HEAT is a fast-paced thriller based on the facts of global warming, a book with special relevance to the continuing failure of industrial society and its political leaders to mandate a substantial reduction in carbon emissions. The government's top environmental scientist receives new data showing that carbon dioxide stored in the ocean waters is suddenly being released, marking a key turning point on the road to an unstoppable climatic catastrophe. Knowing that the release of CO2 from the oceans will immediately exacerbate the greenhouse effect and speed up global warming, the scientist attempts to alert the president, so that a massive last ditch campaign to reduce carbon dioxide emissions from industrial and consumer sources can be started at once. He is thwarted in this effort by two high level administration appointees, who fear that forcing a major change in consumer habits in an election year will lead to defeat at the polls. The bureaucratic coverup and resulting delay in alerting the president threatens to close the small window of opportunity for human intervention to turn the situation around.
Excerpts from HEAT
All excerpts copyright©1989 by Arthur Herzog, all rights reserved.
The name Bertram Kline was familiar enough to command Pick's immediate attention. The NCAR chemist explained that he had just run a test series on sea sample from the tropical Atlantic and was concerned that a subtle and mysterious change in oceanic chemistry might be taking place.
In his brief report, Kline noted (needlessly for Pick) that the oceans absorb about half the excess carbon dioxide in the atmosphere — excess because industrial activity was constantly adding CO2 to the air as a result of the burning of fossil fuels, mainly coal and oil. Kline's research suggested that instead of accepting the gas, the sea had begun returning it to the atmosphere.
Kline was tentative to the point of apology and Pick would probably have dismissed the notion as absurd had it not been for the chemist's reputation for scrupulous accuracy. Even so, his theory had no real basis that Pick could see.
There were other reports too — like one from a University of Southern California disaster sociologist named R. Havu, who had investigated why Californians were failing to respond to a new earthquake warning system. Havu suggested that people had lost faith in science and scientists. Turning their backs on rationality, they took refuge in meditation and mysticism. Immersed in inner, not outer, space, they were obsessed with themselves.
Many responsible scientists believed that global cooling began about 1940 and was continuing. Another group, smaller but equally responsible, thought the earth's thermometer would point in the other direction. The disagreement ultimately resulted from differing opinions on the effect of atmospheric carbon dioxide. though CO2 existed in the air only as a trace gas, it impeded long, or infra-red, radiation from bouncing back into space after it had reached the earth. By the mid-1980s planetary warming due to the "greenhouse effect" had generally replaced cooling as a source of scientific concern and for the first time, the problem entered public consciousness. " . . . the greenhouse effect is one that has to be a threat to all of us and we have to look for alternative sources of fuel," said Democratic vice presidential candidate Lloyd Bentsen in 1988, and the other candidates echoed him. It had become recognized that the combustion of fuels based on carbon put more and more CO2 into the atmosphere, a well-documented fact. If the CO2 blanket became too dense, too much infra-red radiation would be retained and the world would become hotter. Critics of energy policies spoke of "hothouse Earth", but even if atmospheric CO2 doubled, the process would take many years and global temperature would rise only a few degrees; enough, however, to have a substantial impact on climate.
Further, evidence indicated that the heat rise could have already commenced. The 1980s had been the warmest decade since statistics began being kept 140 years before; globally, 1981, 1983 and 1987 had been the hottest years on record, with 1991 and 1992 also being scorchers.
Thus far, scientists had focused on human intervention as altering the earth's surface. What had not been considered was that nature could become a co-conspirator. Lawrence Pick hovered at the edge of that thought when he contemplated that warm water gives up CO2 more easily than cold. Could tropical water be turning warmer because of the greenhouse effect? Or could additional forces be at work? But in the absence of other evidence why tell Edmunston? Why risk further loss of credibility? And even if the climate was in trouble, it might be centuries before the effects were felt. Why me? asked Lawrence Pick. Let the goddam human race take care of itself. He had a good job so why jeopardize it? Find a wife and stop worrying . . . Pick was determined not to say a single word to Edmunston about the possibility, which he then judged infinitely small, of a rapid climate change.
Suddenly he grabbed the phone and called the Director, canceling their afternoon meeting. Pleading a toothache he changed it to the following day.
The phone rang. "Larry? Hal Anderson. How's the weather down there?" the voice said cheerfully.
Too cheerfully. Pick went tense. "Warm," he said. "In fact, it's hot."
"Aren't you lucky! We're freezing here."
"I'm not partial to warm weather," Pick replied, longing to small-talk forever. "I can't take the heat. Gives me a rash. I'd rather be on the ski slopes."
"Not today you wouldn't. I had the same idea and I checked the snow conditions. There isn't any snow. Just cold," Anderson said rapidly. "Is it safe to talk on an open line?"
"I think so. Nobody would be listening here."
