Cover

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Title Page, Copyright

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pp. i-iv

Contents

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pp. v-vi

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Acknowledgments

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pp. vii-viii

Writing a book that knits together many disciplines requires getting to know research in many different fields. Many people let me pepper them with questions as I researched the stories in this book. Many others have helped me learn through their peer-reviewed papers and books—including climate scientists, volcanologists, social scientists, historians, educators, communicators, psychologists, marine scientists, ecologists, geologists, and other researchers. Without their brilliant work, there would have been little to knit together. If there are any errors in this book, they are in...

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Introduction

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pp. 1-8

Wile E. Coyote looks into the camera, so to speak, his yellow eyes open wide, and time stands still in the cartoon desert as he recognizes the impending catastrophe. Maybe he’s falling over a cliff while wearing a pair of skis outfitted with wheels. Maybe an anvil is about to fall on his head. It is this little moment—the one that separates the time before catastrophe from the time when catastrophe has arrived—when I pause the cartoon, the roadrunner a blur, the coyote stock-still. The coyote’s stunned expression is the same...

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1. In Uncertain Terms

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pp. 9-20

Look – Listen – Respond. That’s the triptych of instructions provided on most In Case of Emergency signs. The instructions are clear and terse, but the signs assume we know what constitutes an emergency. In the case of climate change and other hazards that hit us obliquely, it can be particularly difficult to discern whether this is, in fact, an emergency. Of course, most In Case of Emergency signs are made for situations like fires, subway accidents, or plane crashes, situations in which declaring an emergency might be more straightforward. Declaring an...

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2. When Sands Shift

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pp. 21-34

My nephew Justin was three years old when my sister, Sara, and I took him on his first Cape Cod road trip. We were at the beach to be beachgoers, to splash in the waves, stare out at the ocean, make castles of sand, and soak in the sunshine, but instead, we craned our necks and looked up to where a small, weathered house was perched at the edge of a sand cliff.

The sand cliffs are a common sight along the easternmost part of the Cape. Sand grains refuse to stack themselves to form a truly vertical cliff,...

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3. When Ground Shakes

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pp. 35-52

Once upon a time, dapper Victorians gathered around a dining table adorned in white linen, topped with fancy china. They sat upright in spindly chairs, politely prodding food with silver. On an adjacent sideboard covered with books rested one of the men’s hats. Someone snapped a photo, a copy of which I found in a San Francisco bookshop.

I tacked my copy of this black-and-white photo to a kitchen cabinet several years ago so that I’d see it every day. The scene portrays typical...

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4. When Fish Invade

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pp. 53-70

We might be trying to do one seemingly harmless little thing, and because everything on the planet is connected, that one thing causes several other changes to the environment that we never imagined. We might think we have everything under control until we see a snowballing of unintended consequences leading toward disaster. At times like that, we are the butterflies flapping our wings. We often don’t know what the impacts of our actions will be....

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5. On the Dry Side of the Glass

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pp. 71-90

Below the glittery surface of the ocean there is a catastrophe in progress that we have caused. Releasing invasive lionfish into nonnative environments is just a small part of the problem. Around the world, the ocean is in trouble. We are causing the water to warm and become more acidic as the carbon dioxide we add to the atmosphere seeps into the ocean. We have depleted fish, added plastic, and spilled oil. The ocean is vulnerable.

In terms of the lionfish invasion, it has been mostly scuba divers, people...

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6 Ashes to Ashes

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pp. 91-104

Amid pastoral fields of corn and bales of hay in northeast Nebraska, an unassuming barn contains evidence that the Cornhusker State was once a subtropical savannah disrupted by a disastrous volcanic eruption. The barn is full of rhinoceroses and other animals. They have been dead for years, nearly twelve million years, to be specific.

Walk inside the 17,500-square-foot rhino barn at Ashfall Fossil Beds State Historical Park and you follow a pathway that hugs the wall around...

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7. We Are Not Waterproof

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pp. 105-126

On September 12, 2013, it looked like a slurry of chocolate milk was flowing under the bridge near my home on the north end of Boulder, Colorado. A couple of days earlier, there was only a dry creek bed, a bike path, a few shady characters, and a strong smell of marijuana under this bridge. I regularly passed by en route to a park at the foot of the Rocky Mountains. But on September 12, there was no way to get through. There was only muddy water, at least six feet deep, and the rain continued to fall. Flood tourists like me gathered at the water’s...

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8. Reply Hazy. Try Again

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pp. 127-138

An oversized plastic billiard ball filled with murky liquid sits in my hands. Inside float twenty possible answers. I close my eyes and silently ask a question. I turn the ball, revealing a little window on its underside, and wait for an answer to emerge through the haze.

This is a Magic 8 Ball, a toy marketed by Mattel. But it is so much more than a toy. The Magic 8 Ball is a tool for prediction. Developed in the 1940s by a couple of guys, one of whom had a fortune-telling mom, the...

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9. Space-Age Improbable Possibilities

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pp. 139-152

I was handed a large ticket with “Capsule Number Six” printed on it. Capsule. I laughed out loud. Other tourists in line did not seem to find their capsule assignment as amusing as I found mine. The term made it sound like we would be getting inside giant Tylenols. I would soon discover that was not far from the truth. Capsule Number Six was a little white half lozenge.

We pilgrims to Saint Louis’s masterpiece of modern design, the Gateway Arch, were shepherded into a narrow hallway. We were instructed to...

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Epilogue: Reaction Time

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pp. 153-164

We only find out what people are made of when we watch how they handle a difficult situation. I set out to write this book because I wanted to know what people do when they experience disastrous change on earth, how they treat nature, whether they trust information, whether they are stymied by uncertainty. I wanted to understand why we are not doing enough to stop climate change by looking at our prior experience with change on earth. I learned that we humans have strengths and weaknesses when it comes to dealing...

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Postscript: Shrinking the Carbon Footprint of This Book

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pp. 165-166

I sheepishly admit that writing this book released some carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. I did what I could to keep that amount as small as possible, but alas, it is not zero. For two years the computer that I used to write the book ran on solar energy from panels installed on the roof of my former home. For two years it ran on wind energy from the local utility. However, there were six months when it was powered by a natural gas–fired power plant and almost a year when it was powered by a coal-fired power plant. (Note to self: Question the source of the energy...

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In Case of Emergency

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pp. 167-170

One important thing that you can do to help during the climate emergency is to stay informed. Solving climate change is a rapidly evolving area of research. Each day there are new ideas about sources of renewable energy and ways to geoengineer the planet to dampen the warming, new stories of ways that communities and countries are taking action to stop using fossil fuels and be more resilient. Learning what is working in other places on earth can give us ideas for what we can do and what we would like to ask of our elected leaders....

Further Reading

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pp. 171-178

Index

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pp. 179-183