“The troubled sky reveals
The grief it feels.”
These two lines were written by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow in his poem “Snow-Flakes,” published in a volume in 1863 alongside his epic and better-known “The Midnight Ride of Paul Revere.” Much of the news chatter this week has been about Sarah Palin’s flubbing of the history of Revere’s famous ride in April 1775. Revere was on a late-night, clandestine mission to alert American revolutionaries of an impending British attack. Palin’s incorrect version had Revere loudly ringing a bell and shooting a gun on horseback as a warning to the British to back off.
Pathetically, as well, the media has been awash with New York Congressmember Anthony Weiner’s string of electronic sexual peccadillos. Punctuating the sensationalism, and between the TV commercials from the oil, gas, coal and nuclear industries, are story after story of extreme weather events. Herein lies the real scandal: Why aren’t the TV meteorologists, with each story, following the words “extreme weather” with another two, “climate change”? We need modern-day eco-Paul (or Paula) Revere to rouse the populace to this imminent threat.
If anyone fits that role, it’s Bill McKibben. He’s been speaking, writing and organizing globally to stop climate change for more than two decades. I recently asked him about the extreme weather/climate change connection:
“We’re making the Earth a more dynamic and violent place. ... We’re trapping more of the sun’s energy in this narrow envelope of atmosphere, and that’s now expressing itself in many ways. We don’t know for sure that any particular tornado comes from climate change. There have always been tornadoes. We do know that we’re seeing epic levels of thunderstorm activity, of flooding, of drought, of all the things that climatologists have been warning us about.” As Naomi Klein, a true Paula Revere, warned recently, “This crisis will be exploited to militarize our societies, to create fortress continents.”
McKibben, founder of the grass-roots climate-action organization 350.org, critiques media coverage of the disasters: “You didn’t see ... pictures from Sri Lanka, from Vietnam, from the Philippines, from Brazil northeast of Rio, where they’ve had similar kinds of megafloods, now Colombia.”
When McKibben speaks of a “more dynamic and violent place,” he’s talking about the climate. But climate change, increasingly, can cause actual political violence. This week in Oslo, people gathered for the Nansen Conference on Climate Change and Displacement, to work on the growing problem of climate refugees. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, Antonio Guterres, warned of two threats: slow onset disasters like drought and desertification that lead to “a tipping point at which people’s lives and livelihoods come under such serious threat that they have no choice but to leave their homes,” and “natural disasters [that] uproot large numbers of people in a matter of hours.”
A principal concern is that these millions, even billions, who are or will be displaced will be denied safe haven. As Naomi Klein, a true Paula Revere, warned recently, “This crisis will be exploited to militarize our societies, to create fortress continents.”
UNHCR’s Guterres notes that most of the climate refugees will be internally displaced within their home country. And you needn’t look as far away as Pakistan to see evidence of that. Just this week in the United States, people have been forced to flee tornadoes in western Massachusetts, flooding in Iowa and Colorado, and wildfires in Arizona. Record-breaking heat levels in Washington, D.C., and Texas are threatening lives, with the hottest summer months yet to come.
Not far from Oslo, in Bonn, Germany, more than 3,000 participants from some 180 countries are gathered to plan for this December’s U.N. climate talks in Durban, South Africa. Addressing the meeting, Tove Ryding of Greenpeace said, “What we are talking about here is actually millions of green jobs, to transform our societies to energy systems that are safe, that are stable and that are based on renewable energy and energy efficiency.”
That move, away from fossil fuels and nuclear toward renewable energy, is being embraced now by more and more countries, especially after the Fukushima disaster. Japan just revealed that there were three full nuclear meltdowns at Fukushima. Switzerland and Germany have announced that they will be phasing out nuclear power. China, Germany and Japan, three of the world’s top five economies, are charging ahead on renewable-energy research and deployment.
The Obama administration’s paltry funding for renewable-energy research pales in comparison with the tens of billions in subsidies for the oil, coal and nuclear industries.
The global climate is changing, and humans are the principal cause. Will we in the U.S., the world’s historically largest polluter, heed the warnings of our environmental Reveres, or will the troubled sky, as Longfellow wrote, increasingly reveal the grief it feels?
Denis Moynihan contributed research to this column.