Global Warming: This time it's personalI don't remember when we decided. It could have been six months ago, it could have been a year. Whatever. It's been a long time coming. For months now, the lovely wife and I have been preparing for the John Muir Trail. 211 miles (220, really. Because you have to hike out after you summit Mt. Whitney) through the most gorgeous parts of the High Sierra. Nowhere else in the lower 48 can you get farther from a road, literally, than on the JMT. We'll spend days over 10,000 feet. The elevation profile looks like a marathoner's heartrate. It's going to be challenging. It's going to be difficult. It's going to be brilliant.
Unless we don't go.
It's not that we aren't ready. We've invested in bear canisters, food, and gear. Bought maps, planned our days and meals, read, researched, trained and toiled. We're ready to go. It's not even Harper's back injury, which is concerning, but these things have a way of working themselves out.
No, it's the fucking weather.
Perhaps you've noticed, or perhaps you haven't but the weather has been a bit... well... A bit apocalyptic. A bit end-timesy. A bit of the old run, duck and cover this is the end, my only friend, the end. Of our elaborate plans, the end. A bit like that, yeah. Record Hurricane seasons in the Caribbean and Gulf. Tornados and hail in Los Angeles. And in our case, record snowfall in the Sierra.
As the ranger in Yosemite told us yesterday, we haven't had this much snow in 50 years. In short, there's too much snow for us to safely make the trip, at least when we had planned. And rescheduling, well... Just scheduling a three-week trip is pretty tough. Rescheduling, that's just probably not possible.
I blame global warming.
By now, you have to be a fucking idiot not to believe in Global Warming. What? What!?! What!!! I'll say it again: a fucking idiot. It's like not believing in the sunrise.
And here's the thing: the folks in Washington aren't idiots. No. They are callous politicos more concerned with keeping the money flowing from (and to) Big Oil than your health and safety. Global warming represents a massive threat to our way of life. We need to take it seriously. As seriously as we do any other type of security. I know, I know. We don't have a color chart for it yet, and it's hard to take it seriously without the color orange. But, despite what they'll admit on Fox News, your leaders in Washington know it's a problem. They just don't want to admit to it, because doing so would get them in Dutch with the Dutch.
Need proof? Here you go:
Bush Aide Softened Greenhouse Gas Links to Global Warming - New York TimesThat's right. Fuck you Mr. & Mrs. American citizen. Daddy's got some fuel to burn, baby. Science schmience. Let's just fucking lie.
A White House official who once led the oil industry's fight against limits on greenhouse gases has repeatedly edited government climate reports in ways that play down links between such emissions and global warming, according to internal documents.
In handwritten notes on drafts of several reports issued in 2002 and 2003, the official, Philip A. Cooney, removed or adjusted descriptions of climate research that government scientists and their supervisors, including some senior Bush administration officials, had already approved. In many cases, the changes appeared in the final reports.
The dozens of changes, while sometimes as subtle as the insertion of the phrase "significant and fundamental" before the word "uncertainties," tend to produce an air of doubt about findings that most climate experts say are robust.
Mr. Cooney is chief of staff for the White House Council on Environmental Quality, the office that helps devise and promote administration policies on environmental issues.
Before going to the White House in 2001, he was the "climate team leader" and a lobbyist at the American Petroleum Institute, the largest trade group representing the interests of the oil industry. A lawyer with a bachelor's degree in economics, he has no scientific training.
Not convinced, huh? Think "the jury's still out," do you? Are we talking about the O.J. jury? I mean, really. What the hell will it take? Ice shelves the size of American states collapsing into the ocean? Hurricanes in L.A.? Oh. Right. I guess not.
But I shouldn't be glib. Glib isn't good. Glib gets us nowhere. What we need are cold hard facts. Can't someone, somewhere, come up with some cold, hard facts?
In April and May, The New Yorker ran a three part series by Elizabeth Kolbert on global warming, filled with such facts. Nobody seemed to notice. But the series--which was the best magazine writing I've read in years--was alarming in the extreme. It's one of the most important pieces of journalism you'll ever read. The premise was simple: we have already passed the tipping point. It is already too late. What remains to be done is damage control. To wit:
The National Academy of Sciences undertook its first rigorous study of global warming in 1979. At that point, climate modelling was still in its infancy, and only a few groups, one led by Syukuro Manabe, at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, and another by James Hansen, at NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies, had considered in any detail the effects of adding carbon dioxide to the atmosphere. Still, the results of their work were alarming enough that President Jimmy Carter called on the academy to investigate. A nine-member panel was appointed, led by the distinguished meteorologist Jule Charney, of M.I.T.Yes, it is entirely alarming. And I'm part of the problem. We're part of the problem. Oh we try, man do we try. We buy local produce (it travels less). We recycle. We don't use heat or air-conditioning. We hardly buy anything new. We drive less than 3,000 miles a year.
