TIME and Climate Change

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About 20 years ago, a group of TIME writers and editors had lunch with Stephen Schneider, who was then and remains a leading climate scientist. At one point during the meeting, Schneider made a plea: “You really should be covering global warming every week. That’s how important it is.”

The journalists looked at each other awkwardly. It wasn’t that we disagreed with him. Several years earlier TIME had been the first major magazine (I’m reasonably sure) to put global warming on the cover, with the 1987 story The Heat is On. In January of 1989, we made global warming the lead story in our special “Planet of the Year” issue (this in part was a response to the record heat wave in the summer of 1988, during which Senators Al Gore and Tim Wirth held headline-grabbing hearings about the dangers of climate change.

So we were perfectly aware of how important the topic was. The problem: TIME covered news, and there simply wasn’t something new to say about climate change every week–and a story that read “remember what we said last week? It’s still true” would have been a bit lame.

Not any more. Some of effects Schneider and others were predicting two decades ago–rising temperatures, rising seas, melting ice, ecosystem disruption, shifting seasons–are no longer hidden in the background of normal climate fluctuations. Other, more subtle effects, such as more intense weather events, are harder to pin down. The deadly flash flood that swept through an Arkansas campground last week, and the unprecedented flooding in middle Tennessee last month, can’t be attributed directly to climate change–but that sort of rare event will become increasingly common if current projections are accurate.

One thing the scientists’ didn’t predict when TIME first started covering global warming/climate change was how shrill the conversation would become. That’s largely because there are real costs involved in minimizing its impact–and unless the projections are way off, even bigger costs down the road if we don’t. As a result, people on both ends of the advocacy spectrum sometimes  exaggerate the certainty of the danger on one hand, and the uncertainty of the science on the other. Everyone has “experts” on hand to support their points of view.

But just as with the debate over evolution, the actual scientific expertise is overwhelmingly on the side arguing that climate change is happening, that we’re largely the cause, and that the effects are likely to be disruptive. Whether or not some climate scientists said some mean things about the skeptics in private emails has no bearing on this fact. It’s true that scientific truth doesn’t depend on a popular vote among scientists, and that the conventional wisdom in science has sometimes  turned out to be wrong (I’ll be talking more about this idea next week).

Nevertheless, over the past two decades the evidence has been steadily mounting that climate change is something to worry about, and what were once reasonable counter-arguments (“maybe it’s the Sun”) have drifted off toward the fringe. Some uncertainty remains about exactly what effects we’ll see by mid-century. But despite what some skeptics suggest, the uncertainty goes both ways. The effects could be less than what what’s generally expected, or they could be dramatically worse. Those who argue against taking action are betting not only that the experts are wrong–but that they’re wrong in the safest direction.