $30 billion a year.

No wonder that the general manager of a giant insurance firm spoke of the “significant body of evidence” indicating that “the [recent] record insured loss from natural catastrophes was not a random occurrence,” and that the president of the Reinsurance Association of America said climate change “could bankrupt the industry.”

Aligned with the insurance industry are the alternative energy industry-which uses such means as solar power, wind power, and natural gas-and non-energy industries that seek to insure that any response to climate change does not hold them back in their race against competitors.

Gelbspan at one point states that “the emerging alliances between insurers and non-oil big business hold significant promise as a positive force for large-scale change.”

However, he is ambivalent and even self-contradictory concerning the promise these alliances hold, saying elsewhere, “What the climate crisis requires … is a plan that is not bound by the requirements of the marketplace. No climate plan that is designed to provide profits or protect corporate competitive advantage will work.”

Simply to promote the use of climate-friendly technology here and its exportation abroad is not enough. We have all the requisite knowledge to switch now from fossil fuel energy to other forms of energy, but what is needed is a massive infusion of capital to make this switch. This is needed above all in the countries that are in the process of becoming industrialized or are not yet industrialized.

Gelbspan notes, “Under the babble of diplomatic double talk in the climate negotiations, one clear message has emerged: the issue of global economic inequity is as critical as the carbon balance to the stability of the planet’s atmosphere.” A solution to the problem of global economic inequity must be found if the problem of global warming is to be solved.

China, for example, “is staggering under the pressure of an increasingly fragile food supply and diminishing water resources. At this point the government sees no alternative but to promote the country’s economic growth as rapidly as possible. Thus, while energy consumption in the United States, Europe, and Japan rose by about 28 percent between 1970 and 1990, it rose by almost 10 times that amount-208 percent-during the same period in China.”

The evidence that fossil fuel burning is creating a catastrophic change in the global climate has become so strong that Mobil corporation-which, like other members of Big Oil, long denied the evidence-now acknowledges it but blames primarily “developing countries” for the dangers facing us.

This the new Big Oil strategy for holding back any restrictions upon it: demand that the “developing countries” first do their share.

In one of its “public service” advertisements, for which it gets a tax write-off, Mobil concludes (The New York Times, Aug. 5, 1999): “Advanced technology widely implemented by developed nations can cut global emissions,” but “the sheer growth-more than doubling-in emissions that will occur in the rest of the world simply overwhelms these reductions.”

It should be noted, however, that the projection for developed countries is only speculative-and that the past record of developed countries in meeting announced goals is the reverse of encouraging. Compliance with the “modest commitments” made in climate negotiations by the various countries, said an analysis sponsored by the U.S. Environment al Protection Agency, has been “appalling.”

Meanwhile, greenhouse gas emissions in the United States, according to the Department of Energy, continued to rise in 1995, the last date available to Gelbspan.

Furthermore, it must be pointed out that the advanced capitalist countries are responsible for 80 percent of the world’s pollution. The rate of growth in emissions in the undeveloped countries may be much greater than in the developed countries, but the total amount of emissions is much less.

As Gelbspan paraphrases the Indian co-author of “Global Warming in an Unequal World,” “Clearly any attempt to impose the same restrictions on the poor countries-where per-capita consumption of coal and oil has been comparatively tiny-as would fall on the rich countries,” which have achieved their dominance by polluting the atmosphere for the past 200 years, “amounts to nothing less than ‘environmental colonialism.'”

It would be like demanding in the name of equality of sacrifice that a wealthy household should not he required to give up more for the general welfare than a household on the verge of starvation.

“A transfer of wealth-in the form of clean energy technologies-will be necessary,” says Gelbspan, “to help the poorer countries leap-frog over the archaic and destructive type of industrialization that is powered by coal and oil and use energy from the sun, the wind, and the rivers to develop their economies.”

To put into effect this and the necessary changes in the advanced countries, Gelbspan proposes a plan. He suggests that “a brain trust-of industrial leaders, engineers, government officials, energy specialists, and parents-would decide which kinds of renewable, climate-friendly energy are appropriate for different uses and different settings.”

“An international enforcement agency of governments,” says Gelbspan, would then gradually channel the trillion-dollar-a-year revenue of the coal and oil industries into an international fund that would finance renewable energy throughout the world, paying the coal and oil stockholders compensation through a tax on fossil fuels.

The weakness of Gelbspan’s proposal is that it relies for its planning and execution on the very industrial leaders whom he has shown to be primarily concerned with the bottom lines of their own companies and on the government officials whom he has shown to kowtow to them. For the gigantic changes in direction that are necessary, nothing less than world-wide social revolution will do.

Can the political force, based on the world working class, to accomplish this be built and triumph in the time we have left? We can only say that, for the sake of humanity, it had better be.


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[Editor’s note: We reprint this article by the Committee for the Abolition of Illegitimate Debt (CADTM). In 1989, the Bastille Appeal was launched, inviting popular movements throughout the world to unite in demanding the immediate and unconditional cancellation of the debt of the so-called developing countries. This crushing debt, along with neo-liberal macro-economic reforms imposed on the global South, has led to an explosion of worldwide inequality, mass poverty, flagrant injustice and the destruction of the environment.


CLIMATE CRISIS STRIKES PAKISTAN — To aid the millions of Pakistanis suffering from the catastrophic floods: send donations through ESSF (Europe solidaire sans frontières)