Note: This article and its accompanying updates appeared previously on Wen Stephenson's blog at The Nation.
Yeb Sano, lead Filipino delegate to the UN Climate Conference (Creative Commons, courtesy tcktcktck.org)
Hunger allows no choice To the citizen or the police; We must love one another or die.
W.H. Auden wrote that, sitting in a dive on 52nd Street nearly three-quarters of a century ago, as the world plunged into darkness on September 1, 1939. I’ve been thinking of those words a lot lately. Because it feels to me, and many others I know, like we’re poised at the edge of another darkness.
It’s a darkness already visible, right now, in the Philippines, where thousands are dead and many hundreds of thousands made refugees by the force of a storm like none had ever seen.
And it’s a darkness visible in the bright corporate halls of a conference center in Warsaw, where delegates to the nineteenth annual U.N. negotiations on climate change are divided and dithering, even as the window to prevent civilizational catastrophe rapidly closes.
Iowa State Senator Rob Hogg decided to combine errands this past week. Along with dropping his son off at Harvard, he decided to deliver an important message to New England—about climate change. With son Robert and daughter Isabel in tow, he made his pitch across four states. No venue was too small or too modest: a nature center here, an ice cream parlor there, small-town bookstores here and there, and places of worship of various stripes.
I heard Rob speak last Monday at a synagogue in Brookline, MA. Though only a dozen people gathered to meet him on that balmy summer evening, he delivered his message with passion and determination—qualities that run through the brief, persuasive book he has written: America's Climate Century. Every person in the room was a climate change activist in the making, in his view. This is not an issue that we can afford to be passively concerned about; it demands broad public engagement. Nothing less, he feels, will stir a polarized Congress out of its short-sighted paralysis.
It's hard to argue that there's anything more urgent and potentially catastrophic than climate change. In reading countless journal articles and conducting numerous interviews for my book, Before They're Gone—A Family's Year-Long Quest to Explore America's Most Endangered National Parks, it was hard to maintain optimism in the face of forecasts that the steady diminishing of mountain snows means that Yosemite’s famous waterfalls will peter out earlier in the year; that every glacier in Glacier National Park is doomed to melt away; that Joshua Tree National Park will one day no longer support its namesake tree, and much of the Everglades is fated to sink beneath the sea. The issue became powerfully immediate to me in realizing that much of this fallout will occur within the lifetimes of my children.
Many scientists now believe that a rise of 3 degrees Celsius (5.4 degrees Fahrenheit) in average temperatures worldwide is unavoidable in this century, which could erase 40 percent of all species on the planet. It was really disturbing to interview one leading scientist after another and hear every one of them express fear that we’re facing the greatest disaster in the history of human civilization.
It's frightening to contemplate what this will mean for people all over the world. Many scientists I interviewed echoed the comments of USGS research ecologist Nathan Stephenson, who told me, “Sometimes people say, ‘If this has happened in the past, why should we be worried?’ The simple answer is: you would not have wanted to be alive then. Civilizations have fallen on slight changes in climate.”
As I wrote in my book: Our conversation about climate has not achieved the degree of honesty we would use when talking with our own kids. We would not encourage them to make choices fraught with such a high degree of risk. Yet we as a people have embraced just that kind of choice time and again.
Still, I feel optimistic—partly because optimism offers the only hope for the world our kids will inherit. I think we’re at the brink of a tectonic shift in public perception and understanding of climate change, one that could, hopefully, drive public policy in the right direction. Record high temperatures are being constantly recorded all over the world. A recent poll showed a large majority of Americans believe that extreme weather events of recent years are connected to climate change. Major corporations are calculating the impacts of rising temperatures on their business. The Pentagon is preparing for a world growing more politically unstable as crop failures increase and societies grapple with simply feeding their people.
We have to hope—especially for our children and grandchildren—this positive shift in public awareness and action will happen fast enough and isn’t coming too late. We have no reasonable option but to do much better than we are now.
In December, yet another global climate change conference – this one in Durban, South Africa – failed to bind the world’s greatest polluters to specific, quantifiable curbs in their greenhouse gas emissions. Sadly, America was among the leading forces fighting the adoption of greenhouse gas reduction targets, just as we fought these targets in Bali the previous year, and in Copenhagen the year before that.
Even as America shirks its responsibility before the international community, there is a lot we can do here at home to reduce our nation’s massive carbon footprint. Boosting renewable energy’s share of our electricity supply should be at the top of that agenda.
