While Washington Slept
Hurricane Katrina provided a preview of what global warming might look like in the 21st century. In his article originally published in the April 5, 2006, issue of Vanity Fair, Mark Hertsgaard investigates the problem of global warming and how certain nations are pulling their weight more than others.
Image: Living Through the Storm
Mark Hertsgaard

Ten months before Hurricane Katrina left much of New Orleans underwater, Queen Elizabeth II had a private conversation with Prime Minister Tony Blair about George W. Bush. The Queen's tradition of meeting once a week with Britain's elected head of government to discuss matters of state—usually on Tuesday evenings in Buckingham Palace and always alone, to ensure maximum confidentiality—goes back to 1952, the year she ascended the throne. In all that time, the contents of those chats rarely if ever leaked.

No one can say for sure whether global warming caused Hurricane Katrina, which slammed into the Gulf Coast on August 29, 2005. But it certainly fit the pattern.

So it was extraordinary when London's Observer reported, on October 31, 2004, that the Queen had "made a rare intervention in world politics" by telling Blair of "her grave concerns over the White House's stance on global warming." The Observer did not name its sources, but one of them subsequently spoke to Vanity Fair.

"The Queen first of all made it clear that Buckingham Palace would be happy to help raise awareness about the climate problem," says the source, a high-level environmental expert who was briefed about the conversation. "[She was] definitely concerned about the American position and hoped the prime minister could help change [it]."

Press aides for both the Queen and the prime minister declined to comment on the meeting, as is their habit. But days after the Observer story appeared, the Queen indeed raised awareness by presiding over the opening of a British-German conference on climate change, in Berlin. "I might just point out, that's a pretty unusual thing for her to do," says Sir David King, Britain's chief scientific adviser. "She doesn't take part in anything that would be overtly political." King, who has briefed the Queen on climate change, would not comment on the Observer report except to say, "If it were true, it wouldn't surprise me."

With spring arriving in England three weeks earlier than it did 50 years ago, the Queen could now see signs of climate change with her own eyes. Sandringham, her country estate north of London, overlooks Britain's premier bird-watching spot: the vast North Sea wetlands known as the Wash. A lifelong outdoorswoman, the Queen had doubtless observed the V-shaped flocks of pink-footed geese that descend on the Wash every winter. But in recent years, says Mark Avery, conservation director of the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, she also would have seen a species new to the area: little egrets. These shiny white birds are native to Southern Europe, Avery says, "but in the last 5 to 10 years they have spread very rapidly to Northern Europe. We can't prove this is because of rising temperatures, but it sure looks like it."

Temperatures are rising, the Queen learned from King and other scientists, because greenhouse gases are trapping heat in the atmosphere. Carbon dioxide, the most prevalent of such gases, is released whenever fossil fuels are burned or forests catch fire. Global warming, the scientists explained, threatens to raise sea levels as much as three feet by the end of the 21st century, thanks to melting glaciers and swollen oceans. (Water expands when heated.)

This would leave much of eastern England, including areas near Sandringham, underwater. Global warming would also bring more heat waves like the one in the summer of 2003 that killed 31,000 people across Europe. It might even shut down the Gulf Stream, the flow of warm water from the Gulf of Mexico that gives Europe its mild climate. If the Gulf Stream were to halt—and it has already slowed 30 percent since 1992—Europe's temperatures would plunge, agriculture would collapse, London would no longer feel like New York but like Anchorage.

The Queen, says King, "got it" on climate change, and she wasn't alone. "Everyone in this country, from the political parties to the scientific establishment, to the Archbishop of Canterbury, to our oil companies and the larger business community, has come to a popular consensus about climate change—a sense of alarm and a conviction that action is needed now, not in the future," says Tony Juniper, executive director of the British arm of the environmental group Friends of the Earth.

At the time of his meeting with the Queen, Blair was being attacked on climate change from all ideological sides, with even the Conservatives charging that he was not doing enough. Yet Blair's statements on the issue went far beyond those of most world leaders. He had called the Kyoto Protocol, which has been ratified by 162 countries and requires industrial nations to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions 5 percent below 1990 levels, "not radical enough." The world's climate scientists, Blair pointed out, had estimated that 60 percent cuts in emissions were needed, and he committed Britain to reaching that goal by 2050.

