Over the course of the past century, mean global temperatures increased by 0.6°C. This change seems slight but isn’t: in the winter of 1905 my great-grandfather, a coppersmith, installed the roof on a new reef-point lighthouse two miles from Lake Michigan’s shore. Each morning he drove out across the open ice in a horse and buggy laden with his copperworking tools; today the water that far from shore never freezes, much less to a depth that could support a horse’s weight.
Well into the 1990s, such changes had happened gradually enough to seem salubrious, at least in the Upper Midwest—a karmic or godly reward, perhaps, for hard work and good behavior. No snow in October! Another fifty-degree day in February! It was as if the weather, too, partook of the national feeling of post-WWII progress: the economy would expand, technology would advance, the fusty mores of a black-and-white era would relax, and the climate, like some index or celebration of all this, would slowly become more mild. This was America. Our children would not only have bigger cars, smaller stereos, a few extra years to find themselves—they’d have better weather, too.
Now we know what we’ve done. Or we should. The fuel-burning binge (and the beef-eating binge, and the forest-clearing binge) we’ve been on for the past 150 years, and especially the last 60, and increasingly and accelerantly, has brought into view the most dangerous threat in the brief history of our civilization. It’s become possible to glimpse the disappearance of so many things, not just glaciers and species but ideas and institutions too. Things may never be so easy or orderly again. Our way of life that used to seem so durable takes on a sad, valedictory aspect, the way life does for any 19th-century protagonist on his way to a duel that began as a petty misunderstanding. The sunrise looks like fire, the flowers bloom, the morning air dances against his cheeks. It’s so incongruous, so unfair! He’s healthy, he’s young, he’s alive—but he’s passing from the world. And so are we, healthy and alive—but our world is passing from us.
For a long time, we feared that we would destroy ourselves by a sudden spasm of bomb-dropping. We still fear this, and should: the bombs are everywhere, attached to missiles that are meant for us, for our cities and our skins, though they point toward the empty sky. Despite our fear, we’ve learned to rest almost easily in the idea that for nuclear catastrophe to happen buttons must be pushed; that though it’s easy to push buttons the imaginative connection between the buttons and their consequences will not be lost; that no human being would willingly push those buttons and accept those consequences again. We may well be wrong about this, but it is possible we are right; each day that passes without nuclear disaster implies the hope of decades, centuries, eons of the same.
Global warming—and the other environmental disasters that will exacerbate and be exacerbated by global warming—doesn’t permit this hope. It takes forty years or more for the climate to react to the carbon dioxide and methane we emit. This means that the disasters that have already happened during the warmest decade in civilized history (severe droughts in the Sahel region of Africa, Western Australia, and Iberia; deadly flooding in Mumbai; hurricane seasons of unprecedented length, strength, and damage; extinction of many species; runaway glacial melt; deadly heat waves; hundreds of thousands of deaths all told) are not due to our current rates of consumption, but rather the delayed consequences of fuels burned and forests clear-cut decades ago, long before the invention of the Hummer. If we ceased all emissions immediately, global temperatures would continue to rise until around 2050.
This long lag is the feature that makes global warming so dangerous. Yes, this is how we would destroy ourselves—not by punching red buttons in an apocalyptic fit, but by appropriating to ourselves just a little too much comfort, a little too much warmth, a little too much time. Like Oedipus, we’ve been warned. Like Oedipus, we flout the warning, and we’ll act surprised, even outraged, when we find out what we’ve done.
Warming of 3°c—five times as much as has occurred since 1900—is a standard projection for the century just begun. Though such a change would cause unimaginable destruction, it doesn’t constitute a worst-case scenario by any means; in fact, it’s the amount of warming assumed by the US Climate Action Report of 2002, a carefully combed and vetted State Department document that begins with a heartening quote from President Bush (“My Administration is committed to a leadership role on the issue of climate change”). Three degrees Celsius is a conservative composite of the numbers produced by our best supercomputer climate models, and it doesn’t presuppose any of the dramatic events—the shutdown of the Gulf Stream, the disintegration of a major ice shelf, the collapse of the Amazon rainforest—that have climate scientists increasingly worried.
These computer models grow continually more sophisticated and detailed—but to truly understand how it’s going to be, to know what life will be like with a warming of 3°C, we would need a Borgesian computer model that stretched from the height of the thermosphere to the ocean floor; a computer model to account for the possible extinction, migration, or adaptation of every living species; a computer model to assess the reactions of cowed, calamity-shaken governments to widespread flooding, food and freshwater shortages, storm-wrecked shorelines, aggressively rising seas. In a few short decades, nothing will be as it is now, everything will have to be recalculated, and the task of laying out even one of the many possible scenarios is akin to imagining in full a science-fiction planet sort of like our own: no matter how many dozens upon dozens of novels you wrote, there would always be details and consequences that escaped your consideration, and, once recognized, forced you to reconsider the whole.
Certain consequences, however, are obvious and inarguable, because they’re already underway. Increased rainfall and evaporation will intensify cycles of drought and flooding worldwide. The Climate Action Report describes an America where, within our lifetimes, “Drought is an important concern virtually everywhere. Floods and water quality are concerns in many regions.” Equatorial countries—which depend on the decreasingly reliable summer monsoons for life-sustaining rains, and which tend to be hardest hit by El Niño’s storms and droughts—will suffer even more.
Sea levels will continue to rise, partly due to glacial melt, but mainly because water expands as it warms. Higher seas, combined with increasingly powerful overwater storms, will devastate, destroy, or simply consume low-lying areas. The Dutch have begun making plans to abandon large tracts of their hard-won, dike-drained nation to the advancing sea. Tuvalu and other low-lying islands are reluctantly plotting the relocation of their entire citizenries. Some studies estimate that there will be 150 million environmental refugees by midcentury, largely as a result of flooding in poor countries like Bangladesh, where 13 million people live within three feet of sea level. The billions of dollars needed to rebuild New Orleans will be needed again and again and again, mostly by countries that don’t have them.
Extirpation of other species has long been a human specialty, but global warming, combined with continued habitat destruction, will accelerate the process by orders of magnitude. Our coral reefs and alpine meadows will be destroyed. Tropical diseases like malaria and dengue fever will spread to ever higher altitudes and latitudes. Food production will be hampered or crippled in many regions, and some people, perhaps many people, will starve.
And so on. Only one feature of our otherwise forgotten 20th-century world seems likely to remain and be reinforced—the supreme importance of wealth. Rich countries will do better than poor countries, rich households will do better than poor households, rich species (Homo sapiens and their pets) will do better than poor species (all the rest). Global warming will deepen the divide between haves and have-nots—Hurricane Katrina offers a one-off example of how this can occur even in the US, but the sharper distinction will be international. As poor countries are hammered by sudden disasters and longer-term droughts, shortages, and epidemics, wealthier countries will paradoxically and perversely provide less aid, as they struggle with their own resource problems and future uncertainties.
In a world of relative stability, governments can make decisions with relative leisure and even magnanimity. They think twice about bombing one another; they sometimes indulge ideals of generosity, equity, humanitarianism. This cannot remain true of a world where the most fundamental stability of all—the sameness of climate on which agrarian civilization was founded—has been casually discarded. Exiled from a more or less predictable world, we will become desperate and confused, and no computer program can model that desperation. Our President has declared a perpetual borderless war as a consequence of a single unforeseen attack; even a much saner administration may become unhinged when nothing, least of all the weather from one year to the next, can be relied on. Skirmishes or worse will flare as resources dwindle. Our isolation will grow as millions of fellow species become extinct. The suppressed nightmare of nuclear war will recur during daylight hours.
These are not worst-case scenarios. The worst-case scenarios are much worse.
Of all the crimes committed by our current administration—institutionalized torture, pursuit of war under false pretenses, et cetera—its ecological crimes are the most damaging and regrettable. George W. Bush has dismantled decades’ worth of environmental legislation, but his worst offense has been to take the oil companies’ despicable campaign of disinformation about global warming and make it national policy. Even in the not-so-likely event that our next administration fully understands the scope of the danger, the costs of these eight years of paralysis will prove incalculable.
In 1988, NASA’s top climate scientist, James Hansen, testified before Congress that he was “99 percent sure” that human-induced global warming was underway. His words made the front page of the Times and marked the entrance of global warming into mainstream public discussion. The following year, Al Gore called Hansen to testify again; this time, the first Bush Administration forced him to alter his prepared statement. A furious Gore called the incident “science fraud” perpetrated by the “Science Politburo of the Bush Administration.”
But Bush Sr., who oversaw the Montreal Protocol that reversed the destruction of the ozone layer, was a staunch ecologist compared to his son. (In between, Clinton and Gore were crucial to the forging of the Kyoto Protocol, and generally much sounder on environmental matters, but also presided over a 14 percent increase in US greenhouse emissions.) The second Bush has shown a Bolshevik flair for asserting ideological control over scientific inquiry. Hansen, who still heads NASA’s climate program, was recently warned of “dire consequences” if he persisted in speaking out about the need for immediate reductions in carbon emissions. Scientists at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration have been muzzled too. The White House has altered or excised passages on climate change in several EPA reports; the former head exciser, Philip A. Cooney, took a job at ExxonMobil after resigning.
After his first Congressional appearance, Hansen was criticized by many scientists for drawing premature conclusions. He alone understood the difference between science, which demands constant skepticism in a search for total certainty, and politics, which demands reasonable assessments of probabilities and costs. The rigors of science look like weakness and temporizing when viewed through the lens of politics. This is the same blurred distinction on which the second Bush has based his devious insistence on “sound science”—i.e., perfect foreknowledge of future events as a prerequisite for action.
Meanwhile the Pentagon has begun scenario-planning for abrupt climate change. A DoD-commissioned report from 2003 begins by noting that “there is substantial evidence to indicate that significant global warming will occur during the 21st century” and goes on to envision the consequences of one abrupt-change scenario that has increasingly captured the attention of scientists—the shutdown of the Gulf Stream, which could plunge most of Europe into a deep chill while the rest of the world continues warming. The report isn’t terribly imaginative or grammatical, but it is based on sound fundamentals: “With at least eight abrupt climate change events documented in the geological record, it seems that the questions to ask are: When will this happen? What will the impacts be? And, how can we best prepare for it? Rather than: Will this really happen?”
The authors go on to conclude that, while superior wealth and resources would allow the US to adapt moderately well to such a scenario, we would find ourselves in a world “where Europe will be struggling internally, large numbers of refugees are washing up on [US] shores, and Asia is in serious crisis over food and water. Disruption and conflict will be endemic features of life.” Such conclusions force us to consider the most cynical of all possible interpretations of our indifference to global warming: on some level, we believe not only that we’ll be fine, but that our relative advantage over other countries will actually increase. Instead of yielding aspects of our dominance to bigger nations like China and India, we’ll maintain our hold over a troubled world—an idea as unethical as it is dubious.
The US, with 5 percent of the world’s population, produces 25 percent of the world’s greenhouse gases, and thus is disproportionately responsible for the warming that has occurred so far and will occur in coming decades. The Climate Action Report maintains—and the White House continues to insist—that US “strategies are expected to achieve emission reductions comparable to the average reductions prescribed by the Kyoto agreement, but without the threats to economic growth.” Two paragraphs later, it’s made clear that our emissions are scheduled to increase by 43 percent between 2000 and 2020—a “comparable” amount, somehow, to the 7 percent reduction prescribed by Kyoto.
It’s often said that Kyoto doesn’t matter, because the cuts prescribed are so small as to be wholly inadequate—but our refusal to go even this far has brought the international political effort to address global warming to a dead halt. Kyoto expires in 2012, and governments should now be creating far more ambitious post-Kyoto plans, but such plans are unthinkable in the absence of US economic leadership. EU countries can act as responsibly as they like, but China and India, the slowly waking behemoths of US-style fossil-fuel use, will do nothing until the United States demonstrates that a grand-scale transition to renewable energy can be achieved by big industrial countries.
This is the responsibility incumbent on us, and its fulfillment could easily be couched in the familiar, voter-friendly language of American leadership, talent, and heroism. But it has not been. Instead we are welcoming the prospect of running shipping routes over the thawed North Pole, and scheming to drill for fresh oil beneath what used to be tundra. Instead of enacting a Manhattan Project for renewable fuels, we continue building technologically fossilized infrastructure at massive cost. After a profit-minded turn away from coal-fired power in the ’80s and ’90s, scores of new coal plants are scheduled to be built in this country by 2025. China and India are following suit, adding coal-fired capacity as fast as they can.A slow, self-congratulatory creep toward sustainability—a small investment in solar power, a fleet of “green” SUVs that get thirty miles a gallon—is no match for billions of dollars of deathly infrastructure. Once built, these plants will remain online for decades, pouring gigatons of carbon into the air, unless some humanitarian-minded nation sends its fighter planes to bomb them.
