Dispatch #5: Kyoto, Page 2
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    “We’re horsetrading the  planet,” Suzuki observed. “We’re nickel-and-diming away the future with these token little gestures. Only a 50% reduction across the board by the Annex One countries is going to turn this thing around.” He told me how the permafrost line in northern Canada has been moving steadily north, and how the boreal forest, always a net absorber of carbon, has now become, with recent fires and insect depredations, a net emitter. His private foundation was pushing something called  the 20% Club, trying to get communities to commit to reducing their emissions by 20% over the next fifteen years. Regina, the capital of Saskatchewan, he claimed, is already 12% below in l988 levels and has saved over $40 million in energy costs. Toronto is 6% below its l990 levels and has created several hundred new  jobs in the process. “The municipalities are showing the whole bullshit about how we can’t afford to become more energy-efficient.” 
 

          George Woodwell, one of the eminences grises, founder and director of the Woods Hole Research Institute and one of the first to sound the alarm about global warming, flew in for the climax of the negotiations . Woodwell exerted a powerful influence on my personal biogeography. It was after a conversation with him twenty years ago that I decided maybe it wouldn’t be such bad idea to move a bit north (I was living in Westchester County at the time) and bought forty acres on a mountain in the Adirondacks, three hundred miles upstate, where we built our primary residence  in l988. Woodwell came by his interest as a botanist studying the carbon exchange between the forest and the atmosphere on the property of Brookhaven Labortory, in eastern Long Island .  By the mid-seventies he had become interested in the  role the burning of  tropical forests plays in enhanced warming,   a part of equation that had not been quantified and is now thought to contribute around 17%.  When I met him, in l977 I’d just come back from nine months in the Amazon,  researching a Sierra Club book. Brazil’s policy at the time was to invite all comers to cut down the forest, torch it, and convert it mainly to pasture for cattle. Some of the fires were  unbelievable. When I got there,   a  forest fire bigger than Belgium was raging out on control on the Volkswagen ranch in the eastern Amazon, and I saw on the King Ranch firestorms  so intense  huge trees were being sandblasted into the air and landing upside down with their flared buttresses in the air like crashed rocket ships. Uncountable species that were unknown to science were going up in smoke. Tom Lovejoy, the Smithsonian Institution’s Amazon expert, estimated that a million species would be lost before they were even identified.  Such total oblivion is known as sentinelan extinction. At the time I thought Lovejoy has to be exaggerating. How can he know that ? The figure now seems entirely plausible, even ridiculously conservative, when you consider than a single gram of temperate-forest soil can contain as many as ten thousand species of bacterium (and only four thousand have been identified worldwide, while fewer still have been screened for their durg potential).  Woodwell said the repurcussions went far beyond that, and went on to explain the greenhouse effect.

          The l997 fires in the Amazon, he now told me, were much bigger than the ones 20 years ago. They were the biggest ever, bigger even than the ones in l988,  satellite fotos of which run in the New York Times (they looked like  a rash of thousands of little white dots devouring the southern Amazonian state of Rondonia) first brought home the extent of fires to the American public.. And yet this fall’s fires received little publicity. People think they’re hip to the rainforest,  therefore the problem is under control, which is hardly the case. Fifty acres of rainforest somewhere in the world and God knows how many species continue  in smoke every minute. There was more media attention on the fires in Indonesia, which were going on at the same time and were almost as big, because they were something new, and cities of millions like Jakharta were engulfed in smoke.  Five hundred Indonesians died of smoke inhalation, students couldn’t see their blackboards, two freighters collided late one morning in the pitch blackness off Kalimantan. The fires were the usual ones set by local slash-and-burn farmers to burn of their fields, plus big ones set by international logging companies (Korean, Japanese, Taiwanese, and a few American ones) taking advantage of the unusually dry conditions to burn off their scrub acreage, and partly the forest itself catching fire from these fires, which almost never happens.  But this year’s El Nino, the huge pool of warm water that periodically forms in the Pacific and wreaks havoc with two-thirds of the world’s weather, was the strongest El Nino event ever recorded, the mother of all El Nino’s, and it  brought severe drought to the western Pacific and central South America. Woodwell claimed that the fires this year in the Amazon and Indonesia were one of the worst environmental disasters of the century. “Taken together, they could be collectively the largest conflagration in the history of the planet. They could put an extra billion and a half tons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere.”  (In recent years tropical forest fires account for  1.6 to two billion tons of the anthropogenic carbon, while the combustion of fossil fuel sends up about 6 billion tons.) The Times ran two wrenching stories about how families of orangutans were fleeing the flaming forest in Borneo, and the mothers were being clubbed to death by local peasants who were selling the children to international wildlife traders; the zoos can always use orangutans. But by now El Nino’s moisture-suppressing backlash was over, the monsoon had come, and the drought had moved down to Australia, where hundreds of thousands of acres of forest west of Sidney were.on fire.  

