Rainy, humid weather has hung over Vermont for weeks, a weird and anomalous concoction of low pressure, high pressure, moisture from the south, storms from the west, all creating a monsoonlike tropical inundation that has flooded roads and farm fields and tested the flexibility of wedding planners and parade-goers.
Around central Vermont, Williamstown residents woke up to shocking devastation on Tuesday; Roxbury, Northfield, Brookfield and Braintree also saw damage caused by rushing water that carved out roads and caused flooding.
Anomalous weather has become the norm, a contradiction the changing climate has forced upon us. May and June were the wettest May and June in Vermont history. Indeed, records have been falling everywhere for years — record drought, record heat, record rainfall, record snow. The wildfires in the West have been fed by dry conditions created by years of drought. The low levels of reservoirs there threaten the future viability of cities such as Las Vegas and Phoenix. In Vermont it’s a good year for mushrooms.
The connection between anomalous weather and climate change is now widely understood. The idea was gaining acceptance at the time of Hurricane Katrina, and that was eight years ago. The psychology of climate change has received less attention.
Bad weather is nothing new; people have endured flood and drought forever. But these tribulations created a different psychological effect before the era of climate change. Long ago people associated nature with the gods. People spoke of respecting the power of nature. Nature was not always benign, but there was a given, unchallengeable quality to it that could be viewed as sacred. Creation is what we called it, which implied an all-powerful creator. The effect of this view of creation was to engender a sense of humility, respect and wonder among people who understood they had to make do with what they were given.
The psychological effect is different now that we understand human beings have had a hand in transforming the workings of nature. Bill McKibben’s seminal work, “The End of Nature,” was noteworthy because it was one of the first books to focus attention on the fact of climate change. But what of that peculiar title? McKibben was speaking about the end of nature as a presence and a power independent of mankind’s interference. What is happening now is not the work of nature alone, but also the work of man.
The psychological implications of that difference are profound, fostering social, cultural and political division among people struggling to come to terms with the changes. That mankind has done this to the planet creates a deep sense of unease, anger, regret and sorrow. Those unwilling to admit to these feelings may respond with hostility against those who would assign blame for what we have wrought.
Indeed, blame is so broad as to be meaningless. It would include the inventor of the steam engine. It would include everyone who drives a car. The point is not to indict people or nations, but to recognize reality and to respond in a way that is respectful of mankind and respectful of the planet.
In taking concrete steps to respond to climate change, political leaders encounter fierce resistance from vested interests — the coal and oil industries in particular. The political battle will necessarily be fierce. President Obama, blocked by Republicans in Congress in the grip of vested interests, has lately taken bold steps to cut down on the carbon emissions from power plants. Previously, he had acted to curb emissions from motor vehicles.
These are inevitable battles, which will be won, gradually, if the public demands that policymakers free themselves of the hold of big money. Even the Pentagon and the insurance industry are planning for the changing climate.
It will be a great challenge for the coming generations to confront the psychological toll exacted by the knowledge that the disasters caused by the changing climate have a human cause without getting mired in bitterness and recrimination, instead keeping in mind the beauty of the planet and the good of its human inhabitants. Mankind, of course, is part of nature. There can be joy in turning our ingenuity toward respectful stewardship of the world of which we are a part.
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