An open letter to CCC19 participants by Robert Yuhnke.*
Dear Colleagues in Consciousness: In preparation for our collaboration next April, I wish to suggest media sources that will better support expanding our awareness. Commercial media are not focused on promoting planetary consciousness of the threat that climate change poses to the future of humanity. Mass media do feature extreme life-threatening events that are the product of climate change, such as: the massive downpours that flooded Houston and south Asia last summer and the unstoppable firestorms that consumed the Western U.S. last year and this, and also drove vacationers to escape into the sea in Greece. But the media are telling us near nothing of how changing climate contributes to these events and the longer term threats to natural systems.
Consider the National Public Radio report last month that nuclear power plants reduced power production because cooling water is too warm to maintain operations in the face of peak power demand on hot days. This story ignores the consequences of reduced river flows and higher water temperatures for the creatures that depend on cool water every day for their survival. Media tell us nothing of the 40 to 60% crash in Pacific salmon populations that need cold river water to survive the passage from ocean to spawning grounds and to successfully hatch their eggs. Efforts to enhance salmon stream habitat in the Pacific Northwest and British Columbia are working for species that return during the high flow cold spring runoff, but the fall salmon populations stressed with severely reduced stream flows linked to early high altitude snow melt and waters warmed by extreme summer heat continue to decline.
The media are quick to report the massive firestorms now burning through California cities, Swedish Lapland and coastal Greek vacation towns, but they provide little context for understanding the changes these extreme events represent. I have yet to see media coverage explaining that U.S. fires during 2017 destroyed more hectares of forest than the State of Maryland, and that hectares burned represent a 10-fold increase compared to 30 years ago. It’s not because more fires are ignited; it’s because forests not adapted to the unparalleled extreme temperatures and extended drought explode overnight into massive firestorms. When standing timber contains less moisture than kiln dried lumber, forests explode with heat so intense that soils are sterilized and root systems continue burning through the winter, re-emerging in late spring after the forest floor is sapped of moisture by extreme heat. Under these conditions fires create their own storm conditions driving them across the landscape.
Nuclear plants, salmon and forests are all examples of how both natural and human systems have evolved to thrive or been designed to function in the stable climate that prevailed 8000 years since the last glaciation. Stable climate has been perilously disrupted, and is deteriorating rapidly. Other examples are the productivity of most rice species that drop by 10-20% as the average temp increases from 90 F to 95 F, or the fact that many bird species are starving during migration because they arrive at transit stops or nesting grounds after their prey insect food supply has emerged, peaked and declined. Then there is the problem of aircraft not designed to be able to take off when temps exceed 115 F because hot air lacks the density to provide lift. And the disruption of social structures such as family farmers on the plains of Colorado and India who are dying from suicide because they are about to lose their multi-generational family farms as a result of successive seasons of failed grain crops that leaves them drowning in debt.
The disruption of both natural and human engineered systems is ubiquitous, and often not predictable. For example, the North Atlantic oscillation which accounts for the currents that transport heat from the tropics to Western Europe, has slowed 15% since 1990. The threat is that this driver of ocean currents will collapse as the mass of cold fresh water being discharged from Greenland accelerates. Then in one season the climate patterns of the entire northern hemisphere that have prevailed for millennia will dramatically change in ways that will disrupt all natural and human systems in unanticipated ways.
Planners and most people are not prepared for these disruptions. No natural or human system will survive climate change undamaged. Many will cease to function. Take for example the drying up of the Colorado River. If recent drought persists in the U.S. southwest, within 10 years the river will no longer supply the water needed to support the 40 million residents of LA, Las Vegas, Phoenix, Salt Lake City and points in between. The fire storms racing into Redding CA this year and Santa Rosa last year are harbingers of much bigger urban crises to come. When fires encroach on such urban centers in the future, there will be no water to defend them. California, Colorado, Oregon, Sweden and Greece are just the beginning of a world on fire. Watch for when a warmer climate allows fire storms continue to burn through the winters. Endless fire and a global pall of suffocating smoke will then be the ultimate marker of human hubris.
To raise planetary consciousness we must stay atop these trends, and be able to share them with our global neighbors. We must help the mass media contribute to this understanding. But until consciousness of natural systems and its importance to the survival of human civilization penetrates to the leaders of global media, we must ourselves stay abreast of the trends. Sources I commend to your attention include Environmental Health News, a free online journal, and Science Daily which reports the latest published research for the lay reader.
With attunement to the planet our goal, I look forward to sharing mind space with you in April.
* Robert E. Yuhnke has been an environmental attorney and policy consultant for 45 years. He co-authored the US Clean Air Act and continues to offer legal and policy support to state and local governments and public interest organizations in its implementation. He has expertise in the health impact of urban transportation, highway projects and land use. His current focus is on promoting sustainable communities and the conversion of the global vehicle fleet to zero emission technologies.