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OpEdNews Op Eds    H2'ed 7/7/21

The World Speeds Up -- and We Slow Down

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Arizona Monsoon
Arizona Monsoon
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The worst of the heat has passed for now in the Southwest, where I am this week. Phoenix, which saw a record six straight days above a 115 degrees, hit a mere 113 over the weekend. There's a haze of smoke in the sky around Flagstaff and a faint smell of char in the air, but, on the "Ready, Set, Go!" evacuation pyramid, residents were downgraded to "Ready," which is increasingly a permanent position for human beings on a heating planet; relaxation seems less advised all the time, as the natural world moves from backdrop to foreground in human affairs. The heat has moved to the Northwest and to Canada, where a heat dome is rewriting the record book, day after day, with temperatures that take cities from Portland to Calgary into uncharted territory. In fact, as the climate journalist Brian Kahn points out , the only thing that may dampen the heat at all is the "smoke from wildfires sparked due to hot conditions currently racking the West dimming the sun."

Last week, we discussed how the new heat affects human bodies. This week, we need to remind ourselves how these novel temperatures are affecting the planet itself. The earth won't simply keel over and die like a human being might, but it is now changing in substantial ways in real time. If you're used to thinking that the earth changes in the course of geological epochs, and that fundamental shifts require thousands or millions of years, think again. An important paper published this month in the journal Nature Climate Change laid out one example: during the past seven decades, as it's got hotter in the Southwest, it's also got less humid. In most places, the warming air leads to more humidity -- hot air can carry more water vapor than cold air can. But evaporation off the sea surface provides much of the moisture, and the desert Southwest is nowhere near an ocean. In the Southwest, and in many other continental interiors, the extra heat is evaporating moisture straight out of the soil, desiccating the landscape and making huge fires all but inevitable. And, as the Times reported , citing Park Williams, a U.C.L.A. climate scientist, it's very much a vicious circle: "Lower soil moisture should also cause temperatures to rise, Dr. Williams said, because there is little or no moisture left to evaporate, and evaporation has a cooling effect."

The speed with which this happens is remarkable. And it is dramatically outpacing the speed at which humans -- our governments, our economies, our habits, our mind-sets -- seem able to adapt. AZCentral reports that some golf-course managers near Phoenix are " pushing back " against a plan that would cut their water use by just three percent. Never mind that reservoirs across the West are falling to record-low levels (with insufficient snowpack to replenish them, and with that constant evaporation); representatives of the golf industry have formed the Arizona Alliance for Golf, which has met with state officials and launched a Website urging residents to "speak up for Arizona golf" and "protect our game." "Rushing any decisions related to the plan would not be good for the industry," an executive of one of Phoenix's 165 courses told AZCentral. Bri Kenny, of the Scottsdale-based golf-management company Troon, said that she thinks "it's super necessary that we have another meeting...Governor Doug Ducey, taking time off from voter-suppression efforts , seems to agree. "The golf industry is critical to growing Arizona's economy, job opportunities, and tourism," he said at the launch of the new alliance. The state, he added, needs to "insure our state remains the premier golf destination."

The problem isn't just in Arizona, of course. In liberal California, climate bills keep dying in the State Senate, run off the procedural rails by a minority of legislators. At the national level, the Department of Justice went to court last week to argue that the Line 3 crude-oil and tar-sands pipeline should be built, apparently out of a conviction that its positions shouldn't necessarily shift simply because Administrations change. (That may be a noble premise, but not when the previous Administration claimed that climate change is a "hoax manufactured by the Chinese.") And the new bipartisan infrastructure bill stripped much of the climate content that President Biden had promised. He pledges now that he'll get it back in a separate reconciliation bill, but that may be difficult, given that, although Senator Joe Manchin has said that he supports the reconciliation plan, he also recently said that he is "concerned" that the Administration may be "setting a very aggressive timetable" to halve carbon emissions by 2030. (As Emily Atkin points out , it's notable that he made his remarks before the Edison Electric Institute, a utility-trade group that has been a reliable force for slowing down our climate response.) On the global level, preparations for the United Nations climate talks set for November in Glasgow are reported to be lagging : the organizers haven't even figured out yet how to make sure that representatives from developing countries can get vaccinated for the trip. Leaked drafts of the next big report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change indicate that it will be even more dire than its predecessors. "I suspect what we will face is further urgency and the need to go further, faster," the head of the Glasgow talks said.

