Global Warming and Sudden Climate Change

March 10, 2004 - Recent high-profile stories are sparking fresh attention to the possibility of sudden catastrophes triggered by global warming. The news comes just as Hollywood prepares to unleash a multi-million-dollar campaign to promote the climate catastrophe film The Day After Tomorrow, which kicks off the summer blockbuster season on Memorial Day weekend.

The stories include a controversial report commissioned by the Pentagon to assess the national security threats under a worst-case global warming scenario, and a new insurance industry study predicting sharp growth in climate-related disasters caused by emissions of heat-trapping pollution. In March, the Senate Commerce Committee approved $60 million for research on abrupt global warming.

Sorting fact from fiction in these stories is crucial. And it's important to remember that even midrange climate projections that are less abrupt would cause severe effects on our health, our economy and our environment unless we take action soon.

We have the technology to fix the problem; what's needed is the political leadership to make it happen. That is the question heating up now on Capitol Hill, at the White House and on the campaign trail. Later this spring the Senate is expected to vote on bipartisan legislation introduced by Arizona Republican John McCain and Connecticut Democrat Joe Lieberman to start cutting global warming emissions.

Fact or Fiction?

Reporters recently uncovered an unclassified report ordered by the Defense Department to assess the geopolitical consequences of abrupt climate change impacts, including drought, famine and severe storms, along with drastic cooling in some regions (see the Environmental Media Services website). An over-the-top version of this scenario is the basis for The Day After Tomorrow, which depicts New York City frozen beneath a layer of glacial ice and tornados sweeping through Los Angeles.

Are we really facing such disastrous climate extremes? And what does global warming have to do with glaciers in Manhattan?

The fact is, global warming is a complicated problem. But the experts tell us that we're seeing the effects already. If we don't start fixing it soon, the damage will be much more costly, and could be impossible to reverse.

Scientists know that the Earth is already warming faster than at any time in history. Since 1990 we've seen the 10 warmest years on record; since 1980 we've seen 19 of the 20 warmest. Most experts, including the National Academy of Sciences (NAS), agree that heat-trapping pollution is the main cause of this unprecedented shift. (See Climate Change Science: An Analysis of Some Key Questions). They say average temperature increases of 3 to 10 degrees Fahrenheit will occur by the end of the century unless emissions are cut soon.

The predicted results of global warming are already appearing. Droughts and water shortages are becoming more common in many areas, including the Southwestern United States. Last year Europe and Asia experienced lethal heat waves unlike anything they have ever seen. And since 1979, 20 percent of the ice cap over the North Pole has melted away (see this NRDC webpage for more).

Fire & Ice

The uncertain scenario in the controversial Pentagon paper is not without scientific basis. In fact, it draws expressly from a 2002 National Academy of Sciences report, which concluded, based on climate history, that increased carbon dioxide and other heat-trapping emissions could trigger rapid climate shifts of 10 degrees Fahrenheit over the span of just one or two decades.

The apparent contradiction that global warming could produce severe cooling in some parts of the globe is based on evidence that fresh water from melting polar ice could change ocean flows radically enough to shut down the warm Gulf Stream current. This could lead to a major cooling for much of Europe. While this prospect remains highly speculative, the idea that such extreme change is possible only underscores the urgent need to start cutting emissions now.

Avoiding Losses

On March 3, 2004, leading reinsurer Swiss Re released a report predicting that the financial costs of global warming will double every decade, rising to $150 billion per year over the next 10 years (see the 2003 Sigma Report on the Swiss Re website). The company is calling for reductions in global warming emissions in order to reduce anticipated risks.

This year's Sigma Report is the first in which Swiss Re -- which insures insurance companies -- has included a section on global warming. "We have seen the accumulation of extreme events and we can predict that there will be more extreme events in warmer climates," said Swiss Re climate expert Pamela Heck. "More loss years like 2002 and 2003 are likely, where there is flooding followed by heat wave."

Two of the top U.S. government experts agree. Dr. Thomas Karl of the National Atmospheric and Oceanic Administration and Dr. Kevin Trenberth of the National Center for Atmospheric Research published a paper in the December 5, 2003 Science warning that on our current course, "the likely result is more frequent heat waves, droughts, extreme precipitation events and related impacts [such as] wildfires, heat stress, vegetation changes and sea-level rise." (See NRDC's bibliography of climate studies.)

Fixing the Problem

The good news is, we know how to fix this problem. The answer is better, more efficient technology in our cars, trucks and SUVs, and cleaner more efficient energy choices like wind and solar power. These solutions exist today. What we need is sensible standards that get them into the marketplace as quickly as possible. But the window is closing. Delay means higher costs, and greater risk.

Backed by coal, oil and other fossil fuel interests, the Bush-Cheney administration opposes concrete rules for cutting emissions -- favoring voluntary corporate pledges instead. Such measures have proven ineffective. But there is a growing list of leaders in both political parties who support strong action.

The U.S. Senate is expected to vote again this spring on the McCain-Lieberman global warming bill, which came within seven votes of passing last October. Sen. McCain continues to hold hearings on the issue, and has promised to stick to his guns just as he did on campaign finance reform. (See the article in the Spring 2004 issue of OnEarth magazine)

There's growing action at the state level, too. Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger has promised to implement the new California law to cut global warming emissions from new cars and trucks, and defend it against possible legal attacks. Republican and Democratic governors of nine Eastern states recently agreed to tackle global warming pollution produced by power plants from Maine to Delaware.