HHuman beings yearn for clarity, immediacy, historical events. We look for tipping points, because our minds are good at recognizing the specific: this time, this place, this sudden event, this tangible change. This is why most of us were never very good at understanding climate change in the first place. Climate was a general and underlying condition of our lives and of the planet, and the change was incremental and intricate and difficult to recognize if this species or that temperature record was not tracked. Climate catastrophe is a slow breakdown of the stable patterns that governed climate, seasons, species and migrations, all beautifully orchestrated systems from the Holocene era that we emerged from when we fabricated the Anthropocene through a couple of centuries of greenhouse gas emissions increasingly rampant. and destruction of forests.
This spring when I saw the surprisingly low Lake Powell water, I thought maybe this summer would be a turning point. At least for the engineering that turned the southwestern Colorado River into a kind of plumbing system for human use, with two huge dams that turned stretches of a mighty river into large pools of standing water called Lake Powell, on Utah’s eastern border. / Arizona, and Lake Mead, in the southern tip of Nevada. It has been clear for years that the overconfident planners of the 1950s failed to anticipate that, while playing with the river, industrial civilization was also playing with the systems that fed it.
The water they had is not there. Lake Powell is at about a third of its capacity this year, and thanks to a brutal drought, there was no major spring runoff to replenish it. That is if “drought” is even the correct word for something that could be the new normal, not an exception. The US Reclamation Office must make a statement that there is not enough water for two huge desert reservoirs and it will probably give up Powell to save Lake Mead.
I was able to see the drought up close when I spent a week in June floating down the Green River, the largest tributary of the Colorado River. The skies of southern Utah were filled with smoke from the Pack Creek wildfire that had been burning since June 9 near Moab, burning thousands of acres of wilderness and forest and incinerating ranch buildings and the archives of the legendary river guide. and environmentalist Ken Slight (fictitious as Seldom Seen Slim in Edward Abbey’s novel The Monkey Wrench Gang), is now 91 years old. Climate chaos destroys the past and the future. As of July 6, the fire continues to burn.
It wasn’t just the huge plume of smoke that filled us with dread at the coming adventure; the weather forecast of daily temperatures reaching 106 F made living outdoors for a week seem overwhelming. The water level in the river was much lower than normal and because it would drop much lower; the temperature in our rafts and kayaks just above the water was tolerable, but as soon as you walked a distance from the river’s edge, the heat reached you as if you had opened the door of an oven.
We also saw an unusual amount of wildlife on the trip: mustangs, bighorn sheep, a skinny black bear and their two cubs strolling along the riverbank, but any sense of wonder was tempered by the likelihood that thirst had driven them away. of the drought. stretches burned beyond the river. We need a new word for that feeling for nature that is love and wonder mixed with dread and pain, for when we see those things that are still beautiful, still powerful, but struggle under the weight of our mistakes.
Then came the heat dome over the northwest, a story that didn’t seem to make the mainstream headlines of many media outlets as it happened. Much of the initial coverage featured people in fountains and sprinklers as if this was just another hot day, rather than something that sent people to hospitals in droves. murder hundreds (and probably more than a thousand) in Oregon, Washington and British columbia, devastating wildlife, crops and domestic animals, creating the conditions for wildfires, and breaking down infrastructure designed for the Holocene, not the Anthropocene. It meant something far greater even than a crisis impacting a vast expanse of the continent: increasingly savage variations from the norm with increasing devastation that can and will happen anywhere. It appeared to have less coverage than the collapse of part of a single building in Florida.
The collapse of a building is an ideal specimen of news, sudden and specific in time and place, and in the case of this one on the Florida coast, easy for the media to cover as a spectacle with clear causes and consequences. A crisis that spanned three Canadian states and two provinces, with many kinds of impacts, including deaths without counting, was in many ways its antithesis. It could be argued that climate change, in the form of increased saltwater intrusion – was a factor in the collapse of the Florida building, but climate change was much more present in the heat records of the Pacific Northwest that were broken day after day and the consequences of that heat. In Canada, the previous highest temperature was broken by eight degrees Fahrenheit, a huge jolt into dangerous new conditions that humans have created, and then most of the city in which that record was set caught fire.
Later news focused on one aspect or another of the heat dome. The Canadian Broadcasting Corporation reported that the heat wave may have killed more than a billion coastal animals living on the Pacific Northwest coast. Lightning strikes in BC, generated by the heat, it soared to unprecedented levels, causing, according to one account, 136 forest fires. Heat wave Cooked fruit on the trees It was a catastrophe with many aspects and impacts, as diffuse as it was intense. The magnitude and impact were downplayed, along with the implications.
The political tipping points are as man-made as the climate catastrophe – we could have chosen to mark tipping points with the western wildfires of the past four years, in particular the burning of the city of Paradise and more than 130 of its residents in 2018, but also last year’s California wildfires that included five of the six largest fires in state history. It could include the deluge that drenched Detroit with more than six inches of rain in a few hours last month or the ice storm in Texas earlier this year or the catastrophic flooding in Houston (with 40 inch rain in three days) and Nebraska in 2019 or the point where the once-mythical Northwest Passage became real due to melting ice in the summer in the Arctic or 118-degree weather in Siberia this summer or water from Thaw spilling from the Greenland ice sheet.
A tipping point is often something you choose individually or collectively, when you find the status quo unacceptable, when you change yourself and your goals. The murder of George Floyd was a turning point for racial justice in America. Those who have been paying attention, those with experience or imagination, found their tipping points for the climate crisis years and decades ago. For some it was Hurricane Sandy or the fire in their own home or the far north permafrost that turned to mush or the IPCC report in 2018 saying we had a decade to do what the planet needs from us. Greta Thunberg had her turning point, as did the indigenous women who led the Line 3 pipeline protests.
Summing up the leaked content of an upcoming IPCC report, Agence France-Presse reports: “Climate change will fundamentally change life on Earth in the coming decades, even if humans can control the greenhouse gas emissions that warm the planet. […] Species extinction, more widespread disease, unbearable heat, ecosystem collapse, cities threatened by rising sea levels – these and other devastating climate impacts are accelerating and will surely become painfully obvious before a child born today turns 30. . The decisions societies make now will determine whether our species thrives or simply survives as the 21st century progresses … “
The phrase “the decisions that societies make” is a clear demand for a turning point, a move away from fossil fuels and the protection of the ecosystems that protect us.
Every week I temper the dire news of catastrophes like wildfires and of scientists measuring chaos trying to put it in the context of positive technological milestones and legislative changes and their consequences. You could call each of them a turning point: the point last week where Oregon passed the invoice setting the most aggressive clean electricity standards in the US, 100% clean by 2040. The point at which Scotland started getting more electricity from renewables than it could use. The point at which the state of New York banned fracking. The Paris Climate Treaty in 2015. Of course, as with the climate itself, many of the changes were incremental: the staggering drop in the cost and increase in the efficiency of solar panels over the last four decades, the myriad of solar and wind farms that have been installed around the world.
Increased public engagement with the climate crisis is more difficult to measure. It is definitely growing, as an increasingly powerful movement and as a matter of individual consciousness. Yet something about the scale and danger of the crisis still seems to defy human psychology. Along with the fossil fuel industry, our own mental habits are something we must overcome.
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism