Friday, May 11, 2012

Et tu, Canada?: A Tipping Point

Yesterday, my friend Todd and I drove from New York to Chicago. We're on our way back to Carleton College for our first alumni weekend with our ultimate frisbee team in which we are the alums. Preparing myself to attempt the role of sage graduate rather than the familiar party animal reversion that some of my ex-teammates will surely perform, it still came as a bit of a surprise when amidst my excitement for reunion, yesterday turned out to be a sobering day.

As we neared Chicago in the late afternoon, traffic predictably thickened until we found ourselves mired in the nastiest sludge of interstate snarl come 6:30. We were listening to Chicago band Wilco's beautiful, at-times apocalyptic album Yankee Hotel Foxtrot. After finally making it to Todd's parents' house in Oak Park, I flipped open my laptop before bed and, performing the ritual Facebook check, found a link to James Hansen's New York Times op-ed entitled “Game Over for the Climate.” Cue the apocalyptic music.

In the piece, Hansen mourns the recent news that Canada plans to exploit its huge tar sands reserves for oil. Dirty, dirty oil, the extraction of which will release irrevocable masses of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. The raised level of heat-trapping gases, Hansen writes, “would assure that the disintegration of the ice sheets would accelerate out of control. Sea levels would rise and destroy coastal cities. Global temperatures would become intolerable. Twenty to 50 percent of the planet’s species would be driven to extinction. Civilization would be at risk.”

Boom. Apocalypse. Yankee Hotel Foxtrot. And why isn't this front page news? Oh right, sorry, that's the long-term outlook. Who cares about the long-term these days? But wait, Hansen, continues (and here's where things really get dour), “over the next several decades, the Western United States and the semi-arid region from North Dakota to Texas will develop semi-permanent drought, with rain, when it does come, occurring in extreme events with heavy flooding. Economic losses would be incalculable. More and more of the Midwest would be a dust bowl. California’s Central Valley could no longer be irrigated. Food prices would rise to unprecedented levels.”

What? You mean this global warming crap might actually affect me in my lifetime?

Yeah, people, it will, and it already has. Last year's historic, devastating drought in Texas was probably no coincidence. As Hansen, a director at NASA, notes, Earth is at the point of its extended orbit cycle where temperatures should be cooling. They're not. It barely snowed back home in Massachusetts this winter, and the only real storm was an out-of-the-blue Halloween behemoth that wrought millions in damage to the region. Random, extreme weather punctuating abnormal warmth. That's what's already starting, folks.

After reading Hansen's warning, the truth of it all became clearer than ever: climate change is not a right vs. left problem, it is a right vs. wrong problem. And right now, nearly all of us are still making far too many wrong choices about it.

I, for one, love to drive my car. I have recently chosen to drive from Texas to Massachusetts to Minnesota to New Mexico to start my summer (getting 36-40 miles per gallon in my car and staying with friends, it's actually cheaper than flying). But is the true, not-just-monetary cost of this decision really less? Nearly every car ad these days (at least in blue states) touts fuel efficiency. That's neat, but what do 35 mpgs vs. 25 really matter when we're talking about heavy flooding and incalculable economic loss?

No, we need to cut back on cars altogether. Concentrating our fossil fuel consumption to public transit is part of it. Walking or riding a bike whenever possible is another. But more than that, we need to change our locational habits in order to cut back our car love. Pay the extra money for a house or apartment within walking distance of work. Get the fuck out of the suburbs and the ridiculous sprawl cities like Houston where everyone drives everywhere. It's not a matter of preference anymore, it's a matter of survival.

Of course, our reliance on the internal combustion engine is just one of this hydra's many heads. The way we heat our homes, the way we dispose of waste, the very food we eat – it all needs to change. We can't pick and choose when to be green like a shopper going back and forth between the organic and candy aisles.

Hansen's piece turns its focus to policy as a necessary change. It's true, our lawmakers and executives need to make those hard, unpopular choices that will ultimately improve the lives of their constituents. That's what government is for. But if we are to save our species from the tidal waves of disturbance that are coming faster than ever, we can't wait for the law to force us, because let's face it, with our broken political system, we may still be waiting when Brooklyn sits under five feet of water.

It comes down to ethics. Aldo Leopold, more than sixty years ago, described “The Land Ethic,” stating, “a thing is right when it tends to preserve the integrity, stability, and beauty of the biotic community. It is wrong when it tends otherwise.” Few people have listened to Leopold, whose early, pre-global warming concerns were land management, not fossil fuels. Now we have no choice. We must adopt a shared environmental ethic, one that pervades every decision we make. Cold turkey. No going back to the candy aisle. I may have to sacrifice the liberating joy of those long roadtrips.

One of my favorite motivational quotes for outdoor adventures is an anonymous one that goes, “there's no growth in the comfort zone and no comfort in the growth zone.”

When it comes to the climate, we've reached the point where we can substitute “survival” for “growth.”

It's a sobering prospect, yes. But it doesn't mean life will stop being life. We can laugh, cry, and fall in love without consuming fossil fuels. I'll still have fun at alumni weekend. And I might just choke down a few veggie burgers while I'm at it.