The Hot Zone

Global warming isn't just a theory anymore. Now the arguments are about how dire the changes in world climate will be, how soon they'll come--and what, if anything, can be done to moderate them.

So far, though, advocates of what author Russ Gelbspan (The Heat is On) calls "a Manhattan Project to rewire the world's energy system" have been less than successful. Oil and coal firms have little sympathy for obvious reasons. Utilities, still smarting from their underperforming nuclear investments, are leery of taking chances. Some European countries have adopted "carbon taxes" to give business a little extra push. But in the U.S., the Clinton administration's faint attempt at such a tax failed miserably in 1993. (A carbon-tax proposal in Minnesota, developed by the advocacy group ME3, could come to the Legislature next year.)

Lately, though, advocates of climate action have found an unexpected and ironic ally: natural disasters. According to the Federal Emergency Management Association, federally insured catastrophes are up fourfold from a decade ago; and while the politics of disaster relief may play into that figure, the trend in floods, droughts, and storms is also up elsewhere. Worldwide, insurers shelled out $57 billion worth of weather-related disaster claims in the first half of the 1990s. That was three times as much as they paid over the entire preceding decade--giving rise to statements like that of Franklin Nutter, president of the Reinsurance Association of America, to a trade group last year. "The insurance industry is first in line to be affected by climate change," Nutter said. "[It] could bankrupt the industry." Other executives have been talking similarly tough, raising the specter of a whole new battle on the climate scene: Big Oil vs. Big Insurance.

There is, of course, another possibility: If politics doesn't get a hold on climate change, climate might get a hold on politics. How long, Gelbspan asked a St. Paul audience this spring, until the U.S. political system feels the effects of "more Hurricane Andrews, more Ohio River flooding, more Red Rivers and more crop-destroying droughts?

"This is not the kind of climate in which democracy flourishes. This is the kind of climate that could easily lead to food rationing with its associated black-market crime. It could lead to a military takeover of relief operations [like the Federal Emergency Management Agency] to maintain order in the face of natural disruptions. Social unrest arising from a series of natural disasters could easily lead to a significant expansion of our internal security forces."

William Ruckelshaus, the first administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency and now the CEO of garbage giant Browning-Ferris Industries, said as much some time ago. "Long before the systems of the planets collapse," he told Gelbspan once, "the processes of democracy will buckle under the weight of the series of ecological emergencies."

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