Ian Berry/Magnum Photos

A melting iceberg from the South Sawyer Glacier in the Tracy Arm Fjord, near Juneau, Alaska

And the heat goes on. In the last few weeks, new data from the CryoSat satellite system have shown that there’s only one fifth as much sea ice in the Arctic as there was in 1980. New data from the carbon dioxide monitors on the side of Mauna Loa in Hawaii showed the second-greatest annual leap in atmospheric CO2 ever recorded. A new study of temperature records dating back 11,000 years showed that the planet is currently heating up fifty times faster than at any point during human civilization. New data from the Arctic showed that over the last thirty years vegetation zones have moved seven degrees latitude further north. In other words, the planet continues to show the effects of the early stages of global warming, and those effects are very large. If the one-degree Celsius rise in temperature observed so far is enough to melt the Arctic, we have to ask what further increases will bring.

We will, sadly, find out. At this point, almost all observers agree that because of the inertia in our political and economic systems, it would take an all-out effort to hold temperature increases below two degrees Celsius, the red line that the international community drew at Copenhagen in 2009. And there is no sign of that all-out effort; instead, there’s a constant push to drill and frack and mine for more oil and gas and coal. Instead, also in the last few weeks, Exxon CEO Rex Tillerson announced that the company would double the acreage it is currently exploring looking for new oil.

Meanwhile, a new oil find in California was reported to be four times larger than the new oil patch in North Dakota, which was itself compared to Saudi Arabia. And that’s just in the US—in Australia, a new find of shale oil in the Ackaringa Basin was estimated to be even larger than the tar sands of Canada, with estimated recoverable reserves worth as much as $20 trillion.

The mighty political power of the fossil fuel industry has so far been enough to obliterate reason—we’re now a quarter-century past the day when NASA scientist James Hansen1 first announced in Congress that it was “time to stop waffling so much and say that the evidence is pretty strong that the greenhouse effect is here.” Those twenty-five years have seen no real climate legislation passed by our Congress. A few countries—notably Germany, which is now supplying 22 percent of its energy needs with renewable sources, and headed for more than 40 percent within a decade—have made good-faith efforts. But in most places the fossil fuel industry has prevailed, both by funding disinformation campaigns and by purchasing the affections of enough legislators to make sure the status quo persists. One sounds like a broken record for saying this, but so far democratic systems (and pretty much every other kind of system) have proven no match.

There is, therefore, something both noble and despairing about the new volumes under review. They represent the inertia of our academic and bureaucratic systems, which continue to churn out warning after ever-more-detailed warning about our plight. It’s possible that their main use will be for historians, as proof that the alarm had indeed been sounded. But one must at least hope that they will be read and heeded—one must hope, that is, that we’re still capable as a species of recognizing oncoming catastrophe and heading it off before it reaches its fullblown form.

The National Research Council, first. Were there an award for writing in dry, jargon-dense prose whose deadened rhythms mask the urgency of the message, this report would surely win. Still, this volume, which was “prepared at the request of the US intelligence community,” contains information as sobering as it is sober. Its basic take is that

given the available scientific knowledge of the climate system, it is prudent for security analysts to expect climate surprises in the coming decade, including unexpected and potentially disruptive single events as well as conjunctions of events occurring simultaneously or in sequence, and for them to become progressively more serious and more frequent thereafter, most likely at an accelerating rate.

That is to say, things are bad already and getting worse. In particular, the report warns of the effects of climate change on water supplies in critical river basins, the risk of famine as crops fail, the disruption caused by surges of refugees migrating away from catastrophes, and the spread of pandemic diseases. The latter section includes a particular focus on yellow fever, whose mosquito carrier, Aedes egypti, has, the authors report, spread to cover an area of 2.5 billion people. “The possible return of outbreaks of urban yellow fever is a serious potential public health risk in Africa and South America,” they conclude.


Urban yellow fever results in large, explosive epidemics when travelers from rural areas introduce the virus into areas with high human population density…affecting up to 20 percent of the population with high case-fatality rates.

Reading even dry reports like that makes it easier to understand why security agencies are, in fact, ever more worried about climate change. It makes systems unstable—wherever there’s already risk of trouble, it’s a “threat multiplier.” (In fact, the NRC report quotes a number of studies suggesting a link between drought-induced rises in food prices and the Arab Spring.) And this concern is not confined to analysts toiling away in the basement. Last month, in an interview with The Boston Globe, the US Navy’s senior Pacific commander, Samuel J. Locklear III, said that climate change “is probably the most likely thing that is going to happen…that will cripple the security environment, probably more likely than the other scenarios we all often talk about,” such as a North Korean nuclear bomb or Chinese computer hacking. “You have the real potential here in the not-too-distant future of nations displaced by rising sea level,” Locklear said. “Certainly weather patterns are more severe than they have been in the past. We are on super typhoon twenty-seven or twenty-eight this year in the Western Pacific. The average is about seventeen.”2

Other military leaders, he added, were thinking along the same lines. “We have interjected into our multilateral dialogue—even with China and India—the imperative to kind of get military capabilities aligned [for] when the effects of climate change start to impact these massive populations,” he said. “If it goes bad, you could have hundreds of thousands or millions of people displaced and then security will start to crumble pretty quickly.”

