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From Snowstorms to Heat Waves, How Global Warming Causes Extreme Weather and Climate Instability

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The East Coast is struggling to recover from the massive blizzard that slammed into hundreds cities and towns from the Carolinas to Maine. The storm was a grimly fitting end to 2010, which was characterized by extreme weather from start to finish with heat waves, floods, volcanoes, blizzards, landslides and droughts. While TV networks closely follow extreme weather events around the world, they rarely make the connection between extreme weather and global warming. We speak with Dr. Paul Epstein of Harvard University’s Center for Health and the Global Environment. [includes rush transcript]

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: Much of the East Coast is still struggling to recover from the massive blizzard that slammed into hundreds of cities and towns from the Carolinas to Maine the day after Christmas. Six states — Massachusetts, Maine, Maryland, New Jersey, North Carolina and Virginia — declared states of emergency. The storm buried cities in more than two feet of snow and unleashed winds of up to 80 miles per hour. Thousands of passengers have been stranded during the busy holiday season with thousands of flights as well as train and bus routes canceled.

It was a grimly fitting end to 2010, which was characterized by extreme weather from start to finish, with earthquakes, heat waves, floods, volcanoes, super typhoons, blizzards, landslides and droughts. In Pakistan, massive flooding submerged one-fifth of the country under water. In Russia, a record heat wave sparked wildfires that left 15,000 people dead. In Niger, first a severe drought threatened widespread famine, then floods left more than 100,000 homeless. In Europe, heavy snow and blizzards threw air traffic into turmoil. Deadly floods and mudslides killed thousands in China, India, Venezuela, Indonesia and many other countries. Meanwhile, preliminary data show that 18 countries broke their records for the hottest day ever. In fact, 2010 may go down as the hottest on record worldwide, this according to the World Meteorological Organization.

While TV networks blare the two words “extreme weather,” what about another two: global warming? Dr. Paul Epstein is associate director of the Center for Health and the Global Environment at Harvard Medical School. He’s co-author of the forthcoming book Changing Planet, Changing Health: How the Climate Crisis Threatens Our Health and What We Can Do about It. He’s joining us via Democracy Now! video stream from his home in Brookline, Massachusetts.

Dr. Epstein, welcome to Democracy Now! Let’s get an assessment from you. One article said, “Bundle up. It’s global warming.” Relate the two — the freezing weather to global warming.

DR. PAUL EPSTEIN: Good morning, Amy. Good to be with you.

Yes, we are certainly in a spate of extreme weather events, and it seems that this year has been a real uptick in all sorts of events, from heavy rains to droughts to heat waves and now cold weather. And I think if we think back at last winter, we also had a very intense winter with three large snowstorms together. And now we’re seeing this heavy snowfall in the United States, but also the last several months in Europe, as you recall here.

The underlying issue between global warming and climate change, meaning warming and changes in weather patterns, is that in the last 50 years, the oceans have absorbed 22 times as much heat as has the atmosphere. Let me repeat that, because it’s not often considered as part of the global warming story, but the heat of the last half century has built up in the oceans, and it’s the accelerated evaporation off of warm oceans that drives the heavy rains. A warmer atmosphere also holds more water vapor. For each one degree centigrade it heats up, it holds seven more — seven percent more water vapor. So there’s a push and a pull on the whole water cycle. And the key here is that global warming in the hemisphere, through the ocean engine, is now changing the weather patterns, and it’s the hydrological cycle, the earth’s water cycle, that’s been dramatically changed, with more droughts in some areas and more intense rains in others, and now intense snows.

AMY GOODMAN: We are getting tremendous wall-to-wall, 24-hour-a-day coverage of weather. In fact, we got an email from a friend. The subject said, “News?” with a question mark. And then it said, questioning why we were covering weather, saying, “What’s next? Traffic and sports?” But the weather is news, if the newscasters on television took it on by talking about the issue of global warming — you know, what people can do about this. I want to go to the issue of how it’s covered in the media. Dr. Paul Epstein, start off by talking about this issue.

A study from George Mason University conducted in March reports that just 54 percent of U.S. weathercasters accept that climate change is happening, and that fewer than a third believe that climate change was caused “mostly by human activities.” TV forecasters aren’t required to have any formal training in climate change to receive certification by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

One weather forecaster who appears regularly on many news outlets and has been quoted in the mainstream press is AccuWeather’s expert senior meteorologist Joe Bastardi. He has regularly questioned the science of global warming. This is a clip of Joe Bastardi from last week on the Fox Business Network.

