(This essay was published originally by the Newport Daily News on February 12, 2014.)
Even before Rachel Carson’s book Silent Spring in 1962, I was environment-curious. Sixty years ago in northeast New Jersey, I watched the trash men haul away our garbage and wondered where it went. As I lay awake on those warm summer nights, I wondered where the acrid stench originated, drawn into our home by our attic fan. A few years later I stood, eyes skyward, and watched jet upon jet at a quickening pace on their short final approaches to an expanding Newark Airport. As I watched the jet fumes disperse, I wondered about the air I breathed.
Perhaps twenty years ago, the first time I taught the Industrial Revolution in a European History course, I became environment-concerned. The text books always contained at least one picture of the smokestacks of some British city belching the horrid black fumes from its factories. How could the atmosphere absorb so much pollution these 250 years and not strike back?
And now there are the robins. As a boy, I remember the robins vanishing silently as the dipping temperatures turned summer greens to autumn golds. It was indeed a true harbinger of spring when the first robins arrived in late February. This year on Aquidneck Island I observed the robins in late December; did they ever actually leave?
The international community and the United States have made some progress the last few decades addressing climate change. In 1992 the first international treaty on climate change was signed. The Framework Convention on Climate Change sought the “stabilization of greenhouse gas concentrations in the atmosphere at a level that would prevent dangerous anthropogenic [human-induced] interference with the climate system….” This was followed by the Kyoto Protocol in 1997 which gave specific emissions targets for each industrialized country over a five-year period, a protocol ultimately the U.S. did not ratify. In 2009, agreement was nearly reached for a more meaningful “Copenhagen Accord;” however, several nations raised insurmountable objections and success proved elusive. In the U.S., the Obama Administration has succeeded in mandating that the average fuel economy for cars and light trucks must be 35.5 miles per gallon by 2016. In the president’s recent state of the union address, he took a strong stance in asserting: “But the debate is settled. Climate change is a fact.” However, he stopped short of advocating a tax on carbon emissions.
Nonetheless, over the past ten years, with so many strange weather events here and around the globe, with so many scientific indicators of unprecedented climate change, and with so much of the scientific community waving red flags, I have become environment-troubled. These small steps may be too little, too late. The carbon will kill us. The World Meteorological Organization reported in November that the carbon dioxide level had reached 393 parts per million (ppm) in 2012. More recent measurements have placed it at more than 400 ppm, the highest level some say in hundreds of thousands of years, if not millions. Before the Industrial Revolution in the mid-18th century, the level was 280 ppm.
There is little genuine disagreement among scientists on the role of humans in this. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, composed of hundreds of scientists from many countries, concluded in its 2007 report: “Most of the observed increase in global average temperatures since the mid-twentieth century is very likely due to the observed increase in anthropogenic [human-induced] greenhouse gas concentrations.” Carbon dioxide is the most significant of these gases.
This clearly is not a challenge that our grandchildren will face; rather, it is a challenge which confronts us today. In its world energy outlook in late 2011, the International Energy Agency said the world has about five years to make dramatic changes to avoid severe impacts from climate change. Other agencies and scientists have made similar exhortations for meaningful steps now.
Clearly needed is a change in attitudes the world over; however, let’s start with our own. After all, while China has surpassed us as the world’s largest polluter, we Americans are the greatest polluters per capita. Since the Scientific and Industrial Revolutions, we have tried first to understand how Nature works and then control Nature to serve “progress.” We must move from an attitude of control over to harmony with Nature.
With a certain irony then, we may have to borrow from the culture of our Native Americans. Susan Jeffers, in her book, Brother Eagle, Sister Sky, tries with words and beautiful artwork, to have us experience the meeting in the 1850s between Chief Seattle, and Isaac Stevens, the Commissioner of Indian Affairs for the Washington Territory. “When the last Red Man and Woman have vanished with their wilderness, and their memory is only the shadow of a cloud moving across the prairie, will the shores and forest still be here? Will there be any of the spirit of my people left? My ancestors said to me, ‘This we know: The earth does not belong to us. We belong to the earth.’”
Without such a change in attitude, I fear that we may need an “environmental 9/11” to shake us from our complacency.