October 5, 2009
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.