The Congressional uproar over the failed federal loan guarantee to solar manufacturer Solyndra shouldn’t be allowed to cast a shadow over our government’s broader efforts to stimulate renewable energy growth. Nowhere have federal energy incentives been more effective than in launching American wind power. Part of that success hinges on a production tax credit that gives wind manufacturers and wind farm developers enough confidence to break into a field still dominated by underpriced fossil fuels and heavily subsidized nuclear power.
Today wind supplies a relatively modest three percent of our electricity, but it’s growing fast. The Department of Energy projects that wind, with the right incentives, could supply a fifth or more of our power by 2030. Others see as much as half of our electricity coming from wind by mid-century. Wind farms already account for 17 percent of Iowa’s electric output and nearly 7 percent of power generated in Texas, America’s biggest electricity user.
Looking at the American wind industry’s overall supply chain, the story gets even better. Hundreds of companies employing thousands of skilled and semi-skilled workers are now involved in manufacturing components and subcomponents for turbines. American labor today creates about 60 percent of the value of a typical turbine sold in the United States. Rust Belt stalwarts like Ohio-based Timken, maker of the “million-mile bearing” for the automotive sector, have made a major strategic shift toward wind. The rugged weather endured by turbines is a perfect match for Timken’s super-high standards.
Add to manufacturing jobs the thousands of people who build our wind farms. Truckers, crane operators, electricians, concrete suppliers, and civil engineers are all finding new jobs in wind farm construction. And once these farms are in operation, thousands more are employed keeping turbines running reliably.
Roughly 75,000 Americans now have jobs in the wind industry. The Department of Energy predicts that over a quarter-of-a-million people will be gainfully employed by this sector as we approach the 2030 date for supplying a fifth of our power from wind. As important as the number of jobs is where many of those jobs are located – in rural communities where it’s been hard to find work even in good economic times.
In an ideal world, power suppliers would compete in a marketplace that reflected the true costs of each technology. The European Union is moving in this direction, with a carbon emission-trading regime that has begun to monetize the global-warming impacts of coal and other fossil fuels used by electric utilities and other major industries. In America, fossil fuel producers and users do not pay for the environmental devastation they cause. To the contrary, they benefit from billions of dollars in subsidies each year, nurtured for decades by an army of well-paid lobbyists.
Faced with these imbalances, renewable energy producers are fighting an uphill battle. Federal incentives, like the 2.2 cent-per-kilowatt-hour production tax credit for wind that is due to expire at the end of this year, are essential to leveling the playing field. Thanks to this tax credit, wind farms can compete with proposed new coal plants, and even with electricity from new natural gas facilities in some locations. If the tax credit expires, many wind developers will hold off on siting new wind farms, and wind turbine manufacturers will have to scale back production. Aside from the lost environmental opportunity, tens of thousands of people now employed by the wind industry risk losing their jobs.
Many years may pass before Congress summons the resolve to cap America’s greenhouse gas emissions. Meanwhile, extending the renewable energy production tax credit – a measure that has already proven its worth to our economy and the environment – is a worthy step.
Michael Lanza is a freelance photographer and writer. The creator ofTheBigOutside.com, Lanza dedicates his site to sharing personal hiking adventures and offering guidance to fellow wilderness enthusiasts. He is the Northwest Editor of Backpacker magazine, blogs for backpacker.com, and a former editor for AMC Outdoors magazine. Author of previously published hiking guides, Lanza's newest book, Before They're Gone (Beacon Press, spring 2012), examines climate change in national parks through the lens of family hiking excursions.
The water of Johns Hopkins Inlet lies flat, perfectly reflecting the first patches of blue sky we’ve seen since arriving in Glacier Bay yesterday morning. I rest my paddle across the kayak and listen. A barely audible moan of wind floats down from high in the mountains, then fades away. A bald eagle screeches, briefly piercing the quiet; but as soon as the sound passes, the silence that returns seems as deep as the sea we’re floating on.
On the second afternoon of a five-day sea kayaking trip, 55 miles up this Southeast Alaska fjord where cliffs shoot straight up out of the sea and razor peaks smothered in ice and snow rise thousands of feet overhead, I’m taking a moment to enjoy a rare pleasure: listening to the cacophony of nothing.
My seven-year-old daughter, Alex, who is perfectly content to sit back and let me power our two-person kayak loaded with food and gear, points to the eagle perched in its nest in a snag high up a cliff. “He’s watching the kayakers go by,” she informs me. A harbor seal pops its head above water nearby, inspecting us with dark eyes. Alex faintly catches her breath as she and the seal lock gazes. A moment later, it disappears with a “bloop.”
