Our Weeping Cherry tree started to bloom on March 28, an old lady now yet still graceful. She has a voluminous floral dress spread wide from her ‘hips’ by branches like the hoops and side panniers of a woman in the court of George III. She cheekily displays through the cascade the one silvery leg she stands on. We hope she dances in the spring breeze for more years.
The same day, the National Park Service announced the famous lines of cherry trees lining the National Mall reached peak bloom. Fewer people stroll there in a pandemic year but can view them at #BloomCam. This year the blossom that celebrates beauty and grace is a brilliant contrast to the chaos and violence viewed from the Mall of the Capitol steps on January 6. But it also symbolizes the impermanence of life.
The trees were gifted to Washington DC in 1912 by the Japanese, who celebrate bloom time with spring festivals (hanami). This year the peak occurred in Kyoto on March 26, earlier than usual, as in the Mall. Bloom times have been recorded in Japan for 1,200 years. The date varied depending on when winter lost its grip, but on average stayed constant over centuries or rose slightly until the 19th century since when it has steadily advanced.
The ancient recorders of first blooms and shoots could not imagine why they should interest us today. But there are no more blazing signs of a warming planet than trees exploding in color. On March 28, Red Maple buds burst at Mechanicsburg, PA and Pawpaw at Gibsonville, NC, although Redbud is still dormant at Spring Hill, TN (already rose pink here in Williamsburg, VA). If you doubt our climate is changing, ask the trees.
I’m still reeling about our climate crisis/ emergency. We hear the urgency confirmed over and again by experts. Threats imagined far over the horizon that we thought we’d never see in our lifetime are now in plain sight (fires, inundations, etc.). This is probably the biggest shock in my life, and certainly the most momentous.
I am grappling for metaphors of how this makes me feel. I have an old memory of a day walking on the ‘downs,’ the rolling grassy hills in southern England. I headed toward a thin blue-gray line of English Channel on the horizon. The coast was far off but after an hour I had drawn close enough to see choppy waves and white caps. I was eager to watch the tide rolling over the beach and sanderlings snatching a landed morsel by pattering bravely ahead of its foamy front. Still striding on I didn’t realize I was getting close to the cliff edge. There were no cues. I stepped back with a deep breath when I almost stumbled on the precipice and giddily gazed down 300- sheer feet of crumbling white chalk.
Likewise, I feel panic about global warming, although my metaphor fails to account for how we can’t step back to resume life as usual, forgetting the brink, as I did after heading back from the downs.
I am now casting around for other memories. When did I become conscious of climate change, and when was I persuaded it was anthropogenic? I ask because people draw a line in the sand at different dates, and some still refuse to. If climate denial is a symptom of a ‘post-truth’ society, it is ironic because science marches with ever greater confidence.
When I checked the history of the greenhouse effect, I found it was known in the Victorian age. Later in the century the Swedish scientist Arrhenius (vaguely remembered from school chemistry) estimated a doubling of atmospheric CO2 would increase average global temperatures by 5°C, not a bad estimate considering the primordial state of atmospheric science. Some 30 years later, a British scientist celebrated the prospect of warming by CO2 emissions because that would improve the dreary national climate! Smog was the greater concern then, although it is evanescent compared to greenhouse gasses.
The winter of 1962-63 was so severe my igloo in our London garden didn’t melt for six weeks. No subsequent year has been so relentlessly cold. In the 1970s there was talk of planetary cooling and a new Ice Age. No more! It was a statistical blip that briefly fooled us about rising trends, like losing sight of the sea for a moment after stumbling in a rabbit burrow on the downs.
By the 1980s there was serious talk about global warming, and I became a believer. I even published my convictions in a Church of Scotland magazine in 1989, the year before the first report of the Inter-governmental Panel on Climate Change. My only satisfaction was the invitation to speak at Women’s Guild meetings at which I showed a home-made model of the greenhouse effect. It was moving to meet elderly women in the audience who worried about our human legacy for the planet; they were streaks ahead of their clergy. I can’t boast of being a pioneering activist because my lifestyle hardly changed. I thought there was plenty of time for society to adjust to a warmer world. No more!
Al Gore did a wonderful service with An Inconvenient Truth. As atmospheric science hardens, most projections in the 2006 film have been confirmed, except the timescale was not pessimistic enough. Probes to measure gases in polar ice recording the fossil atmosphere and in mud cores of ancient lakes to identify prehistoric tree pollen reveal the climate has occasionally changed abruptly in geological history. Instead of centuries or millennia, it can flip from one equilibrium state to another in a matter of decades. This is a tipping point, like a cliff that looks solid one day but tumbles into the sea the next, treacherous to the unwary stroller who thinks the edge is stable and still some way off, until he steps into air.
Greta has published a new book. Her first name is all you need to know who I mean … and even that’s unnecessary to recognize the teenager on the cover of the current Time. How predictable that when the magazine made her Person of the Year commentators divided like the fabled sea so the the Children of Israel to could pass. But her passage has been far from smooth or even safe. Many people admire her stoical mien and meteoric rise from a lonely caller for action on climate from the steps of Sweden’s parliamentary buildings to represent millions on the world’s stage. Shameless critics write ugly diatribes, doubtless without reading No One is Too small to Make a Difference (Penguin, 2019). But she joins an admirable tradition of ‘small’ people, like Emmeline Pankhurst and Mohandas Gandhi, harangued for unpopular messages before universal honor.
No matter how sincere a conviction, it is empty without a foundation. Greta earned attention by sticking to science. It is ironic that most climate change deniers are not anti-science, for they embrace its fruits (weather forecasting and electronic media, electricity and air travel, and encourage children to study STEM subjects and acknowledge the benefits of science in countless other ways). Human nature can be puzzling.
Greta writes, “unite behind the science, that is our demand.” The book assumes the authority of careful independent research since humanity has not found a better way to understand the world, make our lives easier, and conquer pain. She urges greater investment in technology for low-carbon economies, wishes for more cooperation and less competition, and hopes for environmental justice and the curbing of habitat loss. None of this is fresh thinking but a young voice must be heard for her generation will live to see how hostile the planet will turn.
The devastating effects of fire I saw recently on Notre-Dame cathedral was an apt analogy for Greta’s speech to the European Parliament. There was a more rapt response and no twitter tantrums there. She said, “I want you to act as if your house is on fire. Because it is.”