The dolphins cut back and forth in front of our bow, rolling and jumping and twisting. They spotted our boat and began to chase it as we chased false albacore, and before we knew it a half dozen of them had caught up with us and were darting through the slipstream of our bow. The three of us on the boat are laughing and smiling and pointing. The dolphins seem like sleek packages of exhilaration. Joy embodied.

It is November 2, 2021, and this is the first stop in a trip south to Florida that I am taking with my frequent traveling companion and old friend Mark Honerkamp. Hones, as I have forever called him, lives to fish and today he is in heaven. We launched from the dock in front of my friend Douglas’s house. Douglas Cutting, a former student of mine and former fishing guide, is part owner of an old but beautifully restored wooden house that stares out at the Intracoastal Waterway in McClellanville, South Carolina, a small fishing village about three hours south of Wilmington, North Carolina, where I live.

Before the day is over Hones and Douglas will have caught spotted sea­trout, red snapper, black sea bass, gag grouper, pinfish, and an oyster toadfish. The fish they don’t catch, the false albacore, or albies, will provide them the most excitement, rippling the surface with their sleek backs as they devour pods of baitfish, but refusing to take the lures we offer. Even I, a nonfisherman, get into the pursuit of the albies, standing up as the lookout in the crow’s nest as I scan the waters with my binoculars. On top of all the fish we are treated to the sight of bald eagles, a loggerhead turtle, and a vast variety of birds from scoters to little blue herons. But for me it is the sight of the dolphins bowriding that will remain the day’s highlight.

When we first moved to Wilmington, I told people that I felt like I had moved onto the set of Flipper. One of the best things about moving south was suddenly having dolphins as neighbors. It turned out that my new home was not just the center for a large community of dolphins, but a hotbed of dolphin research. One of the most exciting discoveries was recently made by three scientists, one of whom, Laela Sayigh, lived only a twenty-minute paddle from me when I first moved South. Laela coauthored a paper that concluded that bottlenose dolphins convey identity information with individually distinctive signature whistles. This may not seem particularly eye-opening until you stop and think that this is just a fancy scientific way of saying that they call each other by name.

There are those who deny the world beyond the human. But face to face with dolphins it is harder.


I have spent the last year traveling to places where the climate crisis has hit hard, and have been writing as I go, but have somehow failed to mention the large, wet elephant in the room. That is, I have mostly ignored the three-quarters of the globe that is covered by water. Thematically there is no excuse for this, but stylistically there is. I have tried to make climate small and personal, and what is larger and less personal than an ocean?

But if the ocean’s story is large and impersonal, it is also vital. And if we are overheating the world, this is where most of the heat is going. The heat and acidification of our ocean waters do not get the big headlines. Yet.

Dolphins, I suppose, are one way of making the watery and vague more specific. But if the oceans go, so do they.

It is hard to imagine this sort of day may not exist in forty-two years, when my daughter Hadley is my age.

After Douglas has docked and cleaned the boat, we stand around the kitchen island and drink cold beer while feasting on the fish we have caught and on the stone crabs he has prepared. We are joined by Greg, another of the house’s co-owners, and his friend Drew, who has served as Greg’s crew today in a king mackerel tournament. It is as if Hones has found his lost people. They talk fish, and I don’t just mean they talk about fish. They are speaking a foreign language, one I understand only a little better than dolphin. Fishermen and hunters know things, and by keeping my mouth shut and listening I am learning some of those things. Like, say, how to catch a stone crab through a kind of noodling. Douglas shows me the cut on his hand from the last time he tried.

“This is the best day of my life,” Hones says at one point.

I laugh and tell him that the day my daughter was born was a little better for me, but Hones stands by his comment.

It is hard to imagine this sort of day may not exist in forty-two years, when my daughter Hadley is my age. That it is hard does not make it untrue.

The next morning Hones heads out early with Douglas to fish for trout in the Intracoastal. When he gets back we thank our host and push off for points south. We drive through Charleston to Savannah, with me keeping half an eye on the clock. I have scheduled an interview in Tallahassee that afternoon with Flip Froelich, a professor of oceanography at Florida State University.

From there we will drive down to Miami where I will interview Hal Wanless, a professor of geology at the University of Miami. Like Flip, Hal studies the question of what will happen to the oceans in this era we are calling the anthropocene. From what I have read, they offer up very different visions, but in the long run neither is particularly optimistic. The main difference in their pictures of the future isn’t what is going to happen but when.


It’s a long way to Tallahassee and we are late. To make matters worse, Flip and his wife are hosting a dinner party, though he graciously gives me an hour of his time at his dining room table. He does so with a kitchen timer between us, and when it goes off he has to check the pot roast.

