A Re-Introduction to “Hell and High Water”

Over the next few weeks, ClimateProgress will feature excerpts from Hell and High Water (I will put the link in to the paperback when it is up). The following is from the Introduction:

We are on the precipice of climate system tipping points beyond which there is no redemption.
— James Hansen, director, NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies, December 2005

The ice sheets seem to be shrinking 100 years ahead of schedule.
— Richard Alley, Penn State climate scientist, 2006

Imagine if inland United States were 10°F hotter, with many states ravaged by mega-droughts and the widespread wildfires that result. At the same time, our coasts were drowning from a 5- to 10-foot increase in sea levels, which were relentlessly climbing 5 to 10 inches a decade or more toward an ultimate sea- level rise of 80 feet.

This “Hell and High Water” scenario is not our certain future, but it is as likely as the bird flu pandemic we are feverishly fighting to fend off. And it could come as soon as the second half of this century, given the many early warning signs of accelerated climate change that scientists have spotted.

Long before then, the temperature of the inland United States will be rising nearly 1°F per decade, enough to cause continual heat waves and searing droughts. At the same time, sea levels will be rising a few inches every decade, with much of our Atlantic and Gulf coasts battered year after year after year by super-hurricanes with savage storm surges.

Let’s call this phase Planetary Purgatory, when the world comes to know that 20-foot sea- level rise is all but inevitable, and we must endure a desperate multi-decade ordeal to correct the mistakes of the past, to keep sea- level rise as low and slow as possible–to avoid the full fury of Hell and High Water. If the politics of inaction and delay that have triumphed in this country continues for another decade, then Planetary Purgatory is the likely future facing our country before midcentury–probably in your own lifetime.

According to a March 2006 Gallup Poll, only about a third of Americans understand that global warming will “pose a serious threat to you or your way of life in your lifetime.” And if you think that global warming will mainly affect other, poorer countries, or that we can delay acting until we have new technologies, you come by your opinions honestly. Many of the most sophisticated policy makers and journalists also just don’t get it–they don’t understand how global warming will ruin America for the next fifty generations if we don’t act quickly.

The widespread confusion about our climate crisis is no accident. For more than a decade, those who deny that climate change is an urgent problem have sought to delay action on global warming by running a brilliant rhetorical campaign and spreading multiple myths that misinform debate. As a result, many people still believe global warming is nothing more than a natural climate cycle that humans cannot influence, or that it might even have positive benefits for this nation. Neither is true. The science is crystal clear: We humans are the primary cause of global warming, and we face a bleak future if we fail to act quickly….

15 Responses to A Re-Introduction to “Hell and High Water”

  1. Paul K says:

    What an excellent piece of propaganda, filled with what ifs, wild speculation and worst case scenarios.

  2. D-pop says:

    Paul K- I prefer the word ADVERTISING to PROPAGANDA. The message is urgent becaise the situation is URGENT.

    Global CO2 emissions are rising much faster than the IPCC projected in its worst-case scenario. The Arctic ice loss this past year was shocking. The polar regions are warming up three times as fast as the rest of the planet. Greenland has been warming up twice as fast as the rest of the planet. The great ice sheets are losing mass a century earlier than the IPCC predicted. Rajendra Pachauri, the head of the IPCC, warned a year ago that we only had 2 or 3 years before its too late.Hansen says we are on the precipice. The problem is unrestricted greenhouse gas emissions and deforestation.We are pouring CO2 into the atmosphere more than 100 times faster the Earth has ever seen before.

