Hot air

Several years ago, poet/farmer Wendell Berry penned a controversial essay titled “Why I am Not Going to Buy a Computer,” in which he presented a clearheaded rationale for not buying into this form of technological slavery. His critics countered that computers enable them to follow and respond to the numerous environmental issues we face.

Berry replied that he didn’t need a computer to tell him the planet was in environmental crisis—all he had to do was drive down the road or look out his window. I do own a computer, but I find more truth in his observation every day. More and more, I find myself wishing I could throw the cursed thing out the window.

Out in North Dakota for the annual conference of the Outdoor Writers Association of America, I called home daily, asking my wife if we’d received any rain at our home in Macon County. For a whole week, the answer was the same: No. It was only late June and already there was drought, with record temperatures twice that month. Something isn’t right with this weather, and I’ve been hearing this for several years now from various elders in my community—many of whom, I daresay, have never turned on a computer.

Nonetheless, some folks are spending great sums of money to dispute the evidence of global climate change and prove that the whole thing has been cooked up as part of some liberal agenda. Given that the vast majority of the world’s leading scientists disagree, I was somewhat alarmed that the good people at the writers’ association would bring in one of the country’s most vocal deniers to serve on a panel session titled “The Truth About Climate Change.”

John Cooper of the Wildlife Management Institute and the Bipartisan Policy Center opened the session by handing out copies of a new publication titled Season’s End: Global Warming’s Threat to Hunting and Fishing. Drawing on a massive compilation of climate data, the publication also discusses shifting waterfowl migration patterns, a predicted loss of range for the Southern Appalachian brook trout, and temperature impacts on a wide range of species. His presentation was sound, measured and tinged with a certain sadness concerning his predictions about the world his grandchildren would inherit.

But James Taylor of The Heartland Institute was upbeat, positive and armed with his own data aiming to prove Cooper and the other panelist, Doug Inkley of the National Wildlife Federation, wrong.

Taylor presented slide after slide of graphs showing planetary temperature trends over thousands of years. North America, he said, is wetter than ever, and the Arctic ice packs aren’t really melting. Citing long lists of scientists who’ve refuted climate change, Taylor mounted a frontal assault on groups like Greenpeace and the Environmental Defense Fund, which he said are behind many of the reports on climate change.

Back in my hotel room, it didn’t take much time online to find out where Taylor’s group gets its funding. ExxonMobil is the biggest contributor, followed by Philip Morris (The Heartland Institute previously spent a fortune fighting scientific reports on the health effects of secondhand smoke). Yet many in attendance responded quite favorably to Taylor’s presentation. One yelled “God bless you!”; another went up and gave him a hug. And these were outdoors writers.

Many other conference attendees seemed to share my dismay, however, feeling that Taylor’s presentation had further confused what is probably the gravest situation facing the planet. It made me think of the proverbial saying, “There are three kinds of lies: lies, damn lies, and statistics.” I felt Taylor did a good job of representing all three categories.

That same day, the U.S. Climate Change Science Program released a report on the effects of climate change on agriculture, land and water resources, and biodiversity. The report finds that climate change is already affecting U.S. water resources, agriculture, land resources and biodiversity and will continue to do so. Among the highlights are: Grain and oil-seed crops will mature more rapidly, but rising temperatures will increase the risk of crop failure, particularly if precipitation decreases or becomes more variable. Predicted higher temperatures will reduce winter livestock mortality, but hotter summers will produce far greater mortality. Higher temperatures will also reduce the productivity of livestock and dairy animals. Elevated atmospheric carbon-dioxide levels will cause weeds to grow faster and migrate northward while becoming less vulnerable to herbicides.

There are some hopeful signs however. The Climate Security Act proposed by Sens. John Warner and Joseph Lieberman recently reached the Senate floor, and though it’s not likely to pass soon, it would cover a 39-year period (2012 through 2050), providing roughly $487 billion to protect natural resources. That’s an average investment of $12.5 billion per year—an unprecedented commitment to conserving our natural heritage for future generations. The funding would come from a cap-and trade program under which a declining number of “allowances” (permits to release greenhouse-gas pollution) would be distributed annually to industries and government entities, which could then sell them on the open market.

But as my computer churned away in the Bismarck Airport after the conference had ended, I was thinking about the coal being strip-mined in Appalachia to provide the electricity I was using to write this article. It wasn’t a good feeling.

On the flight home, I could look out the window and see first the drought-ridden plains that Dakotans had complained about all week, and then the flooding Missouri River. Flying over the Southern Appalachians, I looked for those thirsty, ancient mountain rivers that I love so much, wondering how my own river at home looked. The laptop was in my carryon, silent—and there’s nothing it could tell me that I couldn’t already see.

[Brent Martin lives in Western North Carolina’s Cowee community and works for The Wilderness Society. He can be reached at brent_martin@tws.org.]

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