Monday, August 28, 2017

Hope and Willful Ignorance: Why I'm Going to Work This Week

There's road rage. There's rage tweeting. And I guess there is rage blogging. I know this because I'm doing it tonight. I'm filled with rage, and feeling somewhat helpless to do anything about it. And yet there is always something that can be done.

I'm watching the horrible events unfolding right now in the coastal region around Texas and Louisiana, where Hurricane Harvey is dropping rain at a rate that defies any kind of normal comprehension. Word is beginning to emerge that 100,000 homes, maybe more, have been destroyed. Even though we don't have a clear picture yet of the full extent of the damage, it's already clear that years will be needed before the region can return to some semblance of normal. It's a tragedy and the effects will extend far beyond the edge of the storm. Many of the nation's oil refineries are in the region, as well as important port facilities. My heart aches for those who have been injured or have died, and those who have lost their homes and businesses.

So why am I feeling so sick inside right now? It's tricky to explain...this was a so-called "act of God" event, one that might be expected to occur once every 500 or 1,000 years. They happen, and as occupants of this planet, we've had to deal events like this throughout our existence as a species. The problem is that these events are happening more often, driven in part by the warming of our planet. And willful ignorance is now killing people needlessly.

As has already been pointed out by many, no single event can be blamed on global warming, but warming is reinforcing the intensity of each event. A common analogy is that no home run in baseball can be pinpointed as the result of taking steroids, but an increase in the frequency and distance of home runs over time can be. Hurricane Harvey may very well have happened if global warming were not an issue, but the Gulf of Mexico was unusually warm. This caused additional evaporation, and helped to increase the intensity of the winds. Sea level is a few inches higher due to warming over the last century, and this intensified the effects along the coast. There are other factors, of course, including increased population and urban development, which destroyed wetlands that could have absorbed some of the storm waters.
Lives were saved this week because of science. Meteorologists and climatologists were able to use incredible technology to predict the trajectory and intensity of the storm days in advance, allowing people to prepare, and to evacuate if they could. Government agencies and emergency services were able to mobilize resources in advance of the disaster. We knew what was going to happen. Science told us.

But we now have people in charge of our government who are willfully ignorant of the extent and even the existence of global climate change. They are using their power to dismantle the very agencies that allowed us to predict the nature of Hurricane Harvey, and this leaves us vulnerable to hurricanes and tornadoes in the future. And it isn't just the climate agencies. Budgets are being cut at the Environmental Protection Agency, the Department of the Interior (except, of course, for oil and gas exploration), the Food and Drug Administration, the Centers for Disease Control, and the National Science Foundation. Science is under attack on many fronts. The reasons are many, involving politics, tax cuts, and outright fraud and lies. I read headlines every day, and sometimes I feel a deep sense of hopelessness.

Each of the pictures I've posted today is a place I've visited that is threatened by global warming. The first is Glacier National Park in Montana, where the glaciers are disappearing at an accelerated rate. When they are gone, the ecosystem of the park will be radically changed. The second is of Sequoia National Park, where an intense five-year drought, in all probability intensified by warming, has killed many millions of trees. The third photo is the Great Barrier Reef, which has been decimated by coral bleaching related to the warming of the oceans. And finally below, is Venice, a city threatened like almost no other by sea level rise. We are losing all of these precious places, and there are many more. Where is the hope?

There is hope, and that's what this week is about.  I have a classroom, and this week I get to start the adventure of my 33rd year of teaching science in the community college system. In my own small way, I am privileged to light a candle to help fight the darkness that threatens our future. I am always encouraged at this time of year that logic and science can win out over ignorance and rancid politics. I may be naïve in that thought, but I'll take it. I am proud beyond all words of my former students who are themselves now teachers and researchers. I am proud of my former students who went on in other fields, but who have continued to do their part as knowledgeable members of society to seek the best science-based solutions to the problems that bedevil us.

I know that ignorance can in fact be overcome. We managed as a society to pass the Clean Air Act, the Clean Water Act, formed the Environmental Protection Agency, and expanded our protected areas as parks, monuments, and wilderness areas. We dealt as a world community with ozone depletion. And nearly all the world's nations agreed to the Paris Climate Accords. I am confident that saner minds will ultimately prevail in Washington so that the United States will also participate. The ignorance cannot stand in the light of knowledge and evidence. Our world is worth fighting for.
Am I being too naïve and idealistic? Maybe. Time will be the judge, I suppose. But I find it interesting that I still go into the classroom each new semester with a sense of hope and renewal. It's been that way when times were good, and it seemed like we as a society were on the right track, and it's been that way in the darkest of times, when fools and criminals have held the reins of power. The hope for a better future hasn't been beaten out of me. Not yet. And if it ever is, I will fight on anyway.
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