By Elizabeth Kolbert
October 5, 2020
Like millions of other Americans, I first learned about climate change in the summer of 1988. For its day, it was a scorcher: Yellowstone National Park burst into flames; the Mississippi River ran so low that almost four thousand barges got backed up at Memphis; and, for the first time in its history, Harvard University shut down owing to heat. It was on an afternoon when the mercury in Washington, D.C., hit ninety-eight degrees that James Hansen, then the head of NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies, told a Senate committee that “the greenhouse effect has been detected and is changing our climate now.” Speaking to reporters after the hearing, Hansen went a step further: “It is time to stop waffling so much and say that the evidence is pretty strong that the greenhouse effect is here.”
Hansen’s warning was certainly not the first. A report to President Lyndon Johnson in 1965 noted that the effect of burning fossil fuels was likely to be “deleterious from the point of view of human beings.” Another report, prepared for the Department of Energy in 1979, predicted that even a relatively small increase in temperature could lead to the ultimate “disintegration” of the West Antarctic ice sheet, a process that would raise global sea levels by sixteen feet. A third report, also from 1979, found that, as carbon accumulated in the atmosphere, there was no doubt that the climate would change and “no reason to believe” that the change “will be negligible.” But, for some reason, when Hansen spoke up, on that sweltering afternoon in June, the story of climate change shifted. The Times ran its article at the top of page 1, under a three-column headline: “GLOBAL WARMING HAS BEGUN, EXPERT TELLS SENATE.” The following year, Bill McKibben published “The End of Nature,” first as a New Yorker piece under the rubric “Reflections,” and then, in longer form, as a book.
Had the words of either man been heeded in the intervening three decades, the world today would be a very different place—incalculably better off in innumerable ways. Instead, during that interval, some two hundred billion metric tons of carbon have been spewed into the atmosphere. (This is roughly as much CO2 as had been emitted from the start of the Industrial Revolution to that point.) Meanwhile, trillions of dollars have been sunk into coal-burning power plants, oil pipelines, gas pipelines, liquid-natural-gas export terminals, and a host of other fossil-fuel projects that, in a saner world, would never have been constructed. And global temperatures, as everyone can by now attest—though some still refuse to acknowledge—have continued to rise, to the point where the sweltering summer of 1988 no longer stands out as particularly hot. The nineteen-nineties were, on average, warmer than the eighties, the aughts hotter than the nineties, and the past decade hotter still. Each of the past five years has ranked among the warmest on record.
The New Yorker has run dozens of pieces on climate change. All might be described as “reflections” on this fundamental disconnect. Even as the consequences—rising seas, fiercer droughts, longer wildfire seasons, more devastating storms—have become daily news, global carbon emissions have continued to increase. In 2019, they reached a new record of ten billion metric tons. Emissions in India rose by almost two per cent, and in China by more than two per cent. In the United States, they actually dropped, by about 1.5 per cent. On November 4, 2019, the Trump Administration formally notified the United Nations that it planned to withdraw from the Paris climate accord, negotiated by the Obama Administration back in 2015. The very next day, a group called the Alliance of World Scientists released a statement, signed by eleven thousand researchers, warning that “the climate crisis has arrived and is accelerating faster than most scientists expected.”