Opinion & Editorial

A reality check regarding our climate crisis

“It’s the Climate” … Photo by Elayna Yussen

If you ask a physicist, a Buddhist monk, or your Average Joe, “What is reality?” you might be surprised with the answers.

What I mean is, isn’t reality (what is really going on) real? It seems that the concept of reality should be a bedrock truth that is measurable and universally recognizable, easy to agree on. But apparently that is not the case.

Claims of “fake news” and massive election fraud without a shred of proof might cause one to question the idea of there being an absolute description of our existence, aka “reality.” 

Looking at dictionary definitions for the word reality, the one that best describes what I am trying to describe reads: “The world or state of things as they actually exist, as opposed to an idealistic or notional idea of them.”

Saying you won’t be harmed if you step in front of a speeding 18-wheeler won’t protect you; you ain’t likely to survive. How’s that for reality? So let’s pretend that reality IS real.

I spent 19 years as a licensed biology teacher in public schools, mostly at the middle school level. I taught some portion of earth science every year of my profession. So many times, caught in that difficult puberty/teenage years stage, I had students challenge me in the face of information I was presenting. “I don’t believe in science,” was a common complaint. It is easy to dismiss science, I get it. But why not throw away your cell phone? If you don’t believe in what made it then you shouldn’t use it, right?

One unit that I taught repeatedly was “Human impact,” or how humans affect the planet. The answer is a lot. 

The main culprit, overall, is world population. At present there are more than 7 billion humans. The population was around 2 billion in 1950, today it is double of what it was in 1970. I had the students plot out year (x axis) to world population (y axis), forming a linear graph that shows a long, slow buildup that, starting around 100 years ago, becomes an exponentially increasing curve that is ascending almost straight up.

The planet is a finite system. The human population cannot continue increasing at this rate and have the Earth continue to sustain everyone. Life requires water, food, and earth materials.

More population means more consumption which leads to big consequences. Ever since the industrial revolution started turning hydrocarbons into energy, a lot of the carbon that was stored up over hundreds of million years has been burned at a furious rate in the pursuit of the economy, giving off CO2. 

Interestingly enough, carbon dioxide was the raw material originally photosynthesized into glucose by the life form that eventually became the fuel source (wood or coal/petroleum – fossil fuels). When uncombined (burned) the energy stored in the fuel is released along with CO2 molecules which head back into the atmosphere. If this was a net-neutral transaction all would be well; however, CO2 is one of the so-called “Greenhouse Gasses.” 

In the atmosphere CO2 and other greenhouse gasses trap heat that would normally dissipate through our atmosphere. Like a greenhouse for plants that turns the sun’s radiated energy into infrared heat inside the glass house and traps it, CO2 functions like a greenhouse in our closed system. The levels of CO2 in the atmosphere keep rising. Already the recommended “safe level” of 350 parts per million has been crossed and we are at 412.5 ppm.

The overall world’s temperature is slowly rising. So what?

Again, back to sixth-grade earth science, much of what we call climate zones are generated by vast movements of air and water. A differential between cold poles and a hot equator sets up the possibility of huge convection currents that move heat by moving fluids, much as convection currents in the Earth’s mantle move whole tectonic plates.

Since the rise in global temperature, glaciers have retreated or disappeared, polar ice caps are melting earlier and more severely each year. As there becomes less difference in the two extremes of hot and cold these global movements of air and water slow down and affect local climate and weather in unpredictable ways. Reliable climate patterns will become increasingly erratic and severely affect agriculture and our food supply.

Already extreme weather patterns have become common. Drought, wildfires, heat domes, savage hurricanes, and intense rainstorms are wreaking havoc with people’s lives. 

Back to reality, climate change is real. We are proceeding straight into a calamity and nobody seems to be paying too much attention.

The idea of climate change was pronounced “a hoax” by some prominent figures. If that is what you choose to believe, then you need to look into your child’s or grandchild’s face and promise them they have a reasonable future if we simply proceed with business as usual. Greta Thunberg is right: “How dare you?” Greta’s superpower is that she is on the autism spectrum and has no filters so she calls it as she sees it.

It is easy to criticize and postulate from an armchair. And I am not trying to weigh you down on the impending demise of the human species. Just saying that we need to act quickly and as a red-blooded American and a world citizen, climate change is something we should be putting all of our collective energy toward solving.

Like many of you I see political gridlock, with everything so finely balanced that one person can be the deciding factor of yes or no.

This idea that the purpose of government is to provide the best possible support of its governed is what I think of as the meaning of greater good. When a government passes a law it should be to ensure the safety, welfare, and well-being of all its people. With one person being the king, that doesn’t feel like democracy to me. I am not registered as a member of either major political party; instead I’m in the “Oregon Working Families Party.” Rather than endorse a particular party’s candidate, the OWFP endorses candidates who – after tough questioning – can show how they intend to support the cause of the party’s constituents – working families. 

I propose a similar sort of minor party intervention at the national level. I would name this third organization the Reality Party. The only two planks in the Reality Party’s platform are (1) we recognize and agree to accept and follow reality in all decisions and (2) we will work with any party to pass legislation for the greater good of all U.S. citizens. If we could get a couple of House seats or a Senate race or two, it could provide a democratically elected group to facilitate passing legislation in the public’s best interests. 

This has long been a dream to see a political party that spoke only truth no matter how bad it sounds and was willing to stand up and help find a solution if anyone was game, for the greater good. 

I’m also hearing a lot about “personal freedom,” and how the freedom to do this or that is being impacted. Yes it is. The more people there are, the less freedom you have.

Middle schoolers would say, “Why do I have to do what you say, I don’t want to?” The kernel of that question is “Can’t I just do exactly as I want?” The answer I would give them was that if they were all alone on a deserted island then you could do anything that you wanted and affect little other than yourself, but here in a group we operate on the “greater good” model. A classroom functions differently than if you had a private tutor.

We live in a large society, and that’s why there are stop signs, traffic lights, speed limits, etc. Public health works when enough people follow the rules and don’t dump raw sewage in the drinking water, as happened in the past. Ask a farmer what percent of the herd they vaccinate and their reason for doing so. 

So, if viewed through the optics of the concept of greater good, how much greater for the collective good is it for there to be a favorable climate on Earth? Scientists have spoken, so have Greta and many others; we may be nearly out of time or have already blown past it, but to proceed at the current rate is mind-boggling. There has been no mention slowing population growth, which is driving the crisis. Reality, remember? And while that might affect the economy, so does climate collapse. When heightened world temperatures make traditional agriculture impossible, what are we gonna eat? 

I didn’t intend to start off the new year on a downer note but reality has been bugging me a lot lately. It brought up my long-held dream for a true third party that ran on the integrity of truth (reality) and worked for the greater good, not for political slush funds. I also encourage you to think about the realities that face us and our children.

You might consider watching Don’t Look Up. This Netflix movie satirizes the reactions two astronomers received when they tried to deliver the news of an impending Earth-destroying comet. Without giving away details, watch to see how it compares to what I have tried to verbalize in this piece.

Here is to embracing some reality for 2022! 

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