icon caret-left icon caret-right instagram pinterest linkedin facebook twitter goodreads question-circle facebook circle twitter circle linkedin circle instagram circle goodreads circle pinterest circle



Birgit Schössow's cover image for The New Yorker's November 28, 2022, issue imitates an 1831 Japanese woodblock print (ukiyo-e). It's partly an homage to Hokusai's "The Great Wave" (or "Under the Wave off Kanagawa") in which, beyond barely visible manned wasen (traditional boats), a small distant image of Mount Fuji stands in a trough below the towering crest of the wave. It may be the best-known image from Hokusai's "Thirty-Six Views of Mount Fuji." Schössow renders the arc of the waves as more advanced and ominous and, in place of Fuji, she's substituted the distant, darkened outline of Manhattan. It isn't a random alteration of Hokusai's scene—his vessels may make it through the waves; Schössow's shadowy city seems more vulnerable, more menaced.


The major articles in what The New Yorker designates as "The Climate Issue" focus on that theme. David W. Brown's "Journey to Doomsday" recounts an expedition to Antarctica's "Florida-sized" bowl-shaped Thwaites Glacier to estimate its likelihood of collapsing as warm waters eat away ice supporting it. He narrates efforts to determine "whether Thwaites has fifty, a hundred, or five hundred years left" before it slides into the sea. Readers gain a detailed appreciation of the challenges that researchers face at the South Pole—their ship can't reach the glacier and flown-in teams trying to explore a variety of sites wrestle with high seas, high winds, loss of visibility, extreme cold, difficulty with communication, and shifting levels of uncertainty.


Emily Witt's article "The Coming Storm," enhanced by a sprawling photo by Ace Adams of the barrier island of Kivalina and the low, vast Alaskan coast beyond, examines the challenge to Inupiat villagers as Arctic Ocean waters rise. Witt's visits to both the island and the mainland provide a thorough understanding of the history of the region in terms of the changes Indigenous people have undergone culturally from their residence prior to the invasive influx of European development and politics beginning centuries ago and, despite changes in the 21st Century, still affecting them today as their climate changes and their financial situation limits their ability to counteract its effects. Witt's report on global warming's impact on the Arctic as the result of of industrial commerce imposed upon the region by Canada and the United States gives readers a deeper appreciation of the complexity of dealing with climate change issues.


The longest article in the issue is by Elizabeth Kolbert, who gives us a disturbing follow-up to her Pulitzer Prize winning earlier book The Sixth Extinction in "A Vast Experiment." Both book and article ought to be required reading for all of us. Here, she explores "stories we tell ourselves about the Earth's future" by following "The Climate Crisis from A to Z." Sixteen drawings by Wesley Allbrook illustrate many of the items she will highlight along the way. In the alphabetically opening section, she reports on Swedish scientist Svente Arrhenius' early 20th century speculation that increases in carbon dioxide would affect a rise in global temperature in roughly 3000 years and points out that actually the "threshold could be reached within decades." She doesn't fault Arrhenius for getting it wrong: "Here we all are, watching things fall apart. And yet, deep down, we don't believe it." Her second section recounts the instances of agreement since world leaders at the first Earth Summit in Rio de Janiero (1992) claimed that "radical change was needed" to avert global disaster and then centers on Greta Thunberg's 2021 account of all those decades of proposals as "blah, blah, blah"—a great many pompous promises followed by overwhelming inactivity.


In subsequent sections Kolbert is fairly specific about the kind of problematic changes the planet faces and the challenges human populations must overcome should they truly engage them. She quotes Vaclav Smil's observation that "the gap between wishful thinking and reality is vast" and his reference to studies that "rely on a variety of unreliable assumptions—that existing technology will be deployed at fantastic rates, or that nonexistent technologies will be deployed at fantastic rates, or that humanity's ever-growing appetite for energy will suddenly be curbed, or some combination of all three." Kolbert then explores problems that will arise whenever any attempts to act on climate change occur. The essay ends at Lake Mead, comparing the optimistic voice on an old tour tape with a disturbing view of Hoover Dam's depleted lake environment and deepening aridity. She concludes, "Whatever we want to believe about our future, there are limits, and we are up against them."


Elsewhere, Philip Montgomery's photographs of wind turbines rising three hundred feet along "the spine of the Appalachians" and Robin Coste Lewis's powerful poem "To the Realization of Perfect Helplessness" further broaden readers' perspectives. This issue is compellingly rich and necessary, one everyone ought to know about and read.


Note: The New Yorker, November 28, 2022


Depenbrock, Julie. "This is what's at risk from climate change in Alaska," Morning Edition, NPR (December 22, 2022)


Be the first to comment