Earlier this year Australia came to the end of a summer that was so outstandingly hot and stressful that the Bureau of Meteorology added two new colours to its charts so as to be able to indicate the high heat levels. Will Steffen, a world leader in climate science and a key figure in the government-funded Climate Commission, wrote the report ‘Angry Summer’, showing the figures that enabled the public to get the picture of just what had been happening.
Eight months later, the story rolls on: Angry Spring has flashed into New South Wales bringing fire, wind, heat, death, fear, injury, lightning, pain, peril, loss, despair, and, of course, anger. In the few months between February and October 2013 we had had a chance to think, evaluate, assess, and plan. Collectively, we hadn’t done well at all. The Climate Commission has been abolished (replaced, however, by the crowd-funded Climate Council). Climate change is treated as if it were a topic to be debated rather than a phenomenon about which to take action, and all the while it is accelerating.
As Peter and I continued our travels in North America, parts of our minds were focussed on home: on fires, on friends at risk, on the suffering of all who are in the paths of the fires. Parts of our minds were here where we were, of course, and the dissonance between the island country of the Pacific Northwest with its damp forests, lakes, inlets and sounds forms an incredible contrast to the news from NSW.
Those contrasts were with me when I walked into the Royal British Columbia Museum and found myself face-to-face with an exhibit on climate change that was without doubt the best I have ever encountered.
The exhibit places contemporary climate change within the context of a dynamic, ever-changing earth system with all the changes in flora and fauna that have been part of the story of earth. It focuses, though, on the most recent era of human life in the north – the end of the most recent ice age. The life-size mammoth is an awesome reminder of the fact that change is earth’s way of life, and nothing lasts forever.
One section of the exhibit gives clear explanations of the main forces in climate dynamics: including the pulses of ocean currents and oscillations, the tilt of the earth, the earth’s orbit, and other factors that pulse at different rates and intersect to form patterns through time. Human impacts were set within the wider oscillations, and then it made good sense to talk about what the current changes imply for the future. Having always thought of this region as one of endless rainfall, it was fascinating and horrifying to learn that British Columbia, too, has recently experienced terrible fires, and can expect more. Indeed the great forests of the region could be lost to a range of impacts, including the devastating effects of the mountain pine beetle (Dendroctonus ponderosae). This voracious little beetle is kept in check by freezing winters. As winters lose their frosty bite, the beetles multiply so rapidly that they are destroying forests throughout the western part of North America. The stories rolled on, with strong sections on greenhouse gases and global warming, and excellent suggestions for what individuals could do to reduce impact.
Canada is far from being a perfect society, as government bans on the public reporting of scientific findings attest. Nevertheless, the climate change exhibit is supported by ’Environment Canada: Environmental Action Fund’, ‘Environment Canada: Eco-action Community Funding Program’, and the ‘British Columbia Ministry of Water, Land and Air Protection’. As Libby Robin has discussed in an essay on climate change and museums, the role of the museum is to address big questions. In the BC Museum, the stories unfold in urgent scenarios that leave sensible people asking the great question: ‘what can I do?’ And indeed, the Museum offers a strong educational action program to accompany the exhibit.
While I was still immersed in this sense of urgency, I was shocked to learn that once again the PM Tony Abbott denies links between climate change and bushfires. And perhaps even worse, that there has been some suggestion in Australia that it is not good to talk about climate change in the midst of terrible fires. I gather that the idea behind this notion is that climate change is political, and no one should be politicking in the face of the fear and suffering of bushfires and the heroic efforts to contain the fires. But this idea is wrong. We in the ecological/environmental humanities have been talking about climate change and bushfires in Australia for a good while now, and with a new government that wants to stifle research and informed conversation and action, it is imperative that we continue to tell the stories that move people to understanding and action.
Climate change is not politics. It is reality. Much of what we love is at risk – not only our own lives, but forests, animals, birds, plants, oceans, homes, neighbourhoods, communities, the future. What could be more important for us to talk about than the real world in which we are living? This is our life, our time, our responsibility, our debt to the future.
©Deborah Bird Rose (2013)