Up until fairly recently, it was possible—which, of course, is not the same as advisable—to see climate change as a phenomenon that was happening somewhere else. In the Arctic, Americans were told (again and again and again), the effects were particularly dramatic. The sea ice was melting. This was bad for native Alaskans, and even worse for polar bears, who rely on the ice for survival. But in the Lower Forty-eight there always seemed to be more pressing concerns, like Barack Obama’s birth certificate. Similarly, the Antarctic Peninsula was reported to be warming fast, with unfortunate consequences for penguins and sea levels. But penguins live far away and sea-level rise is prospective, so again the issue seemed to lack “the fierce urgency of now.”
The summer of 2012 offers Americans the best chance yet to get their minds around the problem. In late June, just as a sizzling heat wave was settling across much of the country—in Evansville, Indiana, temperatures rose into the triple digits for ten days, reaching as high as a hundred and seven degrees—wildfires raged in Colorado. Hot and extremely dry conditions promoted the flames’ spread. “It’s no exaggeration to say Colorado is burning,” KDVR, the Fox station in Denver, reported. By the time the most destructive blaze was fully contained, almost three weeks later, it had scorched nearly twenty-nine square miles. Meanwhile, a “super derecho”—a long line of thunderstorms—swept from Illinois to the Atlantic Coast, killing at least thirteen people and leaving millions without power.
Referring to the fires, the drought, and the storms, Jonathan Overpeck, a professor of geosciences and atmospheric sciences at the University of Arizona, told the Associated Press, “This is certainly what I and many other climate scientists have been warning about.” He also noted, “This is what global warming looks like at the regional or personal level.”
Or, at least, what it looks like right now. One of the most salient—but also, unfortunately, most counterintuitive—aspects of global warming is that it operates on what amounts to a time delay. Behind this summer’s heat are greenhouse gases emitted decades ago. Before many effects of today’s emissions are felt, it will be time for the Summer Olympics of 2048. (Scientists refer to this as the “commitment to warming.”) What’s at stake is where things go from there. . .
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