Sunday, 13 August 2017

The Uninhabitable Earth Famine, economic collapse, a sun that cooks us: What climate change could wreak — sooner than you think.

We published “The Uninhabitable Earth” on Sunday night, and the response since has been extraordinary — both in volume (it is already the most-read article in New York Magazine’s history) and in kind. Within hours, the article spawned a fleet of commentary across newspapers, magazines, blogs, and Twitter, much of which came from climate scientists and the journalists who cover them.

Some of this conversation has been about the factual basis for various claims that appear in the article. To address those questions, and to give all readers more context for how the article was reported and what further reading is available, we are publishing here a version of the article filled with research annotations. They include quotations from scientists I spoke with throughout the reporting process; citations to scientific papers, articles, and books I drew from; additional research provided by my colleague Julia Mead; and context surrounding some of the more contested claims. Since the article was published, we have made four corrections and adjustments, which are noted in the annotations (as well as at the end of the original version). They are all minor, and none affects the central project of the story: to apply the best science we have today to the median and high-end “business-as-usual” warming projections produced by the U.N.’s “gold standard” Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.

But the debate this article has kicked up is less about specific facts than the article’s overarching conceit. Is it helpful, or journalistically ethical, to explore the worst-case scenarios of climate change, however unlikely they are? How much should a writer contextualize scary possibilities with information about how probable those outcomes are, however speculative those probabilities may be? What are the risks of terrifying or depressing readers so much they disengage from the issue, and what should a journalist make of those risks?

I hope, in the annotations and commentary below, I have added some context. But I also believe very firmly in the set of propositions that animated the project from the start: that the public does not appreciate the scale of climate risk; that this is in part because we have not spent enough time contemplating the scarier half of the distribution curve of possibilities, especially its brutal long tail, or the risks beyond sea-level rise; that there is journalistic and public-interest value in spreading the news from the scientific community, no matter how unnerving it may be; and that, when it comes to the challenge of climate change, public complacency is a far, far bigger problem than widespread fatalism — that many, many more people are not scared enough that are already “too scared.” In fact, I don’t even understand what “too scared” would mean. The science says climate change threatens nearly every aspect of human life on this planet, and that inaction will hasten the problems. In that context, I don’t think it’s a slur to call an article, or its writer, alarmist. I’ll accept that characterization. We should be alarmed.

I. ‘Doomsday’

Peering beyond scientific reticence.
It is, I promise, worse than you think. If your anxiety about global warming is dominated by fears of sea-level rise, you are barely scratching the surface of what terrors are possible, even within the lifetime of a teenager today. And yet the swelling seas — and the cities they will drown — have so dominated the picture of global warming, and so overwhelmed our capacity for climate panic, that they have occluded our perception of other threats, many much closer at hand. Rising oceans are bad, in fact very bad; but fleeing the coastline will not be enough.

Indeed, absent a significant adjustment to how billions of humans conduct their lives, parts of the Earth will likely become close to uninhabitable, and other parts horrifically inhospitable, as soon as the end of this century.The most credible prediction of the effects of climate change comes from the U.N.’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, which issues regular reports synthesizing the latest science. The IPCC’s median business-as-usual projection for warming by 2100 is about four degrees, which would expose half the world’s population to unprecedented heat stress, according to Steven C. Sherwood and Matthew Huber’s landmark study on the subject.

“I haven’t learned anything since publishing that paper,” Sherwood, a professor at UNSW Sydney, Kensington, told me. “It looks to me that at that those numbers — four to six degrees — you’d start to see the tropics evacuating because people wouldn’t be able to live there. It might be less than four degrees. But around four degrees or five degrees would be the point where people would be finding it unbearable.”

It wouldn’t just be heat stress driving people away, he said. “A combination of heat stress and other things. I think you’d start to see crop failures, damage to the biosphere. Keep in mind, in the tropics, two or three degrees takes the environment outside the range of natural variability.”

As Richard Alley of Pennsylvania State University told me, “under rapid emissions, by the end of the century, 40 percent of the ability of people to work outside would be lost.” How likely is this median, “business-as-usual” outcome? It’s difficult to say, unfortunately, given how many and how variable the inputs would be for any projections: emissions rates, the pace of technological change, cultural changes, and public policy, all on top of what is already a quite complicated (and not entirely understood) natural system that delivers both amplifying and moderating feedbacks to human-produced greenhouse-gas effects.