“Read all the stuff in the press about climate change and you’ll see the oceans are still pretty much being ignored. But if we didn’t have the ocean to take up the CO2 and the heat, things would be about five times worse than they are. The whole big story is the ocean, and I get irritated when someone pops up and says we set a new temperature record in Outer Saskatchewan. It’s what’s going on in the ocean that matters most.”

I ask the obvious question: Why?

“I’m not one to get up on my soapbox and say it’s the end of the world, it’s a catastrophe. Though for some parts of the planet, like the Bangladesh Delta, it will become uninhabitable.”

“We are naturally heading toward an interglacial period. No more ice in northern latitudes. The natural process of the last two really strong interglacials had Greenland melting down basically to a couple nubs. You’re talking about three hundred to five hundred years until this happens again. We’re probably accelerating it, pushing the curve faster than nature would be doing it. We don’t know how much faster. The ocean absorbs at least two-thirds of the heat in the atmosphere, maybe closer to ninety percent. The ocean is going to soak up as much as it can and then it will stop. And that is what everybody in the oceanographic chemistry field is concerned with. Where is the threshold going to be in the upper ocean for CO2 and acidification?”

I ask him the question I have been asking other scientists throughout the past year. What will the world be like in forty-two years? But Flip thinks in numbers bigger than that and in time spans longer than single lifetimes. He is no doomsayer.

“Life will go on. The human species will adapt. Humans will move away from the coast, just as they have been doing for five thousand years in the Mediterranean. So I’m not one to get up on my soapbox and say it’s the end of the world, it’s a catastrophe. Though for some parts of the planet, like the Bangladesh Delta, it will become uninhabitable. It will be underwater.”

I mention the Mississippi delta and he agrees that southern Louisiana will be underwater as well. Then I ask about the Antarctic.

“I believe the ice on Antarctica is safe for a couple thousand years.”

“Well, that’s good news.”

The reason he believes this is worth pausing on. He explains that the continental shelf on all of the continents except Antarctica slopes down, and it slopes down because as the ice came off, the continent rose up.

“The Antarctic is shaped the other way around, so these glaciers as they come out run into a high, not a low. People have argued that once the meltwater gets underneath and lifts them they will slide. What the geophysicists are saying is, ‘I’m sorry you don’t understand the geophysics of the earth, as soon as you start unloading the ice, the edge lifts and the lift is going to be three times faster than what the melt is going to be.’ This will slow melt. So I’m not worried about the Antarctic.”

He pauses and admits: “You’ll get exactly two different opinions about that.”

Flip believes in the more cautious take. Tomorrow in Miami I will hear the opposite opinion.

“The real culprit with rising seas is not melting glaciers but heat. That is what accounts for at least two-thirds of sea level rise. The faster you heat the atmosphere, the faster you heat the ocean and the faster sea level goes up. Only 10 to 20 percent of sea level rise is due to new fresh water from melting glaciers.

“The ocean is on about a twenty-to-thirty-year flywheel. Heat that we put into the ocean twenty to thirty years ago is now expanding and driving sea level rise. Most oceanographers say that if you don’t solve a problem now you’re going to pay for it in twenty to thirty years. But even if you solve it now you’ll pay for it in twenty to thirty years. There is that long a lag time. It is already too late for that.

“The natural cycle is that we’re going to melt all the ice in the northern hemisphere like we did during the last two interglacial periods, whether it’s in three hundred years, or five hundred years, or a thousand. It’s all a blink geologically.”


Down in Miami, Hal Wanless’s climate future proceeds at a more brisk pace. He is not afraid to answer the question of how Hadley will fare when she is my age.

“I can imagine a four-and-a-half-foot sea level rise by then.”

Where I live that means many of the houses will have water lapping at their doorsteps.

This place will be under water,” he says, pointing at the floor.

This place is Bob’s Burger’s, a restaurant off of the Granada golf course in Coral Gables. It is five miles inland but only four feet above sea level. We take a seat in the corner.

“It already floods the golf course during king tides,” Hal says.

King tides are extreme tides that occur when the sun, earth, and moon are in alignment and the moon is at its closest point to the earth.

Today is not a king tide but the streets of Miami are flooded. Hones and I drove down here through near-blinding rain and almost obeyed the blinking warning sign that said: turn around, don’t drown. We didn’t drown, but as we entered Miami we could barely see where we were going, and our car left a wake. The Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development lists Miami as the number-one city among the world’s ten largest port cities in degree of endangerment from flooding and sea level rise.

“Is there anything hopeful in Miami’s future or is it a nonfuture?” I ask.

