The Ghosts of Climate Past, Present and Future: Part 2

The Ghosts of Climate Past, Present and Future: a 3-part seasonal tale

Part 2 - The Ghost of Climate Present

Link to Part 1

This story is a departure from Skeptical Science’s usual article style, and is offered for your seasonal reading enjoyment. The tale is based loosely on Charles Dickens’ classic tale: “A Christmas Carol,” updated in the context of climate change and told over three episodes. The story and all names and characters portrayed in it are fictitious. No identification with actual persons, places, buildings, and products is intended or should be inferred. The climate references, however, are factual and based on current science, linked to sources for further reading. 

Senator Eb Scruggio checked his cell phone. 1:00 AM and no missed calls. 

He let out a sigh of relief then inspected the dirt-stained holes in his suit pants and cursed, tossing them into the trash can. He unbuttoned his sodden, formerly white shirt and struggled to free one arm from a wet sleeve. He peeled off the rest of the shirt and inspected the sorry garment. Maybe it will wash out, he thought, as he tossed it into the laundry basket.

After a quick shower and another glass of water he felt better, although he couldn’t comprehend what had just happened. The dream had been so vivid, and yet impossible, and yet the dirt on his clothes and his skin had shown him the truth.

“Impossible!” he exclaimed to himself, like someone who whistles in the dark to keep evil at bay. He slid himself under the comforter, patted the pillows and turned out the light. He lay there blinking in the darkness, listening to the muffled scrape of the snow-plows in the street outside.

“Impossible!” he exclaimed to himself, like someone who whistles in the dark to keep evil at bay.


What now? thought Eb, barely awake.

“Dude, it’s me!”

The voice was familiar but he couldn’t place it.

“Dude! It’s party time my man! Wake up!”

Eb sat up and switched on his bedside light. Sitting on the bed was a young man in his early twenties, a mullet hairstyle covering a bright blue sweatband. He wore skinny jeans and a pale blue jacket with padded shoulders over a black-and-white striped T-shirt.


“None other, bro!”

“But you’re dead, Fred.”

“Don’t be the party-pooper bro! We had great times you and me, eh? Remember?”

“Sure, I remember,” said Eb, hesitantly. “Wild times!”

“Do you remember the time we picked up those girls in that bar in Providence?” laughed Fred. “We went back to their place and we started doing shots and… like… wow!”

"You never let your future get in the way of a good time!"

“What I remember is you throwing up and passing out. I had to clean up your mess, then the girls kicked us out. You never did know when to stop, Fred. Your doctor told you that you were an alcoholic. Your family begged you to go into rehab. Heck I did too, but you wouldn’t listen. You never let your future get in the way of a good time!”

“You too, bro!”

“Me? No, I was the sober one, remember? I always focused on my future. I studied, made the grades and I worked hard.”

“I’m not talking about back then, bro. I mean now.”

“YOU are calling ME a slacker?”

“If the hat fits…”

“Seriously? I’m now one of the nation’s most celebrated politicians. I’m a senator, for heaven’s sake! Where have you been these last thirty years?”

“Dead, bro!”

Eb sat there blinking at the specter of his old college buddy, whom he knew to be dead. He knew this because Eb was the one who had found him, unconscious in his own vomit, and rode the ambulance with him to the hospital, where he was pronounced dead on arrival. And yet, dead Fred was sitting on his bed like a page from a macabre Dr. Seuss book.

And yet, dead Fred was sitting on his bed like a page from a macabre Dr. Seuss book.

“Look, I know this is a lot to take in, what with me being dead ’n all,” said Fred, “but think of me as the Ghost of Climate Present.”

“Oh God, not again!”

“Don’t worry, bro, I’m not like that other guy.”

“You know about him?”

“Sure! He’s a mean, stuck-up, bad tempered dude. Hasn’t gotten over the whole loss of the colonies thing! Look, put some clothes on, ‘cos were going out!”

“Listen, Fred, it’s past 1:00 AM. I’m tired, I haven’t slept and I just don’t want to go out.”

“Dude! Is that the way to treat your old buddy? Of course you’re going out! You don’t get any choice in the matter!”

Eb noticed that a pair of jeans and a sweatshirt were waiting for him on his bed. Realizing the futility of resistance, he complied and dressed, grabbing a parka from his closet.

“Ready?” asked Fred.

