The Longform Guide to Climate Change
A terrifying collection of stories about melting glaciers, cowardly politicians, and stupid weathermen.
Photo by Jean-Pierre Clatot/AFP/Getty Images.
Every weekend, Longform shares a collection of great stories from its archive with Slate. For daily picks of new and classic nonfiction, check out Longform or follow @longform on Twitter. Have an iPad? Download Longform’s app to read the latest picks, plus features from dozens of other magazines, including Slate.
Thanks to Hurricane Sandy, Mike Bloomberg, and Businessweek, the fact that Earth is getting apocalyptically warmer is in the news this week. Here’s some background reading:
Endless Summer—Living With the Greenhouse Effect
Andrew C. Revkin • Discover • Oct 1988
One of the earliest in-depth reports on climate change, Revkin’s piece introduced many to the issue —and to the challenges of addressing it.
“This wasn't just a bad year, James Hansen of the NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies told the Senate committee, or even the start of a bad decade. Rather, he could state with ‘99 percent confidence’ that a recent, persistent rise in global temperature was a climatic signal he and his colleagues had long been expecting. Others were still hedging their bets, arguing there was room for doubt. But Hansen was willing to say what no one had dared say before. ‘The greenhouse effect,’ he claimed, ‘has been detected and is changing our climate now.’
“… Frightening as the greenhouse effect is, the task of curbing it is so daunting that no one has been willing to take the necessary steps as long as there was even a tiny chance that the effect might not be real. Since greenhouse gases are chiefly the result of human industry and agriculture, it is not an exaggeration to say that civilization itself is the ultimate cause of global warming. That doesn't mean nothing can be done; only that delaying the effects of global warming by cutting down on greenhouse-gas emissions will be tremendously difficult, both technically and politically. Part of the problem is that predicting exactly what will happen to the local climate, region by region, is a task that's still beyond the power of even the most sophisticated computer model.”
The Vanishing Ice Sheets
Ben Wallace-Wells • Rolling Stone • September 2010
The perilous existence of the world’s glaciers, “global warming’s ticking time bomb.”
“Most of the ice in the world is contained in two great, ancient ice sheets, each of them the size of a continent: One covers Antarctica and the South Pole, and the other, not nearly as big, covers Greenland. Both of these formations slope gently from high interiors down to the coast, with ice edging outward in vast frozen rivers known as glaciers. Snowfall at the top of the slopes presses down on the glaciers, helping gravity propel them toward the edges of the continent. There, when it meets the warmer water, some of the ice melts slowly into the ocean. Until a few years ago, scientists like Hamilton thought of the ice sheets as changing only imperceptibly, on the time scale of centuries. But as the planet has warmed, they have come to see the ice as far more volatile and nimble. The ice sheets no longer seem static; they are mysterious, complicated dams that help hold back entire continents, keeping coastal cities free from flood. If you understand the ice sheets, and how they might melt, you can understand the future of the oceans — how much they might swell, and on what schedule. And if you understand the oceans, you might be able to get a more accurate fix on the future of the world's coasts, and of the civilizations they hold.”
Charles Homans • Columbia Journalism Review • Jan 2010
Why don’t TV weathermen believe in climate change?
“In fact, anecdotal evidence of this disconnect had been accruing for several years. When a freakish snowstorm hit Las Vegas in December 2008, CNN meteorologist Chad Myers, appearing on Lou Dobbs Tonight, used the occasion to expound on his own doubts about global warming. ‘You know, to think that we could affect weather all that much is pretty arrogant,’ he told Dobbs. ‘Mother Nature is so big, the world is so big, the oceans are so big.’ Today’s most oft-quoted and influential skeptics include Joseph D’Aleo, The Weather Channel’s first director of meteorology, and Anthony Watts, a former Chico, California, TV meteorologist and prolific blogger who is leading a volunteer effort to document irregularities among the twelve hundred weather stations the National Weather Service maintains across the country (a concern that the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration considers negligible, and in any case has factored into its calculations since the ’90s). When Oklahoma Senator James Inhofe, Congress’s most reliable opponent of climate-change legislation, presented a list of more than four hundred ‘science authorities’ who disagreed with the prevailing scientific opinion on climate change in 2008, forty-four of them were TV weathercasters. And after the signature of Mike Fairbourne, the weatherman for Minneapolis’s CBS affiliate, turned up on a similar petition that year, reporters for the Minneapolis Star Tribune called around and found that hardly any of the city’s TV weathercasters believed in climate change; one had recently called the idea ‘crazy’ on a local talk-radio show.
“More striking is the fact that the weathercasters became outspoken in their rejection of climate science right around the time the rest of the media began to abandon the on-the-one-hand, on-the-other-hand approach that had dominated their coverage of the issue for years, and started to acknowledge that the preponderance of evidence lay with those who believed climate change was both real and man-made. If anything, that shift radicalized the weathermen. ‘I think the media is almost sleeping with the enemy,’ one meteorologist told me. ‘The way it is now, there is just such a bias as to what gets out.’ ”
Re-Engineering the Earth
Graeme Wood • Atlantic • July 2009
On the possibilities of geo-engineering.
