Subscribe
Flash Sale
Subscribe to The New Yorker and save 50%, plus get a free tote. Cancel anytime.
Subscribe
Already a subscriber? Sign in

Annals of a Warming Planet
The World Speeds Up—and We Slow Down
Climate destruction is now moving much faster than human institutions.
By Bill McKibben
June 30, 2021
A cyclist in Phoenix, where a recent heat wave brought temperatures above a hundred and fifteen degrees.Photograph by Ross D. Franklin / AP
The worst of the heat has passed for now in the Southwest, where I am this week. Phoenix, which saw a record six straight days above a hundred and fifteen degrees, hit a mere hundred and thirteen over the weekend. There’s a haze of smoke in the sky around Flagstaff and a faint smell of char in the air, but, on the “Ready, Set, Go!” evacuation pyramid, residents were downgraded to “Ready,” which is increasingly a permanent position for human beings on a heating planet; relaxation seems less advised all the time, as the natural world moves from backdrop to foreground in human affairs. The heat has moved to the Northwest and to Canada, where a heat dome is rewriting the record book, day after day, with temperatures that take cities from Portland to Calgary into uncharted territory. In fact, as the climate journalist Brian Kahn points out, the only thing that may dampen the heat at all is the “smoke from wildfires sparked due to hot conditions currently racking the West dimming the sun.”
Last week, we discussed how the new heat affects human bodies. This week, we need to remind ourselves how these novel temperatures are affecting the planet itself. The earth won’t simply keel over and die like a human being might, but it is now changing in substantial ways in real time. If you’re used to thinking that the earth changes in the course of geological epochs, and that fundamental shifts require thousands or millions of years, think again. An important paper published this month in the journal Nature Climate Change laid out one example: during the past seven decades, as it’s got hotter in the Southwest, it’s also got less humid. In most places, the warming air leads to more humidity—hot air can carry more water vapor than cold air can. But evaporation off the sea surface provides much of the moisture, and the desert Southwest is nowhere near an ocean. In the Southwest, and in many other continental interiors, the extra heat is evaporating moisture straight out of the soil, desiccating the landscape and making huge fires all but inevitable. And, as the Times reported, citing Park Williams, a U.C.L.A. climate scientist, it’s very much a vicious circle: “Lower soil moisture should also cause temperatures to rise, Dr. Williams said, because there is little or no moisture left to evaporate, and evaporation has a cooling effect.”
The speed with which this happens is remarkable. And it is dramatically outpacing the speed at which humans—our governments, our economies, our habits, our mind-sets—seem able to adapt. AZCentral reports that some golf-course managers near Phoenix are “pushing back” against a plan that would cut their water use by just three per cent. Never mind that reservoirs across the West are falling to record-low levels (with insufficient snowpack to replenish them, and with that constant evaporation); representatives of the golf industry have formed the Arizona Alliance for Golf, which has met with state officials and launched a Web site urging residents to “speak up for Arizona golf” and “protect our game.” “Rushing any decisions related to the plan would not be good for the industry,” an executive of one of Phoenix’s hundred and sixty-five courses told AZCentral. Bri Kenny, of the Scottsdale-based golf-management company Troon, said that she thinks “it’s super necessary that we have another meeting.” Governor Doug Ducey, taking time off from voter-suppression efforts, seems to agree. “The golf industry is critical to growing Arizona’s economy, job opportunities, and tourism,” he said at the launch of the new alliance. The state, he added, needs to “insure our state remains the premier golf destination.”