“It’s a nonfuture,” he says bluntly. “Look, we have already had a foot of sea level rise since 1930. So groundwater is a foot higher. Then we get king tides on top of that; those kind of tides lift 3.6 or 3.7 feet. They can raise the water level four feet. And we’re only four feet above sea level. And all this is without a hurricane.”

I remember that Flip said there were “exactly two different opinions” about Antarctic melt. Hal’s is the other one.

“We are not looking at one to two feet of sea level rise by the end of the century,” Hal says. “We are looking at six to ten feet. It could be more like fifteen to thirty feet. It is impossible it will be less than six.

“When we came out of the last ice age, the seas rose four hundred feet. It didn’t just happen all at once but in a series of pulses and pauses. Every pause would build a reef or barrier island and every pulse would drown it. Some were ten-meter pulses, some one meter. That is how sea level works in the presence of ice in a warming world. What Jim Hansen calls ‘ice disintegration.’ When it goes it goes. And we all know that. We’ve all seen ice melt.

He is speaking quietly, calmly, but his message is urgent.

“What we’ve seen in the past is really our only guide for the future. And none of the models really incorporate that. The IPCC [Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change] hides behind its models. There aren’t many people that have what I would call a geologic frame of mind. The models are fine but they are lacking. Use your head and put feedback in that the models can’t and you get the reality. Consider that CO2 is rising two hundred times faster than it did when we came out of the last Ice Age.”

He is speaking quietly, calmly, but his message is urgent. It may seem that his words and message are the opposite of Flip’s. In some ways they are, in some they aren’t. Two visions. Not so different. Only a matter of time.

“People say, ‘If we do something now we can turn this around.’ The problem is that over 90 percent of our extra heat is transferred to the ocean and that is not turn-aroundable. Because you’ve got to first cool the atmosphere before you even think about cooling the ocean. Scientists say if we stopped burning fossil fuels today it would take twenty to thirty years for it to start cooling the ocean.”

On this at least he is on the same page with Flip. But he takes it in a different direction. When I describe what Flip has told me about the geophysics of the Antarctic, he pulls out a napkin and draws his rebuttal.

“There is going to be rebound but it is not going to be big enough or fast enough. That will show itself this decade.

“And of course we won’t stop using CO2, and it will keep transferring to the ocean. It will keep warming and warming for centuries. There is nothing turning around, even if we start today. We have already had enough warming for what will probably be a catastrophic melt of Greenland and Antarctica. That is unavoidable. The last time we were at four hundred parts per million in CO2 was three to five million years ago, back in the Pleistocene, and at that time we were over twenty meters above the present level.

“With only a six-foot rise, just 44 percent of Miami-Dade county will be left,” he continues. “And of what is left, three-quarters will be less than two feet above sea level. This place is ridiculously vulnerable. The sewage treatment plants are compromised, the roads constantly flooded. All this without a hurricane. It goes without saying that sea level rise will make storms exponentially more dangerous.” He holds up his hands. “And we’re still growing like crazy down here.”

We circle back to Hadley.

“So I would say that by the time your daughter is your age, most East Coast cities will be flooded. We are talking about an eight-to-ten-foot sea level rise by the end of the century. Maybe eleven to thirteen.”

And, I mention, the world doesn’t end at the end of the century.

“No, and we are just talking about the East Coast. And we are just talking about sea level rise. We haven’t even talked about other aspects of climate change that are more important than sea level rise. Like high levels of methane and the acidification of the ocean. Things that are more important than ‘We have to move out of Miami.’ ”

After I thank Hal, Hones and I drive west on the Everglades Parkway, also known as Alligator Alley. We pull over into the northern edge of the Everglades. Hones watches the alligators for an hour while I focus my binoculars on the wood storks roosting in the trees.

It is lush, abundant, full of life. Not just animal life but rare and endangered plants like tropical orchids. We cross the bottom of the state and enter Everglades City.

I note that the elevation of the city is three feet above sea level.


What is to be done? is the question, of course, the forever question. Even if I claim to want to sing, not save, the world, I don’t want it to go away.

Back home, the rest of December passes quickly. It is getting to be the time of year for resolutions and I’m pretty confident that I’ll accomplish a couple of my more practical ones. It is finally time to put in solar panels and buy an electric car. To at least practice a little of what I preach.

When you spend enough time in the apocalypse you start to believe in it.

I am aware of how little that will do to forestall this massive thing rushing toward us, the massive thing we are already in. Michael Mann makes this point in his book The New Climate War. These personal choices matter, of course they do. But too much focus on them is putting the emphasis on the wrong thing, like telling someone that the way to win World War II is recycling your cans. (Of course recycling was part of the war effort.) Worse, this can be used to undermine the one thing that will really change anything: massive governmental action and regulation. That starts with a simple realization: we are in the midst of an existential crisis. Existential as in exist. Hello! How can that not be enough to wake us up?

