I don’t know exactly when I first heard about climate change, but it was sometime in the late 1960s that I read J. G. Ballard’s The Drowned World. The story unfolds in London, which global warming has transformed into jungle and steaming tropical lagoons. A group of research scientists, come to study the necropolis, are gradually overcome by heat, mosquitoes, and internal strife. The novel does not discuss the science of climate change, but The Drowned World opened my imagination to an invisible aspect of the present. The thought of London turned to jungle did not especially trouble me – the story was just a story – but Ballard made a hotter world seem possible in a way that, say, Tiny Tim’s 1968 release of “The Ice Caps Are Melting” did not.
My next clear memory of the idea of climate change is from roughly ten years later, when President Jimmy Carter advised Americans to turn down their thermostats and put on sweaters. By then I was in my thirties and a new father, with the hopes and fears about the future that a baby can bring. Carter’s advice seemed wise. America was obviously too dependent on oil. Oil degraded the environment and contributed to what was then called the greenhouse effect. I still knew next to nothing about the greenhouse effect, but was confident that I would not be affected by it. My son, however, might be.
I learned about Carter’s speech from a newspaper, which is also how I learned that he had solar panels installed on the White House roof. The thought of solar panels, 32 of them, on an iconic neo-classical mansion was jarring, but I hoped that they would serve as an example and help rein in oil consumption.
Carter was ridiculed for his sweaters and solar panels, and they probably contributed to his defeat in 1980. Voters chose dreams of limitless consumption, and so began a decade when time stood still as far as my own climate consciousness was concerned. My daughter Sophie was born in 1981. Seven years later, on June 23, 1988, when Dr. James Hansen testified before Congress that the greenhouse effect had produced 0.4 degrees Celsius of warming in the previous thirty years, and could be expected to cause “extreme events such as summer heat waves” I paid little attention. I had not heard of Dr. James Hansen before, and his news seemed like much other news: depressing and about things beyond my control. Someone else would have to deal with the greenhouse effect.
I mention the date, June 23, 1988 not because it impressed itself on me, but because it is now considered a turning point in the emergence of public consciousness about climate change. Well before the 1980s a few scientists, oil company executives, and politicians and policy makers had known that anthropogenic climate change was occurring and was likely to become a serious problem, but Hansen’s testimony brought this to the American public – so runs the prevailing narrative today. For me, however, understanding did not so much emerge, which suggests birth, as incrementally arrive over such an extended period of time that I was mostly unaware that it was happening.
I did not directly experience any effects of climate change for yet another decade. As part of my work as an artist I bred Pacifica irises. These are a kind of iris native to the West Coast of the U.S. I began making crosses early in the 1980s, first in a garden in Eugene, Oregon, then on land outside the city. It took me several years to learn the rudiments of the practice. I’d do pollinations during bloom season, which is from March to June in the vicinity of Eugene. Seed harvest was in July, and planting began when fall rains arrived in October. Seeds would sprout from late February to March, and then the cycle would begin over again.
For many years I weeded and watered, raised iris seedlings, and divided and distributed plants. My rewards were aesthetic, plus opportunities to exhibit plants and documentation of them. From a Darwinian perspective, irises got the better part of the deal, but it was worth it to me anyway, abundantly worth it. There is no pleasure quite like collaborating with another, very different kind of life to help create beings that have never existed before. Seeing hybrids bloom for the first time countered the despair I had begun to feel that we humans, in spite of our astonishing abilities and accomplishments, are so narrowly focused on ourselves that we can only harm the rest of life. Iris breeding showed me that it is quite possible to interact with other beings in ways that increase the beauty and diversity of life. This, I decided, was my vocation.
What I didn’t know was that my vocation was dependent on climate. In 1998 I noticed that seeds were germinating at the beginning of February, more than a week early. When the millenium arrived, fresh green grass-like leaves emerged in January, three weeks early. Dormant Pacifica seeds are not affected by freezes, but once germinated, new plants are extremely cold-sensitive. When weather returned to what had been normal, frost killed most seedlings. Previously I had raised from 50 to 175 seedlings a year, but in 2000, 2001, and again in 2002 I lost all but a few seedlings. Until then I had only read about climate change, or heard it mentioned in passing. I had believed it was real because scientists said it was happening. On the whole I trusted them. Now climate change became intimately real.
Yet it still did not loom large in my consciousness. I clung to the hope that everything would soon return to normal, or that the Pacific Northwest would be largely exempt. It took me years to realize these hopes were wishful thinking.
By 2002 it was becoming clear that climate change had made my Pacifica breeding project too difficult to continue. Something beautiful had to be abandoned, but I had begun to breed other, less climate-sensitive plants: California poppies, corn poppies, opium poppies, bearded irises, streptocarpuses. My work continued. And the threat of climate change remained far down on my list of concerns about the world.
Had I understood more I would have realized that climate change is not just another of the world’s many problems, but one of the greatest problems that our species has ever faced. For me that awareness did not arrive until 2005. Late that year my wife and I, our grown son and his wife, and our daughter spent the Christmas holidays in East Africa. How much carbon dioxide our trip would add to the atmosphere did not occur to me. The cost of the trip seemed to be a matter of time and money, nothing more.
No one in our group had been to East Africa before. In Nairobi I talked with taxi drivers who knew a great deal more about climate change than I. Unlike me, they could not afford the luxury of ignorance. East Africa was in the midst of a severe drought that threatened the region’s economy, including tourism. Most tourists come to East Africa to see animals, especially the megafauna of the Serengeti, but in late 2005 rains had not arrived, so the great annual migrations had not begun. We were told that this was due to climate change. The animals had become confused. They did not know where to find green grass and water, so wandered here and there, hungry and thirsty.
We too wanted to see animals, and we saw a great many. I will not try to describe them except to say that they are as awe-inspiring as the stars. If they were in distress, I did not see it, except once, in Tanzania, when we visited a place known for its hippopotamuses. We stood on a bluff overlooking a pond where hippopotamuses were jammed together like a subway crowd at rush hour, immobile, up to their nostrils in foul, viscous water. It was all that remained of a lake. Our guide had not realized how terrible the situation had become. He was horrified and hurried us away.
We visited Olduvai Gorge, or Oldupai as Tanzanians call it. Remains of some sixty hominins of human lineage have been found there, evidence that humans and human ancestors have wandered through Oldupai for at least two million years. The wanderers today are mostly tourists. On first glance Oldupai is unremarkable. It reminded me of any number of Southern California arroyos: rocky, eroded, with a scattering of dessicated grasses, and dusty, nearly leafless shrubs. I tried to imagine what the gorge might look like after rain. Would water course through it? Would stream banks turn green and fill with wildflowers, as often happens in California and Southern Oregon after rain? I did not know, but dry, Oldupai was inhospitable and oppressive, and made me wonder if it was there that human evolution had taken a turn toward disaster.
The drought had far more serious consequences for East Africans than interfering with tourism. Nairobi is in the Kenyan Highlands, which until just a few years before had been above the malarial zone. However, due to warming the city had been invaded by malaria mosquitoes. Due to drought, famine had broken out in Northern Kenya, and refugees streamed south. I do not know if the child I shared an elevator with in the hotel where our family was staying was a climate refugee, but she could have been. She was perhaps ten or eleven, wearing heavy makeup and a brightly colored mini-skirt. A rope of beads draped from her neck to her waist, making her look like a little flapper. An overweight, middle-aged man in a business suit chuckled as he fondled her breast and in Swahili murmured in her ear. I was so shocked I said nothing.
I returned home and began following climate news closely. In those days major media largely ignored climate change, as did progressive publications, which then as now were primarily concerned with social and economic justice. For the first time I actively sought out information, and engaged in political work to address climate change.
In 2005 no citizens’ organizations in our part of Oregon dealt with climate change, so my wife and I started Climate Crisis Working Group. Over the next few years the group organized public events, held despair and empowerment workshops, petitioned local and national officials, and promoted home energy efficiency. Climate Crisis Working Group never had more than a dozen active members, so I was relieved when a Eugene chapter of 350.org was established. 350.org is a national organization, and the Eugene affiliate, which began in 2014, quickly proved popular and politically effective. Those of us who stayed with Climate Crisis Working Group changed its name to Climate Writers, and focused on what we had come to do best: write letters and produce written public statements. We responded to Environmental Impact Statements for proposed pipelines and export terminals for oil, coal, and liquid natural gas, crafted letters-to-the-editor, petitioned representatives and government agencies, and thanked newspaper columnists and other public figures who had drawn attention to the climate emergency.
