Jack El-Hai | Longreads | April 2017 | 6 minutes (1,500 words)
Last year was the hottest on record for the third consecutive pass of the calendar. Glaciers and polar ice melt, plant and animal species go extinct at a rapid rate, and sea levels rise. Clearly the consequences of climate change are immense.
Does anyone out there think we’re at the dawn of a new ice age?
If we had asked that question just 40 years ago, an astonishing number of people — including some climatologists — would have answered yes. On April 28, 1975, Newsweek published a provocative article, “The Cooling World,” in which writer and science editor Peter Gwynne described a significant chilling of the world’s climate, with evidence accumulating “so massively that meteorologists are hard-pressed to keep up with it.” He raised the possibility of shorter growing seasons and poor crop yields, famine, and shipping lanes blocked by ice, perhaps to begin as soon as the mid-1980s. Meteorologists, he wrote, were “almost unanimous” in the opinion that our planet was getting colder. Over the years that followed, Gwynne’s article became one of the most-cited stories in Newsweek’s history. Read more…
The New Yorker’s Hendrik Hertzberg reflects on his early career working as a correspondent for Newsweek in San Francisco, covering Jefferson Airplane, Ronald Reagan and hippies:
“If the S.F. music scene (I quickly learned that ‘Frisco’ was a no-no) was scarcely known outside the Bay Area, and neither was the larger cultural phenomenon it drew strength from. The word ‘hippie’—derived from ‘hipster,’ the nineteen-forties bebop sobriquet revived sixty years later in Brooklyn, Portland, and food co-ops in between—had been coined only a few months earlier, by Herb Caen, the Chronicle’s inimitable gossip columnist. (At the time, as often as not, people spelled it ‘hippy.’) Ralph J. Gleason, the Chron’s jazz critic, was the scene’s Dr. Johnson. (Pushing fifty, he was too old to be its Boswell.) Gleason’s protégé was the pop-music critic for the U.C. Berkeley’s student paper, the Daily Californian, Jann Wenner. But the national press had not taken much notice, if any. So getting something into Newsweek was a coup.”
Resuscitating a battered newsweekly in 2011 is a tough bit of business. Last year, The Daily Beast and Newsweek lost a combined $30 million. Ad page numbers tell how difficult it is, too: Newsweek’s ad page performance between April to September was down 18 percent, according to the Publishers Information Bureau quarterly report. This is easy to dismiss (what isn’t down these days!) — but Time is up 4 percent for the year, The Economist is flat and Newsweek is competing, year-over-year, against a version of itself that had an ownership change, a lame duck editor and a very uncertain future.
A New York Magazine story on climate change is making the rounds on the internet, frequently being shared by people characterizing it as a “terrifying” “must-read.” “It is, I promise, worse than you think,” writes David Wallace-Wells, who goes on to tell his readers that even the most anxious among them are unaware of the terrors that are possible “even within the lifetime of a teenager today.”
What many readers seem to be overlooking is how frequently words like “may” appear in the text of Wallace-Wells’ article. “May” is in there seven times; “suggest” six times, “possible” and its variants a few more. Wallace-Wells is, of course, referencing the positions of scientists, whom he says have become extra cautious due to “climate denialism,” steering the public away from “speculative warnings” that could be debunked by future scientific progress, weakening their own case and giving weight to their opponents.
As Jack El-Hai wrote for Longreads in April of this year, science editor Peter Gwynne is still dogged by an article he wrote for Newsweek more than 40 years ago, “The Cooling World,” which predicted — wrongly, as it turns out — another Ice Age. The prediction at the time was supported by evidence, he claimed, that was mounting so quickly, “meteorologists are hard-pressed to keep up with it.” The evidence Gwynne relied on has since been disproved — a phenomenon not uncommon a field as relatively young as climate study. As El-Hai noted:
The study of the world’s climate was still primitive in the 1970s. Few meteorological scientists then knew how to interpret trending temperature information, and the cause of climate changes was mysterious. The information that climate researchers had collected was incomplete and easy to misread. The biosciences have advanced by huge leaps since then, and many more scientists now study the climate.
