A Really Long Heat Wave

The Long Thaw: How Humans Are Changing The Next 100,000 Years of Earth's Climate By David Archer, Princeton University Press, 180 pages, $22.95

Forecast: The Consequences Of Climate Change, From The Amazon To The Arctic, From Darfur To Napa Valley By Stephan Faris, Henry Holt and Co., 256 pages, $25.00

"Timescale" is a word one hears regularly from climate scientists like the University of Chicago's David Archer and rarely if ever from journalists like Stephan Faris. Reporters -- and I am one of them -- talk of time spans, time frames, time lines, and, of course, deadlines. But "timescale" conjures up an expanse of time so immense -- not just decades or centuries but millennia and beyond -- that it is alien to everyday human concerns and news media demands. Journalism is episodic and event-driven, always in search of the dramatic and the new. Global warming repeatedly fails that standard. A reporter cannot say "it happened today" of a phenomenon that is slow moving, incremental, and usually only detectable through statistical analysis.

And thus the disconnect that is one source of the unfolding tragedy of our time. As Archer notes in The Long Thaw, global warming could change the planet for the next 100,000 years, which is how long it may take for igneous rocks to "breathe" back in all the carbon dioxide we've released over just a few centuries. Scientists say the Holocene period of the earth's history is giving way to the Anthropocene -- we human beings are now driving the planet, recklessly pushing it to unimaginable disaster. But, hey, it's still not pressing; there's always some breaking news development with more apparent urgency.

Consider press treatment of the early 2007 release of the Fourth Assessment Report of the United Nations' Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. These U.N. reports, which come only once every five years or so, sum up the considered judgment of the international scientific community, and the 2007 report (whose authors were later awarded a Nobel Peace Prize along with Al Gore) flatly said that global warming is now "unequivocal" and predominantly human-caused. How did the press respond? According to an analysis by the Pew Research Center, global warming ranked fourth among news stories the week the report came out. In total coverage, it lagged behind Iraq, the 2008 presidential campaign (this was January of 2007), and tensions with Iran. By the next week, global warming had vanished from the roster of top stories entirely, supplanted by, among other things, the Super Bowl, the death of Anna Nicole Smith, and the bizarre story of an astronaut "love triangle" that ended in attempted murder and kidnapping charges.

How to overcome this seemingly undefeatable presentism? Hollywood tried to dramatize global warming in the 2004 movie The Day After Tomorrow, which showed the climate catastrophe happening all at once. But that isn't remotely plausible, and many climate scientists scoffed at the film.

Atlantic writer Stephan Faris seeks to wring drama out of global warming in a different way, by reporting on far-flung signs of incipient trouble. Luckily, he has had a generous travel budget, because it's hard to feel deeply inconvenienced by global warming in the continental United States today. Yes, there are ominous hints of changes, but they're hard to attribute definitively. Can we detect a climate signal in the increased incidence of wildfires or hurricanes? Despite Faris' attention to Key West and New Orleans, the contribution of global warming to Atlantic hurricane activity in recent decades remains murky. All of which shows how hard it is to look at this issue on an annual or decadal timescale -- to look at it as a journalist. Take Faris' trip to Darfur: A drought has exacerbated conflict there, and it's precisely the kind of drought one would expect to result from climate change. But direct causal attribution isn't possible, as the author fully acknowledges.

The truth is that we've only seen a modest warming of less than a full degree Celsius so far, globally averaged. We're taking global warming's baby steps: Scientists didn't even fully agree on the phenomenon's human causation until around 1995. And it's still hard to pin down conclusively some effects of climate change, save in certain parts of the world where temperatures are running well ahead of the global average. In the Arctic, for example, global warming has been dramatically amplified, just as the computerized climate models have predicted for decades that it would be. Faris visits Churchill, Manitoba, which "may be the best place in the world" to see a polar bear. But the ice is shrinking, the bears are struggling, and the ground is denaturing thanks to thawing permafrost. Here, global warming has already arrived.

Climate change has also arrived in the calculus of the insurance industry, which has to look at global losses in aggregate. The big reinsurers are shaking up the business, hiring climate scientists and modelers and trying to estimate the impact of global warming on their risks (and raise rates accordingly). Faris can't definitively blame global warming for recent U.S. hurricane calamities, but as he shows, the insurers take that hypothesis seriously and are giving up on an old premise of their business -- that the future will be like the past.

