America is baking. As temperate areas push well into triple digits this week, the media reminds us that global heating is real. Just as real as it was five years ago, when I wrote this essay. After work today, I went for a walk. It’s too hot to run, too hot to bike, kind of even too hot to walk. Well, too hot to breathe. After cooling down, I changed into a dry shirt and shorts. I dropped my wet clothes down the laundry shoot (really just a drywall bucket sunk though the floor) just like I do after a run. What’s changed in the past five years? Not a thing, or really it’s only gotten worse. it’s building, feeding itself. It’s too late to turn down the heat.
July 20, 2016
Hmm. Nothing fuels a good rant a like a long, agitated run. I left work early yesterday—I was having trouble focusing. In fact, I was having trouble breathing. I was hovering on the edge of an anxiety attack. The best thing for me to do in this situation is to run away. Fight or flight? Flight is better. You can’t battle an adversary you can’t see. So, literally, I ran.
After bailing mid-afternoon on my nonproductive workday, I prepared for a run: a long, hot run. It almost always works. It’s a normalizing activity. It’s the rhythm, the deep breathing, the uninterrupted time to think, becoming physically and mentally tired. It’s a short term fix when anxiety takes over. Positive punishment… much better than hitting my head against a wall. I filled up my Camelback, squeezed into my compression socks, checked Facebook, and headed out for two hours of sweat.
The Facebook part proved to be most important. There was a reply from my friend Jim McHenry. We have a lot in common: we’re oldish guys in our mid-fifties, we’re each still passionate about running but our best performance is years behind us; we both hold apocalyptic views of climate change. Jim was the catalyst for me joining Facebook in the first place. I wanted to read his profanity-laced rants about global warming.
This conversation was sparked by an article about Teresa May, the new post-Brexit Prime Minister of Britain, and her steps to reduce the importance of climate change in the British policy agenda.
My Facebook comment: Ah, they all seem so intelligent with their fancy accents. But when it comes down to it, the British are just as unexceptional as we Americans.
Jim’s response: Sad to say no one understands yet what is coming. There is a chance to get out of this but they keep on going down the dark hallway.
So here comes my rant. Here comes the thread that clicked through my already amped up brain for two hours on a hot Tuesday afternoon as I jogged through the wooded sections of the Gettysburg Battlefield.
Jim, I respectfully disagree. There is no chance to get out of this. People are too stupid, too selfish, and too fearful to act. Humanity is that clichéd frog in a big pot of water heating over a campfire. We swim contentedly in our warm bath of convenience: cheap gas, endless roadways, plastic water bottles, and a new 5G spectrum. Everything is perfect.
It all comes down to money. Change is expensive. It might be less profitable than the status quo. If wealthy, industrialized countries like Britain and the United States won’t invest the money to save our lives, then no one will.
Our pot of water has been heating for years, but we pretend not to notice. This year is a bit warmer than last, but it’s still relatively comfortable. Society won’t act, policies won’t change, until we start to simmer. “Hmmm, maybe we should stop throwing fuel on the fire.” But then it’s too late, we’ll all boil away before the fire dies down.
Ever since the late 1950s, environmental catastrophists have been predicting a peak-oil event occurring around the mid-nineties. This is when world oil reserves begin to become depleted and gas prices spiral out of control. As the price of gas escalates, peak-oil proponents suggest, humanity will develop new renewable energies… or society crumbles. It’s a make or break situation, a 50/50 chance of survival. But it is generally viewed by a fringe environmental community (that includes me) as the only way to save humanity. Only by running out of fossil fuels will we switch to a non-polluting energy source.
Peak-oil is a myth. Our energy innovation has by and large been invested in better ways to locate and extract fossil fuels. We are still finding oil fields, we’re learning how to extract oil from sand, gas from shale. Billion dollar companies rely on a growing oil supply, so the majority of our energy research funding goes to oil. The pot keeps heating.
If you look closely, you can see the heat-bubbles already forming. Last week I was in Arizona. My family visited Lake Mead, the reservoir created by the construction of the Hoover Dam in the 1930s. Over ten years of drought has lowered the water level of the lake to 37% of full. This is the lowest level ever. Lake Mead, along with Lake Powell (57% full) is the principal water supply to the southwest United States. An entire region of our country is more than halfway to uninhabitable.
Sea levels are increasing. Ice sheets are melting. Diseases are spreading into new regions. Storms are escalating. And Donald Trump might be our new president. The apocalypse has arisen; slowly, incrementally. We just haven’t noticed yet—our pot of water is still bearable.
Many climate specialists talk about the global tipping point. This is where global warming causes a feedback loop. We have a catastrophic event, which causes another event, then another, and so on.
Here’s a popular version: Too much melting polar ice overloads and shuts down the natural ocean currents responsible for keeping the Atlantic cool. The Atlantic heats up, North American glaciers melt. Less ice reflects less heat. North America heats up more. Trapped methane in the permafrost tundra is suddenly allowed to escape, which increases our atmosphere’s propensity to trap heat, which further fuels heating. And so on.
The Bible warns us to avoid the forbidden fruit—which is usually portrayed as an apple or intercourse, depending on your perspective—but what it really should have cautioned against is the combustion engine. Like apples and sex, burning fuel is just too good to give up. We’ve opened up Pandora’s Box and let a monster out. Unfortunately, I see little reason for hope.
We’ll keep swimming in our heated pool until it becomes too hot to enjoy. And when we try to turn down the temperature, we’ll find there is no switch. People will be aghast. They’ll suddenly bemoan the damage to our planet that our leaders have allowed. But don’t worry about the planet, this is just one of the normal checks and balances built into nature. Overpopulated species always experience extinction eventually.