To Fight Climate Change, Science and Story Must Kiss
I believe in stories. They enrapture the mind and shorten chasms of otherness. They offer vulnerable insight into the teller’s humanity and remind the listener that they share the same human family.
Humans have long engaged challenging issues with story. Storytelling is the process of coming to terms with life, crafting a narrative of control over the inevitability of despair.
Climate change is humanity’s most epic storytelling fail. Besides a few bizarre and questionably helpful genres (solarpunk and cli-fi), storytelling has failed to capture humanity’s collective hearts and minds for immediate climate change engagement.
There’s a place for damning facts, but they’re a resounding gong without placing them in a human context. Story is the bridge between the quantifiable and abstract, a road connecting the head and the heart and vast communities of seemingly disparate people.
So I’m starting with a story.
Climate change hits home: How memories of my rural stomping grounds are melting away (literally)
My nose was the first to believe in climate change.
It was a Christmas too distant to recall but late enough for me to understand patterns. I walked precociously outside, a plucky youngster sneaking out early from Christmas turkey to stare at the falling snow.
But there was none.
The air didn’t bite my face: It kissed it. I smelled something. I didn’t know what it was, but it wasn’t Christmas. It wasn’t winter: A warm, woody smell, camphorous, like the aroma of a well-maintained greenhouse filled with tropical plants and rotting organic matter. It’s not unpleasant, but it’s perfume saturating November through February is.
What I first smelled that galvanizing December night I’ve noticed in alarming salience throughout the decade. It’s a smell that, like the permafrost, is released when winter loses its icy grip. It’s a smell my adolescent nose immediately registered as strange, like an animal scenting an unknown predator, new and ominous.
That night, I cried. There was no snow; the lower yard was submerged in mud and melting ice. It wasn’t that I knew my planet was sweating, but I grieved something instilled from earliest memory: The glorious winterness of winter, unbroken and festooned with memories.
There’s no place like home
I grew up in Barry County, a rural enclave tucked away in Southwest Michigan. As a child, I heard stories of comfortable summers, crisp falls, springs reliable for planting, and cold, snowy winters. As a child, I also enjoyed what I now recognize as the last few years of this stable climate that stretched for millennia past. I remember snow deep enough to snowmobile throughout most of January and February. I recall stalking silently to my stand for November deer season, the crisp air tingling my skin and crystalizing my breath, the frozen leaves crunching beneath my boots. In late winter, snowdrifts of pure, powdery snow beckoned me to play and explore their depths.
This climatic sense of place shaped me indelibly. My youngest years were formed by memories of winter and reinforced by my parents’ and grandparents’ stories. Snow and cold are as much a part of me as they are to the ancient place I call home.
I think that’s why I cried that Christmas night so long ago. I didn’t want to be the last generation to feel the tantalizing, formative power of winter coursing through its veins.
I think my prescient tears were on to something. Today, you’re hard-pressed to find ample snow over 6 inches deep come February 1. Once frequented, snowmobile trails now sit languidly all winter long devoid of snow, and sleds are for sale for the cheap. Snowdrifts now sit comatose only in the steepest of hedgerows and quickly mutate into granular mounds of wet hostility.
My cherished opening day baptism in snow, ice, and frost is becoming rarer, and my wishes for a white Christmas grow more feverish each passing year.
As a teen, I tried desperately to discredit the trends. When I could no longer deny the world is heating up, I believed that somehow — my someplace — my beloved Michigan, would be mostly spared.
What I knew in my heart is now laid bare with facts, the ugly truth seeping like puss from a wound.
A part of my identity is melting away.
Science and story kiss
Isought to understand my changing experiences with the best data available. I took two consummate cold memories of my youth, November 15 (opening day of firearm deer season) and Christmas Day, and explored how average temperatures have changed through time.
As I sifted through centuries-old weather records, I prayed data would put my fears to rest, suspicion crushed beneath the immutable testimony of trend lines.
They weren’t. The data corroborate my observations.
Let’s start chronologically on November 15.
