Earth Day 2013

I’m tired of snow and winter. It is easy to joke about looking forward to the effects of global warming if it means that winter here on the Northern Plains ends a month earlier and winter is not quite so cold. Here along the forty-ninth parallel, our gardens missed any change in the USDA’s new hardiness zone map. We are still firmly in Zone 3 when choosing what perennial plants will survive from one year to the next. A few degrees warmer in the yearly average sounds like a good thing. I hate having snow in the trees on the 4th of July.

It is ironic that the very warming we long for could also be contributing to our excess snow. According to climatologists, as the atmosphere warms it is able to hold more moisture creating a greater likelihood of heavy rain and snow fall. Paradoxically, our changing climate can also increase our chances of drought and wild fire. While our winters may in the future be shorter and not quite as cold, we might be sorry we got what we wished for. The year 2012 was the warmest year in recorded history in North America. Drought spread across the Midwest in a record dry spell. The water in the ponds around our farm were almost dry by the end of the summer, only well-timed rain and sufficient subsoil moisture saved us from disaster.

Scientists tell us that while some plants will grow bigger, faster, taller because of the warmer weather and higher carbon dioxide levels, others will die because they will not have enough moisture to survive. Insects and diseases we have not had to deal with in the past will move north with the warmer weather. Many weeds, Canadian thistle included, will thrive because carbon dioxide stimulates growth of their root systems. Farming will need to change.

As the carbon in our atmosphere rises, and it is rising at an alarming rate, the world’s ice has begun to melt. As the glaciers and polar ice caps melt and fail to refreeze in the winter, the increased water in the ocean will raise sea levels and flood coastal areas. It is estimated that even a seemingly modest three foot rise in the ocean will cause tens of millions of people who live along the world’s coasts to lose their homes, their livelihoods and perhaps even their lives. The people who live in Miami will be inconvenienced and will have to move. The people I got to know in Jacmel, Haiti, have no money to move and no place to move to. The ocean will send salt water inland destroying the ability of the island’s rich coastal plains to grow crops. Hurricanes will be even more devastating. The world’s poor will suffer the most because they have the least ability to adapt.

Those of us who live in North Dakota don’t really want to talk about what needs to be done to prevent climate change. We’d really like to pretend it isn’t going to happen, that it is the “agenda” of some outside radical environmentalist groups or persons with some nefarious plot to destroy our way of life. We don’t like the idea that our exploitation of the rich carbon resources of our state might be curtailed by efforts to reduce our nation’s and our world’s carbon emission. We want to be able to extract all the coal and oil under our soil and to sell it to the highest bidder. The oil and coal industries, after all, are making our state the envy of the nation. We have billions of dollars in our bank account and look forward to reaping even more rewards from the burning of fossil fuels.

Monday, April 22, is Earth Day. When the first Earth Day was held, the issues facing us were the pollution of water and air and the depletion of the ozone layer. We have made some progress in dealing with those things. Many of our waterways are cleaner than they have been for decades. Smog alerts still happen, but not with the frequency they did in the 1970s. We have gotten better about dumping things in the river and pretending they just went away. The ditches along the highways are not nearly as littered as they were in the 1950s and 60s. Some birds and animals such as the bald eagle and the wolf have been brought back from near extinction. Our increased awareness of the environment around us has made a difference.

Those issues are tiny compared to the problems we now face. Ninety-seven percent of the world’s climate scientists agree that the earth is warming and that it is our human activity which is the cause. Some scientists believe we have underestimated the impact of the warming we are seeing. Others think we have overstated the urgency to change how we live.

The chances are, however, that if we continue to burn fuels stored in the earth for millions of years at the rate we are, we will all suffer the consequences. We are protecting our current way of life at the expense of the common good of future generations.

We can all make small changes that will make a small difference, but nothing substantial will change as long as we refuse to demand large scale changes in how we travel, move goods, heat our homes, manufacture our goods and grow our food. Those changes can only happen if our politics change. As long as corporations and individuals who are reaping huge rewards for exploiting oil and coal reserves also are allowed to influence the policies enacted by our government, both state and national, the common good will suffer and the children being born today will be the ones who pay the bill.

Copyright © 2013 Janet Jacobson and Sustaining the Northern Plains