Hard, but not impossible, for a free democratic people to circumvent their government. In the past year, there’s been a definite uptick in public attentiveness to global warming, spurred by Elizabeth Kolbert’s quietly harrowing three-part piece in the New Yorker and then by the horrors of Katrina. New books abound and are selling well. A full-length documentary debuted at Sundance. ABC News and 60 Minutes have run prime-time specials. Rolling Stone publishes pieces by Al Gore and Bill McKibben. And yet the impression on our consciousness remains a dangerously shallow one. An accumulation of editorials has not amounted to a political movement, much less a transformation in our thinking. There remains an eerie discrepancy between the scope of the problem and our attention to it.
This is true not just of the pollsters’ America, that amorphous TV-watching body that extracts convenient messages—Drive that SUV! Build a five-bedroom house when the kids leave home!—from their administration’s silence. It’s true of the mainstream press and the left as well. The Times continues to give column inches to global-warming skeptics, as if such skeptics existed outside the protected biosphere of petroleum-company funding. The Nation devotes as much space to the dangers of warming as anyone, but it also publishes “A ‘Top Ten’ List of Bold Ideas,” which aims at “positive, aggressive post-Bush (and post–New Democrat) near- and long-term change.” So what do progressives boldly wish for? A thirty-hour workweek and universal daycare—but the words global warming are nowhere to be found, and the weakly worded “investing in conservation and renewable energy” rates only an honorable mention. This is as perverse as it is typical. Imagine a historian in the year 2080, reading such lists as she researches the vexing question of how even educated, “progressive” people could have refused to face what was happening.
If such a thing as a literary/political/intellectual left exists, it is defined by its capacity for imaginative and sympathetic reach—by its willingness to surmount barriers of difference (class, distance, nationality) and agitate for a more equitable distribution of the goods and goodnesses that make up our idea of human (and nonhuman) well-being. To be able to imagine what it might be like to be tortured, or to live in abject poverty, or under the watchful eyes of US Predator drones—this capacity is crucial to the project of any political left in a wealthy country. But in the case of global warming, our collective imagination has failed us utterly.
There seems to be a persistent if unstated resistance on the part of the left to the precepts of ecology. Environmental causes haven’t captured the attention of our subtlest thinkers and writers, but remain cordoned off to be pursued by nature lovers and nonprofiteers. In fact, global warming represents the third great crisis of technological civilization. The first two have not been resolved—they stay with us, in the form of third-world sweatshops and slums (the brutal conditions and wealth discrepancy that first spurred Marx and Engels) and stockpiled hydrogen bombs (the application of each new technology to the art of killing humans). The third promises to overwhelm them both, even while it exacerbates them.
The most powerful and cogent critique that can currently be leveled against our mode of capitalism is that markets fail to account for ecological costs. In a crowded world of finite size, our political economy values only acceleration and expansion. Scarce natural resources like clean air and water, not to mention more complex systems like rainforests or coral reefs, are either held at nothing or seriously undervalued. Corporations could clear-cut all our forests, reduce croplands to swirling dust, turn rivers to conveyors of toxic sludge, deplete supplies of minerals and metals, double and redouble carbon emissions—and all our economic indicators would show nothing but robust growth until the very moment the pyramid scheme collapsed. Indeed, most of these things are happening, with only scattered opposition. When our math improves, when the costs of our products fully reflect the resources used and the wastes produced—especially CO2: then and only then can capitalism begin to become a viable and humane economic system.
Meanwhile it feels strange to be alive and well, strange to keep riding the wave of our wild prosperity, strange to feel the warmth of the February sun on our necks. Do we know what’s happening or don’t we? It seems like we know, it seems like everyone knows—the news is out, the science corroborates our senses, until it seems impossible not to know—but we refuse to believe it. We’ve been taught to imagine ever longer and happier and healthier lives for ourselves—we can’t help half-consciously numbering the walks we’ll take, the books we’ll read and write, the grandchildren we’ll hoist in the year 2060. And maybe these dreams will come true. Maybe, as the Pentagon report suggests, the same privileged caste of people who engineered the coming disasters will live in fifty years much as they do now, buffered from harm by money and medicine and force of arms. The weather will be an erratic and dangerous spectacle, economies and ecosystems will collapse, millions will die elsewhere in the world, but we’ll seal our borders, abandon our ideas of nature, buy Canada (“the Saudi Arabia of freshwater”), and adapt.
Fifty years after that? We won’t be around. Those who will be can fend for themselves, and call us what they like.