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The leaves came off the last trees — a crabapple, a willow and a hardy Norway maple — during the first week of December this year, surely the latest I can remember seeing leaves on trees since we moved to the Philadelphia area 18 years ago. But it’s not just that.
A rhododendron bush beside the house has huge blooms ready to burst open, the white petal tips pushing out of their scaly looking egg-sized buds. And our garden is still boasting a surprisingly fast-growing crop of chard, sweet kale and perhaps most surprisingly, tall fava bean plants that, while they didn’t produce any beans this year, saute up to make a beautiful doumiao — one of my favorite Chinese vegetable dishes.
On a micro level, it is nice to be able to harvest fresh veggies pest-free from our garden a few days before the new year (and, judging by the 10-day forecast, well into 2016!), thanks to our not having had one below-freezing day yet this fall and winter, and only a few nights when the temperature dipped into the high 20s, not enough to kill hardier vegetables like kale and chard. But viewed through a climate-change lens this is pretty scary.
Nobody can tell me that climate change is a hoax.
Oh sure, we could chalk this thus-far winterless winter in the northeastern US to El Niño, but that just dodges the reality that this year’s El Niño is the mother of all El Niños. And why is that? Warming oceans.
It could be that we’ll get some cold weather later this winter — perhaps another “polar vortex” like we had last year, but even that, remember, was easily attributable to even more dramatic warming that has been occurring in the far north, up above the Arctic Circle, where markedly higher temperatures have weakened the force of the Jet Stream, and made its globe-circling course much more erratic, including big loops down into the temperate zone, including the central and eastern US, where it brought us arctic winds and a lot of snow.
In Upstate New York friends say the evidence of climate change is also evident. In the East Branch of the Delaware River, famous among trout anglers, the water has gotten so warm in summer that the trout are dying off. Runs of American eel, which used to also populate the river in summer months before heading off to the Sargasso Sea to breed, are now also in a steep decline. Meanwhile an invasive species, the ash borer, is wiping out the region’s many ash trees — once the favored wood for American baseball bats like the Louisville Slugger, as well as for furniture. Local sawmills are buying up all the trees they can before they’re all killed off. With no severe winters to kill off the bugs, this devastating blight will likely see the ash tree go the way of the American elm and chestnut.
Birds, too, are vanishing from the arboreal forests up north. On a hike last summer, all I could hear or see were a few crows and bluejays, some starlings and sparrows, and a lone blue heron. That situation is the same down in our neighborhood north of Philadelphia. Where 18 years ago, our wooded 2-acre lot hosted everything from meadowlarks and bluebirds to orioles, cardinals and scarlet tanagers, along with the usual vultures, crows, jays, starlings, catbirds, wrens, sparrows, grackles, chickadees, nuthatches and the occasional woodpecker, now we see just catbirds, sparrows and starlings.
I read that the lack of snow up north is also proving dangerous for many species lower on the food chain. With no snow to hide in or to cover their tracks, it turns out that they are more easily trackable by foraging bears, coyotes and foxes. But things will be harder for the predators too: with warmer temperatures, I’m sure there will be more hunters coming up to the woods from city and suburb, so the number of bears, foxes, bobcats, coyotes and other animals killed will surely be higher than in the past.
One might think that these are changes we can adapt to. Here in southern Pennsylvania, we can plant trees in our yards that once belonged in the Carolinas — magnolias or even yucca palms, perhaps. We can switch from apple trees to peach trees. But the trouble is, climate change isn’t going to stop here. This is just the beginning.
Scientists tell us that the earth has warmed by about one degree Celsius (about two degrees Fahrenheit) since the dawn of the industrial age, when humans began seriously burning fossil fuels. That rise, in other words, took about two centuries. Now we’re looking at another one-to-four degrees Centigrade rise within this century!, with the amount of increase depending upon whether or not we act decisively to not just slow but to cut our production of greenhouse gasses.
On the available evidence, things don’t look very promising. The Paris Conference on Climate, which saw politicians congratulating themselves for finally “taking action,” did adopt a goal of limiting temperature rise this century to 1.5°C but there are some serious problems with that. First of all, thanks to intense pressure — let’s be honest and call it an ultimatum — coming from the US and some other countries, there is no penalty for a country that fails to do so. And in any event that 1.5°C limit in itself, even if achieved, would be sufficient to ignite events, like the unleashing of frozen methane in the Arctic permafrost and sub-Arctic Ocean, and the complete melting of the Arctic Ocean’s summer sea ice, which together will generate global heating that would dwarf efforts by the more populated parts of the world to keep temperatures in check.
We can already see the results of our inaction in the form of this current unprecedentedly extreme El Niño, which is clearly the result of a warming Pacific Ocean. The El Niño itself is a kind of feedback loop which, in producing warmer and drier weather across North America, is reducing snowpacks and reflectivity, further contributing to global warming.