If the military is worried, so are the financiers. The World Bank is under new leadership—last year President Obama nominated Jim Yong Kim as the bank’s new president, and from the start he made it clear that climate change would be a priority. “It is my hope that this report shocks us into action,” he begins his foreword to Turn Down the Heat, published last autumn. His team points out that the current policies of world governments, our own included, guarantee that we’ll rush past a two-degree increase and end up with a world at least four degrees warmer. Since that outcome is not yet foreordained—a dramatic effort to change those policies and hence cut emissions could still keep us below two degrees, his team concludes—the volume is an effort to show the consequences of failure. The “4°C scenarios are devastating,” he writes.

The inundation of coastal cities; increasing risks for food production potentially leading to higher malnutrition rates; many dry regions becoming dryer, wet regions wetter, unprecedented heat waves in many regions, especially in the tropics; substantially exacerbated water scarcity in many regions; increased frequency of high-intensity tropical cyclones; and irreversible loss of biodiversity, including coral reef systems.

The World Bank’s list, in other words, is not that far from the intelligence community’s, though the bank report does focus most of all on the changes that will make life all but impossible for the poor. Take “extreme heat,” which sounds fairly abstract. But a world warmer by four degrees, this analysis points out, “will consistently cause temperatures in the tropics to shift by more than 6 standard deviations for all months of the year.” By 2080, the coolest months of the year will be substantially warmer than the warmest months now, and we would experience “a completely new class of heat waves, with magnitudes never experienced before in the 20th century.”

Some sense of what that might mean comes from a National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration study published in February: the rise in heat and humidity we’ve already experienced, it found, has reduced by about 10 percent the amount of outdoor work humans are able to do. That percentage could double by midcentury, and by its end the average person would find his productivity cut by a third. The killing heat would extend into the mid-latitudes—in the Lower Mississippi Valley, for instance, conditions would “prevent any safe level of sustained work,” according to the study.

This is the sort of trauma wise civilizations might wish to avoid. Indeed, as Kim says in his introduction to the World Bank report, “even for those of us already committed to fighting climate change, I hope it causes us to work with much more urgency.” But that urgency is not really on display (even perhaps at the World Bank, which continues to finance large-scale coal projects).

In the US, the most visible battle continues to be over the fate of the Keystone Pipeline, and so far the powers that be in Washington have shown little inclination to block it, even though most of the country’s climate scientists have described it as folly. (I’ve been personally involved in this fight, through, a climate advocacy organization I helped to found.) In mid-February, the State Department issued a preliminary finding showing the pipeline would have minimal environmental impact, but it required such tortured logic (essentially concluding that the same amount of oil would leave the tar sands if the pipeline was built or not) that support for the enterprise has begun to waver in some establishment circles.


At The New York Times one columnist, Joe Nocera, described critics of Keystone (full disclosure: myself included) as “boneheaded” and argued that a carbon tax would make tar sands oil “more viable.” He then was forced to retract large parts of his column because he’d gotten the math upside down. Another Times writer, Thomas Friedman, urged opponents to handcuff themselves to the White House fence. (“Who,” he asked, “wants the US to facilitate the dirtiest extraction of the dirtiest crude from the tar sands in Canada’s far north?”) The paper’s editorial board broke the tie, declaring:

A president who has repeatedly identified climate change as one of humanity’s most pressing dangers cannot in good conscience approve a project that—even by the State Department’s most cautious calculations—can only add to the problem.

In so doing, the Times echoed an important recent essay on by a board member, K.C. Golden, who is policy director at Seattle’s Climate Solutions group. Golden declared a “Keystone Principle”:

Specifically and categorically, we must cease making large, long-term capital investments in new fossil fuel infrastructure that “locks in” dangerous emission levels for many decades. Keystone is both a conspicuous example of that kind of investment and a powerful symbol for the whole damned category.

That is to say, we have to do many things to slow global warming: tax carbon, build renewables, spur conservation. But if you want a world where emissions are going down, you simply can’t build a pipe designed to last forty years. Or, less elegantly: When you’re in a hole, stop digging.

For the moment, the digging continues apace. And if it goes on much longer, the most prescient new piece of writing may come from Naomi Oreskes and Erik Conway, in the pages of the winter issue of Daedalus, the journal of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. The Academy (to which I belong) is not usually much more playful than the World Bank or the National Research Council; it too tends to produce Large Reports. But this small essay from two historians of science is a mordant and fascinating exception. It’s a report looking back from 2373 and attempting to explain our inaction on climate, concluding that “a second Dark Ages had fallen on Western civilization, in which denial and self-deception, rooted in an ideological fixation on ‘free’ markets, disabled the world’s powerful nations in the face of tragedy.” It invents a great many fancies—2021 is the “year of perpetual summer,” for instance, with livestock and pets keeling over in the heat around the world—all eventually leading to a “Great Collapse.”

This account, I am sure, was finished before the events of January 2013, when a heat wave of completely unprecedented proportion baked the entire continent of Australia day after day, and required the country’s meteorological agency to add two new colors to its charts to reflect the unheard-of heat. The Aussies have taken to calling this record year, which also featured towering wildfires and huge floods, the “angry summer.” It sounds both biblical and like something out of science fiction, but it is painfully real. What remains to be seen is whether reality still has any traction in our public life.