Dose of cold reality for a warming planet

Author calls for ‘Green Apollo’ project

By Bill Williams
January 31, 2011

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Catastrophic floods, major hurricanes, heat waves, and major droughts are among the inevitable consequences of global warming, Mark Hertsgaard asserts in his passionate and somber book.

Human activity in the past 250 years of industrialization has increased the amount of heat-trapping carbon dioxide in the atmosphere to the highest level in 800,000 years, he writes. “The climate system has turned out to be much more sensitive to global warming, much more prone to human disruption, than anticipated.’’

As a result, glaciers and polar ice sheets are melting, causing a steady rise in ocean levels, which will threaten low-lying coastal cities such as New York, much of which could be under water in 50 to 100 years.

Hertsgaard asserts that the response must include slashing carbon emissions and protecting vulnerable communities by constructing flood walls and hurricane-proof buildings.

The author recommends a “Green Apollo’’ project on a scale of President Kennedy’s Apollo mission to reach the moon. President Obama can become the “Abraham Lincoln of our time,’’ Hertsgaard suggests. Just as we remember Lincoln for abolishing slavery, we would remember Obama “for saving the world from climate catastrophe.’’

One cannot help but wonder whether one more book about global warming will make much of a difference. After all Thomas Friedman, Al Gore, Bill McKibben, and scores of other writers have long been sounding alarm bells that have been greeted with a collective yawn.

Most Americans are living in relative comfort and are not yet feeling the effects of global warming, Hertsgaard notes. The worst climate outcomes will affect poorer nations first. Two-thirds of Bangladesh, for example, is less than 16 feet above sea level, and if the ocean rises as predicted, more than 20 million people will have to move to escape incoming floods.

But that possible scenario brings up another sticky point. Although there is a scientific consensus that human activity is causing a dangerous warming of the atmosphere, there is considerable disagreement about the precise long-term outcome, Hertsgaard says. Sea levels could rise a few feet, or as much as 80 feet, depending on variables such as whether the Greenland and Antarctica ice sheets melt.

Despite scientific consensus that the world may be heading toward a climate Armageddon if nothing is done to reverse the present course, Congress for the most part has buried its head in denial, under pressure from corporations reluctant to give up their fossil fuel addictions.

Hertsgaard concedes that climate science is evolving so fast that some of what he writes might soon be outdated.

Hertsgaard is a fine writer and has devoted years to studying climate change, but the intended audience for his polemic is not clear. The book’s arcane science and many digressions might appeal more to policymakers than average readers.

Although the subject depresses, the author finds reasons for hope, noting that climate change has become the hottest issue on college campuses. Some corporations and individuals also are slowly embracing the gospel of energy efficiency and a switch to clean energy.

To those who say we cannot afford the cost of dealing with global warming, Hertsgaard disagrees, noting that the world’s banking system came up with trillions of dollars “almost overnight’’ to stave off financial collapse two years ago, and that the US spends about $250 billion a year on military bases overseas, partly to ensure our access to foreign oil.

“Hot’’ is not light reading, but its urgent message is one that citizens and governments cannot afford to ignore.

Bill Williams is a freelance writer in West Hartford and a member of the National Book Critics Circle. He can be reached at


Living Through the Next Fifty Years on Earth

By Mark Hertsgaard

Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 339 pp., $25