The New York Times
Hot: Living Through the Next Fifty Years on Earthby Mark Hertsgaard
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On December 7, 2011, Mark Hertsgaard participated in The National Climate Seminar, a series of webinars sponsored by Bard College’s Center for Environmental Policy. The online seminars provide a forum for leading scientists, writers, and other experts to talk about critical issues regarding climate change. The series also opens a public conversation, inviting participants to ask questions and contribute their own thoughts.
Hertsgaard has spent the last two decades reporting on climate change for media outlets including The New Yorker, NPR, Time, Vanity Fair, and The Nation, where he is the environment correspondent. His lecture focused on political movements and how environmental advocates can provoke change in public attitudes and on Capitol Hill. Hertsgaard sees 2011’s Occupy movement as a sign of real hope and discussed what climate activists can learn from Occupy’s tactics.
This E-ssential is an edited version of Hertsgaard’s talk and the subsequent question and answer session. While some material has been cut and some language modified for clarity, the intention was to retain the substance of the original discussion.
The New York Times
"Informative and vividly reported book...passionate." —San Francisco Chronicle
"[A] readable, passionate book . . . persuasively argues that human survival depends on bottom-up, citizen-driven government action." —Publishers Weekly
" Climate change is well underway, writes Hertsgaard, and we must begin to adapt to it even as we work to stop it.... The author’s stated goal is to make readers feel hopeful so that they will act, but he is candid about his own lapses into despair. . . . Hopefully, this book will prompt readers to action. Starkly clear and of utmost importance." —Kirkus Reviews (starred)
"In Hot, one of America's finest journalists confronts one of the world's most urgent problems. Hertsgaard cuts through the denial and disinformation about climate change, offering a clear, tough-minded view of our predicament. More important, he shows that the worst harms of global warming are not inevitable and outlines the steps that can help to avert disaster. Hot bravely takes aim at perhaps the greatest climate threat of all: apathy." —Eric Schlosser, author of Fast Food Nation
"I know what you're thinking: The problem is so massive I can't bear to read any more about it. But you’re wrong. Mark Hertsgaard not only makes the workings of climate change clear, vivid and comprehensible but gives us some reasons for hope. Some of the ways to fight or adapt to global warming are simpler—and more unexpected—than you would think, and some of the places where these lessons are being applied you never would have guessed. Hot is a lively, personal, very human piece of reportage about an issue that will ever more be at the very center of our lives." —Adam Hochschild, author of King Leopold’s Ghost
"Mark Hertsgaard is the master of a kind of travelogue reporting that lets you understand possibilities and problems in a deep way. But this time, one of the places he's traveling to is the near future, and the news he brings back is equal parts scary, invigorating, and full of challenge. This is an important book." —Bill McKibben, author of Eaarth: Making a Life on a Tough New Planet
"Like the fairy tales that Mark reads to his daughter, Chiara, Hot is full of out-sized challenges and glimmers of hope. In this brilliant postcard from the year 2060, Mark explores a world that will be defined, for better or worse, by decisions made today as we conduct a massive planetary science experiment—one that future generations will grade us on." —Terry Tamminen, Secretary of the California EPA for Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger
Climate change is well underway, writes Hertsgaard (The Eagle's Shadow: Why America Fascinates and Infuriates the World, 2002, etc.), and we must begin to adapt to it even as we work to stop it.
The author notes that we have entered the "second era of global warming." Even if greenhouse-gas emissions ceased today, the consequences would continue for hundreds of years. Consequently, the author persuasively argues that we need to begin adapting to those changes, which does not mean that mitigating global warming is no longer important; in fact, it grows more urgent every day. Hertsgaard's mantra is "avoid the unmanageable and manage the unavoidable." Though the consequences of unchecked global warming would be impossible to adapt to, we must decrease emissions of greenhouse gases with the greatest haste. This realization, as well as concern for his young daughter's future, prompted the author to travel the world and learn from the attempts that different countries and regions have made to adapt. He identifies the Netherlands as the global leader because they plan for (and fund) the next 200 years and accept that some areas are too expensive to protect. He also praises farmers in Africa's Sahel region. Their practice of growing trees amid their crops has improved yields, raised water tables and added so much greenery since the 1970s that it's visible in satellite pictures. While global warming is a "terrible injustice" because it "punishes the world's poor first and worst, even though they did almost nothing to bring it on," Hertsgaard finds that "even wealthy, technologically advanced societies will find it enormously challenging to defend themselves." The author's stated goal is to make readers feel hopeful so that they will act, but he is candid about his own lapses into despair. He puts forth many of the necessary tools and best practices, calling for a "Green Apollo" program. Hopefully, this book will prompt readers to action.
