The mood in the U.S. Senate on June 23, 1988, was expectant and tense. A prominent scientist from NASA, Dr. James Hansen, was giving testimony about the condition of the world’s climate and the implications for both the United States and planet Earth as a consequence of continued global carbon dioxide emissions. His prognosis was serious and sobering. His evidence unequivocally supported the conclusion that the results would be a catastrophic rise in temperature, with a consequent melting of ice caps, an uncontrollable rise in sea levels, and widespread disruptions in normal weather as carbon dioxide levels rose. Other scientific evidence was equivocal, but Hansen argued that no other explanation but carbon dioxide emissions came “anywhere close” to explaining the existing weather anomalies.
The U.S. Senate was duly impressed. So was the American President, George H.W. Bush, elected just a few months later. He made lofty pronouncements about the importance of reducing carbon dioxide emissions. So did U.K. Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher. But nothing was done as neoliberal capitalism, in a euphoria of endless consumer growth, continued dancing to the edge of the climate precipice
We had earlier warnings. In 1824, Joseph Fournier theorized that Earth’s atmosphere was warmed by carbon dioxide. In 1861, John Tyndall confirmed this finding. (We subsequently learned that without this so-called “greenhouse effect”, the heat we get directly from the sun would only be sufficient to warm Earth’s temperature to –18.0°C.) Then in1896, a Swedish chemist, Svante Arrhenius, actually calculated the global temperature rise from continuing to burn fossil fuels. And in 1961, Guy Callender speculated the detectable rising temperatures were the result of increased CO2 levels. By the late 1970s, the U.S. oil industry knew that the ultimate effect of continuing to burn fossil fuels would be catastrophic climate change.
In 1988, the concentration of atmospheric carbon dioxide was 350 parts per million, up from the pre-industrial level of 280 ppm. May 2023 it reached 424 ppm, the highest in 3 million years. It’s now 419.10 ppm, up 50 percent and 1.22°C from the base level of the Holocene, the post-glacial period that has provided the climate stability for us to establish reliable agriculture and build our civilizations.
For the last two years, the effects of global warming have been hidden by the cooling effects of La Niña, which has reduced global temperature by about 0.2°C. This year is the beginning of an El Niño period, a warming part of the cycle that has increased temperature by about the same amount.
Even without global warming, the weather effects of El Niño at 0.2°C have always been evident: dryer and hotter summers with warmer and wetter winters. Now, at a base global temperature rise of 1.22°C—notably six times the El Niño effect—we are already getting a sample of the new normal: erratic and extreme precipitation events, scorching hot temperatures, an increased intensity of storms, and uncontrollable fires. A temperature rise of 1.5°C, to which we are hoping to limit warming, now seems unlikely, and we will be lucky to keep below 2.0°C. But this is the average global temperature; some places have already exceeded 2°C and others even 4°C.
June, July and August of 2023 recorded the hottest average temperatures since the Eemian interglacial period 120,000 years ago. July 6th reached 17.03°C, exceeding 16°C for the first time since records have been kept. Other days reached 17.23°C. And July 2023 averaged 17.2°C, the hottest month ever experienced by civilized humanity. By comparison, the average global temperature between 1901 and 2000 was only 13.8°C.
This temperature rise has profound implications for how we live on our planet, or even if we can continue to live in some places. Equally profound is the ecological impact. This is new territory for us as a civilized species, and for all the other living things with which we share an environment that is now undergoing radical changes.
Meanwhile, James Hansen, who has matured from a 47 year-old NASA climate scientist in 1988, is reviewing his life from the perspective of an 82 year-old senior. The present temperatures are worrisome. “This does not mean that the extreme heat at a particular place this year will recur and grow each year,” he said. “Weather fluctuations move things around. But the global average temperature will go up and the climate dice will be more and more loaded, including more extreme events” (Guardian Weekly, 19 July 2023). “Things will get worse before they get better.”
“These superstorms are a taste of the storms of my grandchildren. We are headed wittingly into the new reality – we knew it was coming.”
In reviewing his life as a climatologist, he confessed to “a sense of disappointment that we scientists did not communicate more clearly and that we did not elect leaders capable of a more intelligent response.”
“It means we are damned fools,” Hansen said of humanity’s ponderous and ineffective response to the promised climate crisis.
Ray Grigg for Sierra Quadra
Top image credit: Dr James Hansen – Photo by chesapeakeclimate via Flicker (CC BY SA, 2.0)