GOOD NEWS, BAD NEWS: HOW OPTIMISTIC ARE YOU WHEN IT COMES TO CLIMATE CHANGE?

By Paul M. Lewis

If you’re like me, you oscillate back and forth between depression and a guarded, though still hopeful, optimism when it comes to global climate change.

A lot seems to depend on what I’ve been reading of late. Just last week, for example, there was an article in the Los Angeles Times by Ralph Vartabedian and Evan Halper entitled “High-tech Climate Fixes Get a Boost,” which fed my more paranoid side. The underlying premise was that, while we need to continue doing whatever is possible to cut back on the pollutants that cause the warming of the planet, we also simultaneously have to research high-tech solutions, in the event that all else fails. It’s worth noting this recommendation comes from no less a distinguished an organization than the National Research Council, the government’s main scientific advisory body, made up of some of the brightest and most insightful minds in the country.

The report talks about things that have the tinge of science fiction to them: giant machines that vacuum greenhouse gases from the atmosphere, aerosol sprays spewed into the atmosphere to reflect sunlight back into space, and fertilizers spread about and mixed into the oceans in order to produce plants that eat carbon. To me, not only do these sound like desperate measures, but I am enough of a skeptic regarding the limitations of human intelligence to fear a whole host of unintended consequences that may come with such solutions, things we are perhaps currently not even capable of imagining. If there’s one thing about global systems I feel I do get, it’s that their complexity can verge on the infinite. Even our most sophisticated computers cannot begin to calculate the innumerable, unknowable, potentially damaging outcomes of such massive human intervention.

That said, and as much as I am reluctant to admit it, I also have to concede this kind of planning may make some sense. What these perfectly sensible scientists are not saying is, let’s do this in place of efforts to curtail man-made emissions into the atmosphere. What they are sayings is, let’s have a backup plan at the ready in case. After all, our lack of progress so far in doing what we need to makes it increasingly likely that we may have to deploy such ultimate measures in a last-ditch effort to control the earth’s spiraling temperatures.

On the other, more positive, side of things, a few days after having read the above mentioned article, I received my copy of Solutions, a magazine published by the Environmental Defense Fund (EDF). I’ve been a member of EDF for many years, and believe it to be one of the premier organizations in the world related to issues of global warming. In other words, I’ve come to trust them. So, I was frankly a little surprised to see that the lead article in this issue was called “A Plan for Climate Stability.” Really? If EDF thinks maybe there’s hope yet, who am I to disagree? In the article, they discuss five recent trends that point to an ambitious plan to cut global emissions by as early as 2020: (1) the joint announcement this past November on the part of China and the United States to limit global warming pollutants; (2) the fact that emissions in the industrialized world have been trending downward in the last decade or so; (3) a clean energy future has actually begun, as seen in the enormous increase in production of solar panels, wind turbines, electric vehicles etc.; (4) there is action that can be taken against methane (84 times more dangerous than carbon dioxide), as noted in a recent report showing how oil and gas companies can cut methane emissions by 40% with technologies that already exist and which cost mere pennies; and (5) younger voters overwhelmingly support climate action.

These are the good things that are already happening. And as noted in its title, the article goes on to speak of a plan for the future. The first point mentioned in that plan is the need to reduce carbon emissions. Fine, no argument there. Second, limit short-lived pollutants. For the United States, this means cutting back on carbon emitting plants and making sure that billions of dollars will be invested in clean energy systems. China is required by 2020 to cap “half of its emissions at 2015 levels, improve energy efficiency by 25%, and shift its energy mix to one-third renewable energy.” The third point has to do with stopping deforestation. One way to do this is to “reward forest protection in a global carbon marketplace.” Brazil, for example, has reduced its Amazon deforestation rate by an astounding 70% in the past decade. And finally, number four has to do with breaking the political stalemate in the global warming debate, both nationally and internationally.

