Feeling Hot, Hot, Hot

This is a very special issue of E Magazine. In the magazine’s 10-year history, we have on only one other occasion devoted the entire feature section to a single story. That piece, a cross-country exploration of environmental racism, appeared in 1998.

Now we’re doing it again, with an international tour of global warming “hot spots.” E sent some of the country’s foremost environmental journalists around the world to document climate change in progress. Why now? Because it’s difficult to pursue “business as usual” when we live in very unusual times.

Nineteen ninety eight was a banner year for anomalous weather. In late March, snow fell in New York’s Central Park, but just nine days later thermometers registered temperatures of 68 degrees Fahrenheit. In June, Britt, Iowa experienced six inches of rain in only two hours. Deluges in Southern California brought home invasions of reptiles, rodents and insects, while heavy rains also caused swarms of pale-wing grasshoppers to descend on Bullhead City, Arizona. As part of an ongoing heat wave that shows no signs of dissipating, temperatures hit 124 degrees in India, and 117 in Texas, and even chilly Switzerland recorded a highly unusual 95.

The crazy weather has continued right into 2000, but such extreme events are only part of the picture. E‘s piece documents dramatic and permanent environmental changes. Sea level is rising in the Pacific, inundating small islands and threatening larger ones. Reefs around the world are dying from coral bleaching. Coastal resorts from New Jersey to Antigua are losing their beaches, and making a desperate attempt to hold back a restless sea. The populations of California’s tidal pools and Washington State’s glacial slopes are changing dramatically. In the Antarctic, huge ice floes the size of American states are breaking off, and insect pests are killing the great coniferous forests of Alaska. Coastal cities like New York are battening down the hatches, and giant ozone clouds hide the Indian Ocean in gloom.

Worldwide climate change on this scale cannot be explained as part of a natural cycle. Ten of the warmest years on record have all occurred since 1983, seven of them since 1990. The crisis is manmade, but the responsibility is not spread evenly over the Earth. Some 73 percent of total carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions come from industrialized nations, according to the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy. The largest single source is the United States, which alone accounts for 22 percent of total world emissions, or five tons of CO2 per U.S. citizen, per year. By contrast, Africa, the Middle East and Latin America each produce only three to four percent of annual global emissions.

“The balance of evidence suggests a discernible human influence on global climate,” says the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, an international coalition of 2,500 climate scientists. The recognition that global warming is real has spread to nearly every sector of society. Even the country’s biggest corporations have signaled their own tentative acceptance of the phenomenon by quitting the naysaying Global Climate Coalition. But even with this recent progress, we are far from any solution that reverses—or even reduces—the emission of global warming gas. At a time when the U.S. should be leading by example, the Senate feels no urgency to even discuss the Kyoto Accords, which would mandate only modest emission reductions.

And that’s why we feel the need to publish this special issue now, rather than a year from now, when Americans will have pumped another billion tons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere.