A war reporter covers “The End Of Ice” — and it will change the way you think about climate catastrophe

By Elise Swain, The Intercept, May 4 2019, 6:00 a.m.

Photos: Getty Images (2); Animation: The Intercept

FOCUSING ON BREATH and gratitude, Dahr Jamail’s latest book, “The End of Ice: Bearing Witness and Finding Meaning in the Path of Climate Disruption,” stitches together personal introspection and gut-wrenching interviews with leading climate experts. The rapidly receding glaciers of Denali National Park, home to the highest peak in North America, inspired the book’s title. “Seven years of climbing in Alaska had provided me with a front-row seat from where I could witness the dramatic impact of human-caused climate disruption,” Jamail writes.

With vividly descriptive storytelling, Jamail pushes further north into the Arctic Circle where warming is occurring at double speed. He surveys rapid changes in the Pribilof Islands, where Indigenous communities have had to contend with die-offs affecting seabirds, fur seals, fish, and more — a collapsing food web. The story continues in the fragile Great Barrier Reef, utterly ravaged by the warming ocean. South Florida is faring no better: Jamail finds that 2.46 million of the state’s acreage will be submerged within his lifetime. Experts are aghast everywhere Jamail visits. In the Amazon, rich in biodiversity, the consequences are especially enormous.

“The End of Ice” readers won’t find calls for technology-based solutions, politicians, mitigating emissions, or the Green New Deal to save us.

Describing the current state of the planet, Jamail likens it to someone in hospice care. The global mean temperature is already 1 degree Celsius above pre-industrial levels. Not half a decade ago, leading climate scientist James Hansen warned that that 1 degree would usher in a crisis of sea-level rise, melting Arctic ice, and extreme weather. He concluded that the goal of limiting global warming to only 2 degrees was “very dangerous.” Accelerated melting in the Arctic continues to surpass conservative predictions. Jamail reminds us that “as rapidly as global temperatures are increasing, so are temperature predictions. The conservative International Energy Agency has predicted a possible worst-case scenario of a 3.5°C increase by 2035.”

Little has worked to inspire action. There is perhaps no better example of climate science being disregarded than a climate change denier being elected president of the United States.

The threat of looming biosphere apocalypse is deeply troubling, panic-inducing, and this all-encompassing environmental, economic, and spiritual problem leaves one feeling helpless and grief-stricken. “The End of Ice” takes on the full weight of the catastrophe at hand. Jamail carries the reader’s emotional pain by acutely expressing his own.

“The End of Ice: Bearing Witness and Finding Meaning in the Path of Climate Disruption” by Dahr Jamail. Photo: Courtesy of The New Press

“A willingness to live without hope allows me to accept the heartbreaking truth of our situation, however calamitous it is. Grieving for what is happening to the planet also now brings me gratitude for the smallest, most mundane things,” Jamail explains. “I have found that it’s possible to reach a place of acceptance and inner peace, while enduring the grief and suffering that are inevitable as the biosphere declines.”

“This global capitalist experiment, this experiment of industrialization and burning fossil fuels rampantly is an utter, abject failure,” Jamail told The Intercept. He believes it is time to start adapting. We should act like the climate crisis has arrived and, most significantly, reconnect to the planet. Jamail spoke to The Intercept about his latest book and dealing with the grief of reporting from the frontlines of the war in Iraq to the frontlines of climate disruption. The interview that follows has been edited for clarity.

Dahr Jamail reads an excerpt from his book “The End of Ice” on the Intercepted podcast beginning at 54:57.

Your book really blindsided me in a way that I didn’t expect. I was thinking it would be another dry, hard to read, statistic-heavy work, but instead you told stories that were really rich with genuine interactions and emotions and talked about your own emotional state while you were reporting on all of this. So just tell me about that approach to writing and how you felt during these interviews with all of these scientists and researchers.

