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Changing Climate, From a Naturalist's Perspective 

Janet Scott

May 27, 2019

Presented by Drew Monkman at the May 27 FFHS Meeting                                             

Sir David Attenborough once said that to communicate effectively about the natural world, he can't cloak his speeches in doom and gloom. "People simply tune you out," he said.  Drew Monkman, who spoke to the Fenelon Falls Horticultural Society on The Climate Crisis: A Naturalist's Perspective, must have known this because despite the seemingly depressing nature of his topic, he sent us into the night feeling educated, empowered, and encouraged. 

Drew's a writer, retired teacher, published author, and an engaging and informed speaker. He began by updating us on the science of climate change, saying that it's known variously as global warming, climate chaos, climate weirding, and climate catastrophe. "Am l an alarmist?" he asked. "There is a role for alarmism. Don't pussy foot around the issue." 


Carbon dioxide acts like a blanket over the atmosphere and traps heat inside it. Levels have risen from 250 parts per million to 415, with 350 being considered safe. Half that carbon has been added in the last 50 years.

Canada is warming at twice the global rate and the Arctic is warming at three times the average.

One million species are on track to disappear in the next two decades.

Severe storms, droughts, heat waves, extreme cold, rising sea levels, and climate refugees as wars are fought over water (many people streaming north to the U.S. - Mexico border were driven off their farms by lack of rain) can be expected.

The polar vortex, which keeps cold air trapped by the jet stream at the top of the world, seems to be breaking up, allowing severe cold to sink southward in the winter. It was colder in Chicago than at the North Pole at times this winter. Weather patterns can become stuck, resulting in long stretches of cold. In recent extended cold, the Great Lakes were 90 percent frozen. We're on track for more freezing rain. On the flip side, it was 17° Celsius on Christmas Eve in 2015, and 2018 saw 24 days over 30°C, when the historical average is 6 days. Seventy-five percent of recent months in Peterborough have been warmer than the 1971- 2000 average.

In records dating to 1850, seventeen of the eighteen hottest years on Earth have come since 2000. 

Drew spoke about his own reasons for concern. He's a father of four and a grandparent of six. He worries about the future his family will inherit. He sometimes despairs at the lack of meaningful action he sees and the way politicians who try to act are lambasted publicly for their efforts. He worries about complacency and denial. His wife sometimes asks him to avoid bringing climate change to the table when they have guests. Drew brought our attention as gardeners to the changes around us.  His book, Nature's Year, the result of seven years of research, showed the departures from norms.Leaves change color at different times and trees sometimes drop their leaves without color to protect themselves during droughts.Trilliums bloom earlier.Lilacs flower 10 to 14 days earlier than their one-hundred-year average.Tree and grass pollen comes earlier (pollen counts are expected to double by 2040).Migrating birds return earlier to nest.Peepers sing 10 to 20 days earlier than in 1995.Weeds like loose strife, dog-strangling vine, garlic mustard, and phragmites thrive on higher carbon dioxide levels.  Poison ivy is bigger and its oil more potent.  Ragweed makes more pollen.Southern species are being seen locally, too.  Virginia opossums, flying squirrels, Carolina wrens, and mockingbirds are appearing in places they've never been seen before.Forests and wetlands are under stress.  If, as predicted, we have the climate of southern Pennsylvania by 2070, our pines and maples are threatened.  Ashes are already in decline due to the emerald ash borer. Invasive trees like buckthorn are moving in.Turtles flee their formerly wet homes in drought and are appearing badly injured at rescue centres in greater numbers every year.The connections between plants and the pollinators they need are breaking down.Forest fires and floods resulting from "rain bombs" are more common.Seasonal rituals become unpredictable: even the ability to have an outdoor rink in Canada is less certain now. 

So, with this “greatest threat to humanity's future,” as Drew puts it, why are we unable to act?  Maybe we suffer from what he calls "optimism bias.  "Maybe the challenges seem too huge, too overwhelming.  Maybe “our brains react slowly to slow-motion change.”  Maybe we despair that our politicians can agree on anything.  Maybe we feel that actions with results two to three generations in the future are impossible. Maybe we don't understand the science.  Maybe it's easy to confuse weather and climate.  "Weather is what you get.  Climate is what you expect," says Drew.  Maybe we feel that individual efforts won't make a difference. How do we move forward at what Drew calls the 11th hour and 55th minute?  As sometimes happens, the clear, strong voice of one person can lead us.  A 16-year-old Swedish girl, Greta Thunberg, spoke for the next generation in October 2018.  "I don't want your hope," she said.  "I want your panic.  I want you to behave like our house is on fire.  Because it is." Reducing carbon output by fifty percent by 2030 and near zero by 2050 will ensure no more than 1.5°C of warming.  We're on track for 4 to 5 degrees this century.  Vote, says Drew, for candidates who propose carbon-reduction policies.  Talk about how you feel. Organize, rally, and protest. Drew belongs to an organization called 4RG (For Our Grandchildren).  Seem alarmist.  Complacency gets us nowhere.  Tell politicians we want action.  Set an example.  Be informed.  Canada is number two per capita of emissions in the world.  Countries with similar climates, like those in Scandinavia, have one third of our emissions.  Act together."The good thing about science," says astrophysicist Neil de Grasse Tyson, "is it's true whether or not you believe in it."  Drew Monkman told us about "climate despair" but as the lively discussion after his talk showed, we're ready to move beyond despair and see what we can do to help the only home we have. 

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