I took responsibility for supplying letter topics to the group’s monthly meetings. This involved following climate news, identifying who needed to be thanked or prodded, ferreting out contact information, and producing short summaries of issues. Typically I would devote two to four days a month to this work. I have never been an activist, and have never defined myself primarily by my political activities. I have responded to climate change as an artist and writer, and as a citizen in the traditional sense: a participant in the political life of the community. However, I came to see the community as involving much more than city, nation, or species. Climate change affects all living beings. They are the community.
The reward for this work was immediate: company. My wife and I were no longer alone with our concerns. At meetings anyone could share hopes and fears. I cannot overstate the benefits of open, honest expression about climate. Because the subject can be painfully grim, our meetings are usually filled with jokes.
My wife has always been as concerned about climate change as I. Without her I doubt that I would have persevered. It helped too that on the whole the dominant culture of Western Oregon favors awareness of climate change. This is due in large part to hydropower, which supplies most of the state’s electricity. Only one power plant in Oregon is coal-fired, and it is in the process of being phased out. Add to this that on a per-acre basis, Western Oregon’s forests sequester more carbon than almost any other forests on earth, and it is not illusory to hope for net zero greenhouse gas emissions for the state.
For me another favorable circumstance for climate consciousness was that I never made my living directly from fossil fuels. For many years I worked as a graphic artist for the University of Oregon. Of course, my salary, and after I retired much of my pension and social security derived indirectly from fossil fuels. In addition I drive a car, wear clothing made from petroleum products, heat food on gas or electric stoves, drink coffee, from time to time travel by air, and in a multitude of other ways depend on fossil fuels. I have always been part of the problem. The perpetual unease that results does not have a name. “Guilt” does not do the feeling justice, although guilt is certainly involved. That said, with respect to climate consciousness, my circumstances have been easy. Had I been a logger I would have faced more serious obstacles to learning about climate change. I would have faced even greater obstacles had I been a coal miner, or a coal company executive. As Chad Cordell, one of William Vollmann’s informants in No Good Alternative put it, “When people become dependent on, and identify with, systems of exploitation [such as coal extraction] they will defend those systems …” Yet Mr. Cordell is proof that even in West Virginia, where coal has completely dominated the economy and culture for generations, some people become keenly aware of how dependency can deform consciousness. As articulated by Mr. Cordell, West Virginians’ predicament is to some extent almost everyone’s today, because almost everyone is dependent on fossil fuels, and compromised by them.
Ever since returning from Africa, I have followed climate science, but have had to rely on others to interpret it for me, especially science journalists. Only a few scientists write so accessibly about climate that virtually any lay person can understand. James Lovelock and Guy McPherson come immediately to mind. They argue that due to climate change human beings are on a trajectory to extinction. No species can survive catastrophic loss of habitat, which is what our continued large-scale fossil fuel use will produce.
Neither Lovelock nor McPherson think that as a species we will change course sufficiently to save ourselves, but they disagree on when we will go extinct. Lovelock implies that we have a century or two, McPherson talks in terms of decades.
Most scientists neither agree nor disagree with Lovelock and McPherson, at least in public. Until quite recently the vast majority of scientists have avoided making predictions beyond their narrow specialties, and have issued warnings couched in language that cannot be construed as emotional, alarmist, or unscientific. Such responsible, cautious, or merely unimaginative professionalism can be easy to ignore. It can even be taken to mean that most climate scientists do not think that the problem is really all that great, but that would be a mistake.
Africa awakened me to climate change as not just another one of the world’s problems, but a reality that subsumes such lesser realities as our economic and political arrangements, our sense of justice, what we eat, our art practices, the stories we tell, and beliefs about what it is to be human. Yet even after my trip to Africa, I held on to lost hopes. I did not dismiss Lovelock, but I simultaneously yearned for the opposite of his forecasts, that we could somehow preserve the climate system that humans have known for the last 10,000 years. The more I learned the more improbable my yearnings became, but I have to admit that vestiges lingered on even until the Electoral College made Donald Trump president.
I held contradictory beliefs due to ignorance and a layperson’s uncertainty, but also because confusion served desire. Confusion helped keep despair at bay, and helped me avoid certain of my fears: fear of material hardship, for example, and of extreme change. These fears may be understandable, but they are still shameful when the issue is climate catastrophe.
As an artist and writer I came to believe that one of the greatest obstacles to comprehension and appropriate action is a lack of shared stories and images, ones that bring home the reality of what we face. Until the end of the Obama era, imagery associated with climate change was largely limited to graphs (some quite elegant), polar bears, calving glaciers, maps of coastlines after oceans have risen, and science fiction, such as the shattering skyscraper windows in Steven Spielberg’s AI. Such images convey that climate change is real but far away. It is happening in the Arctic or Antarctic, or will happen sometime in the distant future. If you live in the continental U.S. the closest climate change is likely to come is Glacier National Park.
