Climate Change, Part 1: A Christmas Wish


Polly and I are spending the holidays with our granddaughter, Juana Magdalena, in a little town called City Bell, just east of Buenos Aires. Polly’s three daughters are all here too, almost as much fun as Juana. As the summer solstice passes, our days are filled with family, exercise, asados, newspapers, a bit of sightseeing, and, for me, Spanish lessons. There is a fruit and vegetable farm within walking distance, and freshly butchered meat and chickens on the way, with none of the planting, weeding, feeding, watering, and picking chores of farm life.  

The family time also allows us to reflect on this new grandparenting stage of life. We intensely appreciate the diverse beauty and richness of the world as we experience the munificence of family, friends, and colleagues. Building on the knowledge of a hundred thousand years of evolution and the gifts of our parents and grandparents, we can learn and debate, try to understand the universe and our place in it, and create beauty through art, literature, music, and winemaking. As at the farm, I awaken each morning profoundly grateful for these gifts.

And yet, I wonder, as all grandparents must, what kind of a world Juana will inherit.

The world has changed a great deal in my lifetime, mostly for the better. In his recent book, Enlightenment Now, Steven Pinker has documented the extraordinary progress we humans have made to improve health, safety, family incomes, and life expectancy; expand democracy, education, and equal rights; and reduce poverty, hunger, and violence.

This progress extends to many environmental challenges, especially those that are visible to the naked eye. The Chesapeake Bay is (slowly) getting cleaner, acid rain has declined, and bald eagles have returned.  Deforestation of the Amazon has slowed, the amount of protected terrestrial and marine habitat has increased, tankers spill less oil, and the ozone hole is getting smaller. This progress, Pinker argues, is the result of activism, legislation, regulation, technological innovation, and global cooperation, and it leads Pinker to be optimistic about the future.

Yet there are enormous challenges ahead. For most of the past 420,000 years, atmospheric carbon dioxide levels remained below 300 parts per million (ppm). They started climbing during the industrial revolution, reached 315 ppm when I was born and now exceed 400 ppm. The average temperature in Anne Arundel County has climbed from 55.4 degrees F to 56.9 degrees in my lifetime. Multiple reports, including those from the Fourth National Climate Assessment and United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change describe the expected rise in temperature and sea level, destructive storms and fires, increases in mosquito and tick-borne diseases, and declining agricultural output. Our experience during the 2018 vintage is perhaps an ominous preview.

But these challenges, as significant (and devastating) as they might be, don’t reflect all the vitality and beauty of the ecosystem in which we live and the danger it faces from climate change. In Yellowstone Park, native plant species are being replaced by invasive cheatgrass, reducing forage for wildlife. On the Galapagos Islands, increasingly frequent El Niño conditions block the flow of nutrients that feed plankton, threatening penguins, marine iguanas, and even Darwin’s finches. The number of insects has declined, at least in some parts of world, by more than 75% because of habitat loss and intensive use of pesticides.

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The rapid loss of plant and animal species is frightening. For example, what would happen if there were no pollinators? It turns out that life without them can endure, but it may not flourish. After overuse of pesticides eliminated bee populations decades ago, growers in the Maoxian Valley of Himalayan China hand-pollinate hundreds of thousands of apple and pear trees. Because fewer pollen-donor trees are required and humans effectively pollinate 100% of the flowers (bees only pollinate about 30%), yield per acre increases. Because they don’t need to worry about killing beneficial insects, these growers can use more insecticides to produce the unblemished fruit that brings high prices.

If efficiency, defined by higher yields and prices per unit of input, is the goal, then hand-pollination is the way to go when human labor is cheap and plentiful. Moreover, the image of an entire village turning out every spring to pollinate the region’s crop, each person brushing the flowers on 10-12 trees each day, conveys a certain sense of nobility and identity. Despite these advantages, this world seems sterile, lacking complexity, balance, depth, interest, and resilience, and our experience growing wine suggests it does not result in the best fruit. Likewise, most apple producing areas of the Himalayan region have chosen to reestablish pollinator populations and have not followed the path taken in the Maoxian Valley.

As humans, we cultivate our own welfare, and hopefully produce the best wine, by enhancing the health, diversity, and abundance of life around us, and not by disrupting ecosystems, destroying large sections of habitat, or raising animals in confinement, methods that might have more immediate financial return but don’t reflect their true economic costs. My Christmas wish is that Juana will find the beauty and strength that comes from being part of an interconnected whole, sheltered and nourished by nature, and that she will use her compassion, ingenuity, and knowledge to enrich the ensemble of the soil, water, air, plants, animals, and people that surround us.