In some ways, it is easiest to talk about that business-as-usual model, because it holds so many of those variables constant. But, since a number of readers have wondered about those probabilities, I’ll mention a couple of estimates that seemed helpful, to me, in establishing the general lay of the land. In my interview with Michael Oppenheimer, of Princeton, he told me that he’d estimate our chances of staying below the Paris accord’s goal of two-degrees warming at 10 percent. In my interview with Wallace Smith Broecker, of Columbia, he mentioned some research he’d followed whereby researchers ran a single model many, many times to generate a range of probabilities; “The mean was about 3.5 degrees Celsius of warming,” he told me. “But it showed there was something like 15 percent probability that it’d be more than four degrees, just on these model runs.” And in their book Climate Shock: The Economic Consequences of a Hotter Planet, Gernot Wagner and Martin Weitzman estimate a 15 percent chance that we overshoot six degrees.

These models make a variety of assumptions, both about natural systems and man-made response, but collectively they do suggest, to me at least, that we have been far too focused on the optimistic possibilities (which bring us to 2100 at or under two degrees warming) and not nearly focused enough on the more dire ones. As Joseph Romm wrote in Climate Change: What Everyone Needs to Know, “Any time this book or any news report cites an IPCC projection of future warming or future climate impacts, it is almost certain that projection represents an underestimate of what is to come.”

Even when we train our eyes on climate change, we are unable to comprehend its scope. This past winter, a string of days 60 and 70 degrees warmer than normal baked the North Pole, “This is a little bit shocking,” Ketil Isaksen of the Norwegian Meteorological Institute said of the temperatures melting the permafrost

“When we built the seed vault, there was not even discussion of the permafrost,” Hege Njaa Aschim, the press representative of the organization that oversees the project, told me. But the weather last winter, she said, was “like a Norwegian summer.” “We didn’t come up with the term doomsday vault,” Cary Fowler, the mastermind of the seed vault, told me. “The idea there was to provide an insurance policy, so if anything were to happen to those other facilities, it wouldn’t be an extinction event.” that encased Norway’s Svalbard seed vault — a global food bank nicknamed “Doomsday,” designed to ensure that our agriculture survives any catastrophe, and which appeared to have been flooded by climate change less than ten years after being built.

The Doomsday Vault is fine, for now: The structure has been secured and the seeds are safe. Fowler was emphatic on this point to me — there had been a wave of press coverage that presented the flooding as something catastrophic, rather than a breach that let melt water in just 15 or 20 meters down a much-longer tunnel that leads from the exterior of the mountain into the seed vault’s “cathedral” room, from which the storage facilities fan. But treating the episode as a parable of impending flooding missed the more important news.

Until recently, permafrost was not a major concern of climate scientists, because, as the name suggests, it was soil that stayed permanently frozen. But Arctic permafrost contains 1.8 trillion tons of carbon, in this paper, it’s calculated by petagrams; 1,672 petagrams is about 1.8 trillion tons. more than twice as much. This is from Joseph Romm’s Climate Change, page 81 (in the paperback edition). The book was an invaluable resource in researching this article, and I highly recommend it to anyone interested in picking up where this piece leaves off as is currently suspended in the Earth’s atmosphere.

When it thaws and is released, that carbon may evaporate as methane, which is 34 times as powerful a greenhouse-gas warming blanket as carbon dioxide when judged on the timescale of a century; when judged on the time scale of two decades, it is 86 times as powerful. This is also from Romm, also page 81. You can read more about methane’s greenhouse effects here. In other words, we have trapped in Arctic permafrost, twice as much carbon as is currently wrecking the atmosphere of the planet, all of it scheduled to be released at a date that keeps getting moved up, partially in the form of a gas that multiplies its warming power 86 times over. There has been a fair amount of criticism of my use of this material. Michael Mann, in particular, has faulted me for it; in his initial Facebook post about the story, he wrote that “the science doesn’t support the notion of a game-changing, planet-melting methane bomb.” At Climate Feedback, several other scientists took issue with various aspects of my characterization as well.

There is little doubt that this permafrost is melting quickly. According to the IPCC’s Fifth Assessment, by 2100, “it is virtually certain that near-surface permafrost extent at high northern latitudes will be reduced as global mean surface temperature increases, with the area of permafrost near the surface (upper 3.5 m) projected to decrease by 37% (RCP2.6) to 81% (RCP8.5) for the multi-model average.” But there is some important context I did not include here: Few scientists believe there is a substantial risk of methane release from permafrost happening suddenly, or all at once.

