I’m not getting any younger. And my two boys have grown up (more or less) and moved out of the house. So, last fall I decided to buy myself a snowblower, just a modest battery-powered one. Something to spare my creaky back and protect my all-too-sedentary ticker. There’s no good way to die, but keeling over while shoveling snow is one way I’d like to avoid. Quick, yes, but rather ignominious.
It’s now well into the following spring, with cardinals singing in the blooming redbuds, and I never did have to use that snowblower. Except for a quick test run to figure out how it works, I didn’t even turn it on. It’s still shiny new.
Now I realize one mild winter in Nebraska does not a global climate crisis make, but it fits an ongoing planetary pattern. The scientists tell us 2016 was the hottest year on record, with record low levels of polar ice and a continued rise in sea levels. And, sigh, the ecological collapse of the Great Barrier Reef, one of the world’s most precious ecosystems, has surged. The trend continues into 2017, with this February being the second hottest ever recorded. Well at least it’s not the hottest, you say; no, the hottest February was last year’s.
Some of the smartest people in the world (think NASA planetary scientists) using some of the most powerful computers ever made (a supercomputer that runs 1.5 quadrillion calculations per second) are sure the planet’s climate is changing, and changing rapidly. And they’re sure that we humans are to blame.
But you don’t have to be a NASA geek with a ridiculous computer to understand what’s going on. The cause is simple to grasp for anyone who bothers to try, a matter of fifth-grade Earth Science: Sunlight passes through the atmosphere and strikes the Earth, and some of it is converted into warmth. The Earth’s atmosphere traps some of that warmth before it bounces back into space and so keeps us nice and toasty. But not too toasty. It’s often called the greenhouse effect. Some of the gases in the atmosphere, in particular carbon dioxide (CO2) and methane, are especially good at keeping the warmth in. Millions of years ago, the atmosphere had more of those gases, and the planet was a lot warmer. Over the eons, those gases were absorbed by plants and other organisms, and slowly buried deep underground. Those deposits turned into coal, oil, and natural gas. (That’s why we call them fossil fuels.) They are solar energy, bonded with CO2, stored underground. As these gases were removed from the atmosphere by plants all those millions of years ago, the level of CO2 declined, and as a result, the planet cooled over eons, to create the comfortable temperatures and climate we have enjoyed for the past tens of thousands of years.
Being clever animals, however, who like to play with fire, we discovered that we could get those fossil fuels out of the ground and burn them to release that stored energy to do things we like to do, like travel at high speeds or keep our houses warm. Sounds great, except for one big problem. When these fuels burn, not only do they release the stored solar energy to work for us but they also release the trapped carbon dioxide back into the atmosphere. And like with a greenhouse, if you increase the efficiency of the insulation (adding CO2 to the atmosphere) but don’t reduce the amount of sunlight getting through, the greenhouse gets warmer. And that’s what’s happening to our planet. Simple.
As I write this, current CO2 levels now exceed 400 parts per million (407.2 to be exact). It’s been a long time since CO2 levels have been so high, a real long time. When I was born, the level was around 350 ppm. At the start of the Industrial Revolution, around 1800, the level was 280 ppm, where it had hovered for tens of thousands of years.
Of course, it’s hard to measure what the atmosphere was like not just thousands but many millions of years ago, but the current best estimates are that the last time there was this much CO2 in the atmosphere was somewhere between 3 and 25 million years ago. It was a much warmer planet then, and the sea level was roughly 100 feet higher than it is now, with no polar ice caps. And, worth noting, no human beings. As a species we have never lived on such a planet.
In August of last year, in Cape Town, South Africa, a gathering of scientists—the impressively named International Geological Congress—recommended that, because of human-caused climate change and numerous other effects of our presence on the planet (a massive wave of species extinctions, plastic pollution, deforestation, atomic testing, planet-wide landscape changes wrought by agriculture, industry, river damming, etc., and alas, etc.), planet Earth has entered a new geological era. We have moved from the Holocene, the epoch that has lasted roughly 12,000 years since the end of the Ice Ages, to a new epoch, dubbed the Anthropocene, the age of humans. It’s our age, but we shouldn’t be too proud.
Climate change isn’t something that’s going to happen in the distant future. It’s happening now, and the signs are all around us.
- The average global temperature has risen 1.5 degrees F over the past 100 years, and the pace is increasing
- The timing of plant bloomings have changed
- Plant “hardiness zones” have shifted northward
- Migratory birds are arriving at breeding grounds earlier in the season
- Tropical diseases are spreading into new ranges
- Most glaciers are in rapid retreat
- The oceans are warming and acidifying, the ice caps are melting, Greenland is melting, the West Antarctic ice sheet is melting, the Great Barrier Reef is dying
- Sea level is rising
- And my snow blower sits in the garage unused
The Great Plains are famously an area of climate and weather extremes, and things are going to get more extreme.
