Surge

A smattering of Midwestern and Northeastern American cities have posted their warmest (or one of their warmest) falls on record. But I don’t need news releases to tell me that these past few months were unseasonable.

I kept my window open at night as late as mid-October; on the 26th of that month the temperature in my corner of Connecticut reached well north of 70 degrees Fahrenheit; just after New Year’s, a forsythia bush in my parent’s backyard began to bloom. But what concerned me most was the low diurnal temperature variation—all through the fall and early winter the difference between night and day never seemed to exceed 15 degrees, which would align with one of the most well-established symptoms of a warming atmosphere.1

I could go on in this vein. Taken together, these anecdotes are nothing more than one person’s subjective experience. Admittedly, I have not performed a statistical analysis of local meteorological data. But neither am I writing a research paper. I don’t have to objectify the weather conditions of something as familiar as my lifelong home, particularly when my observations fit with what millions of other close watchers of the weather have noticed for the past half century—that something is amiss.

Throughout the unusual warmth last year, I sensed that global temperatures could be surging. It’s already well established that abrupt climate change has occurred in Earth’s past—the global temperature increased by 10 degrees Celsius in 10 years when the Younger Dryas period ended.2 Contrary to celebratory speeches from politicians, we also know that the global mean temperature is not going to stay below 1.5 degrees Celsius this century.3 My intuitive awareness of the climate is why I knew, while crossing my college campus in Upstate New York one humid fall morning in 2014, that dependably cold winters at that latitude were a thing of the past. I liked the cold, and I partly attended a college in northern New York to experience severe winters. So the realization that frigidness could no longer be assured came as a major paradigm shift. (Not long after this intuitive disclosure, researchers began confirming that the polar jet stream was becoming more erratic due to the rapidly warming Arctic.4)

A surge in climate change relates not just to temperature, but also to the oceans. By the middle of the previous decade the IPCC projected 2 feet of global SLR (sea level rise) by the end of the century, the UN predicted 3 feet for the same time period (a little less than 1 meter), while NOAA predicted an upper limit of 6.5 feet.5 Projections like these keep inching upwards as researchers better understand positive feedback loops and tipping points,6 but some climatologists still think most SLR predictions are far too low. Foremost among the contrarians is James Hansen, who surmises sea levels in 2100 will be several meters higher than what agencies are saying.7 Such large figures are not mainstream, but a number of climate scientists share similarly dire outlooks, albeit anonymously.8 We’ve even learned recently that a collapse of the Thwaites Glacier in West Antarctica could be imminent and could lead to the swift rise in sea level that Hansen foresees.9 An acquaintance has shared with me how at an international climate change conference she asked a panel of experts if “it would be possible one day to hear a public service announcement to evacuate all coastlines because a huge Antarctic ice sheet had melted quickly.” Their response: “Yes, but….” Any response to that question other than resounding ‘no’ is concerning.

Storm-tossed shoreline (Nick Fewings, Unsplash)

The point is that there’s ample evidence that abrupt climate change will happen in most of our lifetimes. It’s not surprising then that many people—politicians as well as ordinary citizens—are in denial of surging temperatures or seas, since recognizing such a possibility opens us up to grief, and grief is unpleasant. This past October 7th, I spent an afternoon struggling with grief. The daytime and projected nighttime high temperatures were both well above the historical norm, and I felt sadness for the many specialist plant and animal species that cannot adapt to the new weather regime and will therefore go extinct. As I thought of what this wave of extinction will mean locally in southern New England—no more sugar maples, hemlocks, blazing fall foliage, or a number of endemic amphibians—I also realized I was sad for the loss of the familiar, my familiar. Familiarity is how we resonate with the landscapes we call home and end up caring about the other-than-human. And all I could do was lie in bed, rest my hands on my stomach, pay attention to the rhythm of my breathing, and allow my grief to be present; this exercise literally weighed me down and kept me in bed. 

Our difficult emotions – grief, anger, disappointment, pain – are as integral to our sense of self as our joy and hope. Holding the uncomfortable allows us to alchemize leaden feelings of dread into something that does not weigh down our energy. Alchemy has never been about turning literal lead into literal gold. It’s about internal transformation. In “The Conceit of Linearity,” the idea that we can get exhilaration out of embracing nonlinearity was never adequately connected to the undeniable truth that such upheaval is already causing grief. Here I would like to establish that making space for our heavier emotions can allow us to ride the tumult of surging planetary systems while also recognizing the devastation these discontinuities are inflicting.

I am not a master at holding the uncomfortable (if you are then you are also an expert in prayer), and I did not get out of bed on October 7th with renewed energy and enthusiasm. I happened upon that presencing exercise by chance, and I have only employed it a few times since. But other difficulties in my personal life have forced me to sit with unwelcome emotions, at least unconsciously, for many years. Which might explain why I am not paralyzed with grief whenever I face the long term realities of anthropogenic global warming. Most opinion and news pieces that take seriously Hansen’s prognostications are written in listless tones that evince the authors’ private thoughts of “We’re screwed.” But such a pessimistic mindset means that one has a narrow view of what cultural transformation looks like. In the words of Bayo Akomolafe, “an immaculate straight line was never ‘there’ to begin with…The world stretches far and wide beyond our blind spots, our analyses, and our convictions about what justice looks like.”10 The aforementioned authors probably think that change is a straight line and will come in the form of the orderly, responsive legislation envisioned by Al Gore or the grand societal awakening extolled in Melissa Etheridge’s accompanying anthem “I Need to Wake Up.” In my experience of growing comfortable with grief, though, I’ve learned that “waking up” is inherently chaotic, prolonged, and potentially violent.

The tumult and isolation of cocoons is necessary for metamorphosis. Indeed, lying in bed with my hands on my stomach, just being mindful of my breathing, made it feel like my grief and anxiety formed a claustrophobic seal. But because of this practice, which I had been unknowingly doing for years, I am able to look back at the past 3 to 4 decades of scientific revelations about atmospheric warming and the resulting lack of political action not as a waste, but as a necessary part of a prolonged process.

Surging sea levels and temperatures are proxies for the other transformation Spirit is asking us to undergo in the 3rd millennium. That transformation involves grief, and abrupt climate change is only one window into our despair. The real change we must manifest is uninhibited relation to our full selves, the Earth, and – by extension – the universe. Such a task is beyond any political party. All 7.9 billion of us alive today are being asked to do internal work and know our soul grounds, which necessarily include grief, anger, pain, and disappointment. When enough of us hold the uncomfortable, then we will realize that the path to the more beautiful world our hearts desire is much more convoluted and surprising than we thought. Then we will create that more beautiful world.

(Pixaby)

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