The biggest threat of climate change, however, is not to those with property to insure but to the world's poor. As Faris observes, environmental changes hit the socio-economically vulnerable the hardest, often tipping them over the edge, especially in the developing world. Global warming is never the sole cause of crisis (not yet anyway; the seas haven't risen enough to force the evacuation of Bangladesh). But if you add a drought to all the other woes in Sudan, you get Darfur. Global warming, writes Faris in one of his best observations, is like "the effect of hunger in a person." It weakens, it gnaws, and though it may not be the sole cause of death, it pushes you in that direction.

Faris writes as if he wants to be named global warming's top stylist, an honor for which he'll have to battle Elizabeth Kolbert of The New Yorker. Archer, in contrast, can't bowl us over with narrative or prose. A scientist by trade, he would rather say "CaCO3" than "calcium carbonate" and insists on writing out the Stefan-Boltzmann relation, which governs the rate at which an object (like the earth) gives off infrared radiation. But while his book is at times slow-going, it is also perhaps more powerful if you can get through it. For with Archer we are dealing with awesome time-scales far beyond our usual short-term frame of reference.

Since the beginning of the industrial revolution, roughly 200 years ago, we've jacked up atmospheric carbon-dioxide concentrations by more than 100 parts per million, from around 278 to, as of 2007, 383. If we use every last bit of fossil fuel, we can probably get coal, though not oil, to last us a few more centuries. By then, parts per million will far exceed the danger zone threshold of 500. We will be committed to thoroughly melted ice sheets and tens of meters of global sea-level rise. Forget New York, Shanghai, and many other major coastal cities. Or rather, they will only be memories.

The power of Archer's book is to show that such changes, which we can bring about through just a few centuries of partying on carbon, can only be matched by the earth itself over vastly longer periods. If you just go back a few thousand years, natural climate variability only produced the Little Ice Age (1300 to 1800 AD) and the Medieval Optimum (a warm period from 800 to 1300 AD). These were blips of around .5 or 1 degree Celsius in either direction, globally averaged. That's child's play: We've already nearly matched or exceeded it. Archer calls such changes "subtle" and notes that they're mostly felt in specific regions running ahead of the global average. This is the kind of climate change -- the "subtle" kind -- that Faris is covering now as a journalist.

Only if you go back 18,000 to 21,000 years in the earth's history do you begin to see really unsubtle changes, this time of a cooling variety. At that time the planet was 5 to 6 degrees Celsius cooler, with sea levels more than 100 meters lower than at present, because so much of the water was frozen on land. Peering back hundreds of thousands of years, glacial and interglacial periods flipped on and off due to the earth's orbital variations. Once again, Archer emphasizes, with just a few centuries of fossil-fuel burning, we can outdo these swings of the planet and take the "reins" of climate.

Further back still was the hothouse world of more than 35 million years ago, with crocodiles in Greenland, no great ice sheets, and sea levels vastly higher than anything we can conceive of. This is the planet whose return we could commit ourselves to unless we do something serious to change course. It's a world that could ultimately see up to 70 meters of sea-level rise. And once that happens, the only way for the earth to readjust itself will be through the 100,000-year process of "weathering," as carbon dioxide gradually drains out of the atmosphere.

Archer has now gone geologic on us. It's the kind of perspective we need in order to realize how insane we're being. He writes, "Civilized humanity has never seen a climate change as severe as global warming." It will make the disruptions that Faris writes about -- the Darfurs -- seem minor in comparison.

Somewhere in the global warming future lies the catastrophic collapse of the ice sheets of Greenland. We know we're committing to it at some point unless we act. Already scientists are very concerned about a variety of warning signs, including more glacial earthquakes and faster discharge of ice into the sea. We don't know how stable Greenland is; it may prove resilient, or it could be fatefully tipped toward melting this century. We do know that if it entirely collapses, it will change the face of the planet, unleashing seven meters of sea-level rise globally (after the transatlantic tsunami subsides). Ten meters of sea-level rise, it is estimated, would displace 10 percent of humanity. That, finally, would be news.

Faris and Archer, with their very differently scaled perspectives on global warming, add to a growing shelf of climate books published in the past few years. Without anything approaching adequate shorter-term media attention, books and the occasional film like An Inconvenient Truth have instead sounded the most eloquent alarms. That's not enough to reach or move a present-minded country like ours, but then, you don't have to move every last person. There's good reason to hope that the Obama administration and congressional leaders will disregard the immediate pressures and finally take these warnings seriously enough to act.