Starkly clear and of utmost importance.
Read an Excerpt
1 Living Through the Storm
The first thing that struck me . . . was the magnitude of the risks and the potentially devastating effects on the lives of people across the world. We were gambling the planet.
—SIR NICHOLAS STERN, British economist, House of Lords
CHAIRA AND I BEGAN reading fairy tales together long before she could understand the words or even focus her eyes on the pages. She was a week old, just released from her ordeal in intensive care, and normal things felt almost magical. It was bliss to sit in a rocking chair, cradle her tiny body against mine, and lull her to sleep with The Three Billy-Goats Gruff, The Adventures of Peter Pan, or The Hobbit. And so began our ritual. Chiara and I would read books together every night before bed and again the first thing the next morning, when we slipped downstairs early to give her mother some much-needed extra rest. We read fairy tales, nursery rhymes, picture books, Italian books, even adult nonfiction (the words didn’t matter to Chiara at that point; it was enough for her to hear my voice). As the days became weeks and months, Chiara grew to adore books and the stories they contained. And her father came to understand that fairy tales offer valuable lessons to children and adults alike in the face of global -warming.
Found in almost every culture, fairy tales are some of the oldest, best-loved stories on earth. They are passed down through generations not only because they amuse children (and help parents get them to sleep) but because they offer comfort and inspiration. In The Uses of Enchantment, psychoanalyst Bruno Bettelheim argued that fairy tales enable children to make sense of the world around them and to face the fact that “a struggle against severe difficulties in life is unavoidable, is an intrinsic part of human existence.” But, Bettelheim continues, “if one does not shy away, but steadfastly meets unexpected and often unjust hardships, one masters all obstacles and at the end emerges victorious.”
The first fairy tale Chiara fell in love with was The Nutcracker. She was about eighteen months old when she developed an obsession (and believe me, obsession is the word) with Tchaikovsky’s magnificent score of E. T. A. Hoffmann’s Christmas tale. Though she had only just begun to talk in full sentences, she insisted on hearing the story and music again and again. The plot is simple: At a Christmas party, Clara is given a nutcracker by her godfather, an inventor with a hint of magic about him. Clara falls asleep under the Christmas tree, clutching the toy. She awakens at midnight to see that the nutcracker, now grown as large as she, has come under attack from an army of giant mice, led by a king with seven heads. Just as the king is about to slay the nutcracker, Clara leaps into the fray and kills the mouse with a well-aimed hurl of her shoe. Her gesture transforms the nutcracker into a handsome prince, who shows his gratitude by inviting her to his kingdom, the Land of Sweets, where they live happily ever after.
After seeing The Nutcracker ballet onstage, Chiara began acting out the story at home. She invariably cast herself as Clara; her mother or I was assigned to play the godfather, the prince, or both. One day, after she and I had played the game for about the three hundredth time, I got distracted. To my half-listening ears, the music seemed to indicate the start of the battle scene, so as the prince I began to brandish my sword. A puzzled look appeared on Chiara’s face. It took her a moment to realize that her father was confused. She looked up and carefully explained, “No, Daddy. It is still the party. The danger is not here yet.”
The party, so long and pleasurable, that gave rise to global warming is indeed still under way. Despite years of warnings about overheating the atmosphere, we humans are still merrily riding in cars and airplanes, building pipelines and power plants, gobbling meat, clearing forests, expanding our houses and suburbs, and doing a thousand other things that emit the greenhouse gases that cause the problem. There has been a lot of talk about going green, but the economies of most nations are still based on burning oil, coal, and other carbon-based fuels, so emissions continue to increase. Meanwhile, the party gets more crowded and raucous by the day, as global population swells, the wealthy pursue ever more luxurious lifestyles, and the poor yearn for their own taste of the comforts fossil fuels can provide.
If most of us nevertheless seem in no hurry for the party to stop, the second half of Chiara’s statement suggests why: the danger is not here yet, at least for most of us. The majority of the world’s people have not been hit by climate change yet; it has not cost us a house, a livelihood, or a loved one. Sure, we may feel nervous about the recent erratic weather, we may feel disturbed by news reports of distant tragedies, but our daily lives continue pretty much as before. And so the party continues.
