Having Kids at the End of the World [1]

Part One:    Conclusion

My kids may not end up with the human hiccup habit of bearing children.    My kids will see, in their lifetime, Vancouver under water, San Francisco, buckled and destroyed after earthquake, their own lives threatened by food rations, hurricanes and floods, billions dead of starvation in worldwide swaths of deserts, most animals forever extinct, and the prominent base of the food chain woofed out—acidity in the seas changing plankton levels, depleting available fish, the very basic protein for most of the planet, not just the birds and not just other fish but bears and otters and seals and penguins and people. 

This is not news to the scientific community.  The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), a body of international scientists, has been releasing reports on the reality of climate change for years.  Some of their specific findings are summarized here, in terms of climate change and the atmosphere, the oceans temperature, glaciers, sea level, and the carbon cycle.  This isn’t a summary of a summary of an article you can find on the internet yourself.  It is about climate change, but from the cleared and heart-beating throat of a member of the audience, while policymakers and the very wealthy make the big decisions that affect how fast and how much greenhouse gases will increase inexorably the heat on the planet until all of us are dead. 

I don’t have much pull.  You don’t either.  We may as well breed and drive our cars and eat fast food red meat and run the AC and recycle so we’ll feel OK about the rest.

Recently I talked to someone who recalled the time I was opposed to having kids, could never imagine it for myself and tried to imagine a world where you too were limited to one or two at most.  I changed so much, and he was puzzled to the point of being ethically despairing on my behalf.  Didn’t I care for the animals people were entrusted to guard the existence of? Didn’t I see how my need to breed was not aligned to that guardianship?  Didn’t I know how much the population was growing?[2]

Why did I have kids?

What is my ethical and moral obligation since I did choose to procreate?

Is there room on the map of responsible guardians of the Earth, for parents?

Yet animals breed.  Am I so very different?  Have I not invested so deeply by the very fact of my having offspring, so that now I feel bound to act for the community as well as on behalf of my limited reach?  Have I expanded my own vision to such a degree that I have squared with the fact that I have personally made the use of greenhouse gases, via my family’s demand for energy, that much worse?

Have I brought children into a world in which they must sacrifice their own genetic urge to reproduce, just in order to keep the sea at bay, the red pandas alive, and the hurricanes from washing away the coasts?[3]

These are the questions I come to the table with.  It makes me feel as if I were sitting with my hands outstretched along this table, waiting for the table legs to “knock” from a mystical source of power.  I seem to be accessing the topic of climate change, that is, from a mystical place, even though the table (scientific fact) is the same everyone else sits down at, too.  I ask questions I can only answer with passion and storytelling, magic and wild unreasonable hope that asking such questions matters. 

I had children because my blood was feverish. Because, I imagined driving them to see the flocks of migrating Canada geese in a future September in the grassy wetlands of western NY, a dream I demanded become more than just a vision.  Because I wanted them, damn it!  I’d made great strides in caring for myself—physically and spiritually, if not economically.  Now I wanted to bring children into being and show them what I’d found of the startling tenderness of being alive.  I wanted to say Look!  All my guardianship tendencies seemed to suggest I’d make a good Mom.  My gentleness and patience would be my lightposts.  I set out to become pregnant with my first child.  I loved her so densely that when she cried I rocked her and tried to match my own heartbeat to hers in the sway of the rock; tried to empathize so deeply with her worry as an infant over the one-day crisis of being awake and not hungry, that I sang to her in made up words I thought would comfort her (which did). My second child was more not-planned planned.  I mean, if you don’t have a not-plan, by default you have a pregnancy plan if you are having intercourse, and I was.  By then I was exhausted too with all the abortions I’d had, and thought seriously that my daughter would need later on, when her Dad and I were dead young of all the rash choices we suffered consequences from, a sibling.  After a glazed depression of getting used to raising two, the second child became one I felt such terrific tenderness towards that I could not contain it.  My breathing would break when I watched him rest or play or eat. Today, not babies or toddlers anymore, they surprise and delight me.  I love their curious brattiness.  Every test against a limit proof to me of how intelligent and strong they are, how well they’ll do even in a world where submissive respect is required at many turns, and where their contempt for god is treated as a shortcoming in the same educational and sociological classroom of their peers and teachers where they learn respect for authority and how to think in forty minute increments.  They aren’t taught much beyond the three R’s (reduce reuse recycle) about the global conditions they are in.  I teach them of stardust in their bones and brains and tarot to access dream symbols older than them, and astrology to remind them of their place in a wider menagerie of planets and beings. Global warning has not come up.  This is what I want them to know.  Five features of climate change that were true before they were born, which powerfully demonstrate that the second half of their lives will be fraught with perils they have not been prepared to understand or meet.