The problem isn’t just in Arizona, of course. In liberal California, climate bills keep dying in the State Senate, run off the procedural rails by a minority of legislators. At the national level, the Department of Justice went to court last week to argue that the Line 3 crude-oil and tar-sands pipeline should be built, apparently out of a conviction that its positions shouldn’t necessarily shift simply because Administrations change. (That may be a noble premise, but not when the previous Administration claimed that climate change is a “hoax manufactured by the Chinese.”) And the new bipartisan infrastructure bill stripped much of the climate content that President Biden had promised. He pledges now that he’ll get it back in a separate reconciliation bill, but that may be difficult, given that, although Senator Joe Manchin has said that he supports the reconciliation plan, he also recently said that he is “concerned” that the Administration may be “setting a very aggressive timetable” to halve carbon emissions by 2030. (As Emily Atkin points out, it’s notable that he made his remarks before the Edison Electric Institute, a utility-trade group that has been a reliable force for slowing down our climate response.) On the global level, preparations for the United Nations climate talks set for November in Glasgow are reported to be lagging: the organizers haven’t even figured out yet how to make sure that representatives from developing countries can get vaccinated for the trip. Leaked drafts of the next big report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change indicate that it will be even more dire than its predecessors. “I suspect what we will face is further urgency and the need to go further, faster,” the head of the Glasgow talks said.
You would think that changes in the planet’s climate would take a very long time and changes in human opinion and action could happen fast. You’d think that sentience would be an aid. But, instead, it appears that we are slow and that nature—supercharged by our carbon—is fast as hell. Since the climate crisis isn’t going to slow down, our only option is to speed up.
Passing the Mic
The British journalist Lucy Jones tells a remarkable story in her book “Losing Eden.” Some of it is societal (did you know that Westerners now spend less than five per cent of their time outdoors?), and some of it personal. Published in England amid the sudden shock of the pandemic (the book comes out in this country in August), it may help explain why some people turned to the natural world for solace in the past year—and why they were very smart to do so. (Our conversation has been edited.)
Tell the story of how you started to connect with the natural world.
I wound up, at twenty-seven, in April, 2012, in recovery from alcohol and drug addiction. The first year of sobriety was difficult and painful, so I cast about for activities that might soothe and alleviate the depression and anxiety that was underlying my substance use. I started walking daily on a marshland near my East London home, noticing the plants and flowers, the kestrels overhead, the elegant heron, the bats at dusk. I was getting to know the wild things around me. Afterward, I’d feel emotional tension ease: my brain unburdened from critical thoughts, my nervous system calmed. It became another—healthy—addiction, and as important to my recovery as psychiatry, psychotherapy, and support groups. Although I vaguely knew that spending time outside was in some way good for people, I was surprised by just how powerfully therapeutic this relationship turned out to be. As a science journalist, I immediately wanted to understand exactly what was happening to my mind, body, and brain in those natural spaces. What were the mechanisms? How did it work?
How much hard science is there to back up the idea that we need the world around us? What happens to us if we don’t have some exposure?
Many hundreds of studies from scientists working in various disciplines across the world are showing us the importance of exposure to the outdoor world for our health and happiness. People recover from stress quickly and more completely in natural spaces. Spending time in nature can reduce inflammation and enhance immune function. What do I mean by “spending time in nature”? Let me give you a few favorite examples. Early studies on petrichor, the aroma of the earth after it’s rained, and the brain suggest smelling it can make us feel calm and relaxed. Finding awe in the myriad processes outside can promote healthier levels of cytokines (inflammation-related biomarkers). Looking at fractal shapes, which are found everywhere in nature, even in sprays of “weeds” in the cracks of the pavement, can reduce stress levels. Without exposure, we lose out on these critical therapeutic benefits.
The world is becoming a physically scarier place—hotter, stormier. How do we keep from simply retreating behind our various screens?
VIDEO FROM THE NEW YORKER
 

Our bad! It looks like we're experiencing playback issues.
The antidote to paralysis in response to the dual climate and nature crisis is, for me, organizing with other people, to use our voices against the trends of extinction. We are attempting to rewild a tiny patch of land in my home town, and, as I write in “Losing Eden,” the biophilic-city movement—efforts to make locales more inhabitable for both human and nonhuman life—is of prime importance, as the world warms and becomes more precarious. Spending time in nature isn’t a luxury. We need natural spaces, the natural spaces in which we have spent ninety-nine per cent of our evolutionary history, in order to recover from the stresses of life and restore ourselves. We also need to keep a close eye on how our leaders are responding to the science, so retreating behind screens is not an option—and neither is losing our magnificent world.
