Ironies and Paradox by Cylvia HayesA few weeks ago John and I did our annual river trip through the wild and scenic stretch of the Rogue River. It’s a magical place – sparkling water, cozy little sand beaches, towering rock walls, star-strewn night skies, bear and deer and otter and more. I am a lucky soul to have been able to immerse myself in this wonderful place many, many times before. This too turned out to be great trip, but it was very different.
As usual for August it was hot, but the sky was not the typical sparkling blue; instead it was hazy, grayish brown and smelled of smoke. The epic 2015 wildfire season was upon us. So was the historic western drought. The river flow level was so low that the water had reached temperatures that were killing off fish.
Our first night, several miles down river, thunder and lightning rumbled and flashed through the canyon. It was spectacular and powerful and ordinarily something I would have utterly enjoyed, but this time there was also a thread of worry that the lightning would start additional fires.
Indeed the next morning the smoke was much thicker. It was eerie and I tried not to let my mind imagine what it would look like if fire broke over the forested hills bracketing the river.
One of the best things about the wild and scenic portion of the river is that motors are not allowed. It is usually, blissfully devoid of mechanized human noises, a place to unplug. But several times that day the crystalline river song, rustle of wind through leaves and shrill wild cry of osprey were drowned out by the thumping “thwack” of helicopters.
These were the big firefighting helicopters that carried huge water-scooping buckets dangling from cables. They flew over our camp downriver to a point where they could lower the hanging buckets and scoop huge gulps of water from the river then fly back upriver to dump that water on the fire.
I was struck by the sad irony of the situation. We were dealing with wildfires caused in part by climate change caused in large part by the burning of fossil fuels. The approach to fighting these drought-enhanced fires was to fly fossil fuel burning aircraft to scoop water from a river whose flow was already at an unhealthy low level due to drought. The epitome of a vicious cycle.
I decided to write about this experience yesterday as I was tracking news of President Obama’s current visit to Alaska to witness and raise awareness about the real time toll climate change is taking on the Arctic. The president’s trip too is filled with sad and dangerous irony.
This is illustrated in two articles that appeared in yesterday’s New York Times.
The first one was titled, Obama Makes Urgent Appeal in Alaska for Climate Change Action. This article covered how President Obama had issued a global call for urgent action to address climate change and had stated declaring that the United States was partly to blame for what he called the defining challenge of the century. It noted that Obama’s remarks bordered on the apocalyptic, warning that the effects of global warming could result in submerging entire countries, annihilating cities and leaving farm fields barren unless more was done to reduce emissions. He repeated several times, “we’re not acting fast enough.”
However, the second article noted that Obama also would be proposing speeding up buying and building new Coast Guard icebreakers that can operate year-round in the arctic so that the US could compete with other nations, notably Russia, who are rushing forward to lay claims to pieces of the Arctic that have previously been covered by ice. The retreating sea ice is making possible new shipping routes, fishing areas and oil and other mineral mining exploits. In fact, in a highly controversial move, the Obama Administration recently granted permits to Shell Oil to begin deep-sea oil drilling in the frigid and turbulent Arctic waters.
I find it so disturbing that such exploits are being described in media coverage, even on NPR, as “developing” the Arctic. Development is supposed to be about improving or enhancing something. Nations treating the decimation of arctic ice fields as an opportunistic black-gold rush is not enhancing our world or improving our chances of mitigating cataclysmic sea level rise and extreme weather disruption.
Pulling more oil out of the melting arctic is literally throwing fuel on the fire of our burning world. It is time to face reality, leave the hard-to-reach carbon in the ground and get serious about making the shift to a sustainable economy. There are countless examples of new, healthier energy and economic models all around the world. The remainder of this newsletter highlights just a few. Instead of drilling for more oil we should be drilling into how to take these new systems to scale.
The argument that we can’t afford to move beyond fossil fuel is bogus. The truth is we can’t afford not to. This is the time to challenge the status quo, with our business endeavors, with our purchases, with our votes, but most importantly with our voices -- speaking truth to power and calling out the reality of our situation.
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