But others have known that a reckoning was coming for much longer. A Swedish scientist first calculated in 1896 that adding carbon dioxide to the atmosphere could lead to warmer global temperatures. By the 1930s, scientists were measuring the increase, and in the late 1960s, they had documented the impact of melting ice in Antarctica. By 1977, Exxon-Mobil had recognized its own role in the warming of the ocean, the polar ice melt and the rising sea level.
For obvious reasons, Exxon-Mobil launched a massive public disinformation campaign to muddy the science and downplay the danger. But in retrospect, it needn’t have bothered. Because even after the facts became incontestably clear, the world did shockingly little to protect itself. In the first 17 years after the Kyoto protocol committed its signatories to reducing greenhouse gas emissions, global emissions continued to rise. Decades of studied ignorance, political cowardice, cynical denialism and irresponsible dithering have allowed the problem to grow deeper and immeasurably harder to solve.
But today, we are at an important turning point. The changing climate is no longer an abstract threat lurking in our distant future — it is upon us. We feel it. We see it. In our longer and deeper droughts and our more brutal hurricanes and raging, hyper-destructive wildfires. And with that comes a new urgency, and a new opportunity, to act.
Climate change is now simply impossible to ignore. The temperature reached a record-breaking 90 degrees in Anchorage this summer and an unprecedented 108 degrees in Paris. We can watch glaciers melting and collapsing on the web; ice losses in Antarctica have tripled since 2012 so that sea levels are rising faster today than at any time in the last quarter-century. Human migration patterns are already changing in Africa and Latin America as extreme weather events disrupt crop patterns, harm harvests and force farmers off their land, sending climate refugees to Europe and the United States.
It’s often difficult to attribute specific events to climate change but, clearly, strange things are happening. In India, entire cities are running out of water, thanks, scientists say, to a dangerous combination of mismanagement and climate change. In Syria, the civil war that has killed hundreds of thousands of people and displaced more than 11 million is believed by many scientists to have been sparked at least in part by climate-related drought and warming. Closer to home, two invasive, non-native mosquito species that have the potential to transmit viruses, including dengue, Zika and yellow fever have recently been found in several California cities.
According to NASA, 18 of the 19 warmest years ever recorded have occurred since 2000. The last five years have been the hottest since record-keeping began in 1880. July set an all-time record.
Here’s another reason we’re at a turning point (at least in the United States): An election is coming.
A Guest Editorial