Wake up and smell the disaster

Climate change is the greatest challenge of our time, though some refuse to recognize its existence

The author is a former editor-in-chief of the CN&R.

When I look up from my desk in my home office, I see the cover of the very first issue of the CN&R, dated Aug. 30, 1977. It was framed and given to me as a gift several years ago at the party occasioned by my retirement as editor of the paper.

The dominant photograph on the page is of burnt forest trees silhouetted against clouds of smoke. The headline reads: “Why are our forests burning up?”

Even then, 40 years ago, the CN&R was asking the kinds of questions Julie Cart asks in her well-researched story in the April 18 issue, “Environmental catastrophe.” Even then, as we pointed out and Cart again reports, experts knew that forest fuels were accumulating to an unsustainable degree.

The question we didn’t ask, or didn’t know to ask, was: How does the fact that 1977 was a drought year factor in? And, was the drought merely cyclical, or did it point to greater problems?

The question we must ask today is this: Why aren’t we doing more to protect ourselves and our forests from the effects of climate change?

We know the climate is changing in dramatic and dangerous ways. Highly flammable forests are only one of the consequences of this change. Indeed, on the very day Cart’s article hit the stands locally, The Washington Post carried a story about newly reported studies indicating that the Atlantic Ocean’s circulation, which carries warm water from the tropics into the Northern Hemisphere, has declined by 15 percent in recent years.

This current, called the Atlantic meridional overturning circulation (AMOC), is the reason why Europe, most of which is at the same latitude as Alaska, enjoys a temperate climate hospitable to farming. But that climate is changing: Winters are becoming more severe, summers so hot people are dying because of it.

Here in the U.S., we’ve seen the results of extreme weather brought on by climate change. And yet many of us refuse to recognize that we’re facing the great existential challenge of our time. What is it going to take to wake us up?