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The Coming Meltdown

That was the moment at which the greenhouse era really began. As a NASA employee, Hansen had shown great courage in speaking straightforwardly, which earned him endless trouble from his bosses in the federal government (the next year they tried to rewrite his congressional testimony until then-Senator Al Gore stopped them). But it also earned him contempt from his fellow scientists. In Bowen’s words,

They all objected to his simplification, his lack of caution, his disregard for the formal, highly qualified—one could even say codified—manner in which scientific conclusions are stated in the peer-reviewed journals.

If Hansen had succeeded temporarily in putting the issue before the public in 1988, “other forces had quickly swept it away.” Some of those forces came from industry—as Ross Gelbspan chronicled in his excellent 1997 book The Heat Is On, the coal and oil industry took up the work of disinformation in earnest, finding a few scientists and scientific hangers-on to write Op-Ed pieces and appear on talk shows to provide a “balanced” view. Journalism proved unequal to the task of separating scientific consensus from minor or trivial dissent; almost every story about global warming was accompanied by an obligatory statement of denial.

Science, on the other hand, both rose to the occasion and failed badly. The world’s climatologists organized themselves into the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, or IPCC, in those heady months of 1988. With large government funding that was partly made available because of Hansen’s warnings, the panels of experts soon had a vast collection of studies and computer models to pore over. And though the IPCC’s procedures were byzantine—they relied, Bowen writes, on “a peer review process…incalculably more cumbersome than anything ever applied to a scientific issue before”—the group eventually managed to reach a potent conclusion. By 1995, the IPCC was ready to conclude that “the balance of evidence suggests that there is a discernible human influence on global climate.” This result was remarkable: more than a thousand scientists, working through a process that allowed much political input from governments concerned to deny global warming, nonetheless found the evidence so overwhelming that they were able to state that one species, ours, was now changing pretty much everything on the face of the planet.

But at the same time, the conclusions were watered down and over-hedged, playing at least as much into the hands of the few remaining skeptics, who seized on every possible opportunity to dampen public concern. The scientific method, pursued in this fashion, seemed unequal to the gravity of the task at hand. Bowen writes, “I believe it is fair to say that serious scientific debate about the existence and potential danger of human-induced global warming died with that statement.” That is true—but it’s also true that it contributed remarkably little to the larger public debate, especially in the US. And that’s a failure for which scientists bear some of the blame.

Bowen quotes Hansen:

The scientific method does require that you continually question the conclusions that you draw and put caveats on the conclusion—but that can be misleading to the public. It seems to me that when we talk to the public we have to try to give a summary. And it’s not easy for most scientists to do—and not easy for me.

Clearly, for the mild-mannered Hansen, who has no taste for public controversy, it was not easy. But he did it. And for that, as well as for his original scientific work, he deserves not only enormous credit but also, I would suggest, the Nobel Prize, perhaps the first joint Chemistry-Peace award.

By contrast, when Bowen first interviewed Thompson in 1997 on the slopes of the highest mountain in Bolivia, he found him reticent to a fault:

He hid behind [the] details. He would not come out with a grand pronouncement about global warming…. He may have been holding back out of fear that I would distort his words, but I think he was also looking over his shoulder at his academic peers, aiming to duck the potshots that inevitably flew in those days when anyone walked out on a scientific limb and said in public what nearly all of them knew inside.

It would be, he writes, “almost a year and a half before Lonnie would carefully open up.”

But through his talks with Bowen, and also more and more with policymakers and other journalists, Thompson has performed a very valuable public service—more valuable, in some ways, than his research into paleoclimatology, interesting as that is. Thompson’s most important scientific contribution is his simplest: by going back year after year to tropical glaciers in order to take core samples for his “real” work, he has been able to document the astonishing speed with which those glaciers are disappearing. His photographs documenting this trend have been valuable in persuading people to take global warming seriously. There is something alarming and undeniable about change occurring across the globe that can be measured from one year to the next, for instance, the Qori Kalis glacier on Quelccaya, which Thompson has been visiting for thirty years:

They always camp in the moraine by the large boulder that Qori Kalis was pushing downhill when Lonnie first saw it…in 1974. An eighteen-acre lake now lies between the boulder and receding glacial margin, a lake that did not exist as recently as 1987.

And the loss was accelerating. One set of photos taken in 1992

demonstrated that the tongue [of the glacier] had retreated three times faster over the previous eight years than it had in the twenty years before that. Volume loss, which takes thinning into account, had grown by a factor of seven. More images taken in 1998 showed that the retreat had increased by another factor of three in the intervening five years.

Thompson estimates that the entire Quelccaya ice cap, which thirty years ago covered twenty-seven square miles and was five hundred feet deep at its 18,000-foot summit, will die before he does.

