Spring has come a month early to interior Southern New England, and that’s after the winter that wasn’t. In the Northeast several consecutive winters that included periods of intense cold and snow had lulled us into thinking that we were experiencing “old-fashioned weather” despite global warming. Many did not realize that the weather pattern of those winters concealed ongoing climatic warming. This year’s weather pattern maximized the impact of climate change and the vast majority of North America experienced the result. (I’m not surprised by this turn of events. I’ve been studying the weather since I was eight years old, so I knew that a winter like this was an inevitable by-product of accelerating climate change.)
My awareness of weather in the eastern United States since the 1950’s enables me to report with confidence that this winter in the Connecticut River Valley of western Massachusetts has been similar to what people in interior Virginia experienced in the late 1960’s. That’s a 500-mile climate shift northward in less than 50 years. Of course, this year’s winter has not become the average – yet. However, it provided a preview of what I believe will become the “norm” in 25 years. Some may relish this prospect, but I find it ominous.
I’ve written here before that I think of our atmosphere as a pot of simmering water on a stove. The sun is the burner adding energy to the system. The water’s swirls and bubbles are our air currents, fronts and storms. The increase in greenhouse gases in our atmosphere acts as an insulating barrier trapping energy within the system. Injecting those gases into the air produces the same result as putting a lid on a simmering pot: We know that if we don’t reduce the heat, the water quickly comes to a boil.
Human activity has acted as that cover for some time now. More energy trapped in the system not only generates more heat, it also creates bigger disturbances. We see more wildly fluctuating weather that, while warmer as a whole, can also produce some life-threatening snow and cold, like what happened this winter in Eastern Europe.
Rapid climate change in any direction stresses plant and animal communities. More erratic weather exacerbates this problem and reduces the productive capacity of all ecosystems. Given that our population of seven billion is already overburdening those systems, this is a recipe for catastrophe. Desertification, ocean acidification, water contamination and resource depletion only make it worse. We need to come to grips with the fact that if we don’t shift course soon, in just a few decades our planet will only be able to support a tiny fraction of today’s human population.
Those of us who foresee unprecedented disasters racing toward us are trying to sound the alarm, but for several reasons we are finding it extremely difficult to convince and move people.
- First, the most powerful forces in our society are employing a very sophisticated and effective brain-washing (a.k.a advertising) campaign to convince the public that we are spewing alarmist nonsense.
- Second, it is a cornerstone of fundamentalist Christian ideology that God made the Earth for human exploitation, and that ecological concerns are the devil-inspired lies of secular humanists
- Third, people really don’t want what we are saying to be true. What they see around them doesn’t look so bad and they are reluctant to make changes, particularly if that includes sacrifices.
- Finally (and I doubt this is an exhaustive list), many thoughtful people are so overwhelmed by the enormity of the problem that they simply can’t figure out what to do.
I admit that I don’t really know what to do either. I know, however, that ignoring the problem and doing nothing is not the right course of action. I know we need to talk about it. Talking alone is not the solution, so it is just a start.
How many of us predicted the explosion of activism that took place in 2011? How many of us know what spark might awaken millions, even tens of millions, more to the approaching danger. Not having a complete solution doesn’t mean we have no answers whatsoever and it is no excuse for silence. We know we must drastically reduce our consumption of hydro-carbons and that the militaries of the world are the biggest hydro-carbon gluttons. We know we must re-order our society’s priorities away from consumption and growth and toward conservation and sustainability. We know that such a basic shift will require cooperative action that is incompatible with capitalist competition. Finally, we have a vibrant new mass movement in Occupy Wall Street that already embraces the gist of these ideals.
The forces arrayed against us are very powerful, and the activism needed to avert environmental Armageddon is going to be tough, but it is far from hopeless. Anyway, unlike what Marx wrote about workers and their chains, we’ve got everything to lose if we don’t.
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