He glanced at his cell phone and realized nobody was going to call at this time of night. He nodded reluctantly.

“Take my hand.”

Eb was momentarily struck by the coldness of the hand he clasped, before the now-familiar falling sensation took over. For the second time that night Eb’s apartment melted into white.

The white merged with electric green pulsing and dancing across a vast star-strewn, moonless sky. The powdery line of the Milky Way stretched from horizon to horizon like cocaine, interrupted by pine trunks at haphazard angles.

...electric green pulsing and dancing across a vast star-strewn, moonless sky. The powdery line of the Milky Way stretched from horizon to horizon like cocaine

“Where are we? When are we?” asked Eb, pulling up his hood against the cold.

“We’re in Alaska, same time as we left. Hey, remember that time we were fixing to go on a road trip to Alaska?”

“Yeah, but you were busted for DUI before we left. Why are we here Fred? I don’t think it’s for the light show, right?”

“I always wanted to see Alaska, Eb. Didn’t figure on it being after I died. But no, Eb we’re not here for the lights, we’re here for the trees!”

“The… trees?”

“Yeah man, just look at them! They’re all over the place! It’s a drunken forest!”

“Trust you to find your kind of forest!” quipped Eb. “Let me guess, this is something about climate change?”

“Well no need to be such a downer! Yeah, in fact it is about climate change. Thanks for ruining my intro. The trees aren’t straight because the permafrost they grow in isn’t so ‘perma’ any more. It’s thawing every year. Climate change is happening now dude, and you need to wake up to it.”

“Like I told the other guy, we don’t know that this is anything more than natural variation. There just isn’t enough reliable data to show that what we are seeing today is climate change.” Said Eb.

“Sure there is! There’s tons of data, you know that!” responded the ghost. He paused to examine Eb for a moment, bathed in ghostly starlight reflected off the snowpack.

“You know, in your own way you have become much more like I was than you realize!” said Fred.

“How so?”

“You will believe anything that gives you an excuse to deny reality,” responded the phantom.

“Look around you, bro! Open your eyes!” implored Fred. “This permafrost was stable for millennia, yet now it’s thawing because it has warmed by 7 degrees Fahrenheit here, just since the time we were going to go on that road trip! Here, in the Arctic, the warming is faster and stronger than everywhere else, but the whole world has already warmed by 1.8 degrees Fahrenheit. Sea levels have already risen by 8 inches, and they will keep rising into the next century and beyond!”

“Since when did you become the scientist, Fred?” asked Eb sarcastically.

“I dunno actually. I guess it’s one of the perks of being a ghost!” replied Fred. “Hey, you gotta see this, it’s wild!”

With that Fred’s icy hand dragged Eb through the void to a windswept seashore.

Silhouetted against the starlight Eb could make out an entire house tipped over at precipitous angle. Waves were pounding on its walls with dull thuds audible over the roar of the breakers.

“See! Didn’t I tell you it was wild?” exclaimed Fred. “Dude, there are like… thousands of houses like this, slipping into the sea in Alaska. Whole villages are being eaten away by waves, and that’s now Eb, not some point in the abstract future, it’s now! These people have lived here for generations, but their way of life is changing. They rely on the ice to sled from village to village, to go hunting. The ice doesn’t last as long anymore, so the hunting season is too short now, Eb.”

“So indigenous people all over the world have to change with the times, what can I say?” retorted Eb.

“Dude, that’s cold. You’re in worse shape than I thought!”

“I mean,” added Eb, “everyone knows that temperatures haven’t gone up since 1998 even as CO2 did. So even if you are right, we have plenty of time to adapt.”

“Eb that myth has been so busted, and you know it!” responded Fred. “The so-called pause is not real. There was a modest, temporary slowdown in surface warming, but 90% of global warming heat is absorbed into the oceans, and the oceans kept warming. The rest of the apparent ‘pause’ was an artefact of the way the data was processed. Anyhow, 2015 has been a record warm year, and the top ten warmest years since the industrial revolution have been since the so-called pause. Totally busted, dude!”

Again with the icy hand and the nauseating jump.

he began to make out a river of cerulean blue water charging through a channel of white ice

Eb was still shielding his eyes from the brightness when the sound of gurgling, churning water filled the air. Squinting, he began to make out a river of cerulean blue water charging through a channel of white ice before disappearing into the frozen Earth.

