Since a nuclear weapon went off over Hiroshima, we have been living with visions of global catastrophe, apocalyptic end times, and extinction that were once the sole property of religion. Since Aug. 6, 1945, it has been possible for us to imagine how human beings, not God, could put an end to our lives on this planet. Conceptually speaking, that may be the single most striking development of our age and, to this day, it remains both terrifying and hard to take in. Nonetheless, the apocalyptic possibilities lurking in our scientific-military development stirred popular culture over the decades to a riot of world-ending possibilities.
In more recent decades, a second world-ending (or at least world-as-we-know-it-ending) possibility has crept into human consciousness. Until relatively recently, our burning of fossil fuels and spewing carbon dioxide into the atmosphere represented such a slow-motion approach to end times that we didn't even notice what was happening. Only in the 1970s did the idea of global warming or climate change begin to penetrate the scientific community, as in the 1990s it edged its way into the rest of our world, and slowly into popular culture, too.
Still, despite ever more powerful weather disruptions -- what the news now likes to call "extreme weather" events, including monster typhoons, hurricanes, and winter storms, wildfires, heat waves, droughts, and global temperature records -- disaster has still seemed far enough off. Despite a drumbeat of news about startling environmental changes -- massive ice melts in Arctic waters, glaciers shrinking worldwide, the Greenland ice shield beginning to melt, as well as the growing acidification of ocean waters -- none of this, not even Superstorm Sandy smashing into that iconic global capital, New York, and drowning part of its subway system, has broken through as a climate change 9/11. Not in the United States anyway.
We've gone, that is, from no motion to slow motion to a kind of denial of motion. And yet in the scientific community, where people continue to study the effects of global warming, the tone is changing. It is, you might say, growing more apocalyptic. Just in recent weeks, a report from the National Academy of Scientists suggested that "hard-to-predict sudden changes" in the environment due to the effects of climate change might drive the planet to a "tipping point." Beyond that, "major and rapid changes [could] occur" -- and these might be devastating, including that "wild card," the sudden melting of parts of the vast Antarctic ice shelf, driving sea levels far higher.
At the same time, the renowned climate scientist James Hansen and 17 colleagues published a hair-raising report in the journal PLoS. They suggest that the accepted target of keeping global temperature rise to two degrees Celsius is a fool's errand. If global temperatures come anywhere near that level -- the rise so far has been less than one degree since the industrial revolution began -- it will already be too late, they claim, to avoid disastrous consequences.
Consider this the background "temperature" for Dahr Jamail's latest piece, "Are We Falling Off the Climate Precipice," an exploration of what climate scientists just beyond the mainstream are thinking about how climate change will affect life on this planet. What, in other words, is the worst that we could possibly face in the decades to come? The answer: a nightmare scenario. So buckle your seat belt. There's a tumultuous ride ahead.