Welcome to Climate Chronicle

 

Photo by Rick Chamberlin

“The best work is done with the heart breaking, or overflowing.”

-Mignon McLaughlin

This is not a manifesto.

And yet, because this is my inaugural post, some background is in order.

Climate Chronicle is one man’s attempt to bear witness to the many ways climate change is altering one small part of the heartland — and the hearts of the people who live there.

That man is me, Rick Chamberlin, and my heartland community is Sauk Prairie, Wisconsin, the shoulder-to-shoulder villages of Sauk City and Prairie du Sac in Sauk County, Wisconsin. I was born in the Badger State and have lived in Sauk Prairie since 1998, the hottest year in recorded history. (Already 2010 is shaping up to be even hotter; the first four months of the year have all broken records going back to 1880.)

It’s a beautiful place, Sauk Prairie, bordered on the east and south sides by the Wisconsin River, on the north and west by the Baraboo Range and remnants of the great Sauk Prairie. But thanks to climate change caused by global warming, Sauk Prairie — just like every other place in the world — is changing, and the pace of that change is accelerating.

As the heartland changes, the hearts of those of us who live here change, too. Our identity — the sense of who we are as individuals and as a people — is tied in interesting and often complex ways to the places we live. So this blog will explore and chronicle that change, too.

But Climate Chronicle is more than a record of the ways global warming is changing us and the communities we live in; it’s also a record of the ways we (me, my family, my neighbors and my fellow Wisconsinites) are altering the climate. By climate I mean the climate that determines our weather, yes, but also the climate of public opinion. Unfortunately, the former has been changing much faster than the latter.

Author and activist Bill McKibben has written that man-made global warming has already done away with the planet most of us were born on. Permanently. We live in a fundamentally different world now. If you want the litany of damage and upheaval, read McKibben’s latest book, Eaarth: Making a Life on a Tough New Planet. As the chickens we’ve unleashed with our burning of fossil fuels continue to come home to roost and global warming hits more Americans where they live, the climate of public opinion will continue to heat up, too (click here to link to an article of mine about this that appeared in the Capital Times). My hope is that this blog will help speed up that kind of warming.

There are many climate websites and blogs (I provide links to some of my favorites in the sidebar). Some are written by scientists, some by policymakers and activists. Climate Chronicle is a blog written and edited by a layperson for laypeople, dealing with climate change at the community and personal level. It grew out of my life-long love affair with this big blue marble of a planet we live on, especially the parts of it here in the Midwest I know best, and out of my growing concern for the ways global warming is altering those places and the people and other creatures who share them with us.

Climate Chronicle is also an attempt to place myself more squarely where, as writer and theologian Frederick Buechner once put it, the world’s greatest need and one’s own deepest gladness intersect. It’s in that place that I believe we can all be most effective.

My deepest gladness has from a very young age been bound up in the natural world — and with words and writing (more about that  in future posts).

If you’re reading this, it’s somewhat likely you share my view that one of the world’s greatest needs is for human beings to rapidly change the way we produce and use energy. The energy that fuels our economies and the energy that fuels our bodies and minds, even our souls. It could be that your concern arises out of direct experience of the local consequences of global warming. Perhaps your farm is in the grip of a multi-year drought brought on by changes to the climate. Your town may have been inundated when an extreme weather event — more and more frequent today than in decades past — caused the river on which your community was founded to overflow its banks. This happened to several communities in my own county in 2008. Or maybe you reside in southern California and are watching the snow pack in the Sierras — your drinking water source — shrink with each passing year. If you live in the Rockies, you are bearing witness to the massive die-off of lodgepole pines on the slopes around you. And if you call Alaska or Canada home, you may be feeling the ground literally shift beneath your feet as millions of square miles of permafrost melt, releasing large amounts of methane, a greenhouse gas more than 20 times better at trapping heat in the atmosphere than carbon dioxide.

Or it could be that the perceived effects have been almost entirely psychological for you. Perhaps like me you felt a great sadness fill you when you realized that global warming means that your children and grandchildren will inherit a world much more volatile and uncomfortable than the one you grew up in. (And significantly less diverse and beautiful, too.) I dedicate this blog to my own children, Hattie and Sam, and to all children, born and unborn, who will inherit that diminished world.

For many people the damage done and the damage to come is cause for despair. Grief is a completely sane and appropriate response to what’s happening. Indeed, acceptance and effective action can’t come without it. But can we afford to let our grief or our fear paralyze us? There are few better antidotes to despair and fear than action. We owe it to our brothers and sisters with whom we share the planet — as well our progeny — to fight hard for what’s left. To paraphrase Wendell Berry, concern is one of the necessary disciplines of citizenship. I created Climate Chronicle, in part, as a way to cope with my own grief, but also as a way to get to know my neighbors, my community and the region I live in better. There will be things we will have to jettison to make it on the new Earth (or Eaarth), but it may be that living lives fuller in some respects than the lives we led before we let go of all that stuff is not only more compatible with a hotter, more volatile planet, it may even slow the rise of the fever. We’re going to need each other more than ever, certainly more than all our possessions allowed us to need each other in the past.