After a hiatus Anderson spoke again. This time his speech was slower, his voice subdued. "Larry, I'm worried. I modeled out the figures six ways from Sunday. Computer models are only abstractions. The instrument can tell you what the climate might be like if you moved the Rocky Mountains to the East Coast, which doesn't mean you will. The model's just a research tool."
That's how a doctor would sound if he were about to tell you the biopsy showed cancer, Pick thought. "Go on."
"Based on the numbers you gave me, as the computer projects them, there is reason to fear that world climate may be in for a significant change, may already be changing in a sense."
"How far off is it?" Pick asked quickly.
"How far off is what?"
"The climate change, Because of CO2."
"I don't believe you heard me. I said that the change might already be in its opening stages."
Banner worked in the Executive Office Building, next to the White House. A large, imposing man with a florid face, elegantly dressed in a tailored blue suit with pinstripes, he greeted Edmunston with less than enthusiasm. The two cooperated on a range of matters and Banner was generally high on the Director of CRISES, but not that afternoon.
"Coffee?" he offered.
"No, no. Not allowed more than a cup a day because of my blood pressure."
"Mmmmmm. What do you think of the recent weather, Rufus? So goddam much snow."
"You've been here too long, Joseph. Washington's essentially a Southern town. A little snow throws it for a loop."
"Little? That snowfall day before yesterday was a record for these parts, Rufus."
"I'm from northern Minnesota, Joseph. That snow was hardly more than hoarfrost, as far as we're concerned. Besides, it melted right away."
"What about the hailstorm in Chicago that killed a man? Or the continuing heat down South? Or the floods in the Northwest? You don't think . . . ?"
"That something has started? I certainly don't, Joseph. You know perfectly well that the weather has been abnormally good in recent years. We're just in for a bad period, that's all. It's normal. It's that goddam Pick who's got us so jumpy. The way he worries is practically infectious. You read the report?"
Banner sighed. "I'm afraid I have. What do you make of it, in plain language?"
"Tricky as hell. Pick can't prove it with anything approaching certainty and if you bought all his assumptions you'd go up the wall. I don't think much of it."
"On the other hand, if we do nothing and a runaway greenhouse starts, it's curtains. It could be curtains long before that."
"But doing something is nothing short of turning the country upside down, as I understand it. An unprecedented national effort would be required to put the energy machines in space, and we'd need a huge cutback in consumption. It would be like World War Three."
"Yes, it would mean socialism, I guess, or worse — ecological communism. Those environmentalists would see this as a perfect chance to make noble savages of the American people. That's their secret vision, if you ask me. They'd take down every factory in the country with their bare hands. America would cease to exist as an industrial country, much less a world power."
"Have you told the President yet?"
"I wanted to talk with you first. Contrary to what the press says, the President thinks of running for another term. They'll draft him at the nominating convention this summer if he lets them. But suppose he knows what we know? He might refuse to run. Wouldn't you, in his shoes? It might be best to delay giving him the options until after he's nominated, or even after he's elected, so that this thing doesn't figure as a national issue. If the other party identifies him with a climate change, who would vote for him next year? It'll be 1996, but it'll sound worse than 1984."
"I guess you're right. Still, I'm nervous about sitting on this. How will he look if it gets out? How will we look? Have you thought about an independent commission to investigate the question?"
"The mere establishment of a commission would affect the political situation and we don't want that. The President would be furious if it were done without his consent and to ask him would bring up the problems we've already mentioned. All in all, then, Rufus, I think the best course is to do nothing and let the President decide what to do after that. He might properly decide that the problem belongs to his successors."
"Anyway, Pick may have been proven conclusively wrong by then."
"Or a solution found if the climate change starts to look real. It's a lot easier to go to the man with something upbeat in your hands, as you'll learn, perhaps, Rufus."
Edmunston sounded pleased. "Any idea when you'll quit, Joseph?"
"Maybe sooner than I thought. OK. We agree that the best thing is to wait. What'll Pick do if we drag our heels? Talk to the press?"
"No. That kind of exposure is the last thing he wants right now. He'll continue the research without telling me and try to make sure I don't find out."
"Perfect. That buys time. Tell him the White House knows all about it and is studying the question. Let Pick do his number. If he gets out of hand — well, we'll face that when we come to it."
"All in all, it's the only practical course. Let Pick wait."
Like Watergate, the climate story started small — a two-inch item without a byline on a back page — reflecting the lowly status of its source. It stated that, according to an NOAA official, excess carbon dioxide in the atmosphere might bring a rise in global heat far sooner than experts had even anticipated. A period of meteorological instability could come first and might have already started.
Probably because the weather had been so uncertain as to attract attention, the item was picked up on local TV news that day. The paper's editors, detecting interest, gave the story greater play the following morning. There was nothing new, except that NOAA denied the whole thing. But the source, still unidentified, repeated his or her assertions.
