Wednesday, April 8, 2015

Hard Landings: Climate Change and Cheap Wine

In observation of the 35th Annual Earth Day on April 22, we asked award-winning writer Seamus McGraw, author of Betting the Farm on a Drought: Stories from the Front Lines of Climate Change, to combine his signature humor and measured approach to the climate change debate for a guest blog post.

'Hard Landings: A Tale of Cheap Wine, Broken Bones and Climate Change'
By Seamus McGraw

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It wasn’t until weeks later--long after the half-gallon of Carlo Rossi red I had swilled and the painkillers that came later in the night wore off--that I actually felt the impact. Sure, I had some vague recollection of the fall, of trying to hop up on the banister in the atrium of my college dorm, three floors above a flagstone foyer, and of missing it by a good six inches. If I racked my brain while recuperating in my bed at home, I could dimly recall a fleeting Wile E. Coyote moment of clarity as I realized that I had indeed missed. And if I really tried, I could even feel myself plunging ass-first through the air as if I were doing a cannonball down onto the stones.

But that’s all. I had no recollection of hitting bottom, no memory of the thunder clap of savage pain that shot through my whole body as part of my hip snapped. What’s more, I had no memory at all of what happened next; how, in an astonishing display of the power of blind, late-adolescent stupidity, I got up, broken hip and all, and, I’m told by several witnesses, tried to run back upstairs, as if rolling the whole episode back to the beginning and doing exactly what I had done again, only this time a little more gracefully, would erase it.

And then, one night, weeks after the incident, while lying in bed half asleep, it all came back, all of it, unbidden-- the panic as I plummeted, the bone-crushing pain as I hit. It was as if it was happening right then and there. But it was, in a way, worse, because with it came a hot rush of shame, not just for being stupid and arrogant enough to do what I did in the first place, but for being such a coward that I wouldn’t even allow myself to fully feel what it was that I had done until I knew I was safe.
That was years ago, and, to the relief of everybody who knows me, I’ve long since given up the Carlo Rossi. But I’ve found myself thinking back to that event a lot in recent days. Most recently, it was when US Senator Jim Inhofe, chairman of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, and perhaps that august body’s most strident voice against doing anything to combat anthropogenic global climate change, strutted into the Senate with a snowball in his hand.

The point he was trying to make, such as it was, was that global climate change can’t possibly be real--the fact that 2014 was likely the warmest on record everywhere except the Northeast notwithstanding--that the planet could not possibly be warming because it had snowed in Washington, DC.

It was the type of self-consciously over-the-top gambit the perpetually blustery Oklahoman trots out from time to time to fire up his base and tweak the tree huggers, and it had its intended result. For a good day and a half the cyberworld pulsed with predicable outrage, just as it had when it was alleged that the state of Florida had banned its environmental workers from using the phrase “climate change.”

I have to confess, I wasn’t outraged. What I felt more than anything else was a kind of pity, because what I saw was the same kind of panic-driven false bravado that sent me staggering up the staircase of my freshman dorm that night nearly 40 years ago.

It’s the same pity I feel when I see the frightened little boys in their “rolling coal” pickup trucks, inking the sky with thick black smoke like startled squids. I hear my lefty friends rail against them (though I might take their operatic denunciations more seriously if they weren’t burning such large quantities of ACTUAL COAL to power their plug-in hybrids, but that’s a post for another time), but again, I don’t share their outrage.

I just want to see if I can find a way to make them less afraid.

I’m not trying to say that there’s nothing to fear. There is.

There really is no longer any serious question among the vast majority of scientists who study such things that we’ve already sailed over the banister. Our planet is warming and we’re responsible for at least some significant part of it. To be sure, we can debate how much those rising temperatures have contributed to the persistent droughts that are baking the Southwest from Dumas, Texas, to the almond fields of California’s Central Valley. We can argue about just how much of an impact they’ve had on the changing ocean and air currents that conspired to hammer Boston with record snows this past winter, the same winter storms that furnished Inhofe with his now-infamous snowball. And we can trade predictions about when the Pacific will finally belch out all the heat it’s been sequestering, and make prognostications about what climatological havoc it will wreak when it finally does.

