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Posts Tagged ‘Climate Change’

Recently my 12-year old asked me to sign her up for a weekly activity requiring a half hour car drive each way. I try the quick and easy rebuffs: she was plenty busy already, driving back and forth was expensive, the activity was expensive, when would she do her homework?

With more than a bit of adolescent attitude, she concludes, “You just don’t want to take the time to drive me.” I look at the clock. It’s past 7:00 PM, we haven’t eaten dinner and no one has finished their homework. There is never a perfect moment to get into the real nitty gritty of why and wherefore. Still, every now and again you have to try to give your kids an honest answer to their questions.

Yes, I tell her, (and her sister too, who has wandered into the kitchen) you’re partly right. It is true that I don’t cherish adding to the time I spend carting you around after school. But there is another reason I hesitate to drive more.

Every time we get in the car we contribute to climate change. By the end of this century–that is, you may still be around–conditions for life on earth are expected to be drastically different from what they are today.

I pause. It’s gloomy stuff, the state of the environment. In this column I generally try not to dwell too much on scientists’ pessimistic forecasts for the planet. After all, nobody, including me, really wants to hear it. Nobody wants to tell their kids about it. Nobody wants to read about it over morning coffee and a golden Frosty’s doughnut.

Yet, I take a deep breath and plunge ahead. I tell them that although no single bout of wild weather can be attributed to climate change, that nevertheless there appear to terrible changes already underway.

I tell them that they have just lived through the hottest years ever recorded (11 of the 12 warmest years were in the last 12 years).

I tell them about Hurricane Katrina. I tell them that in 2010 flooding submerged one fifth of the land surface of Pakistan, washing away 7,000 schools and 5,000 miles of roads. I tell them that extreme weather events such as these are becoming more frequent and stronger, just as predicted.

I tell them that ice in the poles is melting, not as fast as predicted but at rates that are alarmingly faster. I tell them that by the end of the century sea level could rise by 6 feet, or possibly a lot more, putting much of the world’s coastlines under water.

After a long pause, they ask if our house will be okay. On the surface, this question, in its innocent disregard either for the welfare of others or for the fact that if the world disintegrates around them it doesn’t matter if their house is okay, seems to reflect a child’s perspective. But really it’s what all of us adults are doing as well. We may expand our worries a little past the foundations of our own houses, but not much.

So, the winter was warm, so, we had an 80 degree day in March. If this is global warming, it might not be so bad for those of us living in Maine.

I ask them what good it will do to have a dry house high on a hill when everyone else is underwater. We’ve managed to conjure up a demon that will affect everyone, although, as always, wealthy countries have a larger margin of safety before hitting the bottom.

Well then, they say, shouldn’t we do something about it? I tell them they are already helping. I tell them they are contributing by not complaining about riding their bikes and walking whenever they can. They are helping by continuing to be delighted by bags of hand-me-downs rather than shopping trips. They are helping by eating local spinach rather than asking for processed foods from around the world.

Although this cheers them up a bit, they know as well as I do that eating a few leaves of spinach is not going to fix a whole lot. By the end of the conversation, they’re in tears and I’m confused. As does every parent, I want them to believe their futures are full of hope and promise. Yet at some point they also need to look with clear eyes at the world around them. Without this, where does the motivation come from to try to change the status quo? And without that motivation, how do we make anything better?

Our own family’s behavior is utterly riddled with inconsistencies. Save the planet by biking to school, but then drive to Sugarloaf to ski all weekend. Buy local greens at the farmer’s market and then wash them down with inexpensive Californian red wine, trucked from 3,000 miles away.

And yet, humans are uniquely able to live with inconsistency. I tell my kids what I tell myself. For today, pick one action where you can make an improvement. Maybe work on remembering to turn off the lights when you come downstairs. Nudge yourself. I’m a nudger.

But in my heart of hearts I’d like them to be world-changers, not nudgers, and I don’t know where to send them for training.

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Somewhere, in every book on writing, there must be this rule: if you wish to engage your reader, do not mention “standard deviation” in the first sentence. Wait! Don’t go! Standard deviations are illuminating and powerful, really. Let me explain.

