I grew up in the 1950s. The war was over and society was breathing a well-earned sigh of relief. Barely. Of course we still had the civil defense “duck-and-cover” training drills in our schools bringing the left over Cold War home to all. And who can forget the loud speakers in our communities and the horrible, nails-on-a-chalkboard screeching noise of the emergency alert system on our small TVs.
But little did any of us know how scientific research in the name of winning the war would ultimately affect us all in ways we could never have imagined and how society’s push ever forward into the technological age would eventually catch up with us and not necessarily in a good way.
The learning curve for climate change began back in the 1800’s with Joseph Fourier, a French mathematician realizing that gases could trap heat in our atmosphere. John Tyndall, a prominent Irish physicist, then discovered that carbon dioxide is one of those gases.
During World War II Svante Arrheniu worked on the energy potential of the atom under the “Project Uranium” launched by the Nazi authorities in 1939 and oversaw the production of heavy water in Norway. In 1950, he emigrated to the United States and by the end of the century he was able to calculate by hand that the global temperature rises in lockstep with carbon dioxide levels.
The work of Hans Suess, an Austrian born American physical chemist and nuclear physicist, and Roger Revelle, an American oceanographer showed that the oceans would and could not absorb the excess CO2.
This led directly to their conclusion that CO2 must be accumulating in the atmosphere, “Human beings are now carrying out a large-scale geophysical experiment of a kind that could not have happened in the past nor be reproduced in the future.” (Bill McKibben, The Global Warming Reader)
In 1958, when Charles Keeling, an American geochemist installed the first real CO2 monitor on the side of Mauna Loa in Hawaii and for the first time the world watched the CO2 level steadily rise, it all fell into place. Scary times.
Rachel Carson’s words written in the late fifties are hauntingly real: she attempted to warn us to the fact that, “….the chemists’ ingenuity in devising insecticides has long ago outrun biological knowledge of the way these poisons affect the living organism.”
And what of Grey Owl’s prophetic ruminations in the mid-thirties, warning us that, “The forest cannot much longer stand before the conquering march of modernity, and soon we shall witness that vanishing of a mighty wilderness.” (The Men of the Last Frontier 18-18)
Will we never learn to listen to those who know and try to warn us?
Just because we don’t like the message doesn’t make it untrue, unreal, nor not something that can be proven scientifically. These are not “alterative facts” we are being told. They are neither meant to sensationalize, nor is there an economic gain to the messengers.
Archie Belaney, Grey Owl, was truly a man before his time, a leader and visionary to societies in Britain and North America and through his books to readers around the world. He alerted society to practices that would, if continued, cause the extinction of wildlife including Canada’s national animal the beaver, as well as other species and the forests that were their home and his wilderness.
Comparisons can be odious, but humour me for a moment. Picture the world of a century ago. A quarter of all wage earners in the US were unemployed. Severe drought caused the plains to become dust bowls. In Europe Adolf Hitler became the Chancellor of Germany, marching into Austria a dictator who promised to “make Germany great again.” Elsewhere, Japan invaded China and in Great Britain King Edward VIII gave up his throne.
At the time of Grey Owl’s books The Men of the Last Frontier, Pilgrims of the Wild and Tales From An Empty Cabin, society was looking to be distracted from the problems of the world when along came a storyteller weaving hope and life into a dark troubled time. It was something and someone everyone could get behind and support.
His description of the Canadian wilderness is breath-taking and an example of how he penned his words into pictures and in doing so kindled a love in his readers that we as a country continue to have for our far north to this very day.
“Here, even in these modern days, lies a land of Romance, gripping the imagination with its immensity, its boundless possibilities and its magic of untried adventure. Thus it has lain since the world was young, enveloped in a mystery beyond understanding, and immersed in silence, absolute, unbroken, and all-embracing; a silence intensified rather than relieved by the muted whisperings of occasional light forest airs in the treetops far overhead.”
Unfortunately Grey Owl died in April of 1938 and the world lost its focus on his message with the devastating effects of World War II. It was totally understandable, but a great loss that could have eased the environmental movement into action some thirty years sooner if history had not intervened.
However, his message was, and is, timeless and even more powerful and needed today as scientists estimate that 150-200 species of plant, insect, bird and mammal become extinct every twenty-four hours.
And in the United States there were ‘early warnings’ about what a Trump government would do with environmental concerns too. On the campaign trail he constantly espoused the theory that global warming was a hoax thought up by the Chinese. Easy enough to debunk with solid science and rational thought of which his advisors seem to have little.
The morning after the election and awakening on the brink of a new and terrifying reality, the world watched as a reality star president and his party faithful ordered the deletion of libraries of scientific research; darkened government information web sites and withdrew funding for important social programs including affordable health insurance. They systematically muzzled their own scientists; and ordered a wall to be constructed and concentration camps to be set up to hold undocumented aliens while fostering attacks on the environment all behind closed doors and by executive orders.