Also, most of the carbon will likely escape as C02, not methane. In retrospect, I sympathize with those who find misleading the phrase “all of it scheduled to be released at a date that keeps getting moved up.” The schedule I was referring to was the melting, which will take decades; the thawing is a process, not an event.

I believe that my original description of the possibility of the methane release lacked some relevant (reassuring) context.

But I do not believe the science was fundamentally misrepresented here: There is that much carbon in the permafrost; the permafrost is melting at accelerating rates; some of the carbon will be released as methane, and methane is a stronger greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide.

My intention in referencing the permafrost was to illustrate, for readers unfamiliar with the particulars of projection models, how many uncertain factors were at play — how many forces we don’t understand, and how possibly significant those forces could be in the warming of the planet. As Joseph Romm writes,

“The thawing tundra or permafrost may well be the single most important amplifying carbon-cycle feedback. Yet, none of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s climate models include carbon dioxide or methane emissions from warming tundra as a feedback.”

He also writes, “A 2011 study by the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the National Snow and Ice Data Center found that thawing permafrost will turn the Arctic from a place that stores carbon (a sink) to a place that generates carbon (a source) in the 2020s—and release a hundred billion tons of carbon by 2100.” That study, he says, assumes none of the carbon will be released as methane, and yet still predicts a release “equivalent to half the amount of carbon that has been released into the atmosphere since the dawn of the industrial age.”

To be additionally clear, none of the warming scenarios described in the remainder of this article is built on the premise of a methane release from permafrost. They all extrapolate from the median and high-end IPCC projections for business-as-usual warming.

Even if you take issue with my characterization of the threat from permafrost melt, it does not affect my discussion of any of the risks that follow. The permafrost melt is a wild card which could add to those IPCC projections. (Romm calculates it could add a degree of warming by 2100 all on its own.)

For those who are really interested in reading about methane, there are also the clathrates to consider — bubbles of methane at the bottom of the ocean, which many energy companies are now hoping to mine. Speaking about those with me, Lee Kump, a Penn State geoscientist, had this to say: “We haven’t really anticipated these positive feedbacks — for instance, these pockets of methane. That methane starts bubbling out, that’s a potent greenhouse gas. As that spreads throughout the globe, there’s a tremendous potential there for methane hydrates release.” He went on: “As you move towards the poles, we’re already seeing the consequences of warming there in terms of methane release.”

Maybe you know that already — there are alarming stories in the news every day, like those, last month, that seemed to suggest satellite data showed the global warming since 1998 more than twice as fast as scientists had thought (in fact, the underlying story was considerably less alarming than the headlines).

This reference to recent, alarming news generated a fair amount of pushback among scientists. We’ve adjusted the text to make clear that, while many outlets did describe the study in these terms — in the Washington Post, for instance: “Satellite temperature data, leaned on sharply by climate change doubters, revised sharply upward”) — the actual news was much less dramatic. There was satellite data that was revised upward, but it was data that had been previously interpreted to be below estimates and adjacent data sets, and was revised to bring it more or less into line with those estimates and data sets (that is, it did not change the big-picture assessment of how fast the planet was warming).

In general, I agree with this characterization, by Carl Mears, who wrote the study: “This sentence is true for RSS data,” he told Climate Feedback. “But it’s somewhat misleading due to lack of context.” The paper on which the news was based can be found here. Or the news from Antarctica this past May, when a crack in an ice shelf grew 11 miles in six days, then kept going; the break now has just three miles to go — by the time you read this, it may already have met the open water, where it will drop into the sea one of the biggest icebergs ever, a process known poetically as “calving.”As readers have pointed out, there is a debate within the scientific community about whether this calving is a natural process or the result of climate change. In either case, it is alarming news, given that the ice now loosed into the ocean will melt faster. And, of course, the calving has since occurred.

But no matter how well-informed you are, you are surely not alarmed enough. Over the past decades, our culture has gone apocalyptic with zombie movies and Mad Max dystopias, perhaps the collective result of displaced climate anxiety, and yet when it comes to contemplating real-world warming dangers, we suffer from an incredible failure of imagination. The reasons for that are many: the timid language of scientific probabilities, which the climatologist James Hansen once called “scientific reticence” That paper can be found here.

