2011

15 June 2011: A 21st-century version of “To Build a Fire”

A 21st-century version of “To Build a Fire”

When Jack London wrote “To Build a Fire” a century ago, the 50 to 75-below zero temperatures through which the protagonist walks was the norm. What should be for the man a walk in the park turns into a march for survival. The man, who has no name so thus symbolic for the whole of mankind, was arrogant believing he could win his battle with nature.

While the plot scenario wouldn’t be plausible today, the theme is replaying itself. The ideas that humans are not part of the natural world and not subject to nature’s laws are having increasingly deadly outcomes.

Witness the tornadoes’ destruction in Joplin, MO and Tuscaloosa, AL.

On January 12 2011, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration reported that “2010 tied with 2005 as the warmest year of the global surface temperature,” making it “the 34th consecutive year with global temperatures above the 20th century average.”

In the contiguous United States, “2010 was the 14th consecutive year with an annual temperature above the long-term average.” That happened despite the year beginning “with extremely cold winter temperatures and snowfall amounts that broke monthly and seasonal records at many U.S. locations.”

2010 is now on record as the wettest year, which makes one wonder if 2011 might eclipse it. Ponder that as you sandbag.

Unfortunately, that news was reported at the worst time to talk about rising atmospheric and oceanic temperatures because January is our coldest month. Some are still unable to differentiate between weather and climate and believe what they see outside their windows looks like what 6 billion others are experiencing.

Talking to deniers can be akin to talking to the proverbial brick wall, but the data don’t lie. Given that, the essential arguments are twofold: what/who are the cause and so what if it continues to warm? Future peach farmers in Montana are salivating at the latter prospect, but not polar bears and picas whose existence depends upon a bone-chilling minus-50 something climate.

When we hit 15 below this past winter, the stretch lasted only a few days. It might’ve given pine beetles a bit of a scare, but the only thing seemingly left between them and their demise is a dwindling food supply given their kryptonite, a three-week 30-below period, is a thing of the past.

Those who acknowledge global average temperatures are rising but insist that is due to natural climatic cycles ignore the evidence. In a recent column, I referenced one written by Sharon Begley in Newsweek called “A Climate Whodunit.” In it Begley talks about “the fingerprinting of the culprits behind [the] signs that a 10,000-year-old climate regime has been knocked for a loop.”

The idea, for instance, that rising temperatures are due to the sun’s output is a canard. “A hotter sun would heat the upper atmosphere more than the lower,” writes Begley citing findings of Ben Santer of the Lawrence Livermore National Lab, “but in fact the upper layers have cooled while the lower have warmed.”

With regard to warming oceans, today’s extreme rainfall patterns, and the melting polar ice, Begley quotes Santer: “Natural causes alone can’t explain any of these. You need a large human contribution.”

Making choices results in action, which has consequences both intended and unintended, impacting others directly or indirectly.

A drunk driver might kill him/herself when he/she veers off the steep side of a hill, but then, he/she might’ve plowed into another before plummeting, thus taking the victim along for the death plunge. Not all teen drivers drive recklessly, but they all pay higher premiums because of their peers that do.

The clown west of Ft. Collins who decided to burn his slash on an incredibly windy day affected far more than his neighbors who lost their homes. In like manner, the slash-and-burners in Brazil over the past few decades that set fire to the rain forest to create grazing fields for beef so we could enjoy a cheaper, fat-laden hamburger have impacted more than that local ecosystem.

Making choices entails responsibility, and having responsibility means we can’t go about blaming others. There’s no “it’s God’s will” or “the devil made me do it” or “everyone else is doing it” allowed.

What climate-change deniers have done by cherry picking points to make their case—a case of motivational reasoning—is to give permission to those who find it inconvenient to abandon their destructive lifestyles practices to avoid personal responsibility. The rationale: If my actions don’t have consequences, there’s no compelling reason for me to modify my behavior.

It’s all very disingenuous, and as it gets hotter, instead of pulling their heads out of the sand, they burrow deeper, probably because that’s where they can find relief from the fire they’ve helped build.

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