JOE BASTARDI: Well, look, I want to show you something. It’s something you good folks at Fox allowed me to put on, because you’re fair and balanced, a few years ago about why we have to start looking for more and more of this. It’s called the triple crown of cooling: the natural reversal of the ocean cycles — three years ago, the Pacific went from its warm state into its cold state; solar activity, very low sunspot activity; and volcanic activity, not the kind you see in the tropics, but the kind we had up in the Arctic regions a couple of winters ago. And this is something that we opine could be causing a return to, for instance, the times of the Victorian era in Europe, where they used to have ice fairs around in the early 1800s, around Christmas time on the Thames. And you’re seeing that type of thing go on.

BRIAN SULLIVAN: Are you saying that we are in a period of global cooling?

JOE BASTARDI: Well, I’ve been saying that what I believe is going on is that this is a big debate between the natural cycles and the forces that — from AGW. By the way, these folks that are now claiming that global warming is causing all this severe cold, that’s like the kid on the playground that doesn’t get his way and takes his ball home. The fact of the matter is that the forecast was made by this forecaster three years ago that we’ll start seeing these things because of this, and it opens up the big debate. Are the natural cycles taking over? And are we going to see cooling over the next 20 or 30 years? What I’m saying to you, Brian, is this is predictable if you study cycles, study climatology, then throw the computer in and don’t just say, “Well, everything is global warming.”

AMY GOODMAN: That was AccuWeather’s expert senior meteorologist Joe Bastardi. Dr. Paul Epstein, your response?

DR. PAUL EPSTEIN: Sure. Well, just — and that was an interesting tape and an interesting analysis, because he’s trying to get at the dynamics that are driving the current weather. So, before we get to the media just for a moment, it’s important that we do try to analyze what are the dynamics behind the current weather we’re seeing. And in fact, in the North Atlantic, we’ve seen so much ice melt off of Greenland and in the Arctic Sea that it creates a cold sheen across the ocean, the North Atlantic, and that sets up a high-pressure system. Hot air rises, creating lows, and cold air sinks, creating highs. And it’s that North Atlantic high that’s actually persisted for the last 15 months, one of the longest periods on record. Due to the ice melts, we can presume, that is driving these high winds, cold weather, shooting across Europe, down to the low-pressure system that’s over the Middle East, because they’ve had so much heat, so, in fact, it is essential to think about what are the changes in the ocean and in the ice cover. Those are the lead — they’re playing leading roles that are driving today’s weather patterns.

What we — we used to say no one event is diagnostic of global warming. In fact, climate is changing. Climate has changed, meaning weather patterns have changed. And so, everything we’re seeing is due to natural variability and climate change. It’s a function of both of those interacting. And we can no longer just pass this off and say, “Is this event global warming? Is that?” We are in the midst of climate change, and it affects all of our weather patterns, again primarily through the oceans and ice cover.

Now, the media has done a real up-and-down job on this whole issue, but the connection between warming and warming of the oceans and the extreme weather events that have become much more common is something that the media has been spotty, slow to pick up, and one wonders where the agenda for that kind of ignoring as a pattern that’s emerging and something in the scientific literature that’s now well accepted. Even up to a year or year and a half ago, this was not so — there were many questions in the scientific literature about the connections. And now it’s well accepted, and all of the modeling studies show that this is — we’re going to see more extreme weather events and more intense outliers.

But it’s not just the models; it’s the data and the first principles. Those are the three parts of science: the models, the data, the first principles. And the first principles are that greenhouse gases trap heat in the atmosphere. The data shows us the oceans are warming. And the data is now very clear, that we’re seeing heavier rain events and more droughts. Over the U.S., for example, since 1970, rains have gone up a little bit, like seven percent. But the two-inches-a-day rains have gone up 14 percent. Four-inches-a-day rains have gone up 20 percent. And six-inches-a-day rains have gone up 27 percent. A whole shift in the whole pattern of extreme events, the bell-shaped curve — if you picture the normal distribution of events, from warm to cold, to dry to hot, the whole curve is changing shape as we — as the earth gets warmer. And some — and we’re seeing more extremes of both ends, hotter days as well as colder periods, more rain in some areas, more drought in others. And it’s a whole pattern where the curve is kind of caving in on itself: fewer normal days and much more in the extremes.

This is what we call now climate instability — climate instability meaning that rates of change in the ice are accelerating, wider swings from one extreme to the other, more chance of major outliers like the heat wave in Russia, the floods in Pakistan, these storms now. This is all part of a changing climate, and “global warming” is the word that — the two words that kind of throw us. The real issue is climate change, climate instability. And unfortunately, it appears that this is all accelerating, particularly over this last year.

