Tag Archive 'global warming'

Dec 07 2015

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Reflections on Climate Change

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images-4I stepped outdoors a few minutes ago to clear my head after working all morning. I marveled at the unseasonable weather. Temps are well above freezing today, and there’s no snow in my back yard. Here in northern New England, this kind of warmth in December is rare indeed.

Weather fluctuates, of course, so what changes from one year to the next is no big deal. But when long term patterns develop, it’s time to pay attention.

Scientists tell us that 40% of the ice covering the Arctic Sea has melted away since the 1970s. Northern nations are scrambling to lay claim to oil deposits there, which are fast becoming accessible. What’s that tell you?

Skeptics insist that we don’t know enough about climate science to say for certain that the planet is warming up due to human activity. That may be true. But certainty in science takes an awful long time to establish.

Prophets of doom say we’d better do something before it’s too late. Two degrees Celsius is the magic number. Once the overall temperature of the planet rises that much, all hell will break loose. We are now halfway there.

Some people see the ongoing climate change as the end of nature as we know it. The key phrase here is “as we know it.” Nature will persist long after humankind is gone, even if we take millions of other species with us into extinction. The age and scale of the cosmos assures us of that.

So the real question is this: What happens to us in the interim, as the climate changes? More importantly, should I as an individual give a damn about anyone else living or not yet born?

Representatives from most of the nations in the world are currently meeting in Paris to draft a universal and binding agreement on climate change. Is that even possible?

What can we do? More to the point: What are we willing to do? Is it fair for rich nations to dictate policy to populous industrializing nations just now starting to obtain the kind of material well being that Westerners have enjoyed for well over a century?

These matters are too much for a woods wanderer like myself to wrap my brain around. I know my own nature, but that doesn’t necessarily mean I know human nature. And all rhetoric aside, that’s what our talk of addressing climate change is really about. What we can do will be determined by what we are.

 

 

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Oct 27 2011

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Hard Choices

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Critics here in Vermont say that the huge wind turbines atop our beloved Green Mountains are not just an eyesore, they kill birds and disrupt the forest ecology as well. Solar power is viable as long as the sun is shining, but it’s expensive, isn’t it? Biofuels threaten our food supply. Hydro power screws up our streams. Coal and oil are both dirty, of course. Natural gas is clean, as fossil fuels go, but fracking pollutes the ground water. Nuclear power is both clean and cheap… until the plants leak and it’s time to shut them down. Burning wood is great until you run out of trees. So what does that leave? Tidal power? Hydrogen? Cold fusion?

Have to get our power from somewhere. There are seven billion people on the planet and counting. The demand for power is growing much faster in industrializing countries like India and China than it is in the highly consumptive West. In the near future, humanity will need more power, not less. So where are we going to get it?

Climate change is the sword of Damocles hanging over us. The more we mess with Mother Nature, the more she messes with us. It’s just a matter of time before all hell breaks loose. Can we avoid global catastrophe? Collectively we seem to lack the political will to do so. Besides, denial runs strong and deep among those who immediately benefit from the status quo, and they cast just enough doubt on the subject to keep the rest of us complacent.  More to the point, it’s hard for the average person to think beyond what he or she is paying at the gas pump.

So what are we to do? Gnash our teeth and say we’re all doomed? Protest our least favorite energy source? Blame those whose economies are stronger than ours? Simply ignore the situation?

Clearly we have plenty of choices, there’s just no perfect solution. The big question is this: Do we have moral courage enough to make the best possible choices for our great grandchildren? I’ll leave that for you to ponder, dear reader, and keep my cynicism to myself.

 

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Nov 27 2009

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Tipping Point

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When I was a teenager, I firmly believed that the Apocalypse was at hand, that the end of the world as portrayed in the Bible and interpreted by Christian Fundamentalists was just about to take place.  This belief framed my worldview until I studied enough history and philosophy to convince me otherwise.  Now I see things differently.  Now I realize that the world is constantly changing.  Now I see that the Apocalypse occurs every day for someone somewhere on the planet.  Every time a culture perishes or a species goes extinct, it is the end of the world as we know it.

Like all other apocalyptic narratives, Global Warming is predicated upon a set of inflexible beliefs.  It goes something like this:  The amount of greenhouse gas in the atmosphere is rapidly increasing, and soon it will trigger a wholesale collapse of the entire planetary ecosystem.  Most of that increase is due to human activity.  We have to change our ways and radically reduce the amount of greenhouse gas we emit before it’s too late.  The most important part of this narrative is the last part: before it’s too late. No apocalypse worthy of the name omits that disclaimer.