Unfortunately, this is where my skepticism kicks back in. Clearly, this fourth point is far more easily said than done, given the intransigence of the Republican-controlled congress, as well as the ever increasing desire of people in developing countries to enjoy the good life that those in developed countries have benefited from for so long. And if this weren’t enough, let me add another thing, a point that the report, to my astonishment, says nothing at all about. What I’m referring to is the absolute need to limit out-of-control population growth. How, I wondered, could EDF not have mentioned a thing that so obviously affects the emission of both short-lived and longer-lived pollutants into the air, to say noting of the continued deforestation of the planet? It’s obvious that the more people there are to feed, clothe, house, and to warm in winter and cool in summer, the more stresses there will be placed on all of the earth’s ecosystems.

So, here I am again, back to my old oscillation. Sometimes, when I’m feeling most pessimistic, I think that whatever schemes we come up with to halt the destruction of our global systems are mere palliatives, gossamer, will-o’-the-wisp fantasies that at best delay what we just don’t want to face, or at worst outright hide what is all too inevitable. And yet, the optimist in me won’t give up. As my partner continually tells me (and I can’t argue against him), big business is selfish and greedy enough NOT to want the world to implode. A dead world is, after all, really bad for business.

Is there a way each of us can help? That’s an interesting question. EDF has its recommendations on that, too, with a handy five point plan: (1) make your home as energy efficient as possible; (2) reduce, reuse, recycle; (3) buy a gas efficient vehicle, or walk, bike, or ride public transportation; (4) wash your dishes and your clothes in cold or warm water (not hot); and (5) sign up for EDF action alerts to stay engaged politically at every level, federal, state, and local (www.edf.org/climateupdates). And who can argue with this? All good, there is no doubt.

Of course, the big question remains: Are such efforts good enough? I admit I don’t have the answer to that question, and I suspect no one does at this point. Unfortunately we may not know until we either see the positive effects of our actions, or until it’s too late.

One thing we humans have always had in spades is hope. Or is it more a remarkable ability to turn a blind eye to the worst of the worst? For now, I’m sticking with the Environmental Defense Fund in its optimism. But just in case, I think those scientists had better keep working on that giant vacuum and those aerosol sprays in the sky. Who knows? Maybe, in the end, such measures will be our only hope for survival. And if so, as they say, we’d better be prepared.

THE LOVELY APRIL OF HER PRIME

By Paul M. Lewis

If my mother were alive, she would have turned ninety-five years old today. Not an impossibility, of course, since many of us know people whose parents are in their nineties. Yet, she died forty-five years ago, in 1970, when she was just fifty years old.

No doubt, everyone thinks of his or her mother as a special person, and it’s an old saw among the Irish that you practically have to say of your mother: “She was a saint.” But it’s also true that this happens to quite accurately describe my mother. Her name was Kathleen, or Kay, as she usually went by, and she was the most loving and compassionate person whom I have ever had the privilege of knowing. She worried about everyone: her own children, first of all, but other people’s children, too, as well as friends and relatives. Sadly, she fretted greatly about money, as well, of which we had very little. And she worried especially about her husband, my father, who hated his job in the local sandpaper factory, and whose intelligence—it must be said—ought to have insured a better position for him, one where he could have used his mind, rather than just his hands in so mechanical a way.

Intellectuality was not my mother’s greatest gift. I am not speaking here of native intelligence, you understand, but of what used to glibly be referred to as book-learning. She never graduated from high school, seldom read, aside from the occasional perusal of the local newspaper, and was not drawn to an overly cerebral, philosophical way of looking at the world, as was my father. No, she approached life as a thing to be cherished and taken care of, a gift from God to be nurtured and nourished, cultivated and encouraged. She saw life as a benefit freely bestowed, a thing not to be taken for granted.

