Thirty years ago, this magazine published “The End of Nature,” a long article about what we then called the greenhouse effect. I was in my twenties when I wrote it, and out on an intellectual limb: climate science was still young. But the data were persuasive, and freighted with sadness. We were spewing so much carbon into the atmosphere that nature was no longer a force beyond our influence—and humanity, with its capacity for industry and heedlessness, had come to affect every cubic metre of the planet’s air, every inch of its surface, every drop of its water. Scientists underlined this notion a decade later when they began referring to our era as the Anthropocene, the world made by man.
I was frightened by my reporting, but, at the time, it seemed likely that we’d try as a society to prevent the worst from happening. In 1988, George H. W. Bush, running for President, promised that he would fight “the greenhouse effect with the White House effect.” He did not, nor did his successors, nor did their peers in seats of power around the world, and so in the intervening decades what was a theoretical threat has become a fierce daily reality. As this essay goes to press, California is ablaze. A big fire near Los Angeles forced the evacuation of Malibu, and an even larger fire, in the Sierra Nevada foothills, has become the most destructive in California’s history. After a summer of unprecedented high temperatures and a fall “rainy season” with less than half the usual precipitation, the northern firestorm turned a city called Paradise into an inferno within an hour, razing more than ten thousand buildings and killing at least sixty-three people; more than six hundred others are missing. The authorities brought in cadaver dogs, a lab to match evacuees’ DNA with swabs taken from the dead, and anthropologists from California State University at Chico to advise on how to identify bodies from charred bone fragments.
For the past few years, a tide of optimistic thinking has held that conditions for human beings around the globe have been improving. Wars are scarcer, poverty and hunger are less severe, and there are better prospects for wide-scale literacy and education. But there are newer signs that human progress has begun to flag. In the face of our environmental deterioration, it’s now reasonable to ask whether the human game has begun to falter—perhaps even to play itself out. Late in 2017, a United Nations agency announced that the number of chronically malnourished people in the world, after a decade of decline, had started to grow again—by thirty-eight million, to a total of eight hundred and fifteen million, “largely due to the proliferation of violent conflicts and climate-related shocks.” In June, 2018, the Food and Agriculture Organization of the U.N. found that child labor, after years of falling, was growing, “driven in part by an increase in conflicts and climate-induced disasters.”
In 2015, at the U.N. Climate Change Conference in Paris, the world’s governments, noting that the earth has so far warmed a little more than one degree Celsius above pre-industrial levels, set a goal of holding the increase this century to 1.5 degrees Celsius (2.7 degrees Fahrenheit), with a fallback target of two degrees (3.6 degrees Fahrenheit). This past October, the U.N.’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change published a special report stating that global warming “is likely to reach 1.5 C between 2030 and 2052 if it continues to increase at the current rate.” We will have drawn a line in the sand and then watched a rising tide erase it. The report did not mention that, in Paris, countries’ initial pledges would cut emissions only enough to limit warming to 3.5 degrees Celsius (about 6.3 degrees Fahrenheit) by the end of the century, a scale and pace of change so profound as to call into question whether our current societies could survive it.
Scientists have warned for decades that climate change would lead to extreme weather. Shortly before the I.P.C.C. report was published, Hurricane Michael, the strongest hurricane ever to hit the Florida Panhandle, inflicted thirty billion dollars’ worth of material damage and killed forty-five people. President Trump, who has argued that global warming is “a total, and very expensive, hoax,” visited Florida to survey the wreckage, but told reporters that the storm had not caused him to rethink his decision to withdraw the U.S. from the Paris climate accords. He expressed no interest in the I.P. C.C. report beyond asking “who drew it.” (The answer is ninety-one researchers from forty countries.) He later claimed that his “natural instinct” for science made him confident that the climate would soon “change back.” A month later, Trump blamed the fires in California on “gross mismanagement of forests.”
Human beings have always experienced wars and truces, crashes and recoveries, famines and terrorism. We’ve endured tyrants and outlasted perverse ideologies. Climate change is different. As a team of scientists recently pointed out in the journal Nature Climate Change, the physical shifts we’re inflicting on the planet will “extend longer than the entire history of human civilization thus far.”
The poorest and most vulnerable will pay the highest price. But already, even in the most affluent areas, many of us hesitate to walk across a grassy meadow because of the proliferation of ticks bearing Lyme disease which have come with the hot weather; we have found ourselves unable to swim off beaches, because jellyfish, which thrive as warming seas kill off other marine life, have taken over the water. The planet’s diameter will remain eight thousand miles, and its surface will still cover two hundred million square miles. But the earth, for humans, has begun to shrink, under our feet and in our minds.
