At the Gates of Hell

We have entered into the era of climate change, whose consequences we can predict, but perhaps not avoid. The disaster is going to be global.

In 20 seconds last Thursday afternoon the electricity, and in many cases the water, went out for 50 million people in the north-eastern United States and south-eastern Canada. Although the cause is still unknown for sure, it was probably caused by an overloading of the power system, due to massive consumption of electricity by the millions of air conditioners turned on to counteract the suffocating heat. In New York, people were relieved to learn from authorities that it was not due to an act of terrorism.

In France the heat wave has caused a wave of deaths – more than 3,000 to date – in the face of which the government is responding with an anti-terrorist plan, and the capacity of hospitals and funeral homes has been overwhelmed. Fierce forest fires have destroyed large areas of forest and vegetation in Portugal (a state of “public calamity” has been declared there). Italy, France, Greece, Spain, Croatia, Holland and England have suffered the highest temperatures in their histories, and trains have had to slow down because the heat might damage the tracks. In Germany the ozone has reached levels hazardous to human health, and people have been asked to use their cars less. 80% of the German population believes that the situation is due to global warming and expects worse catastrophes in the future. Nevertheless, only one quarter of those interviewed said they would be willing to drive less and use less electricity. In the South of Spain the temperature reached 45 degrees Centigrade (113 degrees Fahrenheit), and peoples’ faces glowed from the heat. All over Europe, civil servants refused to work without air conditioning. In Paris, tourists took refuge in the Catacombs, as did my wife and I in Rome at the end of July, precisely because of the insufferable heat. In London people could not use the ferris wheel, because the glass cars had turned into ovens.

With the lowering of water levels of the River Danube, ghosts from the Second World War have reappeared. Remains of boats sunk during the war have surfaced. The deepest river in Europe is at its lowest level in 160 years, although last summer that same Danube caused floods in several places in Europe. One of the symptoms of climate change is a raising of temperature in the oceans, and that of the North Sea rose to that of the Mediterranean. This brings death to coral reefs: an increase in temperature of one degree can impact organisms that live there.

According to the World Meteorological Organization, 2002 and 2001 were the second and third hottest years since 1860 when temperature began to be recorded, while 1998 was actually the hottest. The nineties was the hottest decade of the last 1000 years. There is an indisputable tendency towards a warming of the planet, which has become more pronounced since 1976. In spite of efforts to prove otherwise by the government presided over by George W. Bush, and the oil and energy interests of the United States, it is undeniable that the change in global climate is due to human activity. For millions of years, dead plants and animals were converted into enormous deposits of oil, gas and coal. In little over 300 years, human beings have burnt a large part of these to produce energy. The residue of fossil fuels has covered the planet with a blanket of gases, such as methane and carbon dioxide, enclosing the Earth, and all life on it, into a greenhouse and upsetting the weather year after year.

These dislocations are not confined to intense heat waves. There have been unexpected cold spells and catastrophic downpours, such as those suffered by Europe and Asia in the summer of 2002, which flooded cities and caused the deaths of 2000 people. There were also droughts and forest fires, like those which hit India in two consecutive years.

The melting of glaciers in the Alps, in Tibet and in Peru – dramatic and visible evidence of climate change – has accelerated, causing landslides of rocks. Most alarming is that ice is melting at an altitude of 4000 meters. Floods could occur in the Himalayas due to the increased size of lakes in Nepal and Bhutan. In the Peruvian Andes, mosquitos have been seen above 3000 meters in altitude.

Many scientists among the 191 nations that belong to the Inter-governmental Group of Experts on Climate Change (IPCC) predict that, as the Earth becomes warmer, extreme events in the weather system will become more frequent. They believe that the greatest impact of the warming will be on water as liquid, vapor and ice. Even Rajendra K. Pachauri, the cautious president of the IPCC, admits “there is now increasing evidence that changes in the global water cycle will probably have potentially catastrophic consequences in various parts of the world”.

Meanwhile, Dr. Robert Watson, the chief scientist for the World Bank (who, because of powerful political pressure from the Bush administration, was forced to withdraw from the presidency of the IPCC on account of his report published in the year 2000, which predicted higher temperatures than expected and confirmed the role of the oil, coal and automotive industries in opposing these increases), warns that climate changes caused by human activity will increase “the frequency and the severity” of disasters such as floods and droughts. Last year the bank declared that, because of the rising levels of oceans and the thawing of glaciers and polar ice caps, tens of millions of people who live in low lying locations, such as the Ganges and Nile deltas, could be displaced. Some small island states like Tuvalu could disappear completely under water. There will be negative impacts on agricultural production, great loss of bio-diversity, and harmful consequences for human health.

Carbon dioxide emissions can persist in the atmosphere for two hundred years. Even if we were to stop emitting greenhouse gases today, it would take several centuries for the atmospheric levels to return to what they were before the industrial era. Unfortunately, in many countries industry is not cooperating, and people persist in their preference for private rather than public transportation. The Bush government refuses to ratify the Kyoto Protocol, which urges a reduction in polluting gases and a diversification of energy sources, even when 20 to 30 transnational corporations have committed themselves to reducing their emissions to less than those recommended by the Protocol,

I fear that this historic blackout will be the detonator for increasing the electrical capability in the region, but not a warning to conserve energy, and thereby reduce demand and favor alternative, non-polluting sources. There is also trouble at SEMARNAT (Ministry of the Environment), where the under-secretary for the Management of Environmental Protection is accused of granting hunting licenses illegally, as if animals did not have enough enemies in our country. While we wait for the dispute to be resolved, Minister Victor Lichtinger should make the decision to free the 27 dolphins now held prisoners, and under stress, at the Atlantida Nizuc Park in Cancun, and force the traffickers to return them to their natural habitat in the Solomon Islands.

We have entered the era of climate change, whose consequences we can predict but, perhaps, not avoid. The disaster is going to be global. Human consumerism and egoism is placing us at the gates of the inferno, not the purifying fire of the God of the New Testament, but a hell made by man.