For millions of less fortunate people, however, indifference to climate change has become an unaffordable luxury. For them, the danger is now.
While visiting Bangladesh for this book, I met a little girl who was almost exactly Chiara’s age. Her name was Sadia, and her father was the unofficial mayor of a village that was literally disappearing beneath his feet. The village, Antarpara, used to straddle the mighty Brahmaputra River. Like most of the rivers that course through Bangladesh, the Brahmaputra originates in the snowpack of the Himalayan mountains. But rising temperatures were now melting the snow faster and, along with stronger monsoon rains, boosting the river’s volume. No one could say for sure that the excessive flooding was caused by global warming—after all, Bangladesh has a long history of flooding. But the flooding of Antarpara was certainly consistent with what scientists projected as global warming unfolded: faster glacial melting and more volatile monsoon rains.
“You cannot definitively attribute any single extreme event to climate change, but the overall pattern is clear,” said Saleemul Huq, a Bangladeshi biologist who directed the climate change program at the Institute for International Economics and Development in London and who had invited me to his native country. “In Bangladesh, we know very well what a 1-in-20-years-size flood looks like. We’ve had them for centuries. But in the last twenty years, we’ve had four floods of that magnitude: in 1987, 1988, 1995, and 2005. This suggests we have entered a new pattern where we get a 1-in-20-years event about every 10 years. This is something we have to worry about now, not in the future.”
Anisur Rahman, the mayor of Antarpara, was a broad-shouldered man who wore a dirty blue shirt and tattered rubber sandals. As we stood by the bank of the Brahmaputra, gazing out at the sluggish, silver-white current, he told me, “This river comes from India. For some reason, the water in India is increasing, so the floods here are bigger. They are sweeping away our houses, even the land beneath them. There were 239 families in this village before. Now we are 38 families.”
Clustered around the mayor as we talked were dozens of villagers, mainly women in cheap bright saris—lime green, sky blue, scarlet—with skinny children clinging to their necks. “I have had to move my house seven times in the last twenty-eight years,” said Charna, a haggard mother of two. “I used to live over there,” she said, gesturing toward the middle of the river, “but floods washed the land away and I had to move here.”
Later, when I bade the mayor goodbye, he was holding his daughter in his arms. Sadia was a pretty, solemn little girl, about eighteen months old. She was the mayor’s first child, and he definitely wanted her to go to school one day, but it would not be in Antarpara. “By the time she is old enough,” he explained, “this village won’t be here.”
There is a terrible injustice at the heart of the climate problem: climate change punishes the world’s poor first and worst, even though they did almost nothing to bring it on. After all, they cannot afford to drive gasoline vehicles, fly in airplanes, eat much meat, or inhabit the climate-controlled buildings that are the principal contributors to global warming. “Eighty percent of global greenhouse gas emissions come from the richest 20 percent of the world’s people,” said Saleemul Huq. “The poorest 20 percent of the world’s people are responsible for less than 1 percent of emissions. But because of their lack of resources, they will probably account for 90 percent of the deaths those emissions cause. This means that climate change is no longer just an environmental or energy or economic problem. It is also a justice problem.”
“You’ll Remember How Nice Summers Used to Be”
Even for the rich, climate change is now a matter of self-interest. “I attended a conference recently and found myself talking with an executive of DuPont, the chemical company,” said Chris West, the director of the UK Climate Impacts Programme, a British government agency that educates local governments, businesses, and individuals on how to manage the impacts of climate change. “[This executive] told me about all the green initiatives that DuPont had launched—shrinking its carbon footprint, reducing its toxic emissions, just treating the environment better in general. ‘Jolly good,’ I said. ‘But is DuPont also prepared for how the environment might treat you?’ He didn’t know what I was talking about. I asked how many facilities his company had around the world. ‘About three hundred,’ he said. I asked how many of them were located in floodplains. He didn’t know. I said, ‘Don’t you think you should?’”
As we begin the second decade of the twenty-first century, every person on earth finds himself or herself in the same boat as that DuPont executive. Like the executive, we are largely unaware of what is about to hit us, even as we congratulate ourselves on our blossoming environmental awareness. Many of us have heard about global warming and want action taken against it. But few of us have reckoned with the inconvenient truth that climate change is going to keep coming at us no matter what for a long time. We do not realize that serious climate impacts are inevitable in the years immediately ahead. We have not considered how harsher heat waves, melting snowpacks, and other inevitable climate impacts will affect our work, homes, children, and communities; much less have we taken steps to reduce our -vulnerability.