To go out and go to these frontline places like the Great Barrier Reef or Denali or St. Paul Island in the Pribilof, the Everglades down in South Florida, places that were being hit the hardest, the fastest — I knew that I would have a very personal and emotional reaction to that. And so all these places like the Great Barrier Reef and Denali and a couple of others that I have long-term intimate relationships with, I’d watch them over time. Most people aren’t going to get to go to most of these places. So it was really my effort to go try to bring that to them through my writing the best that I could.

I went out and was awestruck, completely blown away by the majesty of these places, getting these moments of: Look at this incredible planet. Look at these hanging glaciers on Denali. Look at these fish at the Great Barrier Reef. And then simultaneously, the heartbreak of going back to a glacier and the whole glacier’s just gone and feeling that gut punch.

That’s what it felt like. Or going back to the Great Barrier Reef: It’s a World Heritage Site. It’s this wonder of the natural world. And snorkeling over areas where all you can see is bleached white coral and knowing most of that’s going to die and having it be utterly silent, devoid of fish life, and feeling that. So it was this simultaneous experience of awe and gratitude for this planet and then heartbreak over what’s happening to it.

Explain that term you use for climate change, which was once “global warming”; you’re calling it “anthropogenic climate disruption.” So why are you making that distinction?

I use the term “human-caused or anthropogenic climate disruption” instead of climate change or global warming for a couple of different reasons. The first and foremost is, it’s the most scientifically accurate because by essentially geoengineering the climate, which is what we’ve done by injecting so much CO2 into the atmosphere, we have disrupted the climate. And then the other reason is that there was fossil fuel influence on climate change decades ago for that to become the more commonly used moniker descriptor: “change” because it’s not as alarming as climate crisis or climate disruption or climate catastrophe.

One of the things that you talk about in the book a lot is the disconnection that we as a human species are having from the planet at this point.

We can ignore it or at least pretend to ignore it and not feel like these impacts are directly affecting us. And for a lot of us still living in that bubble, we can still get away with that.

Well, it’s Western colonial society. It essentially trains us to be disconnected from the planet. It doesn’t predispose us to go and live directly in relationship with the Earth. We don’t have to go to a stream to go get our water. We don’t have to go hunt or grow our food if we don’t want to. It’s the opposite of indigenous lifestyle, traditionally. So that’s why I believe the fundamental cause of climate disruption is our inherent disconnect from the planet. “Our” being those of us living, most of us living in Western industrialized society. And the solution is first, we have to start with reconnecting. And I think that’s why we don’t see climate disruption in the headlines on a regular basis because so many of us are living in big cities, getting our food from grocery stores; our water, turn on the tap. There’s your water.

We can ignore it or at least pretend to ignore it and not feel like these impacts are directly affecting us. And for a lot of us still living in that bubble, we can still get away with that. I think that’s changing before our very eyes, but I think that really is the root cause of this crisis — is this disconnect. Because if we were living closer to the earth, like indigenous people did for thousands and thousands of years, you’re so finely attuned to the weather. And when the rains come and when the droughts come and being able to read things like that and watching what the animals do and making decisions based on that — you’re going to take a lot better care of the place where you live, if you’re living that much more closely to it. And obviously you’re going to not take as good of care of it if you’re completely disconnected from it.

So just to go back to the first book that you wrote about reporting from the frontlines in Iraq to now in this book reporting from the frontlines of climate change: Those are really tough topics to sit with and deal with for a long time.

As devastating as reporting on Iraq was to me, personally — war is an extremely hard thing to live with and figure out how to contend with and then dealing with the PTSD and all of this that comes with it. And that’s something then that I get to live with for the rest of my life and anyone who’s been in war does. It never goes away; you just learn to live with it.

But the climate crisis and this book has been that but on a deeper level because it really regularly kicks in fight or flight, for example of, “Oh my God, we’re losing 2.4 percent of our insect population, 2.4 percent of the insect biomass of the planet annually. That means on this current trajectory, assuming it doesn’t accelerate, that means no more insects within a hundred years. No more insects pretty much means no more humans.” And so that feeling that comes up knowing that there’s a fear. There’s a panic. There’s a fight or flight. Where do I go? I can’t go anywhere. This is our only planet and so all those feelings and that grief that comes up, you’re going to get to deal with that.

