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Global Meltdown

What type of planet are we leaving our children? One of the nation’s top reporters on the environment reveals the latest science behind climate change.

I’m in Kangerlussuaq, Greenland staring up at the crumbling edge of the frozen white cap cloaking most of this vast Arctic island. The ice is thousands of years old, yet melting relentlessly in the bright May sunshine, sending a torrent of gray water to the sea. With me is Joe McConnell, a snow scientist who just spent three weeks drilling samples from the ice sheet, which extends over an area four times the size of California and is almost two miles high at its peak.

McConnell, 49, an expert on the world’s frozen places, is from—of all places—the Desert Research Institute in Reno, Nevada. That incongruity isn’t so jarring when he explains that many of the world’s driest communities, from the Andes to the American Southwest, are home to the billion-plus people who get much of their water from mountain snow and glaciers.

The ice-gouged, U-shaped valleys around us, now covered with lichens and shrubs, show that the earth’s climate has changed naturally for billions of years, ever since there’s been an atmosphere. Great warmings and coolings have sent ocean levels rising and falling as enormous amounts of water were locked in glaciers or released like the flows we see here in Greenland.

But the current warming trend is happening much faster than previous hot spells, says McConnell, and none of the forces that usually affect climate—such as variations in the sun’s strength—are in sync with this recent change. Should these patterns continue, he believes, the consequences are clear. “If Greenland melted, it’d raise sea levels by twenty feet,” he explains. “There goes most of the Mississippi embayment. There go the islands in the South Pacific. Bangladesh is obliterated. Manhattan would have to put up dikes.” A similar amount of ice is vulnerable in western Antarctica, another focus of McConnell’s work. While this would most likely be a slow-motion sea change taking many centuries, gases being pumped into the atmosphere by cars, planes, factories, and power plants could raise the odds of such a shift.

“There’s definitely a lot of melting going on,” McConnell says, flinching as a crack echoes from the warming white ice cliff above and a towering slab tilts.

Welcome to life on the frontlines of climate change.

For nearly 20 years I’ve been reporting on the extraordinary idea that humans, mainly by burning billions of tons of fossil fuels, are nudging the planet’s thermostat by adding to the atmosphere’s see-through blanket of carbon dioxide and other “greenhouse gases,” which traps some of the sun’s energy. This quest has taken me from the shrinking sea ice at the North Pole to the burning forests of the Amazon, from the fraught political battlegrounds of Washington to the tenuous sands of the Maldives, a string of islets in the Indian Ocean where a sea level rise of a couple of feet—a real prospect in a warming century—could render the country uninhabitable. In all my time covering this issue, I’ve never seen the debate as heated as it is now, with talk show hosts, politicians, moviemakers, and novelists alternately claiming human-caused warming is a planetary emergency or a hoax.

But beneath the volleys of sound bites are real people with real concerns. When I give talks on global warming, quite a few of my over-50 peers in the audience remark that this is, at its heart, an issue of legacy. It is our children’s climate, and our grandchildren’s, that is being shaped by the building greenhouse effect. One disturbing part of that legacy is this: while half the gas billowing from smokestacks and tailpipes is typically absorbed by the oceans or plants each year, the rest remains stashed in the air for a century or longer, building like unpaid credit card debt.

New York City

In the intellectual equivalent of a pro-wrestling “smackdown,” two teams of combatants enter a plush, packed auditorium on the Upper East Side for a debate titled “Global Warming Is Not a Crisis,” staged by a group called Intelligence Squared U.S.

The climate-change debunkers include Richard S. Lindzen, 67, a meteorologist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology who claims that human-caused warming is inconsequential, and Michael Crichton, 64, the novelist and moviemaker. Crichton stirred the climate debate with a 2004 novel, State of Fear, in which the bad guys were radical environmentalists trying to scare the world about global warming in order to line their pockets. Opposed are three climate scientists: one from NASA, one from a leading university, and one from a private group called the Union of Concerned Scientists. Most of the night focuses on their differences, mainly concerning the value of quick, aggressive cuts in greenhouse gas emissions.

Richard C.J. Somerville, 66, a veteran University of California, San Diego, climatologist, attacks the “not a crisis” position. “[A crisis] does not mean catastrophe or alarmism,” he says. “It means a crucial or decisive moment, a turning point, a state of affairs in which a decisive change for better or worse is imminent. Our task tonight is to persuade you that global warming is indeed a crisis in exactly that sense. The science warns us that continuing to fuel the world using present technology will bring dangerous and possibly surprising climate changes by the end of this century, if not sooner.”

