“Where can I be safe?” A 12-year old asks at the August 1 launch of “Losing Earth,” The New York Times Magazine cover story on the consequences of climate change. For a moment a packed house of more than 375 at The Times Center was silent.
Earlier questions had come from academics and scientists. They veered towards the technical and nitty gritty (or long-winded). This was the most succinct and the most challenging.
Environmental activist Rafe Pomerance remained uncharacteristically calm as he gave his answer. “You need to have a conversation with your parents,” he told the young girl. "Talk to them about where you live,” he said. “Stay away from the coast.”
Joining Pomerance on stage were moderator and magazine editor Jake Silverstein, author Nathaniel Rich, and former NASA geophysicist James Hansen. They discussed the genesis of the article—and what it all means: How we got where we are, how we came close to finding a solution in the 1979-1989 decade, and how we botched an opportunity .
“Losing Earth” is taking over the entire issue of this Sunday’s New York Times. Pomerance and Hansen, both major figures in the article—and heroes in the movement—come alive in this beautifully written narrative. Pomerance, a former Vietnam War protester, is what Rich calls “an organizer, a strategist, a fixer,” and “even, perhaps, a romantic.” He’s quick to speak up—and speak out—the one who fights to turn “good publicity into policy.”
Hansen is nerdier—captivated by the earth and the atmosphere after viewing an eclipse from an Iowa corncrib the year he graduated college. He became fascinated “with the influence of invisible particles on the visible world. You could not make sense of the visible world until you understood the whimsies of the invisible one.”
When Pomerance and Hansen appeared on stage those of us who had read the article online felt we already knew them.
Pomerance discussed the power of denialism—noting that the decisions made by Americans affect not only the U.S. but everyone on the planet.
Hansen warned us to be ready to take advantage of the next opportunity. There was an opportunity in 2008. We had a chance then, he said, and again we blew it. What happens in 2020?
In the eighties, we knew everything we needed to know. Why didn’t we act? Silverstein asked. Was it the political system that tied our hands? Or, as Rich proffered, “a failure to articulate a moral vision”? Do we not value future generations?
Mia’s question “Where can I be safe?” made clear there are those among us who see the magnitude of the threat—and they are the ones most likely to act. But many Americans (who don’t live in Florida, don’t own arms, and don’t experience immediate danger) may remain indifferent. It’s those with less means who suffer the most.
Rich singles out the island nation of Kiribati in the Pacific as one example. In “Losing Earth,” he recalls the country’s environmental minister telling Pomerance, “If the sea rises, my entire nation will be underwater.” There every resident is at risk.
Photographs from countries where vulnerable populations live illustrate the magazine. Aerial images shot from helicopters and drones by George Steinmetz document the devastating effects of climate change in eight countries and in Antarctica (think dwindling populations of penguins).
There’s Greenland’s melting ice sheet, algae blooms in Lake Tai (the color of pea soup), sand storms in Mauritania, and wildfires in Santa Rosa, California. And homes partially submerged in water in Bangladesh, a country where monsoons have displaced more than 300,000 people and damaged more than twice that number of homes.
How long do we have until all of us in the U.S. wake up to the fact that we are all under the same threat?
“Where can I be safe?” underscores the need for students to learn all they can about climate change. The Pulitzer Center, a major supporter of “Losing Earth,” has created education resources to accompany the article. They are easily accessible on our website.
These lesson plans allow students to delve more deeply into the issue and engage in activities ranging from studying Senate hearing transcripts to creating a graphic novel, organizing climate action days, and connecting with elected officials.
Pomerance told Mia: "Talk to your parents." Let's hope students who use our education materials will follow his advice.