Part Two: Rules

The atmosphere

First, the atmosphere is warming up, globally.[4] I hear people scoff on the streets and e-streets:  “But in my neighborhood, this year, compared to last, it wasn’t warmer!  These simple experiential narratives are naïve and presumptuous.  Why would a few years tell any story at all?  Even laymen ought to know the span of time is statistically insignificant—-not just insignificant but laughably so.[5]

Ocean temperature:

The ocean is warmer on its surface, over long periods of time, but especially since the 1970’s.  Scientists have been careful to explain that it is likely to have warmed much sooner than that—data shows this  “likelihood” since the late 1800’s.  It is difficult to know why the Intergovernmental panel on Climate Change wrote so carefully about what was known about ocean surface warming.  Is it because the data is not clear, or because too much naysaying and doom and  gloom upset constituents and policy reports followed the tenor of the squalling public, worry being a tough thing to eat?  Still, language as carefully calm as can be, the message remains the same: the ocean is warmer than it used to be, especially near the top of it.[6]

Cryosphere:

The glaciers are shrinking. .Glacial loss of mass is continuing all over the world.  On this point, international scientists have not equivocated or turned down the volume of their information.[7]

Sea Level:

The sea is rising.  Never before has the rate of the rise of the sea been so obvious or so high.  Not only is it rising, it is rising faster than ever before.[8]

Carbon and other biogeochemical cycles:

CO2 Levels are now SO HIGH it is now ethically necessary to stop talking quietly, calmly, and carefully.  Painstaking research and writing is important, yes. But given the facts found, also let me transmit: I’m in goddamn pain about it.

The IPCC writes:

“The atmospheric concentrations of carbon dioxide, methane, and nitrous oxide have increased to levels unprecedented in at least the last 800,000 years. Carbon dioxide concentrations have increased by 40% since pre-industrial times, primarily from fossil fuel emissions and secondarily from net land use change emissions. The ocean has absorbed about 30% of the emitted anthropogenic carbon dioxide, causing ocean acidification.”[9]

What that means is that carbon dioxide and the other emissions which make up the greenhouse gas that forms a barrier between the ability of the sun’s heat and radioactive power to bounce harmlessly back into the sky, has made the sky sick like never before.  All the heat we don’t want wrecking the delicate balance on the globe, is trapped here because of CO2. The first to be affected is the most delicate on the food chain: the coral, the polar bears, and the plankton so necessary to the rest of the ecosystem.[10]

Part Three:  Explanation

To explain what exactly any of that means, let me tell you what I failed to understand at first.  I failed to understand how such a fraction of a warmer climate could impact the world much.  And, I failed to grasp the grave trouble we are in, because our discussion right now is: “Is climate change real?” instead of a discussion beginning, “What is the ethically extreme yet right thing to do, on a global scale? (Hint: protest climate change in large numbers in NYC September 21, and protest again on Monday, September 22  What is too much to bear?  What is the greatest good for the greatest number, without letting go of the value of some individual autonomy?  What are we willing to do to survive?”  We are, you see, having the wrong fight right now.  I saw this while watching an episode of Mad Men, and thinking on the tradition in America of the free American man and his cigarette.

In the 1950’s, scientists began to warn Americans that cigarettes were bad for you.  For the next twenty or thirty years, this became a debatable issue.  Well, were they? Or were they merely noxious and troublesome, not deadly carcinogens?  Nowadays, cigarette smoking is down, everyone agrees they are bad for you, they cost more in many states, and there are smoking cessation programs, ads, and products everywhere.  This process took sixty-four years.  Even now, they are not banned, they are not illegal, and higher costs of cigarettes have never been clearly or honestly linked to the externalities of smoking (the high cost of heart disease and cancer on the country’s health system).  This is the path climate change scientists can predict, if nothing changes.  The trouble is that we don’t have sixty-four years to nudge the needle a little bit on CO2 emissions, for example.  We have thirty years:

National Geographic writer Michelle Nijhuis wrote in April 2014,

“Last fall, as world coal consumption and world carbon emissions were headed for new records, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) issued its latest report. For the first time it estimated an emissions budget for the planet—the total amount of carbon we can release if we don’t want the temperature rise to exceed 2 degrees Celsius (3.6 degrees Fahrenheit), a level many scientists consider a threshold of serious harm. The count started in the 19th century, when the industrial revolution spread. The IPCC concluded that we’ve already emitted more than half our carbon budget. On our current path, we’ll emit the rest in less than 30 years.

