It's not the first time the newsweekly has made warming the lead. Five years ago, Time ran a cover story entitled Life in the Greenhouse. That cover showed an egg simmering in a skillet, sunny-side-up. The new cover features a polar bear, certainly the most charismatic species associated with the crisis -- a big carnivorous canary in the coal mine, its future pegged to that of the dwindling polar ice cap.
Of course, if the bell is tolling for the polar bear, it's tolling for us too. And judging from the recent polling statistics Time runs, that fact seems to be sinking in with most Americans. 85 percent now believe warming is real, and 80 percent believe humans are at least partly to blame for rising temperatures. If perception is reality (and certainly that's the case where politics is concerned), then that counts as progress.
As if to reflect that shift, Time devotes many more pages (and photos) to global warming in this issue than it did five years ago when the horizon for the kinds of radical changes now occurring was thought to be farther off. And in reading the two lead stories side by side it's interesting to note that, today, no ink is spilled for the skeptics. In 2001, global warming was still being talked about as a possible (perhaps even likely) scenario. Now, suddenly, it's a forgone conclusion and one that demands immediate action.
Of course, there's been none of that from Washington. In searching for positive steps toward confronting the crisis, the magazine has to turn elsewhere -- to carbon-conscious rock bands like Coldplay, innovative countries like Sweden and a movement by U.S. mayors to take the initiative in dealing with the problem (See the Sierra Club's Cool Cities Campaign to learn more).
It goes without saying that all such efforts are laudatory. If they are small steps, at least they are steps that strike out in the right direction. But one still has to worry and wonder whether far too little isn't happening too late.
Currently, the two-mile-thick Greenland ice sheet is fracturing in Manhattan-sized chunks (big enough to cause earthquakes), its glaciers moving oceanward at twice as fast as they were a decade ago. It appears certain that the North Pole will be ice-free in summers by mid-century. With the ice goes Earth's albedo, or reflectivity, which in turn leads to more warming -- a positive-feedback loop that would further accelerate warming.
I do not mean to sound alarmist, and in fact I still hold out a good deal of hope that we can get our act together in time. It's just that, in contemplating the future, it is not at all clear that time is on our side.