Lessons from a Dying Glacier

Lessons from a Dying Glacier

Seeing it for myself (July 2018)

Last summer, standing at 12,000 feet in the John Muir Wilderness, I participated in a death watch. Below me was the Palisade Glacier, greatly shrunken from its past immensity, but still a broad swath of ice tens of feet thick in the headwaters of Big Pine Creek. And yet, even as I saw the glacier, I knew it was already gone, its final melting assured by climate change.

Like the glacier, the world in which human civilization evolved is also essentially gone. A relatively stable world, in which temperature varied by only a degree Fahrenheit over ten thousand years, has now been replaced by a world that has warmed by almost two degrees Fahrenheit in just two hundred years.

In this new world our climate, weather and ecological support systems are changing rapidly, and they will continue to do so in ever more disruptive and dangerous ways. Our new world has atmospheric carbon dioxide concentrations unseen since the Pliocene epoch, about 3 million years ago, when the seas were 20 meters higher and there were trees in the Arctic and Antarctica. But there were no humans in the Pliocene. David Wallace-Wells notes that “no humans have walked the earth in a climate as warm as this one.”

That our world is now one of dying glaciers is no surprise. During the Carter Administration, JASON (the Government’s elite scientific advisory group that the Trump Administration is considering disbanding) concluded that human emissions of carbon dioxide could threaten national security by altering sea level, interfering with food production and displacing human populations. At the request of President Carter, the National Academy of Sciences established a study group led by Professor Jule Charney of MIT to review these alarming conclusions.

In a classic example of scientific understatement, the study group reported in 1979 that if carbon dioxide concentrations in the atmosphere continued to increase there was “… no reason to doubt that climate changes will result, and no reason to believe these changes will be negligible.”

In June 1988, Dr. James Hansen of NASA testified before the U.S. Senate that the impact of human emissions on global temperature had been detected. We ignored these warnings, as a country and a civilization, encouraged to do so by a systematic effort of lies and deception funded by the fossil fuel industry (an effort that continues today). Approximately half of all human emissions have been released since Dr. Hansen’s testimony, leading Wallace-Wells to conclude that since 1988 “…we have done more damage, knowingly, than we did over preceding centuries, in ignorance.”

The Charney study group warned “a wait-and-see policy may mean waiting until it’s too late.” Well, we waited. The vast quantity of heat trapping gases we added to the atmosphere is now changing the distribution of water, fueling major storms, raising sea level and generating aridity that is contributing to more severe droughts and wildfires. As predicted, these changes are not “negligible.”

Moreover, the heat-trapping gases we’ve already added to the atmosphere assure our new unstable world will continue into the future, even if we take heroic actions to reduce emissions. This means that Miami Beach and other low-lying communities, just like the Palisade Glacier (and other glaciers around the world), are also as good as gone. Despite the fact that the President and his fellow Know-Nothings foolishly prattle on about “fake climate science,” market prices suggest investors are beginning to understand our new world, although climate risk is still underestimated. The bankruptcy of PG&E shows what happens when an entity miscalculates its exposure to risk driven by changing natural processes (in this case, the growing aridity of California).

So I stared at the Palisade Glacier, feeling its immense presence yet knowing its fate was sealed. The climate that supported it, the same climate that allowed for human civilization to flourish, has disappeared.

This doesn’t mean we’re goners. The world we get will still be the world we choose, but we can no longer choose the world we had. This means facing the grief that comes with losing our special places and traditional livelihoods to fire, flood and ocean – places that are part of our personal or cultural identity. It means facing the rage and bewilderment of the young, who are realizing their futures will be filled with smoke, disease outbreaks, rising waters, half-empty reservoirs and human suffering. This is our new reality. Only when we move past denial and complacency to full acceptance will we find the will and resolve to take the necessary action.

This is hard work, but it must be done. President Trump’s ignorant proclamation that climate “will change back again” is a horrifying failure of leadership, discouraging Americans from coming to grips with a reality that already has them in its grasp.

My fellow citizens would be better served to remember Dorothy’s famous observation; “Oh, Toto, I don’t think we’re in Kansas anymore.” Clicking the heels of our ruby slippers will not bring back the glaciers or the climate we’ve left behind. Only a total commitment to transforming our energy system, something that is within our capacity if not our experience, will prevent a major calamity.