Friday, November 11, 2011

A dismal little truth

When we are talking about the problems of adapting to climate change, and the problems of the current climate bringing about weather that we haven't seen before, we have to stop and think about a small but crucial point. We have no experience of the weather patterns experienced of our forebears. True, we can rebuild the climatic conditions, and -- where weather data exist -- we can reconstruct what a particular day's weather conditions were like. However, even knowing that the weather in 1911 (or 1811, or earlier still) was like in one location will not help us to experience that weather, to internalize that experience, and to then be able to relate future experiences to that. The only thing that we have are accounts (written, transcribed, and measured) of those days; accounts that are interpreted into images and sensations that we -- each -- know and understand based on our experiences and imaginations.

I cannot imagine the snows that fell so high when my mother was growing up that she and her siblings would have to leave from the second floor of the house in order to shovel the snow. My mind cannot comprehend what that means, even though I can see images of how deep the snow gets online. However, according to my mother, the snow doesn't get as deep as when she was a child. How much of this is an absolute measurement, and how much of it is a relative measurement; I mean, she's taller than she was as a child, so things may not appear as large. Too, how much of it is a wistful memory?

The winters that I can relate to are not the winters of 30' snow drifts, but are the far less snowy winters of Tokyo, Budapest, St. Andrews, Denver, Flagstaff, and Ann Arbor. The idea of having to leave my cabin after even 4' of snow seems daunting, let alone having to clean the roof after a 10' or 20' snowfall, and yet these things happened; are happening, still. Yet I have no way of understanding the implications of such a phenomenon that was a real part of my mother's childhood. Therefore, the question of, "What should an Eniwa winter be like?" will make my visceral answer very different from that of my mother's. Even though I could look at photos, read written accounts, and study weather data to determine how different current winters are to the winters of 60 and 70 years ago, the answer I provide won't have any resonance to me.

Such, I argue, will be the same with our children and their descendants. Our would will be one that they won't understand, since they will never have experienced it. The only thing that they will know is their own world, and their own experience in growing up in it. They will hear the stories and read the accounts of "back in my day" and they may -- like we do with the stories of our grandparents' childhoods -- discount them as fantastical tales told through the mists of nostalgia. They may look at the data and see things as charts, numbers, and figures. They may even understand things as reconstructions of the past, but they will not likely ever be in a position of experiencing the weather that you are experiencing today, and (by extension) they will not likely ever viscerally understand how that weather is (or is not) normal for this time of year. True: they will have a lot of secondary clues as to how the weather of their forebears was different from their own; for instance they will know that (if sea levels do end up rising a few meters) much of Florida used to be above the tide. However, they won't know what it was like to live in Florida's climate of 2011 (or 1911 or earlier).

Why should we care, though? Well, if we wish to ensure that the climate is to return to a stable condition (even if it is at a higher CO2 level than now), we must understand that our progeny will come to think of their world as somehow "normal". It may be "messed up", but that condition of being messed up will -- as it is all they know -- likely be considered "normal". They will need to learn that their daily experience is not "normal", and what would that mean? How can we inculcate that notion? How can we normalize the actions of generations to come to move the climate away from warming; to make a culture of climate control? Also, is it ethical to try and inculcate a particular expectation of action for a goal that we set upon the shoulders of our children? Is it ethical, given the fundamental shifts that climate change will cause, not to do it (or even to try)?

I don't know the answers to these questions, but I do know that as surely as I cannot imagine the climate of Eniwa, Japan during the 1940s and 1950s, my children and (hopefully) grandchildren will not (if the studies of the impacts of climate change in the Great Lakes region are even roughly correct) be able to imagine the climate of Ann Arbor, Michigan during the 2000s, even if they end up growing up here. If the impacts of even the current drivers of climate change will play out over the next century (without needing us to add another net 1 kilogram of extra CO2 into the atmosphere), and if we want our descendants to benefit from our climate (one that has been extremely stable for millennia), then we will have to task our children (and grandchildren) with returning to a climate that they won't viscerally know (and will likely never know, if the time scales for reversion are correct).

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