I like to think that, had I lived at a certain place during a certain time in 15th-century France, I would have followed Joan of Arc. That notion bothered me when I considered my initial reaction to Greta Thunberg, the 17-year-old climate leader from Sweden. Maybe because she ascribes her charism to Asperger Syndrome rather than to God. Maybe because I regarded the emotionalism ("How dare you!") of her remarks to a United Nations meeting as, well, adolescent.
Intrigued by the messenger, and recognizing that her message is essentially right, I looked online for other recordings of this selective mute's appearances. There I saw a young woman making an unadorned, unblinking appeal - highly articulate, without teleprompter and without makeup - to human reason and to human nature in a manner and with a substance that I could not dismiss.
If the threats of climate change are to be adequately met, it will be by a coldly-reasoned, steely-determined collective will - "the moral equivalent of war" to use the phrase coined by the philosopher William James and made famous by President Jimmy Carter. (Which, given our nation's nearly two decades of undeclared war in Iraq and Afghanistan, does not encourage me. In these wars we have unconscionably sent a small sliver of our population, deployment after deployment, to fight them, and we have not even had the fiscal decency to pay for these wars by raising taxes.)
If you believe deeply in something, you got to begin somewhere. Against what might have seemed all odds, the then-15-year-old Greta Thunberg did just that - by a staging a one-person strike from school in the form of a one-person sit-in at the Swedish Parliament. Sometimes, when stars and human events align, one person can spark a difference to benefit whole populations. Think of Rosa Parks refusing to sit in the back of a bus. Think of a 14-year-old girl leaving her pastoral home because a voice from God told her to go help crown a king and fight to remove usurpers from the land.
I know Greta Thunberg is right about the severity and immediacy of the threat that global warming poses to life on this planet. An unknown asteroid may be a threat too, but global warming already has a steady bearing and decreasing range upon us.
When it comes to the particulars of the weather, I acknowledge that I cannot always discern between what I would describe as Weather Channel hype and what is a real result of climate change. But I do regard as reliable the following facts gleaned from the most recent National Climate Assessment compiled by multiple federal agencies with the cooperation of the National Academy of the Sciences and from the most recent Pennsylvania Climate Action Plan sponsored by our commonwealth's Department of Environmental Protection:
In pre-industrial time (the 1750's) what we now call greenhouse gases (essentially carbon dioxide) were approximately 270 parts per million in the earth's atmosphere.
In 2018 they were determined as 408 ppm. In Pennsylvania the average temperature has risen nearly 2 degrees Fahrenheit since the early 20th century. In Pennsylvania average precipitation has increased (because warmer air can hold more water) 10% since the early 20th century. Globally sea level has risen 7 inches since 1900, with half of that increase since 1993.
It is scientifically projected that, if greenhouse gas emissions continue in a "business as usual manner," the average temperature in Pennsylvania will increase by another five degrees by 2050. Mid-century is significant. The National Climate Assessment observes that "some extreme weather and climate events have increased in recent decades, and new and stronger evidence confirms that some of these increases are related to human activities."
What the National Climate Assessment forecasts is that, unless greenhouse-gas emissions are dramatically curtailed, by 2050 the earth's average temperature will have increased so much from pre-industrial times that collective scientific opinion holds that we will have reached a point of no return in the occurrence and prevalence of sea level rise, superstorms, and crippling heat waves.
By then, it is scientifically forecasted, temperatures will continue to rise, regardless how we lessen greenhouse-gas emissions, until by the end of the century average global temperatures will have reached nine degrees Fahrenheit above pre-industrial times. This means, in order to prevent a point of no return in 2050, worldwide a 25% reduction of greenhouse-gas emission from 2005 levels is needed by 2025. And an 80% reduction in greenhouse-gas emission from 2005 levels is needed by 2050.
In Pennsylvania in 2005 we emitted some 275 million metric tons of greenhouse gas into the earth's atmosphere. To our credit by 2015 we had dropped that amount to 255 million metric tons. But to do our part in saving civilization on this planet (do you think I am engaging in hyperbole?), we need to reduce emissions to 205 million metric tons by 2025 and to 55 million metric tons by 2050.
We are nowhere near a pace to accomplish the 2025 goal, let alone the 2050 goal. A hundred years from now hopefully someone somewhere will still be writing history - perhaps a latter-day Venerable Bede. Perhaps that historian will take note of the impeachment of our ranter-in-chief president or the Democratic Party's insistence to print more money to pay for more entitlements.
But I suspect the historian will be most concerned with how we responded to climate change. Will we collectively rank with Nero fiddling while Rome is burning? Will we be compared with the proverbial frogs in hot water? Is America still a shining city on a hill? A beacon of responsibility and leadership to the world? This is the time to prove it. Meanwhile, Greta Thunberg is pointing out to us what we should already see.
Michael Hartley writes from Wayne Township.