      I spent a lot of time with Bill McKibben, a fellow Adirondacker and former colleague at the old, William Shawn New Yorker who was “sort of the godfather of all this,” as his friend John Passacantando, the executive of the Washington-based Ozone Action, put it. It was McKibben’s  1989 book, The End of Nature, that put global warming on the map, first reached a broad popular audience with the message that our fouling of  the atmosphere is soon going to catch up with us.

       McKibben, I, and many others had been deeply alarmed by the summer of l988, which brought a clammy heat wave in the United States  unlike anything anyone could remember 
 and was caused by a particularly strong la niña, the other  phase of the  El Nino Southern Oscillation Weather System. That year would go down as the hottest globally on record; it has since been surpassed by l995 and l997. In August my wife and I moved to the Adirondacks full-time from Mexico City.   Forest fires the collective size of Connecticut were raging out of control in the American West;  the beaches of Long Island were closed because AIDS-infected needles and other toxic hospital waste kept washing up on them; out to sea the dolphins were mysteriously dying. That fall brought the Exxon Valdez disaster, and we were treated to sickening scenes of oil-coated sea otter carcasses on our tv. screen.. In Europe the Mediterranean was dying; milk, produce, and the Lapland reindeer herd were contaminated by fallout from the  nuclear meltdown at Chernobyl the year before. For the fourth year in a decade a blistering heat wave  had parched most of North America, and forty percent of the counties in the nations were declared drought areas.  One  Saturday night in mid-August we were invited to dinner  at the Ausable Club, a mountain resort where the old WASP elete summers. Long after the sun had gone down,  it remained a hundred degrees in the dining room, but no one dared remove his jacket because the president of the club had not done so, and the men all sat there drenched in sweat.

      Something was obviously very wrong. There was a mounting sense that we’d finally gone and done it, wrecked the environment for good, brought on Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring, what then-senator Timothy Wirth (now the executive director of the Turner Foundation) was calling “major systems breakdown.” The record heat was blamed on the greenhouse effect, and the greenhouse effect was in turn linked to the fires in Amazonia, even though they were less responsible than  our own domestic  consumption of fossil fuel ( which contributes about 22% of the anthropogenic emissions). But it was easier to blame it on the bossa nova than to confront our own egregrious role in the problem.    Suddenly, everyone became very concerned abut the rain forest. The Dutch, for whom a catastrophic rise in sea level is in store if  warming continues as projected, were particularly concerned about the fires.

        Wondering if the whacked-out weather signaled the end of Babylon, the Megamachine, the modern experiment in scientific materialism,  I started to read  apocalyptic literature, to study the historical interplay of  natural and political turbulence. Sometimes natural upheavals have wiped out regimes and eras. The eruption of Vesuvius smothered Pompeii (including one couple who were turned to stone in flagrante delictu). The Flood liquidated everybody but Noah and his family and their animal passengers.  Sometimes upheavals have performed a more choric role : earthquakes, comets, solar and lunar eclipses attended the end of the Aztec empire, Rome, the Dalai Lamas’ dominion of Tibet, tsarist Russia, the breakup of Soviet Union. I read Shakespeare— King Lear, Hamlet, and the Tempest are loaded with  metaphorical metereological fireworks.  For most of history, when there was a natural catastrophe,  it was seen as the hand of God, angry with his sinful flock. But this time it is a little different, I mused : the hand of God is acting through the hand of man. Or rather, God is sitting back this time and letting us do ourselves in. How in character for the Almighty, I thought. What a fitting punishment for the crime.  As Edmund declares in King Lear

      This is the excellent foppery of the world, that when we are sick in fortune, often the surfeits of our own behavior, we make guilty of our disasters the sun, the moon, and stars. 