Hansen spoke about this with me: “You’re rewarded in science for not stepping out too rapidly,” he said. in a paper chastising scientists for editing their own observations so conscientiously that they failed to communicate how dire the threat really was; the fact that the country is dominated by a group of technocrats who believe any problem can be solved and an opposing culture that doesn’t even see warming as a problem worth addressing; the way that climate denialism has made scientists even more cautious in offering speculative warnings; the simple speed of change and, also, its slowness, such that we are only seeing effects now of warming from decades past Hansen also spoke about this with me: “The fundamental difficulty is the delayed response — the inertia of the climate system. The ocean is deep and the ice sheets are three kilometres thick, and they don’t respond quickly to what is really a weak forcing. And so the system has only partially responded to the forcing we’ve put up already.

There’s more in the pipeline. You’re talking about a system that responds on the timescale of decades to centuries — that’s a different time constant than the political constant.”; our uncertainty about uncertainty, which the climate writer Naomi Oreskes, in particular, has suggested stops us from preparing as though anything worse than a median outcome were even possible One especially good paper by Oreskes can be found here.; the way we assume climate change will hit hardest elsewhere, not everywhere; the smallness (two degrees This is the warming target, in Celsius, of the Paris climate accord agreement.) and largeness (1.8 trillion tons This is the amount of carbon in the permafrost (see Note No. 8).) and abstractness (400 parts per million This is the current concentration of CO2 in the atmosphere.) of the numbers; the discomfort of considering a problem that is very difficult, if not impossible, to solve; the altogether incomprehensible scale of that problem, which amounts to the prospect of our own annihilation; simple fear. But aversion arising from fear is a form of denial, too.

In between scientific reticence and science fiction is science itself. This article is the result of dozens of interviews and exchanges with climatologists and researchers in related fields and reflects hundreds of scientific papers on the subject of climate change. What follows is not a series of predictions of what will happen — that will be determined in large part by the much-less-certain science of human response. Instead, it is a portrait of our best understanding of where the planet is heading absent aggressive action. It is unlikely that all of these warming scenarios will be fully realized, largely because the devastation along the way will shake our complacency. But those scenarios, and not the present climate, are the baseline. In fact, they are our schedule.

These five sentences were the focal point of much of the debate among scientists surrounding this piece: Were they explicit enough to explain to readers that this article would be a tour of worst-case scenarios, and was not intended to be read as a prediction of likely outcomes? And furthermore, was such a worst-case-scenario tour irresponsible, given that they are not the most likely scenarios? For some of the most thoughtful commentary on all sides of the debate, I recommend reading the essays by Susan Matthews, David Roberts, and Robinson Meyer.

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The present tense of climate change — the destruction we’ve already baked into our future — is horrifying enough. Joseph Romm, in Climate Change: “Many cornerstone elements of our climate began changing far faster than most scientists had projected. The Arctic began losing sea ice several decades ahead of every single climate model used by the IPCC, which in turn means the Arctic region warmed up even faster than scientists expected. At the same time, the great ice sheets of Greenland and Antarctica, which contain enough water to raise sea levels ultimately 25–80 meters (80–260 feet), have begun disintegrating ‘a century ahead of schedule,’ as Richard Alley, a leading climatologist put it in 2005. In 2014 and 2015, we learned that both ice sheets are far less stable than we realized, and they are dangerously close to tipping points that would lead to irreversible collapse and dramatic rates of sea level rise.”
Most people talk as if Miami and Bangladesh still have a chance of surviving; most of the scientists I spoke with assume we’ll lose them within the century, even if we stop burning fossil fuel in the next decade.
Peter Ward told me Bangladesh is “doomed”: “The worst place on earth has to be Bangladesh because it’s not just the covering, it’s the sideways salt problem that will doom them. The scary thing is that the direct cover is what people cite, but they ignore, to date, the sideways infiltration of salt.

And this, again, just a slight rise in sea level causes a huge problem. And, as you know, as the sea level rises, it’s like a diving board for storm surge. You’re causing storm surge to jump ever further inland, and that in itself means huge inundation — it doesn’t have to be the rise to destroy the crops. It’s just a bad, bad situation. Bangladesh — you cover it up, where are those people going to go?”  

