Confronting the Climate Cranks
This article is adapted from Mark Hertsgaard's HOT: Living Through the Next Fifty Years on Earth, published in January by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.
I didn't realize it at the time, but my daughter was born at a momentous turning point in history. She arrived on a sunny San Francisco afternoon in April 2005. All the nurses kept remarking on how alert this baby was, so her mother and I decided to name her Chiara, which means "clear and bright" in Italian.
I had been covering the climate story for fifteen years by then, and when Chiara was almost six months old, I went to London to interview Sir David King, then the British government's chief science adviser. The interview changed my life. King, who had done as much as anyone except Al Gore to awaken the world to the dangers of climate change, helped me understand that the climate problem had undergone a profound, largely unexpected paradigm shift that carried the gravest of implications for little Chiara and all the world's children. No longer was climate change a preventable future threat; it was now a punishing current reality, one that was guaranteed to get worse, perhaps a lot worse, before it got better.
My interview with King led me to write HOT: Living Through the Next Fifty Years on Earth, which has just been published. My hope was to find a way for my daughter and her peers around the world to cope with all that lies in store for them. After four years of investigation that took me across the United States and around the world, I'm heartened to report that there are many practical steps we all can take—as individuals, as communities, as countries—to protect our societies and our young people from the changes in our climate that are unavoidable over the coming decades.
Still, I am saddened and angry that we find ourselves in this position in the first place. After all, humanity's failure to take action in time against global warming was a conscious decision, a result of countless official debates where the case for reducing greenhouse gas emissions was exhaustively considered and deliberately rejected. Much of the blame for this unfortunate outcome belongs to people I have come to refer to as climate cranks—the corporate lobbyists and right-wing ideologues who for twenty years have done all in their power to keep this country, especially the government, from seriously addressing the problem.
In my journalism I have frequently pointed out the nefarious role the climate cranks have played in our national politics, but I confess I have often wondered how much good this did. I revere the profession of journalism and have long believed that it is best kept separate from activism; each of these callings has its own role to play in the endless struggle to make a better world. But I am not only a journalist. I am also a father. And as a father who during all of my now 5-year-old daughter's life has been watching governments, especially my own, do next to nothing about the climate catastrophe hurtling toward us, I have come to feel obligated to reach beyond the tools of journalism, vital as they are. Like my colleagues Bill McKibben and Mike Tidwell, two journalists and fathers who have also come to embrace climate activism, I now feel compelled to take more direct action. If Chiara and her peers around the world are to have a decent chance of inheriting a livable planet, the status quo cannot stand. We need transformative change, above all in Washington, and we need it quickly.
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Which is why I will go to Washington the week of January 31 to confront the climate cranks—in Congress, in the media and in the corporate sector—and try to stop them from further sabotaging our response to the climate crisis. My partners in this effort will include the group Kids vs Global Warming, whose iMatter march aims to put a million kids in the streets on Mother's Day to demand that our leaders address climate change as if our children's future matters; Grist, America's leading environmental news website; The Nation; and other organizations still to be determined.
On the ground in Washington I will be joined by local young people—activist members of Generation Hot. Our plan is to confront the climate cranks face to face, on camera, and call them to account for the dangers they have set in motion. We will highlight the ludicrousness of their antiscientific views, which alone should discredit them from further influence over US climate policies. And we will show how our nation could still change course—for example, if the federal government were to use its vast purchasing power to kick-start a green energy revolution that would create jobs and prosperity across the land. We welcome your help and constructive suggestions for how to achieve these goals and invite you to join us. (You can find out more and get involved by visiting the Generation Hot Facebook page.)
But now let me turn to the question of why such direct action has become necessary. From the time global warming emerged on the public agenda in the late 1980s, it was regarded as a grave but distant future threat and, crucially, one that could be neutralized if humanity acted quickly enough to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. I shared these assumptions until my October 2005 interview with David King shattered them. The science adviser told me that in fact global warming had already triggered outright climate change, and had done so a hundred years sooner than even the most concerned scientists had expected. One early manifestation, according to three British scientists writing in Nature, was the record heat wave that brutalized Europe in the summer of 2003. King cited government statistics indicating that the heat had killed 31,000 people, making it "the deadliest disaster in modern European history." Yet this turned out to be an underestimate. An epidemiological study conducted in 2008 for the European Union—reported here for the first time—concluded that the 2003 heat wave had caused at least 71,449 excess deaths, a toll considerably higher than the United States suffered during the Vietnam War.
As a new father, most alarming to me was King's next point: this newly triggered climate change is bound to intensify for the rest of my daughter's life. The inertia of the climate system—that is, the laws of physics and chemistry—guarantee that average global temperatures will keep rising for decades to come, no matter how fervently humanity might embrace solar energy, electric vehicles and other options for reducing emissions. And as temperatures rise, this global warming will unleash still more climate change: deeper droughts, stronger storms, wilder wildfires and so on, as well as faster sea level rise.
"No, no, it's not too late," King hurried to reply when I asked if this paradigm shift means all is lost. But the early arrival of climate change does transform the nature of the problem, as paradigm shifts tend to do. To wit, humanity now faces a double imperative. The traditional goal of climate policy—to reduce global warming—has now become more urgent than ever, for if global temperature rise isn't halted soon, it could gain too much momentum ever to reverse. Yet at the same time, humanity has no choice but "to adapt to the impacts that are in the pipeline" over the coming decades, said King. In short, we have to live through global warming even as we try to reverse it.
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All of this makes my daughter an involuntary member of what I call Generation Hot. In fact, every child on earth born after June 23, 1988, belongs to Generation Hot, roughly 2 billion young people in total. I choose that date because it was the day humanity was put on notice that human activities were unwittingly raising temperatures on this planet. The warning was in NASA scientist James Hansen's testimony to the Senate, boosted by the decision of the New York Times to publish the story on Page 1, thus making "global warming" a common phrase in newsrooms, government offices and households the world over. But Hansen's and countless subsequent warnings have gone unheeded, largely because of stiff resistance from the carbon lobby, to borrow author Jeremy Leggett's term—the energy and auto companies that profit from carbon dioxide emissions, the politicians and propagandists these companies sponsor and the right-wing ideologues who share their antigovernment sympathies.
My daughter and the rest of Generation Hot are fated to pay the price for this foot-dragging. One of the most unpleasant facts about climate change is that, once triggered, it cannot be turned off anytime soon. Even if humanity somehow stopped emitting carbon dioxide overnight, King told me, "temperatures will keep rising and all the impacts will keep changing for about twenty-five years." Since it is likely to take us at least a quarter-century to leave fossil fuels behind, the reality is that we're locked in to at least fifty more years of rising temperatures and the harsher climate impacts they bring. Thus the young people of Generation Hot are condemned to spend the rest of their lives coping with a climate that will be hotter and more volatile than ever before in our civilization's history.
You want specifics? By the time she is my age, Chiara may well not have enough water to drink here in California, because much of the Sierra Nevada snowpack will have melted. Children in today's Washington, DC, are likely to witness in the course of their lifetimes sea level rise combine with stronger storm surges to regularly ring the Jefferson and Lincoln memorials with moats and submerge half of the National Mall. By 2050 the record heat that made the summer of 2010 so wicked will become the new normal in New York City and much of the East Coast. Overseas, the impacts will be punishing as well, especially for the poor. In Bangladesh, sea level rise is already making the soil and water in southern coastal regions too salty to produce decent yields of rice, the staple crop for hundreds of years. Meanwhile, the inexorability of sea level rise ensures that many such low-lying areas worldwide will have to be evacuated, unleashing vast streams of climate change refugees. Military experts warn that this will pose not only humanitarian challenges but recurring threats to peace if the refugees attempt to cross national borders.