The Climate in Emergency

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


Leave a comment

Hope in the Darkness

Today I’m re-working a Christmas post from a few years ago. I know it’s not Christmas yet, and that a lot of us don’t even celebrate Christmas…I guess this is more of a Winter Solstice post, though we’re not quite there yet, either.

The thing is, this has been a hard season for those of us who care about the climate. It’s hard to keep hoping, and it’s hard to keep believing that anything any of us do will really help. I’ve been drawing a lot of comfort lately from Solstice imagery, from the idea that when the world looks darkest is sometimes literally the moment when light and life return.

I’ve also been drawing comfort from The Little Drummer Boy.

Yes, I’m aware that some people harbor a special hatred of this over-played song, but I kind of like it.

Actually, I really like it. That song has been known to make me cry whenever I really pay attention to the lyrics. Minus the rum-pa-pum-pums  and traditional lyrical line-breaks, here they are:

“Come,” they told me, “a new born King to see. Our finest gifts we bring to lay before the King, so, to honor Him when we come.”
“Little baby, I am a poor boy too. I have no gift to bring that’s fit to give our King. Shall I play for you on my drum?”
Mary nodded. The ox and lamb kept time. I played my drum for Him. I played my best for Him.
Then He smiled at me, me and my drum.

I mean, seriously, picture this. There’s this little boy who has this fantastic experience–mysterious grown-ups appear from some exotic place and tell him of this amazing baby–this King whose birth was announced by angels and by a new, very bright star, the subject of prophesies about the redemption of the whole world. The drummer boy probably doesn’t understand most of it, but he understands this is a Big Deal, and when the grown-ups urge him to come with them to worship and honor the newborn King, he eagerly agrees.

Except what can he give? He has no money, no expensive gifts. He’s poor and he’s just a child–compared to all these Wise Men and other important people, what can he do? He doesn’t know how to do anything except play his drum and maybe he can’t even do that very well, yet. Poor little drummer boys just don’t get to go visit kings. It isn’t done.

But then the child gets to see the baby, and he sees this King is actually a poor little boy just like him. They aren’t that different. And the baby is looking up at him, expectant. The drummer boy just has to give something. So he does the one thing he can do, knowing it can’t possibly be enough. He plays his drum and he plays it just as well as he can.

And it makes the baby smile.

We’re all like that, in one way or another. Most of us probably feel inadequate most of the time–I certainly do–and, frankly, in the face of global warming, we are each inadequate, at least by any reasonable definition. We don’t have enough money; we don’t have the right skills; we don’t have the cooperation of friends and family (or Congress); or we have other, competing responsibilities; or grave problems of our own to cope with. These are entirely valid excuses, real stumbling blocks, and arrayed against us is the full power and might of some extremely rich people who do not want us to get off fossil fuel at all, ever. We’re running out of time.

And yet, sometimes the universe isn’t reasonable. Sometimes one person can change the world. Sometimes one’s best turns out to be good enough after all.

May it be so for you.


Leave a comment

Poetry

No, this isn’t turning into a literary blog–I’m having internet connectivity problems, which makes research-heavy posts difficult. The following is a poem I wrote some years ago, inspired by two courses I took my first year of grad school.  -C.

Landscapes

I’ve been thinking about landscapes
acres of grasslands and wetlands and hills.
We’re 12,000 years out from a glacier.
New Hampshire is anthropogenic wilderness twice removed.
You can’t stick ten pounds of biodiversity in a one-pound can;
America’s best idea will never declare independence
from the tyranny of space.

I’ve been thinking about landscapes
the ticky-tacky smallness of pleasant neighbors
rolling Chemlawned private Roman floors
postage stamps of hardwood mulched prestige
and the ecology of fences, falcons, and modern, sleepy streets;
the piece of resistance is the sharded, mirrored aggregate flecks
of principled personal choice.

I’ve been thinking about landscapes
mostly the kind that live between the ears
and grow out, contagious, sticky, creeping out upon
the bleeding battleground of myth.
This isn’t the first time the world has turned
upon a quarter.
Become a well-placed immovable object
and your heart, the philosopher’s stone
will roll and gather moss, emerald and jade
to lay upon the doorstep
of the infinite kingdom of Heaven.


Leave a comment

Climate Fiction: In Lullaby and Warning

Obviously, this is not three-minute fiction. It’s a longer piece I wrote for a different contest. I did not win, so I’m debuting the story here, instead. Much sympathy to the victims of the flooding in West Virginia; it’s been a bad week for extreme weather. –C.

 

“Where is my jet-pack?” demanded Andy Cote, the eminent scientist.

“Your what?” asked his nine-year-old daughter, Jordyn, from the living room floor. She was busy doing his portrait with crayons.

“He’s joking, honey,” explained her mother.  Alejandra Garcia came up behind her husband in his recliner and rested her hands on his shoulders. “If you had a jet-pack you’d just incinerate your feet,” she told him. She brushed his hair off his forehead and kissed him there.

“I would not!” he protested. Theirs was a marriage of professors (he of ecology, she of literature), but he was the absent-minded one and she would not let him forget it. “We’re halfway through the 21st century now,” he continued. “You’d think we’d have jet-packs. Or at least flying cars, like in ‘Back to the Future?’ Remember?”

