What I wrestle with is this: My wife and I have chosen to have a child knowing full well that our son, now just over three years old, will grow up in a world where the climate is changing more rapidly than at any point in history. He will grow up in a world that is far less bountiful than the one in which every single previous generation of humans has lived. He will become an adult just when the worst effects of climate change are being felt. He will face the real possibility of being among the generation, for the first time in recorded history, where the very survival of our species is not a certainty.
My son is essentially a child of climate disaster. He was born just 3 months before Hurricane Sandy devastated parts of New York City. Our building, in Alphabet City, had its basement flooded. We were without power for a bit over a week and without heat or hot water for a similar period of time on top of that. Buildings four blocks uptown fared worse. Debris pulled from destroyed basements or first floors littered the street. A further four blocks and cars were floating in the street as a ConEd transformer exploded as seawater rushed into the building. This was nothing compared to the Rockaway peninsula, especially to Breezy Point, where a year later parts still looked like a disaster area, some buildings still cased in plywood spray painted with the words Nothing to left to steal. To this day the aftermath is still visible, with massive shoreline protection and dune rebuilding programs underway, a race against time before the next storm where the Atlantic Ocean floods in to meet Jamaica Bay.
New research shows that something like half of extreme weather events in the past couple of years can now be attributed to climate change. No longer do writers, like myself, have to type out the words …though scientists say no one event can be attributed to climate change, models show that extreme weather events are likely in increase as the planet continues to warm. We can say with confidence, that we are witnessing the effects of climate change all around us. Most days around here you wouldn’t know it, though this fall has been particular warm. The ocean, at the beginning of November is still just above 60 degrees Fahrenheit, and on a day of good surf, there are sometimes 20 or more people competing for waves. In some ways, on a day to day basis, the warmer temperatures right now are something to enjoy.
It well may be this way for a number of years, at least here in the northeastern part of the United States. Even our winters may become more wintry over the next decade, as the atmosphere warms, allowing it to hold more moisture and therefore dump more snow, at least until temperature rises enough that the balance between snow and rain tips towards liquid rather than frozen precipitation, first in the valleys and then moving higher and higher up the mountainsides. It’s this pace of change that makes it hard sometimes to wrap your head around the magnitude of this all.
To human perception the changes we’re seeing are most often only visible in hindsight, through average measurements, from sensors and satellites, tallied in fractions of a degree. But on a geologic timescale humanity is changing the climate with unprecedented rapidity.
That really doesn’t matter to my son though, engrossed in finding good sticks in the park, wanting to water plants, pick up acorns, rocks, shells, and anything else interesting from the ground. He’s been drawn to plants from the earliest age, starting with unbridled grinning at sunflowers, and now any garden plant. He’s asked about, and now learned, all the local bird species from nearly the time his vocabulary moved beyond asking ‘more?,’ spotting robins well before I did. There’s clear biophilia in him. I have no doubt about that.
How do I tell him about what’s happening all around us? This isn’t something I need to answer now, or really even in the next couple of years. But it nevertheless weighs on me. How do you explain to someone who’s new to this what’s happening? How do you explain that our supposed best minds knew about climate change for nearly two decades before even starting to act in a meaningful way? How do you convey all of this without creating crippling inertia or hopelessness? How can I help him grow into a person who can be present in the moment — collecting sticks, looking at birds, and playing joyfully — while at the same time being aware of the bigger context in which we all now live?
Really, this is the situation we all live in, now. We are all children witnessing this for the first time. We are all learning as we go, figuring out how to walk, talk, and live on a planet whose climate and weather, are becoming fundamentally different than the ones our ancestors faced. As a parent, this is our challenge to take on. It is one that has the potential to transform us as a species, as individuals, and as societies.