The Ad Hoc Study Group on Carbon Dioxide and Climate, or the Charney panel, as it became known, met for five days at the National Academy of Sciences’ summer study center, in Woods Hole, Massachusetts. Its conclusions were unequivocal. Panel members had looked for flaws in the modellers’ work but had been unable to find any. “If carbon dioxide continues to increase, the study group finds no reason to doubt that climate changes will result and no reason to believe that these changes will be negligible,” the scientists wrote. For a doubling of CO2 from pre-industrial levels, they put the likely global temperature rise at between two and a half and eight degrees Fahrenheit. The panel members weren’t sure how long it would take for changes already set in motion to become manifest, mainly because the climate system has a built-in time delay. It could take “several decades,” they noted. For this reason, what might seem like the most conservative approach—waiting for evidence of warming in order to assess the models’ accuracy—actually amounted to the riskiest possible strategy: “We may not be given a warning until the CO2 loading is such that an appreciable climate change is inevitable.”
It is now twenty-five years since the Charney panel issued its report, and, in that period, Americans have been alerted to the dangers of global warming so many times that volumes have been written just on the history of efforts to draw attention to the problem. (The National Academy of Sciences alone has issued nearly two hundred reports on global warming; the most recent, “Radiative Forcing of Climate Change,” was published just last month.) During this same period, worldwide carbon-dioxide emissions have continued to increase, from five billion metric tons a year to seven billion, and the earth’s temperature, much as predicted by Manabe’s and Hansen’s models, has steadily risen. The year 1990 was the warmest year on record until 1991, which was equally hot. Almost every subsequent year has been warmer still. The year 1998 ranks as the hottest year since the instrumental temperature record began, but it is closely followed by 2002 and 2003, which are tied for second; 2001, which is third; and 2004, which is fourth. Since climate is innately changeable, it’s difficult to say when, exactly, in this sequence natural variation could be ruled out as the sole cause. The American Geophysical Union, one of the nation’s largest and most respected scientific organizations, decided in 2003 that the matter had been settled. At the group’s annual meeting that year, it issued a consensus statement declaring, “Natural influences cannot explain the rapid increase in global near-surface temperatures.” As best as can be determined, the world is now warmer than it has been at any point in the last two millennia, and, if current trends continue, by the end of the century it will likely be hotter than at any point in the last two million years.
In the same way that global warming has gradually ceased to be merely a theory, so, too, its impacts are no longer just hypothetical. Nearly every major glacier in the world is shrinking; those in Glacier National Park are retreating so quickly it has been estimated that they will vanish entirely by 2030. The oceans are becoming not just warmer but more acidic; the difference between day and nighttime temperatures is diminishing; animals are shifting their ranges poleward; and plants are blooming days, and in some cases weeks, earlier than they used to. These are the warning signs that the Charney panel cautioned against waiting for, and while in many parts of the globe they are still subtle enough to be overlooked, in others they can no longer be ignored. As it happens, the most dramatic changes are occurring in those places, like Shishmaref, where the fewest people tend to live. This disproportionate effect of global warming in the far north was also predicted by early climate models, which forecast, in column after column of fortran-generated figures, what today can be measured and observed directly: the Arctic is melting.
In Alaska, the ground is riddled with ice wedges that were created during the last glaciation, when the cold earth cracked and the cracks filled with water. The wedges, which can be dozens or even hundreds of feet deep, tended to form in networks, so that when they melt they leave behind connecting diamond- or hexagonal-shaped depressions. A few blocks beyond the drunken forest, we came to a house where the front yard showed clear signs of ice-wedge melt-off. The owner, trying to make the best of things, had turned the yard into a miniature-golf course. Around the corner, Romanovsky pointed out a house—no longer occupied—that had basically split in two; the main part was leaning to the right and the garage toward the left. The house had been built in the sixties or early seventies; it had survived until almost a decade ago, when the permafrost under it started to degrade. Romanovsky’s mother-in-law used to own two houses on the same block. He had urged her to sell them both. He pointed out one, now under new ownership; its roof had developed an ominous-looking ripple. (When Romanovsky went to buy his own house, he looked only in permafrost-free areas.)
“Ten years ago, nobody cared about permafrost,” he told me. “Now everybody wants to know.” Measurements that Romanovsky and his colleagues at the University of Alaska have made around Fairbanks show that the temperature of the permafrost has risen to the point where, in many places, it is now less than one degree below freezing. In places where permafrost has been disturbed, by roads or houses or lawns, much of it is already thawing. Romanovsky has also been monitoring the permafrost on the North Slope and has found that there, too, are regions where the permafrost is very nearly thirty-two degrees Fahrenheit. While the age of permafrost is difficult to determine, Romanovsky estimates that most of it in Alaska probably dates back to the beginning of the last glacial cycle. This means that if it thaws it will be doing so for the first time in more than a hundred and twenty thousand years. “It’s really a very interesting time,” he said.