    We need to 1) reduce global greenhouse gas emissions, and 2) reduce deforestation. The longer we wait to start, the more expensive and difficult the effort will be. Yesterday would not be too soon. It might have already been too late. We are risking crossing a point of no return leading to harsh outcomes, including, but not limited to much higher sea levels, widespread droughts, species extinction, ocean acidification, disease epidemics, etc. More – and more dangerous – storms too. Hurricane Katrina, for example, revealed what is to come for this country from global warming. As super-hurricanes become common and sea levels rise in a warmed world, all our great Gulf and Atlantic Coast cities are at risk for the same fate as New Orleans. On our current greenhouse gas emissions path, we face 100 Katrinas. Some deniers say the Earth self-stabilizing, but the geologic record shows that the Earth’s climate system is actually much more fragile than scientists used to think. It can ‘overreact’ to small nudges. Deniers want us to believe there is still a debate among scientists, or keep asking ‘why wont Al Gore debate’ but ‘debate’ leaves the false impression that there are an equal number of credible experts on both sides, when in fact 99.9% of the relevant scientific community believes humans are changing the climate and failing to act in the near future will have dire consequences.

    The time for debate is long past and voluntary technological strategies wont get us to 550 ppm, let alone the 450 or 350 or less we need to avert catastrophe. I’m not even sure plans like Obama’s will get us there in time. The world’s top climate scientists were in Bali recently, begging for action.The question is whether we want to take action to minimize our impact, or ruin the planet for the next 50 generations. Global warming is the biggest test of character we, as a species, have ever faced.How do you think we won world war II, put a man on the moon, developed the interstate highway system?? We have the technologies available to avoid the worst of global warming, but only if we start using them NOW. and politics as usual wont get the ball rolling soon enough. We need some real change.We can build hundreds of nuclear power plants, and thousands of square miles of wind farms, and somehow convince China to stop building coal plants and clean up the ones they have, but that’s going to take decades, if ever. A cap and trade scheme might work, if we started LAST YEAR. The creaky wheels of politics have barely started turning.Its been said we need a worldwar II-style effort (only bigger) aimed at stopping global warming. What does that look like? Does it look like emissions caps (phased in over decades) and offset auctions? Cute plug-in cars?

    No. It looks like immediate reductions in emissions through rationing. Temporarily nationalizing some industries. Prosecutions of polluters. An emergency tax to raise money to subsidize research and development. Heavy import taxes on goods from countries not toeing the line on climate change. Heavy taxes on forest products. Sacrifice. Now, not later. A gradualist approach wont work. We dont have the time to pussy-foot around any more.

  3. D-pop says:

    I think I get it now. This blog just pays lip service to climate change. the real purpose is to sell books, not fix anything. Another flavor of delay.

  4. Paul K says:

    The real purpose of this blog is to promote the agenda of the Center for American Progress. I doubt Joe is dependent on book sales for income. The Center for American Progress is an advocacy group/think tank formed by former Clinton Administration officials like Joe to push so called progressive politics and policies.

  5. D-pop says:

    On the one hand, he sounds ‘alarmist’ as is appropriate, but his solutions are too slow for the level of danger we face. On the other hand, he makes $1000 bets against his solutions even working. Im sure youre right he isnt DEPENDENT on book sales for income, but his priority isnt the real dangers of climate change either. just lip service.

  6. Joe says:

    You people are funny. Check the ranking of the book on Amazon. I haven’t made any royalties from it. Nobody who isn’t famous makes a living writing books. The hourly pay on books is very, very tiny, typically below minimum wage.

    If you’d read the book, which you obviously haven’t, you’d know I lay out a rapid solution. Note to D-pop: Hydrogen ain’t a solution to climate — heck it ain’t even a zero-carbon energy source, it’s just an energy carrier and a crummy one at that. (You are probably the only person on the planet to ever accuse me of just giving lip service to global warming — try reading the book or this blog before saying such silly things.)

    I will be laying out the full solution this year on this website.

  7. D-pop says:

    Joe- have I said anything about hydrogen? I have said we need action NOW. Reduce emissions NOW. we dont have 30 or 40 years to put a plan into action. and if you are so confident of the solutions yousupport, why do you bet against them?

  8. Joe says:

    D-pop — I have no idea what you mean “Why do you bet against them?” Which solutions — other than the non-solution of hydrogen — have I bet against???

  9. D-pop says:

    You have a thousand dollar bet that the coming decades will continue to get hotter. Are you an optimist or pessimist on your proposed solutions? Looks pessimistic to me.

