I’VE WRITTEN A good deal about global warming over the years, but like most people, I still have a hard time envisioning how we will know when the apocalypse arrives. Nobody will ring a bell to announce that a climate-change event has begun, and it’s easy to ignore the signals that climate is changing. After all, we’ve always had extreme weather, and it’s possible that what signifies the point of no return will not be in the realm of weather anyway but rather a derivative effect such as a financial crisis or crop failure.
That’s not to say that some future dramatic event such as the Greenland ice sheet sliding into the ocean won’t happen, but it’s more likely that global warming will creep up on us as the weather gradually unmoors from its normal patterns. Single events will be explained away. But at some point, the frequency, severity and ubiquity of the unusual weather will produce a sense of foreboding, a sense that something is happening beyond our control.
What with killer heat waves, killer hurricanes and killer droughts, it’s arguable that we’ve already passed that point. Indeed, I had that feeling of foreboding in the last week of June, as Washington gradually surrendered ground and the routines of daily life to incessant rain: Cars floated down ordinarily meek Rock Creek, government buildings flooded, the Metro was disrupted and roads were closed. You may have had the same feeling last week as the power dimmed and temperatures surged in Southern California and beyond.
That said, the real, more insidious scenario might be that climate change will intrude on our lives like an omnipresent and ever more confiscatory taxman.
Where they can, insurers and banks will pass weather risks to individuals and the government, making the costs of daily life more expensive. In some areas, housing might become uninsurable and unsalable, which in turn could cause a financial crisis. Municipal budgets and government safety nets will gradually succumb to the ever-increasing burden imposed by windstorms, floods, droughts and other weather extremes. Infectious diseases will thrive. The middle class will slowly find its savings and creature comforts stripped away, and the ordinary details of living, such as eating fresh vegetables and traveling to see family and friends, will become more expensive and uncertain. At some point it will dawn on us that the weather is making us poorer and sicker.
Whether we are in Act 2 or Act 4 of a five-act climate drama, we are not the first to live out this play. At some point, for instance, the Moche elders, who lived in Peru 1,400 years ago, must have begun to wonder whether torrential El Nino-related rains were going to spell the doom of their civilization. Sometime during a 10-year stretch of intensely cold winters and short, cool summers, the Norse living in Greenland in AD 1350 must have begun to feel a sense of dread. In fact, that period was one harbinger of the Little Ice Age, which persisted for several hundred years.
NOW IT’S our turn. Like fugitives who must worry about every knock on the door, we can no longer dismiss events such as the late June rains and the July heat wave as just another instance of wacky weather. There’s a distinct difference, though, between us and the Moche and the Norse, not to mention the Mayans, the Anasazi, the Akkadians and other players in previous episodes of climate chaos. All of them were victims of natural cycles; the evidence suggests that we wrote the script for this latest episode of climate roulette.
It’s easy to be condescending about past civilizations. They didn’t have the science and technology that have enabled us to understand how climate works or to determine the role of climate in the collapse of their cultures in South America, the American Southwest and the Middle East. If only they knew what we now know about climate, maybe they would have adapted and survived.
Then again, maybe not. We do know what we know, and still we do nothing. That’s going to have future historians scratching their heads.