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The tempest

October 12, 2016

As I started working on this month’s column, Hurricane Matthew was gathering force in the Caribbean, and more than two million people had been ordered to evacuate coastal areas between Florida and Virginia. By Monday morning, news outlets were calculating the death toll at more than 1,000, including 20 in the U.S., most of which are related to flood waters from the torrential rains that accompanied the storm. Some reporters noted that the record levels of water rise for rivers and streams followed familiar patterns established in past storms such as Floyd in 1999. Initial estimates of property damage were projected at “only” $4 to $6 billion, compared to $40 billion for Katrina and $20 billion for Sandy. The Weather Channel’s meteorologists dutifully reported the connection between rising ocean temperatures, a result of global warming, and the record-setting ferocity of recent storms.

I’ve been trying to recall when I first heard the phrase “global warming,” which came into common use in the 1970s. What I do know is that even then, the concept was not new. The greenhouse effect was identified in the 1820s. In 1896 a Swedish scientist (later Nobel laureate) named Svante Arrhenius suggested that the burning of fossil fuels was causing increased concentrations of carbon dioxide in the earth’s atmosphere and increasing the earth’s temperature. Warren Washington, a senior scientist at the National Center for Atmospheric Research, pioneered computer modeling of climate change as a graduate student in the 1960s. I remember hearing as a kid that those early computer models were flawed, and there was no real evidence of global warming or connection to fossil fuels.

Who said that? The fossil fuel industry, which assured us that they had conducted their own studies and there was nothing to worry about. Ever since, a main feature of the climate-change discussion has been a concurrent drumbeat of denial from those with a financial stake in the industries that are creating the problem.

Biologists tell us that the earth has entered a sixth era of mass extinctions, an acceleration of plant and animal die-off orders of magnitude more rapid than the normal background rate. Scientists attribute this die-off to human activity—including pollution, destruction of habitat and the activities that are driving global warming, and they warn that human survival is threatened as well.