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Revenge of the Tundra

It was a beautiful early summer day in May. I joined a few boardmembers from our local land trust as we car-pooled to Brunswick for Maine’s annual land conservation conference. We disappeared into the bowels of the large high school for a day of presentations, workshops, and “networking.”

I tend not to “do well” at such events, unable to restrain myself from openly questioning central, comforting assumptions that are usually the basis for earnest collegial intercourse. Being a squeaker is often passingly unpleasant for both squeeker and squeekees. Alas.

So it went in the workshop on “Advanced Strategies for Farmland Protection,” where the effervescent presenter delivered a confidently upbeat message based in part on the number of youngish Maine people who were now or would soon be “farmers.”

“How do you define ‘farmer?’” I quibbled.

He noted that the State ranks one a farmer if one produces $2,000 worth of something agricultural, including material consumed by the household, annually. Hence, this rising tide of “farmers” likely must rely on non-farm day-jobs. Typically, the catastrophic economics of farming were inappropriate to the workshop— family farming’s relentlessly non-profit status an unacknowledged and inconvenient elephant-in-the-room. The chirpy strategies under discussion, I (perhaps uncharitably) suggested, amounted to “putting lipstick on a zombie.”

The last workshop series offered various topics including, “The Land Conservation Response to Climate Change: Adaptation Strategies.” The small group attending heard Andrew Whitman of the Manomet Center discuss the recent (un-newsworthy) University of Maine climate report. But Mr. Whitman signaled that he might know more than he was letting on, especially with his repeated references to the “five stages of grief.” This so-called “Kubler-Ross” syndrome describing personal adaptation to “terminal illness or catastrophic loss” punctuated the talk as Whitman gently acknowledged that there appeared to be no going back to the familiar climate regime underwriting the development of human society.

Beyond tacit expressions of personal grief, there were no alarms, no stark warning of cataclysms to come. Yet, based on the emphatic, though largely unreported urgings of NASA’s James Hansen and the increasingly unnerving wave of new evidence showing climate events rapidly outpacing earlier predictions, I wondered aloud whether a less moderate presentation might be warranted. After all, trust organizations are chartered, in part, as having an educational mission. And if things were getting as dire as Hansen and others who understood the primary science were lamenting, shouldn’t we be talking openly about that?

Whitman nodded sympathetically and said that he had considered giving such a talk, but had decided against it. Yet, here was a likely supportive crowd, I continued, perhaps more open than most to hearing some blunt appraisal, and perhaps institutionally given to considering longer term issues. Surely this was a group of grown-ups who could take whatever he might dish out.

As I pressed my request for candor, people turned around in their seats, curious at who this ill-mannered intruder might be. It’s a common reaction. Alack.

We cruised back home, and that evening, as darkness fell I liberated carbon, coaxing a relic tractor (2 years younger than its operator) over April-planted corn and peas. Later that night a colleague sent me a link to a You Tube fragment: Part of a talk given by Ken Ward. The subject was climate change and the apparent structural inability of environmental, political, or societal institutions to deal with (or even acknowledge) the problem.

Ward, who toiled for decades inside major national enviro outfits, told me today that he was booked at Tufts University to give a short talk — the usual Power Point deal — as part of a panel on climate change. But, he said, “I’ve been giving 20 minute talks for 20 years,” to little effect. Driven by the emerging bad news, he chucked the canned presentation and offered a bracing and candid appraisal.

He spoke the unspeakable, telling the assembled, “I am essentially saying what everybody really kinda knows (or many people kinda know). But we have no way of saying that in public because our leadership, and our organizations, and our structure is based on raising money and being “positive” and optimistic. And we have a whole set of polls going back 20 years that say if we tell people the truth it will bum them out. So we don’t tell the truth. So as a result nobody knows what’s going on and we’re f**ked.”

The scale and rapidity of climate warming and glacial melting rapidly escalates. As forests turn from carbon sinks to carbon emitters, long-frozen methane deposits boil out of arctic seabeds and tundra, polar areas turn from reflective white to absorbent blue/ brown / green, and other “positive feedback loops” gather force, the prospect of an iceless planet begins to heave into view.

Ward cautioned that based a now easily foreseeable 3 to 4 degrees Centigrade global temperature increase, “The (resultant) amounts of sea level rise are humongous… simply beyond what civilization can sustain … losing 50 percent of species … Hollywood movie-type stuff.”

University of South Florida academic Martin Schonfeld describes the increasingly unstable ice sheet regime as “poised to lurch.” He notes the cascading sea level-rise (SLR) effects of melting the main planetary ice sheets: “West Antarctica = 19ft SLR, Greenland = 24ft SLR, East Antarctica = 170ft SLR.”

Losing all three ice shields, Schonfeld calculates, takes the oceans up 213 feet: “Think Statue of Liberty up to her neck in water.”

Can we talk?

RICHARD RHAMES is a dirt-farmer in Biddeford, Maine (just north of the Kennebunkport town line). He can be reached at: rrhames@xpressamerica.net

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RICHARD RHAMES is a dirt-farmer in Biddeford, Maine (just north of the Kennebunkport town line). He can be reached at: rrhames@xpressamerica.net

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