Publication Date 6-15-17

A flat tire isn’t a disaster. Just an inconvenience.

But if you have a flat tire in the rain, and the jack is broken, and the lug nuts are frozen, and you’re late for a wedding, and it’s kind of a sketchy neighborhood…a flat tire can turn into something far more serious.

That’s where we are right now with climate change.

Yeah, I know some people don’t think climate change is occurring and even if it is, people aren’t the cause of it. If that’s what you truly believe, you’ll just find the next few hundred words annoying. I’m going to write them anyway, because while I hate telling people what to think or do, if I see a semi blow through a stop sign, I’m going to yell, “Look out!”

Not so long ago, my pickup was acting funny. When I took it to my mechanic, he diagnosed the problem - a plugged catalytic converter - in twenty seconds. That’s because he went to school and backed it up with about thirty years of experience.  My right knee has been bothering me and the orthopedic specialist looked at all the tests, wiggled it in a couple painful directions and told me the problem, along with the cure. I could give another twenty examples, but you get my point. It’s impossible to know everything. That’s why we have people who specialize, who know the things we don’t know. That’s why we should listen to scientists, even when they tell us things we’d prefer not to hear. 

Since I was born, carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere risen 25% and right now are the highest they’ve been in millions of years. The people who check that sort of thing drill samples of ice in Antarctica, where the ice can be a couple miles thick.  Comparing the air bubbles that accumulated in the ice inch by inch over forty-five million years gives us that figure. Carbon dioxide helps plants grow, but it also traps heat in the atmosphere and makes the oceans more acidic. That’s why the coral reefs are dying.

Rising temperatures melts ice. Anyone who’s had a margarita on a sunny day understands that one. Sixty-eight percent of the fresh water in the world is in the form of ice. If it was all floating in the ocean like a giant ice cubes, that wouldn’t be a huge problem, but most of it is in Greenland and Antarctica. If the current rate of melting continues, in my grandchildren’s lifetime we’re looking at significant rise in ocean levels, somewhere between three and ten feet. Maybe you don’t care about Bangladesh or India, but America becomes a different place if Boston, New York, and most of Florida are all under water.

In thirty years of farming, I had frost issues a couple of times, so a longer growing season and a little more warmth seem appealing. But that also means that bugs and weeds spread into places where there is no resistance to them. That’s one of the reasons fifty million acres of pine trees are dying from bark beetles that used to freeze out in the winter, and it’s the reason farmers in Minnesota are getting pressure from weeds that never used to grow here. 

Minnesota is a cold place, one that might possibly benefit from moderate warming, although the model for where I live calls for “warmer, wetter, and more volatile.” All three of those can be an issue. Speaking of issues, what about the parts of the world that are already hot? What happens when drought, floods, and extreme temperatures make farming not only difficult, but also impossible? If you think immigration is a problem now, take a look at the globe and try to figure out how many people live in places that are already almost too hot? What’s going to happen when those people have to go on the road to save their families?

You must see where I’m going with this. Disasters don’t happen when one bad thing occurs. It’s when four bad things happen, one after another, and the effect builds and builds. 

When our children were young, I had way too much life insurance. The chances of me dying weren’t huge, although farming is one of the ten most dangerous professions in America, but the downside of not having insurance was so high. I wanted my kids to be able to go to college and for my wife to have a decent life, whether I was around or not. I did without a luxury or two in order to make sure that would happen. If the scientists are wrong, what’s the worst thing that can happen? We’ll have built new industries around renewable, low impact fuels and we’ll have learned to live more effective, efficient lives. Will there be disruptions?  Well, yeah. When tractors were invented, harness makers took a big hit. That’s the way the world works. It’s nothing that can’t be handled with some thoughtful help.

So, if the scientists are wrong, the downside is pretty small. If the scientists are right, and we do nothing, we’ve ruined the world for our grandchildren.

I just needed to say that out loud.

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