“This is Greenland, Eb, just last summer. It’s melting away, man! This river is just one of hundreds like it on this ice sheet. This is a canary in the coal mine, bro! Do you have any idea how much sea level rise would be caused by Greenland melting away? No? So why are you trying to cut 300 million from the budget of the very same scientists who can tell you? It makes no sense bro! And you are deliberately tying research in knots by setting up inquiries into a whole bunch of National Science Foundation grants! That’s just not cool, man, not cool!”

“In the real world, Fred, a responsible government must be prudent about its spending,” said Eb still squinting.

“It’s not very prudent if it leaves you blind to the changes that are coming, right?” said Fred.

“It’s prudent, Fred, when not all scientists believe humans are causing global warming. I’ve seen a petition of 31,000 scientists that don’t!”

“You know darn well that so-called petition stinks worse than rotting fish, don’t you Eb? It’s so debunked, and yet you keep trotting it out as cover for your backers nearly 10 years on.”

Fred was right, of course. Eb knew it was rot, but his backers insisted that he mention it every time anyone mentioned the scientific consensus that humans are causing climate change.

“Barely half a percent of the people who signed it had any expertise in climate,” continued Fred, “The rest were, like, bone doctors or drainage engineers or architects or maybe an astronomer or two. Some of those so-called scientists are character names from TV sitcoms, actors, lawyers, authors and even members of the Spice Girls. It was cooked up by some of the same folks that told us smoking wasn’t harmful, and it’s just as bogus. It was dressed up to look like it came from the National Academy of Science, when it didn’t. The National Academy of Science publically denounced it as ‘a deliberate attempt to mislead scientists and to rally them in an attempt to undermine support for the Kyoto Protocol’… because it was, Eb!”

“Since when did you care about all this stuff anyway, Fred? You were never one to worry about the future. You couldn’t care less about this stuff before. When did you become such a tree-hugger?”

“When I died, Eb,” responded Fred. “Makes you look at things differently, that does.”

Before the last syllable had left Fred’s lips, Eb was again tumbling to a new destination. Now he was standing on what felt like a ship, pitching slowly in the ocean, but the vessel’s deck was bright white, streaked with turquoise and gray. It was surrounded by gray-blue waves swelling and sinking, slapping on ice. In front of him was a group of squawking, startled penguins. He was on an iceberg, one of hundreds, no, thousands receding from a distant white landmass.

Eb and his jury of penguins

“Eb, this is what used to be the Larsen B ice shelf in Antarctica. It existed for like, 12,000 years but since 2002 it has been breaking up and melting away. It will be totally gone in a couple of years, and the glaciers behind it are already accelerating and dumping massive amounts of Antarctic ice into the sea, causing sea levels to rise. It’s the same all over Western Antarctica, man! There is more than 10 feet of sea level rise just from there, not counting the sea level rise from Greenland’s ice melting.  But you are fighting any attempt to deal with it. Unless you change your ways, dude, it’s just going to get worse!”

he just shivered silently on the iceberg staring at the beady-eyed jury of penguins staring back at him

Eb was annoyed at being badgered, so he just shivered silently on the iceberg staring at the beady-eyed jury of penguins staring back at him.

Again with the hurtling through the void thing. This was getting old.

The smell of kerosene mingled with putrid fish in warm tropical sunshine. Flinching at the scream of jet engines above him, he watched as the plane dropped to a runway, a bald strip dividing a palm forest. Puffs of smoke signaled the moment of touch-down, then the roar of engines in reverse thrust receded into the distance. As a small wave pushed by him, he realized he was knee-deep in seawater, and sighed.

“This is Kiribati, in the Pacific,” yelled Fred over the diminishing noise, “and as you can see, it is being drowned by sea level rise.”

A low wall of cemented coral blocks stood at the end of the runway. It was clearly built on an older wall that was now largely beneath the waves. To either side of them dark brown stumps of drowned palm trees protruded from water strewn with plastic bags and discarded water bottles.

“That’s sad, but it’s a tough world. I don’t see what it has to do with me,” responded Eb, annoyed.

“Dude, sea levels are rising across the world, including the US of A! We have already locked in several feet of sea level rise. It will take decades, for sure, but a chunk of Manhattan, coastal New Jersey, the southern third of Florida, New Orleans – they will eventually be gone. Houston will be Houston-on-sea. Parts of LA, the ‘Frisco bay area, even to Sacramento, parts of Seattle, they will be at or under the high water mark.”

