NewburyportNews.com, Newburyport, MA

June 25, 2013

By land and by sea

As I See It
John Harwood

---- — An old friend of mine posted this on Facebook: “New research demonstrates the Arctic ice cap is melting from below as well as from above. Warmer waters are the cause. This does not bode well for us.”

I replied, “Climate change is warm work, both on land and by sea, so it is essential that we hear this warning and act strongly on it, just the way our patriot forbearers heard Paul Revere’s alarm, and turned back the threat at Lexington and Concord.”

That’s all very well for an exchange between old friends, and it does have a certain ring, when you refer to the survival of the human race and such an icon of American history as the “shot heard ‘round the world.”

However, it bears closer examination.

It’s true that we say that climate change is global warming, which has puzzled some, when we link global warming and severe winter storms. This apparent contradiction is explained by saying that the ever-increasing levels of carbon in our atmosphere are raising earth’s temperature, already by 1 degree Celsius — the unit scientists use — so global warming is an accurate way to describe the fundamental change that is being caused by people on our planet.

Having said that, we can say a warmer earth means warmer air, which holds more water, which may fall as either rain or snow here in New England.

At the same time, and this point is huge for ocean-side dwellers like us, melting ice caps and glaciers mean sea level rise, which gives Atlantic storms a head start on flooding our barrier beach, shoreline, marsh and tidal rivers.

Now let’s turn to the audacious comparison between those sounding the climate change alarm today — folks like Al Gore of “An Inconvenient Truth” and Bill McKibben of 350.org — and Paul Revere, whose mission was to prevent the loss of the Minutemen’s weapons. As it turned out, instead of being disarmed, the patriots used their guns and local knowledge to send the British back to Boston and ultimately, back to Great Britain, a result that can be called a win-win in the long run.

In our century, we could use a win-win, but what would it look like, who are the key players and how could we achieve it? How about saying the Earth and human beings are the key players? If that’s true, then right now we are causing our planet to change at an incredibly rapid rate, which may be fine with technology, but not for people.

Trouble is, Mother Earth is much tougher and more resilient than we are, newcomers among the species that have lived on the third planet from the sun. While we have never had to face anything like the severe challenges of climate change, our planetary home has seen much worse and lived to tell about it in its geologic records of ice ages, volcanic eruptions and drift from the single continent that once was all the high ground she had.

There was a buzz recently when a monitoring station in the 50th state recorded 400 parts per million of carbon in our atmosphere, 50 ppm more than the level climate scientists have warned is the maximum we can allow and survive. The reports noted that Mother Earth had not experienced such a high carbon level for many thousands of years, long before Adam and Eve.

So you see that for a win-win, we wouldn’t have to save the Earth, except that she is the head of household and we are all her dependents, so our survival depends on hers. Our reckless behavior in burning way too much fossil fuel way too fast won’t cause her any severe pain, but it will make this planet a living hell for us. The inferno that may await us, according to some prophets and preachers, will not be in the future, in an afterlife, but in the present, in this life.

I refer to myself as a patriot in the tag line to these columns. I have an ancestor who rode all the way to Boston from Connecticut when he heard about what had happened on the Battle Green. In 2013, we must all be modern patriots, answering the alarm, putting down some of our everyday lives, because today, the danger does not come from the land or the sea, it comes from both.

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John Harwood of Newbury is a retired community journalist and a patriot.