In a June 2019 article published in Nature Climate Change, researchers concluded that the “northernmost spatial regime boundary” for birds in the Great Plains of North America has shifted to the north by more than 350 miles over the past forty-six years, an indication of rapid global change. “Climate change, anthropogenic pressures, wildfire trends, and woody plant invasions,” according to the researchers, “have all operated along a putatively south-to-north trajectory over the past decades.”
Nearly forty years ago, the Coordination and Planning Division of Exxon Research and Engineering conducted a technical review of how fossil fuels influence climate. The study, which was distributed to Exxon’s top management, advocated for “major reductions in fossil-fuel consumption.” Unless that happened, the study concluded, “there are some potentially catastrophic events that must be considered. Once the effects are measurable, they might not be reversible.”
“When a vision comes from the thunder beings of the West,” the Lakota heyoka Black Elk explained in 1932, “it comes with terror like a thunderstorm; but when the storm of vision has passed, the world is greener and happier; for wherever the truth of vision comes upon the world, it is like a rain. The world, you see, is happier after the terror of the storm.”
In 1938 Guy Stewart Callendar published a paper titled “The Artificial Production of Carbon Dioxide and Its Influence on Temperature.” “It may be said that the combustion of fossil fuel…is likely to prove beneficial to mankind in several ways,” concluded Callendar. “The small increases of mean temperature would be important on the northern margin of cultivation, and the growth of favorably situated plants is directly proportional to the carbon dioxide pressure. In any case, the return of the deadly glaciers should be delayed indefinitely.”
“There is a physical basis for all meteorological phenomena,” wrote the founder of the National Weather Service in 1901. “There are laws of mechanics and heat that apply to the atmosphere, and as fast as we acquire the ability to discover these and reason out their consequences, we shall perceive that law and order prevail in all the complex phenomena of the weather and the climate.”
Archaeologists studying large-scale fishing operations in medieval Europe found that changes in marine fishing in England between 600 and 1600 occurred rapidly around 1000 and involved significant catches of herring and cod. “This revolution predated the documented postmedieval expansion of England’s sea fisheries,” they concluded. “The century between 950 and 1050 can now be pinpointed as the ultimate origin of today’s fishing crisis.”
“When summer and winter separate,” wrote Hildegard of Bingen circa 1158, “so that either summer recedes and winter arrives or winter recedes and summer arrives, then a certain mixed substance appears, flying in the air, like a whiteness of threads, where the air is purifying itself.”
“We are nothing but what we derive from the air we breathe, the climate we inhabit,” wrote J. Hector St. John de Crèvecoeur in his Letters from an American Farmer (1782). “Those who live near the sea, feed more on fish than on flesh, and often encounter that boisterous element. This renders them more bold and compromising.”
In 2012 a revenue office in Uttar Pradesh received an official-looking notice addressed to the Hindu storm god Indra, ordering the deity to provide written justification for a drought caused by insufficient rain during that year’s monsoon season. “If the Lord fails to give a satisfactory explanation within the stipulated period,” the notice warned, “it will be presumed that he has nothing to say, and stern action will be taken.”
In one of the earliest references to the tragedy of the commons—a concept that describes how people use natural resources to their advantage without considering the cost to society—the economist William Forster Lloyd asked in 1833, “Why are the cattle on a common so puny and stunted? Why is the common itself so bare-worn and cropped so differently from adjoining enclosures?”
A lawsuit was filed in spring of 2019 in which owners of Ark Encounter, a creationist theme park in Williamstown, Kentucky, claimed breach of contract against insurers who denied liability in a landslide—caused by heavy rains—that undermined a park roadway. The defendants say the water damage that disrupted the 510-foot replica ark was a matter of “design deficiencies or faulty workmanship,” and thus not covered.
In March 2018 authorities in Alexandria, Egypt, began removing five hundred residents from their homes along the Al Mahmoudeya canal—dug in 1820 under orders from Viceroy Mohamed Ali—and into high-rises. “There are many areas,” says Alexandrian climate scientist Mohamed El Raey, “that are located at least three meters below sea level. They will have to be abandoned and the people relocated.” Estimates suggest near-term rise in sea levels will inundate a third of the city.