Updated: May 1, 2020
Written submission: Carol Phelps - Middleton, Wisconsin Carol attended the 2019 United Nations Climate Change Conference in Madrid
What are your thoughts about the claims that the climate is warming, the environment is being destroyed and that humans are the cause? Uh duh.
I realize everyone is at a different stage of awareness and realization about this; I could name the exact day in the summer of 2004 that I first became aware that we humans were changing our world's climate with devastating effects. At the time, that revelation seemed extraordinary beyond belief. It wasn't until I watched An Inconvenient Truth a few years later that I started to understand what was happening and why.
Yet, despite what I knew, for more than a decade after that, I thought it was someone else's job to do something about it - obviously only world governments and global agreements like the Paris Climate Agreement could tackle such a ginormous problem. I figured it was like the ozone hole, or nuclear disarmament, or Y2K, or AIDS - let the experts do their thing and solve the problem for everyone.
It was only about a year ago that I realized no one was listening to all the experts who had stepped forward, and all the progress that had already been made was being undone by one individual and his administration, and the biggest global climate action currently being taken was by one sixteen year old school girl.
At which point I realized that ordinary citizens must treat the climate crisis as a top priority, or we're dooming the children of the world to a terrible future. Recognizing the stages of my own awakening, and my gradual realization of the scope and seriousness of this problem, I can sympathize with those people who are confused, skeptical, doubtful, or simply don't have the band-width to think about too many crises at a time. But we've squandered a lot of precious time, and we all need to make it to the same page of the book rather quickly now. If climate change hasn't come to your town yet, I can assure you, like Covid-19, it is coming. You'd best start taking action now. In your mind what are the driving forces of climate change and environmental degradation? Humans. Largely it's that we don't think too deeply about what we are doing. If you've ever studied child development (something all teachers of young children have to do), you've heard of Piaget, and his experiments with young children. He discovered that if you remove a toy from a young child's vision, they don't search around for it. "Out of sight, out of mind", is very literally true for them. They have no concept that something still exists even when they can't see it. Unfortunately many of us adults suffer from that same phenomenon. We put chemicals or trash or other contaminants into the water, air, or ground, and if they wash or blow away, and we can see them no more, we think they're gone. Disappeared into nothingness. We assume they're as harmlessly decomposed as that rotten tomato that was in our garden last year. We may know intellectually that that's not true with plastics or nuclear waste, but we trust our eyes more than our brains. We fail to notice that what we choose to do on our own property sometimes ends up thousands of miles away, in the bodies of penguins in Antarctica. We can't see the piles of superfluous CO2 that is entering our atmosphere and our oceans on a daily basis, so we refuse to acknowledge it's there, and we certainly deny any responsibility for it. Once, when I was very young, I was punished for getting into my mother's makeup. I of course denied it, afraid of my mother's wrath, and got into double trouble for lying. I was mystified that I'd gotten caught; I had no clue that my face was inexpertly smeared with makeup, and until my mother pointed it out to me, I hadn't realized the smudged lipsticks and compacts littered around my parent's bathroom might give someone a clue. Today I see a lot of my young self when I look around me. Our cars belch fumes as we back them out of our driveways, but we act blissfully unaware that they might be polluting the world, or adding to the climate change problem. We wrinkle our noses at the jet fuel smell coming in the air vents as we buckle into our cramped airplane seats, but we don't think twice about the carbon released by burning that jet fuel. I never thought about the hidden natural gas pipes under city streets and houses until after I left college... even today I have a hard time remembering that that invisible gas, burned down in a furnace room in our basement, is changing the seasons right outside my front door. In short, the diving forces of climate change and environmental degradation are lack of awareness, forgetfulness, denial, and of course human greed, and our desire for more wealth and material luxuries, regardless of the cost to society. Has your life been affected in any way? If so, how? Yes In July 2016 extreme rains blanketed our property with concrete-like mud. So much ground was washed out from under our garage that we had to have it "void filled". In Sept. 2016 a freakish hailstorm damaged roofs and vehicles, requiring our roof and all the other roofs in our neighborhood to be completely re-roofed. (Unfortunately that was just a few years after we’d put a brand new roof on our house.) Hail damage totaled our daughter's car, which was outside. In Feb. 2017, when the temperatures should have been below freezing, we got a few days of 70 degree F heat. This confused the plants, making them think it was spring. Flower bulbs started growing as if it were April or May, only to be hit by the second half of winter. Nowadays fruit trees bloom too early, and following cold weather freezes