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 and 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
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
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.
The number of people affected by weather-related catastrophes 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 carbon 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
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
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,
government 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 hottest 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 next generation.
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 Katrina.
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