There was a commercial years ago by Chiffon margarine in which a woman dressed as Mother Nature would get tricked into not knowing the difference between the synthetic product (which was actually pretty awful!) and real butter. Tricked, the faux goddess of nature would erupt in anger and order up a thunderstorm, warning ominously, “It’s not nice to fool Mother Nature!”
What the world leaders and their negotiating teams have done at COP21 in Paris is exactly that though — they are trying to fool both nature and their respective citizens into thinking that they are serious about addressing the crisis of climate change when they are really not. This is particularly true in the case of the US, which has been the major single contributor to climate change as the world’s largest industrial nation, and which even today, after being passed as a greenhouse gas producer by China, is still responsible for about 16% of the world’s annual production of greenhouse gasses. (Actually, one could argue that the US remains the largest producer of greenhouse gasses, since much of the CO2 produced by China can be attributed to the manufacturing of materials and products that are then sold, and shipped, to customers in the US, and that many of the companies that are making all the junk we buy, whether in China or India or Indonesia or Nigeria, are US firms that have offshored their production facilities).
There is a massive game of deception being played on the public, not just here in the US, but globally, in which political leaders are claiming that we can have it all: reductions in carbon emissions and a continued consumer-driven lifestyle based upon forever buying more stuff and tossing out the things that are out of style, in need of repair, or simply considered obsolete.
The level of denial is simply appalling. In southern Florida, which will likely return to being what it once was — a giant coral reef — by the end of this century, huge resort hotels are still being constructed right near the ocean, and people are still buying homes that they will not be able to pass on to their children or grandchildren. The same is true along the Carolina Outer Banks, around the Chesapeake Bay and on Cape Cod.
In New York City and New Orleans, both of which cities saw the future when they were battered and flooded by huge hurricanes over the past decade, little or nothing has been done to confront the reality that much of their respective infrastructure is going to be permanently inundated by century’s end. In New York, that includes the entire financial district, with its billions of dollars worth of towering office buildings.
Meanwhile in Washington, DC (itself doomed to be swallowed up by a rising sea), Republican know-nothings are blocking any action at all on climate change, while President Obama and the Democrats, in thrall to their own brand of know-nothing neoliberals, are promoting mindless wars abroad and unprecedented spending on the military, as though the biggest threat the US and the world face is a bunch of crazed Muslim fanatics with AK rifles in the deserts of Syria and Iraq.
I suppose with all this madness, I could just throw up my hands and say, okay, I’m 66. Even if I stay really healthy and live to 100, I’m not going to have the sea at my doorstep before I kick the bucket. At least I’ll be warm and my heating bills will be manageable even on my Social Security check. But then there are my kids, and perhaps future grandchildren, and all the other young people I see running around. What about them and their future? And what about all the wonderful nature that, in all its myriad splendor and variety, has evolved over hundreds of thousands or millions of years to live in the current environment. These numberless species of flora and fauna are simply incapable of quickly evolving to be able to survive in a world that is two or even four or six degrees Celsius hotter than today. They must either move or die, and for most it will be the latter.
The world, of course, which has survived catastrophic collisions with asteroids and comets, mega eruptions of volcanos, and epic ice ages, one of which almost turned the planet into a permanent ball of ice, will survive, as will some forms of life. And life being as dogged about survival as it clearly is, it will eventually settle into some kind of new “normal,” and the process of evolution and adaptation will recreate some semblance of the magnificent diversity that the biosphere shows today. But it seems clear that the planet’s short-lived experiment with super intelligence is going to end badly.
Kurt Vonnegut, in his prophetic novel Galapagos, suggested that nature had made a wrong turn with the evolution of an overly intelligent ape. He may have been right. Or maybe the experiment just didn’t go far enough. We Homo sapiens evolved to an unprecedented level of intellect, reason and self-awareness, but we didn’t evolve far enough to get past our more animal natures. It’s one thing, for example, to defend territory when you’re a wolf pack or a cougar relying on tooth and claw, but quite another if you defend it with napalm and atomic bombs. It’s one thing to eat the bark off of a cherry tree, killing it, if you are a hungry deer trying to make it through the winter, but another if you take a chainsaw and cut down a whole forest to make houses, furniture and paper products.
Whatever, it appears increasingly unlikely that humanity will prove capable of confronting and addressing the self-destructive climate-change catastrophe that it has created. In that case, perhaps the best response remaining is to adopt the attitude Vonnegut expressed earlier in his weird autobiographical novel Slapstick! Confronted by the painful realities of life, Vonnegut (who as a prisoner of war in Dresden, which was pummeled and burned to the ground days of bombing with high explosives and incendiary bombs dropped by British and US bomber squadrons, experienced mankind at its worst), offered up his response to the insanity: a simple “hi-ho.”