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Andy Schmookler: If these are the early stages...


By Andy Schmookler

"If these are the early stages, I shudder to think what's on the path ahead."

Two things brought that thought to mind.

One is my own aging. Aches and pains, stiffer muscles, presbyopia, diminished energy. As I approach my 67th birthday, I can imagine the kind of hard experience that led Bette Davis to say that old age isn't for sissies. It's no small challenge to come to terms with the ancient truth that the uphill part of life's cycle is followed by the downhill.

As a way of coming to terms with personal deterioration, we can always take the larger view in which we see ourselves as part of the circle of life. We have children; we have grandchildren; life renews itself. Although as individuals we may come and go, we are part of something bigger than ourselves that carries forward the stream of life.

But now that larger view of life has also become disturbing. That same alarming thought -- If these are the early stages, what the heck is on the path ahead? -- has come to mind in relation to another reality: the early stages of climate change.

Like what happened last June, when an unpredicted enormous wind swept across the Midwest and the Mid-Atlantic, knocking down trees for hundreds of miles, including some right around our house in the Shenandoah Valley. Just a few months later, Hurricane Sandy -- whose eye never approached within hundreds of miles of us --- attacked our area with 24 hours of hard-driving rain that found its way onto our wooden floors and into the homes of our neighbors. Sandy's winds took down still more trees.

Extreme weather has become far more frequent, just as scientists predicted.

Another weather development scared me even more.

I've been pining for spring all through March, looking at the extended forecast to see if warmer weather is coming. The average high temperature for this time of year is the mid-50s in my area, but we've had less than a handful of days in the past several dozen that have even reached that average. Most days have been a good 15 degrees colder than that.

Then I read this in the Guardian (UK):

"Climate scientists have linked the massive snowstorms and bitter spring weather now being experienced across Britain and large parts of Europe and North America to the dramatic loss of Arctic sea."

Even this frustratingly prolonged winter appears to be part of the larger picture called "climate change."

Global warming has diminished the sea ice in the Arctic to levels unprecedented in recorded history, altering the jet stream in a way that allows cold Arctic air to descend to lower latitudes than is normal.
This, climate scientists warn, is just the beginning. The momentum of these changes is gathering, some vicious cycles have been triggered, and the ultimate effect of our generations-long spewing of greenhouse gases into earth's atmosphere will be far greater than anything we've yet seen.

It's scary. What powers of this planet are we unleashing? What will life be like for our children and grandchildren?

How well will living systems around us survive? Apparently, not so well. For a couple of years, I've been worrying about all the dead wood in the forest surrounding our house. A few weeks ago I read in USA Today:

''Years of drought and high temperatures are thinning forests in the upper Great Lakes and the eastern United States, NASA satellites show. Nearly 40 percent of the Mid-Atlantic's forests lost tree canopy cover, ranging from 10 percent to 15 percent between 2000 and 2010, according to a NASA study released this week.''

Climate change has stopped being hypothetical. It's already part of our lived experience. It's visible. It's palpable. These early stages are rough enough. But if the climate scientists are right, we ain't seen nothing yet. We and our kind are in for a bumpy ride.

One would think that faced with a challenge this profound, we Americans would be responding with an all-out quest for ways of solving, or at least ameliorating the problem. That's how we responded to World War II, when fascism threatened us. That's how we responded to Sputnik, when the Soviets seemed to be overtaking us.

And yet, despite these real and ever-more-visible dangers, one of our two major political parties has made it dogma that there's nothing happening in our climate that we as a nation are obliged to address. What gets done? Not nearly enough.

This is dangerous.

Andy Schmookler, recently the Democratic candidate for Congress in Virginia's 6th District, is an author whose books include Debating the Good Society: A Quest to Bridge America's Moral Divide.


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