But it wouldn't matter how much Britain cut its greenhouse-gas emissions if other nations didn't do the same. The U.S. was key, not only because it was the world's largest emitter but because its refusal to reduce emissions led China, India, Brazil, and other large developing countries to ask why they should do so. All this Blair had also said publicly. In 2001 he criticized the Bush administration for withdrawing from the Kyoto Protocol. In 2004 he said it was essential to bring the U.S. into the global effort against climate change, despite its opposition to Kyoto.

It was no secret that Bush opposed mandatory emissions limits, but Blair, who had risked his political future to back the deeply unpopular war in Iraq, was uniquely positioned to lobby the president. Bush owed him one. At the same time, Blair needed to show his domestic audience that he could stand up to Bush, that he wasn't the presidential "poodle" his critics claimed.

To compel Bush to engage the issue, Blair made climate change a lead agenda item at the July 2005 meeting of the Group of 8, the alliance of the world's eight richest nations. A month before the meeting, which was held at Gleneagles, in Scotland, Blair flew to Washington to see Bush face-to-face. That same day, the national academies of science of all the G-8 nations, as well as those of China, India, and Brazil, released a joint statement declaring that climate change was a grave problem that required immediate action.

On the morning of July 7, the summit was interrupted by the shocking news that four suicide bombers had set off explosions in London, killing 56 people. Blair rushed to the scene, but he returned that night, still determined to secure an agreement.

In the end, however, Bush held firm. Washington vetoed all references to mandatory emissions cuts or timelines, and the climate-change issue was overshadowed by African debt relief, which had been publicized by Bob Geldof's Live 8 concerts.

"There were no tough targets at Gleneagles because we would not have got all signatures on the document," says King, who adds, "We might well have" gotten seven—that is, every nation but the U.S. The farthest the G-8 leaders went—and even this required a battle, says King—was to include a sentence that read, in part, "While uncertainties remain in our understanding of climate science, we know enough to act now."

But seven weeks later, nature acted first, and it was the United States she hit.

No one can say for sure whether global warming caused Hurricane Katrina, which slammed into the Gulf Coast on August 29, 2005. But it certainly fit the pattern. The scientific rule of thumb is that one can never blame any one weather event on any single cause. The earth's weather system is too complex for that. Most scientists agree, however, that global warming makes extra-strong hurricanes such as Katrina more likely because it encourages hot oceans, a precondition of hurricane formation.

"It's a bit like saying, 'My grandmother died of lung cancer, and she smoked for the last 20 years of her life—smoking killed her,'" explains Kerry Emanuel, a professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology who has studied hurricanes for 20 years. "Well, the problem is, there are an awful lot of people who die of lung cancer who never smoked. There are a lot of people who smoked all their lives and die of something else. So all you can say, even [though] the evidence statistically is clear connecting lung cancer to smoking, is that [the grandmother] upped her probability."

Just weeks before Katrina struck, Emanuel published a paper in the scientific journal Nature demonstrating that hurricanes had grown more powerful as global temperatures rose in the 20th century. Now, he says, by adding more greenhouse gases to the earth's atmosphere, humans are "loading the climatic dice in favor of more powerful hurricanes in the future."

But most Americans heard nothing about Hurricane Katrina's association with global warming. Media coverage instead reflected the views of the Bush administration—specifically, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, which declared that the hurricane was the result of natural factors. An outcry from N.O.A.A.'s scientists led the agency to backtrack from that statement in February 2006, but by then conventional wisdom was set in place. Post-Katrina New Orleans may eventually be remembered as the first major U.S. casualty of global warming, yet most Americans still don't know what hit us.