November 15, Opening Day
My earliest recollection of Opening Day of deer season was God-knows-when. What I do remember of that inaugural day was piercing cold and snow. Snow deep enough to summon tears of exhaustion as I waded to my father’s stand.
In the coming years, my strength and resolve rose to the challenge of my environment. I adapted to it, and it became a part of me, whether hunting or cutting wood, or shoveling out cars imprisoned in snowdrifts. Despite the unpleasantries wrought by the cold season, I always welcomed it with the fondness of an old friend. The inconveniences served by ice and snow were no match for the joy and lessons I learned from them.
Then one Opening Day about ten years ago, I saw something curious: Flies buzzing in a vertical pillar just in front of my deer stand. Up and down they undulated, rejoicing in a bizarre phenomenon of warmth and sunlight. It was undoubtedly warm for a mid-November day, but still, flies????
I threw it out as a fluke of nature and carried on with my hunt. Sweating beads, I was forced to remove the heavy coat my father and grandfather faithfully wore this same day in decades past.
The flies resumed the next year, and the next, and the next. My coat became less necessary. The ground was softer. The brambles and cursed multiflora rose seemed happier every season, the air generally warmer and more consuming, a far stretch from the instant iciness of November I knew from collective memory.
Something was wrong. Was it just a cycle of hot and cold, or was a trend brewing?
I dove deep, heaving annals of weather observations as far back as 1894. The results are startling. From 1894 to 2020, November 15 average temperatures are trending a few degrees warmer than the historical average.
Most of this change came in recent decades. Since modern uniform reporting began in 1963 for my area, the November trendline shows a two-degree warming trend from 1963 to 2020. That’s 0.3 degrees every decade.
This trend mirrors the rest of Michigan perfectly. From 1895 to 2020, November in Michigan is about 5 degrees hotter than historical averages, an uptick of 0.3 degrees every decade.
A few excerpts from my November 2020 journal:
“Nov. 4–9, heard frogs in the swamps … November 9, new record high 77ºF, saw a snake sunbathing.”
From my (albeit young) recollection, these observations were unheard of a decade ago.
Hark, the day I first smelt change.
Like November 15, Christmas Day shows a noticeable trend towards warming, but it’s even more pronounced. Average December temps in Michigan have increased a little over three degrees, 0.3 degrees every decade. In the last five decades when warming began in earnest, the December trendline for my area skyrockets, showing a warming trend of about 4 degrees from 1963 to 2020. That’s .8 degrees every decade.
Putting it all together
Regional temperature averages for Barry County are on a runaway climb deviating from historical norms. If the trend continues, my grandkids will be robbed of winter. Barry County is just one small piece of a complex climate mosaic, but its climate trends correlate with what’s happening worldwide.
Incidentally, 2020 tied 2016 as the warmest year on record. The world’s seven warmest years have all occurred since 2014.
See a pattern?
This disturbing trend suggests things are heating up quickly and will for quite some time.
The North Arctic is in a death spiral, heating three times faster than the rest of the earth. If the arctic falls, a cascading positive feedback loop will ensue. The detritus of climate change in my locale is sobering, but it could mean life or death for people in Bangladesh and southern Vietnam.
“Yeah, but humans don’t cause climate change.”
Living in a rural wonderland like Southwest Michigan comes with its foibles. In this case, my conservative neighbors’ denial that humans are to blame for banishing winter. It’s true, climate has been shaped by the El Niño Southern Oscillation (ENSO), solar cycles, and cataclysmic volcanic eruptions for eons.
Natural climate cycles deserve a glance here, as do the arguments that they alone cause climate change.
El Niño Southern Oscillation and the solar cycle
El Niño and its counterpart La Niña are the warm and cool phases of a recurring climate pattern across the tropical Pacific. El Niño and La Niña oscillate irregularly every two to seven years, triggering predictable disruptions in weather patterns.
The phases disrupt global air movements in the tropics, triggering a cascade of global side effects.
