mark hertsgaard

Independent Journalist & Author


Meet Generation Hot

My daughter Chiara, age five, is a member. So is my goddaughter Emily,
age twenty-two. So are the thousands of Pakistani children now suffering
after record monsoon rains left 20 percent of their country — an area
the size of Great Britain — under water.


In fact, every child on earth born after June 23, 1988 belongs to what I
call Generation Hot. This generation 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.

For Generation Hot, the brutal summer of 2010 is not an anomaly; it’s
the new normal.

One wouldn’t know it from most media coverage, but the world’s leading
climate scientists have concluded that last summer’s rash of extreme
weather — including record heat across much of Europe (especially
Russia) and the United States — was driven in no small part by man-made
global warming. Of course no single event can ever be definitively
attributed to global warming; weather results from many factors. But
according to the U.N.’s World Meteorological Organization, the
extraordinary heat, rains, drought and flooding that occurred this
summer fit the U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s
projections of “more frequent and more intense extreme weather events
due to global warming.” In other words, dangerous climate change is no
longer tomorrow’s problem; it is here today.

But for most of us, the other scientific shoe has yet to drop. Aside
from a fundamentalist few, most people around the world, in rich and
poor countries alike, accept that climate change is real and has already
begun to occur. Nevertheless, many non-specialists still do not grasp
the most fiendish aspect of the climate problem: we can’t turn it off.

No matter how many solar panels, electric cars and other green
technologies we humans may embrace, the fact remains that more severe
climate change is locked in for decades to come. The reason is the
physical inertia of the climate system: the fact that carbon dioxide can
remain in the atmosphere for centuries. Even if global greenhouse gas
emissions were magically halted overnight, sheer physical inertia would
keep average global temperatures rising for another thirty years at
least, scientists say.

Not every future summer will be as punishing as 2010 was, but more and
more will be. Members of Generation Hot who live in New York City, for
example, will endure roughly twice as many extremely hot summer days in
the 2020s as they do today, according to the New York City Panel on
Climate Panel, a group of scientific, government and business leaders
advising the city government.

Growing enough food will also be a challenge. Corn, one of the world’s
key staple crops, does not reproduce at temperatures above 95 degrees
Fahrenheit. During the 20th century, the breadbasket state of Iowa
experienced three straight days of 95 F temperatures once per
decade—not a big problem. By 2040 Iowa is projected to experience such
hot spells in three summers out of four.

It’s not that we weren’t warned. I date the beginning of Generation Hot
to June 23, 1988 because that is when humanity was put on notice that
greenhouse gas emissions were raising the temperatures on this planet.
The warning came from NASA scientist James Hansen’s testimony to the
U.S. Senate and, crucially, the decision by the New York Times to print
the news on page 1, which in turn made global warming a household phrase
in news bureaus, living rooms and government offices the world over.

As the father of a five year old, it infuriates me that Hansen’s
warning, and countless subsequent ones, has gone unheeded. As a
journalist, I have helped expose some of the tactics that energy
companies and their allies employed to block action. Often the cynicism
has been breathtaking. For example, the science advisers to the
corporate-funded Global Climate Coalition privately told the group’s
board of directors — way back in 1995! — that the science behind
climate change was “well established and cannot be denied,” a fact the
board then censored from the group’s public outreach materials. Last
July, lawmakers in Washington refused to pass modest climate legislation
even as the northern hemisphere sizzled under what will likely be the
hottest summer on record.

“This was a crime,” Hans Joachim Schellnhuber, the climate adviser to
German Chancellor Angela Merkel, told me, referring to the past two
decades of global inaction. But the wrong people are being punished. My
daughter and her peers in Generation Hot have been given a life sentence
for a crime they didn’t commit; they will spend the rest of their lives
coping with a climate that will be hotter and more volatile than ever
before in our civilization’s history. Meanwhile, the perpetrators of
this crime continue to reap record corporate profits, win political
re-elections and get invited onto national TV and radio programs.

The battle to prevent climate change, feeble as it was, is over. Now the
race to survive it has begun. If humanity is to win this race, we must
change the way we think about the climate problem. Humanity has left
behind what I call the first era of global warming — when we argued
about whether it was real and how to stop it — and entered a new,
second era of the problem, where the paradigm has shifted in a
fundamental but still largely unrecognized way.

In the second era of global warming, the traditional goal of climate
policy — limiting global emissions — is more important than ever but
no longer sufficient. To be sure, we need to reverse global warming, and
quickly — before the earth passes tipping points that could trigger
irreversible climate change. At the same time, however, we must now
prepare our societies for the many impacts already in the pipeline. In
short, we face a double imperative: we must live through global warming
even as we halt and reverse it.

A handful of cutting-edge leaders around the world have taken this
lesson to heart and begun to put in place protections against the
projected impacts, including better sea defenses, more efficient water
supplies and improved emergency and health care systems. Probably the
most far-sighted work is taking place in the Netherlands, which has
launched a well-funded, politically tough-minded 200 Year Plan to adapt
to climate change. (No, 200 is not a typo.) Most countries, however,
like most private companies and local communities, are doing little or
nothing to prepare for the storm bearing down upon them.

It’s now September, the end of summer, and my five year old has started
kindergarten. It’s a huge transition, as every parent knows. Meanwhile,
the oldest members of Generation Hot are embarking on their own huge
transition. Now 21- or 22-years-old, they are leaving childhood behind
for the adult world of work, marriage and children.

But a third transition, just as huge, awaits each and every member of
Generation Hot. One of the key facts of the 21st century is that climate
change is going to get worse, perhaps a lot worse, before it gets
better. Like it or not, the kids of Generation Hot will have to learn
how to cope with the consequences — not only for their health and
economic prospects but their emotional well-being.

Many members of Generation Hot are active in the climate fight, but they
cannot succeed without much more help from their elders. The threat of
nuclear annihilation — the other great peril of the last fifty years —
called forth a powerful movement of parents, especially mothers, that
eventually helped convince the superpowers to choose a safer course.
Now, parents across the country and around the world should mount a
similar campaign to preserve a livable future for our children, the
precious young people of Generation Hot.



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About Mark

Independent journalist Mark Hertsgaard is the author of seven books that have been translated into sixteen languages, including Bravehearts: Whistle Blowing in the Age of Snowden; HOT: Living Through the Next Fifty Years on Earth; and A Day in the Life: The Music and Artistry of the Beatles. He has reported from twenty-five countries about politics, culture and the environment for leading outlets, including The Guardian, Der Spiegel, Vanity Fair, The New Yorker, Time, Mother Jones, NPR, the BBC and The Nation, where is the environment correspondent. He lives in San Francisco.