Some Like It Hot

Climate Change 2001:Third Assessment Report

by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change
The Scientific Basis, by Working Group I.
Impacts, Adaptation, and Vulnerability, by Working Group II.
Mitigation, by Working Group III.
("Summaries for Policymakers" available on line at

National Energy Policy: Report of the National Energy Policy Development Group

Dick Cheney, Colin L. Powell, Paul O'Neill, Gale Norton (Secretary of the Interior), Ann M. Veneman (Secretary of Agriculture), Donald L. Evans (Secretary of Commerce), Norman Y. Mineta (Secretary of Transportation), Spencer Abraham (Secretary of Energy),
US Government Printing Office, $21.00 (paper)
George W. Bush
George W. Bush; drawing by David Levine


The two documents listed here, each issued since the first of the year, offer competing blueprints for the twenty-first century. They are diametrically opposed in their implications; paying heed to one would mean ignoring the other. Since they concern the greatest threat to Earth’s physical stability in human history—the warming of our planet caused by the consumption of fossil fuels—the choice between them carries unusual significance. In fact, it would not be hyperbole to say they outline the first great choice of the new millennium, a choice that may well affect the planet throughout the thousand years to come.

The report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change consists of three large volumes that were put into final form at conferences held in Shanghai, Geneva, and Accra during this past winter.1 They distill millions of man-hours of work on the future of the climate into a readable and understandable summation that argues, in a measured but urgent scientific tone, that we stand on the edge of cataclysm.

To understand where these volumes come from, we have to go back to the 1980s, when the theory of global warming was first widely put forward in this country, most notably by the NASA scientist James Hansen. His computer model indicated that as human beings continued to burn natural gas, coal, and oil, the carbon dioxide produced as a byproduct and accumulating in the atmosphere was beginning to perceptibly heat the earth, and that this heating would rapidly accelerate. The molecular structure of carbon dioxide, and of a number of other, rarer, industrial gases, prevent the sun’s radiation from reflecting off the earth, trapping heat and thereby increasing global temperature—the “greenhouse effect.” At the time, it was a theory with plenty of doubters.2 Though there was some public pressure for immediate action, especially following an extremely hot summer across the North American continent in 1988, national governments instead funneled many millions of dollars into research on the topic. And so the scientists searched for answers in the upper atmosphere and under the sea, on tundra and desert, permafrost and icecap, in tree rings and glacial ice cores, in pollen sediments and bird-nesting records, with satellites and weather balloons. They made their computer models more and more accurate, testing them by looking at past climate or tracking the chemicals released by the 1991 eruption of Mount Pinatubo in the Philippines. And they began to synthesize all this research into workable summary form for the policymakers who, it was assumed, would deal with the results.

The IPCC, organized under UN auspices, is the formal vehicle for that process of summation, and a look at its methods should dispel any doubt that this is still shaky science. At five-year intervals, about one hundred member governments propose the names of their best climate scientists. From the thousands of nominations, the scientific leadership of the IPCC…

This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Get unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 an issue!

View Offer

Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue. Choose a Print, Digital, or All Access subscription.

If you are already a subscriber, please be sure you are logged in to your account.