Don’t you think we should?
“The point we have to get across to people is that the future is not going to be like the past. It’s human nature to assume it will be, but with climate change that’s no longer true,” said Kris Ebi, an independent scientist who began analyzing global warming while working for the U.S. electric utility industry and later coauthored a chapter of the Fourth Assessment Report about health impacts. “I do a lot of speaking at colleges and universities, and even there this message hasn’t gotten through,” added Ebi, who has two adult daughters. “I told one class, ‘When you’re my age, you’ll think back to how nice summers used to be. Summers in the future will be a lot less comfortable than today.’”
How did the students respond? I asked.
“They didn’t say much, but their eyes got very big,” Ebi replied.
Fear of climate change is only natural, and it is perhaps inevitable that some people take refuge in denial. One father I met in San Francisco, a city proud of its green consciousness, told me that he deliberately avoided news about climate change—it was too depressing, especially when he thought about the implications for his kids, aged seven and four. “I think people my age will be all right,” he said. “Things will be tolerable for the next twenty years or so. But our kids are screwed.”
Avoiding unwelcome truths may be standard procedure for human beings, but it isn’t much of a survival strategy. If there is even a slight possibility of improving our children’s chances of coping with what lies in store, how can we choose denial? We wouldn’t do that if our child were diagnosed with a life-threatening illness; we would face the awful facts, find the best doctors we could, and pursue every possible treatment option. When Lisa Bennett, a Bay Area mother of two young boys, awoke to the dangers of climate change, she felt compelled to take action. She later explained, “I began to think it a bit crazy that I attended to every bump and scrape on my children’s little bodies and budding egos but largely ignored the threat likely to put sizable areas of the world, including parts of the coastal city where we live, underwater within their lifetime.”
To borrow again from fairy tales, it is facing the dragon, as scary as that may be, that calls forth the heroes who deliver victories. “The baby has known the dragon intimately ever since he had an imagination,” observed the writer G. K. Chesterton. “What the fairy tale provides for him is a St. George to kill the dragon.” Often the heroes who kill dragons are ordinary people, as frightened as anyone but impelled to do the right thing. In The Nutcracker, Clara must attack the seven-headed mouse king in order to save her beloved nutcracker. In The Wizard of Oz, Dorothy and her companions must bring back the broomstick of the Wicked Witch of the West before their wishes are granted. In the Harry Potter series, the young hero must confront and defeat his parents’ murderer. Now, in the struggle against climate change, we need thousands of ordinary heroes to step forward and fight for our future.
Happily, there are genuine reasons for hope. Not only do we know what it will take to stop global warming, but most of the necessary technologies and practices are already in hand. Best of all, putting these tools to work could actually strengthen our economy, improve our quality of life, and make money, lots of it.
Ironically, one of the biggest profitmakers is a company that later caused the largest environmental disaster in U.S. history, the BP oil gusher that fouled the Gulf of Mexico in 2010. But in 1999, under different leadership, BP had invested in energy efficiency, which is by far the quickest, most lucrative way to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. BP invested $20 million to install more efficient light bulbs, motors, and operating schedules in the company’s refineries, offices, and workplaces. Over the next three years, those efficiency improvements lowered BP’s energy bills by $650 million. Thus the company’s original $20 million investment yielded a profit of $630 million—a stunning thirty-two-fold return on investment. Even organized crime doesn’t enjoy those kinds of profit margins.
Plenty of other corporations are following the same path, and so are forward-thinking governments. In Germany, Chancellor Angela Merkel’s conservative government has subsidized energy efficiency investments that were initially devised by the left-of-center Green Party. Every year, the German government funds the renovation of 5 percent of the nation’s pre-1978 housing stock, covering the up-front costs of installing more efficient insulation, heating, and electrical systems. The program is widely regarded as a win-win-win. The annual 1.5 billion -Euros in subsidies are recouped through lower energy costs. Greenhouse gas emissions are reduced. And perhaps most important for a nation struggling with high unemployment rates, the program generates thousands of jobs for construction workers, jobs that by their nature cannot be sent abroad.
