Forget about the hurricanes. Put them out of your
mind. We'll never know for sure that any particular
hurricane is caused by global warming, so just don't
think about them. Instead, concentrate on the other
evidence for climate change that's appeared
In August, Russian researchers reported that an
area of tundra larger than France and Germany combined
was rapidly turning into bog as the permafrost melted.
In early September, British researchers reported
that warmer temperatures were causing the soil to heat
up and dramatically increasing rates of decay. The
temperate forests and fields of the United Kingdom are
becoming, in essence, semitropical.
In mid-September, researchers reported that arctic
sea ice had shrunk by 20 percent. "The feeling is we
are reaching a tipping point or threshold beyond which
sea ice will not recover,"one scientist told
And in late September, European researchers
reported on the biological effects of 2003's record
heat wave, the one that killed 15,000 people in France
alone. In Italy, they said, corn yields dropped by
about 36 percent. Oak and pine also grew more slowly,
the study found. In fact, overall there was 30 percent
less plant growth that year.
What do numbers like these -- all from the best
peer-reviewed journals -- show us? That global warming
is not some distant problem waiting to appear, some
hypothetical trouble we should start preparing for.
They show us that the world is already changing with
deadly speed. Every time we burn coal and gas and oil,
we send carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, and now
that carbon dioxide is trapping enough heat to create
a new planet.
And what's really scary is that each of these
developments will in turn trigger more global warming.
They're what scientists call feedback loops. For
instance, as the Siberian permafrost melts it releases
huge quantities of methane -- at some spots last
winter the gas was bubbling up so fast that the bogs
didn't freeze in even the coldest weather. And
methane is an even more potent greenhouse gas than
Meanwhile, as British soils heat and decay speeds up,
that decay releases carbon -- enough to offset all the
energy-saving changes that Britain has made since
1990. Meanwhile the reductions in plant growth that
the Europeans found during the hot summer of 2003 mean
fewer trees and plants to soak up the carbon from the
And up north? White sea ice reflects the sun's rays
back to space; when it melts to blue water that heat
is now absorbed, increasing warming yet again.
So far human beings have increased the planet's
temperature about 1 degree Fahrenheit. Unless we do
everything possible, as quickly as possible, to shift
away from fossil fuels, scientists say we will warm
the planet another 5 degrees before the century's
end. So imagine all those numbers multiplied by five.
It's about time for denial to come to an end.
We're no longer talking about theory, about computer
models of what might happen. We're talking about
what is happening, all around the world, with almost
unimaginable speed. Other countries have at least
begun to try to deal with the problem, implementing
small first steps like the Kyoto Protocol. But here in
the United States, there's only a scattering of
state and local measures. Washington is governed by a
bipartisan consensus that somehow the laws of physics
and chemistry don't apply to us.
But they do. I said I wasn't going to talk about the
hurricanes, but I lied. In early August a paper by a
Massachusetts Institute of Technology researcher in
the journal Nature showed that hurricanes were 50
percent stronger and lasted 60 percent longer than a
generation ago. In early September a Georgia Tech team
showed that the number of category 4 and 5 storms had
doubled. You've seen the results on every TV screen
and magazine cover.
Exactly how much more do we need to know? Exactly when
are we going to roll up our sleeves and get to work?
Bill McKibben is a scholar in residence in
environmental studies at Middlebury College and the
author of The End of Nature. He wrote this essay
for the Land Institute's Prairie Writers Circle,