To celebrate Earth Hour last night, we turned off the power to have a candlelit dinner. The flickering light from our six beeswax candles turned our ordinary little kitchen into a magical place for one hour (and a bit more, actually, because we liked it so well). Over food and by flame, we reflected on recent climate news.
Independent of fickle public opinion, the signs of a shifting climate continue to accumulate. In the lower atmosphere, January 2010 was the warmest January ever, and the Southern Hemisphere just had its hottest February ever. The decade just ended was the warmest on record (graphs here), and unless there’s a quick change in El Nino conditions, NASA projects this year could be the warmest in modern history. In the Arctic, where sea ice remains thin, the melting of permafrost now allows methane – a more potent greenhouse gas than CO2 – to bubble up into the atmosphere. Recently a study found increased melting of Greenland’s ice sheet, especially along its northwest edge. Another new study suggests the ice in Greenland could destabilize once atmospheric CO2 climbs above 400 ppmv – a point we’re likely to reach in about five years. Antarctica, too, continues to lose ice. Sea level rise made news last week by abetting the disappearance of a once-disputed island in the Bay of Bengal between India and Bangladesh.
This global news is all consistent with the unusually short winter we’ve had where I live in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan. It’s normal here to have significant snow on the ground for six to eight months of the year. Snow often begins falling in October or November, and hangs around until April or May.
This year, though, winter started late and left early. Earnest snow didn’t come until December 2nd, after an unusually warm November. We had some bone-chilling cold snaps in January, but still, folks noticed an absence of the usual ice buildup along the Lake Superior shoreline, especially by February. By the time March hit, we were getting lengthy thaws, and by mid-month organizers of winter sports events got worried. The annual cross-country ski Great Bear Chase squeaked through with careful course grooming and a shortening of routes; at least one ice-fishing tournament was canceled for lack of ice.
As I write this, there are still isolated spots where people can ski (or so I hear); and though it was short, this year’s ice-fishing season was reportedly good. Still, as of the spring equinox, what we actually had was – spring. That season usually doesn’t start up here until late April or early May. This year, though, winter has essentially ended after only four months – about half of what’s considered normal for the area.
One season doesn’t make a trend, and it’s true our previous winter was unusually harsh and cold. The string of winters before that, though, were also warm enough to worry ski enthusiasts and winter-tourism businesses. These warmer, shorter winters seem to have become more common now than the longer, colder seasons for which this place is known. It’s a compelling backdrop for Earth Hour and for contemplating the ramifications of living in a warming world.
So far, it’s not a disaster for someone like me, but I don’t live on an eroding coastal bluff, like so many Alaskan Inuits whose villages have to relocate, or on a low coastal plain, like the Bangladeshis who are becoming climate refugees as ocean advances over land. I don’t have most of my savings tied up in a low-lying coastal home in Louisiana or Mississippi or North Carolina or Florida. I don’t belong to a species whose food and habitat is dwindling as temperatures climb. Even for someone like me, though, it is a more unpredictable world, and I feel wary.
Another thing I contemplated by Earth Hour’s candlelight is this: whether all this local and global climate news demonstrates the reality of a warming planet is almost moot when one looks at the myriad good reasons to wean ourselves from fossil fuels. Consider the huge destruction caused by extracting coal and oil from the ground; the volume of toxics their transport and use adds to air and water; the social and political conflicts they engender worldwide. In contrast, less use of fossil fuels gives us magical candlelit dinners, the health and fresh air of a walk or bike ride, the companionship and community of sharing rides with neighbors.
Wrapped up in proposed solutions to climate change is a beautiful lifestyle, a richer lifestyle, one that recognizes we don’t need growth for prosperity, one where the whole year can consist of a series of Earth Hours. It’s the kind of lifestyle I discovered when I found that using less fossil fuel to get around made my life better, not worse, and that ultimately led me to write Divorce Your Car! It’s the gift we find hidden in more often turning off the power, a gift that can help us as we help others and make many things a little more magical.