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Three Scenarios for the Future of Climate Change

Three Scenarios for the Future of Climate Change

Like millions of other Americans, I first learned about climate change in the summer of 1988. For its day, it was a scorcher: Yellowstone National Park burst into flames; the Mississippi River ran so low that almost four thousand barges got backed up at Memphis; and, for the first time in its history, Harvard University shut down owing to heat. It was on an afternoon when the mercury in Washington, D.C., hit ninety-eight degrees that James Hansen, then the head of nasa’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies, told a Senate committee that “the greenhouse effect has been detected and is changing our climate now.” Speaking to reporters after the hearing, Hansen went a step further: “It is time to stop waffling so much and say that the evidence is pretty strong that the greenhouse effect is here.”

Hansen’s warning was certainly not the first. A report to President Lyndon Johnson in 1965 noted that the effect of burning fossil fuels was likely to be “deleterious from the point of view of human beings.” Another report, prepared for the Department of Energy in 1979, predicted that even a relatively small increase in temperature could lead to the ultimate “disintegration” of the West Antarctic ice sheet, a process that would raise global sea levels by sixteen feet. A third report, also from 1979, found that, as carbon accumulated in the atmosphere, there was no doubt that the climate would change and “no reason to believe” that the change “will be negligible.”
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