Posts from October 2009

Understand Science and Believe in Action

It happens all the time. The weather will get chilly for a day or two, as it did this summer in Rhode Island, where I live, and we’ll be wrapped in sweaters, grumbling companionably while we’re waiting in the cashier’s line at the supermarket. You can count on someone to say it: “It’s freezing! I’m pulling out the fleece! In the middle of summer! Global warming… I don’t believe in it.”

Even though I am an inveterate eavesdropper, I am not a person who jumps into strangers’ conversations. But I kept worrying over the remark, until I finally figured out what was bothering me. It wasn’t just the wrongheaded reaction to a day or two of cold weather in a hot season. It was that little, consequential word: believe. “I don’t believe in global warming.”

What does it mean about the way we live now that so many people are using the language of faith (and our beloved fairy tales) to address the problems of science? I figured the best person to ask was a scientist.

“The answer to that is complex,” says Steven Hamburg, who recently joined EDF as Chief Scientist. “But it boils down to one big issue. Society cannot handle uncertainty. And science is about uncertainty. We no longer understand how science works, how the scientific process moves. People want black and white. True or false. Climate science is too complex for that kind of binary thinking. But that doesn’t mean we don’t know that we are headed for catastrophe.”

“If you have been a gardener for even a few years, you’ve already seen plenty of evidence that things are changing.”

I had gone to see Hamburg because I wanted to know how to answer people who said they just didn’t “buy it.” (Another phrase that is an indicator of our times: the retailing of theories, as if we can simply decide to leave climate change on the shelf, refuse to take it home.) The sort of thing I overheard is being played out this fall across the country in fierce debate—some of it based on deliberate, cynical misinformation—as the Senate prepares to vote on a climate bill. I wanted to be able to point to concrete examples of how climate change is already transforming our communities.

If you have been a gardener for even a few years, you’ve already seen plenty of evidence that things are changing. There was a time, not so long ago, when I had to dig up most tender perennials at the end of the summer, and store them in the garage for the winter, to coax them back to life the following spring. That is no longer always necessary. In fact, the hardiness zones—regional maps by which gardeners evaluate what can live in the ground through the winter—have been redrawn to reflect the northward march of plants into areas that were once inhospitable.

This sounds great, on the face of it. I, for one, will be delighted to have camellias blooming in Rhode Island. Until, that is, I think about the flip side: the exotic pests able to winter over as well, even finding time for extra egg-laying in longer hot seasons. Here’s what else is in my backyard: more poison ivy, which thrives on the higher concentrations of CO2 in the air. And something worse is twining its way north, the dreaded kudzu, a vine hanging in curtains along highways all over the south, smothering trees and shrubs. Kudzu is now considered invasive as far north as Connecticut.

Overwhelming messes can leave us feeling helpless to effect change. We try to do our parts as individuals, in the choices we make about who we vote for and what we buy. But such personal actions can feel as futile as trying to empty the ocean with teaspoons. And they are—if all we do is worry about our own backyards. “I struggle with this in my own life,” says Hamburg. “Local solutions alone will not work, though they are important. If the United States alone acts on climate change, it is not sufficient; but if America doesn’t act, there’ll be no global solution. And that is what is needed.”

There is a word for the willingness to step forward and champion a just cause, regardless of what other countries are doing: Leadership. This fall Americans have an unprecedented chance to demand that our Senators support policies to slow global warming. This is where faith does come in; we have to believe that we can alter our perilous course.

Each of us will have—or has had—a moment of epiphany about climate change, a moment of understanding the urgency of the problem. That moment comes in the garden, or on the banks of a once vibrant, trout-filled river that is now still or in depths of a forest that no longer echoes with the croaking of frogs. It comes because the droughts are more prolonged, year after year, or the storms more severe. Or because your grandfather tells you that what is now the low tide mark on your beach was, in his youth, the line of the highest tides—as is happening where I live. Oceans have been rising, as have temperatures, and faster than expected. It does not require a leap of faith to “believe” this; it is a fact.

“Think about standing in the middle of a busy street, trying to cross,” says Hamburg. “Traffic is speeding past from both directions. The probability that you'll fail to get across is high. That is what’s going to happen with climate change. We will be surrounded by disasters. The longer we wait, the fewer options we will have.”

I remember how carefully I taught my little boys, as we walked to school, about stop signs and traffic lights. I taught them to look both ways, to make sure their path was clear, before stepping off the curb. Letting go of their hands and watching them cross to safety was one of the hardest things I ever did. My own call to action is embedded in the memory of holding those tiny, trusting hands. Who in their right mind believes in making the world a more dangerous place for our children?

What You Can Do

Please take a moment to send an email to your members of Congress supporting strong climate and energy action.

The Ticking Clock

A bonus feature from my October column "Understand Science and Believe in Action"

Steve Hamburg is delighted to talk about backyards. EDF’s chief scientist pulls out a chart covered with the harvest notes of a maple syrup farmer in New Hampshire; he has been keeping detailed records since 1959. “These notes are a treasure,” he says. “We’re organizing an exhibit about how global warming will affect people locally, where they live, and this will be part of it.”

“This farmer didn’t think his trees had been affected by a change in climate,” he says. “He couldn’t see the pattern because he was distracted by all the noise—the annual details of weather, snowfall, production. We analyzed his production numbers and what we saw quite clearly was that by 2003 he is producing syrup much earlier in the season, a product of operating with one month less of snow cover every year. He’s still getting lots of syrup, but only because his technology is much better now. The sap isn’t running at peak for as long as it used to. He’s getting less productive time, later in the spring. And pretty soon the maples won’t have enough cold weather to produce much of anything at all.”

You can look at a map of sugar maple trees and see that they are marching northward; it is a matter of time before maple syrup becomes exclusively a Canadian export. “And after Canada? Eventually, there is nowhere to go.” The same is true for blueberries and cranberries; it is hard to imagine New England without the brilliant fall colors that all these plants provide. Lobster ranges are changing; spruce is declining. “I never used to see ticks at my cabin in New Hampshire,” Hamburg says. “Now we’re crawling with them.”

The exhibit Hamburg is organizing, with funding from EDF and the National Science Foundation, will address climate change in the northeast, and will open in November at the Ecoterium in Worcester, Mass. Next there will be a traveling exhibit in North Carolina and hopefully exhibits on the local effects of climate change for the rest of the U.S. as well.

What You Can Do

Please take a moment to send an email to your members of Congress supporting strong climate and energy action.

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