How Hot? How Soon?: Runaway Train (Part 1)

Part 1 of a series on climate change in the Highlands

By Chip Rowe

The climate has always been changing. If you are in the Highlands, you are sitting at this moment on a spot once covered with several thousand feet of ice. But that was 21,000 years ago.

Now imagine the Highlands just 30 years from now, when our climate will be closer to what you find today in Raleigh, North Carolina.

That may sound appealing, but along with the temperate mercury we will see far less snow and far more heavy downpours, “100-year storms” that will occur every 5 or 10 years and cause billions of dollars in damage, and summer droughts that will change what farmers are able to grow. We will suffer extended heat waves, with between 10 (Albany) and 28 (New York City) “danger days” annually during which the heat index hits 105 degrees or higher. At the same time, the Highlands will look like a resort to the residents of Raleigh (70 danger days) and Phoenix (147).

If unchecked, sea-level rise will push the Hudson River to the Metro-North tracks on Cold Spring’s waterfront by 2100, putting the Hudson line north and south under water. The Beacon train station will be overrun and Dia:Beacon will become an island. Average temperatures, at their worst, could be 10 degrees higher by the turn of the century and the growing season a month longer, allowing for more pollen and more ticks. Poison ivy and algae blooms will thrive.

“The rate of change is scary,” says Radley Horton, a climate scientist at Columbia University who lives in Garrison. “The red flags are here.”

Graphic by Lynn Carano

While the climate has always been changing, it has never changed as fast as it has since 1830, the year the first coal-powered steam engine, the Tom Thumb, was constructed in Baltimore. Powered by fossil fuels, a trip that took two weeks in 1830 took only two days by 1857, and takes two hours today by plane. As America grew, it became smaller.

Nearly two centuries of burning the fuels required to run our trains and cars and planes, and heat our interiors and power our gadgets, have come with a heavy price. The carbon dioxide (CO2) released by generations of innovation has saturated the atmosphere, dramatically increasing the amount of solar heat it traps, a process first conceptualized in 1856 by scientist Eunice Foote in a paper presented in Albany (see below).

This relationship later became known as “the greenhouse effect,” because the atmosphere traps heat in the same way a greenhouse does. And we need that heat; for starters, it keeps the oceans from freezing solid. But the more carbon we release into the atmosphere, the more heat the atmosphere traps, and the hotter the earth becomes.

The change isn’t dramatic in the moment. But when scientists pull up ice cores in the Antarctic to measure carbon in trapped air from as long ago as 11,000 years and study tree rings for growth rates, a troubling pattern becomes apparent: a slow and steady rise until the industrial revolution, when the lines on the charts that track everything bad look less like the gentle westerly slope up Anthony’s Nose and more like its sheer face.

The Discovery of the Greenhouse Gas Effect

Although credit for identifying the greenhouse gas effect typically goes to John Tyndall, who published a series of papers in 1859, the first scientific research that identified it was presented three years earlier, in Albany, at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science.

The author was a relative unknown, a 37-year-old woman named Eunice Foote who had come to the conference with her husband. Little is known about her background, but her two-page report, “Circumstances affecting the Heat of the Sun’s Rays,” explained experiments she had done to measure the variation in the absorption of radiant energy by gases in the atmosphere. It also included her speculation that increasing the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere would lead to global warming.

Scientific American praised Foote for her experiments, which involved an air pump, thermometers and glass cylinders, and noted it was “happy to say” they had been “done by a lady.”

No one alive today will be around to see a happy ending, if there is one. If global warming is to be stopped, it will take generations. Based on documented changes, climatologists years ago concluded the situation is a runaway train — more precisely, a runaway oil train. We can only slow it down, buy some time. It’s a legacy issue, which is always a hard sell. Many of us never write a will, let alone plan for a century or more down the road.

“In 2040 we will know the future of the earth, whether it’s going to warm 4 degrees or 9 or 10,” says Eban Goodstein, director of the Bard Center for Environmental Policy. “What will it take to hold the rise at 4 degrees? There were 32 billion tons of CO2 emitted globally last year, and we would have to cut emissions by 70 percent by 2050 — starting now.”