Mann also takes exception with the extreme doomsayers, claiming they undermine the efforts to fight. I have always been in that camp—in fact, I once wrote a whole book about my suspicions about apocalyptic thinkers, and their kinship with religious end-time thinkers. But I find my resistance to that sort of thinking is softening. When you spend enough time in the apocalypse you start to believe in it.

Over the next month the hits will keep on coming. A new variant of the virus will bloom. It will be sixty-seven degrees in Alaska in late December—and that won’t even be the scariest environmental news. Scientists will discover more movement below a glacier in Antarctica. With every day Hal Wanless will start to seem like nothing more than a realist.

Closer to home, or at least closer to my old home, in late December Boulder County will catch fire. With no snow at all (the latest first snowfall ever recorded on the Front Range of the Rockies) and pushed by hundred-mile-an-hour winds, the place will burst into flames on the day before New Year’s Eve.

I will try to imagine the New Year’s resolutions of those who live there.


But where?

Those fires will have a direct connection to Hadley. The day they start she will drive up to Durham to pick up Lucy, a friend of hers she met in Boulder, at art camp when they were little. Lucy will have flown out to spend New Year’s Eve with my daughter, and her parents will have flown to California. It will turn out that they are on one of the last planes out of Denver. While I am picking them up at the airport the fire will be closing in on Lucy’s neighborhood. We will learn this later that evening while Hadley and Lucy are out with friends. Five hundred houses will have burned by then.

At that point we will not know how much Lucy has heard about what is going on. Not much, we will suspect, as Lucy and Hadley go about their normal lives, attending a high school party.

“I don’t know if we are equipped for this,” my wife Nina will say to me when considering the prospect of telling our daughter’s friend that her house had burned down.

Luckily, the fire will stop a half mile short of where Lucy lives. But two thousand homes will burn.

And here is what I will think:

It seems to me that I don’t know if we are equipped for this is a pretty good mantra for our times.

Here is something else we are not equipped for. Three months further down the road, on my birthday, March 15, a year after my travels started, another ice shelf in Antarctica—this one nearly the size of Los Angeles—will disintegrate. It will do so after a period of extraordinary warmth, more than forty degrees Celsius higher than normal, on the continent.

And so we will find ourselves, a quarter of the way through the twenty-first century, on a hurtling plane flown by arrogant rich men beholden to the whims of a dying industry, who are trying to squeeze out the last pennies while destroying the planet in the process. And where are they flying this plane? Into a volcano.

Their names should live in infamy. Their names will live in infamy if there is anyone around to write the histories. These pushers of fossil fuels, even after the facts are in, will be remembered like the racists who clung to slavery. But it will be too late.


Deep breaths, David. Deep breaths.   I have long argued against an environmentalism that feels like a panic attack, but it is getting harder.

Despite everything, my New Year’s resolutions will not include “Singlehandedly change the U. S. government.” I’ll leave that to tougher minds than mine. What I have come around to for now is something softer, more personal, something a little like this: I want to remember this world. As my mother, tucked away in a nursing home, forgets everything, I want to remember this beautiful world.

In fact, now that my nine-and-a-half months of travel to the sites of climate disasters is over, I am thinking about a new project. In my head I’m calling it A Field Guide to Everything. I will learn the birds, the plants, the mushrooms, the trees, the stars. All the animals before they are gone. What better pursuit as the world burns? Fearing that I will follow my mother into forgetfulness and oblivion, I will memorize the world. It will be an effort toward expansion, toward empathy.

Toward humility, I would say, though Nina sees right through this.

“Then you really will be a know-it-all,” she says.

I see her point. Historic know-it-alls, like Humboldt and Linnaeus, have tried this sort of thing before. What has it got them?

Naming a semipalmated plover or an oyster mushroom will not stop my mother from forgetting. Will not stop me from forgetting. And will not stop the world from catching fire.

It is so hard to imagine beyond the self, let alone imagine globally. I know that my smallness is showing here. Which in a way is my theme. We are all small. It is hard being large. The larger extinction of the world may concern us, but our smaller selves are so much more interesting. Our demons can’t ever really be exorcised. We need to carry on despite them. I know how small I am. I know that because I live with myself every day. I’m assuming that you, reading this, are just as small. That what we call largeness is an occasional, even spasmodic, effort. An effort that mostly fails. But maybe sometimes doesn’t.

What is to be done?

I wish I could tell you.

As the poet said: For us, there is only the trying.