Not only will we have to be more attentive to our neighbors if we’re to be effective change agents, we will need to pay much more attention to what’s happening around us — at least as much attention as we pay to what’s happening at the planet’s poles. We need to be present to — to bear witness to — the changes in our own communities and in ourselves.

Of course we must continue to pressure our national leaders to do more to turn the ship of state away from the rocks toward which it is headed. The Obama administration has done more than any other administration to put us on the right track with respect to a sane energy policy, but it’s far from enough. If Obama wanted to do everything the climate scientists say we should (and should have done years ago) — and it’s uncertain he does — he wouldn’t be able to because he would be (is) hamstrung by a Congress that has been unable to muster the courage, will and votes to carry the necessary legislation to his desk for a signature. Even if every member of Congress was as informed and motivated as Al Gore, it’s still not clear that the system of government our founders designed would be expeditious enough to avert disaster.

For these reasons cities and states have for years done the lion’s share when it comes to mitigating global warming–and adapting to it. Just because the  federal government has finally started to invest larger amounts of money in conservation and renewable energy doesn’t mean cities and towns are off the hook. Not only will they remain on the hook, climate change will ensure that cities and towns — and even neighborhoods — are called upon to do even more.  Big isn’t working very well for the world.  As McKibben writes in Eaarth, it’s not just banks and car makers that have become too big to fail. Commodity agriculture, with it’s over-reliance on a few mammoth agribusinesses and a few dominant crops like corn and soybeans, not to mention a heavy dependence on oil and the fertilizers derived from oil and gas, is vulnerable to the increasing volatility of the climate, and a host of other threats.

 

Photo by Hattie Chamberlin

Small is becoming the next really big thing. “Many small things breed a kind of stability; a few big things endanger it,” McKibben writes. What happens locally will be more important than ever in the days ahead. Not only will local governments  have to cope with more floods, crop failures and epidemics, they will have to figure out how to radically transform their communities so that they are more self sufficient and sustainable, and less reliant on food and products shipped from thousands of miles away by giant companies with very little knowledge of or concern for the places we live. But whether those places are small towns like the one I live in or big cities like Milwaukee, they will all have to find ways to scale down, power down and hunker down so that we can survive and, with luck, rise up and thrive again someday. This will all require nothing less than a rebirth of citizenship in this country — and in the world.

 

But we can’t have a rebirth of citizenship without well-informed citizens. Someday, I am convinced, every news-gathering organization will have a dedicated climate beat. At least the ones that survive the current earthquake within American journalism will. But we can’t afford to wait to see how things shake out with newspapers. While blogs and the people who write them will never take the place of the kind of good, investigative reporting newspapers have given us since our nation’s founding, they can help disseminate some of that excellent reporting and fill in some of the gaps that have opened up. The number, nimbleness and independence of bloggers also allows us to do things many newspapers don’t do very well these days, like tell stories which might not otherwise get told because they don’t sell advertising and make money for shareholders but nevertheless inform and strengthen local communities.

As already mentioned our individual and collective identities stem, in part, from the places we call and make home. The particulars of a place become a part of us just as we become part of a place by living in it. But there is much that is universal. Our hearts change  just as our communities change. Sometimes that change can be reactive and harmful, as when large segments of the public discount scientific evidence out of hand, leading to a national mood of distrust, cynicism and contention. But it’s a two-way street. Climate change can change our hearts but the opposite can happen as well. We can have a change of heart that changes climates — the climate of public opinion and, eventually, the physical climate upon which we all depend.

Two books that have had a profound effect on me and millions of other readers recently (and whose pages I may have highlighted more than any books I’ve ever read) are the previously mentioned Eaarth, by Bill McKibben, and A New Earth, by Eckhart Tolle. As their titles imply, both books deal with the fact that we are living in a new world. Eaarth is concerned primarily with the climate around us, A New Earth with the climate within us, but both books speak of a dramatic shift in consciousness that is necessary if we’re to survive the enormous upheaval we’re in the midst of. I believe this shift in consciousness, this change of heart, is another of the world’s greatest needs, part and parcel with transitioning to a clean energy economy. The sooner we tune our hearts to the reality of the now, the better off we’ll be. The places where McKibben and Tolle’s books overlap represents a crossroads of sorts, the place where the climate of the heartland (the places we call and make home) and the climate of the heart intersect. It can be an unsettling place, this crossroads. But it’s also a very interesting and exciting place, and it’s where I’ll be reporting from. I invite you to join me there.

