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General News    H3'ed 12/9/19

Tomgram: Dahr Jamail, Dealing With Climate PTSD

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In Australia, about as far from Alaska as you can get, rainforests considered too wet to burn have recently been in flames. And that's no longer an atypical story on this globe of ours. No wonder U.N. Secretary-General Antà nio Guterres recently warned that, when it comes to the climate crisis, the "point of no return is no longer over the horizon. It is in sight and hurtling toward us." Unfortunately, at a moment when nations across the planet should be organizing efforts to keep global temperatures within bounds, the latest news suggests that anything but that is happening. Leave aside for the moment the arsonists of the Trump administration, visibly intent not on ignoring the reality of climate change but on intensifying it, and consider the latest United Nations Emissions Gap Report. It suggests that humanity is going to wildly overshoot the limits set by the Paris climate accord for a planet only 1.5 degrees Fahrenheit warmer than the pre-industrial average. In fact, greenhouse gas emissions continue to rise, while ExxonMobil and Shell alone are, according to the Guardian, planning to increase their fossil fuel production levels by more than 35% between now and 2030 (and other major energy companies are making similar plans).

In response to all this, the World Bank has estimated that Latin America, sub-Saharan Africa, and Southeast Asia alone "will generate 143 million more climate migrants by 2050" and that's only part of the climate-crisis migration story. After all, it's not just humans that are already in a desperate search for more livable places; it's fish, too, in fast warming ocean waters that have so far absorbed "more than 90% of the excess heat trapped by greenhouse gas emissions." And all of this is taking place before the planet reaches what, according to the latest scientific research, could prove to be a global cascade of climate tipping points that might feed off each other, creating a far less livable place far more quickly. All of this seems worrisome enough that 11,000 scientists -- that is, more or less all the scientists working on subjects related to climate change -- have let out a collective scream of anxiety: "The climate crisis has arrived and is accelerating faster than most scientists expected. It is more severe than anticipated, threatening natural ecosystems and the fate of humanity."

No wonder environmental reporter Dahr Jamail, author of the superb new book The End of Ice, has had a similar reaction, though in his case, viewing the climate devastation already visited on his adopted state of Alaska, it's been tears, not screams. Tom

Savoring What Remains
Taking in a Climate-Changed World
By Dahr Jamail

Recently, I was in Homer, Alaska, to talk about my book The End of Ice. Seconds after I had thanked those who brought me to the small University of Alaska campus there, overwhelmed with some mix of sadness, love, and grief about my adopted state -- and the planet generally -- I wept.

I tried to speak but could only apologize and take a few moments to collect myself. It's challenging for me, even now, to explain the wash of emotions and thoughts that suddenly swept over me as I stood at that podium on a warm, windy, rainy night on the southern Kenai Peninsula among a group ready to learn more about what was happening to our beloved Earth.

"Sorry for that," I finally said after a few more breaths, as my voice cracked with emotion, "but I know you'll understand. You live in this state and you know as well as I do that once Alaska gets in your blood, it stays there. And I love this place with all my heart." Most of the listeners in that room were already nodding and at least one person had begun to cry.

I lived in Alaska for a decade, starting in 1996, and it's been in my blood since the year before that when I first laid eyes on Denali National Park and the spectacular Alaska Range. In fact, five of the nine chapters of my new book are set in Alaska and its mournful title is a kind of bow to my abiding love for this country's northernmost state. That moment in 1995 when the clouds literally parted to reveal Denali's lofty summit and its spectacular spread of glaciers proved to be love at first sight. In fact, most summers thereafter I would visit that range as well as others in Alaska, volcanoes in Mexico, the Karakorum Himalaya of South Asia, or the South American Andes.

Then, in the summer of 2003, several months after the Bush administration's invasion of Iraq, I listened to radio reports on the beginning of the grim American occupation of that land from a tent on Denali while volunteering with the Park Service. It was there as well, strangely enough, that I first felt the pull of Iraq -- or rather of the gaping void in the mainstream media when it came to what that occupation was doing to the Iraqi people. I then decided to travel from ice to heat, from Denali to the Middle East, to find out what was happening there and report on it.

That strange mountainside call led me into a career in journalism that pulled me away from my beloved Alaska whose vastnesses, largely devoid of a human presence, I've never experienced elsewhere. And as far as I traveled from its unique landscape, the feeling that the climate was already being disrupted in dramatic ways there stuck with me through my years of war reporting. The thought of the ever-receding glaciers in my former home state pained me and somehow drew me from America's forever wars to another kind of war -- on the planet itself -- and into nearly a decade of climate reporting.

I told the audience all of this, occasionally pausing so as not to cry again thanks to a sadness born in part from the convulsions of wildfires, droughts, rapidly thawing permafrost, native coastal villages melting into the seas, and fast-shrinking glaciers. And don't forget a Trumpian lapdog of a governor who, just like his darling president, seems unable to cut services fast enough or work hard enough to open yet more of this great state to drilling, logging, and pollution (despite his growing unpopularity).

The evening before, November 20th, I'd spoken at the University of Alaska in Anchorage and it was 48 degrees Fahrenheit (and raining, not snowing), a full 20 degrees warmer than the normal high temperature for that month. And that's a reality that has become ever more the new normal there, even though the top third of the state lies inside the Arctic Circle. That, in turn, reflects another new reality: "Arctic amplification," which means that the higher latitudes of this planet are warming roughly twice as fast as the mid-latitudes. In other words, Alaska is in the crosshairs of climate disruption.

Put another way, the audiences I was speaking to that month and all of my friends in Alaska are now living in what feels like a chronic state of shock as things unravel in their state at warp speed.

Alaska, the New Norm

It's no secret that vast numbers of climate scientists are now grieving for the planet and humanity's future, with some even describing their symptoms as a climate-change version of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, or PTSD. Several of the scientists I interviewed for my book said as much. Dan Fagre, who works for the United States Geological Survey at Glacier National Park, was typical. When I asked him what he felt like while watching the glaciers (for which that park was named) disappear -- they are expected to be gone by 2030 -- he responded, "It's like being a battle-hardened soldier, but on a philosophical basis, it's tough to watch the thing you study disappear."

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Tom Engelhardt, who runs the Nation Institute's ("a regular antidote to the mainstream media"), is the co-founder of the American Empire Project and, most recently, the author of Mission Unaccomplished: Tomdispatch (more...)

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