them and destroys the fruit crop. In Aug. 2018 our neighborhood got rainfall that ranged from 11 to 14 inches in a few hours. Everything flooded. Bridges, highways, and railroads were washed away. Businesses were badly damaged and had to be closed for weeks. Basements (which many people in our area either finish as living spaces, or store all their stuff in) were flooded and everything in them destroyed. Our septic system overflowed with rainwater, sending sewage up our floor drain into our own basement. Our neighbors across the street (they are on the top of a hill with us) had a glacial kettle overflow into their house, filling their lower story to the ceiling with water. The damage required some six months to repair. Unseasonable mind-winter rains now regularly cause flooding, when the ground is still frozen and the water can't sink in. The spring of 2019 was too wet for planting - the farm fields were too muddy for tractors, or turned into lakes. Crops couldn't be planted till a month later than usual, and some crops didn't have a chance to mature and get harvested before unseasonably early hard frosts in October. Our neighbors lost their entire grape crop, which they usually sell to a local winery, for the first time in 22 years. This winter came late and ended early... which is superficially pleasant for humans, but has sinister undertones, and not just for snow mobilers, hunters, ice fishermen, and ski resorts. It used to be one didn't see an insect in Wisconsin from November till April - during the winter months one didn't need screens on windows, and one didn't need to give one's pets flea or tick or heartworm preventatives. This January when we were out on a midwinter walk, a swarm of gnat-like insects engulfed us. When winters aren't cold or long enough, insects multiply and spread fast, targeting trees stressed by weird weather. An example of this is the invasive emerald ash borers, which have wreaked devastation in our state. That has affected our city and us personally, because we used to have several large gorgeous ash trees in our yard. One we have to pay through the nose every few years to keep it protected with insecticides, and the other died back so much we finally had to remove it, to keep it from falling on our house. Most people are probably not aware that removing a single large tree by a house costs over a thousand dollars. Multiply that out by thousands of ash trees in a city, and you'll see where your tax dollars are going, all because of climate change. Yes, our lives have been affected, right here in the Midwest region of the good ol' USA. In your opinion, what needs to be done? I've spent the last year studying this, so I could probably write 20 pages about what needs to be done, both on a societal level, and on an individual level. The US government and governments of the world need to price carbon for starters (they could outlaw the extraction &/or burning of fossil fuels, but that would be disruptive to our lives and economies on a Covid-19 scale, and more planned and gradual changes over the next decade would be more sensible, if we can accomplish them in time). We need to get past the idea that this is a partisan issue, or it's something just of concern to environmentalists (e.g. tree huggers and polar bear cuddlers). Denial of the reality and causes of climate change need to become as unacceptable as crimes against humanity, because, frankly, that's what they are. We need to transition very rapidly to a clean renewable energy economy. We need to stop cutting down old-growth forests - whether for beef cattle or soft toilet paper. We need to make use of every single tool and idea available to us - from regenerative agriculture to electric vehicles to methane capture to heat exchangers to wind and solar farms to carbon capture - from incentives to legislation to executive action to popular uprising to a change in social norms to triple bottom lines in business to changes in personal priorities and behavior. We need to act as if the home we live in is on fire, as Greta would say, because it is, and at some level we all sense that, however hard we closed our eyes as literal fires rage across Australia and California. Do you consider yourself as part of the problem or part of the solution? Both. We all are. We all have the opportunity to stop being part of the problem (or at least substantially decrease our impact), and work on making up for how many years we've unwittingly been part of the problem, by becoming part of the solution. But we need to be careful to prioritize, noticing what has a big impact, and what doesn't. We could all furiously dust our light bulbs while blasting our air conditioners. We could carefully collect the pull-tabs on our sodas, while trashing the rest of the cans (I kid you not, some people have gotten confused or misled into doing that). Those in favor of big oil and big business and no environmental restrictions would love it if we all got immersed in banning straws, and refusing to use plastic wrap, and looking for pens with natural ink. Focus, folks. For everything you have any control over or say in, focus on the things that are large enough to make a difference as your top priority. Sure, every light bulb you switch to an LED bulb is going to make a difference, and I don't want to discourage anyone from doing that if they can, but simultaneously pressure the businesses you patronize or work for, or your local government, because one change that they make will be equivalent to you changing a breathtakingly large number of light bulbs. What do you think the long-term outcome of climate change and environmental degradation will be?
Depends on how soon we take major action