The Stone-Cold Truth About Our Warming Planet

A new federal report reveals just how uninhabitable the earth would become if we don’t act on climate now.
Credit: Jan Couver/iStock

A new federal report reveals just how uninhabitable the earth would become if we don’t act on climate now.

If you’ve been listening much to President Trump, the latest government report on climate change could come as something of a shock. If you’ve been paying attention to what’s happening outside the kitchen window, probably not so much.

The most definitive overview yet of the current hazards and mounting harm of the central environmental challenge of our time, the Climate Science Special Report documents a world in grave peril, even as Trump and his Republican allies in Congress send us heedlessly hurtling down the road to ruin.

The report comes as diplomats gather in Bonn, Germany, for two weeks of talks aimed at advancing the goals of the 2015 Paris climate agreement. Trump is withdrawing U.S. participation from the accord, and his delegates have said they’ll press for more fossil fuel use―not less―in Bonn.

In little more than a century, the report affirms, the average temperature, across the United States and around the world, has increased 1.8 degrees Fahrenheit, to the warmest the planet has ever been in the history of modern civilization. The warming has been “global, long-term, and unambiguous,” the report states, affirming that last year was the hottest since global record-keeping began, in 1880, and that 16 of the hottest years ever recorded have occurred in this century. 

We’re already on track for up to 1.3 degrees Fahrenheit of additional warming by 2040, because we’ve already choked the earth’s atmosphere with more carbon dioxide, methane, and other dangerous greenhouse gases than at any other time in at least three million years.

What happens next depends on whether we cut this climate-disrupting pollution―by, for example, investing in efficiency so we do more with less waste in our cars, homes, and workplaces; cleaning up our dirty power plants; and getting more renewable energy from the wind and sun. If we do, we’ve got a shot at limiting global warming enough to leave our children a livable world. 

“Without major reductions in these emissions,” though, we could see average global temperature rise to 9 degrees Fahrenheit above preindustrial levels by the end of this century, warns the report.

Hang on. Nine degrees of warming?

Here’s what the report tells us we’re already seeing from a 1.8-degree increase:

  • Global sea level is rising faster than at any time in at least 2,800 years, up three inches just since 1993, with as much as six inches more in store by 2030. 
  • Daily tidal flooding is accelerating in at least 25 U.S. cities along the Atlantic and Gulf coasts.
  • Extreme heat and heavy rainfall are increasing in both intensity and frequency across most of the world, and both are likely to continue intensifying.
  • More large wildfires are breaking out across the western United States and Alaska.

And on and on. It’s hard to imagine how much of the earth would become uninhabitable if all this, and more, is magnified manyfold by soaring temperatures on the scale we’re courting.

Credit: Sipa/AP Images

This is the book on what’s happening to our climate. It’s not opinion. It’s not conjecture. It’s documented science, as laid out by the most authoritative experts in the field. No amount of partisan denial, political bickering, or industry talking points can change it. And it’s no accident.

In 1990, during the presidency of George H.W. Bush, Congress established the U.S. Global Change Research Program, tasked with producing a comprehensive overview of the state of the science every four years “to assess climate-related risks and inform decision-making about responses.” The effort is led by experts from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the gold standard among organizations monitoring climate worldwide. They’re joined by scientists from the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, the Pentagon, the National Institutes of Health, and nine other federal agencies. 

Their latest assessment is the work of more than 300 experts guided by a 60-member advisory committee. It has been peer-reviewed by the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine, created by Congress during the Civil War so policy makers could know the bedrock truth about what’s happening in our world.

When you talk on your cell phone, buy a book on the Internet, take a flight across the country, or get a flu shot, these are the kinds of experts you can thank for the science behind the progress we take for granted in our daily lives. We rely on science, also, to warn us of threats. That’s what the quadrennial climate assessment is all about.

To hear Trump tell it, of course, these guys are wrong. Climate change, he’s said, is a hoax. 

His chief environmental official, U.S. Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Scott Pruitt, is a career shill for the fossil fuel industry. Pruitt is hard at work in his secret phone booth tearing away at the progress we’re making cutting the carbon footprint of our cars, trucks, and dirty power plants. Pruitt, for that matter, is trying to scrub independent climate science from the EPA’s work, part of a larger purge that includes an effort to ban from agency advisory boards scientists who’ve received EPA research grants―but not scientists who’ve received funding from the fossil fuel industry, chemical companies, or other big polluters. 

Trump has ordered his administration to expose more public lands and waters to the ravages of coal, oil, and gas development. The $1.5 trillion tax cut he and his GOP allies are trying to ram through Congress would end credits for electric vehicles and curtail commonsense incentives for wind and solar power, yet it would maintain fossil fuel subsidies costing taxpayers some $4.7 billion each year.

At every turn on climate danger and clean energy opportunity, Trump is trying to steer the country in exactly the wrong direction.

But don’t take my word for it. Take some time to read the report. Then think about what it means for our country. Because years, decades, and generations from now, Americans will pay a price for this deliberate and dishonest disregard of a clear and present danger.

No one will be able to say we didn’t know better. Much will be said about what we did about it. Because that’s all, in the end, that matters.

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