Many extreme weather events, droughts, precipitation, and hot/cold snaps follow ENSO cycles with high predictability.
The 11-year solar cycle affects the sun’s solar activity. The beginning of the cycle (solar minimum) represents relative calm on the surface. The middle of the cycle (solar maximum) usually produces high solar activity. The latter is the scapegoat for warming in recent decades.
ENSO, solar cycles, and volcanoes don’t cause climate change … we do
I’ve long engaged folks in my community about climate change. Many of them admit winters aren’t like they used to be and confess some climate change is happening.
Those who downplay human fault attribute climate change to natural phenomena. But natural cycles alone can’t explain the warming that’s happening.
If humans aren’t causing climate change — but naturally-occurring phenomena such as ENSO or solar cycles are — then we can assume humans can’t influence ENSO and solar activity. So ENSO and solar activity can be understood as very stable over centuries, even millennia, meaning we should have no reason to expect dramatic, sudden shifts in warming. And if there were, we’d see other regular warming patterns in recorded history.
But we don’t. Contemporary warming at-scale and in such an alarmingly short period is unprecedented. Regular solar cycles can’t explain it, especially considering the solar cycle resets every 11 years.
Another oft-quoted “cause” of climate change are large natural emissions of greenhouse gases burped up by volcanoes. The 1815 eruption of Mt. Tambora and the ensuing “year without a summer” is proof that volcanic eruptions indeed change the climate. Mt. Tambora emitted 100 megatons of sulfur aerosols into the atmosphere, causing bizarre hazes across the world that stunted growing seasons. But it was relatively short-lived sulfur that caused the cooling effect, and things returned to normalcy a few years after the eruption. Volcanoes emit carbon dioxide when they erupt, but scientists estimate that volcanism represents less than one percent of all human carbon emissions. Science has never found volcanoes to cause global warming.
Those who claim warming occurs from volcanoes plant the seeds of faulty logic in their arguments: By admitting carbon from volcanoes changes the atmosphere, you acknowledge all emitted carbon changes the atmosphere. Therefore, you must concede that the nearly 100 times greater anthropogenic carbon affects the atmosphere far greater.
In the words of the NOAA,
“The annual rate of increase in atmospheric carbon dioxide over the past 60 years is about 100 times faster than previous natural increases, such as those that occurred at the end of the last ice age 11,000–17,000 years ago.”
Current carbon emissions are 90 percent higher than they were in 1970. Rising emissions correlate with rising average temperatures. Humans are the only possible explanation of where that carbon is coming from. There’s no other way around it.
Global average temperatures have been rising at an alarming degree since 1976. That was the last year global yearly averages fell under the historical average. From 1977 onward, the global thermometer steadily increased above the baseline average.
We are now almost two degrees warmer than we were in 1880. Almost all of this warming has happened in the past four decades.
Carbon is married to climate change, and we’re the only ones pumping it into the atmosphere. It’s all on us.
And now is the time to do something about it.
Wherever you sit on the political spectrum, right now is precisely the right time to take climate action. Take my testimony — backed up with a bit of amateur science — as a cry for action. I’m a Midwesterner uncomfortably straddling both sides of the political spectrum. I have no political ax to grind, but I will grind what needs grinding to save the place I love, my identity, and the dignity and lives of countless millions.
Engaging the climate crisis should not and cannot be contingent on political ideology. It must be the realization of an existential threat of a planet that is about to regurgitate our civilization due to our collective arrogance.
It was only until very recently that caring for a shared planet became a political wedge. The most effective environmental legislation were bipartisan landslide efforts.
Not long ago, caring for the world wasn’t a political issue. It just made sense.
I believe we can retrace our steps and pull climate action from the mud of political stalemates.
So get involved. Educate yourself. Question the granted. Understand where you live and how you relate to it. Find your niche. See for yourself how climate change is melting away your own stomping grounds. Take science seriously, but stand undaunted in the face of cold, hopeless odds.
Put it all together and get the bigger picture.
Then tell your story like the earth depends on it. Because the world as we know it does.