“Climate change,” like “urban sprawl” or “gun violence,” has become such a familiar term that we tend to read past it. But exactly what we’ve been up to should fill us with awe. During the past two hundred years, we have burned immense quantities of coal and gas and oil—in car motors, basement furnaces, power plants, steel mills—and, as we have done so, carbon atoms have combined with oxygen atoms in the air to produce carbon dioxide. This, along with other gases like methane, has trapped heat that would otherwise have radiated back out to space.
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are at least four other episodes in the earth’s half-billion-year history of animal life when CO2 has poured into the atmosphere in greater volumes, but perhaps never at greater speeds. Even at the end of the Permian Age, when huge injections of CO2 from volcanoes burning through coal deposits culminated in “The Great Dying,” the CO2 content of the atmosphere grew at perhaps a tenth of the current pace. Two centuries ago, the concentration of CO2 in the atmosphere was two hundred and seventy-five parts per million; it has now topped four hundred parts per million and is rising more than two parts per million each year. The extra heat that we trap near the planet every day is equivalent to the heat from four hundred thousand bombs the size of the one that was dropped on Hiroshima.
As a result, in the past thirty years we’ve seen all twenty of the hottest years ever recorded. The melting of ice caps and glaciers and the rising levels of our oceans and seas, initially predicted for the end of the century, have occurred decades early. “I’ve never been at . . . a climate conference where people say ‘that happened slower than I thought it would,’ ” Christina Hulbe, a New Zealand climatologist, told a reporter for Grist last year. This past May, a team of scientists from the University of Illinois reported that there was a thirty-five-per-cent chance that, because of unexpectedly high economic growth rates, the U.N.’s “worst-case scenario” for global warming was too optimistic. “We are now truly in uncharted territory,” David Carlson, the former director of the World Meteorological Organization’s climate-research division, said in the spring of 2017, after data showed that the previous year had broken global heat records.
We are off the literal charts as well. In August, I visited Greenland, where, one day, with a small group of scientists and activists, I took a boat from the village of Narsaq to a glacier on a nearby fjord. As we made our way across a broad bay, I glanced up at the electronic chart above the captain’s wheel, where a blinking icon showed that we were a mile inland. The captain explained that the chart was from five years ago, when the water around us was still ice. The American glaciologist Jason Box, who organized the trip, chose our landing site. “We called this place the Eagle Glacier because of its shape,” he said. The name, too, was five years old. “The head and the wings of the bird have melted away. I don’t know what we should call it now, but the eagle is dead.”
There were two poets among the crew, Aka Niviana, who is Greenlandic, and Kathy Jetnil-Kijiner, from the low-lying Marshall Islands, in the Pacific, where “king tides” recently washed through living rooms and unearthed graveyards. A small lens of fresh water has supported life on the Marshall Islands’ atolls for millennia, but, as salt water intrudes, breadfruit trees and banana palms wilt and die. As the Greenlandic ice we were gazing at continues to melt, the water will drown Jetnil-Kijiner’s homeland. About a third of the carbon responsible for these changes has come from the United States.
A few days after the boat trip, the two poets and I accompanied the scientists to another fjord, where they needed to change the memory card on a camera that tracks the retreat of the ice sheet. As we took off for the flight home over the snout of a giant glacier, an eight-story chunk calved off the face and crashed into the ocean. I’d never seen anything quite like it for sheer power—the waves rose twenty feet as it plunged into the dark water. You could imagine the same waves washing through the Marshalls. You could almost sense the ice elevating the ocean by a sliver—along the seafront in Mumbai, which already floods on a stormy day, and at the Battery in Manhattan, where the seawall rises just a few feet above the water.
When I say the world has begun to shrink, this is what I mean. Until now, human beings have been spreading, from our beginnings in Africa, out across the globe—slowly at first, and then much faster. But a period of contraction is setting in as we lose parts of the habitable earth. Sometimes our retreat will be hasty and violent; the effort to evacuate the blazing California towns along narrow roads was so chaotic that many people died in their cars. But most of the pullback will be slower, starting along the world’s coastlines. Each year, another twenty-four thousand people abandon Vietnam’s sublimely fertile Mekong Delta as crop fields are polluted with salt. As sea ice melts along the Alaskan coast, there is nothing to protect towns, cities, and native villages from the waves. In Mexico Beach, Florida, which was all but eradicated by Hurricane Michael, a resident told the Washington Post, “The older people can’t rebuild; it’s too late in their lives. Who is going to be left? Who is going to care?”
In one week at the end of last year, I read accounts from Louisiana, where government officials were finalizing a plan to relocate thousands of people threatened by the rising Gulf (“Not everybody is going to live where they are now and continue their way of life, and that is a terrible, and emotional, reality to face,” one state official said); from Hawaii, where, according to a new study, thirty-eight miles of coastal roads will become impassable in the next few decades; and from Jakarta, a city with a population of ten million, where a rising Java Sea had flooded the streets. In the first days of 2018, a nor’easter flooded downtown Boston; dumpsters and cars floated through the financial district. “If anyone wants to question global warming, just see where the flood zones are,” Marty Walsh, the mayor of Boston, told reporters. “Some of those zones did not flood thirty years ago.”