In Bangladesh, 40 percent of the land is projected to be lost with just 65 centimetres (just over two feet) sea-level rise. Could some of this flooding be avoided if the world zeroed out emissions immediately and entirely (if the Paris accords legislated 100 percent carbon-neutral energy and industry and land use)? Some, possibly.

But one 2012 study by Climate Analytics suggested that even if the planet eliminated emissions entirely by 2016 a best-possible-case outcome would be a sea-level rise of 59 centimetres by 2100 — just about exactly that two feet of rising that would cover 40 percent of the country. A few of the other scientists I spoke with weren’t quite as definitive as Ward, but in general agreed that no plausible emissions-reduction regime could stop the planet from reaching about 1.5 degrees warming by the end of the century, which will produce some quite problematic sea-level effect. “Forty or 50 years from now we’ll be at doubled carbon dioxide,” Wallace Smith Broecker told me. “And that will be away above — we may not be above two degrees at that point, because the ocean is sucking up a lot of heat, and we have to heat up the ocean. And that’s one thing — the melting of the ice. Of course, that involves almost all the major cities in the world, which are on the ocean. Bangladesh and Florida and so forth.”

That same two-foot sea-level rise would increase flooding in Miami Beach and other Miami barrier islands about a hundredfold, according to Doug Marcy of the NOAA, working from data centred on nearby Virginia Key. Here is one good report on the threat to Miami and South Florida generally. Two degrees of warming used to be considered the threshold of catastrophe: tens of millions of climate refugees unleashed upon an unprepared world. James Hansen has been especially vocal about the risks of a two-degrees-warmer world. Now two degrees is our goal, per the Paris climate accords, and experts give us only slim odds of hitting it. For instance, this expert. The U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change issues serial reports often called the “gold standard” of climate research; the most recent one projects us to hit four degrees of warming by the beginning of the next century, should we stay the present course. But that’s just a median projection. The upper end of the probability curve runs as high as eight degrees. See the U.N,’s Summary for Policymakers. — and the authors still haven’t figured out how to deal with that permafrost melt. 

The IPCC reports also don’t fully account for the albedo effect (less ice means less reflected and more absorbed sunlight, hence more warming); more cloud cover (which traps heat)At Climate Feedback, Ted Letcher calls this a “gross oversimplification.” However, he goes on to say that, “The IPCC report does generally show a net positive cloud feedback, indicating global cloud feedbacks will lead to additional warming.”; or the dieback of forests and other flora (which extract carbon from the atmosphere).Some of these effects are included in the IPCC reports, but this assessment of how fully they’ve been incorporated comes from a fact-checking conversation with Michael Oppenheimer (separate from the original reporting interview). 

Oppenheimer is not only one of the world’s leading authorities on climate change, he has also been closely involved through the years with the IPCC project. Some scientists have argued that the IPCC has modelled some of these effects, and they are correct in the sense that the reports include many, many divergent models, emphasized to different degrees and given different amounts of prominence in their reports. But on the question of just how fully those reports account for these effects, I’m with Oppenheimer. Each of these promises to accelerate warming, As some scientists have pointed out, there are also feedback loops that work in the opposite direction, though they are generally considered to be less powerful, so that the net effect remains “positive” (that is, amplifying warming). As Joseph Romm points out, “In 2011, Science published a major review, ‘Lessons from Earth’s Past,’ which suggested that carbon dioxide ‘may have at least twice the effect on global temperatures than currently projected by computer models.’” and the history of the planet shows that temperature can shift as much as five degrees Celsius within thirteen years. This phrase has been updated to more accurately reflect the rate of warming during the Palaeocene–Eocene Thermal Maximum. The last time the planet was even four degrees warmer, Peter Brannen points out in The Ends of the World, his new history of the planet’s major extinction events, Brannen’s book is a very engaging way into the history of mass extinctions (and he was a very helpful interview, too). This sentence was updated to correct a reference to Brannen’s book. the oceans were hundreds of feet higher.*

The Earth has experienced five mass extinctions here is an even shorter way into the history. Before the one we are living through now, In their book Dire Predictions, Michael Mann and Lee Kump estimate that four degrees of warming would eliminate between 40 and 70 percent of the world’s species. At 2.2 degrees, we’d lose between 15 and 37 percent each to complete a slate-wiping of the evolutionary record it functioned as a resetting of the planetary clock,

“To me, the mass extinctions were really interesting in terms of what happens after them — we have this dead period, and the recovery fauna is totally different,” Peter Ward told me. “And that leads to the idea of, Gee, how much longer will the recovery be if we have an extinction now?” and many climate scientists will tell you they are the best analogue for the ecological future we are diving headlong into.“To find analogue worlds for the future, we have to go way back in Earth’s history,” Lee Kump told me.

