I remember riding my daily bus to Dublin that day, crossing a town where a stone bridge crosses a deep rift through the middle of town. At the bottom of the trench lies the River Liffey, surrounded by thickets of trees and brush on either side; in rainy seasons, though, the river expands to the town walls on either side. During the 2009 floods, however, the river did not just reach the stone walls – they climbed them, higher and higher each day, until the raging waters lapped dangerously close to the roads at the top of the wall. It was Ireland’s worst flood in 800 years.
In the end, of course, it passed, after killing several people, cutting off water supplies (ironically) for up to ten days in places, and straining the national budget already hit hard by the 2008 crash and a year away from pleading for a bailout.
Two-and-a-half years later, though, we got a summer that never was – months of incessant rain, until the locals gathered in the local pub had to speak up over the hammering on the roof. “I can’t remember a year like this. Ever,” one old man in our pub told me, in the tweed jacket and flat cap. He had lived all his 67 years in our village, and was born into an era before electricity and cars appeared here. “I talked to my neighbour down the road today – he’s 85 years old, and he said he’d never seen a year like this. He thought 1947 was a bad year, but it was nothing like this.”
Everyone here said the same: farmers, neighbours, bus drivers and shop ladies. As useful as it is to read the record-breaking weather numbers, it also helps to talk to people who have spent much of their time outdoors for decades and ask them how the air feels. In the end, of course, it passed, and we sighed in relief – we cut the grass that had grown higher than our heads, to wet to be mown, gleaned what we could from the garden, and life went back to normal.
Now, in 2015, water levels on the Shannon are expected to reach 2009 levels, according to the Irish Independent. In the town of Athlone, the river burst its banks and flooded through homes, bringing raw sewage with it – I’m told people got around town by rowboat. On Irish television, our weather lady’s apocalyptic report has gone viral.
The canal along our home has not done the same, but the lashing rain has been near-constant here. Our power went off a few times, and our heat pump is not working, meaning that we need to burn a lot more firewood and peat – but that too is wet, and must dry over the fire before it can burn in it. In other words, it’s an interesting Christmas again.
It will end, of course, and some people will have to move, other people will have to rebuild, and most people will forget, and go back to imagining themselves to be in control.
I remember well living in Missouri during the Flood of '93, when hundreds of people worked to build a wall of sandbags between the river and Jefferson City. I remember driving with a friend through wooded country and having to stop the car suddenly when the trees ended -- there was water almost to the horizon, with telephone poles and electrical towers poking through here and there.
I visited my old state in 2008, when highways across the floodplain were closed, covered either by the second 500-year flood in 15 years or by animals driven out of their habitat by the waters. In Missouri the river settlements and levees may only have been a few decades old, and people could chalk up a flood like that of '93 to the chaotic river's cycle. Here, though, towns date to the Middle Ages, if not to Roman or Celtic times, and the walls lining the rivers were set at their heights long ago and for a reason.
When modern people try to gauge whether climate change is real, they run into several problems. We no longer live with a sense of our surroundings as our ancestors did, but spend much of our time in a bubble of regulated temperature and lighting. Even when we allow ourselves to feel the elements, we do so for a narrow sliver of time; until recently most people only lived to forty years or so, and while we have almost doubled that figure lately, our lives still flicker on and off quickly compared to those trees or turtles.
We have been able to stretch our understanding far beyond our own lives, though, thanks to a million or so un-thanked researchers each testing bits of the past: pockets of prehistoric air trapped in ice, pollen grains in lake mud, bones and branches and beetle wings, and bits of carbon left behind when an errant subatomic particle jumped its atomic ship. In short, experts of all kinds, of dozens of faiths and countries, have come up with a story of the past – and in broad strokes it all fits like a particularly horrific jigsaw.
The story they tell us is not that carbon dioxide traps the heat of the sun like greenhouse panes – that was known around the time of the US Civil War. Nor is it the fact that our industry and modern machines are flooding the air with carbon dioxide and will change the climate – that has been predicted for more than a century.
