Here in the coastal Maine town where my wife spent her childhood, my brother-in-law has lived his entire life. He doesn't talk much; makes his living running the town's water system, and in his spare time does wonderful stone masonry work. He's an avid hunter and outdoorsman. I have no idea what political party he tends to vote for, or whether he votes at all. He seems to tend to think of all politicians as corrupt. He's no fool.
And he has noticed that the weather is changing.
It's not just that it's hot and humid this week (It is). He reports that it's getting warm earlier in the spring, staying warm later in the fall. Wildlife and invasive species are showing up that weren't here a few years ago. In their youth, brother and sister say, the snow would at times be hip-deep for adults; in the 50's someone even opened a ski area on the high hill overlooking the coast. Now, the area gets more rain than snow each winter.
We live 3,300 miles away from most of my beloved's family, and she absolutely hates to fly. But, as it happens, we both love road trips. So every few years we pile in the car for the long, long, long drive. We usually take an indirect route.
This is the fourth time we've taken this journey in the last 12 years. Each trip is different, and each seems to suggest a theme not in the day's headlines. Last time we made the drive, in 2001 -- when gas was $1.29 a gallon, thank you, George -- there was a swath of local stories pointing to the underreported crises in our health care system. This year, the signs are all pointing not to the fact that the Middle East is (shudder) heating up, but that it is heating up, literally, everywhere else as well.
Global warming is not just about higher temperatures -- though it was nearly triple digits as soon as we crossed the Cascades, and stayed unseasonably hot (and increasingly humid, of course) as we crossed the northern tier of the United States. The first night out, we stayed at the more or less off-the-grid farm where long-time friends of ours live. The farm is situated in a narrow, forested canyon bottomland in rural northeast Washington state. In the 40-year history of the farm, it has never been seriously threatened by wildfires -- until the past two years, when it's happened twice. This year is unfolding as another bad year for fire in the West.
The next day, driving through the Northern Rockies, we saw whole forests decimated by pine beetles, an invasive past that has moved north as winters have warmed, into regions where it has no natural predators and against whom the region's vast coniferous forests have no natural defense. And so it went across the country. In Massachusetts, we saw kudzu -- kudzu! -- the notoriously invasive vine that has overrun the South, but which 20 years ago could not have tolerated a New England winter under any circumstances.
America's political literati have seized upon Al Gore's movie An Inconvenient Truth; it's an outstanding effort, one we've recommended to many friends. It's valuable not simply for amassing in accessible form the data on the scientific incontrovertibility of global warming as a human-caused phenomenon -- no serious scientist has questioned that for a decade -- but for also laying out how much more alarmingly worse it is turning out to be than anyone expected even a few years ago.
Because it's Al Gore, liberals have adored this movie, and conservatives on auto-pilot have dismissed it as liberal propaganda. (When, exactly, did it become possible for hard science to be considered "propaganda"? Yet with global warming, as with stem cell research, evolution, and any number of other issues in our neo-theocracy, not only politicians but even our craven mainstream media are doing just that. When England earlier this summer hit 100 degrees for only the second time in its recorded history -- the first time was in 2004 -- the phrase "global warming" was in countless British headlines. But when a similarly brutal heat wave recently struck the East Coast, local TV and print newsrooms spent millions of dollars finding new ways for reporters to tell their audiences that it was hot, really hot. Sentimental photos featuring children, parks, and some form of water graced front pages across America. But the phrase "global warming" never, ever appeared. Too "controversial.")
But valuable as Al Gore's movie has been in terms of calling attention to global warming as a critical public policy issue, tens of millions of Americans like my brother-in-law will never see it, and don't need to. They can see the evidence every day, every season, every year, and they can figure out where things are headed unless major action is taken to change our ways: from minor problems, like dealing with kudzu in the woods of southern Maine, to major ones, like failing crops, shifting fresh water supplies, and putting the beachfront businesses of my wife's home town (and, possibly, her childhood home) under a few feet of the North Atlantic. Perhaps Manhattan can afford to build a seawall. Small coastal towns in Maine, and everywhere else, will simply move, or drown.
We've long since decided that when we next need to buy a car, it will be a hybrid or biodiesel. Meanwhile, my mother-in-law is getting on in years. When she passes some day, hopefully not soon, I will need to heavily drug my wife and we will fly here on short notice. Beyond that, I doubt we will be making this trip again any time soon.
Across the country, in a thousand little ways, people who are paying attention to their surroundings are starting to figure out how to adjust their lives to accommodate the reality of global warming. We are also waking up to the desperate need to at least mitigate or hopefully slow, stop, or even reverse global warming.
But to be successful, such efforts in America will also need to be joined by major public policy shifts. In this we are woefully behind the rest of the world. Even when Bill Clinton was president and Al Gore was a few Senate votes away from the presidency, the United States chose to be an obstructive force in reaching a global consensus on how to address global warming. The United States didn't want to risk endangering its then-booming economy. Since 2001, the boom long gone (except for the oil companies and other White House-friendly industries), America has gone backward while the rest of the world has started to move forward. It is by far the greatest of the Bush White House's many crimes against humanity. It will be a long, long, long drive to get this country to where we need to be in addressing the crisis of global warming.
We'd best be on our way.
Geov Parrish is a Seattle-based columnist and reporter for Seattle Weekly, In These Times, and Eat the State! He writes the daily Straight Shot for WorkingForChange. Email to: firstname.lastname@example.org -- please indicate whether your comments may be used on WorkingForChange in an upcoming "letters" column.
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