“That was a little before my time,” confessed Ale. She was fifteen years his junior.

“You had to have seen ‘Back to the Future,’ though.”

“Nope.”

“Daddy, are you turning into a grumpy old man?”

“What? No, why?” Even as he spoke, Andy noticed that his daughter had selected the grey crayon for his hair and was scribbling away with it. She didn’t bother with the admixture of light brown he swore was still there.

“Because grumpy old people always talk about the past,” Jordyn explained, simply. Then she pitched her voice down as far as it would go and waved her arms around pompously. “When I was your age, it snowed on Christmas! And the snow would stay on the ground for weeks! There were no hailstorms or hurricanes and it was never too hot and if it was we just turned on the air-conditioner!”

“Ok, but it did used to be colder.”

“Da-ad!”

“I’m headed off to class,” Ale announced. “Don’t forget to feed our daughter lunch.”

“I wouldn’t!” He feigned hurt. “I get too hungry to skip meals.” His self-deprecation made her laugh, that lovely russet laughter. When she tried to walk away he grabbed her arm and held her, his gaze dark and urgent. “I love you,” he told her, just in case. He always said that before they parted, even if she’d only be gone a few hours.

“I know,” she said him, and kissed his mouth. Her fingertips lingered just under his jaw for a moment and then she was gone. He glanced at his daughter, wondering if she were old enough yet to find parental displays of affection embarrassing. She looked up at him.

“Ok, Dad, what’s actually wrong?”

He sighed. She was as direct as her mother. He wasn’t sure he could explain this to a child, or that he even wanted to try, but he didn’t want her to think him unwilling to answer questions, either.

“When I was your age,” he began, and stopped. Hadn’t she just said that’s how old men talked? But he was not going to let himself be cowed by a nine-year-old. “When I was your age, tablet computers, autonomous drones, and a lot of the other technology we take for granted was science fiction. Now, I’ve just read online, on my tablet, that my friend, Diana Cartwright—do you remember her?—has launched three hundred drones to help her collect climatological data. It’s like I’m living inside one of those movies I used to watch. And whenever I have that thought about living in a movie, I remember being a little boy and then a young man, with all the expectations I had for the future.

“But those movies never covered climate change. The one thing we actually knew about the future–and we ignored it. Intellectually, of course, I knew that the way we lived was unsustainable and would have to change somehow, but emotionally I believed the movies. I don’t mean jet-packs. I mean that I expected the life I knew to basically continue. And when those expectations didn’t pan out, I felt like I had lost something. Sometimes I still feel that way. Does that make sense?”

He was unprepared for Jordyn’s aggrieved shock.

He had told her before, briefly, about how the old civilization finally collapsed and about his other family, the wife and children who had died. He knew she had probably guessed that those losses still haunted him. But he had not stopped to consider how these pieces of knowledge would fit together inside the child’s mind. He had a blind spot where others’ perception of him was concerned and he realized too late how Jordyn would feel seeing him grieve a world and a family that hadn’t included her.

“But Daddy,” she exclaimed, “I’m here!”

I am the worst parent in the world, he thought. How was he to explain that yes, he wished he had never been widowed and he was grateful every minute of his life for his new wife and child? Just like he was overjoyed that the age of fossil fuel had ended at last, even though it had taken a stupid and preventable catastrophe to accomplish the change, and he missed air conditioners, passenger airplanes, and his motorcycle? None of it made any more sense than his fantasy of using a jet-pack.

Andy Cote had written and published three books and co-authored 47 papers and two monographs. He made most of his living by talking to people, either in class or in public lecture halls. And yet at that moment he had no words at all to comfort his daughter. He opened his arms to her instead and she climbed into his lap, which she was really too big to do anymore, and he held her tightly as though someone or something might try to steal her away.

And he sang, just like he had sung over her cradle when she was a baby, a James Taylor song about a young cowboy.

He had meant the old song simply as a lullaby, a way to evoke a point in their relationship when fatherhood was simpler and love more obviously expressed. But as he sang, a new meaning welled up in the words and he realized he wasn’t singing about a fantasy figure alone on the range–Andy was singing about himself. Like the cowboy, he had no real companions outside of work and he, too, had organized his career around travel. He had a solitary streak and a wanderlust no love could root out and over which he had no control. He taught classes in the winter and spring, but with the next academic season he would be off again, walking across the country, meeting with colleagues, teaching where he could, and exploring the world. His next departure was only weeks away.

And so he sang in lullaby and in warning. He would leave again, and someday he would die. And the world would continue to change—the greenhouse gas emissions already up in the sky had not yet finished their work. It still snowed sometimes, where he lived in Pennsylvania, and sometimes it snowed a lot. It didn’t have to be very cold for snow, after all. But there might come a day when even that respite from the heat would be lost to them. He’d given his life, his intellect, his labor, and his heart to learn how to repair the world, but he understood it might not have been enough.

In his singing and his embrace were the only legacy, the only love, he could be sure of leaving his daughter; his acknowledgement of the truth of her world.