EPIBuilding a Sustainable Future
Lester R. Brown

Chapter 3. Rising Temperatures and Rising Seas: Introduction

Civilization has evolved during a period of remarkable climate stability, but this era is drawing to a close. We are entering a new era, a period of rapid and often unpredictable climate change. The new climate norm is change.

In the spring of 2007, while giving a lecture at Kyoto University, I noted that there had been a remarkable shift during the decade since the Kyoto Protocol was negotiated. In 1997, climate change was discussed in the future tense. Today we discuss it in the present tense. It is no longer something that may happen. It is happening now.

Today not only do we know that the earth is getting warmer, but we can begin to see some of the effects of higher temperatures. Mountain glaciers are melting almost everywhere. Himalayan glaciers that feed the rivers that irrigate the rice fields of China and the wheat fields of India are fast disappearing. 1

The attention of climate scientists is turning to the melting ice sheets of Greenland and West Antarctica. If we cannot cut carbon emissions quickly enough to save these, then sea level will rise 12 meters (39 feet). Many of the world’s coastal cities will be under water; over 600 million coastal dwellers will be forced to move. 2

The destructive effects of higher temperatures are visible on many fronts. Crop-withering heat waves have lowered grain harvests in key food-producing regions in recent years. In 2002, record-high temperatures and drought reduced grain harvests in India, the United States, and Canada, dropping the world harvest 90 million tons, or 5 percent below consumption. The record-setting 2003 European heat wave contributed to a world harvest that again fell short of consumption by 90 million tons. Intense heat and drought in the U.S. Corn Belt in 2005 contributed to a world grain shortfall of 34 million tons. 3

Such intense heat waves also take a direct human toll. In 2003, the searing heat wave that broke temperature records across Europe claimed more than 52,000 lives in nine countries. Italy alone lost more than 18,000 people, while 14,800 died in France. More than 18 times as many people died in Europe in this heat wave as died during the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001. 4

The insurance industry is painfully aware of the relationship between higher temperatures and storm intensity. As weather-related damage claims have soared, the last few years have brought a drop in earnings and a flurry of lowered credit ratings for insurance companies as well as the reinsurance companies that insure them. 5

Companies using historical records as a basis for calculating insurance rates for future storm damage are realizing that the past is no longer a reliable guide to the future. This is a problem not only for the insurance industry but for all of us. We are altering the earth’s climate, setting in motion trends we do not always understand with consequences we cannot anticipate.

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1. U.N. Environment Programme (UNEP), Global Outlook for Ice and Snow (Nairobi: 2007).

2. Ibid.

3. U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), Production, Supply and Distribution, electronic database, at www.fas.usda.gov/psdonline, updated 11 June 2007; Janet Larsen, “Record Heat Wave in Europe Takes 35,000 Lives,” Eco-Economy Update (Washington, DC: Earth Policy Institute, 9 October 2003); USDA, National Agricultural Statistics Service, “Crop Production,” news release (Washington, DC: 12 August 2005).

4. Janet Larsen, “Setting the Record Straight: More than 52,000 Europeans Died from Heat in Summer 2003,” Eco-Economy Update (Washington, DC: Earth Policy Institute, 26 July 2006); National Commission on Terrorist Attacks Upon the United States, The 9/11 Commission Report (Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office, 2004).

5. “Awful Weather We’re Having,” The Economist, 2 October 2004; Richard Milne, “Hurricanes Cost Munich Re Reinsurance,” Financial Times, 6 November 2004.


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