Climate School
The Yale researcher Jennifer Marlon, working with a team that included the eminent climate scientist Katharine Hayhoe, has published new research showing that the one type of weather that really gets Americans thinking about the climate crisis is long, dry heat waves.
The folks at the hedge fund Engine No. 1, who managed to land three “climate-concerned candidates” on the Exxon board this spring, are taking their method fully public, with an exchange-traded fund, or E.T.F., open to even small investors, that will try to push corporations to take climate change seriously.
Australian soil researchers are quickly bringing to scale a technique for inoculating crop seeds with carbon-sequestering fungi. They claim that yields increase seven per cent with the treatment, and that soils sequester 2.6 tons more tradable carbon per hectare.
James Balog, a photographer best known for his remarkable time-lapse glacier photos, has been chasing the climate story for decades. A new book compiling his work, “The Human Element,” is due out later this year. And the environmentally minded staff at New Hampshire Public Radio has launched a new podcast series on the growth of offshore wind that shows how Big Oil may be morphing into Big Breeze.
The Canadian climate campaigner Seth Klein and colleagues have produced a truly impressive video arguing that we need to respond to the climate crisis with the same vigor that we brought to beating fascism in the twentieth century. (Meanwhile, Klein’s sister, Naomi, and his brother-in-law, Avi Lewis, announced that they are joining the faculty of the University of British Columbia; Naomi Klein will help lead the creation of a new Centre for Climate Justice.)
Scoreboard
Annals of Our Ongoing Disintegration: a Bitcoin-mining firm has found a new way to power its operations: burning waste coal, i.e., the stuff that’s so marginal and so dirty that no one bothered to burn it the first time round. Each Bitcoin transaction now takes about ten minutes to process, requiring enormous energy use. (By comparison, a credit-card transaction takes less than a second and uses 0.0002 per cent of the energy.) And, as a Duke Law School expert noted recently in an op-ed in the Wall Street Journal, “Ransomware can’t succeed without cryptocurrency,” so avoiding that risk may require shutting down a booming piece of the global economy.
A new oil field slated for Namibia and Botswana threatens a hundred and thirty thousand elephants, according to a new report—about thirty per cent of all the elephants in Africa.
Bloomberg reports new data: in nearly half the world, it’s now cheaper to build and operate new wind or solar-energy plants than it is to run existing coal-fired power facilities.
A project funded in part by the government of Denmark will sponsor ten thousand “student-led energy projects” around the world between now and 2030. In the process, it hopes to “train 50,000 agile and employable youth workers, with a particular focus on reducing the energy skills gap in developing nations, and for women.”
Warming Up
Check out the New York City Labor Chorus singing their green-tinted version of the “Hallelujah” Chorus (“Life on Earth! So Amazing!”).
New Yorker Favorites
Bill McKibben is a founder of the grassroots climate campaign 350.org and a contributing writer to The New Yorker. He writes The Climate Crisis, The New Yorker’s newsletter on the environment.
More:
Climate Change
Global Warming
Heat Waves
Drought
Environment
Health
The Climate Crisis
Coverage of environmental news and the climate crisis from a leading voice in the movement.
Enter your e-mail address


By signing up, you agree to our User Agreement and Privacy Policy & Cookie Statement.
Subscribe and save 50%, plus get a free tote.
Subscribe Cancel anytime.
NewsBooks & CultureFiction & PoetryHumor & Cartoons​Magazine​Crossword​Video​Podcasts​Archive​Goings On
Customer CareShop The New YorkerBuy Covers and CartoonsCondé Nast StoreDigital Access​Newsletters​Jigsaw PuzzleRSSSite Map
About​Careers​Contact​F.A.Q.​Media KitPressAccessibility HelpCondé Nast Spotlight
© 2021 Condé Nast. All rights reserved. Use of this site constitutes acceptance of our User Agreement and Privacy Policy and Cookie Statement and Your California Privacy Rights. The New Yorker may earn a portion of sales from products that are purchased through our site as part of our Affiliate Partnerships with retailers. The material on this site may not be reproduced, distributed, transmitted, cached or otherwise used, except with the prior written permission of Condé Nast. Ad Choices