The Coming Meltdown

A Review

By Bill McKibben

New York Review of Books Volume 53, Number 1 January 12, 2006

Thin Ice: Unlocking the Secrets of Climate in the World's Highest Mountains by Mark Bowen Henry Holt, 463 pp., $30.00

Dancing at the Dead Sea: Tracking the World's Environmental Hotspots by Alanna Mitchell University of Chicago Press, 239 pp., $25.00

The year 2005 has been the hottest year on record for the planet, hotter than 1998, 2002, 2004, and 2003. More importantly, perhaps, this has been the autumn when the planet has shown more clearly than before just what that extra heat means. Consider just a few of the findings published in the major scientific journals during the last three months:

--Arctic sea ice is melting fast. There was 20 percent less of it than normal this summer, and as Dr. Mark Serreze, one of the researchers from Colorado's National Snow and Ice Data Center, told reporters, "the feeling is we are reaching a tipping point or threshold beyond which sea ice will not recover." That is particularly bad news because it creates a potent feedback effect: instead of blinding white ice that bounces sunlight back into space, there is now open blue water that soaks up the sun's heat, amplifying the melting process.

--In the tundra of Siberia, other researchers report that permafrost has begun to melt rapidly, and, as it does, formerly frozen methane--which, like the more prevalent carbon dioxide, acts as a heat-trapping "greenhouse gas"--is escaping into the atmosphere. In some places last winter, the methane bubbled up so steadily that puddles of standing water couldn't freeze even in the depths of the Russian winter.

--British researchers, examining almost six thousand soil borings across the UK, found another feedback effect. Warmer temperatures (growing seasons now last eleven days longer at that latitude) meant that microbial activity had increased dramatically in the soil. This, in turn, meant that much of the carbon long stored in the soil was now being released into the atmosphere. The quantities were large enough to negate all the work that Britain had done to switch away from coal to reduce carbon in the atmosphere. "All the consequences of global warming will occur more rapidly," said Guy Kirk, chief scientist on the study. "That's the scary thing. The amount of time we have got to do something about it is smaller than we thought."

Such findings--and there are more like them in virtually every issue of Science and Nature--came against the backdrop of Hurricanes Katrina and Rita, and the now record-breaking Atlantic storm season that has brought us back around the alphabet and as far as Hurricane Epsilon. Because hurricanes draw their power from the warm water in the upper layers of the sea's surface, this bout of storminess served as a kind of exclamation point to a mid-August paper by the MIT researcher Kerry Emmanuel demonstrating that such storms have become more powerful and long-lasting, and would likely continue to increase in destructiveness in the future.

But the hurricanes also demonstrated another fact about global warming, this one having nothing to do with chemistry or physics but instead with politics, journalism, and the rituals of science. Climate change somehow seems unable to emerge on the world stage for what it really is: the single biggest challenge facing the planet, the equal in every way to the nuclear threat that transfixed us during the past half-century and a threat we haven't even begun to deal with. The coverage of Katrina's aftermath, for instance, was scathing in depicting the Bush administration's incompetence and cronyism; but the President --and his predecessors--were spared criticism for their far bigger sin of omission, the failure to do anything at all to stanch the flood of carbon that America, above all other nations, pours into the atmosphere and that is the prime cause of the great heating now underway. Though Bush has been egregious in his ignorance about climate change, the failure to do anything about it has been bipartisan; Bill Clinton and Al Gore were grandly rhetorical about the issue, but nonetheless presided over a 13 percent increase in America's carbon emissions.

That lack of preparation and precaution dwarfs even the failure to prepare for the September 11 attacks, and its effects will be with us far longer. It's not, of course, that America could in two decades have prevented global warming. But we could have begun taking the steps to keep it from spinning entirely out of control, steps that grow ever more difficult to take with each passing season. The books under review, though neither deals directly with the politics of global warming, help us understand some of the reasons why we've so far done so little.

for the rest of this review, go to

Informant: Scott Munson


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