Unfortunately, Goodstein said that in 2012. Last year, 37 billion tons of CO2 were released.

The problem is particularly challenging because the world’s climate is maddeningly complex. If you turn one dial, it’s hard to predict which other dials will move. That imprecision is what skeptics, including many in the fossil fuel industries and the current head of the Environmental Protection Agency, seize on when they insist that the threat is oversold. Yet the ice at the poles is clearly melting, the seas are clearly rising and the storms are clearly more frequent and intense.

Although global warming affects every person on earth — at last count, there are more than 7.8 billion of us — we wanted to focus on the Highlands, as best we could. Fortunately, there are many people who live here — scientists, journalists, farmers, naturalists, legislators, activists — who are able to help us better understand what is happening, and will happen.

Over the next few weeks, we will examine the impact of climate change close to home — including on our river, weather, farming and food, the wildlife we see, the wetlands and trees, the poison ivy, the ticks, the dirt roads. We will speak to the innovators who are addressing how we must adapt, and the activists who are hoping to change the conversation here, in Washington and across the country.

But first, to get a broader perspective, I visited with three Highlands residents who think about climate change every day: Alison Spodek, an assistant professor of chemistry and environmental studies at Vassar College, whose battle with leukemia changed, and informed, her view; David Gelber, who left a two-decade career at 60 Minutes to pursue what he sees as the story of our time, and whose reporting spurred him to action; and Andy Revkin, who has reported on climate change for 30 years for The New York TimesProPublica and, most recently, National Geographic.

Alison Spodek

Six years ago, at the age of 37, with two young children at home, Spodek was in a hospital bed at Sloan Kettering, dying of acute myeloid leukemia.

She was told her odds of surviving five years were 1 in 5.

A stem cell transplant saved her. In March, Slate published an essay the Beacon resident wrote about her near-death experience and how it influenced her view of the earth and its future.

When she began teaching her students at Vassar about climate change, Spodek focused on what needed to be done to avert catastrophe. By the time she returned to work in 2014, she wrote in her essay, “I no longer could see a track that turned away from the edge. We are already locked into catastrophic changes, terrible human and animal suffering.”

“We are in the middle of a mass extinction,” Spodek says when I meet her at Ella’s Bellas on Main Street in Beacon, where she retreats to grade papers. “We are losing tremendous amounts of biodiversity, animals, plants, fungi, everything. There have been five mass extinctions, according to the fossil record. In this one, our quality of life will be significantly diminished. And it’s not any one species, such as the white rhino — it’s entire systems that are complicated and overlapping.”

Alison Spodek at home in Beacon with her children, Noa and Abraham (Photo by Meredith Heuer)

Despite what she described in her essay as her “new willingness to see and acknowledge the hardest parts of this reality,” she tells me she meant for the piece to be hopeful: We may not be able to stop climate change but we can do everything we can to push it back, just as anyone would when battling cancer.

“It would be absurd to say to a 37-year-old cancer patient, ‘Cheer up, you were going to die eventually!’ ” she explains. “ ‘If you would have lived to 80, that’s only a 43-year difference!’ ”

She believes “paradigm shifts are possible.” After meeting with members of the Beacon chapter of the Citizens’ Climate Lobby earlier in the day we spoke, she says she left feeling intrigued by the prospects of a plan to make it expensive for energy companies to release carbon into the atmosphere, a practice known as carbon pricing. “If we can harness the power of the market, things could change very fast,” she says.

The problem with climate change, she says, is that “everybody imagines this perfect nature that existed in the past, and since we can’t go back to that, maybe we should give up. When I start to feel despair, I tell myself and I tell my students, postponing the inevitable is all we ever do! We can postpone destruction and keep things nice for a little longer.

“The difficulty,” she adds, “is that we want to teach young people lessons with a positive spin. Elementary, middle and high school students are being taught that if you ride your bike a little more and recycle your cans, everything will be O.K, and that’s not a realistic expectation we’re setting for them. We’re letting ourselves off the hook that way, which we will pay for.

“But as I’m talking to my daughter, who is 10, I don’t want to paint a totally bleak picture,” she says. “You can be a good environmentalist but it has to be bigger than that.” She quotes a Jewish text, the Pirkei Avot: “You are not obligated to complete the work, but neither are you free to desist from it.”

