What to Tell Your Kids About Climate Change
Climate change is the greatest challenge of our time: On the one hand, it’s easy to stay complacent in the face of a threat that is very abstract; on the other, it all feels depressingly apocalyptic. Journalist Mark Hertsgaard reported on climate change throughout his career, but it wasn’t until his daughter was born that he began working on Hot: Living Through the Next Fifty Years on Earth, his comprehensive deep-dive into global warming. The book represents Hertsgaard’s argument for recognizing the severe consequences of global warming, halting the paralytic apathy, and recognizing what can be done.
In Hot, Hertsgaard takes on the daunting task of imagining what the world will look like as his daughter grows up—including which cities and regions might be best suited (geographically or otherwise) to thrive under hotter conditions. As it turns out, the safest places to live might have little to do with altitude and a lot to do with politics.
A Q&A with Mark Hertsgaard
If we could magically shut off emissions today, what effects would we still see or are we already locked into ongoing climate change?
When I interviewed David King, he offered this hypothetical: Even if we stopped all emissions overnight—which would mean stopping nearly all of the world’s cars, trucks, and airplanes, shutting all the coal plants, and much more—global temperatures would still keep increasing for 25 to 30 more years. As temperatures rose, the associated climate impacts—harsher heat waves, deeper droughts, stronger storms—would increase as well.
So yes, we’re locked into a hotter, more volatile planet going forward. But that’s all the more reason for taking action NOW to reverse these trends.
Halting emissions overnight is, of course, impossible, but with effort humanity could shift to a zero-carbon global economy within twenty years. Add those twenty to the thirty years of temperature rise that are already locked in and you see the reason for the sub-title of Hot: Global temperatures will likely keep rising for another fifty years.
What effects will that have? That depends partly on how our societies prepare.
“Halting emissions overnight is, of course, impossible, but with effort humanity could shift to a zero-carbon global economy within twenty years.”
For example, sea level rise is bound to accelerate on a hotter planet—ice sheets will melt and warmer oceans will expand—but humans can limit the damage involved. In San Francisco, where Chiara and I live, the level of San Francisco Bay is projected to rise 16 inches by 2050. That’s enough to put the runways of San Francisco International Airport under water; ditto with the eastern end of our new $6.5 billion Bay Bridge. To their credit, officials are planning to fortify the sea walls around the airport; alas, no such plans have been announced for the Bay Bridge.
Can you explain the significance of the “2 degrees” raise we hear everyone talking about? Is it even a realistic goal anymore?
The baseline here is the average temperature that prevailed on earth before the Industrial Revolution started releasing an excessive amount of greenhouse gases. This is the temperature to which humans and agriculture have adapted over our 10,000 years of civilization—pretty important! The 2 degrees target refers to the goal of limiting global warming to 2 degrees Celsius (3.6 degrees Fahrenheit) above this pre-industrial level.
The 2 degrees goal was officially embraced in 2009 at the United Nations-sponsored climate change summit when most of the world’s governments signed the Copenhagen Accord that was championed by President Obama. At the time, 2 degrees was seen as a relatively “safe” amount of global warming, but this increasingly looks mistaken. Since 2009, extreme weather events have occurred with increasing frequency and human costs. Record heat and drought have parched California, Texas, Brazil, China, Australia, Russia, and other key agricultural areas. Hurricane Sandy, the largest “super-storm” on record, flooded parts of New York City and its environs. All this and much more has occurred, even as the average global temperature has risen by “only” 1 degree Celsius so far.
“Because plants inhale CO2 and store it in their roots, stems, and leaves, humans can remove CO2 from the atmosphere by growing trees, planting cover crops, and burying plant material underground.”
The good news is that, yes, we can still limit temperature rise to 2 degrees Celsius, or even less. The mainstream media tends to quote only partisans of the status quo who claim that the 2 degrees target is now out of reach, but that’s not necessarily true. A little-noticed study that experts at the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impacts in Germany—now arguably the world’s leading climate science center—published in Nature Climate Change in May 2015 outlines steps for limiting temperature rise to 1.5 Celsius, as more than one hundred of the world’s governments have urged. That 1.5 degrees aspiration was officially endorsed by the world as a whole at the United Nations climate conference in Paris last December.
Perhaps the most crucial innovation we need—what I call the photosynthesis option—could in effect turn back the clock on global warming. Because plants inhale CO2 and store it in their roots, stems, and leaves, humans can remove CO2 from the atmosphere by growing trees, planting cover crops, and burying plant material underground. Research and testing at the Rodale Institute in Pennsylvania suggest that a shift to such organic agriculture methods “could sequester more than 100 percent of current annual CO2 emissions” worldwide. But such methods must be brought to scale much faster than is currently being done.
In Hot, you talk about managing the unavoidable and avoiding the unmanageable: basically, balancing the need to prepare for future changes while continuing to reduce emissions. Does focusing on preparation distract people from the need to reduce emissions?
