Grade School Science and Grade School Bullies
Because climate often gets lumped into the science and technology sections of newspapers and bookstores, there’s a widespread misperception that global warming is a fast changing topic with revolutionary new research being published all the time. It’s certainly true that global warming is being studied around the clock by countless researchers, scientists, engineers, and other brainy types, but the basics of the field haven’t changed in decades. We teach most of it to fifth graders, even if we don’t come right out and call it climate education.
Herein is the short version of how we got to where we are. Don’t worry, though, there won’t be a test, you can’t get detention, and nobody is going to take your lunch money.
What I Did On My Summer Vacation
“The land turtles crawled through the dust and the sun whipped the earth, and in the evening the heat went out of the sky and the earth sent up a wave of heat from itself.” – John Steinbeck, boat enthusiast
It is the summer of 1988, and I am eight years old. For those too young or too senile to remember, that summer was one of the hottest and driest on record. Billions of dollars of damage was sustained, there were dust storms on a scale unseen since the 1930s, and 5,000 people(!) died in heatwaves (that’s 2,000 more dead Americans than the terrorist attacks of 2001). It was also the year the world learned definitively about global warming.
In Washington D.C., a scientist named Dr. James Hansen testified before Congress that NASA was now scientifically confident (“certain”, in non-tech speak) that global warming had begun thanks to the greenhouse effect, a term The New York Times still saw fit to encase in scare quotes in its story. “Global Warming Has Begun Expert Tells Senate” was the three column, front page headline for Friday, June 24th. Nestled beneath it was a two column story entitled, “Drought Raising Food Prices; Inflation Effect Seems Minor”.
I spent a lot of that summer outside, under a hugely ancient maple tree in the back yard. My friends Aaron and Mike* and I had turned a picnic table into a giant Lego platform, and we passed our days in the shade as the grass out back withered into a scratchy, yellow-brown carpet that hurt to walk on. And while I didn’t read the Times that day, I was already enough of a news junkie and science geek to grasp the basic concept: our way of life was going to change.
In the three decades since that summer, I have watched our government, our society, and us as individuals grapple with this most unpleasant of realities. In all that time – a span that includes the end of my childhood, as well as all of my adolescent and adult years – no adequate response to that threat has yet been attempted. There has been denial and fear and anger and all the other stages of grief as the reality of the mess we’ve made imposes itself upon us more and more each year. There have been more meetings and declarations and treaties and legal changes than can be meaningfully cataloged. Yet despite all the solemn pledges and dire warnings, every year of my life the scientific prognosis has grown worse.
There is no doubt in my mind that the great mechanisms of our civilization are slowly responding. We are getting more of our power from renewable sources. The amount of energy it takes to wash our clothes and light our homes keeps going down. Our social norms have even begun to adapt, as wastefulness is increasingly looked down on and more people strive to be ‘green’.
Despite that progress, we are still on course for disaster and devastation. Within the lifetime of today’s adults, unlucky places will be wiped out in storms or become uninhabitable thanks to some combination of flooding, drought, and plain old heat. Luckier places will have to contend with a steady and ever increasing flow of refugees while weathering their own economically costly droughts, floods, storms, and heatwaves. The speed and severity with which these events and their aftermaths (recessions, famines, etcetera) will affect you depends on where you live and how rich you are, but everyone is already feeling it.
That all sounds bad, and it is; but there is a golden lining, possibly the greatest blessing in disguise in all of human history. Daily life in a United States that’s genuinely dealing with climate change would be the very pinnacle the American Dream: work less, eat better, play more.
That’s not the message people usually get when they read about climate or see a documentary about slushy glaciers and rail thin polar bears, but it is the bedrock truth. Moreover, it is the vital context for seeing climate not as a civilizational death sentence, but rather as the next step in human progress.
How we take that step remains to be seen. But what cannot be denied is that here at the dawn of the 2020s, more than three decades since the furnace summer of 1988, global warming has killed lots of people and ruined the lives of many more. However happy or sad the eventual outcome, it will continue killing and ruining for the rest of my time on Earth. Each of us deals with that realization in our own way.
I have always found study and thought and experience to be the surest antidotes to fear and anxiety and despair. The more you know about anything, the less scary it gets. And the better you understand something, the more jokes you can crack about it. This book is my way of doing both.
The bleakly funny truth is that we had warning, we had opportunity, and we fucked up anyway. It’s not ha-ha funny, but it *is* funny. And besides, there’s no sense crying about it now. Our homework is already thirty years overdue.
With three decades of insignificant action behind us, and the most critical thirty years in the history of our species ahead, the time has come for major reforms, some earnest understanding, and plenty of gallows humor.
[1 – https://www.hsdl.org/c/tl/1988-u-s-droughtheatwave/]