Even if you’ve been paying attention to climate change, it can sometimes feel very far away, distant in both space and time. But on Sunday night, as I was writing my first edition of this newsletter, it roared into my kitchen.
I was with my family at our 100-year-old cabin in the Hudson Valley, north of New York. It poured for fourteen hours, and our ceiling began to leak. Then, around midnight, a wall of water flooded the house.
Many of my neighbors fared even worse. One woman died and dozens had to be rescued as a slow-moving storm system produced widespread flooding in New York State and New England.
We know that human-made climate change makes extreme weather like this more severe. Warmer temperatures allow air to hold more moisture, which leads to more intense rainfall and flooding.
On Monday, the New York governor said that such climate-related disasters are “the new normal”. Overall, the United States is nowhere near prepared for the threat of catastrophic flooding, especially in areas far from rivers and coasts.
On the other side of the country, much of the Southwest is baking under a heat dome. Major cities have been suffocating from smoke from Canadian forest fires for a month now. Off the coast of Florida, ocean temperatures reach into the mid-90s Fahrenheit.
This is not just about millions of Americans, of course, but billions of people around the world. Over the weekend, Delhi recorded its wettest July day in 40 years, residents of Beijing flocked to underground air raid shelters to escape the heat and floods took cars away in Spain.
The planet is entering a multi-year period of exceptional warmth, scientists say. Greenhouse gases, mostly from the burning of fossil fuels, have already warmed the Earth by an average of 1.2 degrees Celsius (or 2.2 degrees Fahrenheit) compared to pre-industrial levels. Now a powerful El Niño system in the Pacific Ocean is releasing heat into the atmosphere. The hottest days in modern history occurred this month. It all sets the stage for more damaging heat waves, floods, droughts, wildfires and hurricanes.
Yesterday, as I spoke with climate scientists for a story about the storm that hit my house, they all sounded the alarm about what’s to come in the coming months.
“We’re going to see things happen this year around the Earth that we haven’t seen in modern history,” a meteorologist told me. “It’s going to be amazing.”
Abnormal as the “new normal”
Each of these anomalies creates new risks, threatening human health and biodiversity. Yet with disasters piling up and headlines blurring together, there is another deeply dangerous risk: apathy.
As temperature records are broken and extreme weather becomes commonplace, the abnormal can begin to seem ordinary. That is an all too human reaction to adversity. We are masters of adaptation, and can learn to cope with even the most uncomfortable situations.
But in this case, indifference would be the greatest disaster of all. Raising oneself to the signs of a burning planet would do more than blind us to the damage we have already done. It would also delay critical action at a crucial moment.
Because as bad as things are, there are still real reasons for optimism.
After decades of inaction, a monumental effort is finally underway to confront climate change. Wind turbines and solar panels are rapidly displacing fossil fuels. Sales of electric cars, heat pumps and induction furnaces are on the rise. Across government, business and civil society, there is a concerted, concerted push to reduce emissions, protect nature and help people adapt to a warmer planet.
The grand project of decarbonizing the world economy can be seen as the greatest collective action in human history. On the agenda is nothing less than the remaking of the entire energy and transportation systems of the world, not to mention extensive revisions of the building blocks of modern life. And it all needs to happen with pants-on-fire urgency as the planet warms.
That may seem scary, and it is. Progress is not happening fast enough, and many obstacles remain. But it is also the opportunity of a lifetime. If we succeed, we will create a world with better air quality, more green space, healthier ecosystems and less waste.
It is a dizzying moment, one that requires us to honor two seemingly contradictory truths simultaneously.
Yes, the delicate ecosystem that supports human life is in trouble.
And also yes, we have many of the tools necessary to get us out of this mess.
Your part of the story
It is this tension — between hope and despair, between urgency and inertia, between a remade world and a stubborn status quo — that will animate this newsletter in the coming months and years.
I won’t do it alone. Manuela Andreoni, my co-pilot for this newsletter, is based in Brazil and brings us a vital international perspective and voracious curiosity about climate and the environment. You’ll also hear from the Times’ new weather team as well as other reporters from the newsroom.
My colleague Somini Sengupta shepherds this newsletter, sharing her sharp insights twice a week. From here, we’ll arrive in your inbox on Tuesday and Thursday, and come back with more quick analysis as news breaks.
And we want to hear from you. You can email the Climate Forward team and tell us what worries you, what gives you hope and where we should be looking for the next big story.
In the meantime, I’ll be in the Hudson Valley, trying to clean up my own tiny part of the mess caused by climate change. See you soon
A push to wean China off coal
President Joe Biden is trying to mend relations with China after months of heightened tensions, with climate high on the agenda. Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken and Treasury Secretary Janet L. Yellen both discussed climate issues in recent visits to Beijing. And climate envoy John Kerry is scheduled to arrive on Sunday.
The diplomatic push reflects an inescapable truth: the United States and China are the world’s industrial superpowers. And any chance of avoiding the worst effects of climate change will require both to move in the same direction.
“The United States and China together account for about 40 percent of emissions,” said my colleague Lisa Friedman, who is following Kerry to Beijing. “They are also the two largest investors in clean energy.”
China has more solar power capacity than the rest of the world combined and is the largest producer and user of wind turbines – an important reason why clean energy has become so affordable for all countries in recent years.
But fossil fuels still make up the majority of China’s energy sources. It consumes more than half of the world’s coal, and continues to approve new coal plants at a rapid pace. The Chinese government’s goal is to continue growing the economy while avoiding problems like the power outages that the country has been facing for a while heat wave last year this disrupted several supply chains.
China’s investments in renewable energy appear to be sufficient to enable it to reach maximum carbon emissions by 2030, as it has promised. But there are concerns about how high emissions will go before they start to decline.
US officials are urging China to speed up that energy transition and phase out coal. And after the Biden administration secured hundreds of billions of dollars to accelerate America’s transition to clean energy, they may finally have some leverage.
“What many analysts are saying is that the United States just made a big move on climate change,” Lisa said. “Now, it’s China’s turn.”
– Manuela Andreoni
Other climate news
The weather report
Judson Jones has nearly two decades of experience covering natural disasters and Earth’s changing climate, at CNN and now at The Times. He will join us most weeks.
Unfortunately, the deluge did not end in the Northeast, which should expect widespread rain on Thursday and Friday. It may not bring the same extreme levels of rain we saw earlier in the week. But any additional water falling on the saturated ground will have nowhere to go, creating renewed flash flood concerns.
In the southwestern United States, there is a different problem. The seasonal monsoon, which usually brings rainfall and cooler weather to the desert Southwest, is delayed this year. And the “heat dome” that David mentioned will intensify into the weekend, possibly bringing record high temperatures to places like Las Vegas.
In the Southeast, temperatures may not climb as much. But high levels of humidity, exacerbated by the remarkably warm waters in the Gulf of Mexico and the western Atlantic, will make it feel even more miserable and dangerous along the coast.
Those warm waters will be incredibly concerning as we approach the peak of hurricane season in September, but more on that later. In the meantime, you can sign up for personalized extreme weather alerts here.