But the time for pretending is over. Jim Infohe and his like-minded colleagues may want to muddy the question of climate change by claiming that they’re not scientists, but they don’t have to be, any more than I had to be one to realize, belatedly, that mixing teenaged testosterone, cheap wine, and gravity is a recipe for disaster.

All they really need to do is show a little backbone.

And if they need some examples to show them how to do that, I’ve met plenty of them on the back roads these past few years I could introduce them to. They could take a lesson from guys like David Ford, a farmer from the Texas Panhandle who has been struggling for years now to find a way to reduce his water consumption and his fuel costs, changing the mix of crops he plants, finding new ways to use them, and in some cases returning to old ways to grow them, and doing it all with remarkable success.

Or I could introduce them to Ethan Cox, a farmer from deeply conservative southern Illinois, whose understanding of the rhythms of the land he works has prompted him to adopt old traditions to new technology to shield him against the increasingly volatile shifts from floods one year to droughts the next.

Illinois farmer Ethan Cox, in his workshop
Or they could spend a little time with Roy Diehl Sr., a crusty fisherman off the coast of New Jersey who’s been adapting for decades to the dual challenges of a changing climate and unbridled coastal development.

These men, and armies of other men and women just like them all across the country, are not environmental crusaders, or at least they don’t think of themselves that way. In a lot of respects they have more in common with guys like Inhofe than they do with my Nissan Leaf-driving pals from Vermont.

They are, by and large, people who are not politically or in some cases even religiously predisposed to believe in the whole hierarchical dogma that has grown up around the issue of climate change. They’re far too stiff-necked to genuflect in front of anybody else’s ideological altar.

Almost to a person, they’ll tell you they don’t know if they believe in anthropogenic climate change. What they do believe in is themselves, and in what they see with their own eyes. They don’t have the luxury of closing their eyes and making believe that if they just keep doing things the way they always did them that somehow, magically, the consequences would vanish.

No, these guys have what Senator Inhofe and his partisans lack, the good old-fashioned courage to be realistic. These are guys who are betting everything they have on their ability to adapt to a changing environment. Tragically, because guys like Inhofe in our government--out of fear, or hubris or a combination of both--are paralyzed, they’re doing it for the most part on their own. But they are doing it.

Certainly, it’ll take more than farmers or fisherman alone to develop the kind of mitigation and adaptation regimes that will be needed to slow the pace of climate change and cushion those impacts that are now all but inevitable. It will take action from Washington, from Austin and from the other state capitals, and from industry as well to fortify our vulnerable places and people against the extremes of weather linked to climate change.

And that will take courage and leadership. Fortunately, we have that in abundance. It’s standing in a field right now in southern Illinois and in Dumas, Texas; it’s casting off the bowline from a boat in a harbor on the coast of New Jersey. It’s just not in Washington, or Austin. Not yet.

And so, Senator Inhofe, maybe it’s time to listen to these guys. The snowball is in your court.

Don’t be so frightened.

Oh, and in case you were wondering, Senator, my hip hardly ever bothers me anymore. There’s just a slight twinge every now and then, only when it rains. And if you keep going the way you’ve been going, that may not be much of a problem in the future.

Seamus McGraw has written eloquently about hydraulic fracking and its sometimes devastating effects on landscapes and communities in The End of Country: Dispatches from the Frack Zone. His award-winning writing has also appeared in the New York Times, Huffington Post, Playboy, Popular Mechanics, Reader’s Digest, and the Forward, and on Fox Latino.

We were pleased to have Seamus in Texas this month. His newest book was featured at the San Antonio Book Festival and at BookPeople in conversation with Katie Pitrie (Tecolote Farm), Edwin Marty (Food Policy Manager, Office of Sustainability, City of Austin), and Hershel Kendall (Indian Hills Farm). The panel, moderated by Elizabeth Winslow of edible Austin, focused on issues raised from McGraw's conversations with farmers, ranchers and fisherman exploring how they deal with extreme weather and its very real consequences for their livelihoods.

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