In the opening pages of her book Field Notes from a Catastrophe (New York: Bloomsbury Press), Elizabeth Kolbert addresses head-on the big question: Are we causing climate change? Her answer: absolutely. She notes, as early as page ten, that “The National Academy of Sciences undertook its first major study of global warming in 1979.” Their results alarmed President Carter, who called together an ad hoc committee who looked for flaws in published climate studies pointing toward a human cause, but found none. Their conclusion was that human activity that added carbon dioxide to the atmosphere would throw the planet out of “energy balance” and that the only way for the planet to respond was to heat up. “If carbon dioxide continues to increase,” Kolbert quotes the report, “the study group finds no reason to doubt that climate changes will result and no reason to believe that these changes will be negligible.” Alarmingly, the report also noted, “We may not be given a warning until the CO2 loading is such that an appreciable climate change is inevitable.”
Kolbert was writing 25 years after that report was given to President Carter. Furthermore, she was writing in 2006, making it now 33 years since we were warned. Weather.com reports that 13 of the 14 hottest years on record happened in the 21stcentury. Just to be clear: every year of this century has been one of the 14 hottest years in recorded history.
We can take that as the kind of warning that President Carter’s study group predicted back in 1979—a generation ago.
In 2007, Kolbert was interviewed for the PBS series POV. When asked about the prospects for major climate change, here is what she said:
It's very hard to say what life will be like in 2050. In part that's because we don't know whether any action will be taken to reduce emissions, and in part it's because regional climate predictions are hard to make. Definitely, we know the world as a whole will be warmer and sea levels will be higher. In many places, it will probably also be much drier. Drought is probably the first really dangerous global warming impact that many people will experience.
I have young grandchildren. In 2050, they will be in their early 40s, probably with children of their own. I fear for what may lie ahead for them. By the way, I checked: California is now in its second year of drought; 2013 was the driest year in California for 119 years.
So, why do people continue to disbelieve the evidence before them? Often, religion is given as a reason. Too many people, it is argued, take the Judeo-Christian-Islamic creation myth so literally that they cannot accept scientific evidence. Behind that desire to believe, though, lies another reason: the fossil fuel industry—and the web of companies and individuals who profit from it one way or the other—does not want to be restricted in any way and has consistently—and successfully—tried to shape public opinion. Too many politicians seem to owe their allegiance to the corporations that give them money than to the citizens whose interests they have sworn to protect. Corporations are not citizens, regardless of what this Supreme Court has said—at least not in the same sense that we, the people are citizens.
Greed and religion, then, are two reasons why we are not doing enough to slow down the climate change that is already underway. What can be done? It may be too late for a truly bottom-up solution to work in time to stop the worse effects of climate change—the changes in heat, drought, and rising oceans that will wreak havoc on our children and their children. We need quicker top-down solutions that may hurt us a bit—that may restrict how we travel or make ourselves comfortable in the world—but that will reduce the problem for our grandchildren and great-grandchildren. It is time for us to begin problem-solving for them, to make a few sacrifices so that they can live in a reasonably safe world. For us, if we care about our grandchildren, the future is now.