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How Climate Change Affects One Old Environmentalist

climate change concept: earth clock 3d rendering illustration
I first encountered a description of human-caused climate change in 1981 at a permaculture design course led by the late award-winning Australian environmentalist Bill Mollison. For the second half of my 83 years, I increased my understanding of the problem, and worked to help my students understand its causes and to reduce their personal contributions to it. Other climate warriors struggled to achieve change at industrial and governmental levels. 

The United States is by far the biggest contributor to the climate change emergency. Our government appears completely incompetent to counter it. Climate change involves complex patterns that interact locally and globally in different ways. The human mind is no more fitted to comprehend the totality of Earth’s climate complexities than an ant could understand the workings of an automotive assembly plant. We evolved to function successfully on a planet experiencing pulses of roughly 100,000 years of glaciers followed by about 10,000 years of comparative warmth. 

Consider one detail of shifting climate patterns: the tendency for increased El Nino events in the Pacific. Scientists now perceive El Ninos to cause/amplify drought conditions here and there around the world: for example, in the U.S. west coast, a big chunk of Australia, sections of South America, odd parts of Europe, etc. Another contributor is warming in the taiga, the second largest planetary biome after the oceans. There warming has led to circumpolar burning. The carbon dioxide released by large patches of the taiga burning, some burns being larger than European countries, is secondary to the carbon dioxide and methane (CH4) released by the melting taiga soil. 

Scientists have known for decades that the amount of atmospheric carbon dioxide is increasing exponentially. This means the phenomenon drives its own increase. The burning taiga is a case in point. It burns because of climate warming as a result of increased heat-trapping gases, consequently releasing more carbon dioxide (long-term persistence) and methane (short-term persistence) that further exacerbate climate chaos. 

These are not pollutants! Carbon dioxide is a natural product of respiration from all animals that thrive in the presence of oxygen. Methane is the principal component of farts, among other natural sources. Both chemicals are so natural that they are found in interstellar gases. The issue is one of balance and patterning. By storing these ordinary chemicals in fossil fuels, soils, wood, and ocean sediments, Earth reduced their content in the atmosphere, cooling Earth in glacial pulses. By releasing these chemicals, intentionally and otherwise, humans are triggering a return to warmer conditions, when land near or at the poles was forested, huge animals (megafauna) roamed, and our ancestors were little ratty things that hid in the day and scurried in trees at night while the big guys slept. 

We are not evolved to live in such a world climate. In the first bit of planetary warming, thousands of people have been killed directly by heat that the human body, especially the brain, cannot survive. 

In the United States, those who can afford air conditioners (or move to places such as Vermont) escape the worst effects of warming, for now. For the many poor, it is just another way in which they are screwed. Of course, air conditioners directly use energy, increase the outdoor heat by moving it from indoors, and, because of the mining, smelting, assembly, transport, etc., needed to build them represent embodied energy. 

Pollution, excess population, political inertia, corporate greed, and so on, all intertwined to produce global warming. Income distribution separates the small percentage of people responsible for most warming from the people most affected. Tactics that kept, and keep, the tobacco industry profitable are now public domain for the fossil fuel industry and everyone else who might lose money by changing to more nearly sustainable business practices. The best large scale climate mitigation proposals fall short as designed, and do not take into account the needed infrastructure, wholesale retooling, and increased carbon emissions required to transition to a low carbon emissions industry and lifestyles.

For these reasons, and others, I am skeptical that we will prevent a major conversion of Earth’s climate to conditions incompatible with most complex life adapted to interglacial conditions. My high school graduating class named me “Class Optimist.” A decade or so ago I told my wife, yes, but I am a cynical optimist. To me, facts trump hope. I don’t see humanity as being willing to make changes adequate to avert a major, long-term shift of Earth’s climates. We are not seriously trying. Nonetheless, I optimistically continue, albeit diminished in potency by age, to sound the alarm and promote transitional strategies. That’s the optimism. If we do not meaningfully change to forestall a runaway climate that we cannot tolerate, we will die, maybe all of us. Scattered populations divested of the numbers needed to maintain most technology might persist. We have nothing to lose by trying to avoid this future, and a small possibility of qualified success. What’s to lose by making the effort?

So, how is climate chaos affecting me? I am at an age when I’ll probably die soon of causes unrelated to climate, regardless of what is or isn’t done about climate chaos. I feel deep grief for the likely destruction of the beautiful interplay among marvelous plants and animals, patterns of creation and balance that we are trashing with our unsustainable lifestyles and business models. I also grieve for my descendants, living and potential, and for the wonderful fraction of humanity who have impressed me with their beauty and generosity as I’ve aged. (I write with tears in my eyes, literally.) And I rage with the fury of the impotent that my efforts, and those of others who are comparably motivated, apparently have not amounted to squat in terms of slackening the human stampede toward unnecessary global disaster.

Dan Hemenway, a Montpelier resident, was a permaculture teacher, publisher, and designer from 1981 until his retirement circa 2010. He has international awards in conservation and community service and five advanced degrees from the International Permaculture Institute.