It doesn’t have to, and it’d better not because at this late date there’s no avoiding this twin imperative. The climate impacts we’re experiencing after “only” 1 degree Celsius of temperature rise are destructive enough, and more are in the pipeline. People are already suffering and dying from climate change, but the damage will be incomparably larger if we don’t put in place protections starting now: smarter agriculture and water practices, better health systems, and much else I describe in Hot.
“There is no such thing as ‘adapting’ to 10 feet of sea level rise.”
But such “adaptation” can achieve only so much, which is why we must also simultaneously slam the brakes on emissions. James Hansen, the former NASA scientist whose congressional testimony put the climate problem on the public agenda back in 1988, recently warned that sea levels could rise as much as 10 feet by the end of this century unless emissions are cut much more rapidly than currently planned.
There is no such thing as “adapting” to 10 feet of sea level rise. That’s enough to submerge large parts of New York City, Washington, D.C., Miami, London, Shanghai, Tokyo, and many other coastal cities around the world. “Parts of [these cities] would still be sticking above the water,” Hansen says, “but you couldn’t live there.”
Can behavioral changes by individual families and businesses ever make a significant dent in climate change, or does this kind of change require policy?
There are all kinds of ways people can reduce their individual “carbon footprints”: ride the bus—or a bike, like my daughter and I do—rather than drive a car; eat less meat; switch to solar power; renovate your home to boost its energy and water efficiency.
These steps are a great way to start taking action on climate change, but they’d be a terrible place to stop. Lifestyle changes are valuable in that they send a message, both to ourselves and others, that we recognize the problem and are committed to solving it; this message can trigger conversations and get other folks involved. But only reform of broad government and corporate policy can deliver the far-reaching changes that are needed, at the speed and scale required, if we’re to preserve a livable planet for our kids and future generations.
“Lifestyle changes are valuable in that they send a message, both to ourselves and others, that we recognize the problem and are committed to solving it; this message can trigger conversations and get other folks involved.”
For example, under current rules, climate pollution is essentially free. Burning gasoline, coal, and other carbon-based fuels overheats the planet (while also causing thousands of deaths, heart attacks, and asthma cases), but the economic costs of all this damage aren’t reflected in these fuels’ marketplace prices. Worse, the U.S. government and its counterparts around the world further rig the economy by spending an estimated $5.3 trillion dollars every year subsidizing the production and consumption of carbon-based fuels. Until these overarching policies are changed, individual morality cannot make much of a difference.
What about big geo-engineering ideas, like carbon sequestration or spraying sulphuric acid into the atmosphere? Are you hopeful that there could be a silver bullet solution that could fix this problem?
There is no silver bullet solution to the climate crisis, but as others have said, there is plenty of silver buckshot. We’ll need to use every tool at our disposal if we’re to limit temperature rise to a manageable amount.
The most important thing anyone can do is to join the climate fight by getting involved . You can start by making individual lifestyle changes, but what’s most needed is reforming current political and economic practices. That will only happen if more people get politically active.
I know, I know: lots of people find politics boring, alienating, or worse. But speaking as a parent, that excuse doesn’t cut it. You may say that you’re not interested in politics, but believe me: politics is interested in you. Politics decides how much tax you pay, what kind of health care your loved ones get, whether your Marines Corps nephew gets sent to fight in a foreign war. Politics also will decide how well our species faces up to the climate crisis.
“You may say that you’re not interested in politics, but believe me: politics is interested in you. Politics decides how much tax you pay, what kind of health care your loved ones get, whether your Marines Corps nephew gets sent to fight in a foreign war. Politics also will decide how well our species faces up to the climate crisis.”
There are lots of ways to get politically active, and there’s no need to re-invent the wheel—instead, join one of the groups already working the problem. My years of reporting on the climate movement have left me especially impressed by the following organizations:
350.org, which has spearheaded the fight against the Keystone XL tar sands pipeline as well as the divestment movement urging universities, religious groups, governments, and other investors to sell their holdings of stock in oil, coal. and other companies whose business plans amount to a climate death sentence.
Citizens’ Climate Lobby focuses on putting a market price on climate pollution—and then returning the proceeds to each and every American via an annual check (much as Alaska has long done with oil pipeline taxes). “Tax Pollution, Pay People” is the group’s bumper sticker summary, and legislation to this effect, The Healthy Climate and Family Security Act, has attracted twenty-five co-sponsors in the U.S. House of Representatives.
The Sierra Club, the nation’s largest grassroots environmental organization, has led the fight to phase out coal in the U.S. and replace it—and the jobs it provided—by expanding solar, wind, and other forms of renewable energy.
Climate Parents, a group I co-founded after publishing Hot, aims to educate and mobilize parents (and grandparents!) to join the fight for climate solutions. Grounded in the belief that fighting climate change is now part of every parent’s job description, Climate Parents advocates for science-based climate education and a rapid shift to 100 percent clean energy.
Political activity aside, is there a region of the United States that is geographically poised to fare well in the face of climate change? Should we expect a rush of people trying to buy land in Montana or Alaska?
I wrestled with a similar question while writing Hot: Where should my daughter live in the years ahead—are some places going to be safer than others as climate change intensifies? Yes, I concluded, there will be, but finding them won’t be as simple as just moving north.
