On June 23, 1988, NASA scientist James Hansen presented the notion of global, human-caused climate change to the public. Testifying before the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, Hansen said that his team was 99 percent certain that the global warming trend observed by numerous scientific groups was not naturally caused, but was the result of human activity paired with a buildup of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. In an interview that day, Hansen said: ‘’It is time to stop waffling so much and say that the evidence is strong that the greenhouse effect is here.’’
Last Saturday marked 30 years since Hansen’s testimony. Though phrases like “the greenhouse effect” and “global warming” have permeated our language and our supermarkets are filled with supposedly “green” or “eco-friendly” products, it is hard to be optimistic on this anniversary. Our weather is noticeably warmer, stormier and more extreme than ever before observed.
Glaciers are melting at the poles and causing rising sea levels. Species are going extinct at alarming rates. Wildfires threaten our cities. Hansen and his team of doomsayers were correct, and it is immensely depressing to see our nation and global community still fail to take the issue seriously 30 years later.
In 1988, Hansen predicted that the planet’s average temperature would rise by 1.9 degrees Fahrenheit by 2017. According to a report from the Associated Press, the predictions were only a bit off the mark. In the last 30 years, the planet has warmed by 1.6 degrees, and certain areas are up to three degrees hotter than they were in the late ’80s.
You don’t even need to look at the numbers to see the differences — they are all around you.
Winters are now shorter, with the first frost of fall happening an average of nine days later than it did 30 years ago, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. In addition, the last frost of spring occurs four days earlier. Plants have more time to flower, which has contributed to a global rise in allergies and asthma. Hurricane season starts almost a month earlier than it used to. Wildfires like those that enveloped Southern California in late 2017 are becoming more common as foliage dries out; wildfires in the United States now consume more than twice the acreage that they did three decades ago. And extreme weather is the new normal: Heat records at U.S. weather stations have been broken more than 2.3 million times while cold records have been broken 1.8 million times.
And yet, it seems that our society is still at the point where we need to be reminded to “stop waffling” on the issue. We’ve taken these 30 years to gather evidence, and though it would be thrilling to prove Hansen wrong, it turns out his predictions were correct, almost down to the decimal.
I don’t want to discount collective progress: Cities are making stronger efforts to reduce air pollution, electric vehicles are being normalized and alternative energy sources are growing. However, there seems to be no more time to sit back and gather data.
On this grim anniversary, our society’s journey seems almost Oedipal, in that we were warned, given a prophecy of what was to come, and in thinking that we could thwart it through denial, we walked directly into its prediction. In 1988, Hansen said that global warming was “in our living room.” Well, today it has barreled through the living room — leaving a gaping hole in the wall — and is now ransacking the entire house.
The momentum of global climate change is such that we may not be able to turn the trends around. However, we can at least slow or stop them in the next 30 years. I know it is a scary issue to consider; it is much easier to throw up our hands and retreat into comfortable nihilism than it is to call for change.
Give your representatives a second call. After talking to them about our country’s cruel immigration policy, ask them what their plan is for combating climate change. Pressure the institutions beholden to you — your school, your employer, the companies you give money to — to take substantive action. Sacrifice some personal comfort for the health of the planet, and really take stock of where you can reduce your impact.
These words can seem empty. After all, we are a generation that has grown up with pictures of starving polar bears, raised on false promises that turning off the faucet while brushing our teeth would save the planet. And now, we are forced to deal with a daily, depressing onslaught of news about how cruel humans can be.
It’s difficult to make room for planetary issues when humanity feels doomed from all sides, but global warming just had its 30th birthday. So in an odd way, climate change is in our generation too — a millennial just like us.
Large anniversaries like this one allow us to reflect on the progress we’ve made and the steps that still need to be taken, and I hope that in 30 years — when we’re entering our 50s and Hansen’s testimony turns 60 — we can look at our actions with pride.
Kylie Harrington is a junior majoring in journalism. Her column,“Pale Blue Dot,” ran on Wednesdays.