There’s a disturbing synchronicity in the fact that I started to re-read Mark Hertsgaard’s new book Hot: Living Through the Next Fifty Years on Earth just as the first serious heat wave of 2011 was hitting New York City, my hometown. I first read Hot back in June, just as a series of freak tornadoes hit my current home state of Massachusetts, devastating a section of Springfield, MA, some 50 miles from my home.
Climate experts will say that tornadoes cannot be definitively linked to global warming, but you won’t find them hedging about the longer and hotter heat waves we’ve been having—as science reporter Andrew C. Revkin writes flatly in his New York Times blog, Dot Earth, “the summer of 2011 is indicative of the new climatological norms that are emerging as conditions neatly echo longstanding projections of the consequences of steadily raising the concentration of heat-trapping greenhouse gases.”
I count myself very lucky to be riding out this heat wave in lovely Nova Scotia, where the temperatures have been in the 60s and 70s during the days, 50s at night. Remember those “Canadian High” days we used to have during the summers back in the 1970s? That’s what it’s like all the time here in these northern latitudes, and it sure feels good. But I’ll have to go home a few weeks from now, into the dog days of a New England August, and frankly, after reading Hot, along with Bill McKibben’s new book Eaarth, I’m filled with foreboding. Clearly we have upset the balance of our ecological system very badly in my nearly-fifty years on this planet, and things are not going to be the same.
It’s easy to slip into anthropomorphisms when talking about Earth, as in Mother Earth: Mother Earth has lost her patience with us destructive humans, and she’s not going to take the abuse we’ve been dishing out any more. She’s going to put us in our place.
Of course, I don’t really believe that there is any moral retribution involved in the current climate backlash, at least not on Earth’s side. We have upset the balance, and the system will now run its course until balance is restored—which could take a very long time, in geological terms. “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,” Hertsgaard writes.
Will it take that long for balance to be restored? Earth has the time…but humans, and many of the other life forms currently on the planet—from polar bears to coral reefs, from maple trees to monarch butterflies—will probably not make it through. Many scientists have begun to talk about the “Holocene extinction event” as something that is now unfolding in slow motion—the Holocene being our current planetary epoch. Climate change could speed things up quite a bit, and humans could be added to the long list of Earth denizens who vanished during this time.
This is not idle speculation, and it’s not fearmongering either. It’s simply looking the near future straight in the eye, and coming to terms with what’s already happening. It was 108 degrees Farenheit in Newark, New Jersey yesterday, 104 degrees in New York City. These are unprecedented temperatures, and I don’t need a climatologist to tell me so—I’ve lived in these latitudes all my life, and I know what’s “normal,” at least for the past 50 years.
In a recent New York Times op-ed, scientist Heidi Cullen of the research and media organization Climate Central discusses the newly released climate “normals” calculated by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association (NOAA) every ten years. “The latest numbers, released earlier this month,” she writes, “show that the climate of the last 10 years was about 1.5 degrees warmer than the climate of the 1970s, and the warmest since the first decade of the last century. Temperatures were, on average, 0.5 degrees warmer from 1981 to 2010 than they were from 1971 to 2000, and the average annual temperatures for all of the lower 48 states have gone up.”
These hotter temperatures may be the new normal, but they’re not natural. “Heat-trapping pollution at least doubled the likelihood of the infamous European heat wave that killed more than 30,000 people during the summer of 2003, according to a study in the journal Nature in 2004,” Cullen writes. “By 2050, assuming we continue to pump heat-trapping pollution into our atmosphere at a rate similar to today’s, New Yorkers can expect the number of July days exceeding 90 degrees to double, and those exceeding 95 degrees to roughly triple. Sweltering days in excess of 100 degrees, rare now, will become a regular feature of the Big Apple’s climate in the 2050s.”
Who wants to hear that? And yet, faced with the kind of extreme temperatures we’ve seen across the U.S. this summer, how can we continue to bury our heads in the sands of denial? As Mark Hertsgaard writes, if we continue to sit on our collective hands and let Big Oil run the show, we’ll all be out of luck when Tanker Earth hits the proverbial iceberg and sinks (though we may have to find another metaphor soon, icebergs are going to become a thing of the past).
Hertsgaard makes a persuasive comparison between the crimes committed by Big Tobacco in the 20th century, when they hired lawyers, lobbyists, scientists and reporters to make the blatantly false case that cigarette smoking was perfectly healthy. Eventually society caught up with them, and although cigarettes continue to be part of our social landscape, they are much more tightly monitored and those who use them know the consequences.
Now it’s Big Oil that has been using the same playbook, complete with highly paid lawyers, lobbyists, scientists and reporters, to make the case that burning fossil fuels has nothing to do with global warming, which is uncertain and probably false anyway. Right. They may have the big bucks, but it’s us poor suckers who are going to be the first to go down with the big storms hit, as Katrina showed us so graphically.
Bill McKibben says that we’ve gone past the tipping point—we’ve thrown the climate far enough off balance that it will not return to its previous Holocene normal during our lifetimes. But that is not to say that we should give up! On the contrary, we must throw ourselves into the fight to move into what Hertsgaard calls the “third era of global warming”: the transition to renewable energy, sustainable agriculture, and much more efficient living. We have the technology and the knowledge to make this transition: all we need is sufficient will.
I, for one, am going to do everything I can in the coming years to rouse the sleeping giant of the U.S. citizenry. Big Oil and Big Agriculture may have more money than any individual, but they are not more powerful than all of us acting collectively, and they are not above the law. It is not hyperbole to call what they are doing to our planet a crime against humanity. It’s time to hold them to account.