Such information even entered into pop culture long ago. I have on my shelf a book that once came free with Life magazine in 1955 called The World We Live In – it was to promote science among young Americans in an age when both Life and science education were commonplace and uncontroversial. (1) It casually states that pollution from cars and factories had boosted CO2 levels by 10 per cent -- those were the days! -- and that the world would get much hotter in the years ahead. At the time, saying that humans would someday walk on the moon would have been more contentious.
While it did not appear the most urgent issue at the time, references to carbon emissions remained in the mainstream; in 1965, for example, President Lyndon Johnson said in a presidential speech that “this generation has altered the composition of the atmosphere on a global scale through … a steady increase in carbon dioxide from the burning of fossil fuels.” (2)
In the 1980s, when a growing body of data caused scientists to escalate their warnings, Time magazine devoted cover stories to the issue, and in 1990 George Bush – the first one – said that “we all know that human activities are changing the atmosphere in unexpected and in unprecedented ways,” although he balked at most changes to deal with the problem. (3) Such pronouncements stood on a small but sufficient body of evidence – enough to convict, as it were. The world’s experts had the ice-core and balloon-test equivalents of witnesses, motive and fingerprints, and world authorities listened, from the United Nations to Pope John Paul II.
Over the next twenty years, though, three things happened. First, the evidence multiplied to many times what it was before, both because we got better studies, clearer samples and so on, and because the phenomenon itself continued, offering more looming tragedy to study. Instead of just the witnesses, motive and confession, we now also had the equivalent of DNA evidence, forensics evidence, a signed confession and video footage of the crime. You had the accused changing their plea to “guilty.” You had the ghost of the murder victim rising from the dead to point a finger at the accused. You had the accused killer holding press conferences announcing exactly how they committed the murder. In short, we went from 99 per cent certain to 100 per cent.
The second was that, as evidence of the crisis increased, support for fixing it decreased, until elites and media pundits – a minority in Europe, a majority in the USA – claimed the massive changes around them were a hoax, a secret conspiracy of scientists of many nations and faiths, their own eyes, and in some cases, themselves from a few years earlier. The argument usually ran like this:
1.) the weather was not changing,
2.) the cause of the change was unknown,
3.) we had nothing to do with the change,
4.) the change would turn out better for us, and
5.) the weather was not changing.
For the last two decades most environmental activists have continued fighting the good fight, although usually claiming – as with most issues -- that “we” have only x number of years to stop climate change “or it will be too late.” The number of years seemed to vary, for every new season and study seemed to force a re-evaluation, and the “too late” part rang hollow, for climate change has no starting point and nowhere to put a countdown.
A third thing changed, though – more people realised that global warming wouldn’t necessarily bring warmth, but chaos. Not a steady progression in a single, if sometimes inconvenient direction, nor a Hollywood apocalypse to which we could count down. It would mean sudden swings to extremes that we could not predict and for which we could never prepare. Even more disturbingly, this might be a return to the normal state of climate.
To understand this, it helps to understand that ice ages were not, as some people imagine, a planet covered in ice. The world probably did see something like that 700 million years ago, a Snowball Earth that might have forced the then-planet of germs to organise into bodies as fortresses against the elements. Since then, though, the planet has been what we would consider tropical, as in every dinosaur illustration you’ve ever seen. Only a few million years ago did the world begin to see ice, and even then it has swung between two moderate states. Every ten thousand years or so the planet gets cooler and the ice caps expand down to Spain and Kentucky – the ice age part -- and then they retreat to the small caps we know today.
The cooler stretches sound extreme to us because they covered today’s Western and prosperous nations where so many of us live, but remember that even now, most humans live elsewhere, and we didn’t just lose potential land. Places like Chihuahua or the Sudan might have been more habitable than today, and the Caribbean and Indonesia would turn from island chains to vast rainforests; in terms of habitable space, we might gain as much in an Ice Age as we would lose.
