I am not sure how many listeners keep diaries but I am one of those who has done so for most of life. And not surprisingly in the weeks after each New Year I find myself reflecting back, on the decades of change they reflect, and of course thinking about the year just past. But as I did so this year I realized something different had happened.
Sure the broader outlines were always there- a lifetime spent intensively studying, traveling, and teaching about the evolution of the modern world largely since the industrial revolution. That impossible to undervalue emergence of the fossil fuel energy system that gave humanity the power to transform ourselves so often for the better through the increasingly profligate use of coal, oil and natural gas. And of course, the more painful story of how those same fossil fuels, especially oil have more recently transformed the Middle East and increasingly dragged America into the wars of the last generation. Not forgetting of course the decades studying China’s efforts to embrace of that same fossil fuel energy realty eventually doing so, so effectively that it has arrived, along with the United States as one of the two great fossil fuel users of the 21st century.
And then almost a decade ago a creeping sense that all my different studies had started to come together as China and more recently India’s insatiable need for more fossil fuels began to pile on to America’s long addiction transforming what had been a geo-political transformation to a geo-physical one, literally seeing humanity undermining the heat balance of the entire planet by pumping up all those heat trapping gasses that are pushing up world temperatures. An impact subtle on a global level, more dramatic in places like the arctic — rising temperatures that are at the core of our increasingly chaotic global climate, or should I say “extreme weather” that curious phrase that so many of the more timid of our more weathercasters still like to call this new phenomenon.
Which is why, of course some years ago I felt a responsibility to start giving public talks to any audience willing to gather. But quite frankly most of the time, it was not that personal… I’d talk of heat waves killing thousand in France. Hurricanes devastating countries from the Philippines to Burma, drought fed massive fires in Australia.
But frankly our little part of the world, here in North America was not as dramatically impacted as some other parts of the world. But this last year, in the weeks after New Years as I found myself reflecting on the last year and realized that this was the year when climate reality came home. Because this was the year when in a visit last summer to James Bay, that great waterway at the bottom of Hudson Bay I met George, a Cree Indian who told me as I sat drifting in his little boat in the waters of that enormous inland ocean about how the warming of his region was dramatically changing his world and the lives of his people.
And this was the year when after so many months of extraordinary Texas drought I watched, as so many Americans did, the horrendous fire that engulfed the parched land around Bastrop, Texas. But this time, again it was more personal, because I knew that among the hundreds of families devastated, hundreds of homes burned down one of them had once been the home of my cousin, a lovely little place I had occasionally visited.
While a few months later, in late August on the eve of the very morning when I was expected to start last fall’s course on the Climate Crisis, my class was abruptly cancelled as our more and more common “extreme weather” forced the waters of the Hudson River to flow from its banks towards the classrooms of Russell Sage College where I work.
No, clearly this last year, at least for this commentator, was the year when the Climate Crisis went from an intellectually driven effort to help people understand what is happening to something considerably more personal