Perhaps Thompson’s most dramatic contribution to the public debate over global warming came in February 2001 when he told a session at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science that the snows on the top of Mt. Kilimanjaro would disappear within twenty years and that “little can be done to save them.” That image stuck in people’s minds—it was at least as important as the near-simultaneous release of the IPCC’s next assessment, which was more forthright than ever in its declaration that “most of the warming observed over the last 50 years is attributable to human activities” and in its prediction that the planet’s average temperature might increase as much as ten degrees Fahrenheit before the century was out.

But by that point George Bush had been elected president of the United States, and the issue of climate change had disappeared almost entirely—and with it the chance of altering the early trajectory of development in India and particularly China, which are now starting to rival American contributions to the earth’s carbon overload. With his eventual willingness to speak unambiguously, Thompson joined the list of courageous scientists, men like Hansen, or Harvard’s James McCarthy, who several years ago reported the shock of seeing open water at the North Pole. But it’s clear to him, as to most of his colleagues, that our understanding has come very late. “I think we’d better start getting used to the idea of living in a hotter world,” he tells Bowen in a barroom conversation one day in Kenya.

Scientists are by training and nature conservative and…have probably underestimated our impact. Fifty years from now—I hope I’m wrong—I think you may be living in a world where you don’t go outside between one and four in the afternoon.

At this stage, our best hope is simply to keep the warming process from accelerating to such an extent that it gets entirely out of control.

If the dry language of science has sometimes been an impediment to action, the language of emotion has its own dangers, as can be seen from Alanna Mitchell’s Dancing at the Dead Sea, a book thick with sentiment. Mitchell, formerly a reporter with Toronto’s Globe and Mail, was in 2000 “named the best environmental reporter in the world” by the Reuters Foundation. Something has apparently happened in the years since, because her book is filled with clichés (stupid natives in Madagascar, wise natives in the Arctic) and with unlikely events (a lone man sneaking out of a protected forest carrying “a massive old growth tree balanced on his shoulder”). About her own fear of being attacked by tropical fishes, she writes:

It’s clear to me that unless I swim with the piranhas, I will be not only consumed by fear but also untouched by the hope I seek. I will be unable to believe that humans, who I know have given up even such ingrained practices as slavery and cannibalism, will also give up the fable that they can keep harming the earth.

Still, she raises an important question. Every time she corners a scientist—the veteran Oxford environmental researcher Norman Meyers, the great diver and marine biologist Sylvia Earle, the eminent conservationist Russell Mittermeier—she asks, “Are humans a suicidal species?” They mostly dismiss her question with some reassuring words to the effect that we can still make up our minds to do better. But in fact it’s a question that in some way or another needs to be near the center of our public debates. It rose for the first time in the wake of Hiroshima and Nagasaki; for a while, many people seemed to expect an Armageddon-like nuclear exchange, and then they seemed to discount the possibility. The attacks on New York and Washington at the beginning of this millennium have raised the question of our being a suicidal species again.

It is also the question raised by our environmental predicament, and Mitchell deserves credit for risking the scorn of reviewers by bringing it into the open. She quotes President Bush, a few weeks after taking office, explaining why he’s opting out of the Kyoto protocols, the only official international attempt to deal with global warming:

I will explain as clearly as I can, today and every other chance I get, that we will not do anything that harms our economy…. That’s my priority. I’m worried about the economy.

It’s not as if Bush is alone in this thought. And it does seem to epitomize the danger that the satisfactions of consumer life and business success have become almost sacred while the physical world now turning to chaos before our eyes is taken for granted, and not seen as the reality that must be faced.2

It’s to this question of reality that Gretel Ehrlich turns her formidable talent in The Future of Ice, recently published in paperback.3 Like Thompson, she is fascinated by ice—her “journey into the cold” takes her from Greenland to Argentina—and she provides what may be a kind of obituary for the planet’s ice regions, and their special forms of life, written while they still exist. It is, she says, a “cry for help—not for me, but for the tern, the ice cap, the polar bear, and the lenga forest; for the river of weather and the ways it chooses to be born.”4

It is hard not to approach this year’s oncoming winter in an elegiac mood, with the testimony of Thompson’s ice cores and the Arctic sea ice data and Ehrlich’s account making the season’s natural and lovely darkness seem suddenly somber. We are forced to face the fact that a century’s carelessness is now melting away the world’s storehouses of ice, a melting whose momentum may be nearing the irreversible. It’s as if we were stripping the spectrum of a color, or eradicating one note from every octave. There are almost no words for such a change: it’s no wonder that scientists have to struggle to get across the enormity of what is happening.















Letters

The Coming Meltdown’ March 23, 2006

  1. 2

    This same attitude was on display in early December when the American “negotiating” team at a crucial Kyoto follow-up meeting in Montreal once again tried to block any real plan for controlling emissions.

  2. 3

    The Future of Ice: A Journey into Cold (Vintage, 2005).

  3. 4

    The lenga is a relative of the American beech tree which grows high in the Andes mountains and is threatened by commercial loggers.

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