Then a sharp concussion rips open the quiet.
About six miles away, visible at the other end of the inlet, the mile-wide, twelve-mile-long Johns Hopkins Glacier has dropped another immense piece of itself into the sea. The native Tlingits, who have lived on this coast for centuries, call that explosive noise “white thunder,” which strikes me as the best possible descriptor for it.
The Hopkins Glacier is the most active remnant of an unimaginably massive river of ice that filled this realm of liquid water in the geologically very recent past. Tomorrow, we will paddle up this inlet for a close-up view of that dynamic glacier. We’re hoping this improved weather will hold out at least until then.
My family, including my wife, Penny, and our nine-year-old son, Nate, are taking a sea kayaking trip run by Alaska Mountain Guides. With our two guides and six other clients, we’ve come to paddle around Glacier Bay’s upper West Arm, probing deep within a national park the size of Connecticut, at the heart of a contiguous protected wilderness area the size of Greece.
By mid-afternoon, we pull up onto a rocky beach at the mouth of the inlet, where we’ll camp for two nights. The sky has mostly cleared and the water’s still dead calm. Icebergs float in the bay. Glaciers pour off of serrated peaks on all sides; tendrils of clouds wrap themselves around the mountaintops.
And throughout the evening, every 15 or 20 minutes, another sharp report booms down the inlet.
Dan Berk paddles beneath the Lamplugh Glacier in Glacier Bay National Park.
Two centuries ago, there was no Glacier Bay. When British Capt. George Vancouver sailed the H.M.S. Discovery through Southeast Alaska’s Icy Strait in 1794, he wrote in his ship’s log about a “compact sheet of ice as far as the eye can see.” He was looking at a colossus of ancient, frozen water 4,000 feet thick and up to 20 miles wide that reached more than a hundred miles into the St. Elias Mountains. By the time John Muir visited in 1879, the tongue of ice that had touched the waters of Icy Strait had slid 30 miles backward. He wrote that, at night, “the surge from discharging icebergs churned the water into silver fire.”
Glacier Bay has seen the fastest glacial retreat on the planet. The ice has pulled back 65 miles, unveiling a fjord with numerous inlets and 1,200 miles of coastline. While the national park still has more than 50 glaciers covering 1,375 square miles—more than a quarter of the entire park—most are in declining health, a trend driven largely by one factor: In the past 60 years, the state’s average temperature has increased 3° F., more than twice the average warming worldwide.
A scientist who has studied Alaska’s glaciers for 40 years told me that 99 percent of them are shrinking. Just in the four decades since he first kayaked in Glacier Bay, the number of so-called tidewater glaciers, those that extend from the mountains to the sea in various inlets, has gone from a dozen to five.
Named a national monument in 1925 by President Calvin Coolidge and a national park and preserve in 1980 by President Jimmy Carter, Glacier Bay today attracts more than 250,000 visitors a year. The vast majority of them see the bay from the railing of the park’s tour boat, which is certainly a great experience. But so few people go kayaking in the bay—and it is so vast—that kayakers run into very few other people on multi-day trips here.
On our first day, we paddled into Reid Inlet and explored the hundred-foot-tall snout of the Reid Glacier, where a river of gray water poured out of a blue-ice cave. After camping at the inlet’s mouth, we started our second morning with a visit to the ruins of a cabin inhabited eight decades ago by Joe and Shirley “Muz” Ibach. The couple staked their claim to mine the land a year before the bay became a national monument, and were permitted to continue living and mining there for another 16 years, making perhaps $13 after expenses in a good year, until their deaths.
Frowning at what’s left of their former one-room wood structure in the middle of the wilderness, Alex asked me, “How did they entertain themselves?” Even by the simpler lifestyles of those times, it’s hard to imagine such solitude.
Then again, there would be that constant soundtrack of white thunder playing in the background.
Our second campsite in Johns Hopkins Inlet, Glacier Bay National Park.
Another morning of glassy waters greets us as we push the kayaks out into Johns Hopkins Inlet on our third day. Under clear skies and a warm sun that will deliver our trip’s warmest day, pushing 60º F, we cruise slowly up the inlet, passing icebergs ranging from truck-size to chunks of ice that look like abstract mantelpiece sculptures.