AMY GOODMAN: You asked about agendas, Dr. Paul Epstein. Well, Fox News is under scrutiny over newly disclosed directives to its reporters. The group Media Matters released a leaked memo showing a top Fox News editor ordering journalists to always state that climate change data has been called into question when discussing the topic. The directive originated during the Copenhagen climate talks last year when a Fox News correspondent correctly reported U.N. data that the last decade was the warmest on record. Minutes later, Fox News Washington managing editor Bill Sammon sent out a memo questioning, quote, the “veracity of climate change data” and ordering correspondents to, quote, “refrain from asserting that the planet has warmed (or cooled) in any given period without IMMEDIATELY pointing out that such theories are based upon data that critics have called into question,” unquote. Dr. Paul Epstein?

DR. PAUL EPSTEIN: Well, manufacturing doubt is what this is called, and there’s been a well-orchestrated, well-funded campaign to keep up this drumbeat of doubt about climate change. It’s affected the media. It’s affected the politicians. It’s affected some in the public. What’s interesting is it’s affected — it hasn’t affected much of the business community, that — particularly the insurance world, that’s well aware of the risks of climate change and the risks to their business of the extreme weather events. So, as we see this corporate agenda work its way through the media, it’s becoming a smaller group of corporations, really the fossil fuel industries, that keep manufacturing this drumbeat of doubt. And that’s all you have to do to keep the discussion off track, is to say that there is doubt.

It’s, in fact, the consensus in the scientific community throughout the world. The national academies of all these nations that met in Cancún recently is well aware that their climate is changing, that the explanation for it is found in the greenhouse gas effect of fossil fuel burning. And 80 percent of the greenhouse problem is burning fossil fuels; 20 percent is felling forests. And it’s this pattern of warming and long-term warming of the oceans that really is already affecting our health, affecting our forests, our crops, and it’s begun to affect the global economy.

Look at what’s happening now with these storms: tremendous power outages in addition to injuries and deaths in some areas, particularly in Europe, and business interruptions that are insured and many uninsured. And this is really the danger, that we’re going to see the instability affect our health, our society and business community. And I think we’re seeing it come on even faster than we predicted. We underestimated the rate at which climate would change, just as we’ve underestimated some of the biological impacts, like ticks that carry Lyme disease now up into the north of Maine and so on, and the economics.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, I want to talk about that for a minute, Dr. Paul Epstein. It’s also the subject of your forthcoming book. It is the issue of people’s health. I’m not just talking about people getting colds when it’s super cold out. By the way, in New York, you know, it’s been extremely cold, and now New Year’s Eve is expected to rise up to perhaps 50 degrees this weekend. It’s astounding, the shifts in temperature. But this issue of how global climate affects people’s health, going, for example, to the issue of insect migration?

DR. PAUL EPSTEIN: Yes, well, and as you point out, it’s — the 50 degrees we’re looking at, it’s this instability and variability and volatility that, when it appears on the stock markets, we get worried that there’s going to be dramatic change. And it’s also what’s going on with weather patterns.

Five areas in which climate affects health: infectious disease is one; respiratory disease and asthma, particularly; third is now these winter weather anomalies that we’re seeing more of; heat waves and its impacts; and then the impacts of pests and pathogens, diseases on crops, forests and marine life, that are also responding to warming and to the extremes.

Now, if we look at the infectious disease for a moment here, as I mentioned, we’ve seen Lyme disease, carried by ticks, an arachnoid in the spider family, grow tenfold in Maine this decade and move up to the northern latitudes. Now, if we look at the United States overall, it’s warned about one degree Fahrenheit in the last hundred years. Maine has warmed two degrees, but the winters have gone up three degrees. In Alaska, the temperature is even more dramatic. We’ve seen increase in overall temperatures, 3.4 degrees, and winters have warmed a startling 6.4 degrees. So, Alaska is experiencing mosquitoes, stinging insects. And then these forest beetles, that are from Arizona all the way up to Alaska, decimating forests, and they are overwintering, moving to higher latitudes, moving to higher altitudes, sneaking in more generations each year. And the droughts dry the trees, dry the rosin that normally drowns the beetles as they try to drive through the bark. So the extremes weaken the trees. The temperatures and warming and lack of chilling frosts embolden the pests. And we’re seeing this dramatic increase.