Environmentalists warn of a tipping point – a point of no return.  Once there are enough greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, an irreversible breakdown of the planetary ecosystem will occur.  But there’s still time, we are told.  If we act now, we can still stop it.  Hmm.  That sounds an awful lot like the kind of hard-sell pitch that hustlers make on television late at night.  Act now. . . before it’s too late!

How will we know when it’s too late?  Scientists are generating all kinds of computer models to tell us just that.  They assume that it’s possible to know all the critical elements of a planetary ecosystem as complex as ours.  Are our scientists really arrogant enough to think they can determine the tipping point?  Evidently so.

Clearly, for the thousands of species of plants and animals that have gone extinct, it is already too late.  For the glaciers that have disappeared in the north, it is already too late.  For those who want the weather to make sense again, it is already too late.  The sea level is rising.  It’s up a couple inches already.  Soon it will be up to mid-calf.   Will it be too late when it reaches our knees?  How about our waists?

The tipping point concept is more politics than science.  It smacks of high drama.  Like all apocalyptic narratives, it is designed to inspire us, to force a behavioral change that will save us from ourselves.  But the stark reality of our situation is much less forgiving.  If we act now, then maybe we can salvage what’s left of an ecosystem that has been so good to us for so long.  If we act now, then maybe we can reverse the buildup of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere during the next hundred years.  Then again, maybe not.  Either way, we will continue suffering the consequences of industrialization for centuries to come.  Either way, the world will change.  There’s no going back to the way things were.

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Apr 02 2009

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Building Walls to Save Forests

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I read in the newspaper yesterday that the government of the Brazilian state of Rio de Janeiro is going to build ten-foot walls around the slums of that big city in order to protect the nearby urban rainforest from further deforestation.  This is wrong on so many levels that it makes my head spin.  But I can’t think of a better issue to ponder today, as the G20 tackles the world’s economic woes.

Naturally, as a guy who has made woods wandering the central focus of his life, I’m all for preserving forests wherever they may be.  That’s why I get this sick feeling when I read stories like this one.  The Rio government is pandering to the likes of me – to affluent, nature-loving people in Rio de Janeiro and elsewhere, who are deeply concerned about the mass extinction of plants and animals as well as global warming.  Yeah, they know how to package it.

Reality check:  the burgeoning slums in question have destroyed 500 acres of urban rainforest during the last three years.  Since 2000, about 150,000 square kilometers of Amazon rainforest have disappeared.  Quite a difference, I’d say.  Besides that, isn’t the term “urban rainforest” something of an oxymoron?

Using the Internet, I dug deeper into this matter only to learn that the project managers think this wall will significantly reduce the drug-related violence spreading from the slums to the city’s richer quarters.  How convenient.  Two solutions for the price of one.

Yes, Brazil is one of the countries attending the G20 summit.  With the world’s tenth largest economy and a population of nearly 200 million, it’s force to be reckoned with, no doubt.  But when I read about walls being built around slums to save urban forests, I can’t help but wonder who’s in charge there and what their priorities are.  Looking out for their poorest citizens isn’t at the top of their list, obviously.

The world is small and getting smaller.  What happens in a rainforest thousands of miles away affects those of us living here.  What happens to the Brazilian people affects us, as well.  Both the economy and the environment are global, so we should care about what happens in faraway places.  But in the Age of Information, bullshit travels at the speed of light.  We would be wise to keep this in mind the next time the politicos here, at the G20 summit, and elsewhere tell us what they are doing to make things better.

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Oct 08 2008

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Global Warming and Dread

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Global Warming is one of those subjects so fraught with misconception that only the fearless and the foolhardy feel comfortable discussing it.  As a lover of wisdom, a philosopher that is, I have done my best to avoid this subject like the plague.  There’s no wisdom to be garnered here, and any discourse on the matter between those holding divergent views is likely to degenerate into a shouting match.  But there comes a time when even the most dreadful of subjects must be broached.

The two dominant positions regarding global warming amount to this:  Either global warming is caused by humans or it is not.  If it is, then we must take action to correct the problem before it’s too late.  If it is not, then the matter is largely beyond our control so there’s no sense getting all worked up about it.  The former incites mass hysteria; the latter is a comfortable delusion.  In short, either the sky is falling or the naked emperor is fully dressed.  Take your pick.