    Maybe you are confident of the solutions, but pessimistic that action will be taken. in that case you should be pushing for adaptation measures if youre really concerned about getting something done.

  10. D-pop says:

    “Concrete action is required now – not more hot air from public officials.”

    Do you believe that or not Joe?

  11. Joe says:

    D-pop: Gosh, you haven’t really read very many of my blog posts have you? Try searching them for “The time to act is now.” Let me know what you find.

    Of course the next decade is going to be hotter than this one. You can’t implement solutions fast enough to do anything about that. If we stopped all emissions tomorrow, the planet would still warm up 1°F, because it hasn’t yet come in equilibrium with the current concentration of CO2 — that’s why scientists are so damn worried.

    This is not well understood, so I guess I will have to do another post on it. Slashing emissions quickly does NOT slash concentrations quickly — indeed at first it only slows their growth. And stopping concentrations from rising does NOT cut temperature growth immediately — you’d need to reduce concentrations to do that.

    Thus, the next decade will be warmer than this one, and the 2020s will be even warmer. As will the 2030s. If we were WWII-scale aggressive, we might be able to peak in the 2040s, but I am “optimistic” that conservatives won’t let the country take the necessary actions.

  12. Joe says:

    P.S. Read my book — if we don’t stabilize below 450 ppm, then ” adaptation” to future generations will mean as much as telling them, hey, the citizens of New Orleans “adapted” to hurricane Katrina….

    While there is still a chance to avoid catastrophe, that MUST be the highest priority. BTW, there is no evidence that it would be easier politically to get the federal government to spend significant money on adaptation if it won’t spend significant money on mitigation. After all, we couldn’t even get enough money to rebuild the New Orleans levees to withstand a category five hurricane AFTER Katrina hit (or before it, for that matter, even though many people predicted catastrophe was inevitable).

    So I consider most of this talk about adaptation to be a red herring by people who don’t understand how catastrophic climate change is going to be if we don’t act soon.

  13. D-pop says:

    Joe- You said “If we stopped all emissions tomorrow, the planet would still warm up 1°F,” and “If we were WWII-scale aggressive, we might be able to peak [on temperature] in the 2040s, but I am “optimistic” that conservatives won’t let the country take the necessary actions.”

    Am i missing something?

    You still don’t want to suggest anything too radical, because it might not be too popular politically, and you scoff at the idea of adaptation.

    But the situation IS just as dire as I said. Maybe worse than what i said.

    i just dont understand where youre coming from.

  14. Joe says:

    You are missing a lot.
    You just haven’t been reading this blog or my book.
    The laws of physics and the scale of the problem/solution impose constraints no one can escape, radical or not.

  15. Ronald says:

    Let me give you my view.

    I think Joe has said that we need to do something now and we need it to be aggressive towards reducing carbon dioxide and greenhouse gas released into the atmosphere.

    The problem is the politics. To get rid of slavery in the United States in the 1860’s, we had to fight a civil war, North against the South. We were the only country in the world that had to fight a civil war to get rid of slavery. In Russia the Czar just made a decree that there would be no more slavery.

    We have to live and work with the politics we have in this country. We could have democratic politicians who vote in huge Carbon taxes and very restrictive energy efficiency standards and then if that becomes unpopular, the next election they could be voted out of office and the votes reversed. That would not help the cause.

    I have relatives in Germany who write about global warming as the problem of the world. Their hair is on fire. And they are doing something about their carbon use in Germany. In the United States, we still have a large percentage of the population who thinks global warming is something made up so climatologists can control the world. It’s a very different political climate.

    A phrase I heard once is that politicians are like wind vanes, they will turn when the wind blows hard enough in the right direction and we are just not blowing hard enough to do something about our countries greenhouse gas release. That’s the political reality. And we haven’t convinced enough people to drive more fuel efficient cars and reduce excessive carbon use. It’s just to much of our culture and our economics. It’s like turning an oil tanker. it is very hard to do.