“Humans have been aggressively transforming the planet for more than 200 years. The Nobel Prize–winning atmospheric scientist Paul Crutzen—one of the first cheerleaders for investigating the gas-the-planet strategy—recently argued that geologists should refer to the past two centuries as the ‘anthropocene’ period. In that time, humans have reshaped about half of the Earth’s surface. We have dictated what plants grow and where. We’ve pocked and deformed the Earth’s crust with mines and wells, and we’ve commandeered a huge fraction of its freshwater supply for our own purposes. What is new is the idea that we might want to deform the Earth intentionally, as a way to engineer the planet either back into its pre-industrial state, or into some improved third state. Large-scale projects that aim to accomplish this go by the name ‘geo-engineering,’ and they constitute some of the most innovative and dangerous ideas being considered today to combat climate change. Some scientists see geo-engineering as a last-ditch option to prevent us from cooking the planet to death. Others fear that it could have unforeseen—and possibly catastrophic—consequences. What many agree on, however, is that the technology necessary to reshape the climate is so powerful, and so easily implemented, that the world must decide how to govern its use before the wrong nation—or even the wrong individual—starts to change the climate all on its own.”
As the World Burns
Ryan Lizza • The New Yorker • Oct 2010
The story of how Washington blew its best shot to do something on climate change.
“The article ran on October 11th. The next day, Graham was holding a town-hall meeting in the gym of a high school in Greenville, South Carolina. His constituents were not happy. One man accused him of ‘making a pact with the Devil.’ Another shouted, ‘No principled compromise!’ One audience member asked, ‘Why do you think it’s necessary to get in bed with people like John Kerry?’ Graham, dressed in a blue blazer and khakis, paced the floor, explaining that there were only forty Republicans in the Senate, which meant that he had to work with the sixty Democrats. A man in the bleachers shouted, ‘You’re a traitor, Mr. Graham! You’ve betrayed this nation and you’ve betrayed this state!’
“Soon afterward, Graham called Lieberman. He was concerned that Kerry might drag him too far to the left, and he knew that Lieberman, a close friend with whom he had travelled during McCain’s Presidential campaign, could serve as a moderating force. Graham may not have remembered that Kerry and Lieberman had, according to a Senate aide, ‘a tense personal relationship.’ (Lieberman and Kerry ran against each other for President in 2004. In 2006, Kerry endorsed and campaigned for Lieberman’s Democratic opponent in his Senate race.) ‘I’m happy to try and negotiate a bill with Kerry,’ Graham told Lieberman. ‘But I really want you in the room.’ ”
The Battle Over Climate Science
Tom Clynes • Popular Science • June 2012
Inside the increasingly hostile global-warming debate.
“‘Weird’ is perhaps the mildest way to describe the growing number of threats and acts of intimidation that climate scientists face. A climate modeler at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory answered a late-night knock to find a dead rat on his doorstep and a yellow Hummer speeding away. An MIT hurricane researcher found his inbox flooded daily for two weeks last January with hate mail and threats directed at him and his wife. And in Australia last year, officials relocated several climatologists to a secure facility after climate-change skeptics unleashed a barrage of vandalism, noose brandishing, and threats of sexual attacks on the scientists’ children.
“Those crude acts of harassment often come alongside more-sophisticated legal and political attacks. Organizations routinely file nuisance lawsuits and onerous Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests to disrupt the work of climate scientists. In 2005, before dragging Mann and other climate researchers into congressional hearings, Texas congressman Joe Barton ordered the scientists to submit voluminous details of working procedures, computer programs and past funding—essentially demanding that they reproduce and defend their entire life’s work. In a move that hearkened back to darker times, Oklahoma Senator James Inhofe, the ranking member of the Senate’s Environment and Public Works Committee, released a report in 2010 that named 17 prominent climate scientists, including Mann, who, he argued, may have engaged in ‘potentially criminal behavior.’ Inhofe outlined three laws and four regulations that he said the scientists may have violated, including the Federal False Statements Act—which, the report noted, could be punishable with imprisonment of up to five years.”
Building a Green Economy
Paul Krugman • New York Times Magazine • April 2010
A primer on climate change economics.
“Like the debate over climate change itself, the debate over climate economics looks very different from the inside than it often does in popular media. The casual reader might have the impression that there are real doubts about whether emissions can be reduced without inflicting severe damage on the economy. In fact, once you filter out the noise generated by special-interest groups, you discover that there is widespread agreement among environmental economists that a market-based program to deal with the threat of climate change — one that limits carbon emissions by putting a price on them — can achieve large results at modest, though not trivial, cost. There is, however, much less agreement on how fast we should move, whether major conservation efforts should start almost immediately or be gradually increased over the course of many decades.”
Max Linsky is the co-founder of Longform.org.