This story appears in the July 2018 issue of National Geographic magazine.
Thirty years ago, the potentially disruptive impact of heat-trapping emissions from burning fossil fuels and rain forests became front-page news.
It had taken a century of accumulating science, and a big shift in perceptions, for that to happen. Indeed, Svante Arrhenius, the pioneering Swedish scientist who in 1896 first estimated the scope of warming from widespread coal burning, mainly foresaw this as a boon, both in agricultural bounty and “more equable and better climates, especially as regards the colder regions of the Earth.”
There were scattered news reports through the decades, including a remarkably clear 1956 article in the New York Times that conveyed how accumulating greenhouse gas emissions from energy production would lead to long-lasting environmental changes. In its closing the article foresaw what’s become the main impediment to tackling harmful emissions: the abundance of fossil fuels. “Coal and oil are still plentiful and cheap in many parts of the world, and there is every reason to believe that both will be consumed by industry so long as it pays to do so.”
The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change was established in late 1988, after a variety of factors had pushed the greenhouse effect into the spotlight. That year there was severe drought and heat in the United States and vast fires in the Amazon rain forest and in Yellowstone National Park. The outline of a solution had been forged just one year earlier as the world’s nations agreed on the Montreal Protocol, which set steps to eliminate certain synthetic compounds imperiling the atmosphere’s protective ozone layer.
The crystallizing moment came on June 23, in unnerving Senate testimony. James E. Hansen—a climate scientist who’d turned his attention from studying the searing conditions on Venus to Earth’s human-changed atmosphere—concluded bluntly that “the greenhouse effect has been detected and is changing our climate now.”
My journalistic journey to learn about climate change science, impacts, and related energy choices began in earnest later that month in Toronto, at the first World Conference on the Changing Atmosphere. It’s never stopped, weaving from the North Pole to the White House, from solar-tech labs and nuclear plant fuel pools to the Vatican. Details changed, but in many ways the main issues remain roughly as I and other journalists found them in 1988.
That October, my Discover magazine cover story touched on the flooding threat to Miami, the potential amped-up power of hurricanes, China’s predicted emissions surge, the vulnerability of California’s snowpack and thus its water supply, and more. It also described vexing uncertainties in warming projections that remain today. It ended with this quote from Michael B. McElroy, then, as now, a Harvard University professor: “If we choose to take on this challenge, it appears that we can slow the rate of change substantially, giving us time to develop mechanisms so that the cost to society and the damage to ecosystems can be minimized. We could alternatively close our eyes, hope for the best, and pay the cost when the bill comes due.”
That warning probably sounds familiar. Scientists, climate campaigners, and concerned politicians have been making similar statements ever since. Their warnings have not kept emissions from increasing. Glen Peters, a scientist at the Center for International Climate Research in Oslo, Norway, charted the rise of the carbon dioxide level in the atmosphere from the year 1870—and found that nearly half that rise has come from human emissions in the past 30 years.
Plenty is happening with renewable energy technologies, with soaring growth in solar and wind systems and in performance of the batteries necessary to keep lights on when the sun is down and the air is still. But the world remains more than 85 percent reliant on fossil fuels to satisfy its thirst for energy. Gains in energy efficiency and renewable energy have been swamped by rising demand for fossil energy as poverty ebbs. In the U.S. and much of Europe, low-carbon nuclear power is in retreat as communities, recalling past scares, press to close aging plants, and high costs hinder the development of new ones.
What explains the lack of decisive progress on human-driven climate change? Having invested half of my 62 years in reporting and writing climate-related stories, blog posts, and books, I’ve lately found it useful—if sometimes uncomfortable—to look back for misperceptions or missed opportunities that let the problem worsen.
Can we name the main culprits? There are almost as many theories and targets as there are advocates of one stripe or another. Among them: lack of basic research funding (I was often in that camp), industry influence on politics, poor media coverage, and doubt-sowing by those invested in fossil fuels or opposed to government intervention. There’s also our “inconvenient mind”—my description for a host of human behavioral traits and social norms that cut against getting climate change right.
