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The BBC's John Simpson, World Affairs Editor
Part One: Environmental damage in the Maldives
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Monday, 13 December, 1999, 16:37 GMT
The first horseman: Environmental disaster

Global warming threatens the existence of the Maldives

In part one of a special series of reports for the BBC's Newsnight the award winning world affairs editor John Simpson gives a modern perspective on the four evils that have plagued the planet this century.

The four horsemen of the biblical apocalypse were war, civil unrest, disease, and hunger.

Two thousand years later these are all still with us, but we have added new terrors. The horsemen of the 20th century apocalypse are environmental catastrophe and crime, as well as war and disease.

The first horseman has the most destructive potential. Time is running out, yet most of mankind does not understand that there is a problem. Even if we took decisive action today to stop global warming, the new century would still be marked for its entirety by the damage we have done.

El Nino stuns the world

El Nino-driven tornadoes ripped across central Florida in 1998
The year of 1998 was the hottest on earth since records began; 1999 may be worse.

This has affected the natural phenomenon we call El Nino, which together with its less-understood sister phenomenon, La Nina, causes complex fluctuations in atmospheric pressure and surface temperatures across the tropical Pacific.

This changes weather patterns across the globe. Thanks to global warming, El Nino is occurring more and more often.

In 1998 it brought the western hemisphere's worst storm for two hundred years: Hurricane Mitch. An entire year's rainfall hit Central America in a few hours. Ten thousand were killed.

Hurricanes, droughts and fires

Forest fires in the Amazon in 1998
From Africa to Australia there were droughts, and in Indonesia forests burned and smog blotted out the sun for weeks. In the Asian sub-continent, by contrast, there was severe flooding.

Shortly before Mitch struck, there were four hurricanes in the Atlantic at once, for the first time this century.

These and other findings - for instance that the Antarctic ice cap is melting, and could eventually raise sea levels by 70 metres - are coming in all the time.

Smaller cars, brighter future

The Maldives are threatened by global warming
Already the restrictions on greenhouse gases which were discussed at the Kyoto conference on climate change seem outdated; and yet the United States, in particular, can't meet them.

While petrol costs Americans $1 a gallon, there is no incentive to cut back; and yet one leading scientist has estimated that if every American drove a smaller car, it would have a startling effect on global warming. European consumption, and the largely uncontrolled factories of Russia, India and China are to blame too; but the US is at the heart of the problem.

For our first Newsnight report in the series we visited the idyllic Maldives, a thousand tiny islands in the Indian Ocean which live off fishing and tourism.

Desert under the sea

Coral reefs in the Maldives have been destroyed
Now global warming is threatening the Maldives' very existence. None of the islands is more than 1.5 metres above sea-level, and if nothing is done they will be drowned within decades.

I dived onto one of the coral reefs for which the Maldives are famous, and found it almost entirely dead - bleached like a desert thanks to an increase of 1 degree Celsius during the last El Nino.

Many reefs are not affected, and there are a few signs of regrowth; but the Maldives are in serious danger. The First Horseman of the new Apocalypse is doing his work here.

The islanders lead a gentle, subsistence life; but the greedy, the careless and the selfish of the earth are threatening them, all the same.
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