       That fall I wrote a proposal for a book on global warming which I plannned The World is Burning. Months of travel would be required— to the Maldives, one of the lowest of the island states, which would be among the first to be drowned;  to the Arctic tundra, whose melting permafrost would release millions of tons of methane, dwarfing even the contribution of New Zealand’s sheep.. I submitted the proposal to Robert Gottlieb, William Shawn’s short-lived successor, whose not unreasonable verdict was that it was “too big.” Some months Bill McKibben submitted to Gottlieb a completed manuscript on the same subject called The End of Nature, which Gottlieb published to great acclaim. I guess McKibben was meant to write that book.  It was the debut of one of our most elegant essayists on nature and the environment—  a national treasure, as I heard him called on National Public Radio.. That Sunday, the seventh day of the conference, happened to be Bill’s 37th birthday, and Passacantando and I took him out to one of  Kyoto’s traditional restaurants. Bill looked like he could use some cheering up. This thing was devouring him.  “The world will be fucked up for my daughter, “he muttered glumly. “There won’t be any snow for her to ski on.”

      McKibben tried to be more upbeat in his latest recent book, Hope, Human and Wild, but what is there, when you get down to it, to be up about ?  As Wren Wirth, Timothy’s husband and a veteran of the environmental wars of the last twenty years, observed, “None of the long term indicators are positive. Basically, we just aren’t moving fast enough. Nothing works. Local doesn’t work, global doesn’t work. Everything has a red flag on it. The big thing now is compromise. The timber industry wants to compromise with the environmentalists. How can you compromise when only 5% of the old-growth forest is left ?” Wren rattled off some horrific stats  “Mankind is presently using 40% of the plant matter made by photosynthesis and 52% of the fresh water, and our population is about to double, at which time mathematically we will need more than twice the plant matter and fresh water. So we are headed for certain catastrophe.” McKibben’s new book,  Maybe One, is about population, as in why not have just one kid, which he and his wife have committed to. Every American burns 5.35 tons of carbon dioxide per year.

       We decided to forego a postprandial soak at one of the sento, the traditional bathhouses that are supposed to be the quintessential Japanese experience. None of us felt quite up to such an indulgence. “One of us should have gone to Indonesia,”  an anguished McKibben told me.. “That was a big, big story, and now it’s off the screen.”

*** 

      Tall, lanky, 36-year-old John Passacantando had founded Ozone Action because it is a forgotten issue, but it isn’t getting any better than the onslaught on the rainforest : last year’s ozone hole over the Anatarctic was twice as big as Europe east of the Urals.  Ozone depletion from the injection of chlorofluorocarbons makes a mild contribution to global warming; the problem is that the ultraviolet radiation, which ozone screens, becomes more intense. The intensity of UVB radiation over  Antarctica is now the same as that over Miami Beach. On Monday Ozone Action was releasing a  new study by Andrew Blaustein, a professor at Oregon State University, who had finally found out why the long-legged salamanders of  Central Oregon’s Cascade Range have been suffering a significant rise in embryo mortality and birth deformities : from ambient ultraviolet radiation. For some years the crash of the world’s frog and salamander population has been puzzling scientists. A l992 article in the New York Times Magazine predicted that half the 3800 species of frogs worldwide could go extinct in the next thirty years.  The golden toad of Costa Rica, whose males are day-glo orange, has not been seen since 89, the once-abundant leopard frog is disappearing in Vermont, and in our woods, you rarely see any red efts any more. They use to be come out after rain and  to be so abundant in some places, lying on the wet leaf litter, that you had to be careful to not to step on them. 

      The l992 article offered  several theories about what was killing the off the fogs and salamanders  besides Blaustein’s one about the rise in ambient UVB radiation, which was then still only a hypothesis : acid rain; David B. Wake, director of Berkeley’s Museum of Vertebrate Zoology’s  theory was that the die-off is being caused by “general environmental degradation. Frogs are telling us about the environment’s overall  health.. They are the medium and the message.”  Another theory attributed  the Central American death wave to a lethal protozoan bearing some resemblance to the one that has been killing the oysters in Chesapeake Bay.

        “Isn’t it food for thought this study should be coming out at this particular moment, right in the middle of the global warming conference” “Passacantando reflected.”It’s telling us that the Montreal Protocol was too little too late, if that’s what’s happening to amphibians. We didn’t learn from it.”  The Montreal Protocol, a UN-generated international agreement  in l987 to reduce the global production of ozone-depleting substances, is regarded as a success story, because the United States actually signed and ratified it, unlike the  biodiversity,  law of the sea or, most recently, the  land mines treaties.

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