For years I thought the answer was like the conclusion in Agatha Christie’s Murder on the Orient Express: that all suspects were guilty. But there’s another possibility. Maybe climate change is less an environmental wrong to be set right and more an emerging source of risk—a case of humanity’s planet-scale power outrunning, at least for now, our capacity for containing our momentous impacts. In a 2009 piece called “Puberty on the Scale of a Planet,” I toyed with this notion, suggesting that our species was in a turbulent transition from adolescence to adulthood, resisting admonitions to grow up—with fossil fuels standing in for testosterone.
But the situation is even more tangled. The more I reported in unlit Kenyan slums and Indian villages where people cook on illicit charcoal or hand-gathered twigs, the clearer it became that there’s no single “we” when it comes to energy, nor for vulnerability to climate hazards. The rich “we” can afford to convert to clean energy and cut vulnerability to heat, floods, and more. But the rest of humanity is still struggling to get the basic economic benefits that we’ve gotten from burning fossil fuels.
Research by an array of scientists and scholars supports a daunting conclusion: Climate change is unlike any environmental problem we’ve ever faced. We can’t “fix” it the way we’ve started to fix smog or the ozone hole, with circumscribed regulations and treaties and limited technological changes. Climate change is too big in space, time, and complexity; the emissions that cause it are too central a consequence of the effort of some 7.5 billion people now, and some 10 billion within several decades, to prosper on Earth.
The real shape of what’s happening to Earth emerges only when the greenhouse emissions surge is considered alongside other metrics for human activity. A 2015 scientific report titled “The Great Acceleration” included a planetary dashboard of graphs charting signals of human activity, from tropical forest loss to paper manufacturing to water use. Most have the same shape as the curve for CO2 emissions. Pollution and climate impacts, then, are symptoms of a broader situation: the human-Earth mash-up moment that’s increasingly called the Anthropocene.
Adam Frank, an astrophysicist at the University of Rochester, has begun assessing possible outcomes for our planet under different scenarios. He draws on the rapidly expanding body of knowledge about other planets outside our solar system that could harbor life and plots possible trajectories for Earth-like planets inhabited by sentient species.
While the mathematical models are fairly simple, three broad scenarios emerge, which Frank describes in a new book called Light of the Stars.The first scenario is the “soft landing,” in which a civilization and its planet come smoothly to a new, steady state. The second is “die off,” in which a planet’s environmental conditions degrade and populations drop precipitously but seem to survive. “It’s hard to know if a technological civilization could survive losing something like 70 percent of its population,” Frank says.
And there’s a third scenario: collapse. “The population rises, the planetary state ‘heats up,’ and at some point the population crashes down to zero,” Frank says. “We even found solutions where the collapse could happen after the population changed from a high-impact energy source—fossil fuels—to a lower-impact one, solar.”
Frank’s interplanetary perspective makes clear that the climate crisis is really more of a grand challenge, like the wars on cancer or poverty, that people work on over a lifetime, even generations, with a mix of urgency and patience. The change in perspective is troubling but also liberating: It means anyone with motivation and perseverance can make a difference—as a teacher or engineer, an artist or investor, or simply as an engaged planetary citizen.
In looking into space to assess Earth’s prospects, Frank has circled back to James Hansen’s starting point—his early research on our superhot neighbor, Venus. Earlier this year, I asked Frank what he sees in Earth’s future: Are we destined to be more like a struck match, flaring bright but briefly? Or could we glow on, like, say, a solar-powered LED?
Frank thinks it may be hard for any biosphere that evolves a planet-scale industrial civilization to avoid great disruption. “The question is, how often does the civilization make it through the transition to emerge as a still important part of the now changed biosphere,” Frank said. “Much may depend on the evolutionary heritage the species gets,” he says—whether populations can think and act as needed to adapt to, and responsibly manage, a new reality.
It’s a question for Earth, he says: “Do we have what it takes? I hope so, but I guess we’ll see pretty soon.”
Andrew Revkin recently joined the National Geographic Society staff as strategic adviser, environmental and science journalism, after three decades of environmental reporting, mostly for the New York Times. With environmental educator Lisa Mechaley, he co-wrote the 2018 book Weather: An Illustrated History, From Cloud Atlases to Climate Change.