You would think that changes in the planet's climate would take a very long time and changes in human opinion and action could happen fast. You'd think that sentience would be an aid. But, instead, it appears that we are slow and that nature -- supercharged by our carbon -- is fast as hell. Since the climate crisis isn't going to slow down, our only option is to speed up.

Passing the Mic

The British journalist Lucy Jones tells a remarkable story in her book " Losing Eden ." Some of it is societal (did you know that Westerners now spend less than five percent of their time outdoors?), and some of it personal. Published in England amid the sudden shock of the pandemic (the book comes out in this country in August), it may help explain why some people turned to the natural world for solace in the past year -- and why they were very smart to do so. (Our conversation has been edited.)

Tell the story of how you started to connect with the natural world.

I wound up, at 27, in April, 2012, in recovery from alcohol and drug addiction. The first year of sobriety was difficult and painful, so I cast about for activities that might soothe and alleviate the depression and anxiety that was underlying my substance use. I started walking daily on a marshland near my East London home, noticing the plants and flowers, the kestrels overhead, the elegant heron, the bats at dusk. I was getting to know the wild things around me. Afterward, I'd feel emotional tension ease: my brain unburdened from critical thoughts, my nervous system calmed. It became another -- healthy -- addiction, and as important to my recovery as psychiatry, psychotherapy, and support groups. Although I vaguely knew that spending time outside was in some way good for people, -- I was surprised by just how powerfully therapeutic this relationship turned out to be. As a science journalist, I immediately wanted to understand exactly what was happening to my mind, body, and brain in those natural spaces. What were the mscienechanisms? How did it work?

How much hard science is there to back up the idea that we need the world around us? What happens to us if we don't have some exposure?

Many hundreds of studies from scientists working in various disciplines across the world are showing us the importance of exposure to the outdoor world for our health and happiness. People recover from stress quickly and more completely in natural spaces. Spending time in nature can reduce inflammation and enhance immune function. What do I mean by "spending time in nature"? Let me give you a few favorite examples. Early studies on petrichor, the aroma of the earth after it's rained, and the brain suggest smelling it can make us feel calm and relaxed. Finding awe in the myriad processes outside can promote healthier levels of cytokines (inflammation-related biomarkers). Looking at fractal shapes, which are found everywhere in nature, even in sprays of "weeds" in the cracks of the pavement, can reduce stress levels.Without exposure, we lose out on these critical therapeutic benefits.

The world is becoming a physically scarier place -- hotter, stormier. How do we keep from simply retreating behind our various screens?

The antidote to paralysis in response to the dual climate and nature crisis is, for me, organizing with other people, to use our voices against the trends of extinction. We are attempting to rewild a tiny patch of land in my home town, and, as I write in "Losing Eden," the biophilic-city movement -- efforts to make locales more inhabitable for both human and nonhuman life -- is of prime importance, as the world warms and becomes more precarious. Spending time in nature isn't a luxury. We need natural spaces, the natural spaces in which we have spent 99 percent of our evolutionary history, in order to recover from the stresses of life and restore ourselves. We also need to keep a close eye on how our leaders are responding to the science, so retreating behind screens is not an optionand neither is losing our magnificent world.

Climate School

The Yale researcher Jennifer Marlon, working with a team that included the eminent climate scientist Katharine Hayhoe, has published new research showing that the one type of weather that really gets Americans thinking about the climate crisis is long, dry heat waves.

The folks at the hedge fund Engine No. 1, who managed to land three "climate-concerned candidates" on the Exxon board this spring, are taking their method fully public, with an exchange-traded fund, or E.T.F., open to even small investors, that will try to push corporations to take climate change seriously.

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Bill McKibben is the author of a dozen books, including The End of Nature and Deep Economy: The Wealth of Communities and the Durable Future. A former staff writer for The New Yorker, he writes regularly for Harper's, The Atlantic Monthly, and The (more...)
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