Capt. Cook saw these peaks in 1778, during an identical short reprieve from the typically wet, gray Southeast Alaska weather, and named them the Fairweather Mountains. Given that the region receives six feet of rain a year and is much more frequently enveloped in fog than bathed in sunshine, it may be the most misleading place name on the planet.
We’ve arrived in late July, just a few weeks after Johns Hopkins Inlet was opened to kayaks and boats. The park closes this inlet to human traffic every year during spring and early summer to avoid disturbing the thousands of harbor seals that birth their pups and keep them on floating icebergs to protect them from predators.
Glacier Bay is something of a northern paradise, teeming with life. Humpback whales and orcas ply its waters. On the four-hour park ferry tour up the bay that first morning, en route to our drop-off point, we saw brown bears ambling down rocky beaches and mountain goats scrambling up sea cliffs. Scores of Steller sea lions, the largest males ten feet long and over 2,000 pounds, piled up on the barren rock of South Marble Island, where researchers have counted 1,100 of them.
We spotted black-legged kittiwake nesting in sea cliffs, pigeon guillemot with its red legs and beak, and the more-common tufted puffin as well as the rare horned puffin. Some species threatened or endangered outside Alaska, like the bald eagle and marbled murrelet, abound in Glacier Bay.
The bay also offers a rare natural laboratory displaying a living timeline of plant succession in the wake of deglaciation. In the lower bay, ice-free for 250 years, a mature temperate rainforest of spruce and hemlock grows almost impenetrably thick. As one travels up the bay, the forest gets younger, dominated by deciduous cottonwood, willows, and alder. In the upper bay, there’s little vegetation beyond mosses, lichens, and a few determined wildflowers. Waterfalls plummet hundreds of feet down cliffs scarred by the glacier that scraped past just decades ago. The upper bay opens a window onto what North America looked like when the last Ice Age drew to a close 10,000 years ago.
Our group paddles up Johns Hopkins Inlet toward the Johns Hopkins Glacier in Glacier Bay.
As we paddle farther up Johns Hopkins Inlet, the icebergs crowd more densely around us, some as large as tiny islands. We weave more cautiously among them, careful not to get too close, in case one abruptly rolls over.
About three hours from our camp, we take out on a beach of sun-warmed, fine black sand a quarter-mile long, littered with blocks of ice gleaming a brilliant white in the sunshine. Gulls are squawking. Backing the beach, multi-tiered Chocolate Falls sends a column of brown water crashing over cliffs. A half-mile away, the Johns Hopkins Glacier spans the entire head of the inlet, a sheer wall of ice a mile across and 300 feet tall, roaring at us at irregular intervals.
A couple of pairs of binoculars come out and we discover that the bergs across the inlet are covered with hundreds of seals. Some of the seals approach our beach, poking their heads above water to stare at us, then diving under again.
Earlier today, Arlie and Mike, a young American couple living in Vancouver, B.C., had broached the idea of taking a swim in the bay. The water is right around freezing. When I remind Arlie about her idea, we instantly have a party of swimmers: Arlie, Mike, our assistant guide Dan Berk, who’s in his early twenties, and me. We strip to underwear and, with the video camera rolling—of course—dash down the beach shouting and dive into the waves.
I’ve jumped into lakes within several degrees of freezing before, but this is the most frigid dip I’ve ever taken. The shock seems to squeeze my chest; my head pulses with a cold ache. All four of us jump up and immediately turn back for shore as the rest of our group on the beach hoots and laughs—Alex and Nate the loudest. For no logical reason, I turn and dive in again, thinking it will be the finale.
But back on the warm sand, the four of us shivering, Dan suggests one more plunge. I can’t very well back out. So with our half-frozen legs not working as well this time, we jog over and dive in again. This time, when we come out, I chatter through blue lips, “That’s the last one.” We trot around on the warm black sand for several minutes before getting our core body temperatures back up to normal.
We were right to presume that this warm sunshine would offer our only enticing opportunity for a swim. Tomorrow will deliver more raw overcast and a few hours of steady rain as we paddle to our final campsite, where the park tour boat will pick us up the following morning. We will paddle tomorrow among a few icebergs and see more waterfalls, seals, bald eagles, numerous other birds, and even a porpoise—while listening to those sporadic rumbles of white thunder.
[Author’s note: I write more about this trip and Glacier Bay’s climate story in my book, Before They’re Gone: A Family’s Year-Long Quest to Explore America’s Most Endangered National Parks, due out from Beacon Press on April 3, 2012.]