Global Warming May Have Exacerbated Tidal Wave
A weekly column featuring progressive viewpoints
on national and international issues
under-reported in mainstream media
for release Jan. 25, 2005
Rising Ocean Levels Tied to Global Warming May Have Exacerbated Tidal Waves' Destructive Power
Interview with Ross Gelbspan, journalist and author, conducted by Scott Harris
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The destructive power of nature is horrifyingly clear in the aftermath of the earthquake-born tsunami which devastated South Asia and parts of Africa on Dec. 26. The giant waves that struck coastlines from Sri Lanka to Thailand, killed over 140,000 people and destroyed cities, in addition to much of the region’s civil infrastructure. In the wake of the disaster, many scientists and government officials are now calling for an early warning system in the Indian Ocean that could alert coastal communities of future tidal waves.
But some climatologists warn that rising sea levels tied to global warming may have exacerbated the damage caused by the tsunami, and have made low-lying coastal areas across the globe vulnerable to flooding, severe erosion and eventual submersion. According to the U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, the levels of the world’s oceans rose on average by 4-8 inches during the 20th century, with an additional rise of 3 inches to 2 1/2 feet expected by the year 2100. Poorly planned shoreline development, the destruction of mangrove swamps and coral reefs have also played a role in weakening the natural defenses of coastal areas.
Between The Lines’ Scott Harris spoke with Ross Gelbspan, a veteran journalist and author of two widely acclaimed books on global warming, “The Heat Is On,” and “Boiling Point.” Gelbspan talks about the relationship between climate change, rising ocean levels and the destructive power of nature unintentionally released by humankind.
ROSS GELBSPAN: I think the real step back lesson here is that we’re really seeing the fury of an inflamed nature when we see something like the tsunami. And if we don’t do something about the problem of climate change, we’re going to see that many of those same kinds of cataclysmic events taking place with much bigger tolls.
Specifically, the tsunami itself was aggravated a little bit by the fact that we’re seeing rising sea levels because of thermal expansion of the ocean and melting of the glaciers that all contribute to the rise of sea levels. Because of development and the cutting down of a lot of mangroves, that might have made a very slight difference to the severity of impacts of the tsunami.
What really happened with the tsunami -- which was the slippage of the tectonic plates -- is really beyond our control and really doesn’t have any relationship to the climate. But it does serve a very strong notice that we’re playing with nature and nature fight backs in very serious ways.
BETWEEN THE LINES: What specifically is going on in the Indian Ocean and other oceans around the world and how do rising ocean levels threaten land and also fresh water?
ROSS GELBSPAN: In a bunch of ways, basically sea levels are rising at the rate of about four-tenths of an inch per year, I think. And basically the reason that we’re seeing rising sea levels is for two reasons: the carbon blanket in the atmosphere that we’re putting up is trapping in more heat and that simply warms the surface waters of the oceans. It warms them down to a depth of about two miles, and as you know, from putting a pot of water on the stove -- when water warms, it expands. So half the sea level rise we’re seeing is from this thermal expansion, and the other half we’re seeing is from the melting of ice all over the world. All the world’s glaciers are disappearing except in Antarctica, big pieces of Antarctic ice shelves are breaking off and it’s really the melting of the glaciers as well as the thermal expansion that’s causing this rise in sea levels.
In terms of its impacts, the most directly affected people are people who live in island nations, particularly the smaller islands, and in fact, right now, New Zealand is accepting a large part of the population of Tuvalu, which is a small group of islands in the Pacific that are going under from rising sea levels. Not long ago, they relocated something like 40,000 people from some islands called the Duke of York islands in the Pacific, also because they’re going under from rising sea levels.
In areas that are not going under, you’re seeing coupled with stronger storms -- which is also a function of climate change -- you’re seeing much stronger storm surges and damages. So, for example, New Orleans is becoming very susceptible to serious flooding; Bangladesh has been hit by a number of very strong floods separate from the tsunami.
And then, another impact that we’re seeing is the salination of fresh water supplies in low-lying areas. So, a lot of south Florida’s fresh water, for example, is becoming infiltrated by rising seas and salt water that’s infiltrating the natural fresh water water tables. So, those are some of the impacts that we’re seeing in sort of slow motion from rising sea levels.
BETWEEN THE LINES: Ross Gelbspan, what’s the importance of Russia’s signing onto the Kyoto Protocols and what impact if any do you think the protocols and their goals will have in turning things around as far as global warming is concerned?
ROSS GELBSPAN: Well, I think the hope was that it would have had a great deal of effect, but that has been put to rest by the Bush administration. Basically, when Russia was persuaded to sign on, that meant the protocol would take effect. They had enough countries, 55 countries, generating 55 percent of the world’s carbon emissions and that allowed the Kyoto Protocol to take force. The first round of the protocols calls for very low goals. It calls for carbon emission reductions on the order of 7 percent among industrial countries and no reductions by developing countries. But, that was the first round of the protocol and all the delegates to Kyoto have acknowledged that those goals are way too low, the German government recently called for a fourfold increase in those goals given how quickly that climate instability is happening.
And as a result the Bush administration, last month at the meeting in Buenas Aires, through some very legalistic diplomatic maneuvers saw to it that when the next round of climate talks takes place in May 2005, that the delegates will not be permitted to discuss anything that leads to any kind of action.
So while you have much of the world ready to go very big on this issue, basically what the United States has done is not only withdraw itself, but it has seen to it -- through its manipulation -- that the rest of the world won’t be able to move forward either. And so were going to see in May another meeting of what’s called the Conference of the Parties of all the countries that are parties to this protocol -- and they’re only going to be able to have an informational seminar with no action plans emerging from it.
What’s being missed here, and I think this is something that activists really need to talk up in a big way, is the phenomenal opportunity that we have right now. And were we to do the right thing, which is to rewire the world with clean energy -- with solar panels and windmills and hydrogen fuel devices and so forth -- were that to happen that would create a huge surge of economic growth all over the world, especially in developing countries.
Ross Gelbspan’s most recent book is titled, “Boiling Point: How Politicians, Big Oil and Coal, Journalists and Activists are Fueling the Climate Crisis -- and What We Can do to Avert Disaster.” Visit his website at http://www.heatisonline.org
Related links on our website at http://www.btlonline.org/btl011405.html#3hed
“Experts: Global warming, pollution add to coastal threats,” CNN, Dec. 27, 2004
“‘Mangroves Can Act as Shield against Tsunami’,” by G. Venkataramani, The Hindu, Dec. 27, 2004
Friends of the Earth at http://www.foe.org
Green Peace at http://www.greenpeace.org
Nature Conservancy at http://nature.org
Scott Harris is executive producer of Between The Lines, which can be heard on more than 35 radio stations and in RealAudio and MP3 on our website at http://www.btlonline.org. This interview excerpt was featured on the award-winning, syndicated weekly radio newsmagazine, Between The Lines for the week ending Jan. 14, 2005. This Between The Lines Q&A was compiled by Scott Harris and Anna Manzo.
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