I recently wrote that we’re living through Capital H History — what with your health care and your revolution in LGBTQ rights and your black President — and that is a delightful fact of which I remind my children frequently. “Take notes!” I say “This is what history looks like!” (I really do say that).
But over the past couple of weeks, it’s seeped into my consciousness that we’re living in another kind of Capital H History, one that is much less delightful and quite frankly terrifying: Climate change. Shit’s hit the fan, yo.
(explanation of chart, below)
As I have lately taken to bemoaning, I did not go into the real sciences. I went into the social sciences, where we use numbers to talk about things that can’t really be measured — which, ok. We all have to do something. But my not-real-science background doesn’t give me the intellectual scaffolding to get a true grasp of the heights and depths of what we’re dealing with here, and more to the point, gives me no intellectual tools with which to battle it.
I recycle. I try to drive less. I eat very little meat. And I support the party that is clearly more interested in being honest about what we’re doing to ourselves. But that’s pretty much the outer limit of what I can do to effect change. That and maybe write the occasional letter.
So though I have of course known that the shit has been rocketing toward the fan for years, I have mostly tried not to think about it. I register little bits and pieces of information (like: March 2011 to April 2012 were the warmest contiguous 12 months in the US since we started recording weather information in 1895) so that I can at least face the future with open eyes, but I don’t dwell. Because this frankly scares me in a way that nothing ever has before. Not the Great Recession, not Israel/Palestine, not the nuclear arms race, nothing.
In every other doomsday scenario that humanity has faced, we could at least hope that human wisdom would overcome human folly. We could at least hope that with enough advocacy, hearts and minds could be swayed and the doom averted.
But dude, the ball is rolling now. We set it in motion — having no idea that we were doing so at first, and then loudly denying that there was anything rolling anywhere, and if there was, it wasn’t us who pushed it — and now we have no idea where it will end up.
I mean: We have some idea — some really horrifying ideas — of what’s going to happen on the planet over the next couple of decades, but there is a massive number of variables that we just can’t reliably measure because they’re unprecedented. And there’s very, very little we can do about it, other than react.
We can act to slow the effects, and I know that all kinds of scientists and policymakers are working on that, and we can try to build useful models for our future needs, and we can do advocacy to make sure that decision-makers are on-board and making the most helpful decisions they can make.
But there’s no actual stopping it.
At a certain point, there are no hearts or minds to be won, because it’s just the climate, changed. Earth’s climate doing whatever it does now. There’s just paying for our mistakes with lives.
So, yeah. The early 21st century is a pretty enormous History Zone. I’m taking notes now. And I’ve told my kids to do the same.
I just don’t even know what to hope for as I look ahead to their futures.
How global surface temperature, ocean heat and atmospheric CO2 levels have risen since 1960
THE record of atmospheric carbon-dioxide levels started by the late Dave Keeling of the Scripps Institute of Oceanography is one of the most crucial of the data sets dealing with global warming. When the measurements started in 1959 the annual average level was 315 parts per million, and it has gone up every year since. To begin with it went up by roughly one part per million per year. Now it is more like two parts per million per year. The figure for 2011 is 391.6. More carbon dioxide in the atmosphere means a stronger greenhouse effect, and various measurements speak to this. Global surface temperature records show a warming over the same period, though because of fluctuations in the climate, air pollution, volcanic eruptions and other confounding factors the rise is nothing like as smooth. A steadier rise can be seen in the heat content of the oceans, measured in terms of the energy stored, rather than the temperature.