But no matter how well-informed you are, you are surely not alarmed enough. Over the past decades, our culture has gone apocalyptic with zombie movies and , perhaps the collective result of displaced climate anxiety, and yet when it comes to contemplating real-world warming dangers, we suffer from an incredible failure of imagination. The reasons for that are many: the timid language of scientific probabilities, which the climatologist James Hansen once called “scientific reticence” in a paper chastising scientists for editing their own observations so conscientiously that they failed to communicate how dire the threat really was; the fact that the country is dominated by a group of technocrats who believe any problem can be solved and an opposing culture that doesn’t even see warming as a problem worth addressing; the way that climate denialism has made scientists even more cautious in offering speculative warnings; the simple speed of change and, also, its slowness, such that we are only seeing effects now of warming from decades past; our uncertainty about uncertainty, which the climate writer Naomi Oreskes in particular has suggested stops us from preparing as though anything worse than a median outcome were even possible; the way we assume climate change will hit hardest elsewhere, not everywhere; the smallness (two degrees) and largeness (1.8 trillion tons) and abstractness (400 parts per million) of the numbers; the discomfort of considering a problem that is very difficult, if not impossible, to solve; the altogether incomprehensible scale of that problem, which amounts to the prospect of our own annihilation; simple fear. But aversion arising from fear is a form of denial, too.
In between scientific reticence and science fiction is science itself. This article is the result of dozens of interviews and exchanges with climatologists and researchers in related fields and reflects hundreds of scientific papers on the subject of climate change. What follows is not a series of predictions of what will happen — that will be determined in large part by the much-less-certain science of human response. Instead, it is a portrait of our best understanding of where the planet is heading absent aggressive action. It is unlikely that all of these warming scenarios will be fully realized, largely because the devastation along the way will shake our complacency. But those scenarios, and not the present climate, are the baseline. In fact, they are our schedule.
Global warming is largely caused by carbon dioxide emissions. Unfortunately, the modern global economy heavily relies on carbon-based fuels. Because of this, taking on global warming might seem overwhelming. However, there are many things you can do to help reduce its effect. By changing your consumption habits, taking steps to save energy, and organizing with others, you’ll be able to take a real stand against global warming. In the end, you'll not only help save the planet, but you'll have fun raising awareness and making a difference.
Consider, for example, what has been occurring in Congress. Rep. Lamar Smith, the Texas Republican who chairs the House Committee on Science, Space and Technology, is a climate change denier. Smith has used his post to initiate a series of McCarthy-style witch-hunts, issuing subpoenas and demanding private correspondence and testimony from scientists, civil servants, government science agencies, attorneys general and nonprofit organizations whose work shows that global warming is happening, humans are causing it and that—surprise—energy companies sought to sow doubt about this fact.
It should come as no surprise that the governments and citizenries of many countries show little concern about climate change and its consequences. Behavioral decision research over the last 30 years provides a series of lessons about the importance of affect in perceptions of risk and in decisions to take actions that reduce or manage perceived risks. Evidence from a range of domains suggests that worry drives risk management decisions. When people fail to be alarmed about a risk or hazard, they do not take precautions. Recent personal experience strongly influences the evaluation of a risky option. Low-probability events generate less concern than their probability warrants on average, but more concern than they deserve in those rare instances when they do occur. Personal experience with noticeable and serious consequences of global warming is still rare in many regions of the world. When people base their decisions on statistical descriptions about a hazard provided by others, characteristics of the hazard identified as psychological risk dimensions predict differences in alarm or worry across different classes of risk. The time-delayed, abstract, and often statistical nature of the risks of global warming does not evoke strong visceral reactions. These results suggest that we should find ways to evoke visceral reactions towards the risk of global warming, perhaps by simulations of its concrete future consequences for people's home or other regions they visit or value. Increased concern about global warming needs to solicited carefully, however, to prevent a decrease in concern about other relevant risks. The generation of worry or concern about global warming may be a necessary but not sufficient condition for desirable or appropriate protective or mitigating behavior on part of the general public.
