Dahr Jamail, staff writer at Truthout, has been writing about the global emergency of climate change for nearly a decade. In his new book, The End of Ice: Bearing Witness and Finding Meaning in the Path of Climate Destruction, which is being released today, Jamail shares his firsthand accounts of returning to beloved spaces in the natural world. He observes the drastic ways in which they’ve been destroyed due to humanity’s relentless burning of fossil fuels, and mourns over how many of them are unlikely to recover over the duration of human existence.
Anton Woronczuk: In bearing witness to the destruction of the natural world, you write about the severe impacts of climate change on several different kinds of ecosystems and landscapes. Instead of The End of Ice, you could’ve as easily chosen The End of Rainforests, The End of Coral or The End of Coastal Cities as a relevant title for your book. Why did you decide on “ice”?
Dahr Jamail: That’s exactly right … we are in an age of loss, and the book could have had any number of titles. I landed on “ice” for two reasons. First, because that is where I personally feel the loss the most, given how much time I spend in the mountains, and where the idea of the book originated. Having lived in Alaska and spent so much time on glaciers there while climbing, that is where I saw how dramatically climate change was already unfolding back in the mid-1990s. The second reason I chose ice was because as we lose glaciers and ice fields, literally hundreds of millions, and even billions of people will be directly impacted by lack of drinking water, lack of water for irrigation for agriculture, and so much more. This is no small thing.
In your accounts about scaling glaciers in Alaska or snorkeling along the Great Barrier Reef in Australia, you reflect on how much has changed since you first visited them. Which was the hardest place to return to? Which was the hardest to leave?
All of it was heartbreaking, from what I see happening on Denali and other glaciers in Alaska that I have long-term relationships with, to the loss of the Great Barrier Reef. But certainly, the moment when I was out of the Great Barrier Reef, it was the last snorkel of the day, and time to head back to land, when my heart broke. It really felt like it was the last time I’d see the reef, and I was saying goodbye. I wept. That year, 30 percent of the reef died from that coral bleaching event I was witnessing. The next year, another bleaching event took out 20 percent of the reef. So, in two years, half of the single largest coral reef on the planet was wiped out from climate change-induced bleaching. That’s why I wept, knowing that was happening, and was only going to continue.
I’m wondering if even more significant changes have occurred in some of the places you’ve written about in The End of Ice.
I could write pages about that. I was updating my scientific reports in my citations up until my final deadline for publishing, and even then, struggling to keep pace with the changes. Since then, intensely dramatic changes have happened.
One example is a study published in Nature [that] showed that over the last quarter century, the oceans have absorbed 60 percent more heat annually than estimated in the 2014 Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report. The study underscored that the globe’s oceans have, in fact, already absorbed 93 percent of all the heat humans have added to the atmosphere, that the climate system’s sensitivity to greenhouse gases is far higher than thought, and that planetary warming is far more advanced than had previously been grasped.
To give you an idea of how much heat the oceans have absorbed: if that heat had instead gone into the atmosphere, the global temperature would be 97 degrees Fahrenheit hotter than it is today. For those who think that there are still 12 years left to change things, the question posed by a sea level rise expert in my book seems painfully apt: How do we remove all the heat that’s already been absorbed by the oceans?
Two weeks after that Nature article came out, a study in Scientific Reports warned that the extinction of animal and plant species, thanks to climate change, could lead to a “domino effect” that might, in the end, annihilate life on the planet. It suggested that organisms will die out at increasingly rapid rates because they depend on other species that are also on their way out. It’s a process the study calls “co-extinction.”
A common thread throughout your book is that the fate of our ecosystems and the many ecological sites you visited has been decided. This seems to be in marked contrast with mainstream wisdom, which says that humanity can prevent a climate-induced catastrophe as long as we make major changes within a decade or so. Why do you think this discrepancy exists?
Global capitalism, neoliberal economics and the power structure depend upon things continuing as they are. The only real chance at mitigation of the impacts from climate change that are now entrenched in the climate system, would have been to abandon capitalism and enact something akin to the New Green Deal back when NASA’s James Hansen sounded the alarm about climate change to Congress in the 1980s. A radical restructuring of the entire fossil-fuel based economy means those who have all the power today would be rendered obsolete. The current hierarchy would have to be obliterated. And so, in short, power never concedes power willingly.