In the United States, the state of California boasts comparable achievements. Under the leadership of Governor Jerry Brown in the 1970s, California launched a sustained effort to improve energy efficiency, especially regarding electricity use. We’ll discuss specifics in a later chapter, but the results have been remarkable. California’s electricity consumption today is roughly the same as thirty years ago, even as the state’s population and economy have grown tremendously.
California, Germany, and BP are but three examples of the larger truth: if we’re smart, the fight against climate change can repair, not ruin, our economies. Renovating our homes, workplaces, farms, transportation, and other systems to run on low-carbon energy sources will cost money up front, but it will create jobs, spur innovation, and boost profits over the long term. Installing the protections needed against heat waves, sea level rise, and other future climate impacts could likewise stimulate enormous amounts of economic activity, especially for the construction industry and other labor-intensive sectors. Indeed, the green economy is shaping up as the largest growth field of the twenty-first century; a 2009 study by the HSBC Bank calculated that the global green economy will grow from a $500 billion market today to a $2 trillion market by 2020. Germany and China, the world’s two leading export powers, clearly recognize this opportunity and are moving quickly to seize it; the jury is still out on the United States.
Energy efficiency is not a silver bullet, nor can it forever neutralize the effects of billions of people consuming more and more all the time. If the consumerism of the rich, the population increase of humanity as a whole, and the ceaseless growth imperative of modern capitalism continue unchecked, their impacts will cancel out the gains of even the most ambitious efficiency programs. Nevertheless, improving efficiency is a crucial first step. Because it is so profitable, it can generate funds to develop and deploy the solar panels, carbon-neutral buildings, protective seawalls, and countless other technologies that are needed both to reduce emissions and to cope with the unavoidable impacts of those emissions. And because it is fast-acting, energy efficiency can buy us time to deploy these technologies while we wrestle with the deeper challenges of taming consumerism, limiting population growth, and reorienting our economies from material growth toward alternative measures of well-being.
Another piece of good news: climate change does not necessarily doom the poor. The most hopeful story I uncovered while researching this book was in Africa, the continent scientists say will be hit hardest by climate change. In the sun-baked Sahel, I talked with illiterate farmers who did not know the term climate change but were adapting to it nonetheless. To capture rainfall and rejuvenate soil fertility, the farmers were growing trees amid their fields of millet and sorghum. With little outside funding, their techniques had spread from village to village across vast areas of Niger, Burkina Faso, and Mali, with remarkable results: despite enduring some of the hottest, driest weather on earth, greenery has returned to more than 12.5 million acres of land. Underground water tables have risen. Crop yields have doubled and tripled. To be sure, life is still hard in the Sahel, and it is bound to get harder still as temperatures rise further in the years ahead. But the region’s farmers are by no means surrendering in the face of climate change, and they may yet survive it if the outside world does its part and slashes greenhouse gas emissions.
Global warming is not the only reason our civilization must shift to low-carbon energy sources: there is also the threat of “peak oil.” As recently as five years ago, the theory of peak oil—which holds that humanity has already consumed half of the oil on the planet—was derided as nonsense from the fringe. No longer. As stalwart a member of the energy establishment as James Schlesinger, a former director of the CIA and secretary of the U.S. Departments of Energy and Defense, said in 2007, “The debate is over—the peak-ists have won.” There is still lots of oil to be had on this planet, but it “will get harder and costlier to find,” Ronald Oxburgh, the former chairman of the British arm of Royal Dutch Shell oil, told me. (Peak oil is one reason BP was drilling so deeply in the Gulf of Mexico in the first place.) Meanwhile, global demand for petroleum continues to climb. If and when global demand outstrips supply, analysts warn, the imbalance could bring debilitating shortages, soaring prices, crashing economies, resource wars, and social breakdown. The car-dependent lifestyle that millions of Americans (and growing numbers elsewhere) take for granted will become impossible. Fatih Birol, the chief economist of the International Energy Agency, is another insider worried by the approach of peak oil. “We should leave oil before it leaves us,” Birol wrote in 2008.
Make no mistake: going green at the speed and scale needed to defuse global warming and escape peak oil will not be easy. We will have to abandon old ways of thinking, confront powerful interests, spend large amounts of money, adjust our material appetites, and stay focused on the mission for many years to come. But there are unsung -heroes all over the world who are already working to make these changes a reality; you will meet some of them in this book. They deserve our help.
