The Climate in Emergency

A weekly blog on science, news, and ideas related to climate change

Childhood

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Here I am, visiting my mother, who still lives in the house we moved to when I was two, spending time with my sister’s kids, and I am about to go watch A Wrinkle in Time, a movie made from the first real chapter book I ever read entirely by myself. I was nine years old. I have not stopped reading since.

It’s easy to think about children and climate change and be terrified. I don’t know what my sister’s kids are going to have to deal with, but it’s likely to include a lot of things that aren’t good. But at the moment I’d rather approach the subject from the angle of memory. It’s my own childhood I’m thinking of today.

I was born in 1977, meaning that my first winter included the famous Blizzard of ’78. Later, when I noticed winters getting less snowy, my parents pointed out that I’d been biased by an unusually snowy first experience. They may have been right. Climate change does not necessarily mean less snow–often, it means more of the white stuff, actually, as long as winter temps stay below the freezing point. Climate change brings floods, and some floods happen to be white and fluffy, is all. But yes, I was thinking about the issue. I knew.

I remember the moment I learned about climate change. I don’t know why I remember–I learned about a lot of things as a child, without remembering the actual lesson, but that one stuck out. My Dad and I were standing outside, on the edge of our parking lot, near where the grass began and the yard went back and back. Being a scholarly sort, my Dad was always reading things and passing on the ideas that interested him. A group of scientists had made a chicken embryo grow teeth by turning on the latent dinosaur DNA still in the bird genome. Bird feathers contain no blue pigment; feathers that appear blue have microscopic structures that bend light. Ginkgos are the only trees that make sperm that swim. And, on that one day, he said the planet is getting warmer because of pollution, and in about ten years, the difference is going to start getting noticeable. If it gets warm enough, the ice at the poles will melt and the sea level will rise. If ALL of it melted,our house would be under water and we’d have to come visit it in a boat, with SCUBA gear. He seemed to like that idea, visiting the house in a boat. I guess the vividness of the example appealed to him as a writer.

I understood the boat thing would not likely happen–melting would take time, more time than individual human beings have. But I also understood that the world that I knew would change and that I would watch some of the changes. “When I grow up,” I remember thinking, “I’m going to move to the North Pole, so I can still have winter.”

I was six, I think. Somewhere in there. That would make it around 1984.

Growing up, I noticed that winter seemed to be getting warmer, a kind of “bottoming out,” where fall and spring would seem normal, but the cold stretch in the middle wasn’t reliable anymore. I have no idea if that was even a real local pattern, not my imagination, and it probably wasn’t related to climate change because signal can’t be separated from noise with as few data as my experience gave me. But I thought I was seeing it, and it scared me. I interpreted the heat waves of 1998 as climate change, too, but there I’m on somewhat firmer ground, as that was a particularly fierce El Niño, and no one yet knows the connection between El Niños and climate change. There could be a connection. But while I wasn’t really able to see the signs myself, the global climate was changing.

The last May whose temperature fell below the 20th-century average occurred before I was born, but I lived through the last time we had any month below average–it was a February, and I was seven. I don’t expect to ever have another. The sea level rose globally, a subtle thing, but enough to make a difference in coastal floods–it adds up to just over two and a half inches since my birth. Precipitation in the Northeast, my region, has increased by 8% since 1991, relative to the first half of the 20th century, though it’s hard to say how much of that is climate change-related. I wonder how much that has to do with the local increase in mold and mildew. When I was a kid, summers were humid, yes, but in the last ten years or so, my mother has had to use a dehumidifier, not simply for personal comfort, but to prevent the walls from molding. That was never necessary before.

Personal observation is suspect, relative to trends–that why we invented statistics, because human beings naturally look for trends, but most of the ones we find unaided are imaginary. I know climate change is happening, not because I’ve seen it, but because researchers whose methods I trust, and to some extent understand, have measured it. But I’ve lived it. I’m forty years old. Climatologists look for changes over large blocks of time, and the minimum-sized block is 30 years. That I live in a different climate than I did that day my Dad and I spoke can now be confirmed by science.

I’m also old enough that my generation is fast becoming another generation that didn’t do anything about climate change. The future is becoming the past. It’s time to treat this as the emergency it is and act with the urgency of a person whose hair is on fire.

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Author: Caroline Ailanthus

I am a creative science writer. That is, most of my writing is creative rather than technical, but my topic is usually science. I enjoy explaining things and exploring ideas. I have one published novel and another on the way. I have a master's degree in Conservation Biology and I work full-time as a writer.

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