By Mark Hertsgaard, a fellow of The Open Society Institute, is The Nation magazine’s environment correspondent. His new book, Hot: Living Through the Next Fifty Years on Earth, is forthcoming from Houghton Mifflin.
My daughter Chiara, age five, is a member. So is my goddaughter Emily, age twenty-two. So are the thousands of Pakistani children now suffering after record monsoon rains left 20 percent of their country — an area the size of Great Britain — underwater.
In fact, every child on earth born after June 23, 1988 belongs to what I call Generation Hot. This generation includes some two billion young people, all of whom have grown up under global warming and are fated to spend the rest of their lives confronting its mounting impacts.
For Generation Hot, the brutal summer of 2010 is not an anomaly; it’s the new normal.
One wouldn’t know it from most media coverage, but the world’s leading climate scientists have concluded that last summer’s rash of extreme weather — including record heat across much of Europe (especially Russia) and the United States — was driven in no small part by man-made global warming. Of course no single event can ever be definitively attributed to global warming; weather results from many factors. But according to the U.N.’s World Meteorological Organization, the extraordinary heat, rains, drought and flooding that occurred this summer fit the U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s projections of “more frequent and more intense extreme weather events due to global warming.” In other words, dangerous climate change is no longer tomorrow’s problem; it is here today.
But for most of us, the other scientific shoe has yet to drop. Aside from a fundamentalist few, most people around the world, in rich and poor countries alike, accept that climate change is real and has already begun to occur. Nevertheless, many non-specialists still do not grasp the most fiendish aspect of the climate problem: we can’t turn it off.
No matter how many solar panels, electric cars, and other green technologies we humans may embrace, the fact remains that more severe climate change is locked in for decades to come. The reason is the physical inertia of the climate system: the fact that carbon dioxide can remain in the atmosphere for centuries. Even if global greenhouse gas emissions were magically halted overnight, sheer physical inertia would keep average global temperatures rising for another 30 years at least, scientists say.
Not every future summer will be as punishing as 2010 was, but more and more will be. Members of Generation Hot who live in New York City, for example, will endure roughly twice as many extremely hot summer days in the 2020s as they do today, according to the New York City Panel on Climate Panel, a group of scientific, government, and business leaders advising the city government.
Growing enough food will also be a challenge. Corn, one of the world’s key staple crops, does not reproduce at temperatures above 95 degrees F. During the 20th century, the breadbasket state of Iowa experienced three straight days of 95 F temperatures once per decade — not a big problem. By 2040, Iowa is projected to experience such hot spells in three summers out of four.
It’s not that we weren’t warned. I date the beginning of Generation Hot to June 23, 1988 because that is when humanity was put on notice that greenhouse gas emissions were raising the temperatures on this planet. The warning came from NASA scientist James Hansen’s testimony to the U.S. Senate and, crucially, the decision by The New York Times to print the news on page 1, which in turn made global warming a household phrase in news bureaus, living rooms, and government offices the world over.
As the father of a five-year-old, it infuriates me that Hansen’s warning, and countless subsequent ones, has gone unheeded. As a journalist, I have helped expose some of the tactics that energy companies and their allies employed to block action. Often the cynicism has been breathtaking. For example, the science advisers to the corporate-funded Global Climate Coalition privately told the group’s board of directors — way back in 1995! — that the science behind climate change was “well established and cannot be denied,” a fact the board then censored from the group’s public outreach materials. Last July, lawmakers in Washington refused to pass modest climate legislation even as the northern hemisphere sizzled under what will likely be the hottest summer on record.
“This was a crime,” Hans Joachim Schellnhuber, the climate adviser to German Chancellor Angela Merkel, told me, referring to the past two decades of global inaction. But the wrong people are being punished. My daughter and her peers in Generation Hot have been given a life sentence for a crime they didn’t commit; they will spend the rest of their lives coping with a climate that will be hotter and more volatile than ever before in our civilization’s history. Meanwhile, the perpetrators of this crime continue to reap record corporate profits, win political re-elections, and get invited onto national TV and radio programs.
The battle to prevent climate change, feeble as it was, is over. Now the race to survive it has begun. If humanity is to win this race, we must change the way we think about the climate problem. Humanity has left behind what I call the first era of global warming — when we argued about whether it was real and how to stop it — and entered a new, second era of the problem, where the paradigm has shifted in a fundamental but still largely unrecognized way.
In the second era of global warming, the traditional goal of climate policy — limiting global emissions — is more important than ever but no longer sufficient. To be sure, we need to reverse global warming, and quickly — before the earth passes tipping points that could trigger irreversible climate change. At the same time, however, we must now prepare our societies for the many impacts already in the pipeline. In short, we face a double imperative: we must live through global warming even as we halt and reverse it.
A handful of cutting-edge leaders around the world have taken this lesson to heart and begun to put in place protections against the projected impacts, including better sea defenses, more efficient water supplies, and improved emergency and health care systems. Probably the most far-sighted work is taking place in the Netherlands, which has launched a well-funded, politically tough-minded 200 Year Plan to adapt to climate change. (No, 200 is not a typo.) Most countries, however, like most private companies and local communities, are doing little or nothing to prepare for the storm bearing down upon them.
It’s now September, the end of summer, and my five-year-old has started kindergarten. It’s a huge transition, as every parent knows. Meanwhile, the oldest members of Generation Hot are embarking on their own huge transition. Now 21- or 22-years-old, they are leaving childhood behind for the adult world of work, marriage and children.
But a third transition, just as huge, awaits each and every member of Generation Hot. One of the key facts of the 21st century is that climate change is going to get worse, perhaps a lot worse, before it gets better. Like it or not, the kids of Generation Hot will have to learn how to cope with the consequences — not only for their health and economic prospects but their emotional well-being.
Many members of Generation Hot are active in the climate fight, but they cannot succeed without much more help from their elders. The threat of nuclear annihilation — the other great peril of the last 50 years — called forth a powerful movement of parents, especially mothers, that eventually helped convince the superpowers to choose a safer course. Now, parents across the country and around the world should mount a similar campaign to preserve a livable future for our children, the precious young people of Generation Hot.