'The Coming Storm': Global warming is real

September 30, 2001|By Chris Kridler | By Chris Kridler,Special to the Sun

The Coming Storm: Extreme Weather and Our Terrifying Future, by Bob Reiss. Hyperion. 323 pages. $24.95.

Bob Reiss' The Coming Storm: Extreme Weather and Our Terrifying Future has an important message about global warming: It's real, it's caused by humans, and we're not doing enough to stop it.

Reiss cuts through years of propaganda and confusing reports, and for his detective work, The Coming Storm is worth reading. Or skimming. The important message is sometimes obscured by the very passages that are supposed to get us all excited about it.

Reiss uses accounts of natural disasters, from fires in California to storms in Britain to flooding in the Midwest, to convey that "Our Terrifying Future" is now. The book goes into detailed accounts of the crises. Each consists of fair, if not thrilling, reporting. The problem is that while the book is convincing overall, the disasters, which take up a lot of pages, are not necessarily glaring evidence.

Even one of his well-respected experts, Tom Karl, says, "you can't pin any single event on warming because natural variability has an effect on all these things, but what's happening is that on top of the natural variability you have these trends."

You also have to get past the first chapter, which is populated with painful metaphors: air from the Gulf of Mexico "as potent as gasoline in a Molotov cocktail"; the color of rain moving away from radar "shows up as pixels the bright happy red of Santa's coat"; and my favorite, since I chase storms: Tornadoes can "transfix experienced storm chasers, freezing them in place like a rodent in front of a cobra."

There are also details I would argue with, such as putting Tennessee in Tornado Alley, but since the book got considerably better after the first chapter, I'm willing to forgive and forget.

More scientific argument would have been welcome, but at least we get the condensed conclusions of top scientists, many of whom were ivory-tower innocents bloodied by corporate attack dogs when they tried to publish their results. The book discusses at least one "smoking gun" -- a study that used natural records provided by tree rings and ancient ice cores to show the past century's sharp warming trend does not fall within natural temperature variations.

Reiss also recounts the ugly politics that have led us to this point, where the energy-hungry United States is a global pariah because it refuses to sign tough treaties to safeguard the future beyond the next election year. And he talks about how some corporations have, surprisingly, chosen to fight global warming -- with oil company BP among the leaders.

The consequences, Reiss points out, go well beyond whether low- lying cities are going to be under water. Military strategists are concerned about wars over water. Politicians fear mass migrations caused by climate change. And experts in disease say new dangers, such as the mosquito-borne West Nile virus, could increase.

People who want to grasp quickly the latest thinking on global warming would do well to pick up Reiss' book. Or start investing in mountain property.

We're lucky. We have mountains. Reiss writes that the Maldives, a country of islands, may not continue to exist at all.

Chris Kridler is a technology columnist for Florida Today. Her work has appeared in Newsweek, Premiere, The Sun, The Maryland Poetry Review and other publications.

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