Gwynne’s article was used for decades as fodder by those who trade in what Wallace-Wells dubs “climate denialisms,” showing how those determined not to believe in a certain scientific finding can benefit from the natural trial-and-error of most scientific inquiry.
After Wallace-Wells’s piece was published, climate scientist Michael E. Mann took to Facebook to criticize his story. (He also claimed Wallace-Wells interviewed but didn’t quote or mention him). Mann is equally critical of “doomist framing” and “those who understate the risks” of climate change, and argues that Wallace-Wells’ article includes “extraordinary claims” without “extraordinary evidence” to back it up.
About the risk of catastrophic methane released by melting permafrost, for example, Mann says the science “is much more nuanced and doesn’t support the notion of a game-changing, planet-melting methane bomb. It is unclear that much of this frozen methane can be readily mobilized by projected warming.”
Mann also highlights Wallace-Wells’ referencing of “satellite data showing the globe warming, since 1998, more than twice as fast as scientists had thought.”
“That’s just not true,” writes Mann. “The study in question simply showed that one particular satellite temperature dataset that had tended to show less warming that the other datasets, has now been brought in line with the other temperature data after some problems with that dataset were dealt with… The warming of the globe is pretty much progressing as models predicted… which is bad enough.”
Mann’s position is that the evidence supporting the notion that climate change is “a serious problem that we must contend with now” is overwhelming enough without a doomsday narrative that he fears has a “paralyzing” effect and makes people feel hopeless, potentially deterring efforts to mitigate the human-caused harm.
There’s an argument to be made in defense of Wallace-Wells’ meltdown-style writing, however. As Atlas Obscura staff writer Sarah Laskow noted on Twitter, the exploration on which he embarks is hardly novel — New Yorker writer Elizabeth Kolbert won a Pulitzer this year for a book on the topic, The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History. Yet, Wallace-Wells’ story got readers’ attention in a way that seemed to suggest it was news they’d never encountered before.
For scientists like Mann, it’s true that the evidence easily at our fingertips is compelling enough to warrant immediate mitigating efforts. But not everyone is a scientist like Mann. As El-Hai noted in his piece on Gwynne’s disproved Newsweek article, a U.S. Senator held up a snowball on the Senate floor in 2015 as part of an argument that global warming isn’t real. Today, Antarctica is poised to shed one of the largest icebergs ever recorded, while the Trump administration is abandoning international climate agreements, undoing dozens of environmental regulations dealing with everything from methane to grizzly bears to chemical spills and using the agency meant to protect the environment to launch a program challenging climate science. In light of all that, it’s just as easy to sympathize with Mann’s concern about making people feel so hopeless they believe there’s nothing left to be done, as it is hard to blame Wallace-Wells for despairing.
I get wrapped up in issues about gentrification in my hometown of Seattle. When I do look up to see how the story plays out elsewhere, it’s often in nearby San Francisco or Oakland or Portland. I look there for what we can learn and what we have to lose.
My own narrow focus is why I was surprised to read about the gentrification of Mullae, an industrial-artistic district in Seoul, South Korea, where “the neighborhood’s unique features were destroyed through over-commercialization.” It’s a familiar story, as artists to join with residents to keep neighborhoods like Mullae — or Boyle Heights in Los Angeles or New York’s Chinatown — authentic and alive.
The situation in Mullae now calls for artists and factory owners to unite in resistance to speculative capitalism. Otherwise the neighborhood will follow the model of Daehangno, Bukchon, Seochon, Garosu-gil, and Jogno in becoming a generic shopping district. Landlords in those areas earned fortunes by raising rents until the neighborhood’s unique features were destroyed through over-commercialization. What followed was not prosperity but hollowness. Young people stopped visiting areas that were no longer seen as “authentic,” and as retail dropped off, building owners chose to leave spaces vacant rather than lower rents. We see a hint of this now in Mullae, as several spaces on Dorim-ro have sat empty for the past few months, despite strong interest. The sole hostel, Urban Art Guest House, is on the last year of its contract, and proprietor Lee Seung-hyuck is not sure whether he will stay, as the building owner intends to triple the rent.