The Climate Crisis is alive and thriving, a persistent embarrassing bummer that refuses to be wished away. It is, by far, the biggest threat we’ve faced in the entire human saga. We are, by far, the most unusual animals in the world, and we’ve bumbled and stumbled into a “deer in the headlights” situation of complete vulnerability. The Climate Crisis shrugs with indifference, and faithfully serves us what we’ve ordered… rough justice.
In human society, there is a modest level of agreement that the crisis is real and intensifying. There is vigorous disagreement over how severe the crisis may become, how quickly it may proceed, and whether there is anything non-idiotic we can do to soften impacts on the ecosystem.
Projections of long-term climate trends are based on computer models designed to predict how massively-complex natural processes are likely to interact over time, and how the consequences will affect life as we know it. “Every single worst-case prediction made by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) about the rise in temperatures, extreme weather, sea levels, and the increasing CO2 content in the atmosphere have fallen short of reality,” wrote climate journalist Dahr Jamail.
Following this rapidly moving field of knowledge is not easy, because it’s a whirlwind of arguing experts, misinformation, hard truths, and shameless marketing gibberish. The hard truths rarely appear in the daily headlines because they do not boost ratings, delight advertisers, or nurture consumer confidence. Consumers are constantly fed steaming balderdash about progress and miracles. Students might hear mild truths, if any (don’t scare the children!). Many of the hard truth discussions are written for an audience of scientists, not general readers.
Dahr Jamail is a journalist who is good at translating perplexing techno-jabber into ordinary English. He is a Texas-born, fourth generation Lebanese-American. In 1996, he moved to Alaska, where he got into mountain climbing. As the years passed, he could see that the glaciers were melting and retreating. The world was changing, and not in a good way. In 2003, the fates called him to become a war correspondent in Iraq and Afghanistan. In 2010, the BP disaster in the Gulf of Mexico seized his full attention, and he began covering the world war on our home, Earth.
Since then, he’s travelled extensively, visited highly impacted regions, chatted with locals, and received a full immersion baptism in bullshit-free reality. He’s written more than a hundred climate stories. In 2019, he published The End of Ice, a combo of fascinating travel journal, terrifying horror story, and voyage of personal growth. The book allows readers to see and feel the painful changes that are taking place, from the perspective of direct, feet on the ground, experience. Jamail is passionately interested in helping people understand the Climate Crisis. Ignorance is curable.
In Brazil, he was amazed by the Amazon rainforest. About one percent of the incoming sunlight makes it through the dense green canopy. It’s always warm, and close to 100 percent humidity. There isn’t much difference between day and night, or winter and summer. The birdsong symphony is amazing. Scientists have barely begun discovering the fantastic biodiversity of this rainforest. A 25 day expedition discovered 80 new species. Because of the rapid rate of destruction, countless species will go extinct before we learn of their existence.
This forest used to sequester carbon. Now, because of drought, fires, clear-cuts, and development, it’s releasing more carbon than all of the traffic in the U.S. Biologists who are overwhelmed by the stunning magnificence of the Amazon are deeply pained by the massive mindless destruction, and by the cold indifference of the world. People have no connection to the planet, no connection with anything.
A week after leaving the Amazon, Jamail arrived in the Inupiat village of Utqiagvik, Alaska (formerly Barrow), on the Arctic Ocean. The modern town is located east of the original village, which is decomposing, and collapsing into the sea. The waves will eventually wash away modern Utqiagvik too. Residents say that winters have been getting much shorter and warmer. The sea ice is thinning, breaking up, and retreating. Polar bears are gone.
A gravedigger said that in the past, solid permafrost was just 10 to 12 inches (25 to 30 cm) below the surface. Digging a grave took three days of strenuous chopping. Now, it only takes five hours or less. There are enormous deposits of permafrost scattered across the northern hemisphere. As permafrost thaws, it softens and the land sinks. In the thawing process, methane is released. In 2017, enormous methane craters began blowing open on Siberia’s Yamal Peninsula, and in Canada’s Northwest Territories. Big trouble is just getting warmed up.
NOTE: With warming, glaciers and ice “melt,” and permafrost deposits “thaw.” To avoid looking like a dolt, never forget this!
Jamail visited Glacier National Park, home to a formerly thriving boreal forest. A warming climate has delighted millions of hungry beetles, some of whom can now have two life cycles per year. In the last 20 years, beetles have killed 40 million acres (16 million ha) of trees. They kill fewer trees now, because fewer trees remain alive. The latest serial killer is white pine blister rust, which has infected almost 85 percent of the trees in the park.
Another stop was Australia’s Great Barrier Reef, which is busy dying. Because of warming and ocean acidification, most of the world’s coral will be gone by 2050. Oceans are absorbing more than 30 percent of the CO2 that humans emit. Carbon in the water promotes the formation of carbonic acid, which is harmful to coral, mollusks, and some types of plankton. Phytoplankton are tiny water plants that generate half of the planet’s oxygen supply. All of my best friends are chronic oxygen addicts.
Florida is a state that should learn how to swim. In the southern region, there are four national parks that “will be underwater in my lifetime.” Sea level is rising because ice is rapidly melting, and because warming seawater expands in volume. Salt water will eventually infiltrate the Florida freshwater aquifer. Miami’s drainage system was designed to operate by gravity. Rising sea levels and tides now prohibit the system from fully draining. Many homes in South Miami are on septic systems. These only work when they are above the water table. When this is not the case, bathtubs fill with raw sewage — a delightful surprise!
Anyway, zooming out to the bigger picture, current trends do not suggest that we are hippity-hopping down the golden path to a brighter future. “The last time there was this much carbon dioxide in the atmosphere was three million years ago, when temperatures were as high as they are expected to be in 2050, and sea levels were 70 feet (21 m) higher than they are today.” Back in those days there were trees growing on the South Pole.
“Even if we immediately stopped all greenhouse emissions, it would take another 25,000 years for the CO2 now in the atmosphere to be absorbed into the oceans.” So, the ice will continue melting, the seas will continue absorbing heat, the climate will continue warming, and the planet’s ecosystems will continue taking a merciless catastrophic beating. Ignorance pandemics don’t <bleep> around.
As readers move into the book’s homestretch, Jamail stops storytelling and looks them directly in the eye. It’s time for some heart-to-heart communication. Writing this book has been very painful. The folks he wrote about were not extremists, lunatics, or liars. In addition to his travels and interviews, he’s spent lots of time gathering additional information online. Paying close attention to eco-reality, year after year, is a miserable path.
Writers are often inspired by the hope that the work they do can inspire beneficial change. They hope that readers will see the light if blasted with a firehose of truth. Well, the world often enjoys taking long hard pisses on hope-filled dreams. It laughs at their grandiose hope in promoting real transformation. And so, the spurned dreamer hopes even harder. Eventually, Jamail wondered if there was any point in writing.
Hope is a turd in the swimming pool. Hope can’t undo the damage, or send the carbon back home, or resurrect the extinct, or make people care. The worst is yet to come. It’s time for grieving not hoping. Jamail took a nose dive into a deep depression, and eventually emerged hope-free, a great healing. He is now able to be present in reality, in the fullness of the darkness. He learned that it is possible for acceptance and inner peace to reside in the same heart with grief and suffering. “I have never felt more alive.”