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There's no time to be sad
Feelings of grief are real. But so is the need for action.
Last week I was in a place where the mornings were cool. The heat and light of the sun were both intense in the middle of the day, but if I found shade I could recover quickly. Evenings there were delightful. I felt the freedom of not being bossed around by the weather. I could move around when and where I wanted to, as long as I made sure I had water/hat/sunblock during the midday hours. Yes, my heart was pounding away because of the altitude, but I still felt I was free to move.
Now I'm stuck. I'm in a house in DC that is beautifully air-conditioned, and I have books and papers and a fast internet connection, but I have zero inclination to step outside. Right now, it feels like 91F out there, the UV index is high, and humidity is at 64 percent. (That's not, obviously, as hot as it is right now in Gulfport MS right now, where it feels like 110 degrees.) But Washington just declared a "heat emergency" for this afternoon, and we're likely to see violent thunderstorms in a few hours. It is hot and sticky enough that I will not open the front door unless I have to, and I've closed the curtains against the glare.
I'm sad about this. Stuckness is sadness for many people, and I'm one of them. This summer continues to feel like the pause the world took in March 2020 as COVID arrived. It's portentous, freighted, grief-filled. Stuckness makes it hard to feel imaginative or to plan.
Although extreme heat kills humans, these conditions also wear us down. The overwhelming feeling I had yesterday as I carefully read the order in the Montana case was one of sadness. The young plaintiffs are feeling victorious today, but they were able to make a case for themselves only because they felt loss, despair, and anxiety stemming from the effects of climate change on Montana's environment. More than 80 percent of Glacier Park's glaciers are gone. The plaintiffs said they were distraught because they couldn't fish, explore, ski, or hike in Montana the way prior generations could. That's the damage the court found has already happened, and that sadness will continue to grow. Among many other findings, Judge Seeley found that "[c]hildren born in 2020 will experience a two to sevenfold increase in extreme events, particularly heatwaves, compared with people in 1960."
These plaintiffs can state a constitutional claim because they live in a state that made an extraordinary promise to its citizens of a "clean and healthful environment in Montana for present and future generations," which the Montana Supreme Court has said was intended to be the "strongest environmental protection provision found in any state constitution." Another section of the state constitution requires the legislature to "provide for the administration and enforcement" of steps designed to meet the state's obligation to "maintain and improve" the environment, and to "provide adequate remedies to pr ent unreasonable depletion and degradation of natural resources." Because a restriction enacted by the state legislature makes it impossible for state residents to ask that state agencies consider GHG emissions in evaluating fossil-fuel-related permitting requests, that restriction is unconstitutional.
The rest of us likely don't have this kind of constitutional protection. We feel the effects of warming, though, and this is probably the least sad summer we'll experience in our lives. (Here's a useful overview of the drumbeat of awful climate news so far this summer.)
I read the Montana order right after reading that tourists were seen swimming around near Lahaina. The BBC reported that a local said these were "the same waters that our people died in three days ago." There was grief over this event, which was viewed as disrespectful. That story was enacted within a very painful context, well-captured by this NYT headline: "After the Maui Fires, Locals Fear Being Shut Out of Recovery." In a nutshell, Maui is already pummeled by rising home prices, overwhelming tourism, and increasing inequality. It could become a wholly-sterile luxury area as it rebuilds--or it could take a different path.
Look, humans are pretty cheerful, given the least opportunity. (See: gallows humor.) We'll act, we'll try our best, we'll choose freedom of movement for everyone around us. But two more pointers from today and yesterday make me think we don't have much time to make our plans for safer, saner lives.
First, an accepted manuscript to be published by Environmental Research Letter confirms that two meters of sea level rise are already baked in ("committed") for all coastal cities given the emissions we've already measured. The only question is how soon that water will arrive. If very high emissions keep going and we see ice-sheets collapse, cities that are already subsiding will get those two meters during the 21st century. That's a lot of grief and tragedy, coming right at us right away.
And second, apparently methane emissions are climbing unbelievably rapidly right now. That's one of the signals that preceded the last great flip in climate less than 12,000 years ago, the move from ice to warmth that led to the stable world on which our current civilization depends. That last time around, Greenland's temperature "rose by around 10 degrees C [50F] within a few decades." That should be alarming. Can we possibly cope? Can we plan?
No better time than now. It really isn't a time to be stuck, to fail to act, even though our spirits may be low.