The Double Imperative of the Climate Fight
Chiara happened to be born at a momentous turning point in human history. What I call the first era of global warming began on June 23, 1988—the day NASA’s James Hansen told the U.S. Senate that man-made global warming had begun. Although a handful of insiders were worried before then, it was Hansen’s testimony—and the attention it received after the editors of the New York Times ran the story on page 1—that put the world on notice that civilization’s future is at risk. Global warming quickly became a common phrase in news bureaus, government ministries, and living rooms around the world. When a top scientist at the agency that put a man on the moon warns that trouble is brewing, attention must be paid.
As emissions kept growing, climate change went from being a distant theoretical danger to a punishing current reality. This shift took place sometime around the turn of the twenty-first century (scientists are still determining the exact date), inaugurating the second era of global warming. The battle to prevent dangerous climate change was now over; the race to survive it had begun. If humanity is to win this race, the essential first step is to change the way we think about climate change. The climate problem has undergone a paradigm shift; we humans must now make a paradigm shift of our own.
Today, in the second era of global warming, humanity faces a double imperative. On the one hand, we must reverse global warming, and quickly—before the climate system passes tipping points that could trigger irreversible warming. “We’re about ten years from a point of no return,” Al Gore told me in 2006. “But we still have time to slow the rate of warming and thereby buy time for the introduction of revolutionary technologies and practices that could reduce emissions enough to avoid the worst impacts of climate change.” Yet even as we strive to lower the global thermostat, we must also go beyond this traditional definition of climate action. We must take steps as well to prepare our societies for the serious climate impacts that are already in the pipeline. In short, we have to live through global warming even as we halt and reverse it.
At present, this double imperative remains unrecognized by many of us, whether we are individuals, communities, businesses, or governments. Over the past few years there has been an explosion of concern about global warming. But if awareness is high, understanding remains low, in rich and poor countries alike, among both the general public and policymakers. To hear most politicians, corporate advertisements, media reports, and even environmental groups tell it, fighting climate change is all about shifting to cleaner energy sources (and—a distant second—changing farming and forestry practices). If we switch to solar, wind, and other low-carbon energy sources, we can “Stop Global Warming,” to quote one oft-heard slogan, in the same way we turn off a car engine. But few people seem to recognize how quickly this shift must be made, or grasp how substantial the impacts will be in any case. A better analogy is to imagine that our civilization is traveling in a train, heading downhill, picking up speed, and approaching a landscape obscured by storm clouds. We can hit the brakes by reducing greenhouse gas emissions, and we must. But the train’s momentum ensures that it will be a long time before we actually come to a halt, and before we do, we will cross a great deal of unknown territory.
In triggering climate change, humanity has unwittingly launched an unprecedented planetary experiment. Because this experiment has never been run before, and because it involves extremely complicated systems, knowing exactly how it will turn out is impossible. What we do know is, we are pushing the earth’s climate system well beyond its normal limits. The past 250 years of industrialization have increased the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere to 390 parts per million—the highest level in the last 800,000 years, and probably in the last 20 million years. We know further that this increase has not only caused global warming but contributed to concrete examples of climate change, such as the 2003 heat wave in Europe, and that such impacts will intensify in the future. Nevertheless, there are many specifics we do not know. For example, the years ahead are expected to bring an increase in the frequency of extra-strong hurricanes. But exactly when and where they will strike, no one knows.
This lack of scientific certainty is no cause for reassurance. From the beginning of the climate debate in the early 1990s, those opposed to taking action have used the lack of certainty to argue against reducing greenhouse gas emissions. Why damage the economy, they asked, unless we are sure such reductions are required? The developments of the last ten years reveal the recklessness of that argument. Opponents ignored that scientific uncertainty can cut both ways—yes, things can turn out better than expected, but they can also turn out worse.
That simple piece of common sense is the basis of the precautionary principle. A cornerstone of modern environmentalism, the precautionary principle holds that policymakers should err on the side of caution when making a decision that carries apparent but uncertain risks. Put differently, the absence of definitive proof that a given activity is dangerous does not prove it is safe. But the precautionary principle has been ignored in the battles over climate policy. Alas, real-world experience and additional scientific observation and analysis have now demonstrated the folly of this course. The climate system has turned out to be much more sensitive to global warming, much more prone to human disruption, than anticipated.