According to a study from the United Kingdom’s National Oceanography Centre last summer, the damage caused by rising sea levels will cost the world as much as fourteen trillion dollars a year by 2100, if the U.N. targets aren’t met. “Like it or not, we will retreat from most of the world’s non-urban shorelines in the not very distant future,” Orrin Pilkey, an expert on sea levels at Duke University, wrote in his book “Retreat from a Rising Sea.” “We can plan now and retreat in a strategic and calculated fashion, or we can worry about it later and retreat in tactical disarray in response to devastating storms. In other words, we can walk away methodically, or we can flee in panic.”
But it’s not clear where to go. As with the rising seas, rising temperatures have begun to narrow the margins of our inhabitation, this time in the hot continental interiors. Nine of the ten deadliest heat waves in human history have occurred since 2000. In India, the rise in temperature since 1960 (about one degree Fahrenheit) has increased the chance of mass heat-related deaths by a hundred and fifty per cent. The summer of 2018 was the hottest ever measured in certain areas. For a couple of days in June, temperatures in cities in Pakistan and Iran peaked at slightly above a hundred and twenty-nine degrees Fahrenheit, the highest reliably recorded temperatures ever measured. The same heat wave, nearer the shore of the Persian Gulf and the Gulf of Oman, combined triple-digit temperatures with
But esc aping the wreckage is, almost certainly, a fantasy. Even if astronauts did cross the thirty-four million miles to Mars, they’d need to go underground to survive there. To what end? The multimillion-dollar attempts at building a “biosphere” in the Southwestern desert in 1991 ended in abject failure. Kim Stanley Robinson, the author of a trilogy of novels about the colonization of Mars, recently called such projects a “moral hazard.” “People think if we fuck up here on Earth we can always go to Mars or the stars,” he said. “It’s pernicious.”
The dream of interplanetary colonization also distracts us from acknowledging the unbearable beauty of the planet we already inhabit. The day before the launch, I went on a tour of the vast grounds of the Kennedy Space Center with nasa’s public-affairs officer, Greg Harland, and the biologist Don Dankert. I’d been warned beforehand by other nasa officials not to broach the topic of global warming; in any event, nasa’s predicament became obvious as soon as we climbed up on a dune overlooking Launch Complex 39, from which the Apollo missions left for the moon, and where any future Mars mission would likely begin. The launchpad is a quarter of a mile from the ocean—a perfect location, in the sense that, if something goes wrong, the rockets will fall into the sea, but not so perfect, since that sea is now rising. nasa started worrying about this sometime after the turn of the century, and formed a Dune Vulnerability Team.
In 2011, Hurricane Sandy, even at a distance of a couple of hundred miles, churned up waves strong enough to break through the barrier of dunes along the Atlantic shoreline of the Space Center and very nearly swamped the launch complexes. Dankert had millions of cubic yards of sand excavated from a nearby Air Force base, and saw to it that a hundred and eighty thousand native shrubs were planted to hold the sand in place. So far, the new dunes have yielded little ground to storms and hurricanes. But what impressed me more than the dunes was the men’s deep appreciation of their landscape. “Kennedy Space Center shares real estate with the Merritt Island Wildlife Refuge,” Harland said. “We use less than ten per cent for our industrial purposes.”
“When you look at the beach, it’s like eighteen-seventies Florida—the longest undisturbed stretch on the Atlantic Coast,” Dankert said. “We launch people into space from the middle of a wildlife refuge. That’s amazing.”
The two men talked for a long time about their favorite local species—the brown pelicans that were skimming the ocean, the Florida scrub jays. While rebuilding the dunes, they carefully bucket-trapped and relocated dozens of gopher tortoises. Before I left, they drove me half an hour across the swamp to a pond near the Space Center’s headquarters building, just to show me some alligators. Menacing snouts were visible beneath the water, but I was more interested in the sign that had been posted at each corner of the pond explaining that the alligators were native species, not pets. “Putting any food in the water for any reason will cause them to become accustomed to people and possibly dangerous,” it went on, adding that, if that should happen, “they must be removed and destroyed.”
Something about the sign moved me tremendously. It would have been easy enough to poison the pond, just as it would have been easy enough to bulldoze the dunes without a thought for the tortoises. But nasa hadn’t done so, because of a long series of laws that draw on an emerging understanding of who we are. In 1867, John Muir, one of the first Western environmentalists, walked from Louisville, Kentucky, to Florida, a trip that inspired his first heretical thoughts about the meaning of being human. “The world, we are told, was made especially for man—a presumption not supported by all the facts,” Muir wrote in his diary vv