In a week when cable screens were split among solemn ceremonies, falling governments, the first serious congressional debate over a war now in its fourth year and an economy with a nervous twitch, it was even harder than usual to catch the sirens in the distance--to hear the sounds of ice melting, species vanishing and cities choking the people who live in them. You can't really cover a story that hasn't happened yet, but sometimes the news about the future is the biggest story of all.
This was a week for warnings. U.S. government scientists announced that the Arctic ice cap is melting even more rapidly than they had feared; by 2050, 40% of the ice cover in the Arctic Ocean could be gone, a loss that wasn't supposed to happen for 100 years. One scientist called the news "astounding." Since greenhouse gases linger for decades, even drastic reductions in emissions won't be enough to prevent further decline.
The 2008 Old Farmer's Almanac predicts that the coming year will be the warmest in a century. It turns out that years ending in 8 are known for meteorological mischiefsupersize hurricanes, heat waves, floods and droughts. The World Conservation Union released its annual red list of threatened species and warned that a "global extinction crisis" looms as sprawling cities press deeper into habitats once left alone. The group tracks 40,000 of the planet's 15 million species; of these, more than 16,000 are at risk of extinction.
All this news is bad for polar bears. Bad for western lowland gorillas. And very bad for people as well. When the winter freeze comes later in China, a disease-carrying water snail will have all kinds of new opportunities to make people sick. By 2085 an extra billion people will be at risk of contracting dengue fever because of changes in temperature and rainfall. And in yet another grim award ceremony, the Blacksmith Institute released its list of the world's most polluted places; it should not surprise anyone that people die faster in such spots.
"Earth, earth, riding your merry-go-round toward extinction," the poet Anne Sexton wrote. How fearsome must the headlines be about tomorrow before people change their ways today?