Ten years ago this week, Time magazine published a landmark cover on global warming with the headline, “Be Worried. Be Very Worried.”
The main story was a very solid, even prescient, piece of reporting — warning about polar ice loss, sea level rise, severe drought, and other extreme weather:
Indeed, Time warned that “global climate systems are booby-trapped with tipping points and feedback loops, thresholds past which the slow creep of environmental decay gives way to sudden and self-perpetuating collapse” — tipping points that a decade of inaction has brought us right to the edge of. The article even warns of the possible ramifications if warming shuts down the Gulf Stream or if our dawdling locks in multi-meter sea level rise — much the same concerns that James Hansen and 18 leading climatologists warned of in their recent bombshell peer-reviewed paper.
Except Time magazine laid it all out for all Americans to see 10 years ago when the possibility of avoiding the worst impact would have been far easier to achieve.
What’s amazing is that not only did some members of the mainstream media pooh-pooh the cover story and the notion that we should be very worried about global warming back in 2006, but some of the very same “Very Serious” members still pooh-pooh the cover’s message and the entire notion of being very worried — as recently as this month!
Let’s be very clear that 10 years ago, anyone who spent a lot of time talking to leading climate scientists would have become “very worried” about what was likely to happen on the business-as-usual path of CO2 emissions. I did. That’s why I titled the book I wrote in 2006 “Hell and High Water” — and that’s why I launched this blog that same year.
The main differences in climate science between now and 10 years ago are:
- Until the last year or two, emissions were tracking at the very highest end of what scientists had projected they would
- Many of the most worrisome impacts have happened at a faster pace than climate scientists had expected
- Most of the worst fears of climate scientists in 2006 are now part of the published peer-reviewed literature — and the worst fears of climate scientists today are beyond alarming
So people should be even more worried today — and they are! That’s why more and more leading climate scientists have become uncharacteristically blunt and why dozens of them told the world’s governments last year that we have to stay as far below 2°C as possible — preferably 1.5°C. And it’s why the world’s leading governments unanimously pledged to do just that in Paris in December.
Unfortunately, the amount of worry-generated climate action today — while vastly greater than the amount 10 years ago — is still lagging far behind the science. Beating 2°C requires a World War II-scale effort sustained for decades.
The bad news is that our level of worry is nowhere near WWII scale. I’m sure we will have that level of desperation by, say, 2030, as the increasingly obvious and painful impacts continue to speed up. But after 25 years of dawdling, after 25 years of (most of) the major media downplaying the danger, we are out of time.
Even Time magazine — which nailed both the science and the need for urgent concern — underestimated the impact of the massive fossil-fuel-funded disinformation campaign and the anti-science lobbying effort. Ten years ago, Time wrote:
Environmentalists and lawmakers spent years shouting at one another about whether the grim forecasts were true, but in the past five years or so, the serious debate has quietly ended. Global warming, even most skeptics have concluded, is the real deal, and human activity has been causing it. If there was any consolation, it was that the glacial pace of nature would give us decades or even centuries to sort out the problem.
But glaciers, it turns out, can move with surprising speed, and so can nature.
How quaintly optimistic that sounds today. Again, Time got the science right: In the past decade, glaciers in Antarctica and Greenland have been moving much faster than the vast majority of scientists ever imagined. We are frighteningly close to the point of irreversible disintegration of both of the Greenland and West Antarctic ice sheets.
But the disinformation campaign abetted by a largely feckless media has managed to prolong the debate far longer than most observers had imagined. And while I wouldn’t call it a “serious debate,” it is nonetheless effective at slowing the necessary action.
So while Time magazine deserves kudos for its landmark cover story a decade ago, the entire media must step up its coverage of the urgent need for climate action if we are to avoid a century or more of ever-increasing worry.