And so if this is what’s happening to our very planet, then there’s going to be an ongoing dance with grief that comes up of sadness, of rage at the people responsible, of this kind of internal schizophrenia of, “Yeah, and I still drive, and I still fly, and yet I’m writing this book about the climate crisis.” All of us living embedded in this Western civilization, that’s a dance that we all get to contend with on a daily basis if we really start to tease out our own feelings.

So I want to get into some of the details on different chapters in the book. Can you talk to me a little bit about the glacier melt in the Arctic regions that you were in and what sort of future we’re looking at in that ecosystem?

If we look at what’s happening to glaciers around the globe as the planet has warmed up considerably, we are losing ice at ever accelerating rates. And so one of the things I did is, I went out on the Gulkana Glacier in the Alaska range with the U.S. Geological Survey crew who do an annual mass balance survey. They basically go out on the ice and dig pits and take measurements and plant stakes and use radar and measure how much ice is being lost on an annual basis. There’s several of these around North America that they measure and, in that way, have a very, very accurate chronicle, statistically, of how much ice is being lost over time.

Essentially, what we know is that glaciers are on track, for example, in the contiguous 48 states that at current trajectories and current emission rates, if these continue, there will be probably no glaciers anywhere left in the contiguous 48 states by 2100. I went out into the field in Glacier National Park with Dr. Dan Fagre, and he told me that essentially Glacier National Park will have no functional glaciers by 2030. So that’s less than 11 years from now.

And then if we zoom out of the Hindu Kush region of the Himalaya where it’s heavily glaciated: There’s a massive ice field. Seven of Asia’s biggest rivers are sourced there. That ice is on trajectory to go away, possibly even completely, by 2100. In which case, the 1.5 billion people that get their water for drinking and agriculture from those waters, where do they go? What do they do? What happens to the areas where they migrate because they’ll have to migrate? We can’t live someplace where there’s not potable water and water for irrigating crops. So when glaciers go away, it’s a big deal to humans. And a lot of people don’t think about this.

Can you tell me about your trip to the Great Barrier Reef and what you saw there? There’s something to be said about the coral reef phenomenon in talking about climate change because it is one of the things that people can connect to in an emotional way. Human beings hate seeing beautiful things get destroyed. We really don’t like it. So as a visual person, I think that’s an interesting way to approach climate change: Show people the coral reefs and what we’re losing.

At the risk of sounding cheesy or cliche, it’s part of that reconnection process to the planet. And you know, when I wrote this book, I hoped that if I had one goal of the book was that someone would read it and then put it down and go outside to wherever their favorite place is to connect into the Earth — whether it’s a park or a river or the ocean or the mountains or pasture or what have you — because we’ve forgotten. We have forgotten. Look at this incredible planet where we live. Just go out and look at a tree with birds in it and just watch them for a couple of minutes. Look at all of this. Nature is doing all of this by itself.

And then look at what we’ve done, and look at what our actions are causing. We have to take that in, and I think that’s where we get back into this dance of the beauty and the awe and the amazement and the love simultaneous with, “Look at how shockingly fast we’re losing it all.” I mean, because we are losing it. We have failed. This experiment, this global capitalist experiment, this experiment of industrialization and burning fossil fuels rampantly is an utter, abject failure. And all of the global governments — of course, some are doing it a little less worse than others — but at this point, all of the global governments have failed abjectly in responding to this crisis accordingly. And so again, all of that puts the onus back on each of us now. How are we individually going to respond?

I grew up in Florida, in Sarasota. It’s a coastal city on the Gulf of Mexico. And I’ve essentially had this understanding my whole life that one day, probably within my lifetime, my hometown will be completely underwater. So it’s absurd: the fact that, one, we have Donald Trump and a climate-change-denying administration, but two, on a state level, we have climate-change-denying leadership at the top in a state that will be completely, wholly affected by climate change more so maybe than any other state. But can you just tell me about what you learned in Miami and in the Everglades?

