A few years ago a distant neighbor tried to antagonize me by mocking the concept of man-made climate change. He knew that I was worried about such things and he seemed to be drawing a distinction between himself and me for the benefit of friends who were moving livestock up a loading chute. It was a friendly mocking on a February day that should have been hovering in the single digits above zero. But instead of the normal mid-winter, polar conditions, the day was fifty degrees and all of us were working in our shirt sleeves.
“Oh yea,” my neighbor said. “This global warming is a real bad deal. I just hate days like this.” I didn’t rise to his bait but he kept going. “It’ll change our way of life on the Great Plains.” There was a little laughter and most of the heads nodded in tacit agreement. I did not engage him in debate because I knew it was hopeless. But I did look at him to try to determine if he was being serious or just parroting the attitudes of the corporate defenders in Congress and the safely arrogant talk show hosts.
My neighbor is a little chubby, tries hard to be jovial, and likes to be viewed as wise. But he is not as practiced as the people in Washington and his eyes didn’t engage mine. They flitted over the faces of our friends, searching for approval. When he found it, he became energized, and basked in the attention. “I might have to take my insulated coveralls to the Salvation Army.” This got him a few more laughs and the way he puffed up was hard to watch, because he is not a stupid man.
He knows what an increase of just few degrees could do to the midsection of America. He knows perfectly well that a glorious, fertile growing season depends on a tough winter, that the productive temperature range for almost all plants and animals is very narrow, that a fractional reduction in rainfall could upset balances that the whole world depends on. Of course, if he were ever pinned down on any of these points, he would take shelter in the standard sand pile of “It isn’t proven. It’s just a theory.” He may even know that by such reckoning the lethal nature of a bullet to the brain is just a theory until you pull the trigger.
For the years since that day when I was mocked for my worry over climate change I have often wondered if my neighbor, or the public officials that he mimicked, ever woke up in the middle of the night wondering – what if. What if we really are creating a deadly change in the climate that sustains us? Do those people secretly pace their kitchen floors at three in the morning, or do they simply shrug their shoulders, conclude that the short-term increase in wealth is worth it, and go back to sleep?
There have been several nights in this summer of 2012 when I know that my neighbor did not sleep because I saw him out on a volunteer fire truck fighting prairie fires. It is not even August and already hundreds of thousands of acres of the Northern Great Plains have burned. The summer of 2012 will go down in the record books as one of the hottest and driest. It may even end up as the hottest and driest in recorded history. It is a disconcerting record and even more disconcerting to think that 2012 record might not hold for long.
Of course climate change is terribly complicated and it is a difficult thing to measure. We might have a wet year next year. The grass might grow three feet high again. Food and commodity prices might level off or even dip a little. There might not be another fire-season like this one for the rest of my life. I might never again see my neighbor’s face illuminated by the frenetic, red-hot light of a grass fire as he holds only a puny shovel in his hands. I may never see his face sweating in the blast furnace heat and streaked with ash like a common man at the battle of Armageddon. I may never again see the awe and fear in his eyes as all the things that he cares about, everything that nourishes him and his family, goes up in smoke. But at least I have seen his humanness and the chinch in his armor of pugnacious ignorance. It will take longer for the pompous politicians and the out-of-control talk show hosts to get that close to reality.