It also helps to understand that humans did not merely endure weather, as we once thought, but changed it long before we discovered the fuel potential of fossils. US histories once imagined Native Americans wandering sparsely around a virgin wilderness in loincloths, while European histories rarely mentioned the hot and cold periods that had such power over European culture for hundreds of years. A detailed history of Britain, for example, might have mentioned the “frost fairs” on the River Thames, without explaining why the Thames no longer freezes.
Over the last couple of decades, though, researchers began to fit various pieces together --as chronicled in books like William Ruddiman’s Plows, Plagues and Petroleum and Charles Mann’s 1493 – and concluded that humans have been changing the climate since the end of the last ice age. We imagine humans doing this in modern farming nations like Britain and China, but ancient humans farmed almost everywhere they settled; in what is now Arkansas and Nigeria, New Guinea and the Amazon. By cutting down most of the world’s trees, humans sent a constant trickle of carbon dioxide into the sky and prevented it from coming back, and that subtle shift, say some researchers put off the ice age that would otherwise have been coming back right about now.
When large numbers of farmers suddenly stop farming and the forests return, the effects can be seen in global weather. After Genghis Khan killed tens of millions of farmers, the climate noticeably cooled, as it did after the Black Death cut the European population by a third. When Europeans first reached the Americas, they brought ten thousand years’ worth of diseases to which Natives had no exposure, and an estimated 95 per cent of the population died, turning what had been a densely populated landscape into an empty land. And once again, the forests grew back, and the resulting Little Ice Age iced over the Thames – and much of Europe – for the next 300 years.
The fact that we started changing the climate long ago, though, shouldn’t make us take the current crisis less seriously; rather, it should serve as a cautionary tale. If medieval farmers could do this much by burning trees, releasing the sunlight and carbon drawn down from the last century, how much more are we doing by unleashing hundreds of millions of years? What we are doing, in fact, is flooding the air with the atmosphere of forests that existed before dinosaurs, from when a dimmer sun shone over a thicker atmosphere and giant insects under a fern-tree canopy. When we drive, fly, and use engines of any kind, mixing our own air with that of an alien planet.
This brings us to an additional problem, one that we are only slowly beginning to realise. When the climate changed in the past – say, at the end of the ice age – it did so far more quickly than we realised, perhaps in a few generations. Climate change does not creep along slowly over generations, but swings from one state to another wildly, and the last several thousand years have been comparatively mild and moderate. We have lived in a stretch of green and pleasant land not just as long as any individual can remember, but as long as there was recorded history.
It seems a long time to us, but it’s a blink in geological time, merely a summer in the ice-age oscillation. Humans have had modern brains for perhaps ten times longer than that, and have walked upright perhaps 400 times longer. In this ten-millennia stretch of warm and stable temperatures, though, we have gone from our normal foraging to fields of crops, to cities, world wars and plastics, and multiplied our numbers perhaps 7,000 times above normal. Now that we have manipulated carbon dioxide levels as much as any ice age – just in the opposite direction – we might return to a wildly oscillating climate.
In Elizabeth Kolbert’s excellent 2002 article “Ice Memory,” climatologist J. P. Steffens -- who studies ice cores from his base on the frozen wastes of Greenland-- says our frenzied growth in this one era could only happen because we have been fortunate enough to have a period of calm in the storm.
