Wednesday, July 07, 2010

Consequences: Feeling It

The consequences of climate change begin to be acknowledged and understood, but slowly. In a human sense that's understandable--denial as well as distraction and unfamiliarity slow it down, but eventually it will sink in.

It's one thing to read about possible future consequences of, say, sea levels rising. The breadth and depth of these changes can be noted and comprehended intellectually, and by some, imaginatively. In fact, intellect and especially imagination are crucial necessities.

But when temperatures rise above 100F, as they are in cities in the US Eastern and Middle Atlantic states, the consequences of prolonged bouts of heat become viscerally evident. The external ones can be observed--machinery, wiring, urban infrastructure frying along with vegetables in the garden and crops in the field, while bodies of water begin drying up. And the internal ones can be felt as well as observed in others. The growing difficulties of thinking clearly, keeping a "cool head," and of acting with energy, in periods of high heat. The obsession with keeping cool, the exasperation becoming fear and desperation.

In a postscript to his visionary book, Down to the Wire: Confronting Climate Collapse, David W. Orr confesses the personal source of his concentration on the subject, which began in a blistering hot summer. "After the summer of 1980, climate change was important to me, not because I'd thought a great deal about it in an air-conditioned office, but because I had first felt it viscerally and somatically. My interest did not begin with any abstract intellectual process or deep thinking but rather with the felt experience of the thing, or what the thing will be like. That summer is recorded both mentally and bodily in memories of extreme heat with no respite."

There was another extremely hot summer or two at the end of the 80s, especially 1988 in the Eastern US. That experience is what drove my insistent focus on climate change and the future, as well as the more personal and selfish preference for the North Coast of California, where the heat rarely rises above 70F. Those late 80s hot summers led to some of the first public alarm reflected in books and other media, and inspired some interest in what I regard as still the best film about climate change, James Burke's After the Warming.

Surely there is some correlation between the killer heat waves that western European countries have experienced and their own focus on the Climate Crisis. As Stephan Faris's reporting in Forecast shows, people living in the most affected areas of the world so far--particularly those whose lives and livelihoods are tied to the land--experience, recognize and acknowledge the signs and the consequences of the reality that others foolishly and tragically reject.

So once again this summer, TV airheads chirp about "another hot one out there" and ways to beat the heat, as if the prospect of more and longer heat waves can be cured by more ice cream. Meanwhile, the vulnerable among us, already ignored and even targeted by shameful political callousness, will sicken and die silently from the heat, unknown, probably uncounted and unheeded. Especially the old.

My sympathies to those who must endure the heat today. Keep as cool as you can. And when your head is cooler, remember today. This is something we must all prepare for, while we try to prevent even worse for generations ahead.

A Climate Progress update on the heat wave and its relationship to the Climate Crisis.

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