What has Posterity Ever Done for Me?
Cape Breton Weather
Have you noticed the clouds recently? The sky has been sporting a huge variety of them, of different species, brightness, age, and altitude. Unlike the brilliant blue “large days” featured in last month’s column, the air right now is loaded with heat, haze, humidity and clouds. For the past two weeks, the dewpoint here in Smelt Brook has averaged nearly 20C, which is normal for July – in Washington, D.C., that is. It was that city’s stifling heat and humidity that drove Alexander Graham Bell to begin summering in Baddeck. I wonder if he would have settled here now!
The heat has been remarkable not just in Cape Breton but across much of the Northern Hemisphere. Records have been set all over, and heat-related wildfires have proliferated even in unlikely places like northern Ontario and arctic Sweden.
Of course, it’s always hot in July – but not this hot! Something else is going on, and we all know what it is. Our atmosphere is drugged. It’s high on carbon dioxide (CO2), which makes it feverish. It even affects its memory. This year it forgot what kind of weather to deliver when it gave us 18C in January, and in June when it snowed – twice. We’ve experienced Miami-style heat for weeks now, mixed with random deluges (60 mm of rain here Aug. 5) and windstorms. The more the atmosphere is drugged with CO2, the more it overheats and gets confused.
With every summer’s heat, a rash of media stories breaks out concerning global warming. This year is no exception: I’ve counted half a dozen newspaper articles (plus this one!) in just the past week. They spell out the well-known, scary future we face: a 2-degree global warming, which seems assured, will see the death of tropical coral reefs and sea-level rise of several metres, plus numerous other disasters. Another degree of warming, and most coastal cities will be abandoned. On that note, Sydney’s wintertime low temperatures already average 1.6C warmer than they were a century ago.
But the tone of this summer’s articles is different. They’re not clamouring that the heat is evidence of climate change, for that battle has been won: climate change is a reality to all but the most perverse minds. The recent articles take on a far darker tone. Consider their titles: “You Probably Won’t Read This Column About the Biggest Problem in the World Right Now”, “Losing Earth”, “How did the Climate Apocalypse Become Old News?”, and “Where will it all End? – Armageddon Summer”. We hear despair in the voices of journalists who are specialists in global warming. They fear that major climate change is inevitable and will be disastrous.
The most noteworthy of these articles is Nathaniel Rich’s “Losing Earth,” which appeared in The New York Times Magazine’s Aug. 5 edition. Copied into a word processor, it runs to 96 pages. Rich reviews the history of efforts in the 1970s and 1980s to control CO2 emissions, the near-success in achieving a worldwide agreement in 1989, and then its sabotage by American representatives John Sununu and Allan Bromley. In Rich’s view, a golden opportunity for international cooperation was lost at that moment. Since then, efforts to treat the atmosphere’s CO2 drug problem have fallen victim to worldwide disinformation campaigns by fossil fuel corporations, the divisiveness of U.S. politics, and the rise of a “me first” populism that places economic gain as life’s raison d’etre for individuals, corporations, and nations. The crowning outrage was President Donald Trump’s announcement last year that the U.S. would withdraw from the Paris Climate Agreement.
Humans are perfectly capable of making economic sacrifices to avert future catastrophe. We do it all the time: individuals purchase homeowner’s insurance to protect themselves from financial ruin, and governments spend vast sums on “defence” as protection from invasion. However, economists argue that humans will not sacrifice even a tiny share of their current well-being for a posterity they won’t be there for.
Unfortunately, sometimes the economists are correct. Last week, Toronto Mayor Doug Ford (who scrapped Ontario’s carbon tax plan) and Donald Trump (who declared he will lower automobile emissions standards) demonstrated their indifference to the atmosphere’s CO2 drug problem and the atmosphere’s viability. Their clear message is that they don’t care about events beyond their own lifetimes. Nathaniel Rich puts it more directly: “whatever happens will be worse for our children, worse yet for their children and even worse still for their children’s children, whose lives, our actions have demonstrated, mean nothing to us.”
So, here we are. The science of CO2 warming has been known for over a century, the incontrovertible evidence for it known for decades. Atmospheric CO2 is skyrocketing, taking earth’s temperature up right along with it. But we won’t act to save the future.
I think that most of us are not so coldly calculating as economists claim and some politicians act. After all, we do invest in our kids, grandkids, nephews and nieces, because we love them. Soldiers die for the country they love, or for their foxhole buddies. Surely, we harbour an instinct to sacrifice our present comfort level, and even our very lives, for the sake of those we love.
Unlike CO2 and carbon taxes, love is not a measurable quantity. We can’t calculate it, manufacture it, package it. But it’s real, and we know its power. Perhaps we need love to take us past the economists’ pessimism and the politicians’ indifference. I don’t know how that would work, but …
Rich concludes his essay with a similar thought: “Rational argument has failed in a rout. Let irrational optimism have a turn. It is also human nature, after all, to hope.”
August 5: Stratus clouds caress the Aspy Mountains below cumulus, alto-cumulus, cirrus, and a pale blue tropical sky.