That evening, at the hotel bar, I talked to an Inuit hunter named John Keogak, who lives on Banks Island, in Canada’s Northwest Territories, some five hundred miles north of the Arctic Circle. He told me that he and his fellow-hunters had started to notice that the climate was changing in the mid-eighties. A few years ago, for the first time, people began to see robins, a bird for which the Inuit in his region have no word.
“We just thought, Oh, gee, it’s warming up a little bit,” he recalled. “It was good at the start—warmer winters, you know—but now everything is going so fast. The things that we saw coming in the early nineties, they’ve just multiplied.
In the context of ordinary life, a warming of 4.9, or even of 7.7, degrees may not seem like much to worry about; in the course of a normal summer’s day, after all, air temperatures routinely rise by twenty degrees or more. Average global temperatures, however, have practically nothing to do with ordinary life. In the middle of the last glaciation, Manhattan, Boston, and Chicago were deep under ice, and sea levels were so low that Siberia and Alaska were connected by a land bridge nearly a thousand miles wide. At that point, average global temperatures were roughly ten degrees colder than they are today. Conversely, since our species evolved, average temperatures have never been much more than two or three degrees higher than they are right now.
This last point is one that climatologists find particularly significant. By studying Antarctic ice cores, researchers have been able to piece together a record both of the earth’s temperature and of the composition of its atmosphere going back four full glacial cycles. (Temperature data can be extracted from the isotopic composition of the ice, and the makeup of the atmosphere can be reconstructed by analyzing tiny bubbles of trapped air.) What this record shows is that the planet is now nearly as warm as it has been at any point in the last four hundred and twenty thousand years. A possible consequence of even a four- or five-degree temperature rise—on the low end of projections for doubled CO2—is that the world will enter a completely new climate regime, one with which modern humans have no prior experience. Meanwhile, at 378 p.p.m., CO2 levels are significantly higher today than they have been at any other point in the Antarctic record. It is believed that the last time carbon-dioxide levels were in this range was three and a half million years ago, during what is known as the mid-Pliocene warm period, and they likely have not been much above it for tens of millions of years. A scientist with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (noaa) put it to me—only half-jokingly—this way: “It’s true that we’ve had higher CO2levels before. But, then, of course, we also had dinosaurs.”
The long-term risks of this path are well known. Barely a month passes without a new finding on the dangers posed by rising CO2 levels—to the polar ice cap, to the survival of the world’s coral reefs, to the continued existence of low-lying nations. Yet the world has barely even begun to take action. This is particularly true of the United States, which is the largest emitter of carbon dioxide by far. (The average American produces some twelve thousand pounds of CO2 emissions annually.) As we delay, the opportunity to change course is slipping away. “We have only a few years, and not ten years but less, to do something,” the Dutch state secretary for the environment, Pieter van Geel, told me when I went to visit him in The Hague.
Running for President in 2000, George W. Bush called global warming “an issue that we need to take very seriously.” He promised, if elected, to impose federal limits on CO2. Soon after his inauguration, he sent the head of the Environmental Protection Agency, Christine Todd Whitman, to a meeting of environment ministers from the world’s leading industrialized nations, where she elaborated on his position. Whitman assured her colleagues that the new President believed global warming to be “one of the greatest environmental challenges that we face” and that he wanted to “take steps to move forward.” Ten days after her presentation, Bush announced that not only was he withdrawing the U.S. from the ongoing negotiations over Kyoto—the protocol had left several complex issues of implementation to be resolved later—he was now opposed to any mandatory curbs on carbon dioxide. Explaining his change of heart, Bush asserted that he no longer believed that CO2 limits were justified, owing to the “state of scientific knowledge of the causes of, and solutions to, global climate change,” which he labelled “incomplete.” (Former Treasury Secretary Paul O’Neill, who backed the President’s original position, has speculated publicly that the reversal was engineered by Vice-President Dick Cheney.)
But we do it in a great big honking SUV. I like to roll through our neighborhood, with the AC cranked, the windows down, and the heat on, too. I drive past the day-care centers, rev the engine, and give those little shits the finger.
"Fuck you, future! Fuck you, planet Earth! Fuck you, 30 years from now! Gotta roll, yo."
Then I laugh maniacally and set a bucket of gasoline on fire, and try not to think about the islands I may never see, and the mountains upon which I might not ever trod.
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