'New Yorker' Climate Change Series

Alex Chadwick talks with NPR science correspondent Richard Harris about questions raised and conclusions offered in a New Yorker magazine series on global warming.

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ALEX CHADWICK, host:

It took some of us this weekend to finish getting through the last of The New Yorker magazine's three-part series on global warming. Reporter Elizabeth Kolbert, in many thousands of words over the last three weeks, has ranged from the present-day Arctic to an archaeological site in the Middle East that's maybe 7,000 years old and recounted interviews with researchers, scientists and policy-makers in Europe, the US and Asia. Her conclusions--global warming is not just an idea or a worry; it is a fact. Human activity, through the release of greenhouse gases, mostly carbon dioxide, is a significant element. Change is already under way. It will accumulate. The consequences are unknown at this point, but climate change has worked catastrophic effects on past civilizations. This is a dense series of articles delivered in The New Yorker's dispassionate, quietly alarming style, but how quietly should we be alarmed by a concluding sentence like this one?

`It may seem impossible to imagine that a technologically advanced society could choose, in essence, to destroy itself, but that is what we are now in the process of doing.' DAY TO DAY asked NPR science correspondent Richard Harris to read through the series with us.

Richard, welcome back to the show, and what's your assessment of all this?

RICHARD HARRIS reporting:

Hi, Alex. It's good to be here, and I must say that I found the series gripping reading, and I was agreeing with her all the way up to the very last sentence. I think she went over the top at the very end, and here's why I think that. Societies adapt very quickly to changes in the environment and the changes of global warming are serious--there's no question about that--but most of them are taking many, many decades and probably the most serious ones probably will take centuries, like raising sea levels around the world. So to say that we are not going to adapt to something that's going to take many centuries seems to be alarmist to me.

There's no question also, though, that some cultures she talks about are in jeopardy, like those who make their living off the Arctic Ocean, you know. The ice is melting up there, and life as they know it is going to be forever changed. And I will say one other thing, which is that the real wild card in all of this, in my view, is the possibility of catastrophic climate change. For example, Europe right now is too warm for where it is on the planet. It should be colder, considering how high it is, how close to the pole it is, and the only reason it's that warm is because of Gulf Stream air currents that bring warmer air up to Europe. So if that were to be disrupted, which is not beyond the realm of possibility, then you could have very, very serious consequences in Europe. Cooling is probably a much bigger threat to life and happiness than warming is, actually.

CHADWICK: Let me just say that a central point of Ms. Kolbert's article, it seems to me, is this assertation that there is no scientific question about this. Human change--anthropogenic change, it's termed--is a reality. Is that correct? Is there no scientific question about this?

HARRIS: Well, there is absolutely no scientific question that we are changing the composition of the atmosphere, primarily by putting in carbon dioxide that flows out of our tailpipes and our chimneys and our factories and everything else. There's zero question that that's there, and there's no question that that has the capability to trap heat within the atmosphere. The real question is how much of the change that we are seeing is caused by that and how much is due to natural variation? The scientific consensus is very strongly that at least some of it is due to the human activities that we were talking about. But how much is really hard to say, and when you actually read through her articles that point comes across pretty well because she talks about some catastrophic climate changes that predate the carbon dioxide that we've all put into the atmosphere and so on. The Mayan civilization collapsed, and Mesopotamia and so on, so we know that the climate has a potential to change itself very dramatically, all without human intervention. The question is really balancing both. But clearly both things are happening at the same time.

CHADWICK: NPR science correspondent Richard Harris, reading through The New Yorker series on global warming. Richard, thank you.

HARRIS: My pleasure.

CHADWICK: I'm Alex Chadwick. NPR's DAY TO DAY continues.

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