Sad to say, Katrina was the perfect preview of what global warming might look like in the 21st century. First, Katrina struck a city that was already below sea level—which is where rising waters could put many coastal dwellers in the years ahead. In 2001, the U.N.-sponsored Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (I.P.C.C.), a peer-reviewed, international collaboration among thousands of scientists that is the world's leading authority on climate change, predicted that sea levels could rise as much as three feet by 2100. By coincidence, three feet is about how much New Orleans sank during the 20th century. That was because levees built to keep the Mississippi River from flooding also kept the river from depositing silt that would have replenished the underlying land mass, explains Mike Tidwell, the author of Bayou Farewell: The Rich Life and Tragic Death of Louisiana's Cajun Coast. "You could say that in New Orleans we brought the ocean to the people," Tidwell adds, "which is pretty much what global warming will do to other cities in the future."

What's more, Katrina was a Category 5 hurricane, the strongest there is. Such extreme weather events will likely become more frequent as global warming intensifies, says the I.P.C.C. Yes, Katrina's winds had slowed to high-Category 3 levels by the time it made landfall, but it was the hurricane's storm surge that killed people—a surge that formed in the Gulf of Mexico when the storm was still Category 5. Thus, Katrina unleashed 10 to 15 feet of water on a city that was already significantly below sea level.

To envision global warming's future impacts, the illustrations accompanying this article reflect this and other scenarios. [For illustrations, see the May 2006 issue of Vanity Fair. The three large-scale illustrations are an artist's interpretations of projections generated for Vanity Fair by Applied Science Associates Inc. (appsci.com), a marine-science consulting firm based in Rhode Island. The projections do not account for small-scale features such as coastal-protection structures.

The effects of a three-foot sea-level rise compounded by a storm surge from a Category 3 hurricane are shown in the image of the Hamptons, which would suffer severe flooding. The image of Washington, D.C., shows the effects of a 20-foot sea-level rise, which is what scientists expect if the entire Greenland ice sheet melts. The ice sheet has shrunk 50 cubic miles in the past year alone, and is now melting twice as fast as previously believed.

Finally, the image of New York City shows the effects of an 80-foot rise in sea levels. That's what would happen if not only the Greenland ice sheet but its counterpart in the Antarctic were to melt, says James Hansen, the director of NASA's Goddard Institute for Space Studies. Hansen, who put climate change on the media map in 1988 by saying that man-made global warming had already begun, made headlines again earlier this year when he complained that White House political appointees were trying to block him from speaking freely about the need for rapid reductions in greenhouse-gas emissions. Hansen warns that, if global emissions continue on their current trajectory, the ice sheets will not survive, because global temperatures will increase by 2 to 3 degrees Celsius by the end of this century. "The last time the earth was that warm, sea levels were 80 feet higher than today," he says. It will likely take hundreds of years for sea levels to rise the full 80 feet, but the process would be irreversible, and the rises would not be gradual. "You're going to be continually faced with a changing coastline, which will force coastal dwellers to constantly relocate," he says.

This article's smaller, aerial-view illustrations are based on simulations by the National Environmental Trust, a nonprofit group in Washington, D.C. N.E.T. relied on data from the I.P.C.C., the U.S. Geological Survey, and the N.O.A.A. Additional N.E.T. simulations are available at net.org. Philip Clapp, N.E.T.'s president, says, "The U.S. government has never released its own simulations. The Bush administration doesn't want these pictures in front of the American people because they show that a three-foot sea-level rise plus storm flooding would have catastrophic consequences."

In New York, it would leave much of Lower Manhattan, including the Ground Zero memorial and the entire financial district, underwater. La Guardia and John F. Kennedy airports would meet the same fate. In Washington, D.C., the Potomac River would swell dramatically, stretching all the way to the Capitol lawn and to within two blocks of the White House.

Since roughly half the world's 6.5 billion people live near coastlines, a three-foot sea-level rise would be even more punishing overseas. Amsterdam, Venice, Cairo, Shanghai, Manila, and Calcutta are some of the cities most threatened. In many places the people and governments are too poor to erect adequate barriers—think of low-lying Bangladesh, where an estimated 18 million people are at risk—so experts fear that they will migrate to neighboring lands, raising the prospect of armed conflict. A Pentagon-commissioned study warned in 2003 that climate change could bring mega-droughts, mass starvation, and even nuclear war as countries such as China, India, and Pakistan battle over scarce food and water.

1 2 3 NEXT>