- More frequent and more severe droughts
- More frequent and more intense storms with increased levels of flooding and hail damage
- More days over 100 degrees in the summer
- Increased demand on already depleting groundwater to irrigate crops
- More damaging insects surviving the milder winters, increasing their numbers
- More frequent and more intense wildfires
- An increase in invasive species and an overall decline in native species
- Out-of-sync timing between bird migrations and plant development and insect emergence
- A shifting of agricultural zones northward: more sorghum, less corn
- A less predictable climate for agricultural planning
- Increased threats to already at-risk species
We mock climate change deniers for being foolish flat-earther types, belligerent yahoo rednecks, or downright villainous oil industry tycoons and their minions. Fair enough. They deserve ridicule. But are we smug ones, we who accept the reality that the climate is changing due to human influence, really so different? We know better, but do we act better? That is, do we lead our lives as though we were in the midst of a planetary catastrophe of our own making? Or do we live as if, for all practical purposes, we were climate change deniers? Admit it, for the most part that’s what we do. We’re all in denial.
Given that the new regime in Washington, DC, is in full retreat on protecting our environment, we can’t look to the federal government for help. They are all too intent on making things worse. Much worse. The restarting of the Keystone XL pipeline project is a good example. Scientists tell us continued mining and burning of Canadian tar sands, which the pipeline is designed to facilitate, will be a calamity for the climate. We must resist it at every stage of the process. Fortunately (I guess), we in Nebraska are well positioned to do so. We will have plenty of opportunities to block this project once again. We should embrace the challenge. It sounds overly dramatic I know, but in a very real sense the fight against Keystone XL is the front line in the battle to save the planet.
Instead of a coherent national and global strategy to combat climate change, led by smart, courageous political leaders informed by the best of science, we have, well, you know what we have. Sigh. So, we’ll need to stumble into the Anthropocene as best we can. Which means mostly we’ll need to work locally. Here are a few easy but useful things most of us can do:
- Get a clothesline. Use it. You don’t need to use it every time you do laundry, but frequently enough to make a difference.
- Get a bike. Or pull the old one out of storage and tune it up. Use it. And not just for recreational cycling. There’s nothing wrong with that, but unless you are replacing car trips with bike trips, you’re not doing anything to help the environment. Bike to work, bike to stores, bike to restaurants, bike to visit friends. Don’t worry if you get a bit sweaty.
- Support improvement in biking infrastructure, like off-street trails and bike parking racks. Be happy to pay more taxes to supply these things.
- Keep your house a bit cooler in the winter and a bit warmer in the summer. You’ll live.
- Drive less, and when you replace your car, get one with better mileage.
- Eat less industrial meat. Eat more local grass-fed meat. You don’t need to go full vegan (unless you want to) but just cut back on the industrial meat. It will be good for your health too. And better for the animals.
- Eat more local foods in general. You don’t have to go gonzo 100 percent locavore, but just increase the percent of local foods in your diet. Local food tastes better too. Farmers market season is upon us.
- Plant more prairie. Tear out some of your lawn. Deep-rooted prairie plants trap carbon in the ground, provide habitat for many species like endangered bees, look lovely, and don’t require fertilizer (so keeping it out of our waterways) or need watering (so preserving that precious resource). Watering lawns should be stigmatized. Brilliant emerald grass is a badge of shame. Don’t like the look of browner yards? Get over it.
- Never ever vote for a candidate who denies the reality of human-caused climate change. Ever. Only vote for candidates for every office at every level who get it and are committed to doing something about it.
- Make your voice heard. Sign up for an action alert. When asked to call or write your senator or congressperson or other government representative, do it.
- Write letters to the editor.
- Join a few environmental groups. Where to start? These are the groups that sued Trump to block the Keystone XL pipeline: Center for Biological Diversity, Sierra Club, Friends of the Earth, Natural Resources Defense Council, Bold Alliance, Northern Plains Resource Council. Join at least one of these groups. (I belong to several.) Send them money. They are up against the wealthiest people on the planet (really), people who are now in control of all three branches of the US government. They could use a bit of cash to fight the good fight.
- Attend every rally and other event for the environment you can. Show up. Numbers matter.
- Organize against the Keystone XL pipeline. Be prepared to put your body on the line if that’s what it comes to.
A list like this can be endless, but you get the idea. As you’ll note, I’m fine with partial measures. As I’ve gotten older, I’ve realized that the perfect is indeed the enemy of the good enough. If you tell people that the only thing we can do to avert climate change is to quit eating meat, quit driving cars, quit flying planes, quit buying techno-gadgets, well, most folks won’t bother. So, you don’t need to be vegan, just cut down on the meat you eat. You don’t need to never drive a car, just drive less. In my view it’s better for a lot of people to do a little than for a few people to do a lot. And more likely too.
Here’s one way to think about it: If even a few of the predictions for climate change and the other calamities of the Anthropocene come true, our descendants (and many of the other living things on the planet) are in for a very rough time. Imagine them looking back at us from their depleted and treacherous planet and wondering: What the hell were we thinking? What were those people (us) back there in the early years of the 21st century doing to stop this catastrophe? Why weren’t they mustering every intellectual, political, economic, artistic, cultural, and personal resources to stop this catastrophe? It’s a good question. Why aren’t we?