It’s Time to Freak Out About Climate Change
The heat this summer was our generation’s Hiroshima. Wake up, people! If you’re not terrified about the future, you’re an idiot.
Cycling home from work on a sweltering summer evening in August, I started to think about my scientific hero Richard Feynman and his reaction to the terrifying dawn of the nuclear era. Feynman had worked on the Manhattan Project, and when he returned to New York City to teach shortly after the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, he began imagining the effect of the Hiroshima bomb on the island of Manhattan. Everywhere he looked, he saw rubble. He began to pity the people around him building bridges, skyscrapers, roads, and other monuments to an imagined future, as if we had a future worth imagining or building toward. He could now see only the smashed remains left by what he felt was inevitable—nuclear annihilation. The insanity of going on with ordinary life in the face of what he believed to be the closing chapter of humanity gnawed at him, left him possessed by dread.
I'd begun to understand Feynman's experience a bit better recently and, oddly, my new understanding was aided by the Koch brothers. These funders of the Tea Party movement and leaders of the plutocrats' charge into US politics are, in addition to everything else, the American alpha family of fossil fuels. Their father made the family fortune selling oil equipment to Stalin—yes, that Stalin. They own about 4,000 miles of chemical, oil, and gas pipelines in the United States alone. Also in their portfolio: a good chunk of the US factories making asphalt, petrochemicals, and petroleum-based fertilizers, plus a product you've probably wiped your ass with before, the Georgia-Pacific brands of toilet paper (Angel Soft, Quilted Northern, Soft 'n Gentle). In short, if it's an environmentally calamitous industry manufacturing a deeply desired product, the Koch brothers are in it—with a river of wealth flowing into their wallets as a result.
Confronted with piles of evidence confirming climate change is real, these guys did what any committed propagandists would do: They hired their own experts. Maybe they would endorse an alternate reality. At the end of July, the Koch-funded study on climate change was released, and it ended up offering the most dire assessment and predictions yet, confirming what others have been warning about climate change for years.
Richard Muller, lead author of the Koch-funded study, used to be perhaps the most outspoken US scientist skeptical of the consensus on climate change. Used to be. This summer, working on the Koch dime as fires and drought ravaged the nation, he was decisively convinced climate change is occurring, is caused by human greenhouse gas emissions, and will cause dire consequences for humanity.
Muller was a laggard. Most scientists have long agreed with the predictions that emerged from the first scientific consensus about global warming in the late 1980s, and those predictions have generally been proved true by measurements and experiments conducted by the scientists of today.
They also seem to be confirmed by yet another source: daily news reports. The Arctic Ocean now reliably melts each summer, creating the first Northwest Passage in recorded human history. The glaciers of Greenland, of Glacier National Park—they're all dwindling. The oceans are acidified, imperiling the very base of all life in the seas. The melting arctic is belching out long-trapped methane, possibly accelerating the entire process. Global average temperatures are up about half a degree centigrade. Global carbon emissions continue to rise, and we are on track to double atmospheric carbon concentrations slightly ahead of an alarming schedule laid out in the 1980s. Three decades after people first started issuing dire warnings about climate change, those warnings are now our evening news reality.
Depressingly, even with all this, Americans' confidence in climate change walks in step with the weather: With droughts, heat waves, and hurricanes, the belief in climate change creeps up in the populace. Snowstorms bring skepticism. As I biked home, contempt for this ignorant hedging poured out of me, like the sweat running down my back in the heat. We are currently facing planetary doom, little different in scale or possible devastation from nuclear war, and our interest in it wavers with the thermometer?
There is no rational basis for wavering. The scientific models we use to see the future of our climate generally come to strong agreement: We're screwed if we continue to do nothing about climate change. And let's be honest, we're basically doing nothing. The Kyoto Protocol? A failure. In fact, most of what we've done politically in the last decade has made the burning of fossil fuels easier. We're exporting coal to China by the trainload—with plans on the drawing board to run even more toxic-dust-spewing coal trains from Montana to Washington's ports for export to that country. Drilling for oil has started in the Arctic. Hydraulic fracking is squeezing natural gas out of the earth, at the cost of flammable tap water in some communities. Even here in Seattle, we're building a massive tunnel for fossil-fuel-burning cars. Any reduction in carbon emissions in the United States is purely accidental.
If we continue to do nothing, and if we continue to burn every scrap of fossil fuel we can find, then by the end of this century there is less than a 1 percent chance of manageable levels of warming (less than three degrees). Most likely, if we continue to do nothing, our average global temperatures will increase by about five degrees. There is also a roughly 1 in 10 chance of devastating, humanity-ending warming (7 degrees or more). Sure, there is some uncertainty about these outcomes—but it's uncertainty between dire and deadly. Yet we still ignore it.
