In this summer’s blockbuster The Day After Tomorrow, Mother Nature throws her biggest temper tantrum yet. Melting polar icecaps cause a shift in the transatlantic current, leading to hail storms, flashfloods and all kinds of weather nastiness. In the film’s most haunting scene, a giant wave sweeps over the Statue of Liberty, obscuring all but the torch.
Although this scenario seems pretty far-fetched, environmental activist Mark Lynas argues that signs of catastrophic climate change have been occurring for some time. In his lively first book, High Tide, Lynas crisscrosses the globe to bring back evidence. “Over the next three years, I would visit five continents, searching for fingerprints of global warming,” Lynas writes. “I would interview Mongolian herders, Alaskan Eskimos, Tuvaluan fishermen, American hurricane chasers and a whole army of scientists.”
In a way, High Tide tells these people’s story, revealing tangible evidence of global warming’s harmful effects. Lynas talks to Tuvaluan fishermen whose islands have disappeared; to Alaskans who have watched ice melt and their food supply vanish; to Caribbean islanders who have been hit with the harshest hurricanes ever; and to folks in England who survived the worst flood in three centuries.
A few disasters does not a trend make, so Lynas is careful to sprinkle in hard scientific facts to back up anecdotal reportage. Lynas’ hometown of Oxford, for example, has had more snowless years in the last decade than over the previous half century. Aside from fewer white Christmases, there are more profound side effects: The London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine estimates that 160,000 people die every year due to climate change.
That’s just the tip of the melting iceberg, Lynas warns, if global warming plays out as scientists predict (and they have been right about this trend from the beginning, he notes). Over the next century, temperatures could rise another 7 to 10 degrees, thanks to pollution, die back of Amazonian forests and the release of methane gas in the ocean. To put this in perspective, 95 percent of the world’s species died 250 million years ago when volcanoes spewed out tons of carbon gas and triggered a greenhouse effect. The temperature change that caused this disaster? Six degrees.
As painfully obvious as this crisis has become, it’s even more clear that the Bush administration will resist dealing with it to its dying breath. Within the first few hours of Bush’s first day in Washington, a memo circulated instructing federal agencies to hold up pending regulations developed by the Clinton administration, including more than a dozen significant environmental rules.
To veteran journalist and nature writer Robert S. Devine, this was the opening salvo in an unprecedented presidential attack on the environment. Most of us, Devine assumes, have heard about how Bush backed out of the Kyoto accords, or how he has denied that global warming is scientifically proven. But he says that Bush’s gutting of environmental protection goes much further than that. “Unless you’ve taken a particular interest and have been reading a lot of fine print,” he writes, “you don’t know the half of it—probably not even a 10th of it.”
The goal of Bush Versus the Environ-ment, then, is to make known what Bush is hiding behind names like the Clear Skies or Healthy Forests initiatives. The list is long, and a quick overview includes rollbacks on nearly every pollution regulation, opening of wetlands for development and not one new endangered species added to the list despite hundreds of candidates. It’s little surprise that the League of Conservation Voters, which evaluates the environmental records of sitting presidents, gave Bush an F for his first two years in office. He even did better at Yale.
What is most interesting here is not these revelations, but Devine’s gumshoe work following the money trail. It starts during the 2000 election, when mining, timber, chemical, manufacturing, oil and gas, and coal-burning interests forked over $44.1 million to the Bush-Cheney campaign and the Republican National Committee. Industry lobbyists have been overjoyed; everything they asked for on an anti-regulatory wish list cooked up in January 2001 was accomplished within two years.
One reason the administration has been so attuned to industry is that several prominent lobbyists are essentially running the Department of the Interior. Devine reports that Allan Fitzsimmons, who was tapped to run the Department’s wildlife program, has said he “doesn’t believe there is any such thing as an ecosystem and that ‘public recreational benefit is the principal reason for conserving natural features.’” This kind of ignorance partly explains how Bush has managed to undo more than 30 years of environmental legislation in just three years. Devine tries to make the case that these people do not actually hate nature; they just support business. Little do these politicians know, they’re setting us up for a world in which the only business will be air conditioning.
HIGH TIDE, THE TRUTH ABOUT OUR CLIMATE CRISIS, By Mark Lynas, New York: Picador, $14
BUSH VERSUS THE ENVIRONMENT, By Robert S. Devine, New York: Anchor, $12