“You look out the window and you see climate change in action.”

I recently wrote that we’re living through Capital H History —  what with your health care and your revolution in LGBTQ rights and your black President — and that is a delightful fact of which I remind my children frequently. “Take notes!” I say “This is what history looks like!” (I really do say that).

But over the past couple of weeks, it’s seeped into my consciousness that we’re living in another kind of Capital H History, one that is much less delightful and quite frankly terrifying: Climate change. Shit’s hit the fan, yo.

Source: That bastion of liberal reporting, The Economist http://www.economist.com/blogs/graphicdetail/2012/05/daily-chart-1

(explanation of chart, below)

As I have lately taken to bemoaning, I did not go into the real sciences. I went into the social sciences, where we use numbers to talk about things that can’t really be measured — which, ok. We all have to do something. But my not-real-science background doesn’t give me the intellectual scaffolding to get a true grasp of the heights and depths of what we’re dealing with here, and more to the point, gives me no intellectual tools with which to battle it.

I recycle. I try to drive less. I eat very little meat. And I support the party that is clearly more interested in being honest about what we’re doing to ourselves. But that’s pretty much the outer limit of what I can do to effect change. That and maybe write the occasional letter.

So though I have of course known that the shit has been rocketing toward the fan for years, I have mostly tried not to think about it. I register little bits and pieces of information (like: March 2011 to April 2012 were the warmest contiguous 12 months in the US since we started recording weather information in 1895) so that I can at least face the future with open eyes, but I don’t dwell. Because this frankly scares me in a way that nothing ever has before. Not the Great Recession, not Israel/Palestine, not the nuclear arms race, nothing.

In every other doomsday scenario that humanity has faced, we could at least hope that human wisdom would overcome human folly. We could at least hope that with enough advocacy, hearts and minds could be swayed and the doom averted.

But dude, the ball is rolling now. We set it in motion — having no idea that we were doing so at first, and then loudly denying that there was anything rolling anywhere, and if there was, it wasn’t us who pushed it — and now we have no idea where it will end up.

I mean: We have some idea — some really horrifying ideas — of what’s going to happen on the planet over the next couple of decades, but there is a massive number of variables that we just can’t reliably measure because they’re unprecedented. And there’s very, very little we can do about it, other than react.

We can act to slow the effects, and I know that all kinds of scientists and policymakers are working on that, and we can try to build useful models for our future needs, and we can do advocacy to make sure that decision-makers are on-board and making the most helpful decisions they can make.

But there’s no actual stopping it.

At a certain point, there are no hearts or minds to be won, because it’s just the climate, changed. Earth’s climate doing whatever it does now. There’s just paying for our mistakes with lives.

So, yeah. The early 21st century is a pretty enormous History Zone. I’m taking notes now. And I’ve told my kids to do the same.

I just don’t even know what to hope for as I look ahead to their futures.

h/t Mother Jones


The Economist’s explanation of the above chart:

How global surface temperature, ocean heat and atmospheric CO2 levels have risen since 1960

THE record of atmospheric carbon-dioxide levels started by the late Dave Keeling of the Scripps Institute of Oceanography is one of the most crucial of the data sets dealing with global warming. When the measurements started in 1959 the annual average level was 315 parts per million, and it has gone up every year since. To begin with it went up by roughly one part per million per year. Now it is more like two parts per million per year. The figure for 2011 is 391.6. More carbon dioxide in the atmosphere means a stronger greenhouse effect, and various measurements speak to this. Global surface temperature records show a warming over the same period, though because of fluctuations in the climate, air pollution, volcanic eruptions and other confounding factors the rise is nothing like as smooth. A steadier rise can be seen in the heat content of the oceans, measured in terms of the energy stored, rather than the temperature.



  1. It boils down to the earth would most likely be warming up anyway–but what we are doing is essentially feeding it steroids.
    At least, that’s what I got from watching scientists talk about this over the last week.

  2. And let’s not get into invasive species, which might destroy America’s forests by 2100. Not seeing what a craphole the world’s become by the 22nd century is one reason that mortality doesn’t sound so bad. Seeing all the havoc wrecked in my life thus far is a big giant asterisk in my agreement that now is a better time to be alive than any time in the past. Maybe it’s because I’m a white straight guy, but seeing hemlock forests or chestnuts sounds nice.

    Here’s the thing, though. Climate change is not about what we do, as individuals. Not really. It’s about what 7 billion people are doing, and so talking about our invidividual responsibility or feeling guilty is beside the point — this is a political problem on a global scale. Conserving is good, but only international action is going to make a dent in this thing.

    • CitizenE

       /  July 11, 2012

      I could not agree more with your second paragraph.

    • Like Cit E, I agree with your 2nd graf. Just to be clear: I’m not expressing any sense of guilt – just a sense of utter helplessness, because I am in fact but one person, and one who does not have the skills to actually help out, plus a fair amount of hopelessness.

      So. FWIW.

  3. I had a terrifying realization today that I’m essentially planning my future based upon the way things are now instead of the way things will be in the actual future. Which is pretty much what everyone does and there’s really no way to do otherwise. But shit like climate change and economic unrest really make my pretty little plans look downright feeble. *shudders*

  4. Emily, you posted a chart from the Economist!

    A science background isn’t needed for every valid interpretation of climate data. For example, the Muana Loa CO2 data. It’s not terribly difficult to calculate the 10-year moving average of year-over-year change in atmospheric CO2. No need to, because I’ve done it. Results show the rate of annual increase doubled between 1974 and 2007, going from +1ppm to +2ppm per year. Conclusion: growth of the largest climate change driver has accelerated. I don’t think any reputable authority would argue.

