The Executive Summary of All Executive Summaries

“Who am I? Why am I here?” Admiral James Stockdale uttered those words on national television, to laughter and applause among audience members, at the 1992 vice-presidential debate. They are questions worth asking ourselves every once in a while.

I’m a journalist who has spent the better part of the last three years reading thousands of scientific articles, interviewing hundreds of scientists, and pouring over many books by science-writers and writer-scientists, seeking a way to draw out the connective tissue, the dynamic, intriguing science that unifies what we think of as disparate things, but once you scratch the surface, really aren’t. As it turns out, the fastest way to learn the most about the world — climate, energy, health and industry — is through the carbon atom.

That doesn’t explain why I’m here. I’m here because I’m a fan of Joe’s good work and hope to chat with Climate Progress readers about new ideas for thinking about climate and the context in which we discuss it. Here’s one idea.

My house is filled with books and paper and notebooks in quantities that are difficult to order. That doesn’t include the number of peer-reviewed journal articles and electronic books you can fit on a 1 gigabyte flash memory stick. Every good nonfiction writer knows his or her job is to simplify things. We live by Occam’s Razor and by Einstein’s related dictum that everything should be made as simple as possible, but no simpler.


In that spirit, I was turning over my basement recently, looking for some interview notes (The basement is not as simple as possible). I wondered what all this research would look like condensed to two sentences. Every day reports come out — economic, scientific, predictive, retrospective, lifeless, hysterical. What would the executive summary of all executive summaries look like? With some cautious feedback from senior scientists, I think an irreducible two-sentence description of global warming comes down to this:

  1. Temperature and atmospheric carbon rise and fall together on every geological time scale.
  2. Humans are adding carbon to the atmosphere more than 100 times faster than any known precedent, heating and transforming the Earth.

— Eric R.