A propeller plane came screaming overhead, making conversation impossible. As sweat rolled down Eb’s nose, he removed his parka and cursed as a sleeve fell into the sea. A salt line advanced uncomfortably up his jeans as they wicked the seawater.

“We’re going to take a break now,” was the checkered victory flag for him, every time. 

Eb felt trapped. Normally he could regurgitate a talking point to distract the interviewer and sow doubt about any of these points. “We’re going to take a break now,” was the checkered victory flag for him, every time. All he had to do was throw out a specious “fact” – it didn’t matter if it had been debunked before – and parry with a couple more like it until the break. Then the TV station would move on and doubt would reign in the minds of the audience. The status-quo would live to fight another day, and it always did. And the election coffers stayed full.

But here there was no commercial break to rescue him from Fred and this ordeal. He was powerless, an unusual feeling for him as he watched small psychedelic fish try to eat his shoe laces.

He decided to try bargaining.

“If you can persuade me that humans are causing this, not volcanoes or anything else natural, then maybe I’ll stop the inquiries and I’ll look for new backers,” said Eb, without conviction.

“Dude! We know it’s not volcanic because it’s got the fossil fuel isotope signature, not the volcano one. We know it isn’t volcanoes because humans put out, like 120 times the amount of CO2 emitted by all of the volcanoes put together, including underwater eruptions. We know it’s because of humans burning fossil fuels because oxygen levels in the atmosphere are reducing at the right amount.”

“But the old man talked about volcanoes causing the end-Permian disaster,” said Eb. “You can’t have it both ways!”

“The Permian thing wasn’t just a volcano or two…it was this thing that geologists call a ‘Large Igneous Province,’ which flooded an area the size of Europe in insane quantities of lava! It was just so much more massive than any volcano or supervolcano the Earth has seen in the last sixteen million years,” said Fred. “So not the same thing at all, not even close.”

“OK, OK. Let’s say - for now – it’s real and humans are responsible, what can we possibly do that won’t have a devastating impact on our economy? Regulations kill the free market, Fred,” said Eb.

“Eb, you are looking at this backwards, man!” 

“Eb, you are looking at this backwards, man!” responded Fred. “You need to understand that not acting is way more costly, bro! Like so much higher it’s ridiculous! By the end of the century if we don’t act, US GDP could drop 36% compared to today, but if we move to renewables it will boost US GDP an extra 1% by 2050, and it will add 2 million jobs. So man, like your way will cost the world 44 trillion dollars by mid-century more than if we move to renewables.”

“We are a free-market economy,” countered Eb, as another sleeve of his parka trailed in the sea. “American voters will never tolerate messing with the free market.”

“You already are messing with the free market,” replied the ghost. “Right now rich countries like the USA spend four times as much on subsidies to the fossil fuel industry than they do on renewables! You are actually spending taxpayer’s money to harm their future! It’s like the dumbest thing I’ve ever heard, bro!”

“Well anyway,” replied Eb. “America is a country not a planet. It makes no sense if we act alone and others keep on burning fossil fuels.”

“Dude, you should worry instead about being left behind the rest of the world!” continued Fred. “China leads the world in renewable investment, and they will install double the solar and wind installations compared to the US in the next 5 years! India is up there with Germany, so don’t think they aren’t bringing something to the table.”

“OK,” said Eb. “Maybe, just maybe, these other countries really are doing something, but I’m still not convinced climate change is a crisis today. It just won’t be a concern for the average American until I’m long dead and buried.”

Fred looked hurt.

“Sorry, poor choice of words,” said Eb.

“Got you! I got you good! Anyway, your wish is my command!” said Fred cheerfully, as the ocean vanished and everything became dark and cold.

Eb found himself surrounded by vertical timbers, picked out in the orange glow of street lights. Above him he heard the flapping of a tarpaulin and he felt the sting of sleet driving in through non-existent walls. Small white dunes were forming around the outer timbers blending into a sparkling carpet of white across the plywood floor. His wet legs and sweat-soaked shirt suddenly felt icy cold, so he put his parka back on after wringing out the wet sleeves.