That particular chapter working on sea level rise in Florida was — to put it as clearly and bluntly as I can: It was a mindfuck.

It was so incredible to be in this place that is ground zero for sea level rise. It’s happening more intensely and faster there as it is anywhere else in the world, and you also have some of the leading sea level rise experts on the planet. They’re out of University of Miami — Ben Kirtman and Harold Wanless, both of whom I interviewed for the book. And there I am in Miami Beach going around with the then-city engineer Bruce Mowry, who’s actively working to raise several of the streets three feet, knowing that’s not enough, but, “OK, this is going to buy us enough time. We’re going to save Miami Beach. We can try to mitigate this.” Conveniently ignoring things like well, it’s actually the whole city is based on what was essentially a mangrove swamp. There’s this porous limestone underneath it that — guess what —water comes up through it.

There’s already large areas in Miami Beach and some areas of Miami that flood in the middle of a sunny day, in the middle of a drought, and people are just putting on their rubber boots and walking through it. There’s fish swimming at times literally across the roads. And so you’re living on ground zero for sea level rise with this fossil-fuel-funded leadership. Then simultaneous to that, you have scientists like Dr. Wanless who told me, “Look, I know for a fact that Marco Rubio is aware of what I’m telling you about how much sea level rise is already baked in.” It’s not out of the realm of possibility we could see 10 feet by 2050. We could see far more than that by 2100. I mean, South Florida is basically gone. All those millions of people, and all of that infrastructure, and all of those toxic sites that have to be cleaned up, and the Turkey Point nuclear plant just south of Miami at six feet elevation — all of that has to be decommissioned and moved to higher ground. All of the archives, hospitals, colleges, everything, right? And that needs to start yesterday. And instead, you have this denial. Nothing’s happening.

I want to talk about one moment in the book that completely gutted me, and I hadn’t heard this information anywhere else. You were speaking to, as you mentioned, Dr. Harold Wanless in Miami, and you write about the conversation: “In the past, atmospheric CO2 varied from roughly 180 to 280 parts per million as the Earth shifted from glacial to interglacial periods. This 100 ppm fluctuation was linked with about a 100-foot change in sea level.” And so that means we’ve gone from 280 ppm to our current level, right now, of 410 ppm of carbon in the atmosphere. So what does that mean?

That means that we have, at least in theory, 130 feet of sea level rise that’s already baked into the system. 130 feet means goodbye, Florida. Well, basically all of South Florida. That means goodbye to every major coastal city on the planet. And then where do those people go? What happens to those economies? How do we relocate all those people? I mean, this means literally a completely different planet by itself, and that’s what’s there.

And we have to remember too that in conjunction with that, there’s a NASA report that I discuss in the book that discusses how back in the Pliocene, roughly 3 million years ago when there was roughly the same amount of CO2 in the atmosphere as there is now because of us: Sea levels were minimum 20 meters higher than they are today. The average global temperature was 3 to 4°C higher than it is now, and there were parts of the globe where it was 10°C higher.

We’re seeing geologic change happening on human timescale. We’re looking at change faster than what happened during the Permian mass extinction, which up to now was the single deadliest mass extinction event in the planet’s history. 252 million years ago, 90 percent of all life on Earth went extinct, and we have injected CO2 in the atmosphere at a rate dramatically faster than what caused that mass extinction event.

PARADISE, CALIFORNIA - FEBRUARY 11: An aerial view of homes destroyed by the Camp Fire on February 11, 2019 in Paradise, California. Three months after the deadly and destructive Camp Fire, the community is beginning the rebuilding process. (Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)
An aerial view of homes destroyed by the Camp Fire on Feb. 11, 2019, in Paradise, Calif. Photo: Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

Let’s talk about wildfires. You wrote, “Climate disruption is already responsible for nearly half of the forest area burns across the western United States over the last 30 years.” That’s pretty shocking.