It was NOAA's Dr. James Polchak who catapulted the story into prominent. Reached at home by the science reporter, he admitted that two CO2 studies had been undertaken in the tropical Atlantic in recent months. These tests had been routine, but Polchak, confused and naive about the press, tried to account for why he had mentioned them at all by asserting that "some dispute" existed within his department on the CO2 issue, which was true only if young Blake could be considered important enough to figure in a dispute. Polchak tried to backpedal, but it was too late. The story reached the front page, lower left-hand corner.
By then, the Air Resources Lab at NOAA, suddenly the focus of unaccustomed attention, was astir. Under interrogation, Blake revealed that he was responsible for the story. Even so, he might have remained publicly unidentified if Polchak himself, now trying to ridicule the idea of a climate sickness when the science reporter called again, hadn't singled out a Ph.D.-less junior climatologist as the source of the nonsense.
As a result, Benjamin Blake was reached at home by the reporter. Nervously citing his original concern, he said it had been strengthened by information from another source. What source? "From . . . someone important at CRISES," Blake stammered.
When Rufus Edmunston denied knowing anything about the situation, the persistent reporter phoned Lawrence Pick, reaching Gwen, his secretary, who seemed confused. Her impression was that Pick had left the organization, though no announcement had been made. Not long after, the telephone rang in the modest house in Chevy Chase. The engineer had been expecting the call.
Yes, he was Lawrence Pick. Had he quit or been fired? No comment. Did he know about the CO2 debate? He'd been following it. Was a climate change impending? No comment. If Pick wouldn't confirm that anything was meteorologically amiss, would he deny it? No, he wouldn't. He preferred to say nothing.
This was a case where numerous "no's" added up to "yes". On March 23, the newspaper reported that government officials were indeed worried by the prospect of increased global heat and suggested that Lawrence Pick had been discharged because of disagreement over the issue.
Reporters telephoned and even came to the door of the house but, though Rita urged him, Pick refused to talk, afraid of complicating decisions which he believed the President would be forced to make at this point. Again the engineer was wrong.
Almost at once, Rufus Edmunston announced the appointment of a new Deputy Director, a leading climatologist who had been a member of the research team headed by Pick that had investigated the CO2 question in the first place. Harold Anderson was quoted as saying that the CO2 problem had been "blown out of proportion". The quantity of the gas in the air had increased but not to critical levels,. Pick, he said, was "far too pessimistic."
"The ambitious bastard!" the engineer cried from the newspaper. "He said he likes to win."
In the morning papers, because of the unpredictable weather all across the country, speculations about a climate change had revived. The White House, the Weather Service and CRISES, through its Deputy Director, Harold Anderson, all denied vigorously that anything untoward was happening, offering proof that such unsettled weather conditions were far from unprecedented.
"The meteorologists claim that the bad weather will end soon," Rita said from the newspaper as she sat with Pick over coffee at the kitchen table. "Will it?"
"I think so," he said, staring off into space. "But only for a while. Then strange, maybe violent weather will come again. It'll continue that way until the heat starts to rise. That's how my prognosis has it."
Tuesday, the fourth, began deceptively. Early-morning showers brought the temperature down to 90 degrees, which felt almost comfortable by comparison to what had gone before. Heavy rain followed by cool air was promised by the Weather Service once again. Believing the worst over, citizens went about their customary lives.
By 9:30, however, with the city functioning more or less normally, the mercury started up once more, under a sun so bright it was hazardous not to wear sunglasses outside. The thermometer read 100 by 11 A.M., 105 by one, 107 by 2 P.M. and at four, reached 110 degrees. It was 112 in Atlanta, 113 in New Orleans, 115 in Chicago, 116 in Houston and 120 in Los Angeles. Such temperatures could have been tolerated in a dry climate but the humidity had been increasing rapidly, too, in New York, and stood at sixty percent — typical of the country.
The Weather Service could not be blamed for being wrong — the atmospheric conditions were beyond its experience — but, just the same, the riots of that morning could be accounted for by the frustration felt by the people, who having expected the heat to end, realized they must continue to endure. One flash point was at the corner of Fifth Avenue and 100th Street where the police tried to turn off a hydrant to conserve the diminishing water supply. A mob materialized and attacked the officers. It grew in size until it became a small army that looted and pillaged, contrary to Havu's earlier assumptions.
In the business districts the situation was not much better. It was evident that the only reason electricity had been adequate was that the preceding days had been a long holiday weekend. As the day got hotter, pressure on the generators grew and as a precautionary measure, air-conditioning was reduced in office buildings, which overheated rapidly. Workers were ordered home, too late. By then in the tall towers, whose windows could not be opened, plate glass had been smashed and office equipment of all kinds, large and small, rained on the as she stood on the terrace, a desolate, immobilized Pick on a deck chair at her side.
To keep him pre-occupied, she told him what she saw: on Fifth Avenue sidewalks a long aimless procession with kerosene lanterns; in the park, hundreds of flickering torches and a slow-moving cortège of wagons loaded with the day's bodies for burial; as elsewhere in the city, buildings burned out of control, the raging fires illuminating the sky . . .