An Introduction to “Hell and High Water”

ClimateProgress will feature excerpts from Hell and High Water over the next few weeks. 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….