When the rivers run dry

A forest fire.
A forest fire. Qian Weizhong/VCG via Getty Images

The contention that climate change isn't real has gone poof! in a wisp of smoke, like a piece of paper held under a magnifying glass on a 100-degree day. But there are still those who contend that rapidly reducing the use of fossil fuels would be too painful a price to pay, and that rather than succumb to "alarmism," humanity should learn to "adapt" to a hotter planet. The summer of 2022 has put the adaptation option under the magnifying glass. Unprecedented heat and drought have scorched China for months, and dried up so many rivers — including the mighty Yangtze — that authorities are instituting rolling blackouts because of lost hydropower. In Europe, 104-degree days and prolonged drought baked a shocked Britain brown, revealed long-submerged relics in the Tiber River and sunken German warships in the Danube, and shut down popular river cruises on the Rhine. In the American Southwest, the worst megadrought in 1,200 years may lead to major water usage cuts for seven sunblasted states dependent on a waning Colorado River. Is turning off the water an adaptation?

A hotter atmosphere traps a lot of moisture, so that when rain does arrive, it sometimes comes down with biblical ferocity. In recent weeks, a spate of "1,000-year floods" have submerged Kentucky, Dallas, and other parts of the U.S., destroying thousands of homes. In Pakistan, "a monsoon on steroids" has flooded close to a third of the country, killing more than 1,100 people and inflicting misery on 33 million. All this comes after just 2 degrees Fahrenheit of warming so far. Without a dramatic reduction in greenhouse gases, we may be heading for a rise of 3 degrees F in two decades, with more to come. As the pandemic has shown, our species is prone to kicking the can down the road, to selfishly putting off the change and sacrifice needed to avoid collective future catastrophe. But what if the future shows up early?

This is the editor's letter in the current issue of The Week magazine.

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