But Crichton insists that pressing real-time problems trump an iffy, long-term one. “Every day 30,000 people on this planet die of the diseases of poverty,” he tells the crowd. “A third of the planet doesn’t have electricity. We have a billion people with no clean water. We have half a billion people going to bed hungry every night. Do we care about this? It seems that we don’t. It seems that we would rather look a hundred years into the future than pay attention to what’s going on now.”

What’s largely lost in the sparring—Crichton’s team prevails in an audience vote—is that the debate has not been about whether humans are contributing to rising temperatures. Crichton and Lindzen, both of whom consider former vice president Al Gore and his allies alarmists, readily agree that human-generated greenhouse gases warm the earth. Indeed, the list of people accepting the need to cut these gases includes former foes of environmentalists. One convert is evangelist Pat Robertson, who said on his 700 Club TV program last year that “it is getting hotter and the ice caps are melting and there is a buildup of carbon dioxide in the air.… We really need to do something on fossil fuels.” Another conservative taking warming seriously is former speaker of the House Newt Gingrich. “The evidence is sufficient,” he said in April, “that we should move toward the most effective possible steps to reduce carbon loading of the atmosphere.”

What’s driving the change in attitudes is a steadily growing body of scientific evidence on human activities and warming. A report released earlier this year by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change—made up of hundreds of the world’s leading climate experts—said with 90 percent certainty that most of the warming since 1950 has been driven by the buildup of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases. The report concluded with “high confidence” that human-caused climate change was already affecting regional conditions from the poles to the Tropics, and that hundreds of millions of people could be harmed by coastal flooding, dwindling water supplies, and shifting weather patterns within a few decades. The changes could also drive many species toward extinction, particularly those with rapidly shrinking habitats, such as polar bears. Warming in this century, by many estimates, could be between three and eight times the warming in the 20th century, when the planet’s average temperature rose just over one degree Fahrenheit in all. The United States was among 113 countries that endorsed the report.

The new report also predicts a mix of consequences, not all bad. More rainfall and longer growing seasons will likely benefit higher latitudes for decades, while less rainfall and harsher droughts are likely in some of the world’s poorest places—most notably, Africa. An open-water Arctic Ocean in summers, while posing a threat to polar bears, could create new intercontinental shipping lanes thousands of miles shorter than existing ones.

What the debate comes down to is not whether changes are coming but when they’ll occur—and how severe they’ll be. There is serious scientific disagreement about such vital questions as how fast and far temperatures, seas, and storm strength could rise. Warmer waters, for example, could lead to more Katrina-strength hurricanes. Yet new studies find that hurricanes might be torn apart by wind conditions associated with, yes, rising temperatures. This uncertainty is not humanity’s friend, experts say, especially as the global population crests in coming decades, putting ever more people at risk of flooding, famine, and other climate-driven threats.

“We’re altering the environment far faster than we can possibly predict the consequences,” says Stephen H. Schneider, 62, a Stanford University climatologist who has been working on the puzzle of humans and climate for more than half his life.

Schneider has long believed that responding to the greenhouse challenge is as much about hedging against uncertain risks as it is about dealing with what is clearly known. And the risks, as he sees it, are clear: there is a real chance things could be much worse than the midrange projections of a few degrees of warming in this century—and any thought that more science will magically clarify what lies ahead is probably wishful thinking.

When he lectures about global warming these days, Schneider often asks listeners about a more familiar risk. “How many of you have had a serious fire in your home?” he begins. In a crowd of 300 or so, usually three or four hands rise.

His next question: “How many of you buy fire insurance?”

Hundreds of hands go up.

For Schneider that pattern shows how well people deal with uncertain but potentially calamitous risks in their daily lives. The trick lies in transferring that same behavior to dealing with a risk facing our common home—the planet itself.

Pasadena, California

I’m standing in a cramped lab at the California Institute of Technology, squinting at a blinding light. It’s visible through a small glass port in the side of a metal furnace where scientists are cooking up a new kind of device for turning sunlight into electricity. Inside, atoms of metals are being deposited onto minute rods in ways that could someday boost the efficiency of solar panels.

Solar power is widely seen as the sole alternative energy source that is abundant enough—and someday could be cheap enough—to eventually supplant fossil fuels. Windmills, while effective in certain conditions, face problems at large scale. In Texas, for example, the hottest days—which prompt the biggest surge in power use—tend to be the least windy. Nuclear power, while producing few emissions, has its own problem of scale. Princeton experts recently estimated that the world would need nearly 900 new nuclear power plants in the next 45 years just to reduce the expected carbon dioxide release by 10 percent in that time.

