Nature’s viciousness is increasing, costly
As several hundred self-described “environmental activists’’ waved handwritten signs, the first international conference of the Society of Environmental Journalists in Miami moved toward a close Saturday with experts describing the onset of an era of vicious windstorms, floods and wildfires around the world.
Hurricanes have doubled in strength over the past 30 years, they said. Seventy percent of coastal damage in the United States is now a result of flooding, sharply up from a decade ago. And in some states the wildfire season has extended from six or nine months to the whole year.
The experts, from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, the University of Miami, an insurance consulting firm and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, said they thought that global warming or climate change was the main factor behind the violence. But skepticism about climate change has been rising, and the scientists said they were frustrated that, as one journalist put it, people “don’t believe you or don’t care.”
Damage costs are running in the tens of billions of dollars in the United States and across Europe and Asia and almost every region of the world, economists say. But Margaret Davidson, the chief of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s countrywide Coastal Services Center in Charleston, S.C., said the cost estimates “greatly underestimate” the scope of the wreckage.
“These are mainly insured losses,” she said. “They say nothing about the environmental and social costs.”
Davidson and other experts spoke in press conferences, in interviews and at a lunch with hundreds of journalists and other environmental experts on the fourth day of the Society of Environmental Journalists’ 21st annual conference. Every day of the conference more journalists and experts have been arriving from around the United States and from Europe, Asia and Latin America, and leaders of the organization said the headcount was approaching the record of 912 participants set in Palo Alto, Calif., four years ago.
“Miami is a spectacular destination,” said Beth Parke, the executive director of the Society of Environmental Journalists in an interview outside the conference headquarters, the InterContinental Miami in Bayfront Park on Saturday afternoon. The sun shimmered on Biscayne Bay, a thicket of palm trees swayed in a light breeze and the temperature was in the low 80s.
“This has been the most ambitious conference in the history” of the Society of Environmental Journalists, Parke said. “The opening night was a blockbuster with the Secretary of the Interior, five members of the Cousteau family and a down-link from the Antarctic. We’ve had adventurous tours and access to people and locations that are not normally accessible.”
The conference ends on Sunday with a breakfast at the Fairchild Tropical Botanic Garden south of downtown Miami. Some of Florida’s most successful writers who concentrate on environmental themes will be talking about what inspires them and how they do their work.
At the main entrance of the InterContinental hotel Saturday afternoon journalists and experts were boarding buses for short field trips to places in Miami like the federal warehouse where contraband from wildlife smugglers is stored. Perhaps 40 yards away, behind sawhorses, several hundred people who described themselves as “environmental activists” waved handwritten signs and banners. “Say no to nuclear,” one sign said. At one point, men and women backed with music from bongo drums and a guitar chanted, “No more plastic, no more plastic.”
Angela Swafford, a reporter for the Spanish magazine Muy Interesante and the co-chair of the conference, said she thought the demonstration “was nice.”
“It was a showcase to show the journalists what the people care about,” she said. “Normally, they would never approach a journalist. They wouldn’t know how to do it or the press wouldn’t take them seriously. They were organized and peaceful and even seemed happy.”
Directly across from the demonstrators some participants in the conference were admiring a small fleet of environmentally friendly cars from Chevrolet, Hyundai and KIA. Some of them were test-driving the $40,000 electric-powered Chevrolet Volt and the Hyundai Veloster, which operates with a conventional internal combustion engine that gets 40 miles to the gallon of gas, easily twice the mileage of most cars on the road now. The Veloster, which looks like many small sedans but has only three doors, is available for as little as $17,000.
In early evening, the journalists and other experts again boarded buses. This time they headed for a dinner sponsored by The Monterey Bay Aquarium in California at the chic Eden restaurant on Miami Beach. The menu featured snapper, grouper and other fish that aquarium personnel say can be safely eaten without endangering their survival and the health of the oceans.
After dinner the journalists went across the street to the Setai Hotel and watched models strut down a runway with designer outfits created with materials that are said to be kind to the environment.
At the lunch where the sense of disaster was heavy in the air, James Bruggers, a reporter for The Courier Journal in Louisville, Ky., said: “This has been a fairly depressing round of talks.”
Kerry Emanuel, of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and an expert on hurricanes, said that some places around the country are failing to see the potential dangers. He said that while both Miami and Tampa are on the coasts of Florida, Tampa faces a far greater danger of being heavily damaged by the tidal wave-like rushes of water that are created in hurricanes and known as storm surges. He said a wall of water as high as 40 feet could hit Tampa, and he raised doubt that the city was prepared for anything of that magnitude.
For years, Thomas Tidwell, the chief of the U.S. Forest Service, and colleagues prepared for what he referred to as the fire season, he said in a news conference and in an interview. But for last 10 years, he said, “we’re not even thinking of seasons.” Wildfires, he said, “are pretty much anticipated the entire year.”
He said, “Lots of things are driven by change in the climate.”
One of the most unsettling commentators was Harold Wanless, a professor at the University of Miami. He said the oceans are rising at a relatively fast rate. In some places the rise will be as much as eight feet, he said. Many parts of Florida eventually will be submerged and, according to others, some islands in the Pacific and Indian Oceans will be swallowed up.
“Sea level is running high,” Wanless said, “and it’s accelerating.”
Wanless suggested that his warnings are not being heard. And he said that some scientists who accept the concept of sea level rise are coming up with estimates that he thinks are on the low side. “If you are planning for two feet,” he said, “you are not planning for reality.”
One explanation for the reluctance to accept the idea of major sea level rise is that Wanless and others say the first serious problems are not expected for 80 to 90 years.
Davidson of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration talked about the magnitude of disasters in recent years and said that peoples’ points of references are shifting. She quoted a colleague who she said summed it up. “Today’s flood,” she said, “is tomorrow’s high tide.” #