“3 years, Eb. 3 years! And they’re still rebuilding after Hurricane Sandy. Here in Toms River and many points along the Jersey Shore, and in New York at places like Breezy Point, people have either abandoned their homes or they’re still trying to get the money to fix them. Fifty billion dollars of damage from that storm alone, Eb.”

“We’ve always had hurricanes and floods, the difference is that more people are living and building on the coast than before,” said Eb.

"human climate change is now detectable in extreme events like Superstorm Sandy"

“You know, Eb, that well-worn talking point would have worked a few years ago, but it doesn’t anymore. Even allowing for more population and more building, human climate change is now detectable in extreme events like Superstorm Sandy. All over the world hurricanes, supertyphoons, exceptional downpours and flooding, extreme heatwaves and droughts have been tied, scientifically, to manmade climate change. You asked for evidence that it’s affecting people now, so there you have it, but there’s more you should see, Eb.”

In a literal and temporal flash they were gone again.

Shouting in Arabic. The acrid smell of days-old sweat. Children crying, parents hushing. The heave of a boat in open ocean. All around Eb there must have been five hundred men, women and children. Many had life vests on – some did not. More Shouting.

“What’s going on?” asked Eb.

“We’re in the Mediterranean Sea. Those dudes on the other boat are trying to get everyone to move into that boat,” explained Fred.

“That boat? It will never take all these people. Look how low this boat is in the water already – it’s dangerously overloaded as it is!”

“Exactly!” said Fed.

“Wait,” said Eb, “I know what you are doing! This is the European migrant crisis. You can’t seriously lay this at the door of climate change. I’ve read the briefings: this is caused by the wars in Syria, Libya, Iraq and Afghanistan. It’s people escaping from permanent conscription in Eritrea. It’s Palestinians escaping Gaza for a better life. It’s all kinds of people moving for many reasons, but mostly war and terrorism, not climate change.”

“You are right, Eb, but if you had read more than the executive summaries of those briefings, you would know that there was a severe drought in the Syria-Iraq region between 2006 and 2009. We’re talking the worst drought in modern memory, and that was likely a result of climate change. So the dictator did what dictators do, and he messed up agriculture and water-use policies, so crops failed. So what happens to farmers when their crops fail? They move, Eb. 1.5 million people migrated to the cities, Eb. So now you have 1.5 million extra people needing food and work. There was no way that could not put a strain on society. It was like a powder keg. So all it took was some teenagers spraying graffiti on a school, government overreaction, and then it spiraled out of control.”

Eb was about to argue but a stick bounced off the head of a man in front of him. The men in the other boat were actually throwing sticks at people! People ducked for cover and others screamed as the boat pitched dangerously.

"Climate change isn’t all thermometers and dollars, polar bears, graphs and melting glaciers. It’s people, dude!"

Eb turned to Fred for an explanation, but Fred held his hand up to stop him.

“Eb, don’t you get it yet?” said the ghost. “Climate change isn’t all thermometers and dollars, polar bears, graphs and melting glaciers. It’s people, dude! This is what climate change looks like when it affects people. Mark my words, Eb. If you don’t change, it will come home to haunt you in the end. Goodbye Eb!”

“Wait, you can’t leave me here!” protested Eb, but his buddy had already abandoned him.

Revving of the other boat’s engines. Bluish smoke on the water.

First one, then a few more young men jumped into the other boat. Some missed and ended in the water. They begged in vain for a hand up.

Suddenly Eb was pitched sideways. There was a groaning of strained wood, then the loud percussion of snapping timbers. Many passengers were already in the water and others jumped in as the boat began to capsize. Eb found himself pushed into the ocean.

He went under. Kicking, reaching for the surface. Gasping for air. His parka weighed him down so he struggled to take it off.

Screaming. Coughing.

People swam to the other boat, begging for help, but none was given. The men on the other boat just watched until all that was left of the capsized boat were bubbles. They laughed. Then they turned their boat and chugged slowly away to the horizon.

Weeping. Bodies floating in the water. Loose life vests on the waves. Non-swimmers thrashing the water in blind panic, grabbing at others.

A vice-like grip pulled Eb under. He didn’t have a chance to take a breath so he gagged while he tried to free himself. The two of them fought a mortal struggle for air, but he could not free himself. He was drowning.

Posted by howardlee on Thursday, 24 December, 2015

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