The National Geographic story continued to talk in doggedly hopeful terms about clean coal programs.

Changing that course with carbon capture would take a massive effort. To capture and store just a tenth of the world’s current emissions would require pumping about the same volume of CO₂ underground as the volume of oil we’re now extracting. It would take a lot of pipelines and injection wells. But achieving the same result by replacing coal with zero-emission solar panels would require covering an area almost as big as New Jersey (nearly 8,000 square miles). The solutions are huge because the problem is—and we need them all.”[11]

Part Four:  Application:

The way these five areas of climate change play out, is in my kids’ little snowflake paths.  It’s that in thirty years, my daughter will be forty, the age I am now.  My son will be thirty-seven.  By then, if we don’t start burying or decreasing carbon emissions at the same rate that we pull oil out of the ground, our carbon budget will be spent. 

There will be no more talk of regulating emissions, making it costly to pollute the sky and spurring investment in innovative ways to regulate the emission of carbon the way we do with sulfur and nitrogen.  There will be no push to use solar panels on every home, or to use efficient electric cars.  There will be no carbon capture programs.  There will be no mass migrations back to city spaces to use resources like subways and buses economically as a sustainable community.  There will be no seed bombs or mass tree seedling planting days.  There will be the rising sea. 

There will be few species left and the people left may not have, anymore, the extraordinary wealth required to pull on the bit in the mouth of climate change and make her slow her pace towards destruction to a cantor. 

Instead, the resources left will be used to find a way to slurp down the remains of fresh water and carry it to arid ground.  Diversity will be in history books instead of scientific ones.   Nuclear power will give the last of the humans at the end of the world something to heat their homes with in the brutal dry winters and a way to air condition in the terrifically hot and lengthy summers.  No one will talk about sustainability.  It will be time to talk about survival, but it will be a quiet conversation, because no one will have paid any attention to the ways to make it happen.  The warming of the seas, the lack of food, and water, the heat in the skies, the shrinking glaciers—will be news to everyone left standing.

We stand at the precipice at the end of the world.  There is no “unless” anymore.  Only near-extinction of our species will slow the demise of the Earth—and by then, the soil gutted of her blood and the bones of millennium of creatures pulled up in oil and coal  to keep the heat on and the cars on the roads, there will be no going back.  The temperature will not revert back and it will take a million more years for the glaciers to re-form in a way that sustains the ocean temperature and salinity.   There will be no such thing as polar bears or penguins.

How does one prepare one’s young people for this future they must endure or die from?

How does one fight against the reality, scooping water in teacup hands in the midst of an avalanche of water, throwing it back in the face of destiny and saying “No, it won’t be, this is what we do to stop it.”?

Finally awake, I shred my hair and shriek.

I tell you to wake to it too.  Today a man in India is pulling chunks of coal out of a mine with his bare hands. With the same foolhardy desperation, I tell you, tattoo the faces of your children with laments for the end of the world, even if almost everything changes.  Nothing less than everything will work.

We must:

  1. Regulate the sky pollution. . . Regulate and tax all of the pollution, but especially CO2 emissions.
  2. Carbon capture programs must be required at every coal plant in the world.
  3. Reduce all forms of energy waste.
  4. Use solar and wind power in every home, public structure, and school.
  5. Use brand-new, thoughtfully designed, carefully managed nuclear plants, to buy us time.
  6. Endure poverty, as a global community. End consumerism, which saps us of the ability to see reality and live authentic simple lives where need is more important than want.
  7. Recycle everything, and purchase only those things made from recycled materials.
  8. Use local currencies as often as possible.
  9. Reduce the use of cars, via gasoline tariffs.
  10. Educate everyone on population, breeding, and the heavy toll having children take on the environment.
  11. Dismantle fast food empires.
  12. Encourage or demand worldwide use of vegetarian or low-meat diets.

