A Climate of Change
After a very hot, very humid vacation in New York's Adirondack Mountains, I arrived back in the magazine's Manhattan offices in the midst of a punishing heat wave, just in time to turn my attention to our special issue on global warming.
The story of global warming begins, of course, with the Industrial Revolution and the engines of progress it fueled with coal. The combustion of coal has released enormous amounts of carbon dioxide (CO2) into the atmosphere, wreaking havoc on the earth's climate, triggering a biblical litany of calamities: droughts, deadly heat waves, floods, rising sea levels, melting glaciers, new disease epidemics, habitat loss, and species extinctions. A world out of balance.
But as one of the planet's cheapest, most abundant fuels, coal is not going away anytime soon. In our cover story, "How to Clean Coal," contributing editor Craig Canine says we face a watershed moment. In the next 10 to 15 years, as many as 100 conventional coal-burning power plants may be built in the United States -- and many more in India and China, where booming economies create an almost insatiable demand for energy. These new coal-fueled furnaces will lock us into staggering increases in greenhouse gas emissions -- a carbon nightmare.
Until coal is replaced with cleaner fuels, we must somehow make it part of the solution. Canine explains how: Coal can be converted into energy through a process called gasification, which strips away the CO2 before it is emitted as a pollutant, at which point the gas can be safely captured and stored in the ground. These technologies are available now. But their broader adoption requires that environmentalists, politicians, energy executives, and coal miners relinquish old habits of mind. This is slowly -- too slowly -- beginning to happen.
Minds do change, as articles editor George Black discovered on a recent trip to the trout streams of Montana ("In Hot Water"), where conservationists and conservatives, anglers and "tree-huggers," are beginning to set aside their differences. Why? Because all have encountered firsthand the threat that global warming poses to the stupendously beautiful landscapes they cherish.
It also helps to understand what is happening on a fundamental level. Contributing editor Bruce Stutz lays bare some plain facts ("Climate Science 101") in a simple, six-part primer that answers the question: How exactly do scientists know what they know about global warming?
Finally, while global warming can be described scientifically, its solutions will be achieved politically. We saw encouraging signs from California's Governor Schwarzenegger, so we sent writer Wade Graham to Sacramento to talk with the governor ("The Jolly Green Giant?"). Graham was not entirely impressed. But given the magnitude of the crisis, it's unrealistic to expect too much from one politician. It will require the collective power and talents of many leaders, innovators, and citizens to bring about a more beneficial change in the climate.
Douglas S. Barasch