A Q&A with Mark Hertsgaard, Author of Hot: Living Through the Next Fifty Years on Earth
Q: You write about your daughter Chiara quite a bit in Hot. In the prologue, you describe the moment when you came to understand just what climate change would mean for her. You had a kind of terrible epiphany while crossing Westminster Bridge in London.
A: Yeah, that was on October 18, 2005. Hurricane Katrina had struck seven weeks before, and Vanity Fair had sent me to London to report what became the cover story for its first "green" issue. I did an interview with David King, the chief science adviser to the British government, who was way ahead of the curve on this stuff. He shattered the conventional framing of the climate problem and made me see that we had entered a radically new era.
See, from the time global warming emerged on the world’s agenda in the late 1980s, public discussion had focused on two basic questions: Is global warming real? And if so, how can it be stopped before it gets really dangerous, which is to say before it triggers outright climate change, with stronger storms, deeper droughts, harsher heat waves, and so forth? But King told me that British scientists had shown that global warming had already triggered climate change. His specific example was the record heat wave that battered Europe in the summer of 2003, when corpses were piling up outside the morgue in Paris. About half of the excessive temperatures of the 2003 heat wave, King said, were attributable to man-made global warming.
Anyway, in essence David King told me climate change had arrived one hundred years sooner than scientists had expected. And that wasn’t the worst of it. He went on to explain that the physical inertia of the climate system—the laws of physics and chemistry—guaranteed that average global temperatures would keep rising for another thirty to forty years, even if humanity somehow was to halt all greenhouse gas emissions overnight. The upshot was that our civilization was locked in to a large amount of future climate change no matter how many solar panels, electric cars, and other green technologies we eventually embraced.
Q: Is that why you say your daughter belongs to what you call Generation Hot?
A: Not only my daughter. Every child on earth born after June 23, 1988, belongs to Generation Hot. Generation Hot includes some two billion young people, all of whom have grown up under global warming and are fated to spend the rest of their lives confronting its mounting impacts.
I date Generation Hot to June 23, 1988, because that’s the day humanity was put on notice that greenhouse gas emissions were raising temperatures on this planet. The warning came from NASA scientist James Hansen’s testimony to the United States Senate and, crucially, the decision by the New York Times to print the news on page 1, which made global warming a household phrase in news bureaus, living rooms, and government offices the world over.
Unfortunately, Hansen’s and countless subsequent warnings by others went unheeded. The U.S. government, under Republican as well as Democratic leadership, listened as much to corporate-funded deniers of climate change as it did to actual scientists. So instead of shifting to greener technologies, U.S. emissions have soared over the past twenty years. That, in turn, helped accelerate global warming to where it triggered outright climate change. And as David King explained, once climate change gets triggered, it can’t be turned off quickly.
As a result, my daughter and the other two billion young people of Generation Hot are destined to live with rising temperatures and stronger climate impacts for the rest of their lives. Which is why our new mantra in fighting climate change has to be “Avoid the unmanageable and manage the unavoidable.” On the one hand, we must redouble our efforts to slash greenhouse gas emissions and stop global warming before it unleashes an unmanageable amount of climate change. On the other hand, we have to put in place better defenses against sea level rise, more effective water conservation systems, and many other measures to manage the climate change that is already unavoidable. In short, we have to live through global warming even as we strive to stop it.
Q: Where do you find hope for the future?
A: I’d like to underline that my feelings of hope are not merely a matter of philosophical outlook. In the course of researching Hot, I came across many concrete reasons for hope and quite inspiring examples of how individuals, governments, and nonprofit groups are facing up to these challenges.
The first two chapters of Hot explain the new realities of global warming and specify the kinds of impacts that are unavoidable during the lifetimes of today’s children. Members of Generation Hot who live in New York City, for example, will endure twice as many extremely hot summer days by the 2020s as they do today, which is no small thing if you recall how unpleasant the summer of 2010 was. By the time my daughter is my age, the snowpack in California will have melted to where shortages of drinking water will be a virtually permanent condition. And the projections for Africa, South Asia, and other poor regions of the world are often even more troubling.
Nevertheless, most of my book is devoted to solutions—to answering the question I posed that day on Westminster Bridge: What will it take for Chiara and her generation around the world to live through all this? And what I’ve found during four years of on-the-ground reporting is that a lot is already being done to prepare to fight against these gathering threats.
Some of the most encouraging steps are being taken here in the United States. In Seattle, the former chief county executive, an amazing guy named Ron Sims, directed everyone in government to "ask the climate question." That is, ask climate scientists what conditions the region will face in the year 2050 and then work backward to prepare for those conditions—by building stronger levees, improving freshwater storage, and building more resilient housing. Sims told me he championed this approach for economic as much as ecological reasons. He thinks people and businesses will move to his region because it is prepared for what’s ahead.
Overseas, the clear leaders are in the Netherlands, where the government has begun implementing a 200-Year Plan to cope with climate change. Planning that far ahead is almost inconceivable here in the U.S., but the Dutch plan is well funded and politically tough-minded. They are very serious about protecting their nation from stronger North Sea storms and other projected impacts, and there’s a lot we can learn from them.
But the single most hopeful story I came across was in West Africa, where I saw large numbers of very poor farmers who are already adapting to ferociously hot temperatures with remarkable success. Their method sounds counterintuitive but is ingenious: they grow trees amid their fields of millet and sorghum. The trees provide shade for the crops, help the soil retain rainwater, and offer a range of other benefits, with the result that crop yields, in a land where hunger is a constant threat, have doubled and sometimes tripled.
These are the kinds of examples that all of us—as individuals, communities, governments, and businesses—can benefit from and apply in our own lives. In that sense, Hot is a good-news story about a bad-news predicament, and that gives me hope.