“Why didn't human beings make civilisation fifty thousand years ago?" he asked. "You know that they had just as big brains as we have today. When you put it in a climatic framework, you can say, 'Well, it was the ice age. And also this ice age was so climatically unstable that each time you had the beginning of a culture they had to move. Then comes the present interglacial — ten thousand years of very stable climate. The perfect conditions for agriculture. If you look at it, it's amazing. Civilisations in Persia, in China, and in India start at the same time, maybe six thousand years ago. They all developed writing and they all developed religion and they all built cities, all at the same time, because the climate was stable. I think that if the climate would have been stable fifty thousand years ago it would have started then. But they had no chance.'” (4)
Climatologist James Hansen echoed the same sentiment a few years later. “… civilization developed, and constructed extensive infrastructure, during a period of unusual climate stability, the Holocene, now almost 12 000 years in duration,” he said. “That period is about to end.” (5)
Of course, all these statements were made before the most potentially serious sign of the future -- bubbles of methane released from melting ice -- were seen frothing up from under the Arctic at an alarming rate. Most of the change so far has been from carbon dioxide; methane is dozens of times worse. It’s a realisation with breath-taking implications for the whole idea of climate change. Rather than a steady climb upwards, easy to predict, track and prove, we could face a chaotic series of extremes in all directions, depending on where we are.
Convincing people that the climate is changing presents an obvious difficulty; since climate is simply the average of thousands of days of weather, any of which is unpredictable in itself, change is difficult to see except by careful noticing over time. Even then such changes could be determined if the change was steady and predictable; if the temperatures, wherever you are, were to rise one degree per decade, then after a decade or two the world could have taken readings and had an answer before televisions were invented. When the change means wilder swings, though, predicting the effects of climate change becomes even more difficult, as does convincing people.
No one could ever blame climate change for any one weather event, any more than one could ever blame tobacco companies for any one smoker’s lung cancer. You could, however, look broadly at the number of smokers who die of lung cancer, and compare them with the number of non-smokers, and you can calculate a certain per cent increase in the risk of cancer. In the same way, we can look at a typical climate and calculate what we are seeing that is unusual, as groups of experts occasionally do at NASA and other places – and show that, yes, the baseline normal of the planet is changing.
As our towns and fields here flood, the world has signed a new climate agreement, and while I can praise the people who worked so hard for this, I don’t assume it will change human nature, or reverse what has been done so far. Part of the problem might be our expectations -- when activists push for agreements like this, too often they invoke visions of a Hollywood apocalypse familiar from generations of bad movies. Then, they say, we have only X number of years to “stop” climate change before it “hits” – all language that evokes Hollywood disasters.
The reality might look more like what we are seeing -- a few houses flooded that were never before. Towns slowly retreating from some rivers and most seashores. Christmas season a bit "worse" and more traditional than they used to be. I would venture that the Long Emergency might take lifetimes, long stretches of normal life punctuated by moments of crisis.
I'm not that concerned about Manhattan flooding, a fear that Al Gore brought up in his Nobel-Peace-Prize-winning Powerpoint presentation – Manhattan is not more important than a hundred other towns and cities in my native USA. I’m more concerned that crop failure would become commonplace, until even fewer young men want to become farmers, or that farms become too great a risk for financiers, or that even homesteaders don't know what to plant this year.
It’s entirely possible that, a hundred years from now, in the relocated population centres and capitals, one political faction might still be insisting that nothing has changed, while the other keeps insisting we have only ten years left.
If I had to hazard a bet, I would bet that the next few decades will look like the last few years here – a minor disaster that destroys a few people’s lives, raises insurance rates, releases and spreads various kinds of waste, passes the problem onto Team Taxpayer. And everyone will go back to their lives, believing themselves to be in control.
1 - The World We Live In, Page 71.
2 – Lyndon Johnson, Feb. 8.1965
3 – George H.W. Bush’s address to the IPCC, Feb. 5, 1990.
4 – Steffens quoted in Elizabeth Kolbert’s article “Ice Memory” in New Yorker magazine, January 6, 2002.
5 - “Climate change and trace gases,” James Hansen et al, Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society
6 - Hansen, J., Mki. Sato, and R. Ruedy, 2012: Perception of climate change. Proc. Natl. Acad. Sci.
Parts of this article were taken from my articles "Days of Future Past" and "And the Waters Prevailed," the first two times this happened.