“Each of these events, including the modern situation, starts with a trigger. In the past it’s been a volcanic eruption, now its fossil-fuel burning, but it’s a very analogous perturbation to the system. But then it’s amplified by hidden feedbacks that get activated from the initial warming, and bring that warming even further.” Unless you are a teenager, you probably read in your high-school textbooks that these extinctions were the result of asteroids. In fact, all but the one that killed the dinosaurs were caused by climate change produced by greenhouse gas.“

Impact was key, and king, for the 1980s and 1990s — every one of the big extinctions was attributed to impact,” Peter Ward told me. “But it became clear that, in fact, no, these were not Impact extinctions. We had to invent a new term. I don’t know who came up with it first, but I was in there pretty early calling them greenhouse extinctions. And this new paradigm started coming into play. We’re even starting to see that K–T [the extinction that killed off the dinosaurs] also has a greenhouse component — because there was warming right at the Impact.” 

The most notorious was 252 million years ago; it began when carbon warmed the planet by five degrees, accelerated when that warming triggered the release of methane in the Arctic and ended with 97 percent of all life on Earth dead. 

For more about the end-Permian mass extinction, see this National Geographic article, this article from, and my interview with Peter Ward. In Climate Feedback’s scientist survey, Lee Kump took issue with my description of the role of methane in the end-Permian extinction:

“Whether methane was released remains speculative, although not unlikely.” Speaking about the same extinction event to me, he was much less equivocal: “That was triggered by volcanic eruption — in this case in Siberia, one of the biggest volcanic events of all time. And that had the predictable effects — release of CO2, methane, and ultimately mass extinctions.” We are currently adding carbon to the atmosphere at a considerably faster rate; by most estimates, at least ten times faster.“Maximum rates of carbon emissions for both the PETM and the end-Permian is about 1 billion tons of carbon, and right now we’re at 10 billion tons of carbon,” Lee Kump told me. “The duration of both of those events was much longer than fossil-fuel burning will go on, and so the total amount is lower — but not by a factor of ten. By a factor of two or three.”

According to the World Bank, “The present CO2 concentration is higher than paleo climatic and geologic evidence indicates has occurred at any time in the last 15 million years.” The rate is accelerating.“It’s going completely in the wrong direction, with no sign that the planet as a whole has the problem under control,” Kevin Trenberth, a senior scientist at the National Center for Atmospheric Research, told Inside Climate News. As Joseph Romm puts it, “The current rate of increase in global warming is roughly the same as detonating 400,000 Hiroshima bombs per day, 365 days per year.” This is what Stephen Hawking had in mind when he said, this spring, that the species needs to colonize other planets in the next century to survive, and what drove Elon Musk, last month, to unveil his plans to build a Mars habitat in 40 to 100 years. These are no specialists, of course, and probably as inclined to irrational panic as you or I. But the many sober-minded scientists I interviewed over the past several months — the most credentialed and tenured in the field, few of them inclined to alarmism and many advisers to the IPCC who nevertheless criticize its conservatism — have quietly reached an apocalyptic conclusion, too: No plausible program of emissions reductions alone can prevent climate disaster. See, for instance, my interviews with James Hansen and Wallace Smith Broecker.

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Over the past few decades, the term “Anthropocene” has climbed out of academic discourse and into the popular imagination — a name given to the geologic era we live in now, and a way to signal that it is a new era, defined on the wall chart of deep history by human intervention. One problem with the term is that it implies a conquest of nature (and even echoes the biblical “dominion”). And however sanguine you might be about the proposition that we have already ravaged the natural world, which we surely have, it is another thing entirely to consider the possibility that we have only provoked it, engineering first in ignorance and then in denial a climate system that will now go to war with us for many centuries, perhaps until it destroys us. That is what Wallace Smith Broecker, the avuncular oceanographer who coined the term “global warming,” means when he calls the planet an “angry beast.”“The climate system is an angry beast and we are poking it with sticks.” You could also go with “war machine.” Each day we arm it more.

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