Lack of adequate imagery, stories, and shared values leaves us alone. Even perfectly understandable feelings about climate change – fear, disbelief, despair, anger, numbness, grief – can devolve into guilt for worrying at all, as if worry about climate was a symptom of neurosis. Also, climate presented a social problem for me. Long after I no longer wondered if my worries about climate were legitimate, I still hesitated to voice concerns in many situations because I feared being a killjoy. Occasionally I’d bring up climate anyway and an awkward silence would follow. But saying nothing could also be uncomfortable, so I was always relieved when someone else mentioned climate, or blurted out something like “We’re destroying Earth,” or “I think humans deserve to go extinct.”
My mix of understanding and confusion, of hesitancy and inching foreward, of letters-to-the-editor and jokes and managed hopelessness, seemed as if it might go on indefinitely. But in 2018 a major tipping point in U.S. public consciousness occurred. Hurricanes Michael and Florence caused it, along with the Trump Administration’s appalling acts, and approaching midterm elections. On the left, where climate concerns had become fairly widespread, there was dawning realization that the Al Gore strategy of downplaying political and cultural difficulties had failed. I’d missed the tipping point in 1988. This time I was informed enough, and sufficiently attuned to my own feelings and to evolving discourses to be part of what was happening.
The trigger was the release, on October 8, by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) of a Special Report that warned of “rapid, far-reaching and unprecedented changes in all aspects of society” because of climate change. Humankind had just twelve years to limit global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius. Any overshoot would require reliance on unproven techniques to remove C02 from the atmosphere, techniques that would come with “significant risks”.
Anyone who had been paying attention knew the substance of the Special Report already, including the IPCC’s penchant for transcendental understatement. (According to Geoff Mann and Joel Wainwright in Climate Leviathan, the “signifiant risks” of untried atmosphere-altering technologies include having to go on managing the atmosphere for thousands of years). However, to my considerable surprise the report received extensive media coverage. This had never happened before in the U.S. in response to an IPCC report, not even one of the multi-volume seven-year Assessment Reports that policy makers around the world rely on, and that provide a basis for informed discussion about climate.
As usual, deniers and obfuscators dismissed the IPCC’s report, but they were overwhelmed by coverage that did not mince words. Headers tell part of the story. Eugene Robinson in the Washington Post titled a column, “Climate Report Reveals Planetary Horror Story.” Robert Samuelson, who noted that the Special Report does not give humankind even odds to meet the twelve-year deadline, announced, “On Global Warming It’s Mission Impossible”. Other October headers were blackly humorous. Christoper Schaberg, writing in The Atlantic about New Orlean’s planned state-of-the-art airport terminal proclaimed “A World Class Airport for the End of the World”, and Jessica Brown in The Guardian asked “Would You Eat Insects to Save the Planet from Global Warming?” It’s not a bad question. Just how important to us is being alive, anyway? Is it important enough to change eating habits?
Some commentators were outraged. On CNN Jeffrey Sachs wrote that “Trump’s failure to fight climate change is a crime against humanity”. This was hardly late-breaking moral news. It had been part of the conversation in Eugene, Oregon, and no doubt many other marginalized places and milieus since well before Trump withdrew the U.S. from the Paris Accords. However to my knowledge Jeffrey Sachs was the first to voice it on CNN.
I am writing in a cozy Airbnb on Fair Oaks Street in San Francisco, just a block from where my daughter and her partner live. I am here to help with their new baby, Kate’s and my first grandchild. Her name is Ruth, partly in honor of Ruth Bader Ginsburg, but mostly because Sophie and Kearstin like the name. Ruth, who also goes by Baby Ruth, MacGoo, and KangaRu is two months old and beginning to focus her eyes. Every once in a while we make eye contact, and each time it happens I become more deeply attached to her. Holding her is a thermal experience. She seems to have a peaceful disposition, but occasionally needs walk therapy. I do the walking, she the riding – there’s just no reasoning with her about this.
