Listen to the Indians
Some residents of the Hamptons can trace their local history back to the 1640’s; almost 400 years. The question is, will the Hamptons as we know it enjoy another 400 years?
Science is telling us that if a third of the ice in Greenland melts, the ocean will rise by 7 feet. If all of it melts, 21 feet, not counting the rise from melting elsewhere. When hurricanes approach, weather reporters always say something like, “We expect a 12-foot storm surge, so we hope it doesn’t get here at high tide.” Storms, of course, are getting stronger from climate change, so who knows how high the storm surges will be in another fifty years? Check your house survey. It will tell you how high above mean high water your house sits. My house is at 41 feet, but, early in this process, I’d have to take a new way to town, as parts of my route will be inundated in a normal high tide at just 6 feet of sea level rise.
Foretelling the encroachment of the ocean has a long history in the Hamptons. When George Washington was president, they consulted with the local Native Americans to ask them how far from the bluff to put the Montauk lighthouse so that it would last 300 years before it fell into the sea. The Indians nailed it. They had to fortify the bluff to protect the lighthouse right on schedule. Is it inspiring, or merely quaint, that our government once considered the welfare of descendants 300 years into the future?
Science has come a long way since then, and Science is telling us that climate change is like a bomb with multiple fuses. We can cut some of those fuses and extend the livable time on Long Island. But at some unknown point, maybe sooner than we would like to think, additional fuses are lit, and it is beyond our power to cut them all. It becomes an unstoppable runaway that will overwhelm the resources of humanity to control. The Earth has been unfit for human habitation in the past, and it will be again. The question is, how soon?
The answer to that question will be partly determined by how rapidly we can stop burning fossil fuels. Every advanced nation, on the advice of their science establishments, agreed recently in Paris to do that, but it is a political thing now. One of our presidential candidates thinks it is a hoax, and many in both parties are unenthusiastic about the actions necessary to do that.
As disasters multiply, the money to convert to non-carbon energy sources shrinks. Practically speaking, it’s a now-or-never thing, as we watch the fuses burning toward the climate bomb. Here are some fuses that worry scientists:
Methane frozen for thousands of years in the arctic tundra is a potent greenhouse gas; thirty times as bad as CO2. As the temperature rises, and the tundra melts, it releases that methane, which accelerates warming. It is happening now.
Warming climate has insects living longer and moving north. Northern forests are not resistant to some of these insects. As the forests are killed, and the standing dead are kindling for forest fires, the stored carbon is released to the atmosphere, and accelerates warming. It is already happening.
Peat bogs cover 1.6 million square miles of the earth’s surface. More carbon is stored in these bogs than in all the world’s trees and plants. Warming temperatures dry out the bogs and make them susceptible to burning. In Indonesia last year, bogs dried by warm weather burned for months. In September and October they released more CO2 than was emitted in all of the European Union in the same timeframe. This did not make your evening news. Similar but smaller events followed the Fort McMurray fire in Canada and others, with smoldering bogs releasing tons of CO2 long after the above-ground fires were extinguished.
The Amazon rainforest accounts for 25% of the plant absorption of carbon worldwide, carbon that would otherwise rise into the atmosphere. A thirty year study involving 500 scientists published in the journal, Nature, in March, 2015, concluded that the absorption rate declined 30% in a decade. To put it in human terms, the forest is full, and can’t continue to eat more carbon. So even without an increase in burning fossil fuels, more of the CO2 emitted is rising into the atmosphere and accelerating the warming.
As sea ice, glaciers, and snowpack shrink, the exposed dark surfaces of sea and land absorb the sun’s heat, where previously the white surface of snow reflected heat back into space, so warming accelerates.
These processes and others continue, and all of them are accelerating. Deniers of climate change have one thing right: the environment is infinite in its complexity. Deniers have used this complexity to create doubt about the science of climate change. They scoff at the arrogance of climate scientists and say they can’t possibly understand it, and after all, it may just be natural cycles. This is nonsense, according to scientists, who probably know even more than the Indians did in Washington’s time. They say this has been disproven conclusively.
But this complexity works both ways. We have been surprised by new effects and feedbacks of climate change as we have studied it, and we have no idea what unknown tipping points may be lurking just beyond our understanding. Common sense, applied to the ongoing known processes cited above, tells us that change begets change. It will get worse before it gets better, but we don’t know how fast, which explains the wide range of prediction on temperature rise during this century: will it rise 3 degrees or 12? Complexity, and uncertainty about how fast we can stop injecting CO2 into the atmosphere, make it difficult to say.
Climate change has been well known in scientific circles for fifty years, and America is the slowest to react, the most recalcitrant of all advanced countries. Politicians point to China and India as excuses to do nothing, even though Americans today release three times as much CO2 per capita as China and 12 times as much per capita as India. Of this, there can be no doubt: America is the dark lord of climate change.
Whom should we blame for our failure to act? Whom will China and India blame as catastrophes multiply? We look at videos of crowds chanting, “Death to America,” and we ask, “Why do they hate us?” Part of the answer may be, we are burning their oil as well as our own, and in so doing, we are consuming their future as well as that of our children.
Should we blame fossil fuel companies? If the CEO of Exxon declared a pox on burning gasoline, he would be replaced faster than you can say, “Fill ‘er up.“ Corporations exist to make money. They have no children. They have no conscience. They have stockholders demanding profit, as children demand food.
Does this mean we should stop driving to work in our cars? If we can, yes, but that isn’t an option for most of us. It means we should be lobbying congress to pass the laws that will speed the transition to alternatives so we have another way to get to work. There are ways to do that, which will actually stimulate the economy.
So should we blame Congress? For those of us surrounded by ocean in the Hamptons, that means one member of Congress. Does everybody reading this essay know his position on climate change, and how he plans to address it? Equally important, does our congressman know how you feel about climate change? If you don’t know his position, and he doesn’t know yours, maybe we have found the source of the problem.
In America, we are free to participate in government. Women did it, and got the vote. Blacks did it, and we now have a black president. Gays did it, and now can get married. Children can’t do it. They rely on us.
Did you know that congressional aides equate one handwritten letter to a congressman to 10,000 constituents holding the same opinion? They keep track of constituent emails to see what’s important to the voters. Did you know that there are dozens of organizations fighting to get congress to act on climate change: 350.org, The Union of Concerned Scientists, The League of Conservation Voters, Citizens’ Climate Lobby, and many more? Have you joined one of them? Because of voter apathy, progress is painfully slow.
The scientific debate is over, and the politics will follow. Science always wins in the end. But for the Hamptons, the clock is ticking. As the mansions slide into the sea, our children will wish we had listened to the scientists, as our forefathers listened to the Indians. And we may wish we had not been too oblivious, too busy, too cynical, or too cool to get involved.