Yes, You Can Do Something About the Weather

CAMBRIDGE: Blaming the weather is one of mankind’s oldest excuses, but for a large part of humanity it is more serious than we realize. Because mankind is actually changing global weather patterns, the problems brought by adverse weather conditions in the future could actually multiply. What’s worse is that the rich countries may be an important cause of the increasing weather damage being suffered by the poorest countries in the world.

Last week I visited several countries in Central and South America. In addition to the usual woes of financial upheaval, every one was reeling from severe weather disturbances of the past two years. The El Nino phenomenon of 1997-98 led to massive rainfall followed by severe flooding throughout the Andean Countries, especially Ecuador and Peru. Torrential downpours destroyed crops, and wiped away billions of dollars of roads, bridges, and electricity pylons. Meanwhile, Central American countries are still cleaning up from the shock of Hurricane Mitch, the worst hurricane to hit Central America in 200 years. Nearly 10,000 lives were lost; property damage totaled billions of dollars. In both El Nino and the hurricane, increased outbreaks of infectious disease followed natural disasters.

It is probably the case that the two weather disasters were linked. El Nino occurs when warm water from the Western Pacific (near Indonesia, Malaysia, and the Philippines) sloshes across the Pacific to the Western border of South America. Warm water off the coast of South America leads to torrential rainfall in Ecuador and Peru, and at the same time, drought in Southeast Asia. The El Nino is followed a year or so later by the so-called La Nina effect, in which the warm water bounces back across the Pacific. History has shown that years of La Nina, such as 1998, are typically characterized by fierce hurricane activity in the Caribbean, exactly what occurred with Hurricane Mitch.

Terrible destruction -- in thousands of lives, and billions of dollars of property in very poor economies -- would be bad enough without another sneaking suspicion: that the rich countries may be inadvertent factors in the severity of recent events. Most everybody has heard by now of the likelihood of long-term global warming, in which the heavy use of oil and gas by industrial economies leads to a rising concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. Rising carbon dioxide, in turn, causes the Earth to retain more heat from the sun, increasing the earth’s temperature.