This was not on purpose. “Global climate warming,” writes journalist Lynda Mapes, author of Witness Tree, “is the greatest unintended consequence of human history.” What we’ve set loose boggles any mind susceptible to fact-based reality. But if we don’t do something now, something very big and very fast, it could be our last unintended consequence. And “we” means the innocent victims, who by inaction are about to become as guilty as any oil exec since Exxon switched from Enlightened Energy Shepherd to Apologist in Chief for Big Oil.
To change course is not going to be easy. We’re struggling against deep, hard-wired, genetically determinative impulses in our species for growth, for comfort, for pleasure, for security, and against authority. This last is probably the most undermining. Nobody likes being told what to do, and just when they are holding in their hands what they have always wanted and believe like pilgrims that they fully deserve. We have to subsume all that, bury it, and fall back on herd instinct, our survival impulse toward mutually advantageous community.
Where we went wrong was not in exploiting coal and oil, but in bingeing on it.
LOCAL CLIMATE CHANGE: WHAT’S LIKELY?
Around here, the biggest weather maker is the jet stream. It, in turn, is influenced by activity on the ground and in the layers beneath its usual beat at thirty to thirty-five thousand feet. The biggest changes here have been deforestation, crop rotation, urban sprawl, species decline and with it permanent damage to biodiversity, pollution of course, and lately the rapid decline of the annual Arctic ice sheet, exposing more and more dark water every decade. Dark absorbs energy, white ice and snow reflect it. It’s as if a baseball manager not only pulled a good pitcher too soon, the guy he replaced him with today has a noodle for an arm, doubling his mistake.
This ice loss is already having an effect on the jet. It is oscillating more and the oscillations are wider, making the meteorologist’s job a lot tougher. It means more intense storms (though not necessarily more storms in total), more unpredictability, more last minute changes in forecasts. The warming trend means warmer, shorter winters and hotter, longer summers, but also more uncertainty. The warmer atmosphere is more turbulent. Since the first Iraq War in 1990, the growing season in the North East has extended a month, starting two weeks earlier and lasting two weeks longer. Not predictably yet—the risk of a rogue frost killing an earlier planting is still too great for many farmers—but that will change.
Along with more violent storms, climatologists say the Northeast will be wetter. Again, in view of more turbulent air, this doesn’t guarantee fewer droughts. It might mean deeper droughts with heavy protracted periods of rain before and after. Imagine being hit with no mere gullywasher but an aqueous hell that lasts for weeks, turning this piece of the temperate zone into a swampy, drenched, mildewed mess.
COPING STRATEGIES: WE NEED ‘EM
Adaptability means adjusting successfully to circumstance, the way a batter figures out a pitcher’s tactics and rhythms, or a pastry chef habituates to a different town’s tastes, elevation, and humidity. To an evolutionist, it means a permanent fix passed on to descendants genetically. We are the most adaptable species on earth, except for simpler organisms such as viruses and archaea. We don’t yet need to adjust genetically, but our epigenetic selves are taking stock and readying the human genome to adjust to a new environment—if it can.
Resilience means several things that boil down to what will last under difficult circumstances. This requires strength; it demands character; it requires being both flexible and adaptable; it demands endurance; it rewards creativity.
Mitigation means lessening, diminishing, blunting, weakening, or diverting what’s harmful. It stems from the latin verb mitigare, to soften, and is a stage of managing a crisis or reducing risk. As Bill Gates says, we pretty much know what these measures are, we just have to do them. But they alone won’t get us to net-zero and below. We’ll have to take on the big, industrial, ingrained economic sources of carbon emissions: metal- and cement-making, hydrocarbon cracking, oil and gas drilling, lumber harvesting, animal agriculture. They eat huge amounts of energy and emit vast quantities of CO2. People like Bill Gates confidently predict technological ingenuity will solve the problem. Given that technology has played no small role in facilitating our current situation, we’ll need additional solutions, and a big one has to be a psychological and cultural adjustment in how we define our most fundamental societal goals such as professional success, the good life, and material prosperity.
Or, we could just see the human project as a phase. In the geological record it will register as a thin, faint, dark layer, a pencil line. The earth has absorbed a few global-warming events in the past. Our climate is precariously balanced. Just a few years ago—15,000 to be more precise—North America from the Ohio Valley north, including New York, Boston, and the Great Lakes, was covered in thousands of feet of ice. From space Earth’s north looked like a Jovian moon. It’s possible, if we work together, that we can stabilize the place before that happens again.
1The term “warming” is no more applicable to the current situation than it is to pot of water rising to a boil.
2The variegated life of planet earth has to be able to trust, at a genetic level (and on a quasi-metaphysical plane), that the decisions made to produce us during billions of years of evolutionary growth were not in vain. Otherwise, life on Earth may have to evolve a different sapiens.