A Fusion of Climate Science and Storytelling
Although I’m an artist, I’ve been an amateur student of environmental disruption since 1985.
Witness the two Virginia tulip poplars thriving in my New Hampshire back yard for a decade now, where I planted them as tiny saplings in hopes they’d survive our harsh winters. They’re now eight feet tall, growing in a place they shouldn’t be. When they mature, long after I’m gone, they’ll be seventy feet, taller than the red oaks and maples living there now. Thirty years ago, the first winter would have killed those little saplings, but the winters are no longer so harsh.
Why did I plant them? Call it worry. Call it knowing that in another thirty years my back yard may be too hot a world for the sugar maples I love so much. Call it knowing that if there’s a die-off of maples and oaks, at least these tulip trees from a southern biome will survive to help build a new forest for New Hampshire. Our state is 80% woods.
Curious why the seasons where I live have been shoved back a month, I set about studying climate dynamics and Gaia Theory in earnest about eight years ago. My early background studying science at Duke helped a lot. Biology. Statistics. Geology. Calculus. The sorts of intellectual tools that allow science to make sense, even to a non-scientist like me. Gaia Theory is a bundle of sciences that looks at earth as a vast, self-regulating organism. It combines every science, from chemistry and physics to botany, biology and geology. And all the disciplines in between. It’s not a religion.
Since for thirty years climatologists have been warning of what’s upon us now–– despite members of Congress holding snowballs in Washington, D.C. and asking, “What global warming? Hell, it just snowed.”––the message hasn’t gotten through to the American people. With hurricanes Harvey, Irma and Maria in our recent past, however, it may be sinking in. Our local Caribbean paradise has been destroyed this fall. And there’s no guarantee that next year, more superstorms won’t come and scour off the last untouched islands. Not to mention more of the Gulf Coast.
Snowballs have never been the point in all this anyway. It’s not that it doesn’t still get cold. It’s simply the changing patterns of cold. And heat. And the same old things humans have known for millennia. Storms. Droughts. Thaws. Downpours. Heat waves. Forests. Deserts. Beaches. No, it’s the trend lines that the people who pay attention to climate are most worried about.
Ever boiled an egg? On medium heat, thin streams of bubbles begin to drift upward from the bottom past the egg. Keep the heat on and it will take a while, but eventually your egg will cook.
That consistent stream of bubbles reminds me of the Holocene Epoch, the last ten thousand years of climate history. A time during which a consistent rate of boil on earth provided monsoons and seasons, snowpacks and standard sea levels for our coastal cities. A time when rain fell and ancient glaciers melted, providing reliable river flows down to the coasts. A period that allowed human populations to grow from a few hundred thousand hunter/gatherers wandering around following game to the billions of us living in mega-cities today. Most of our greatest cities sit at the edge of the sea.
Now, put a lid on the pot and watch closely. Without the steam escaping the open top, the same amount of incoming heat is trapped and the bubbles become larger and less uniform. Your egg cooks much more quickly, too.
Of course, the metaphor is this: the pot is the earth and the lid is greenhouse gases. The bigger bubbles? More extreme weather events, since that’s all weather really is. Bubbles. Just big ones, drifting around under our thin skin of atmosphere, which, even though it seems so immense, is a closed system. A pot with a lid we ourselves have put on it.
With all this in my mind I went to Boulder this past mid-September with an idea I developed over the summer along with David Takahashi, a producer out there, and a committee of climate scientists who helped jury the concept. Called 16 TITANS, it’s a grassroots effort to turn climate scientists and activists into good storytellers. Good enough to explain to congressmen about snowballs in winter. Not by using graphs and data, but instead by turning that hard-to-grasp truth into stories anybody can understand.
A young woman scientist from NCAR in Boulder (National Center for Atmospheric Research) in one of my workshops described her work. She studies cloud cover and mentioned how water vapor is a powerful greenhouse gas in and of itself. It traps heat close to earth’s surface, too. The problem is not just CO2 and methane. “How do I tell a story about that?” she asked.
As I was thinking, she mentioned an interesting theory about the planet Venus. Planetary scientists theorize that at some point in solar system history, Venus entrapped so much heat that its water seas boiled off, releasing even more vapor and leaving Venus in a permanent state of super-heating with a surface temperature of 864 degrees, hot enough to melt lead. This could potentially happen to earth, she worried, if we don’t get a handle on the heat feedback loop. The clouds she studied would play an increasing part in such an awful scenario.
“Begin your story on ancient Venus,” I said. “Place your listeners’ POV (point of view) at a beach, only the sea before you is boiling. The air is noxious and the heat is unbearable, and you’re a human. In the few seconds you have before you lose consciousness, the pain is horrific and you can smell ammonia everywhere. This is the end result you worry about. It’s scary and sad. So once you’ve described this atmospheric end game, then move to earth today, and tell your listeners that no planet is exempt from change like this. Not if you know physics and chemistry and how matter behaves in the presence of energy. It all depends upon heat feedback loops. Point to the trends. That gives you an opening to describe your research more fully.”
Other Coloradans in my workshop were worried about fracking, the first extractive industry ever to dot people’s back yards. They are wildly and desperately against it, mostly due to the fouling of groundwater. They presented another case in point.
“Do you know how amazingly creative a technology fracking is?” I asked. “Do you know everything about the process?” I’ve researched it quite a bit for books, and frankly marvel at the engineering involved. That’s wholly different from wanting to keep it out of my back yard, or my neighbor’s back yard (since that means it’s essentially under my back yard, too), poisoning my well water.
Even if you hate its effects, you can’t escape the elegance of the technology. And if you’re trying to keep it out of your own town, don’t demonize the people who invented and survive on it (wouldn’t it be nice, geopolitically, to no longer need oil from the Saudis?), but instead praise their ingenuity and be honest about it. That might do far more to convince them to sit down and compromise here and there than to scream in some intersectional crowd, holding up an obscene placard. In other words, honor thine enemy. Better than getting everybody’s backs up in a fury of competing economic visions. At least among Americans. Despite our warts, we’re still the greatest republic on earth.
And so the workshops went. People told stories and came to the conclusion that “climate deniers” have just been better storytellers than we Cassandras. Climate activists see the future and fear the long term. Deniers want to survive in the short term and live in luxury. Both groups see the short term. It’s in the news every day. But to imagine the long one, well, that takes a solidly skilled imagination.
Somewhere between those two perspectives, in a democracy, there has to be common ground.
More on the 16 TITANS project to come.