This is one reason that, as nearly every climate scientist I spoke to pointed out, the U.S. military is obsessed with climate change: The drowning of all American Navy bases by sea-level rise is trouble enough, but being the world’s policeman is quite a bit harder when the crime rate doubles. Of course, it’s not just Syria where climate has contributed to conflict. Some speculate that the elevated level of strife across the Middle East over the past generation reflects the pressures of global warming — a hypothesis all the more cruel considering that warming began accelerating when the industrialized world extracted and then burned the region’s oil.
Already, more than 10,000 people die each day from the small particles emitted from fossil-fuel burning; each year, 339,000 people die from wildfire smoke, in part because climate change has extended forest-fire season (in the U.S., it’s increased by 78 days since 1970). By 2050, according to the , wildfires will be twice as destructive as they are today; in some places, the area burned could grow fivefold. What worries people even more is the effect that would have on emissions, especially when the fires ravage forests arising out of peat. Peatland fires in Indonesia in 1997, for instance, added to the global CO2 release by up to 40 percent, and more burning only means more warming only means more burning. There is also the terrifying possibility that rain forests like the Amazon, which in 2010 suffered its second “hundred-year drought” in the space of five years, could dry out enough to become vulnerable to these kinds of devastating, rolling forest fires — which would not only expel enormous amounts of carbon into the atmosphere but also shrink the size of the forest. That is especially bad because the Amazon alone provides 20 percent of our oxygen.
Other stuff in the hotter air is even scarier, with small increases in pollution capable of shortening life spans by ten years. The warmer the planet gets, the more ozone forms, and by mid-century, Americans will likely suffer a 70 percent increase in unhealthy ozone smog, the National Center for Atmospheric Research has projected. By 2090, as many as 2 billion people globally will be breathing air above the WHO “safe” level; one paper last month showed that, among other effects, a pregnant mother’s exposure to ozone raises the child’s risk of autism (as much as tenfold, combined with other environmental factors). Which does make you think again about the autism epidemic in West Hollywood.
What concerns epidemiologists more than ancient diseases are existing scourges relocated, rewired, or even re-evolved by warming. The first effect is geographical. Before the early-modern period, when adventuring sailboats accelerated the mixing of peoples and their bugs, human provinciality was a guard against pandemic. Today, even with globalization and the enormous intermingling of human populations, our ecosystems are mostly stable, and this functions as another limit, but global warming will scramble those ecosystems and help disease trespass those limits as surely as Cortés did. You don’t worry much about dengue or malaria if you are living in Maine or France. But as the tropics creep northward and mosquitoes migrate with them, you will. You didn’t much worry about Zika a couple of years ago, either.
The most exciting research on the economics of warming has also come from Hsiang and his colleagues, who are not historians of fossil capitalism but who offer some very bleak analysis of their own: Every degree Celsius of warming costs, on average, 1.2 percent of GDP (an enormous number, considering we count growth in the low single digits as “strong”). This is the sterling work in the field, and their median projection is for a 23 percent loss in per capita earning globally by the end of this century (resulting from changes in agriculture, crime, storms, energy, mortality, and labor).
Tracing the shape of the probability curve is even scarier: There is a 12 percent chance that climate change will reduce global output by more than 50 percent by 2100, they say, and a 51 percent chance that it lowers per capita GDP by 20 percent or more by then, unless emissions decline. By comparison, the Great Recession lowered global GDP by about 6 percent, in a onetime shock; Hsiang and his colleagues estimate a one-in-eight chance of an ongoing and irreversible effect by the end of the century that is eight times worse.
But if it is not the press’s role, whose is it? Is it partisan to challenge Trump on his false assertions about global warming? How are people to make well-informed decisions about momentous policies or important elections without accurate, reasonably objective information and questioning of the powerful? Instead, journalists often seek to find stand-ins who will provide opposing arguments and create “balance,” so they can appear as neutral arbiters in a playground spat. But the journalistic principle of balance gets into trouble when there is a matter in which significant evidence from science can be brought to bear.