A bit more about my approach to this blog:

First, I’ll focus mainly on my community and my state and my region because these are the places I know best. I happen to believe in thinking globally and acting locally (or even better, acting neighborly); nevertheless, doing the opposite — thinking locally and acting globally — is important, too. As scientists have always known, we can learn a lot about the whole from a careful examination of the parts — and of course there are many wholes in even the smallest parts of our world. That said, I will strive at all times to keep both the forest and the trees in view (or at least in mind). This may necessitate straying quite far, literally and figuratively, from my little community and my state. If the climate crisis has taught us anything, it’s that every piece of the world is connected to every other piece.

Also, as I’ve alluded to above, this blog will reflect a realist point of view. There is nothing to be gained and much to be lost by denying that we’re in it up to our necks. The planet is in a very bad way. If you haven’t already done so, read Eaarth. Read the anything-but-dry scientific research. Stephen King couldn’t write scarier stuff. The most frightening and heartbreaking news of all from the scientific community is that we’ve already lost our chance to reverse global warming (barring ill-advised attempts at geoengineering, which could result in unintended consequences that could make things much worse). Even if we ceased all inputs of man-made greenhouse gasses tomorrow, the long-lived nature of those gasses in the upper atmosphere, and the planet’s positive feedback loops, would ensure that our planet warms significantly in the next few decades. If I were a betting man, I’m not sure I’d place a wager on humanity surviving into the next century. Whether you care to contemplate human extinction or not, most experts agree that we’re in for very difficult days ahead. Especially if we don’t move rapidly away from burning oil and coal and toward clean, renewable forms of energy.

I can’t in all honesty call myself a realist, however, without acknowledging that there is still much that is good and right with the world. There is still a lot  to be saved, savored and celebrated on this new planet we find ourselves on. We stand to gain a great deal by fighting the good fight and seeking to live as much as possible in harmony with the natural systems that allowed us to evolve into the species we’ve become. And  in harmony with our neighbors, too. There is nobility in the cause. What’s more, this crisis is rife with opportunities to reshape our societies in ways that benefit everyone and make our future much more equitable.

And so you might call me a hopeful realist. For this reason many of my posts will be about possibilities. Imagination has never been more important than it is today. I’ll write about people — some living in my own community and state — who are masters of imagination and possibility. They inspire me to, as Van Morrison sings, “carry on regardless.”

Blogs are by definition both personal and political, and Climate Chronicle will be no exception. Politēs, the Greek word from which our word politic evolved, means citizen. It’s in that spirit that some or our greatest citizens and chroniclers of the particular and the profound — people like Henry David Thoreau, John Muir, Aldo Leopold, Sigurd Olson, Rachel Carson — were and are political. It’s doubtful we’d be in such a fix if we’d listened more to them. Their kind of politics is my aim. I hope to be half as articulate as they were.

Politics is also about asking questions. We need answers to our problems, certainly, but too often we seek answers to questions before making certain there weren’t better questions to be asked. One of the questions we answered with fossil fuels was: how can we efficiently and inexpensively grow our economy and build our societies while increasing wealth? Instead of rushing to answer that question, which is by no means a bad question, we might have first asked how we could lift more people out of poverty and allow as many citizens as possible to prosper without polluting our communities and destroying the natural capital and ecological systems on which all life depends.

Hindsight is always 20/20, some may say, and that’s true enough. Others might point out that we didn’t know that burning fossil fuels could alter the climate way back when the first coal was mined and ignited to cook with. But we did know that mining coal was a dangerous business that cost many lives. We knew that burning it made our cities filthy. We knew that the people living in those cities got sick from breathing sooty air. Global warming due to human industrial activity was first postulated by Swedish physicist Svante Arrhenius well over a century ago. T.C. Chamberlin (no relation to yours truly), a glacial geologist and former University of Wisconsin president, developed a similar theory at about the same time. There are many things we chose to deny or ignore because fossil fuels were (and remain) so inexpensive — at least until the environmental costs are added into the equation.

And so you will find at least as many questions as answers on these pages. Probably more.

Finally, a note about terms. I favor global warming or climate crisis over climate change when talking or writing about the problem because these terms are specific and convey the sense of urgency I believe is appropriate. Nevertheless, you will find me using climate change from time to time, too. This may ruffle some feathers, but there are just some times when that term is appropriate, as in the following sentence. The burning of fossil fuels is driving global warming, which is causing climate change. Climate change is the scientifically accepted term.

How issues are framed is important, but I think we waste precious time haggling over what to call the problem when instead we should be getting to work mitigating and adapting.

Thank you for visiting Climate Chronicle. Please share your comments (but remember that little Greek word). If you find what you read here thought-provoking or helpful, please tell your friends.

-Rick

Sauk City, WI

May 2010

Photo by Rick Chamberlin

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