It was when he first heard the call of a red-winged blackbird in the hills north of Fairbanks that John Adams knew something was up. This was a bird he recognized from the Okefenokee Swamp in Georgia. It was not one he expected to see in the boreal forest only a few dozen miles from the Arctic Circle.
The blackbird was not all he noticed. Freezing rain in the middle of winter, wildfire seasons eating up more of the summer months, and pack ice retreating off the northern coast signaled to both Adams and his partner that Alaska had changed. “In a very real way,” he says, “the Alaska that we knew was beginning to disappear.”
In the New Yorker article describing these changes, the pain they caused Adams is palpable. “For me,” he said, “this is personal. I love Alaska with a passion that is almost erotic.”
A couple of years ago, Adams left Alaska for good.
What struck me about Adams’ writing was the honest sorrow with which he depicted the experience of climate change. The story of a planet abused by the industrialized countries’ fossil fuel emissions is often told in terms of grim prognostications for the future.
Representative concentration pathways depict different versions of cataclysm arriving in 2100. Glaciologists battle to forecast when the last icefields will melt from the tropical parts of the Andes. City planners fret over when Miami will disappear underwater.
It is all sobering stuff for sure. But the truth is that these bleak predictions are often too wonky and detached to shake a person to the core. Models and statistics are not how life is lived by most of us.
Climate ethicist Stephen Gardiner coined the phrase “the perfect moral storm” to capture how the moral wrongs embedded in climate change continually fail to motivate better behavior. The scale and the longevity of the problem make it ill-suited to generating effective moral outrage.
We can bandy climate statistics around in an attempt to frighten people into action but it remains far too easy to succumb to moral corruption and to procrastinate while continuing to enjoy the fruits of carbon-sourced power. In stark contrast, the heartache in Adams’ essay reminds us what climate loss is really about.
The fact that I live in Montana and not in southern England where the rest of my family resides is almost entirely due to the richness of the landscape and the fauna I find here. Adams’ reminded me that I love the particular set of social and natural arrangements that can be found in western Montana with a passion that is…yes….almost erotic.
When the first snow falls in November and I feel the coldness of those early flakes on my cheek, I get prickles on the back of my neck. When the last skiing takes place in Pattee Canyon in March, I feel a low pressure building in my throat that signals I am close to tears. When I catch a glimpse through a fir forest of the disappearing rump of a black bear in early June my thumping heart swells not just with adrenaline but also with the pride of living in this place.
Climate change hurts not because the statistics about the future of this region are terrifying, though there is absolutely no doubt that they are. It hurts because the things I love are being taken away from me. It is happening now, and with every passing year it happens a bit more.
There is more rain in January, more soggy snow in March. There is more smoke in what should be the picture-perfect days of summer. The choking haze now fills entire months rather than just a couple of weeks here and there, and it frequently lasts till September. The forests across the region are browner and uglier every year as pine bark beetles wreck increasing havoc on the deepest of green backdrops. A trip to Glacier National Park reveals less snow and ice in the high country than it used to as the receding of glaciers is witnessed in real-time, rather than only by looking at historical photographs.
The lump in my throat is now not just for the change of the season but for the way the seasons are changing. The quickening of the heart is not only from the surprise encounter with wildlife but from the anger that rises at the self-interested blindness of many of our decision-makers. The prickles on the back of my neck show up now when wondering whether the dancing orange light in my bedroom window signals a branch blowing in front of a local street light or a wildfire poised on nearby hills moving down into town.
None of this is to say that the losses and fears I am experiencing come even close in magnitude to those being experienced by many others. When water reaches halfway to the ceiling in Dickenson, Texas after hurricane Harvey a person has a lot more reason to be angry than I do. When the beach in front of the house your mother was born in washes away in Shishmaref, Alaska or on Nuatambu in the Solomon Islands a parent has a lot more reason to feel hollow in the pit of their stomach than many of us.
Despite being relatively lucky in the grand scheme of climate change harms, what I do see has a significant impact on me. I feel it and I mourn it. I am one of a growing number of people for whom climate change is not just a story about something that may happen down the road. It means a diminished quality of life right here and right now.
Increasingly, I resent it. It pisses me off.
John Adams’ lament about the end of winter in Alaska stands out in part because of how accelerated the changes are in high northern latitudes. But the genuine anguish he feels at his losses will not be unusual for much longer.
If you doubt this sobering truth, think a little bit harder about what you are already starting to miss.