And so research sites like this one in Pasadena are the critical, yet largely overlooked, battlefronts in the global warming war. In the mist-draped hills of New Haven, West Virginia, engineers and scientists have drilled more than 9,000 feet beneath one of the country’s giant coal-fired power plants to see whether layers of rock can provide a repository for vast amounts of CO2 released as the coal burns. In the “biology building” at the National Renewable Energy Laboratory outside Denver, special strains of algae slosh like pea soup in racks of beakers under bright lights. In certain conditions these algae can generate bubbles of hydrogen, a tantalizing substitute for fossil fuels if it can be produced cheaply and cleanly. So far, the gas has been produced in teacup amounts.

The gulf between such embryonic efforts and what’s needed to avoid a buildup of greenhouse gases remains wide, despite statements by politicians of both parties about solving U.S. energy and climate problems. Funding for such research peaked in the United States and abroad during the oil shocks of the 1970s, then dwindled. It has never grown since—only Japan has sustained investment in such research. Scientists at the National Renewable Energy Laboratory were heartened when $34 million of new money was included in their latest science budget last year. But Arthur J. Nozik, 71, a chemical physicist there, notes that this is roughly the cost of one F-18 jetfighter. In the end, only $8 million was authorized by Congress in 2007.

The challenge of shifting to new energy options is made vastly more difficult because the world’s existing energy system—85 percent based on coal, oil, and other fossil fuels—is so integrated into modern life. “We already have electricity coming out of everybody’s wall socket,” says Nathan S. Lewis, 51, a chemistry professor who codirects the Powering the Planet project at Caltech. “This is not a new function we’re seeking. It’s a substitution. It’s not like NASA sending a man to the moon. It’s like finding a new way to send a man to the moon when Southwest Airlines is already flying there every hour handing out peanuts.”

Numerous experts say the only way to propel such a change is with taxes on fuels that produce the most greenhouse gases, or new emission-reduction treaties, such as the Kyoto Protocol (which the United States did not ratify), or bills—like many being discussed on Capitol Hill—that require emissions reductions. But there are major political impediments, both globally and domestically. And do Americans have the stomach for higher taxes and heating bills? Perhaps, says Peter Schwartz, 61, who analyzes risks for corporations and the government, if we see global warming as a security threat—one that could create calamities ranging from large-scale migrations to conflicts over food and water.

With or without new laws or taxes, the need for technological advances is vital, says Martin I. Hoffert, 69, a physics professor at New York University. Hoffert has testified repeatedly before Congress about the lack of investment in energy research—efforts that could help avoid oil wars, lower energy costs, and help poorer countries advance without overheating the planet. “Technology evolution is like biological evolution,” he says. “Most mutations, like most innovative technologies, don’t survive. But without mutations, evolution stops. It only takes one transistor to change the world.” And it won’t necessarily cost a fortune: John Holdren, 63, an energy and climate expert at Harvard, says that a rise in the federal gas tax of 2.5 cents a gallon would triple the federal energy-research budget.

Meanwhile, the demand for energy worldwide is increasing, and not only in such countries as India and China. Two billion people still cook meals on firewood or dried dung, and more than 1.5 million of those—mainly women and children—die young from breathing clouds of indoor smoke. In a world heading toward 9 billion or more people by 2042 who either are born into—or dream of—our plugged-in, air-conditioned, frequent-flier lifestyle, revolutionary new energy sources are needed.

It may be that what we face is less a climate crisis than an energy challenge. Many experts believe the key to limiting climate risks and solving a host of momentous problems—including the end of abundant oil—is to begin an ambitious quest for new ways to conserve, harvest, and store energy without creating pollution.

Harnessing the power of the sun remains the Holy Grail of most energy experts. But research on solar technologies remains tiny in scale, though the potential has been clear for decades. Consider this incredibly prescient quote: “I’d put my money on the sun and solar energy. What a source of power! I hope we don’t have to wait until oil and coal run out before we tackle that.”

The year? 1931. The speaker? Thomas Edison.

“The biggest challenge is how to get people to wake up and realize this is a one-shot deal,” says Caltech’s solar guru, Lewis. “If we fail, we are witting participants in the biggest experiment that humans have ever done: moving CO2 levels to more than twice their value in the past 670,000 years and hoping it turns out okay for generations to come.”

Andrew Revkin is a reporter with The New York Times and the author of  "The North Pole Was Here: Puzzles and Perils at the Top of the World" (Houghton Mifflin, 2006), the first book on global climate change written for both children and adults.