Monday, August 13, 2007

Ill wind blows

No, you’re not crazy: It really has been a hotter summer than usual, and the storms more violent. Officials at the U.N. weather agency say so, and they’ve got the data to back it up.

It’s not just the United States: The World Meteorological Organization says that the globe this year likely reached its highest average surface temperatures for January and June since record-keeping began in 1880.

The Geneva-based WMO has been tracking freak weather systems and their effects around the globe, and its researchers are finding a frightening confluence of events to keep them busy.

Southeast Asia has been awash in floodwaters as extra-large monsoons have claimed more than 500 lives in Bangladesh, India and Pakistan. Only halfway through the season, 10 million people have been displaced by flooding, and vast regions of farmland have been destroyed.

Brown clouds of pollution are melting glaciers in the Himalayas.

South Africa in June had its first snowfall in a quarter-century, while the Nile burst its banks in Sudan, destroying 16,000 homes, according to the WMO. Flooding is not unknown along the Nile, but never this early, nor this bad.

And Europe has seen a reprise of its worst summer nightmares: deadly heat waves in Germany, drought in Romania, widespread power outages across the continent and an estimated $6 billion in property damage caused by freak storms and rising waters in Great Britain. A heat wave has gripped Moscow.

Last month, Oman was ravaged by a cyclone, the first to be documented in the Arabian Sea. And last week a tornado ripped away roofs in Brooklyn and flooded Manhattan subways. A tornado with 130 mph winds — in Brooklyn.

The U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, which is overseen by the WMO and the U.N. Environmental Program, says it is “very likely” that extreme heat and heavy precipitation will become more frequent.

Various U.N. agencies are working to establish monitoring and warning systems, but that old truism still holds: Everyone talks about the weather, but even the United Nations hasn’t found a way to control it. Its agencies will continue to study it, of course.

And U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon has scheduled a world summit on climate change in New York next month. The U.N. Security Council and the General Assembly have discussed the effects of global warming on global security, while officials from refugee, food and agricultural agencies have warned about the dangers posed to societies by rising seas and dwindling resources.

Second city

If you hear no news from the U.N. Security Council until Wednesday, it’s because the spokesmen for the five permanent members will be in Chicago. Together. Having fun.

It may be difficult to imagine, given how far apart their governments can be on key issues of international peace and security. But when the U.S. Mission press office offered to organize a two-day trip to Chicago, their colleagues enthusiastically signed on.

“Some of them have not seen America beyond New York and Washington,” said Richard Grenell, spokesman for U.S. Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad. He and deputy Ben Chang plan to take their colleagues from France, Britain, China and Russia out for steak and Chicago-style pizza, and perhaps take in a ballgame and the boat tour of the city’s famed architecture. And probably some of the city’s famed jazz and blues clubs.

Of course there will be meetings with local politicians and possibly a foreign affairs round table or two. Because you can take the diplomat out of the U.N., but you can’t take the U.N. out of the diplomat.

Betsy Pisik can be reached via e-mail at

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