Geography will matter, of course, but what I call social capital will be at least as important in determining how livable a given place will be in the face of climate change. By “social capital,” I mean the political, cultural, economic, and civil beliefs and practices that shape how a given society addresses public issues.
For example, preparing for climate change obviously requires accepting that it is happening. Which means that places run by politicians who reject climate science—as is true of many of the U.S. states bordering the Gulf of Mexico—are at a disadvantage. Adapting to climate change also requires an active, well-funded government; only government can make sure that adequate sea defenses are built, water supplies protected, and health systems kept up to date. This, in turn, requires a populace that is willing to pay the taxes needed to fund government. This requirement too cuts against many U.S. Gulf states and, for that matter, potentially the entire United States, depending on how influential anti-tax sentiment becomes in Washington, D.C., in the years ahead.
“Geography will matter, of course, but what I call social capital will be at least as important in determining how livable a given place will be in the face of climate change.”
Social capital is one reason why Los Angeles and California, in general, may end up faring better under climate change than some people seem to think. Based on geography alone, California looks troubled. It’s largely a desert where tens of millions of people get their water from hundreds of miles away, and it features a long coastline that is certain to be challenged by sea level rise. But California also boasts an electorate that wants the environment protected, which in turn has resulted in a state government that, under Democratic and Republican leadership alike, has pioneered world-class clean energy and climate adaptation policies for decades. Compare that to the rest of the U.S. Southwest, which is likewise a desert but governed by politicians who, with rare exceptions, are sticking their heads in the proverbial sand.
In Chiara’s case, I ultimately advised her in Hot that she should try to find a future residence that has a secure water supply, a capable, well-funded government, and a self-reliant, inclusive community—a place where people know how to work with their hands and look out for one another. That’s going to be her surest protection, I think, if times get tough.
Here are a few other places that are ahead of the curve in preparing for our challenging climate future:
Seattle and surrounding King County
I put this region at the top of my list of potential relocation sites for my daughter. It’s not that climate change will be especially kind to this region; it’s that officials here have been “asking the climate question,” to quote former King County chief executive Ron Sims, for twenty years already… and governing accordingly.
Officials start with the climatic conditions projected for the region in 2050 and then work backward to figure out what needs doing today to prepare. Thus they are spending hundreds of millions of dollars to upgrade the region’s levees to handle bigger floods (and raising taxes to do so). And the Port of Seattle has been ordered to adjust its piers and infrastructure to accommodate 37 inches of sea level rise by 2100.
New York City
Hurricane Sandy, the super storm that devastated America’s biggest city in November 2012, was a terrible climate wake-up call, not least for the country’s media elite. Seeing their hometown suffer the kind of devastation usually associated with foreign disasters brought home to many previously indifferent journalists that, as Businessweek magazine’s cover exclaimed, “It’s Global Warming, Stupid!”
Terrible as they were, the death toll and economic damages could have been even worse had local officials not already been focused on preparing for climate change. Former New York mayor Michael Bloomberg began pushing in 2007 for city and regional agencies to take climate change seriously. Mayor Bloomberg’s sustainability plan, PlaNYC, pledged to cut the city’s carbon footprint by 30 percent by 2030.
Equally important, PlaNYC set in motion adaptation measures that have been carried forth under current mayor Bill de Blasio, such as upgrading flood maps (to better prepare for sea level rise) and working with neighborhood groups to make sure that adaptation policy makes sense at the grassroots level. Informing this work is the New York City Panel on Climate Change, a group of scientists that, as in King County, outlines the levels of protection that will be needed through 2080. “We won’t tell [the city’s airports] how to cope with sea level rise, just how much of it they’re likely to face,” said the panel’s chair, Cynthia Rosenzweig of Columbia University.
This is another place I’m keeping an eye on for my daughter’s future. I know: It seems crazy to favor a country much of which is famously below sea level. But the Dutch are unquestionably the world’s leaders in adapting to climate change.
Above all, the Dutch benefit from the social capital I mentioned above: They have a long history of coping with floods and other forms of water stress and they’ve done so with an extraordinary degree of collective cooperation that is nevertheless utterly unsentimental. For example, they are turning farmland into lakes that can handle the overflow from the increase in torrential rains that scientists project. The lakes will also store such floodwater for use later in the event of drought. In places, they will retreat from coastal areas deemed too expensive to protect. As with the farmers whose lands are transformed into lakes, the affected coastal property owners are provided financial compensation but not the right to veto the program. “You cannot allow one or two people to block an action that is best for everyone else,” a Dutch official explained.
Dutch experts offer the rest of us three pieces of advice on how to prepare for climate change. First, start now—you have further to go than you think. Second, don’t be fooled by the widespread belief that only poor nations and communities need to adapt: The wealthy are just as vulnerable. And finally, climate adaptation is fundamentally a local activity. Climate conditions and thus the most appropriate adaptation measures will vary from locality to locality, so the day-to-day work of adaptation must be done locally. “In the end, you have to realize that nobody outside your local area is going to save you,” one Dutch official told me. “It’s up to you.”