Earlier this year, I read the report released by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) and that convinced me that global warming is not only real but most likely the result of human activity.  Being a skeptic at heart, I delved as deeply into the science behind that report as my rather unscientific mind could handle, finding a mountain of data supporting the IPCC’s claim.  Core samples taken from glacial ice are the most compelling.  It looks like we’ve been having an impact on this planet since the beginning of the Industrial Revolution 200 years ago.  Maybe before that.  So why the denial?  Because some people dread the implication, that’s why.  Reversing a 200-year trend will require a radical change in the way we do things, and some people like things just the way they are.

We must reverse global warming before it’s too late, the advocates of change warn us, before the global ecology completely unravels and nature as we know it comes to an abrupt end. Hmm…  I’m inclined to believe that a 200-year trend will take just as long to reverse, and that much of the damage done will never be fixed.  I’m inclined to believe that fear mongering only dilutes the real science behind the IPCC report and distracts us from the long, hard task ahead.  So why the threat of doom?  Because some people believe only the threat of doom will spur others to action – to immediate action that may or may not address the core problem.

Nature is resilient even if human nature is not. The wild will persist in one form or another, even if humankind is foolish enough to self-destruct.  No doubt we’ll take tens of thousands of species with us when we go, but nature doesn’t care.  Other life forms will prosper, either on this planet or the next one, long after our kind has perished.  As far as the wild is concerned, it’s never too late.

Will it soon be too late to preserve an environment that’s so friendly to us?  It’s already too late in that regard.  The glaciers are melting, the deserts are growing, the weather is becoming increasingly more violent, and soon the oceans will rise.  Fresh water is fast becoming a precious commodity and the air we breathe is only relatively clean even on the best day.  As far as the mass die-off of plants and animals go, the situation is practically biblical.  With six and a half billion of us crammed into this world and more on the way, it’s already too late to regain paradise lost.  The best we can hope for is damage control and a reasonably habitable environment in the centuries to come.

I take heart in the fact that Homo sapiens sports a massive frontal lobe and that the problem-solving powers found therein are formidable indeed.  As a species, we have survived some tough times before and it’s likely that we’ll get through this.  But I suspect that things will have to get a hell of a lot worse before we collectively rise to the challenge.  Dread is a hard thing to beat.  It will take all the mental powers we possess to get beyond fear and denial then dive into this problem headfirst.  I look forward to that day.

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Aug 28 2008

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Gap in the Old Stone Wall

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Is the environment currently undergoing revolutionary or evolutionary change? I sat down this morning to answer this rather provocative question but drew a blank. So I did what I usually do when thoughts and words don’t come easy to me. I stepped away from my desk and went for a walk.

A few miles outside town, I parked my car at an overgrown turnout and tramped into a stretch of woods I’d visited before. I followed a logging road until it turned sharply eastward, then bushwhacked north from there. That’s when I realized I had forgotten my compass. I continued bushwhacking north, anyway.

The occasional glimpse of a beaver pond on my right kept me oriented, but I was a little concerned about missing the trail that would eventually lead back to the logging road. I was navigating by memory and that’s always a dicey proposition. Just then I remembered a gap in the old stone wall running east-west through these woods. I could pick up the trail there. Finding that gap would be tricky, though. I didn’t know this area that well.

A few vaguely familiar landmarks cropped up along the way: a half-dead maple tree, a soggy crease in the earth, a huge boulder. None of these things had been on my mind when I stepped into the woods, yet somehow I recognized them. Together they led me to the gap in the old stone wall and then to the trail. Amazing. I couldn’t have done better with a map.

That is how evolution works, I think. Wild nature winds through the material world and, by virtue of trial and error, eventually gets to where it needs to be. Nature itself has memory, reaching beyond the memories of the countless individual plants and animals in it.

When great change occurs, it occurs suddenly, so we are tempted to think it is the result of some obvious set of circumstances rooted in the present. But we aren’t seeing the big picture. That is why humankind has a hard time grasping the causal relationship between, say, the burning of fossil fuels over the past two centuries and global warming. We expect things to develop in a time frame that we can readily comprehend – one corresponding to our lifespans. Yet sometimes it takes many, many years for things to reach fruition. What we perceive as a revolution in nature, a dramatic event, is but a snapshot in a long, drawn out evolutionary process.

The great changes we are seeing in the world around us these days were set in motion generations ago. Consequently, it’ll take a while to set them right. And to do so may require a significant change in our own way of thinking and doing things.

I picked up a game trail on the other side of the old stone wall and tagged the logging road shortly thereafter. The rest of the outing was an easy walk back to the car. Funny how some part of me knew the way through these woods even though I had no conscious memory of it. Still, I’ll make sure to carry a compass the next time I go for a hike.

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