“In the last few years, we’ve gotten strong hints that we’ve underestimated this problem, not overestimated it,” said Peter Gleick, founder of the Pacific Institute in Oakland, California, and one of the world’s leading experts on water policy and climate change. “Scientists can be conservative when it comes to drawing controversial conclusions, especially when they know they will be attacked for them. In the water area, we’re seeing many developments consistent with the worst scenarios projected for future climate change. For example, we’re in the middle of a very extreme drought in the southwest and the southeast of the United States. We’re not certain yet that climate change is causing these extremes—history shows that the hydrological cycle is characterized by extremes—but it is entirely possible.”
Sir Nicholas Stern famously remarked in his 2006 study of the economics of climate change that climate change represented “the greatest and widest-ranging market failure ever seen.” Prices, government regulations, and other market forces had not only failed to prevent climate change, Stern pointed out, they had encouraged greenhouse gas emissions to grow and grow. Now, we can say that climate change also represents the greatest and widest-ranging failure of the precautionary principle ever seen. In the face of uncertain but potentially catastrophic consequences from increasing emissions, our economic and political leaders chose to pursue business as usual, presuming that the risks would turn out to be manageable. The coming years will instruct us about how manageable they actually are.
It is often supposed that rich societies and individuals will find it relatively easy to adapt to climate change; their money and technological prowess, goes the argument, will enable them to counter harsher heat waves with more air conditioning and stronger storms with sturdier seawalls. Leave aside for the moment the fact that this assumption ignores the plight of the world’s poor, who amount to roughly half the people on earth. My research for this book has convinced me that even wealthy, technologically advanced societies will find it enormously challenging to defend themselves. The climate impacts that are already in place are so large, pervasive, and interlocking that they will tax our adaptive capacity to the maximum, especially because we will be confronting them at the very time we are grappling with peak oil and global economic disorder, not to mention the necessity of reversing global warming before its impacts increase from the “merely” grave to the outright -apocalyptic.
Over the next fifty years, climate change will transform our world in ways we have only begun to imagine. Humans have changed the weather on this planet, and that will change everything: from how we grow food and obtain water to how we construct buildings and fight disease; from how we organize economies and control borders to how we manage transportation systems and deploy armies; from how we write insurance and produce wine to how we talk with our children and plan for the future.
By no means is climate change the only threat to our civilization’s future, but it tends to intensify other outstanding threats, whether military, economic, or environmental. Military experts call climate change “a threat multiplier,” to quote a 2008 report by the European Union’s two top foreign policy officials. Climate change will worsen existing conflicts over water supplies, energy sources, and weather-induced migration, the report warned, potentially “overburden[ing] states and regions which are already fragile . . .” Economic prosperity is also endangered. Approximately 25 percent of the gross national product of the United States is at risk from extreme weather events, according to the American Meteorological Society and the American Geophysical Union.
Global warming and climate change also undermine the ecosystems that make human life possible on this planet, ecosystems that our civilization has already placed under extreme stress. In particular, global warming and climate change hasten the loss of plant and animal species, which is arguably the single most worrisome global environmental trend after climate change itself. Already, temperatures and climates are shifting too fast for many species to adapt, especially in the face of rapid habitat loss, which has been the primary cause of species loss to date. Writing in Nature in 2006, nineteen of the world’s leading biodiversity scientists warned that climate change alone could lead to the extinction of between 15 and 37 percent of all species by 2100. Need one add that such a massive loss of other species raises the odds that humans will also go extinct sooner rather than later?
Indeed, over the course of writing this book, I have come to see the climate crisis as a major evolutionary test for our civilization and perhaps our species. Like all such tests in the long, long history of evolution, it will be the individuals who can adapt to the new conditions best who will survive and prosper. Those who cannot adapt, meanwhile, will perish, perhaps not immediately but before very long.
The Third Era of Global Warming
The inevitability of fifty more years of rising temperatures and their associated impacts is the great unfolding story of our time. The implications haven’t sunk in yet to most people, but it won’t be long; reality is a powerful teacher.
Yet reality is also a work in progress. Temperature rise and the physical effects it causes may be inevitable, but how humans react is up to us. There is still time, if we hurry, to enlarge our vision of how to cope with climate change—to recognize that we must not only reverse it but also adapt to it. Only such a shift in thinking and action can give our children, future generations, and the natural world we all depend upon a fair chance of living through the gathering storm of climate change.