    Will it continue to accelerate?

    Average annual CO2 increase has been stuck at 2ppm/year for the past 5 years. It dipped a little due to the recession but essentially hasn’t moved off its 2007 mark. Global economic conditions have held it in check. In the US, we’ve seen a reduction in total auto mileage and daily flights from 2nd tier airports, like Cincinnati and St. Louis. We’re also using less coal to produce electricity, since natural gas became seriously cheap and ridiculously abundant. Ditto Europe. But our reduced carbon use has been offset by the developing world. China passed us in 2006 to become the #1 carbon emitter. Last year, China emitted 50% more carbon than America.

    Can carbon reduction technologies offset the inevitable return of global growth? I think not. Most of our present climate issues were created by the developed world, i.e., less than a billion people who accounted for the large majority of the global middle class. The developed world will add very little to the global middle class going forward. Growth will happen in countries that contributed most new to the middle class over the past ten years (e.g. China, Brazil & India). These nations, joined by Vietnam, Russia, Indonesia, 6-10 African nations (incl Kenya) and others are a grab bag of climate-unfriendly practices. The mix varies, but the developing world is generally characterized by: heavy coal use, fuel subsidies, lower emission standards and harmful refrigerants.

    Autos and trucks last 15-20 years; the live expectancy of coal-fired power plants is 40-50 years and new carbon reduction technologies are expensive. The scary thing, however, is the magnitude of the ongoing middle class expansion. The OECD estimated 1.8 billion in the global middle class in 2010. This article in Foreign Policy (http://www.foreignpolicy.com/articles/2012/05/16/the_global_middle_class_is_bigger_than_we_thought ) provides another view, backed by data. Goldman Sachs has predicted 3 billion by 2030. The point is, global warming has been and will continue to be driven by the global prosperity boom. The US was the world’s largest auto market, at 15-16 million new vehicles sold per year. We’re on-track for 14 million this year. China has become an 18 million vehicle market, seemingly overnight.

    “I just don’t even know what to hope for as I look ahead to their futures.”

    It’s not so mysterious, or even that bad. Temps will rise, ice will melt, oceans will rise, cities will be lost and entire countries will become masses of refugees. We’ll most likely see (and benefit from ) the biggest immigration boom in our history. New Orleans, Miami and other cities will be come memories. But we’ll all go on. People will resettle. New technologies, like floating ports, highly scaled desalination and solar power will become huge new industries. Interest in interstellar travel will gain respectability. Humans lived through worse, with no technology, and survived.

    We’ll do it again.

    • You will forgive me, Raven, my pal, but this Temps will rise, ice will melt, oceans will rise, cities will be lost and entire countries will become masses of refugees. We’ll most likely see (and benefit from ) the biggest immigration boom in our history. New Orleans, Miami and other cities will be come memories is not just “that bad” but actually horrifying.

      • As I read deeper into history I’m learning that epic change has come and gone many times and yet human beings always went on. Profound changes to the world we know doesn’t doom everyone in the future. The Mt. Toba eruption may have nearly wiped out humanity. Humans survived an ice age that parked an ice sheet 2 miles thick over Chicago. Rome ruled for 1,100 years. Civilization took a step or two backwards after the empire fell, but the impact was uneven. Europe went backwards but Arab lands rose, becoming centers of science and learning for hundreds of years. Until they went all theocratic and Europe finally learned how to contain the Holy Roman Church (Thank you, England).

        I’ve predicted that the world will wake up to the unavoidable meaning of climate change by 2020. This means an unassailable majority will understand that sea level will rise higher and a lot faster than has be predicted thus far. It will be a global panic. Coastal property values will plummet. Rich people will (predictably) claim further, massive tax breaks as their birthright. Wall street will punish companies based on their exposure to climate change, e.g., ocean freight lines (this may have already started with property/casualty insurers). Pundits will have a field day.

        But, the panic will be the first step to tangible governmental action. It will be the end of the beginning. Coastal construction will finally be outlawed, special interests swept aside. The focus will slowly shift to city triage and planning for 100’s of millions of refugees. Defense budgets will be reallocated to (for example) building defensive structures around must-save cities and investment in must have, mass-scale technologies. Probably a carbon tax, too. And a boatload of incentives to ditch old carbon technologies. Same as it ever was, loss and change will create opportunity and hope.

        There will, however, be a lot of scary storms. Not much we can do about that, except revamp our building codes and redo all the flood maps.

  5. CitizenE

     /  July 11, 2012

    Human beings are changing the environment on a geological scale. That’s it. The kind of climate change we are beginning to experience is unprecedented in human history and the causes lie at our doorstep. As population expands as it has exponentially, and as we continue to mess with our atmosphere for reasons of our energy jones, our ignorance, politics, our inability to problem solve given these factors, we will continue to accelerate a process that once took an age into a very human time frame. Spooky in the abstract, but I imagine a far less sanguine reality. What this will mean or that we can predict the meaning, the extent of the damage or the ability of our species to adapt strikes me as a bit naive. Sophisticated computer models within the past decade keep finding more severe possibilities happening even sooner. The earth will abide of course, but the unprecedented rate of species extinction on earth today should tell folks that just because we are human, we are not immune to the fate of all animal species. And to some degree we are our own worse enemy. I’ll be dead before this reaches a point so terrible that our fate will be sealed to be sure. Nonetheless, I do have a granddaughter, and I wish somehow we’d get to a hundredth monkey consciousness about this phenomenon sooner rather than later.