I do believe despite such a list of demands on behalf of my children, that it is possible to write authentically: Look! My darlings! I know you’ll come across this, maybe five or six years from now, old enough to read your Mom’s blog and find the thing that kept me up at night, from love!  Look! It is too late.  It is.  Lift your heads.  Be brave, my loves, and begin to work towards survival on the street at the end of the world.  After all, you must.

[1] I’m a poet and attorney.  I have learned how to dig for the absolutely authentic lie (the metaphor, often) and I’ve learned to write in a formula to parse those words meant to capture complex legal ideas whether they be civil, contractual, criminal, or property law conceptions.  Maybe  they are the ethical underpinning of these realms, often couched in Constitutional law language.

The study of law has taught me little of how to grapple with climate change, except in terms of how I’ll present where I am with what I know.  CREAC is an elegant little formula to present an idea simply.  It goes

Conclusion, Rule, Explanation; Application; Conclusion.   I have two kids; skin in the game, see?  It isn’t as a scientist that I come to write about climate change.  I come to the discussion as a human being whose young charges I had the audacity to produce are devastatingly impacted by what I am trying to talk about.

[2] The population of the planet has increased dramatically…from 1 billion in 1804 to more than 7 billion today:  http://www.worldometers.info/world-population/#pastfuture.

[3] Of course, the red pandas are as done for as the polar bears—it is too late to change that fact.

[4] Each of the last three decades has been successively warmer at the Earth’s surface than any preceding decade since 1850 (see Figure SPM.1). In the Northern Hemisphere, 1983–2012 was likely the warmest 30-year period of the last 1400 years (medium confidence).

[5] “[T]rends based on short records are very sensitive to the beginning and end dates and do not in general reflect long-term climate trends. As one example, the rate of warming over the past 15 years (1998–2012; 0.05 [–0.05 to 0.15] °C per decade), which begins with a strong El Niño, is smaller than the rate calculated since 1951 (1951–2012; 0.12 [0.08 to 0.14] °C per decade).”  http://www.climatechange2013.org/images/report/WG1AR5_SPM_FINAL.pdf at page 5. Retrieved September 1, 2014.

[6] “Ocean warming dominates the increase in energy stored in the climate system, accounting for more than 90% of the energy accumulated between 1971 and 2010 (high confidence).  It is virtually certain that the upper ocean (0−700 m) warmed from 1971 to 2010 (see Figure SPM.3), and it likely warmed between the 1870s and 1971.”  http://www.climatechange2013.org/images/report/WG1AR5_SPM_FINAL.pdf at page 8. Retrieved September 1, 2014.

[7] “Over the last two decades, the Greenland and Antarctic ice sheets have been losing mass, glaciers have continued to shrink almost worldwide, and Arctic sea ice and Northern Hemisphere spring snow cover have continued to decrease in extent (high confidence) . . . .”  http://www.climatechange2013.org/images/report/WG1AR5_SPM_FINAL.pdf at page 9. Retrieved September 1, 2014.

[8] “The rate of sea level rise since the mid-19th century has been larger than the mean rate during the previous two millennia (high confidence). Over the period 1901 to 2010, global mean sea level rose by 0.19 [0.17 to 0.21]. . . .”   http://www.climatechange2013.org/images/report/WG1AR5_SPM_FINAL.pdf

 at page 11 Retrieved September 1, 2014.

[9] http://www.climatechange2013.org/images/report/WG1AR5_SPM_FINAL.pdf at page 11. Retrieved September 1, 2014.

[10] “Among this diverse group of organisms, phytoplankton (which are central to biogeochemical and ecological services and play key roles in both regulation of atmospheric CO2 through photosynthesis and in the maintenance of upper trophic levels) have already been observed to respond to warming. Thus, marine phytoplankton biomass and productivity have been shown to decrease in response to warmer sea surface temperatures, although this diminution has been attributed to the indirect effect of the temperature-driven stratification on the isolation of surface waters from cool, nutrient-rich deeper water.”  See Warming will affect phytoplankton differently: evidence through a mechanistic approach. Emma Huertas1,*†, Mónica Rouco2,†, Victoria López-Rodas2,† and Eduardo Costas  Retrieved September 5, 2014 at http://rspb.royalsocietypublishing.org/content/early/2011/04/19/rspb.2011.0160.

[11] See http://ngm.nationalgeographic.com/2014/04/coal/nijhuis-text Retrieved September 3, 2014.