I wish our walks could extend out into the garden, which has a jacaranda, a tree fern, and a lush carpet of babys tears. During my last visit to San Francisco, Ruth seemed so at home in the garden that I was reminded of Paul Shepard’s description of wildness as our second womb – tree ferns and jacarandas are wild beings, even if they happen to find themselves in a garden. On this visit, however, we have not gone outside because the air in San Francisco is “worse than Beijing”. That’s according to a newsman. He also declared that San Francisco’s air the worst in the world, which is obviously not true: even if we ignore Beijing, East Bay cities have worse air quality than San Francisco. Contests for who has it worst are offensive, but if we must have one, surely the prize goes to the town of Paradise, which has burned to the ground.
The Camp Fire (the name sounds like IPCC understatement) began on November 7 in the foothills of the northern Sierra Nevada Mountains and now, according to the Sacramento Bee, covers some 151,000 acres. Other statistics: there are 79 known dead, but 699 people are unaccounted for. The fire has destroyed 11,862 structures, including 11,713 single family homes and 118 apartment buildings. Insurance damage is expected to reach $7.5 – $10 billion.
Smoke from the Camp Fire has drifted hundreds of miles south to concentrate in the Bay Area. Outside my room the air looks bad but hardly terrible. In the 1970s I saw denser urban smogs in New York and Los Angeles. A sliver of Portrero Hill is faintly visible between two buildings across the street, and if I crane my neck I can see the pale, transluscent-looking silhouette of the Sales Force building downtown. The sight is reassuring because the skyscraper is two miles away.
I must be an optimist: the air quality index today is 151, or “unhealthy”. According to AirNow, a website I check every morning, those in “sensitive groups”, which includes people with heart conditions, children, and “older adults” are advised not to go outside or exert themselves. On air quality maps the color for “unhealthy” is red, so San Franciscans say, “The air’s red today” even though it’s tan.
I venture out to Sophie and Kearstin’s place, and to get food. I press a wet washcloth over my nose and mouth, or wear the respirator Sophie lent me, the dual-filter kind that house painters use. The neighborhood is eerily quiet. A few people are out walking dogs. The dog-walkers wear symbolic paper masks, but not the dogs, although an Uber driver told me he’d seen one wearing a fitted mask. Schools have been cancelled. I’ve encountered no kids, and almost no workmen or people my age. The city has come to a partial halt, but not the local sandwich shop, thank goodness, since I don’t want to hazard the ten blocks to and from Whole Foods.
No one I have talked with – Sophie, Kearstin, various friends of theirs, a neighbor, store clerks, along with the Uber driver and a few people on the street – has mentioned climate change. This is San Francisco, so I doubt denial is the reason. However, a number of people have mentioned “apocalypse”. Carapaced with irony, the word has long served to repel anxiety about climate change, but now irony is worn so thin it cannot hide the sadness and vulnerabilty beneath.
No one knows to what extent the Camp Fire is due to climate change, but I have the sense that at least here on the West Coast we have crossed a line in shared consciousness. From now on every great fire, flood, drought, hurricane, and damaged city will evoke climate change, whether it was involved or not, and whether the media discuss climate or not. Suddenly artists and writers have a super-abundance of imagery and material. One day, perhaps soon, many will find their full voices.
This morning I feel hopeful. Maybe it’s the espresso, from Columbia, heated on a stove by electricity from I don’t know where, but most likely generated by natural gas, fracked, 85% or more methane. Even though the future looks extremely harsh, it may not be altogether bad. The IPCC warns that beyond 2.0 degrees, the blows of climate change are likely to threaten “civilization as we know it”. Depending on what kind of a day we’ve had, “civilization as we know it” can sound suspiciously like business as usual, loss of which would be a small price to pay to go on living. However, if “civilization as we know it” turns out to be capitalism or industrialism, then we face almost inconceivable change.
What can replace industrial capitalism and socialism? Innumerable alternatives exist, but I want a world in which life, not just human, flourishes. The sixth extinction may well claim us; considering what our species has done to the rest of life, we may deserve to go extinct, sooner rather than later. But I hope that we survive. If we do, I hope that we will be far less numerous than today. May humankind never again grossly damage the systems that all living things depend on. I do not expect people of the future to feel less grief, confusion or fear than we do – that would be asking too much. But I hope that they will be wiser, more connected to one another and to their nonhuman kin, and more deeply fulfilled.
Much of our habitat seems likely to be lost. However, if we survive there will be song and dance, stories and drawings. These are what human beings have always done best. One way or another we will have a new culture, genuinely new. Many new cultures may arise, some, perhaps most, beyond imagining today. Genuinely new cultures take a long time to emerge. But today so much is changing so fast that we can hope the culture we need is already coming into being.