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I’d Rather Know


About two years ago [“Let Them Eat Jellyfish,” Looking Up, Feb. 1, 2006], I pondered in this space the creepiness of an extended super-warm January thaw and what it said about the approaching days when global warming would come home to roost. It feels like much longer ago, given the multiple thaws we’ve already gotten used to having.

Not that we haven’t had genuine winter weather too. But I’ve got to say, when I overheard a dramatic weather report leading into last weekend (“The high will barely reach . . . 20 degrees!”), I couldn’t help but think, “Since when is a high of 20 in upstate New York in February something to make a fuss about?”

But of course, we are adaptable critters, and it is particularly easy to adapt our expectations away from something harsh, like cold weather.

Adapting was an important theme at the New York Farming and Climate Instability forum held at the Legislative Office Building on Jan. 30. The forum was a listening session to tell state officials how to support New York state farmers through the coming climate change, and also (unofficially) to rally support for New York State Assemblyman Felix Ortiz’s (D-Brooklyn) bill to cut carbon emissions 80 percent by 2050. You could be forgiven if you expected it to be somewhat depressing.

And indeed, much of what the keynote speaker, Dr. Cynthia Rosenzweig of NASA and the Nobel Prize-winning International Panel on Climate Change, had to say was pretty sobering. If I live to see 100, I will experience a Capital Region with a climate somewhere between Virginia (best-case scenario) and South Carolina/Georgia (we-don’t-get-our-acts-together scenario). Along the way we’ll have more droughts and more floods, as well as more pest problems (they won’t go dormant over the winter, or will emerge earlier, before their predators). We will also see problems with heat-stressed livestock that make less milk and reproduce less, apple trees that don’t get the cold dormant periods they need, and changes in the populations and timing of pollinating species. And so on.

It’s enough to make you consider moving to Canada even if we get a sane president and our Bill of Rights back. Northern Canada.

But that wasn’t actually the mood of the forum. Rosenzweig set the tone when she opened with “We are in a new phase of climate change. After 20 years of working on it, we’re in the solution phase.” She sugar-coated nothing, but focused on the twin approaches of mitigation—reducing emissions and sequestering existing carbon in the atmosphere to reduce long-term risk—and adaptation—reducing the negative effects, and, yes, making the most of the benefits of warming.

The neat thing, of course, is that such things often overlap. Sequestering carbon, as in increasing the carbon content of the soil with organic matter, is also a great way (in fact, the best and central way) to strengthen the soil and crops to withstand harsher weather and more pests. Organic, natural farming methods that have made for healthier farms and healthier food for decades now—erosion control, careful soil building instead of commercial fertilizer, planting diverse and sturdy heirloom breeds that are right for the (current) climate—are also what we need to face this new challenge.

And the farmers on the panel were already there. Unlike those of us who notice the weather in terms of how pleasant it makes it to walk down the block, farmers are intimately reliant on the weather, and didn’t need the graphs to tell them what was going down. One farmer from Orange County mentioned that when she started growing hot peppers 15 years ago people told her that she was crazy to try that in New York. She got a two-week harvest. Today she gets a six-week harvest.

As I left the LOB, I was surprised to find that I was not downcast, even though as a hot-weather-disliking person, I’d prefer the climate of Georgia to stay far away from my brisk winter walks and cool summers. Not to mention I don’t really relish having more ticks and mosquitoes interrupting my great outdoors. I think I stayed cheerful for two reasons.

First, the unknown is always scarier. Most of the activism around global warming since the 1980s has been focused on trying to get us riled up enough to prevent it, and therefore focusing on the most dramatic and global of the potential effects—drowned islands and cities, dead coral reefs. This is the first time someone broke it down and said to me “Here’s what it’ll probably look like for you, and when.” I didn’t like the answer, but I’ve always known I wouldn’t. Striving to tilt us toward the less extreme scenario feels easier to get my hands around than just trying to swat away something that seems inevitable.

The other reason is that one of the key steps toward reducing carbon emissions and adapting to the changes—relocalizing food markets—has some energy behind it, especially locally. We grow some tasty stuff ’round here, and people want more of it. I went to a meeting last month of the planning group for the 100 Mile Diet challenge, in which people try to eat entirely local food for the month of September. It was just a planning meeting, not a pep rally, but I came away feeling that it was a meeting of people who expect to succeed and who can feel momentum building in their favor. It was a very different feeling from most activist gatherings.

There’s a long way to go, to be sure. But if anything can pass policy this ambitious and effect behavior changes this big, optimism, regional pride, and good food are some good bets.

—Miriam Axel-Lute

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