Spodek grew up in Washington, D.C., and as a child wanted to be a poet. She remembers the first time she heard about climate change. She was 10 or 12 years old, and she learned from a newscast that the planet was warming. “I was totally terrified,” she recalls. “I thought, this seems like a bad situation. We should have been dealing with this 35 years ago when I first heard about it.”

Inspired by her high school chemistry teacher, she took some chemistry courses at Wesleyan “and kept taking them and all of a sudden I was three-quarters of the way through the major.” She earned a master’s degree in chemistry at Yale and was pursuing a doctorate at Columbia in physical chemistry before changing course. “I realized I was looking at four years in the basement with a laser,” she says.

Before enrolling in grad school, Spodek and her husband, Brent (now the rabbi at the Beacon Hebrew Alliance), traveled four months by bicycle through California and from Florida to North Carolina, all while living in a tent. “That shifted my relationship with the outdoors,” she said. She left the physical chemistry program and got involved in research to study arsenic levels in ground water. She would eventually earn her Ph.D. in earth and environmental science and was hired by Vassar in 2009.

She knows it’s difficult for people to fathom the changes that are coming. But like Radley Horton, who was a classmate at Columbia, she sees the signs, from the lack of fireflies for her children to catch to the pervasive poison ivy. “Part of why climate change is personally upsetting to me is that I can’t see anything without seeing climate change,’’ she says.

David Gelber

Gelber, 77, grew up in Elizabeth, New Jersey, where he says a defining memory of his childhood was “the fumes coming from the refineries in Rahway and Linden. I’m glad every morning to wake up in Garrison,” where he lives in a home overlooking the Hudson with his wife and two daughters.

He was the editor of his college newspaper at Swarthmore, did some work as a cub reporter for the Elizabeth Daily Journal and, after graduation, became editor of an alternative weekly in Boston called The Real Paper. After a fortuitous introduction, he was hired as a reporter at WNBC in New York City.

He didn’t last. “I was the role model for Albert Brooks’ character in Broadcast News, with the flop sweat,” he says, “so they made me a producer.” From there he progressed to the CBS Evening News and 60 Minutes, where he worked with Ed Bradley until Bradley’s death in 2006.

In 2009, Gelber and his associate producer, Joel Bach, reported a story with correspondent Scott Pelley on Jim Rogers, the CEO of Duke Energy. Rogers did not sound like a typical coal-industry executive.

Pelley: Controlling carbon emissions in the near future is inevitable in your view. This is going to happen.
Rogers: It’s inevitable in my judgment.
Pelley: You’re one of the biggest polluters in the world when it comes to carbon emissions.
Rogers: We’re one of the largest emitters. And it tells you how daunting the challenge is that we have in front of us.
Pelley: You know, there are a lot of people, many of them in your industry, many whom you probably know, who say that global warming is not a big problem.
Rogers: It’s my judgment that it is a problem. We need to go to work on it now. And it’s critical that we start to act in this country.

“Rogers was a smart guy,” Gelber says. “He understood that climate was a big deal. He made friends with environmentalists and then basically screwed them on the Waxman-Markey Bill,” which would have established a system where the government would limit the amount of greenhouse gases that could be emitted and companies would buy or trade permits, with the maximum amount of CO2 that could be released in total each year slowly reduced.

“Rogers got liberal Democrats to vote against Waxman-Markey,” which was passed 219-212 in the House but was never brought up in the Senate, Gelber says. “He was torn between what he knew to be true and his fiduciary responsibility to his shareholders.”

David Gelber at his Garrison home (Photo by Meredith Heuer)

The Rogers story prompted Gelber and Bach to dig deeper into climate change. The more they learned, the more they considered focusing on the topic.

60 Minutes is a magnificent job and you get to be a dilettante, but at the time I had just had kids at a relatively advanced age and I thought they are going to have to live with this,” Gelber recalls. “I wanted to spend the rest of my journalistic career trying to get people to focus on what is the single biggest story out there.”