Although she grew up during the Great Depression and had very real money worries, I never saw in her that persistent, underlying fear of there not being enough, so prevalent among many of that generation. The household she was reared in was entirely feminine. Her own father, my grandfather, met and married her mother, Katy, in what I always think must have been a whirlwind romance. Although no pictures of him exist, he was—or so my imagination likes to project—a dashing fellow. A baseball player for the Montreal Royals, one of the minor league teams of the era, he came with the team to upstate New York to play against the Albany Senators. Though family lore has not recorded just how, this handsome young French-Canadian, who went by the unlikely name of Pierre-Napoleon, somehow met a local Irish-American girl named Katy, and the two were married soon thereafter. Dates here are fuzzy, but the unstated suggestion has always been that Katy may have conceived before the blessings of wedlock were conferred, and she gave birth to Kathleen, my mother, on the 19th of February 1920. Soon thereafter, Pierre-Napoleon disappeared from sight, presumably hightailing it back to Montreal, and no one ever saw or heard from him again. In those days, such legal niceties as child support did not exist, and so Katy moved back in with her own mother, a widow by that time, and the two ladies raised my mother.

I don’t know where my own parents met. One of the many disadvantages of losing one’s parents early on is that there is no longer the opportunity for their children, later in life, when they might themselves be more settled and possibly interested in such matters, to ask these kinds of question. She married Francis (Frank) Lewis in 1940. Not long after, my father was drafted into the navy and served on a destroyer-escort in the North Atlantic, the USS Moffett, during the Second World War. He came home a few times on leave to spend a week or two with his young bride, and during one of those visits I was conceived. He didn’t return home for good until late 1945.

The years that ensued after the war were typical enough for many young couples of the time. My father got a job in a local factory, and my mother worked in a department store in Troy, New York, selling negligees to ladies much richer than she. We never owned a car, and my father walked the twelve blocks to work each morning; she took the bus because her feet always hurt her. Kathleen had five children, two of whom died soon after they were born, and there was struggle enough to raise the remaining three. Her husband was unhappy at work, and in much of life, although not in his marriage, and drank too much. She often had to work evenings at the department store, and the household was a miserable place when she was not there to lighten and brighten things up.

Because of smoking and drinking and, I always believed, failed aspirations and the bitter disappointment of his own life, my father died even younger than my mother. He was forty-seven years old. A few years later, my mother met a nice Italian man by the name of Carlo, and they enjoyed each other’s company for a few years. By then, she was working in the same sandpaper factory where my father had died, since the money was better than anything that could be made as a saleslady. She and Carlo went dancing on Saturday nights, and occasionally out to dinner, things she could never afford to do with Frank, and she seemed happy.

Not that there hadn’t been sorrows aplenty in her life: my father’s drinking, his early death, my brother’s drinking, my sister’s scoliosis and, I suppose, my own entry into the monastery at age fourteen. Far too young, she thought, as much as she never tried to stop me. It was considered a high honor in those years if one of your children had what was referred to as a vocation. Maybe people just thought of it as insurance for a better place in heaven. The church held great moral suasion in those days, far more than it does today. Even so, years later, after I left the monastery and my mother was still living, she told me that she had confessed to the priest that she and my father used birth control, as they could not afford to raise even the three children they had, let alone any more. In turn, the priest told her: “If you do not repent and stop using artificial birth control, you will burn in hell for all eternity. If you wish not to have any more children, cease having relations with your husband.” This was merely the first of many things that turned me against the Catholic Church, with its inhuman, rigid, and doctrinaire legalism.

Obviously, this priest did not know my mother. Anyone who did could never imagine a God by whatever name condemning her for anything. The Hindus speak of Divine Mother, and I have always felt as though my mother was a kind of reflection of that image, filled with great warmth and kindness and a profound empathy for her fellow beings.

Shakespeare writes in one of his early sonnets: “Thou art thy mother’s glass and she in thee/Calls back the lovely April of her prime.” It has always seemed to me that the highest goal I could strive for in life was to be some amalgam of my parents, combining my father’s intellectualism, his love for learning and of the written word, with my mother’s immense capacity for sensitivity and her concern for the sufferings of all living creatures.

I’ve never felt that I have been able to fully live up to either one of these aspirations, but it’s enough perhaps to keep on trying. On this day of celebration and remembrance, I wish my mother the happiest of birthdays. I am more thankful than I can ever express that she was born to Katy and Pierre-Napoleon. May she live long in my memory, and in my efforts to be like her. What better way to lead one’s life, I tell myself, than to do what I can to call back that lovely April of her prime?