So, You've Decided to Give a Shit About Climate Change
Here's how to get informed.
Photo via Getty
Holy shit, did you read that New York Magazine cover story about climate change by David Wallace-Wells? Titled "The Uninhabitable Earth," it said (more or less) that humanity was on a collision course for, like, the apocalypse by the year 2100. Apparently society is about to collapse, war will soon be rampant, food is all going away, and people are about to start being cooked in their skin if they go outside.
If it left you feeling shaken up, you're not alone.
After the story was published, Wallace-Wells admitted he was taking some flak for being too alarmist, but if the story pushed climate change more into public consciousness, that's good, and a good reason to get informed.
I'm not here to judge you if you've been avoiding all conversations about climate change for years because the topic seems out of your depth. It's not easy to talk about, and arguments from climate skeptics (like the Facebook comments that will inevitably show up in response to this article) always muddy the waters.
Fortunately, you only have to spend a little bit of time learning about this stuff to speak with confidence. Some of the links that follow will only take a minute, and some will take 15 or 20, but if you digest all of them, you'll be pretty much up to speed in my humble opinion. I can't really help you be a more moral person, or "fix" the problem, but reading and watching this stuff might finally make it real for you.
David Roberts's 'Climate Change Is Simple'
I know. I know. Are you seriously starting with a five-year-old TED talk? Yes I am, but I promise this one is really good! Videos with names like "Everything You Need to Know About Climate Change" are almost all terrible. They throw way too much information at you and at the same time use lame imagery, like when Bill Nye tries to explain the ice caps melting by asking you to imagine a four mile-wide ice cube.
On the other hand, you have this video, in which David Roberts, who now writes for Vox, synthesizes all the basics into one easy-to-digest capsule in his TED Talk. Here's how the greenhouse effect works. Here's what you need to know about climate throughout history. Here's what we want to happen. Here's what's likely to happen. Boom, boom, boom. Congratulations: You're informed.
Bloomberg's 'What's Really Warming the World'
Next time an internet rando goes, "Um actually, the sun's temperature is what's warming the Earth," or something, you might want a quick way to visualize how greenhouse gasses impact temperature. You can do a lot worse than Bloomberg's quick-and-dirty widget, made by Eric Roston and Blacki Migliozzi. It graphs the average global temperature by year and looks at a variety of forces thought to have a possible effect on the Earth's temperature, including the sun, volcanoes, and deforestation. What you'll see is that no factor links up with the observed change in temperature nearly as conclusively as greenhouse gas emissions.
This graphic doesn't convince everyone (of course). That's partly because—as is disclosed in their methodology—Bloomberg used a specialized NASA climate model in its emissions graph that isn't simply the raw total of greenhouse emissions. A line on a graph representing greenhouse gas emissions, after all, would just go up, and up, and up. If you want a more complete picture, Penn State geoscientist Richard Alley (a Republican, if that matters) summed the whole thing up in a 2015 talk. "The history of the climate looks more like greenhouse gasses than anything else, and of those greenhouse gasses it looks like CO2 has been the biggest control on it," Alley said.
Greenhouse gasses beget temperature increase. There's no longer a good faith debate to be had about this. Got it?
Bill McKibben's 'Is the Earth Getting Hotter?'
This longread from the New York Review of Books was the original "The Uninhabitable Earth." Coming off one of the hottest summers on record in 1988, Bill McKibben (who later became something like the Michael Jordan of climate change activism) wrote a review of the recent scientific literature on climate change. McKibben was trying to create a sense of urgency about this stuff 29 years ago, and we're all just starting to listen. The opener could be written almost verbatim today, in reference to the recent string of record high temperatures.
Some experts said the heat may have been a sign of what to expect from the "greenhouse effect"—the increased levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere as the result of burning fossil fuels. The carbon dioxide traps the sun's infrared radiation close to the planet's surface and causes the temperature to rise. Other experts said no: last summer's heat was simply weather.
Also fascinating: Former University of Virginia scientist Fred Singer is featured in McKibben's story as one of the chief critics of what was at the time called "greenhouse theory." Now in his 90s, Singer remains a prominent climate skeptic, and was one of the small handful of climate scientists who advised Donald Trump to back out of the Paris Climate Agreement. That was a move that former Exxon/Mobil CEO and current secretary of state Rex Tillerson opposed.
Oh, speaking of which...
Inside Climate News' 'Exxon: The Road Not Taken'
In 2015, PBS and the powerhouse investigative blog Inside Climate News produced a report showing that Exxon appears to have known that fossil fuel emissions were leading to climate change way back in 1977, and that the company was ready and able to be at the forefront of realistic climate science. Then, apparently Exxon performed a massive U-turn and instead, funded much of the science that fueled the denialist movement. After considerable internal debate, Exxon came around to admitting climate change was real under Tillerson's leadership in 2007.
Exxon's head of PR, Richard Keil, talked to veteran NPR gadfly Bob Garfield of On the Media in the wake of the report, and the conversation is extremely gratifying to listen to.
Mother Jones's recap of 'Climategate' from 2011
You may recall a news cycle back in 2009 when some climate scientists were found out as frauds, and—ostensibly—the whole corrupt climate change scam was exposed. The denier community hailed the revelations as "Climategate." This, of course, isn't what happened, but it may correspond to your recollection of events if you were a kid, or were only paying partial attention. From 2008 to 2009, Americans' belief in the reality of climate change dropped from 71 percent to 57.
What happened was (sigh) an email leak. Some of the emails showed the scientists talking about using data in ways that sounded underhanded. And frankly some of it—involving climate estimates culled from tree-ring data—actually was a little underhanded, but being honest really wouldn't have changed their conclusions. This is all summed up in the extremely dorky YouTube video embedded above.
The full Mother Jones piece, "Climategate: What Really Happened?" is a really great overview of the denier modus operandi. In the words of some of the scientists involved in Climategate, whenever a whiff of malfeasance is found, "The usual suspects become hysterical with glee that finally the 'hoax' has been revealed and congratulations are handed out all round," adding, "Net effect on lay people? Confusion. Net effect on science? Zip."
Elizabeth Kolbert's 'The Darkening Sea'
This 2006 article is behind the New Yorker' s paywall, so it may not be available to nonsubscribers. I want to highlight it anyway, because it's a very complete profile of climate change's evil twin: ocean acidification, which is in some ways the larger problem. The oceans are a vast "carbon sink," taking in our carbon emissions, and turning them into carbonic acid—the stuff that makes soda fizzy—and changing the water's pH balance. In other words, ocean acidification isn't happening as a result of climate change; it's happening alongside climate change, and it has all sorts of effects on ocean life.
That doesn't just mean bad news for corals, which are starting to die in large numbers, as you probably already know. One scientist told Kolbert that the winnowing away of huge number of species is like "running the course of evolution in reverse." Another warned that, "The risk is that at the end we will have the rise of slime."
If you really did read and watch all of this shit, you're probably in despair, and I can't really help you with that. Sorry. The good news is—for what it's worth—you also have a foundation of basic knowledge. I hope that makes you feel at least a little better.
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