Today the temperature on our backyard weather station topped out at 112 degrees Fahrenheit. Apparently the reading at the Portland International Airport was 116 degrees. It was the hottest day ever recorded in the history of Portland. Indeed, it was very likely the hottest day that has ever occurred in this valley in the entire history of human habitation at this site. The second hottest day in Portland’s history was yesterday; the third hottest was the day before that.
For years, ever since I knew what climate change was–ever since we used the term global warming instead of climate change–experts have cautioned the public not to point at any specific weather event and say “See? That’s climate change at work.” With my own students, I’ve taken pains to differentiate weather from climate and to help them understand that extreme weather events have always been with us, that extreme weather is a natural consequence of living on a planet with an atmosphere and oceans and an axial tilt. However, extreme weather events do not happen by magic. And I am thankful that more and more Americans seem to have awakened to the reality that these shocking extremes in the weather are being driven by human-caused climate change.
A few years ago, I decided to devote the rest of my career to fighting anthropogenic climate change. Like a lot of people, I feel overwhelmed by how puny my influence is in relation to the scope of the problem. But I can work to address climate inaction at my college, and I can help shepherd into being academic programs devoted to restoration ecology and climate remediation and environmental policy change. And I know that I can work with students in ways both formal and informal to help them see the political and economic transformation ahead of us.
You can see the transformation ahead of us as well. It will cost you and me a good deal of money to address the catastrophe that is upon us. However, you and I will pay it: either we will pay the cost to save human civilization or we will pay for our civilization’s collapse.
I hope that a few locals who have been snookered by Fox News and its ilk into climate change skepticism (some of them students of mine) will be jostled into cognitive dissonance by the heat of the last three days. I have less hope for the cynics and nihilists that broadcast to them or who pretend to represent them politically. But it was ever so: those who today claim that climate science is unsettled are close cousins of those who used to argue that cigarettes don’t cause cancer or that black people were happier as slaves than as free people. For whatever social evil one cares to name, there is a powerful constituency that benefits from its existence and that will fight to keep it. For the last several decades, that force has been concentrated in the Republican Party and its various media outlets. The names may change at some point–just as the Republicans used to be a far more progressive party than today and the Democrats far more socially regressive–but there will always be a group of powerful people ready to defend an exploitative or oppressive status quo.
But here’s the good news, to the extent that any news about what is happening to us can be good: climate change is not going away. The problem will continue to knock at our doors more and more insistently. And in the words attributed to my favorite Republican, “you may fool people for a time; you can fool a part of the people all the time; but you can’t fool all the people all the time.”