In 2011, Gelber and Bach left CBS and began to look for financial backers for a documentary film or series. Bach had a college friend who was a niece of the longtime Hollywood producer and agent Jerry Weintraub, who agreed to meet with them. “He said to us, ‘You left 60 Minutes to report about the weather?’ But [George] Clooney and Brad Pitt and others were concerned, and Jerry was so helpful.” (Weintraub died in 2015.)

The director Jim Cameron (The Terminator, Titanic) heard about the project and agreed to meet, too. He became an executive producer. They pitched Arnold Schwarzenegger and Harrison Ford. They signed on, as well.

Four years later, the series, Years of Living Dangerously, premiered on Showtime. The opening episode followed Ford to Brazil, where he confronted forestry officials who were allowing trees to be burned in protected land to clear space for palm-oil trees, which produce an ingredient widely used in packaged foods and beauty products. The series won an Emmy.

Season 2 aired on the National Geographic Channel; Ivy Meeropol, a documentary filmmaker who lives in Cold Spring, produced two episodes. Years has been picked up for a third season on National Geo. Clips from past episodes were viewed more than 120 million times online during the last three months of 2017, Gelber says.

In 2014, Vanity Fair published a photo of the producers behind Years of Living Dangerously: Jim Cameron, Jerry Weintraub, David Gelber, Joel Bach and Arnold Schwarzenegger. Gelber, whose face ended up in the magazine’s gutter, says his daughter, Clara, asked him, “Daddy, why didn’t you move over?” (Photo by Michael Turton)

He acknowledges that the project has moved beyond reporting. “We’re walking some kind of weird line between journalism and advocacy,” he says. “But we are absolutely determined never to lie to people. Everything is carefully vetted.”

What frustrates him, he says, is that the television networks rarely report on the issue. To combat that, the Years team plans to expand its website and launch an international newsroom. “If you want to have any impact, you have to do more than a series every two years,” Gelber says. “You have to keep the issue alive every single day as long as ABC, NBC, CBS and Fox are ignoring it. People assume if they don’t hear about it, it couldn’t be that important.”

What needs to be a priority? Like many others, Gelber advocates carbon pricing. “Make the polluters pay,” he says. “They are getting away with dumping toxic garbage in the atmosphere. The restaurants on Main Street in Cold Spring have to pay $100 a week to get rid of their garbage, but the oil companies don’t pay.”

Whatever the mechanics, he says, “this is a political question more than anything. We have been subjected to a kind of tribalism, where you have the only major party in the Western world denying climate change behind a leader who thinks it’s a hoax cooked up by the Chinese. There are many things about Democrats I’m not crazy about, but they are the right side of science and the right side of history. We had a president before Trump who believed in carbon pricing, and in 2008 John McCain was better on climate change than Obama was.”

Gelber says he’s been reading books lately about World War I, and what strikes him is that “every single decision they made was insane. It got us Hitler, it got us Stalin. This climate change thing is almost part of that continuum of man’s impulse for self-destruction. But I can’t believe it’s a lost cause.”

Andy Revkin

Revkin planned to be a scientist. He graduated from Brown with a degree in biology, and then received a fellowship to conduct research in the South Pacific. “Halfway through that, a sailboat needed a crew, and so I sailed 17,000 miles in 18 months, and that’s what made me want to be a journalist.”

We talked while he walked his dogs, Mickey and Maddie, in Cold Spring at Dockside Park, which will likely be under water by the turn of the century.

Although he switched careers, Revkin says he finds science and journalism to be similar in many ways. “They both try to probe the real nature of things,” says the Nelsonville resident. “Both are potentially laden with values. Both are not always pretty. The only difference is that in journalism the peer review is after you publish.”

After earning a master’s in journalism from Columbia, Revkin began his career as an assistant copy editor at Science Digest. In 1985, he wrote a cover story for the magazine about “nuclear winter,” a hypothesis that a global war could cause severe climate cooling if the soot from massive fires blocked out the sun.

Andy Revkin at Dockside Park in Cold Spring (Photo by Meredith Heuer)

Three years later, after moving to Discover, Revkin wrote another cover story, about global warming. It was prompted by the Senate committee testimony of a NASA climatologist named Jim Hansen that captured the attention of the media and Capitol Hill. Hansen had been asked to speak because Yellowstone National Park and the Amazon rain forest were ablaze that summer and the eastern United States was suffering a record heat wave.