Conflicts of interest aside, monies taken from environmental protection are now being directly funneled into the pockets of billionaires and industrial representatives and their causes, or rather, “business concerns”. No more do they even bother to close the doors but do their raping and pillaging in front of cameras proud of themselves. Do they ever look behind them to the children and grandchildren they will be leaving this world to one day? My guess is no.
In 1962 Rachel Carson the noted American marine biologist, environmentalist and writer released her book Silent Spring which alerted the world to the environmental impact of fertilizers and pesticides.
“A Who’s Who of pesticides is therefore of concern to us all. If we are going to live so intimately with these chemicals eating and drinking them, taking them into the very marrow of our bones – we had better know something about their nature and their power.”
Not surprisingly she was immediately attacked by the chemical industry and many in government as an alarmist.
Unfortunately she died of cancer in 1964 but is remembered as an early activist who worked to preserve the world for future generations. Embedded within all of her writings, like Grey Owl before her, was the view that human beings were but one part of nature distinguished primarily by their power to alter it, in some cases irreversibly.
Over the decades work has continued by scientists around the world who built on those concerns and the earlier climate change research using satellites and ocean buoy sensors to erect scaffolding for observations, while the theorists used supercomputers to prove by the 1980s that our environment faced great and imminent danger from many sides.
And finally the research on global warming was brought together by the world renowned institutions such as the UN and its Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change — as they began to combine their studies and knowledge for the betterment of the world, our planet, our spaceship earth.
According to Alden Meyer, director of strategy and policy for the Union of Concerned Scientists, “President Donald Trump and his team are pursuing what I call a ‘control-alt-delete’ strategy: control the scientists in the federal agencies, alter science-based policies to fit their narrow ideological agenda, and delete scientific information from government websites.”
We cannot allow that to happen.
Even as the United States appears to close its doors on the world’s environmental stage, others are stepping forward. The EU’s European Investment Bank pledged “to maintain its target” of investing around $20 billion a year over the next five years to help fight climate change.
In defiance of President Trump, other countries are stepping forward to fight this world battle minus the US.
China, is poised to take a leadership role in the fight “by the end of this decade,” according to a report, as Chinese leaders see greater environmental and economic value in the cause.
Chinese President Xi Jinping made his position clear in a U. N. address — saying, “there is only one Earth in the universe and we, mankind, have only one homeland. China will continue to take steps to tackle climate change and fully honor its obligations.”
With China being the world’s biggest polluter, there’s plenty riding on Xi’s promises. However nothing says more than the deafening silence on climate change coming from the leader of the world’s second biggest polluter, President Donald Trump.
However, the world picture is not and shouldn’t be perceived as completely bleak although many will continue to consider 2016 as a watershed year and fear for the future. For them I highlight the following achievements during the tumultuous and historic year of 2016.
– The Giant Panda was been removed from the endangered species list;
– Tiger numbers around the world are on the rise for the first time in 100 years;
– India’s commitment to reforestation saw a single day event planting more than 50 million trees. This is a world record;
– China has announced a firm date for the end of the ivory trade;
– A solar powered airplane flew across the Pacific Ocean for the first time, pointing to a new era of energy possibilities;
– British Columbia protected 85% of Great Bear Rainforest, the largest coastal temperate rainforest on the planet;
– 2016 saw the designation of more than 40 new marine sanctuaries in 20 countries, covering an area larger than the United States of America;
– Atmospheric acid pollution, acid rain of the seventies, once a gloomy reality, has been tackled to the point of being almost back to pre-industrial levels;
– Fossil fuel emissions flat lined in 2016, with the Paris agreement becoming the fastest UN treaty to become international law – ever;
– A huge majority of EU Parliament voted to save Europe’s most important nature laws and the world’s biggest network of protected areas;
– Arctic foxes have been found denning in Finland for the first time in two decades;
– Shell Canada has relinquished its 40 year old offshore oil exploration permits in Arctic Canada;
– And last, but not least, America’s Arctic will be free of new offshore oil and gas drilling, at least for the next five years, fingers crossed.
Regardless of the positives one must remember that the fickleness of political will is why we are still talking about Grey Owl and Rachel Carson’s warnings today. Government decisions can be temporary, so as stewards of the earth we have to remain vigilant.
Already the keepers of the Doomsday Clock have moved the symbolic countdown to potential global catastrophe thirty seconds closer to midnight based on President Trump’s comments on nuclear weapons and climate change.
And that my friends is why we need to adopt a policy of argus-eyed awareness when it comes to public policy and environmental regulations. To this end we must support each other and the environment in any way we can whether it be through marches, letter writing, or even non-violent civil disobedience in some cases. Be heard. Make your voice count. Stand up for what you believe in and more importantly what you want to leave of this world as your inheritance to your grandchildren.
We must let them know that we agree with those saying: “There are certain things that we all accept as facts with no alternatives. The Earth is becoming warmer due to human action.
The diversity of life arose by evolution. And … an American government that ignores science to pursue ideological agendas endangers the world” – the whole planet, our world, our Spaceship Earth!