Climate change is now election campaign news as we’re forced to focus on massive wildfires in the West, unprecedented numbers of Atlantic hurricanes, record-high temperatures, plus the impact of a global pandemic and a historic election in which President Donald Trump assures us the climate will soon cool and Joe Biden responds that Trump is a climate arsonist.
I’ve been reporting on the seemingly apocalyptic becoming the new abnormal for some time now. It was during an interview with Roger Revelle for a San Diego magazine profile in 1982 that he acquainted me with the greenhouse effect caused by the burning of fossil fuels. A giant in the history of U.S. oceanography, Revelle had first written about industrial carbon dioxide emissions measurably changing atmospheric chemistry in a 1957 article co-authored with the chemist and physicist Hans Suess (the basic principle of the greenhouse effect had been recognized a century earlier). He told me that he also taught it at Harvard in the 1960s, including to a student by the name of Al Gore.
In 1992, starting at the Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro, I began covering the covert oil industry funding of climate deniers and “astroturf” (synthetic grassroots) campaigns such as “the Greening Earth Society” and the failure of both the George H.W. Bush and Clinton-Gore administrations to take aggressive action to counter the threat. In 1999, after spending two months with scientists in Antarctica, I wrote an opinion piece for The New York Times titled “Fiddling While Antarctica Burns,” suggesting that in the 21st century people would be less concerned with Bill Clinton’s sex scandal impeachment than what we failed to do about climate change.
I’ve since reported on and from locations affected by Hurricanes Katrina, Rita and Ivan, wildfires including the Tubbs and North Complex fires in California, and coral bleaching in Florida, Hawaii, Fiji, Australia and Cuba all linked to warming seas. During my career, new records have been broken on a regular basis in terms of both hottest years and decades and hottest sea surface temperatures, as emerging climate impacts such as ocean acidification, marine heat waves and loss of sea ice became new angles on the same story.
Unfortunately while ocean acidification is having detrimental effects on the shellfish industry, which is trying to adapt and raise the alarm, the rapid retreat of Arctic sea ice has, rather than acting as a global alarm bell, set off a dinner-bell response, with nations and corporations scrambling for newly exposed riches including fish, minerals, new shipping lanes and, yes, oil and gas.
This September, following the hottest August in California history, which includes one of the hottest temperatures ever recorded on Earth (Death Valley at 130 degrees Fahrenheit at the same time Los Angeles hit 121 F), I was pitching a story to cover the Coast Guard’s response during the most active Atlantic hurricane season ever. Instead of writing that story, on a day when the skies over my home in the San Francisco Bay Area were a dark and ominous jack-o’-lantern orange, I drove off to cover one of California’s deadly wildfires with the realization that you no longer have to travel far to report on a climate disaster, as one will soon come to a neighborhood near you.
“It's time we quickly moved on from fossil fuels. Coal and oil were great energy systems for the 16th and 19th centuries, but we're now dealing with the realities of the 21st century.”
Since my most recent reporting, smoke tracking has become part of the nightly TV weather report so that you can know when you leave your home the next morning if it will smell like a campfire, make you cough, or you’ll find your car covered in ash. In California we get double value from our face masks — good for protection against both COVID-19 and smoke.
So, after decades covering the climate emergency and related oil and gas stories, including from the bridge of a Coast Guard cutter guarding an Iraqi oil terminal in the Persian Gulf to flying in a small plane over 100 dolphins and a humpback whale trapped and dying in BP’s oil in the Gulf of Mexico, I’ve reached a few conclusions. One obvious one: It’s time we quickly moved on from fossil fuels. Coal and oil were great energy systems for the 16th and 19th centuries, but we’re now dealing with the realities of the 21st century. The good news is just as the replacement of whale oil with rock oil (petroleum) led to a huge expansion of innovation and economic opportunity, there’s no reason a post-fossil fuel renewable energy revolution can’t do the same.
Other facts ― not “beliefs” ― I’ve gleaned from hundreds of interviews with scientists, many in remote field locations spanning four decades:
1. Climate change is happening significantly faster than the “worst case” scenarios projected in the first United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report of 1990.
2. We can expect a very rocky climate regime in the coming decades and centuries even without the feedback loops that many scientists fear most.
3. As the planet warms, we’re seeing these feedback loops emerge, from the venting off of methane ― a powerful greenhouse gas ― from melting permafrost to larger, hotter wildfires turning forests into carbon emitters to the loss of sea ice and glaciers whose whiteness normally acts a natural reflector of heat back out of the atmosphere.
My personal belief is it’s time to stop asking if we’ve reached some irreversible tipping point like 2 degrees Celsius. We need to recognize that since President Jimmy Carter’s energy plan was shelved by President Ronald Reagan in 1981, everything we do moving forward is about triage, the battlefield medicine approach of saving what we can while we can, recognizing that some things are already baked into the climate system, such as intensifying heat waves (both terrestrial and marine) and the death of at least 90% of the world’s tropical coral reefs.
If ecosystem restoration and the recognition that biodiversity equals security become core functions of our political economy as we “build back better” from our 2020 dystopia, we may yet be able to survive and perhaps even thrive. First we’ll have to find practical and scalable ways to restore enough forest cover, healthy agricultural soils and marine algal productivity to start removing or “drawing down” some of the excess industrial carbon we’ve been spewing into our atmosphere for the last 150 years. Having broken nature, it’s now ours to fix, hopefully with more respect and humility than we’ve shown to date. And that’s a story I’d like to be reporting on in the future.
David Helvarg is an author, longtime freelance journalist and executive director of Blue Frontier, an ocean conservation group.