Degrees of Danger

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After Hurricane Katrina we can't ignore the threat of climate change, as Mark Lynas explains to Tony Staunton.

There is debate as to whether Hurricane Katrina, which hit New Orleans, was made worse by global warming. What is your opinion?

The thing about Katrina, as with all global warming debates, is that people tend to fall into their pre-existing narratives. The 'antis' say, 'Global warming has nothing to do with it... we have to defend Bush... how dare you even discuss the matter while bodies are floating around in New Orleans?' while the people who are more environmentally minded say, 'Actually, these disasters are going to get worse and worse unless we start to take global warming seriously.'

Although I'm not a tropical meteorologist, it nevertheless seems to me global warming is a contributory factor in making hurricanes increasingly destructive. I don't see why that's such a problematical thing to say. But strangely, lots of hurricane forecasters are also climate change sceptics. It is easy for the media to get quotes from William Gray or Chris Lancey from the national hurricane centre in Miami, who argue that this is about natural cycles, and so the debate goes on. But they're not being scientific, and are ignoring the latest evidence and putting forward a political perspective.

The sea in the Gulf of Mexico has risen in temperature to 30 degrees centigrade - surely that is alarming evidence?

Yes, but the dispute is over the extent to which human activity has caused the rise in sea temperatures. Different parts of the ocean warm at different rates, and it may only be a fraction of a degree. Is that enough to affect hurricanes? It's certainly not reasonable to say climate change has nothing to do with it and dismiss it out of hand. But it's more important to look at the latest modelling evidence and come to terms with the fact that hurricanes are going to become seriously more destructive in decades to come, by which time there won't be any potential for dispute left.

According to most of the research I've seen, today's category 4 hurricanes will become category 5, and they will be more powerful and intense. Therefore their destructive potential will go up, as will the damage to property and human life. I don't think future coastal populations will thank the politicians of today for simply ignoring the problem and trying to sweep it under the carpet.

There have been several influential newspaper articles which try and smooth feathers and say, 'No, no, no, climate change has nothing to do with it.' Therefore the debate moves on to hurricane preparedness and what to do with the evacuees which, of course, are important issues. But we have to look to the long term, and how to mitigate against the likely destructive impact in the future.

There is also the model of the potential for 'climate shift', with a colossal change in climate in a short space of some 20 years, resulting in a potential new ice age for the northern hemisphere. Do you believe this is possible?

I'm writing a book at the moment called Six Degrees and it's going to map how, as the climate warms degree by degree over the next century, local conditions will change. Obviously, a six degrees increase by 2100 is the very worst case scenario, and if we're lucky it will just be two or three. But it is already possible to piece together from the scientific literature a jigsaw of the effects upon regions, with straightforward projections on biodiversity and glaciers retreating, which is easy to understand.

Abrupt climate changes, what are called 'surprises' in the literature, are events that are non-linear sudden shifts from one condition to another, such as the collapse of the thermohaline circulation in the Atlantic. The threat to the Gulf Stream is one of the most well known potential shifts, but there are other scenarios such as the loss of large parts of the Amazonian rainforest - a huge issue in itself.

It's like a board of snakes and ladders, where if any one of these things happens they can trigger a whole range of other events that affect global warming. The very nature of these things means they're very difficult to predict, and no one can say what is most likely which makes it even more scary - uncertainty cuts both ways. Sceptics use it to argue against action, but these uncertainties mean we should take the precautionary approach.

The World Social Forum this year held wide-ranging debates on climate change, where we heard evidence that the big transnational corporations have put money into research of possible models, with pharmaceutical companies looking at ways of making profit from the changed environment, and oil and insurance companies creating strategy to protect profits. Now Halliburton is set to make money out of the rebuilding of military installations in New Orleans. Are you surprised that companies are ready to just let the change happen in the chase for potential profit and at the expense of the poor?

Of course corporations make strategic predictions on how their businesses will evolve over the next 20 and 50 and 100 years. Shell's scenarios are well known, for example. But I wouldn't see this as some kind of sinister plot, more the corporations trying to protect their profits for as long as they can. They have no social conscience, and nor should we really expect them to.

The social dimension to global warming is what we have to fight for in the political forum. If you take New Orleans, the insurance companies stand to lose a lot more than any gains they may make, and I think they know this. The electricity and water privatised utilities are losing billions of dollars worth of investment. The oil companies have lost at least half their infrastructure in the Gulf of Mexico.

Halliburton is a parasitic company, usually taking money from the public purse, organised by corrupt politicians like George W Bush. But by and large, business and utilities are extremely scared of global warming, which is why the World Business Forum, meeting before this year's G8 summit, said to heads of government, 'Please get to grips with this issue.' This is a much bigger issue than any of us have ever dealt with before.

The World Social Forum supported the call for global protests on 3 December, during the Kyoto review in Montreal. Do you think we can force governments to act to significantly reduce carbon emissions?

The Campaign against Climate Change has been spearheading things in Britain. George Monbiot, CCC's president, spoke at big meetings at the G8 counter-summit in Edinburgh in July. It does look hopeful in terms of how people are mobilising.

Popular mobilisation is the only thing in my view that is going to force governments to sit up and act, because at the moment the pressures are too diffuse. For example, in Britain the popular pressure on the Blair government has historically been from the wrong side, such as the fuel protesters saying we need cheaper diesel to put into our heavy trucks. They've been doing direct action which used to only be the preserve of left and environmental groups. So we have to build the mobilisations to balance this and push the politicians back the other way. There's a real political void which needs to be filled by our side campaigning and protesting in all the conventional ways that we're used to, to put climate change very high up on the political agenda.

What do you think will happen at the Montreal talks in December? Hurricane Katrina has brought the issue of global warming centre-stage, and pressure is now on governments.

Well, these are the first real talks since Russia has joined the Kyoto treaty, but I think the talks will still be far removed from the problems facing the real world. We have to bring the issues to the attention of governments and bring pressure on from below. That comes down to logistical details like having buses booked from every town, and ensuring people turn up to the rendezvous. We need more funding into the campaign. It's no good making do, as we are the moment, on shoestring budgets.

It occurs to me we need to make links between issues and not keep this separate - the Make Poverty History campaign has brought climate change on board, and the Stop the War movement has linked the money spent on the military to many of the problems facing working people today.

The mainstreaming of environmental campaigns is happening. There's the launch of Stop Climate Chaos, a movement of the development and environment charities all working together for the first time. At the moment it's just the NGOs but it will hopefully broaden out - definitely a positive development. The Campaign against Climate Change is unique in building from below, and hopefully the two groupings will come together in mass action.

How much time have we got - what's the scale of the speed of reduction of carbon emissions as far as you can see?

It depends on what level of global warming we're prepared to tolerate. There's a suggestion widely accepted that two degrees centigrade is really the upper limit in terms of what humans can tolerate and certainly what global biodiversity can tolerate. We're facing critical mass extinctions across a whole variety of ecosystems once the two degree level has been crossed, from coral reefs to rainforests. Bearing that in mind, we'll need to see 90 percent reductions in carbon emissions by 2040. It can be done. There's no place for pessimism in this campaign. You've got to go out there and make things happen!

Mark Lynas is the author of High Tide - How Climate Change is Engulfing Our Planet and vice-president of the Campaign against Climate Change. You can discuss the issues with Mark at his website: