Can Generation Hot Avoid Its Fate?
We can’t say they didn’t warn us.
The report released by the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change this week is only the latest and most dire in a string of scientific declarations leading back to 1988, when NASA scientist James Hansen’s landmark testimony to the United States Senate put man-made global warming on the public agenda.
As a journalist who has reported on climate change from dozens of countries since then, I can’t say I was surprised by the IPCC’s report. Most of its findings were familiar to anyone following the subject; I mentioned many of them in my 2011 book, HOT: Living Through the Next Fifty Years On Earth. But the report did provoke other emotions, because I read it not only as a journalist, but also as a father. And as a father, I felt grief, fear, rage, frustration and, finally, a determination to resist. One emotion I never permit myself, however, is despair. For despair only paralyzes at a time when action is urgently needed.
My daughter Chiara, the central character in HOT, is turning nine this weekend. Her current obsession is Harry Potter, so the guest of honor at her birthday party will be a make believe Hermione Granger. I sometimes wish Chiara had Harry and Hermione’s magic skills; they’d come in mighty handy in the future the IPCC is projecting.
The grief and fear the IPCC report triggered in me stems from a central fact of our climate future: Everyone on earth below the age of 25 is already fated to spend much of their lifetime coping with the hottest temperatures our civilization has ever encountered. The laws of physics and chemistry—above all, the fact that carbon dioxide remains in the atmosphere for many decades after being emitted—mean that even if humans stopped all carbon emissions overnight, global temperatures would nevertheless keep rising for at least 30 more years.
Now apply that calculation to the first great human disaster with a scientifically attributable climate fingerprint: the record heat wave that scorched Europe in 2003. It caused 71,499 excess deaths, considerably more than the number of U.S. casualties in the Vietnam war. But thanks to the physical momentum of climate change, the record heat of 2003 will be routine before Chiara is my age. By 2050, Europeans will experience summers as hot as 2003 one year out of every two.
The higher temperatures locked in for the forthcoming decades will, in turn, unleash climate impacts that will affect every person on earth. IPCC reports are written in conservative scientific language, so let me translate some of these projected impacts into plain English.
Among the most worrisome impacts are what the IPCC calls the “breakdown of food systems,” as heat waves, droughts and downpours slash crop yields. In short, there will be less food to feed more mouths, which promises to increase hunger, poverty and social unrest.
In California, where Chiara and I live, we are now in the midst of a historic drought. Farmers in the Central Valley—the source of most of the fruits, nuts and vegetables the rest of the US consumes—are short of irrigation water and predicting crippled harvests. And we ain’t seen nothin’ yet. This kind of severe drought will become the norm across the western third of North America by 2050. Higher temperatures will shrink the snowpack atop the Sierra Nevada mountains, the source of one-quarter of California’s water supply, by 25 to 40 percent by 2050.
In Asia, an estimated 500 million people obtain some of their drinking and irrigation water from the Himalayan snowpack, which is projected to largely disappear by 2050. The Chinese government has forecast that climate change could cut yields of wheat, corn and rice by a staggering 37 percent in the next few decades if adaptation measures are not taken. This would push food prices up internationally, raising the incidence of hunger, disease and political instability. Recall how soaring food prices in 2008 led to street riots in over a dozen countries, including Bangladesh, the Philippines, Indonesia, Egypt and Haiti. As the IPCC report emphasized, no one will suffer more from climate change than the global poor, though they did almost nothing to cause it.
Meanwhile, sea level rise will emerge as a huge, inexorable and massively expensive problem. There’s no stopping sea level rise at this point; again, physics and chemistry guarantee it will accelerate for many centuries to come. Most of the world’s biggest cities are located on coasts, where the cost of shielding—and in many cases relocating—airports, buildings, subways, railway lines, water treatment plants and other life-supporting infrastructure will climb into the hundreds of billions of dollars.
In our hometown of San Francisco, the sea is projected to rise 16 inches by 2050. That’s enough to put the runways and approach roads for both San Francisco and Oakland airports under water if nothing is done. Ditto with the eastern end of our gorgeous new, $6.4 billion dollar San Francisco Bay Bridge.
Equally unstoppable is the melting of the Arctic. Temperatures are rising there faster than anywhere on Earth. As I recently reported, the debate between scientists is now over whether the Arctic will become ice free in summer by the mid-2030s or—gulp!—as early as next year. That’s fatal news for polar bears, reindeer and indigenous people in the Arctic, but it also threatens catastrophic knock-on effects for the rest of us: more extreme weather; even faster sea level rise; and most worrisome of all, a higher chance of accelerating global warming to where it becomes irreversible.
Hence the lede of the terrific Associated Press story about the IPCC report: “If the world doesn't cut pollution of heat-trapping gases, the already noticeable harms of global warming could spiral ‘out of control,’ the head of a United Nations scientific panel warned Monday.”
So the grief and fear I feel as a father are understandable, don’t you think?
And they feed the rage and frustration that also grip me. Rage at the oil, coal and other giant corporations that have used their wealth and political power to discredit climate science, pressure governments and otherwise derail efforts to transition our society away from climate-destroying activities. Yeah, I’m looking at you, ExxonMobil—a company that has led the climate denier campaign and chose the day the IPCC report was released to announce that, global warming notwithstanding, ExxonMobil plans to extract and market all the oil and gas it can find for decades to come.
Matching my rage is the frustration I feel about the weakness of political leaders who are failing to stop our collective march toward catastrophe. Exhibit A is Barack Obama, a well-intentioned president who understands that climate change threatens to make this planet uninhabitable for his own daughters. President Obama has pledged not to let that happen and has taken some worthy steps in the right direction, but those steps are cancelled out by the boom in US oil and gas production he has encouraged under the banner of his “all of the above” energy policy.
Nevertheless, the feeling I insist upon having is hope—the chance of righting this sinking ship before it is too late. What other choice is there for a loving father? Nor is my hope mere wishful thinking; it rests on firm grounds. For example, solar power is growing faster worldwide than cell phones did. In the US, new coal-fired power plants are history; a grassroots network of ordinary citizens, working under the banner of the Beyond Coal campaign, have helped block more than 160 proposed plants. Popular opposition has also stalled the Keystone XL pipeline, forcing Obama at last to choose whether he stands with Big Oil or the young people of Generation Hot.
Sadly, even these victories cannot alter the projections the IPCC has made for the next 30 to 40 years. The physical momentum of global warming means that our actions going forward can affect only how the second half of this century unfolds. Will the impacts described above be the peak of the climate crisis, to be followed by a period of recovery and rejuvenation? Or will they be merely the dark prelude to an even darker future? That choice remains ours to make, and for Generation Hot, it could make a world of difference.