With Chiara, Sadia, and the rest of their generation foremost in mind, I aim in this book to call attention to the new realities of climate change; to provide a hopeful but realistic picture of the changes that lie in store over the next fifty years and beyond; and to identify the best steps to both reverse global warming and adapt to its impacts. Some of these steps you can take as an individual. Others can be taken only by governments. Still others fall to the private and civil sectors. Individuals can plant trees, conserve water, and do a thousand other valuable things, but it is governments that must build seawalls and set overall energy and economic policies. It is corporations that must quit dirty fuel sources like coal and embrace alternatives like efficiency and solar.
Chiara, Sadia, and their peers belong to what I call the climate change generation: the nearly 2 billion people who have been born since the first era of global warming began in 1988. In the years ahead, the young people of this generation must not only learn to live with the climate disruptions their elders have set in motion; they must also bring about the green revolution that is our best hope against descending into outright climate chaos. “I was giving a talk recently to a class of high school kids and I told them that in the next forty years, because of global warming and other environmental problems, everything about our society is going to have to change,” said Richard Louv, author of Last Child in the Woods. “I told them we need a new energy system, [that system] is already beginning, and they need to build it out. I told them we need a new agricultural system, [that system too] is already beginning, and they need to build it out. The kids were rapt, which surprised me, because I’m not much of a public speaker. Afterwards the teacher told me it was because I’d told them something hopeful about the environment, and they never hear that. Fear may motivate some kids to get involved, but most need to hear a message of hope.”
Besides hope, the youth of the climate change generation need the help of their parents and grandparents—the grownups who run today’s society and have the greatest immediate power to change its course. Previous generations, Hansen notes, “did not realize the long-term effects of fossil fuel use. We no longer have that excuse.” Taking action on climate change, I would argue, has now become part of a parent’s job description, no less vital than tending to your child’s diet, health, or education. Just as no responsible parent would encourage a child to smoke cigarettes, so parents henceforth should be reducing their families’ carbon footprint (and pressing governments and corporations to do the same) while also strengthening their households’ and communities’ resilience to climate impacts.
If all goes well, the next fifty years may be remembered as the second of three eras of global warming—a bridge between the first era of discovery and delay and a third era of deliverance and survival. If governments, communities, institutions, and individuals can rise to the challenges of the next few years, the second era of global warming could be a time of victory and redemption. By 2050, humanity might have slashed greenhouse gas emissions, limited temperature rise, and put in place protections against many climate impacts. There will, alas, still be losses; our collective failure to act sooner means we cannot save every person and place we would like. But we can keep the losses to a minimum if we act boldly. In that case, humanity might enter a third era of global warming. The inertia of the climate system ensures that temperatures will remain high in this third era; sea levels will still be rising, other impacts still unfolding. But the worst might be past. And buoyed by the lessons learned, humans might begin a new kind of existence on this planet, one based on equity and sustainability. Many of today’s adults will not live to see this third era, but our children and grand-children could, and that is reward enough.
Like a fairy tale, this book contains heroes and villains, dangers and triumphs, tests and judgments. The story remains unfinished, however. The ending depends, as in most fairy tales, on the choices made by the characters, which is to say by each one of us. George Woodwell, a biologist who cofounded the Woods Hole Research Center in Massachusetts, articulated the basic choice at the Chicago Humanities Festival in 2007. “If today’s trends continue much longer, this earth will become a hell,” Woodwell, himself a grandfather, told the crowd. “But we don’t have to build hell. We can tell our grandchildren instead how they can make the new world we need. At my institute, we live in a building that does not use a flame. It has gotten its electricity from solar panels for the past twenty-four years. We can do this, if we want to. It all depends on what future we decide to build.”
Meet the Author
Mark Hertsgaard has spent the last two decades reporting on climate change for media outlets including The New Yorker , NPR , Time , Vanity Fair , and The Nation , where he is the environment correspondent. But the full truth did not hit home until he became a father and, soon thereafter, learned that climate change had already arrived―a century earlier than forecast―with impacts bound to worsen for decades to come. Hertsgaard’s daughter Chiara, now five years old, is part of what he has dubbed “Generation Hot”: the two billion young people worldwide who will spend the rest of their lives coping with mounting climate disruption. His new book Hot is a father’s cry against climate change, but most of the book focuses on solutions, offering a deeply reported blueprint for how all of us―as parents, communities, companies and countries―can navigate this unavoidable new era. Called “one of America’s finest reporters” by Barbara Ehrenreich, Hertsgaard is the author of five previous books that have been translated into sixteen languages, including On Bended Knee: The Press and the Reagan Presidency and Earth Odyssey: Around the World In Search of Our Environmental Future .
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