It is. I live in the Pacific Northwest. You say that, most people picture rainforests, lots of rain, wet Seattle, gray, all of this. And yet we have already, as we speak right now on Earth Day, have had 50 wildfires in Washington State, where I live. That’s normally the number we have by late August and into October, which is peak wildfire season. There are towns that are literally becoming unlivable. If you have respiratory issues, you can’t live in a town that’s completely engulfed in wildfire smoke for weeks on end.

There are towns that are literally becoming unlivable. If you have respiratory issues, you can’t live in a town that’s completely engulfed in wildfire smoke for weeks on end.

It’s truly incredible when you look at the fact that once we hit 3 degrees Celsius warming (we’re at 1.1 degrees Celsius now), many scientists tell us that if we stopped all fossil fuel emissions on a dime, we have a minimum of 3 degrees Celsius warming already baked into the system. That means a sextupling of the amount of wildfires in the American West. If you look at what’s happened to California, just as an example, over the last couple of years, multiply that by six.

So we are right there on the edge of these impacts. But one thing that I want to remind folks: It is easy to think in the United States, “Oh, well, so much of this is happening so much worse in other countries.” Well, if you live in Paradise, California, there’s no more future tense about the climate crisis to you. If you’ve just lost everything and you know someone who’s died and if you made it out of that alive, barely: You just lived through the apocalypse.

Talk about the emotional parallels of working both as a war correspondent and covering climate change. I believe you described it as a kind of grief.

There is a deep, deep grief that comes up, and the way I’ve written about it in the book is I shared a story about a dear friend of mine: Duane French, a quadriplegic man that I used to work for, as his personal assistant, up in Alaska when I first moved up there in the mid-’90s. And a few years ago, he got pneumonia, and I thought for sure, “He’s dead.” He was in the ICU for weeks on end, and none of the drugs were working, and I really believed I was in a hospice situation with him. And so all that mattered to me was to really be as present as I could and appreciate each moment that I had while he was still here.

So what can I do? Where does my motivation come from if things really do appear to be lost? That’s where I had a big conversation with a Cherokee medicine man named Stan Rushworth, actually. He reminded me of the difference between the colonial settler mindset of, “We have rights,” versus the indigenous philosophy of, “We’re all born onto the planet with obligations.” The two big ones that he shared with me are: an obligation to take care of, and be a steward of, the planet; and an obligation to serve future generations and make my decisions based on what’s going to take the best care of them. And so no matter how dire things look today, if I get up and I ask myself, “OK, how can I be of best service today to the planet and to the children?” Then I have my work cut out for me, and there is no shortage of things to do. And I am morally obliged to do everything in my power possible to try to help somehow, whatever that’s going to look like.

So at most points in these conversations about climate, the conversation turns to hope for the future at the end, but I don’t really want to talk about hope, you know, in the sense of that meaning solutions. I want to know how you’ve been dealing with the weight of this material and how you’ve personally come to define hope.

Right, I had to really tackle the hope versus hopelessness paradigm. To sum it up, upfront, I quote Vaclav Havel who said, “Hope is not the conviction that something will turn out well but the certainty that something is worth doing no matter how it turns out.” With hope in the context of the climate crisis in these movements: Someone else, or some party, or some movement’s going to do something — even if I’m part of that — and then something in the future is going to happen. And I think it takes us out of ourselves, and it definitely takes us out of the present moment. And right now, in this second, in me, this is where all my agency is. So whatever actions I do right now, that’s what really, really matters, and I have to take full responsibility for that. And I think that’s what I’m getting to: accepting that we have a minimum of 3°C baked into the system. That is absolutely catastrophic. No one’s going to argue how catastrophic that is.

And yes, more is needed. And yes, it looks like all may be lost but I just have to keep coming back to that. What gets me out of bed in the morning, and what are my obligations? And when I come from that place, then I feel actually more passionately about this than ever before and certainly even before I wrote the book.

The Intercept depends on the support of readers like you to help keep our nonprofit newsroom strong and independent.  Join