OUR CLIMATE

Climate Crisis

The coming climate emergency is here

We are colliding with a future of extremes. We base all our choices about risk management on what’s occurred in the past, and that’s no longer a safe guide.
—Alice Hill, senior fellow for climate change policy, Council on Foreign Relations, 1-21-20

By now, two-thirds of Americans give some credence to global warming, or to use a more accurate term, climate chaos. They are aware it is a threat to our “way of life.” They want their elected officials to do something about it.  

What science has been promising since the early 1980s, and hinting at since the 1880s—a more tumultuous and dangerous climate—is crowding the edge of our reality. We should no longer speak of it in the future tense.

And now that for the moment at least rational leaders are back in charge of the American enterprise, the true battle to save the evolved life of our planet, what’s left of the natural world we have so carelessly and wantonly exploited, and the biodiversity we fundamentally depend on, must re-commence, with not a moment to waste. 

Fortunately, we know in the short term what must be done. We must dramatically reduce, each and every one of us, the carbon we release into our air. The first goal as a species is net zero, meaning we stop making it any worse. We start by doing so as individuals. Then collectively we have to wring enough carbon out of the air to restore some semblance of order. The storms have to get smaller and briefer. The flooding and wildfires have to be rare again. The coral reefs, great source of much of the ocean’s life, need to regrow what has been lost to heat bleaching and acidification. We broke it, we have to fix it.

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.

People have a hard time feeling global warming, unless they are experiencing a climate catastrophe. Graphically, it is straightforward: Earth is cooking.
Data is from the insurance company Munich Re, a professional worrier about the climate crisis, and clearly with good reason.

North East / Millerton and New York State Join Forces

New York is among the leading states in the nation to address global warming. It has codified into law ambitious deadlines for achieving net-zero greenhouse-gas emissions by 2050, starting with carbon-free (no fossil fuels) grid electricity by 2040.

Our State has backed up this rigorous schedule with well-thought-out programs and generous financial incentives so even small communities across the state can mitigate climate change locally, adapt to rising temperatures and more severe weather, and make themselves sturdily climate resilient.

Here are two state programs our community has embraced – the Task Force is tasked with coordinating them.

New York State Climate Smart Community Program

In 2018, the Town of North East and the Village of Millerton jointly signed a pledge, along with hundreds of other municipalities around New York State, to develop community-wide climate mitigation strategies and improve sustainability. This lengthy, detailed, and intensive program rewards us when we take specific actions toward the overall goals of climate resiliency and green energy and helps pay for pieces of the process if we quality, at the core of which are commitments to take climate risk seriously and do our part. Taking climate very seriously is our appointed Climate Smart Task Force; doing our part is up to all of us. Read more here.

NYSERDA Clean Energy Communities Program

The state’s clean energy program supports efforts local communities make toward clean energy, first by focusing their efforts in directions with a high degree of success, and second with grant money selected applicants receive for new clean-energy projects. Our community’s record of receiving and delivering on grant awards is outstanding; we look forward to taking full advantage of this program to continue our leadership in climate mitigation and resiliency.  Learn more about this program here.

Mitigation and Resilience

Three Serious Approaches to Our Climate Crisis, with Varying Emphases on Mitigation and Resilience

“We basically have three choices: mitigation, adaptation, and suffering. We’re going to do some of each. The question is what the mix is going to be.”

John Holdren, author of this stark assessment, is a chaired professor of the Harvard Kennedy School, has been a top science advisor to Presidents Obama and Clinton, head of Woods Hole Research Center, and began his career as a theoretical physicist at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory. 

Not many have the benefit of Holdren’s grasp of the fullness of our climate crisis. And while more people are coming around to the idea that we must do something—or the government must do something—enough skepticism and outright climate denial remains that this situation itself has become a big research topic.

One team of researchers led by Matthew J. Hornsey has examined what makes people more inclined to think they can address climate change. It’s not education or information; plausibly, they found, it is “surprisingly difficult to change [perceptions] through explicit verbal instruction,” but that people are “responsive to imagery” and to “climate-related distress and threat.” Of Holdren’s three choices, then, the prospect of suffering is likely to be more motivating.

This is both good and bad news for three new bestsellers about climate solutions. Bill Gates, renowned technologist, philanthropist, and world’s number two rich person, says in How to Avoid Climate Disaster (Knopf, 2021) that we already know how to mitigate the climate crisis—stop emitting greenhouse gases in our daily lives. The big challenge is to reinvent how we make the fundamental stuff of modern life such as cement and steel. But, as you might expect from the most successful inventor of all time, he thinks we humans are up to the task. Technological ingenuity will emerge. But he also has high hopes for geoengineering, to which he has given serious money. Climatologist Michael Mann calls these “dangerous techno-fixes”; others warn this is trifling with our biosphere with no sense of the consequences. Gates does not dismiss such worries. Here he is in a thoughtful interview.

David Pogue’s How to Prepare for Climate Change addresses the first part of Gate’s equation. A longtime technology columnist for the New York Times and book author, he prescribes more adaptation than mitigation, offering deeply researched guidance about how we should ready ourselves for the climate chaos ahead. Pogue walks readers through what to grow, what to eat, how to build, how to insure, where to invest, how to prepare children and pets, and if you’re now living in a high-risk zone—this area is not, at least for now—where to consider relocating ahead of time. For a preview, see Pogue’s talk at the Salisbury Forum while on book tour, during which his sense of humor enjoyed a bit freer rein than his prose: “The greenhouse effect is a terrible name. It should be the dog-in-the-car effect, the dog being us.” 

A third book is by Michael Mann, professor, research climatologist, author of several climate books, and inadvertent climate warrior against fossil-fuel shills in and out of Congress, who have attacked him without mercy and have tried to destroy his career. The New Climate War: Fighting to Take Back Our Planet (Public Affairs, 2021) details how the oil industry has both persuaded much of the world and the media that climate change is no big deal and anyway the onus is on us, the consumer, to lower carbon emissions. This is a particularly devious move, he says, in fact a deflection strategy, so we expend all our energy on small-scale efforts and have none left for culture-changing moves that will hurt Big Oil like a carbon tax. He nevertheless finds reasons for hope and even optimism on several fronts. If there’s an upside of the devastating Covid-19 pandemic, he says, it’s that the credibility of science is on the rise, and that’s a fundamental condition for the real change needed to take on the climate crisis.