“The greenhouse effect has been detected, and it is changing our climate,” Hansen told the senators, noting that NASA was 99 percent certain global warming was caused by man-made carbon dioxide. One observer noted Hansen’s testimony pivoted climate change from a scientific discussion into a policy debate.

Revkin, who is on the advisory board of Highlands Current Inc., the publisher of this newspaper, spent 21 years as a science writer at The New York Times, writing a blog about climate change for the last six of them. After a stint at ProPublica, he was hired in March by the National Geographic Society as its strategic adviser for environmental and science journalism.

He has written about climate change for 30 years. Is he sick of it?

“I get tired of the dynamics around it,” he says. “Everyone’s yelling and claiming to be on the high ground — campaigners and resisters.”

Although there is an industry of people, including President Trump, who argue that climate change is not happening, or at least that humans are not to blame, Revkin says he avoids calling anyone a denier.

“Everyone has a certain level of denial about this issue, so you have to be more specific,” he says. “New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, in his last speech in office in 2013, said we needed to invest $20 billion to make the city resilient by 2050, but the core line was about the rising sea level: ‘We will not retreat.’ That’s a complete denial of science. He’s a believer in cutting greenhouse gases but he’s also in denial that, even if you aggressively cut them, it won’t stop the sea from rising for 50 years. People need to get over that.”

Revkin says he will address this in an essay he wrote for the July issue of National Geographic. “The bad news about the problem is that it’s so big,” he says. “The good news is it’s so big it’s actually not a problem. We need to take away the faux sense that we can solve the climate problem.” Instead, he proposes we “replace it with working in a sustained way and handing off to the next generation what it needs to build a new relationship with the climate system. Because it’s big and complex, everyone can take a piece of it.”

In 2016, in an essay for Issues in Science and Technology titled My Climate Change, Revkin wrote: “I find global warming doesn’t worry me — at least not in a gut-twisting, obsessive way. Rather, a stripped-down agnostic version of the Serenity Prayer has come to mind lately as I’ve grappled with humanity’s ‘only one planet’ predicament: change what can be changed, accept what can’t and know the difference. Science can help clarify which is which.”

Looking back at his three decades of coverage, Revkin notes that “we all got fooled, including me. When I was a kid there was smog and rivers were polluted, but those were environmental problems and you could fix them. In 1987, with the Montreal Protocol, they found a way to have a global agreement to get rid of the chemicals depleting the ozone, and it’s working slowly. So in 1988, when global warming became the story, it was only natural to think, we can use the same tools: a treaty or a law. But part of my learning curve and part of everyone’s learning curve was that we need more than a bill.”

He’s not as confident as Gelber and others that carbon pricing is ever going to happen at a level that will make a difference. But, still, is he optimistic about our chances? He’s been asked this before. “I’m engaged,” he says immediately, with a smile. “I’m an optimist when I wake up but usually need a beer or two by the time I go to bed. What has to be taught is a mix of urgency and patience.”

The Series

Part 2: Rising Waters (May 11)

Part 3: Farm = Food (May 25)

Part 4: Into the Wild (June 1)

Part 5: What Now? (June 8)

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One Response to "How Hot? How Soon?: Runaway Train (Part 1)"

  1. Steve Knowles   May 21, 2018 at 5:12 pm

    Global sea level is the best gauge of global temperature, and therefore, global climate. Global sea level has been reliably measured for more than 100 years at dozens of locations around the world. When data from all of these stations are averaged, it provides the most reliable long-term global sea-level rise data set; no modelling required. Global sea level has been rising for thousands of years, since the end of the last “ice age.” The rate of rise has been essentially constant for the past 100 years, and most significantly, has not significantly increased in the rate of rise during the past 50 years!

    This basic fact invalidates the manmade global warming theory, and by default, invalidates the concept of “manmade climate change”; you have to have manmade global warming to have manmade climate change, and you have to have global warming (above the natural increase) to have manmade global warming! Fears of the Hudson River water levels drowning local town waterfronts is unfounded and irresponsible. The rate of sea level rise is about 7 to 8 inches per century; expect it to continue. If you want to prepare for the worst, double that rate!