Unlike most climate worriers, it's not the melting glaciers that keep me up at night. It's rain. Hot air holds more water. As the average temperature increases, we can expect more clouds but less rainfall in all but the highest and lowest latitudes, as the atmosphere holds on to more of the available water. If we keep doing nothing, and the most likely climate change predictions hold true, the regular rains we depend on to grow our food will become more and more erratic. Let the planet's average temperatures rise by more than seven degrees, and we can expect a new desert in the United States extending from Kansas to California to form by the end of this century, joined by new deserts across Eurasia and the other breadbaskets of the world. We might still have rain in Seattle—but nothing to eat. Human civilization dies in this scenario, just like it would after a nuclear holocaust.
Which means, whether you can pin it precisely on global warming or not, the ocean of wilting grain that fills the middle of our country after this hottest of summers is just a dress rehearsal. Sure, this summer was a freak of probability, more to do with the randomness of weather than the slow processes that are heating up the only world we can inhabit, but still, it was a chance to see how we might adapt to what will slowly become the norm as the planet heats. And how did we do? We failed. For now, we'll pay more for food and eat our stored grain. In not too many more decades, we'll starve.
This was the vision in my head as I rode my bike home. What are now the richest farmlands will become endless dust bowls. Increasingly desperate, hungry, and thirsty, we tear ourselves apart. Humanity dies. Much of the complex life that makes our world interesting and beautiful dies. It's a hideous, vapid, lonely, and entirely predictable existence.
I looked at our current world: the wide alabaster lanes of I-90, filled with cars, bumper-to-bumper creeping to the Eastside suburbs. The lights on at Safeco Field. The construction equipment for the First Hill Streetcar (not a bad transit idea, but not nearly enough). It's so easy to imagine all of this 50 years from now—cracked, abandoned, devoid of people and life. I glanced up and saw the future of thick clouds, without rain, the sky and endless deck of ill-appearing yellow dust.
And then my premonition became even grimmer than Feynman's premonitions of nuclear holocaust. People, even in the 1950s, understood on some level what a nuclear bombing would mean—and their sense only became clearer through the aboveground nuclear tests. By the Cuban missile crisis, a plurality understood that nuclear war would mean the end of humanity as we knew it.
Climate change, unfortunately, is not like a nuclear bomb in this regard. Even though scientists are generally as convinced about the consequences of climate change as they were about the consequences of splitting atoms over a large city, there is no political or cultural consensus to do anything about the problem. It's easy to see why: Climate change is a far-in-the-future calamity on a scale none of us can really comprehend. At least the poor fools in the 1950s, '60s, '70s, and '80s had the cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki to make sure there were no delay-inducing illusions.
Let this summer be our Hiroshima, then. Not just because of the heat, not just because of the fires, but because the last few scientifically relevant skeptics acknowledged what most of us already know: Climate change is real, it's happening, and it could destroy us all.
Because if we can't get alarmed about this the way we got alarmed about the nuclear bomb, then we're left staring at exactly the sort of slow-motion disaster humans seem particularly incapable of preventing: far off in the future, requiring a diverse set of countries to move together, with pain up front and benefits a generation or two out. Feynman's world only needed people to decide to save themselves, to act out of the easiest of imperatives: self-interest. We need to find a way to save our world for our grandchildren and great-grandchildren, to act out of the most difficult of imperatives: forward-thinking generosity. It took the Cuban missile crisis, and the fear that Khrushchev wouldn't blink, to fully bring us to our senses—to become honest about what nuclear war would mean, to start the test bans, to begin slow disarmament and direct channels of communication that allowed us to survive the dawn of the nuclear era. If it takes fear stirred up by this summer's heat wave to fully come to our senses about climate change, so be it. Because if it takes some even more dramatic, definitively-global-warming-linked climactic event to get us to come to our senses about climate change—say, the center of the country actually becoming a barren desert—well, sorry, by then it will be too late to change course.
Yes, there is some good news out there about climate change, but even the good news from this summer had a grim edge. Americans' carbon emissions hit a 20-year low this year, completely unexpectedly—because we burned more natural gas in place of coal. Not exactly a long-term solution. Other news was better. Germany managed to produce a quarter of its electricity from entirely renewable sources. For the first time ever, solar panels cost about the same as fossil fuels, per kilowatt. Wind farms are sprouting up across the midsection of the country. Nuclear power technology—even after Fukushima—continues to become more and more impressive. But all this just reminds us that we're not waiting on some technological breakthrough; we already have all the technology we need to solve climate change. We just need to use the technology we have with more urgency, and if getting appropriately scared about the future is what it takes to get us to do that, then get fucking scared. We have to start thinking of the catastrophe of uncontrolled climate change as just as certain as the fact that a nuclear bomb dropped from above will fall to earth and destroy everything below.
Because if we don't, if we allow this slow-moving annihilation to keep heading humanity's way, despite having all the tools to stop it—if we allow that, then perhaps we deserve to be destroyed.