But that’s not the whole story with infectious disease. It’s also these floods and droughts. It’s the extreme weather events that affect the timing, the intensity, the location of outbreaks. After floods, we see upsurges of malaria in many countries, just as we’re seeing floods set off cholera in Haiti, combined with the impacts of the earthquake, of course. And in droughts, we often see diseases like dengue fever, where people store water about their houses and the Aedes aegypti that carries that disease flare — surges. So it’s the extremes as well as the warming that affect infectious disease. In this country, we’ve mapped it out. Over-two-inches-a-day rains are associated with waterborne disease outbreaks from E. coli, Cryptosporidium. So again, it’s not just the warming; it’s the extreme weather events that affect either timing, intensity of infectious disease outbreaks.

AMY GOODMAN: That was one of your five points. Number two?

DR. PAUL EPSTEIN: Number two, asthma. We’ve seen a tremendous rise in pollen counts. And one of the explanations appears to be the rise in carbon dioxide only. Rise in carbon dioxide, from burning fossil fuels and felling forests, affects ragweed pollen. And we’ve taken — back of Harvard in the greenhouses, we’ve put ragweed under double CO2 in containers, and the pollen goes up 60 percent. The stalks only go up about 10 percent. We’re seeing tremendous counts in the fall. We’re seeing early arrival of spring. And spring, the — some of the fast-growing trees. So the whole allergy and asthma season has prolonged about two to three weeks in the Northern Hemisphere, depending on location. More pollen. Diesel particles and other particles from burning fossil fuels, coal and diesel, helps deliver these pollen grains deep into the lungs, if they glob onto one another. And then ozone from burning fossil fuels, and combined with others, also affects our lungs. So here we are, burning fossil fuels and carbon dioxide, burning fossil fuels and diesel, burning fossil fuels and ozone, and then the aggregate, the prolongation of this spring and spring-to-fall season affecting the whole amount of exposure that we are having to pollen in the spring and fall. And we’ve seen a doubling to tripling of asthma in this country in the last two to three decades. So some of this may be accountable by climate change and the burning of fossil fuels.

Heat waves, number three, clearly related to warming. And here again, what you recounted in Russia, we’re seeing more of these major events, major outliers. If we think back in 2003 in Europe, this was an event, the summer heat wave, that was six standard deviations from the norm — in other words, back to our bell-shaped curve, way out there in the tails. Not one or two standard deviations, but way out with degrees — with heating that was not recorded in — well, not in any of our records back to 1890s when we started our good global records.

Winter weather, we’ve addressed. And here we are again with the oceans and the ice cover affecting that.

And then, finally, what keeps me up at night are the bark beetles and some of the other pests that are affecting forests. And here we have very little in public health to offer to stop the longhorn beetles that are affecting the eastern coast. They’re an invasive species. But warming affects the range in which they can occur. Now, these cold winters are going to knock it back. Cold winters are excellent for public health. So, that may actually set back some of the pests that are affecting the forests. But in general, over the last several decades, we’ve seen an aphid-like bug, for instance, affect the hemlock trees — not the hemlock you take to solve all your problems, but pine tree hemlocks affected by the woolly adelgid. And it’s moved from — through Connecticut, through Massachusetts, threatening Vermont and New Hampshire and Maine. And again, it’s the warm winters that have allowed the overwintering and the increase in generations of these pests of forests that then change our forest cover, which affects streams, it affects our oxygen, the carbon storage ability. So these are the long-term issues in terms of the life support systems and how they’ll respond to climate change.

AMY GOODMAN: Dr. Paul Epstein, in just the minute we have left, what people can do about it?

DR. PAUL EPSTEIN: We can do a lot. We need to move, as we are, towards electric vehicles and stop burning everything. Even ethanol has its health impacts and affects ozone levels in the ground, the ground photochemical smog. But those vehicles need to be plugged in to a cleanly powered smart grid. And we need to move towards the clean grid, the cleanly powered smart grid. And we can move today rapidly towards a smart grid with technologies that optimize use. And then healthy cities programs, with green buildings, rooftop gardens, tree-lined streets, biking lanes, open space, permeable surface, smart growth, public transport, and cities connected by light rail — these can all make our cities healthier, create jobs, stimulate the economy, and help move us and move climate friendly technologies into the global marketplace.

AMY GOODMAN: Dr. Paul Epstein, I want to thank you for being with us, associate director of the Center for Health and the Global Environment at Harvard Medical School. He is co-author of the forthcoming book Changing Planet, Changing Health: How the Climate Crisis Threatens Our Health and What We Can Do about It.

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