When I was pregnant with my first child I had a job at a small college teaching statistics, among other subjects. My baby was due on August 7th and I assumed she would be born close to that date, leaving me a week or two before the start of fall semester.

August 7th came and went, along with its pals the 8th, 9th, 10th, 11th, and 12th. On the 13th, stats geek that I was, I started to wonder about the standard deviation of due dates. (Bear with me.)

My doctor had told me that fewer than 5% of babies can finagle showing up on their assigned day. What she didn’t tell me was what happens to the other 95% of babies. What the vast majority of moms need to know is the variability of births around their due dates, in other words, the standard deviation. This magical number tells you the time-frame in which most women have their babies. It turns out that babies’ arrivals vary a lot more than I would have guessed: only 40% show up within a week on either side of their due dates.

My baby girl finally made her appearance sixteen days after August 7th. During those tedious days of waiting a friend told me that in India they gave mothers “due months” rather than due dates, an intriguing rumor that I’ve never been able to confirm.

Indeed, a “due month” seems to far better capture the reality of giving birth, as it melds together both the average and the variability. It reflects a wonderful acknowledgment of real world fuzziness over the single, crisp, over-simplified date that westerners seem to prefer.

It is often easier to reduce something to a single number, often an average (otherwise known as a mean), than to confront the complexities that are lost by that reduction. To say, for example, that average incomes have been steadily rising in the United States masks the reality that most of this gain occurred among the wealthiest Americans, and that income inequality, or the gap between rich and poor, has also been steadily rising.

The same reductionist peril occurs by summing up the threat of climate change as a simple rise in average global temperature. When the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change states that the temperature is predicted to rise between 3.2 and 7.2 degrees Fahrenheit in the 21st century, it fails to fill me with the intended dread.

On any given day, it’s not hard to imagine it being 5 degrees warmer. Right now, it’s 75 degrees outside. Climate change might push that up to 80 degrees instead. OK, I would hate it when it was 95 instead of 90, but at least here in Maine, it doesn’t seem utterly catastrophic. I can imagine a world in which spring came a little earlier, in which winters were not as cold, and in which I could grow figs in my garden.

Simple averages fail to convey that along with increases in temperature will come dramatic shifts in the variability of climate processes such as rainfall, strength of storms, and periods of drought. These changes in climate will be profoundly stressful for all plant and animal life on the planet.

Along with temps, global precipitation is expected to rise, but not by the same amount in all places. Rather, areas that are already dry, primarily the subtropical regions running in bands north and south of the equatorial tropics, are expected to become significantly drier. These regions include the southwestern United States as well as the Mediterranean, South Africa and southern Australia. Areas typically affected by drought will expand. Food production will be disrupted for much of the world, especially poorer lands.

The tropics and high latitude areas (including the northern and eastern United States and Canada) are expected to be much wetter, with a greater frequency of serious flooding and more snow in the winter.

Tropical storms are highly likely to increase in strength. On the Maine coast, sea levels, having already risen 7.2 inches in the last century, are predicted to rise nearly another 3 feet by the end of this century.

Nor does the thought of the thermometer going up a few degrees do justice to the profound ecosystem changes that are expected. Good, cold, winter weather, for example, provides many services, from enhancing maple syrup production, to keeping numerous pests at bay–including a variety of disease-laden mosquitoes. Many plants and animals will find it difficult, if not impossible, to make the relatively rapid changes needed to adapt.

Add in grave economic effects from more storms, floods and droughts (the Environmental Protection Agency reports that in the quarter century ending in 2006, there were 70 weather-related disasters in the United States costing over $1 billion apiece) and you have a scenario that is far different from going through an extra bottle of sunscreen each summer.

Reducing the threat of global climate change to the predicted average rise in global temperature gets in the way of our truly understanding the path down which we are heading. We can’t just think about averages; we have to think about standard deviations, probabilities, cumulative effects, regional variability, and long-term trends.

Overwhelming? Perhaps, but dumbing down the threat to the risk of needing to prune the lilacs two weeks early will sap the energy we need to fix the mess we’ve made.

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