In an op-ed for the Washington Post published on August 3, James Hansen, director of the NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies, wrote, “for the extreme hot weather of the recent past, there is virtually no explanation other than climate change.” Given recent temperature records, the likelihood that natural variability can account for the record peaks we are experiencing is infinitesimally small. As a matter of statistical fact, anthropogenic influence is the culprit behind global warming. With the world shifting to a higher average temperature, natural variability is altered; whereas in a normal climate the distribution of temperature outcomes would reflect our historical trend, global warming changes the odds so that weather extremes occur far more frequently than before.
Indeed, Hansen’s editorial comes less than a week after Richard Muller, a professor of physics who became famous as an outspoken critic of climate science, announced in another prominent op-ed for the New York Times that humans “are almost entirely the cause” of global warming. Muller’s “total turnaround”, as he describes it, comes as a result of exhaustive investigation undertaken by the Berkeley Earth Surface Temperature project, which he founded. According to Muller, the Earth’s temperature “has risen by two and a half degrees Fahrenheit over the past 250 years, including an increase of one and a half degrees over the most recent 50 years.” By means of statistical analysis, he concludes, “it appears likely that essentially all of this increase results from the human emission of greenhouse gases.”
Whether one listens to Hansen, a voice advocating awareness on the issue for over two decades, or Muller, a recent convert, or any member of the broad scientific consensus on the matter, one should conclude that we are living through the effects of climate change. It never really was a far-off prospect, or a phenomenon that would only affect penguins and polar bears. It just turns out that climate change has crept up on us faster than many thought it would, and has caught us less prepared than we should be.
The Yale Forum on Climate Change and the Media published a video on July 30 by Peter Sinclair on this year’s drought affecting the United States’ grain belt. The gravity of this year’s drought parallels that of the worst in recorded history. Looking flushed, Pat Quinn, governor of Illinois, is quoted saying “We’ve never had it this hot”; later, various journalists are seen citing death tolls and using breathtaking language to describe not only the drought, but floods in other parts of the world that have also been a part of this summer’s weather extremes. In another video published on July 9, titled “Welcome to the Rest of our Lives,” Sinclair compiles media coverage of this season’s extreme weather phenomena, including the drought, wildfires, and a particularly devastating type of summer storm called a “derecho.” While the events reported on this video mostly pertain to the United States, climate change is a global phenomenon.
Recently, Île de Sein, an island off the coast of Brittany, was highlighted in the New York Times as a place that faces an existential threat in rising sea levels. The island’s inhabitants, numbering 130, descend from ancestors who faced a variety of threats throughout history; notably, they resisted Nazi occupation during World War II. They now live in wait of the next larger-than-usual storm, which may well wipe them off the map.
We are now beyond the point of acceptance of climate change, for we are inevitably living in its consequences. We’ve begun to endure the effects of climatic extremes and variability unlike any in the history that gave rise to our civilization and, beyond humanity, the whole of life as we know it. We are entering a stage of uncertainty at a scale that is unknown to us; the sheer complexity of the repercussions of a shifting climate makes it difficult not to think that we’re in for catastrophe. This is, nevertheless, only the beginning.
This article is the first in a four-part series on climate change.