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Chicken Little Speaks

By Tom Chalkley | Posted 1/10/2001

Deep in the A section of the Dec. 29 Sun, I found a dispatch from Reuters News Service that gave me some unwelcome reassurance: I am not, after all, delusional. There really is a connection between the weird weather of the last 10 years and global climate change.Under the headline "Insurer calls 2000 a record year for disasters" was this priceless quote from Gerhard Berz, a scientist at Munich Re, the world's largest reinsurance firm (a company that insures insurance companies): "Global warming has to be slowed down. Otherwise the risk situation for insurers in many of the world's regions will intensify." The article went on to mention droughts, fires, heat waves, and floods around the world, and the deaths of 10,000 people worldwide due to weather disasters in 2000, but it was Berz's unsentimental calculation that really struck me. When the world's top risk-evaluators are making the connection between global warming and catastrophic weather, the rest of us should take notice.

But here's the rub: Our cheerful TV meteorologists--a major public source of weather information--rarely acknowledge the issue. Despite the use of satellite images that encompass the entire United States, TV news shows are stuck in the old paradigm, treating weather as if it were a short-term local phenomenon.

Why aren't they making the connection? I asked two of Baltimore's most credentialed forecasters, Lori Pinson and Kirk Clyatt, both of the Fox affiliate WBFF (channel 45). Pinson, it turns out, did two relevant reports last October, live from the deck of the Explorer of the Seas, a Royal Caribbean cruise ship that does meteorological research 400 miles off the coast of New York. On the vessel's maiden voyage, its scientific crew tracked ocean-surface temperatures and pollutants--important measures, Pinson says, in the study of climate change.

While we spoke, Pinson referred to a recent report from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, which projected rising temperatures and precipitation in coming years. "It's compelling," she says. "I can understand why people would be concerned. It could affect everything." She cites several close-to-home problems--ground-level ozone, mosquito proliferation, and beach erosion--among the possible consequences of warming.

Pinson clearly stays abreast of the issue, but cautions, "We shouldn't be alarmists. If you've seen me, you know I'm way conservative. Both sides [of the global-warming debate] bear watching."

Clyatt says he thinks "the jury is still out" on the impact of global warming on weather. He points out that the earth's climate has fluctuated dramatically throughout recorded history, regardless of human impact. His classic example is the "Little Ice Age" recorded in tree rings and in northern Renaissance paintings. "Go back and look at art in the years [around 1500 to 1600] in Holland, and what you see is frozen lakes," he says. Contemporary accounts describe "the Thames frozen over in England, and now the Thames never freezes up."

Although he has occasionally done extended weather stories, including a 1998 report on El Niño, Clyatt says he has never discussed global climate change on the air. "That is, unfortunately, such an in-depth topic that it's better suited for Nova than an evening weather broadcast." Personally, he sees climate change as natural and normal, "basically the ebb and flow of life," abetted to some extent by human behavior. "Whether [pollution] is a 10 percent controlling factor [in climate change] or an 80 percent controlling factor is still up to debate. I'm just not alarmed by this. . . . I'm much more alarmed by the NASDAQ at 2,500 than by global climate change in Maryland."

This seeming nonissue, however, is a raging debate just about everywhere else. In Great Britain, for example, global climate change has been a major topic of both weather reporting and parliamentary debate, particularly since a spate of devastating winds and floods struck the island last October. The Brits aren't a panicky lot, but a quick Web search of The London Times (www.thetimes.co.uk) shows that they haven't stopped thinking about last fall's deluge and its implications. Stories throughout November and December discuss economic damage due to global warming, shrinking glaciers, the folly of building in floodplains, even the impact on golfing and skiing conditions. "Global warming," a Nov. 4 Times analysis points out, is something of a misnomer: The melting of polar ice could disrupt the warm currents of the Atlantic, resulting in a much colder England.

United Nations weather watchers sounded similar themes last month. On Dec. 20, The Sun ran a wire story citing Godwin Obasi, secretary-general of the World Meteorological Organization, who linked global warming to cyclones in Central America, catastrophic rain in Japan, wildfires in the United States, a rare tornado in Canada, and "the first thunderstorm ever" recorded in Barrow, Alaska. The day before Obasi's statement, the United States and its supporters squelched a European Union drive for continued global-warming talks.

Perhaps our national policy-makers are relying on local-TV weather reports. As my father used to say, "If you can keep your head while all around you are losing theirs, you haven't grasped the seriousness of the situation."

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