Wayne O'Leary

Rime of a Not-So-Ancient Mariner

You don’t need to be Al Gore to know something is not right with our weather. Climate-change scoffers and global-warming deniers can bloviate to their hearts’ content; it doesn’t change science or reality.

There’s plenty of denial in my neck of the woods. Last winter’s abundant snowfall cheered the anti-environmentalist Gore haters. They failed to notice, however — or, perhaps, didn’t want to notice — that the snow was different; it wasn’t the light, dry, powdery variety common during Maine winters, but heavy, wet snow laden with water — the kind I remember from my Massachusetts childhood.

Heavy, sticky snow verging on sleet means warmer temperatures, and Maine winters have been becoming milder, more like winters in southern New England. Snow used to fall in Maine and stay on the ground all winter. Now, like areas to the south, it falls and, before long, melts, producing a slushy mess.

But it’s summer weather that really tells the tale about where we’re heading. I’m a small- boat sailor, with some years’ experience knocking around the immediate coastline in what used to pass for the “warmer” months. (This is Maine we’re talking about, after all.) Now it really is warm.

Not that many years ago, summer sailing in Maine meant you brought along some supplemental outerwear. A good, long-sleeved flannel or canvas shirt wasn’t a bad idea, even in July and August. I’ve rarely needed mine for at least three or four seasons and counting.

Getting underway — rowing out, hoisting sails, dropping the mooring — used to be pleasant work; lately, it’s often a perspiration-drenched chore. The anchorage this year was over 80 degrees on several occasions. Luckily, it was cooler offshore.

There are people that like these conditions — the motorboat crowd (stinkpotters to the sailing fraternity), for instance, who use their craft as high-speed mobile platforms for sunbathing. These folks, who go to sea in bathing suits, rejoice that Maine is becoming more tropical each year. Of course, once ashore, they retreat to energy-consuming air-conditioned homes, something unheard of Downeast 20 or 30 years ago, when few Maine dwellings (or automobiles) came equipped with artificial cooling; it wasn’t needed beyond a week or two at the height of the summer.

Something else is happening along the Maine coast. As I sit here, the latest Caribbean hurricane is working its way up the Atlantic. (No sailing this weekend!) Projections are it will hit Nova Scotia or Newfoundland. Bad luck for the Canadians; good luck for us. But we’re past due. Both last year and the year before, major late-summer storms, heretofore uncommon, closely skirted our area, producing torrential rain, extreme winds, and high seas that damaged some boats and sent a few ashore.

Meteorologists say we are entering a new era of increased and more intense hurricane activity. September, which used to be a carefree sailing month, is now a time of watchful waiting and some anxiety for boat owners. Decisions about when to haul out for the season revolve around extended weather forecasts and attempts to outguess Mother Nature.

One thing more. Wind, the sailor’s friend, has become unpredictable. The dependable and unchanging moderate southwesterlies of years past have been replaced by unstable conditions that alternate between strong breezes accompanied by rough seas and windless flat calms that conjure up Coleridge’s line about “a painted ship upon a painted ocean.” Man fooled with Mother Nature, and now Mother Nature is fooling with man.

Even wildlife is being affected. This summer, for the first time in memory, great white sharks were reported off Cape Cod, close enough to get our attention. Great whites, which normally prefer tropical or temperate climes, are being drawn north into formerly inhospitable waters in search of food. The Maine coast is the home of abundant colonies of delectable (to sharks) harbor seals, and its traditionally cold waters are warming — by as much as 5 to 10 degrees in some places, say local lobstermen. The seals that faithfully follow our boat each summer may soon be followed by something else.

Politically, such changes have begun to generate a slow, agonizing reassessment among conservatives, who have belittled the notion of global warming for years. The more perceptive and rational of them, those not totally consumed by their hatred for liberals or environmentalists, recognize that the climate issue will have to be addressed in some fashion. It’s going to be a steep learning curve, however. Witness Mitt Romney’s snide and sarcastic rising-oceans comment in Tampa about President Obama’s foolish desire to heal the planet - - an obvious attempt to pander to the know-nothing GOP base.

To date, the default position of conservatives is to grudgingly admit there is something going on we can call “climate change,” but to deny that man has anything whatever to do with it. In the anti-science belief system of fundamentalist Christian conservatives, which today means most Republicans, climate change is part of God’s plan; if it’s hot, that’s because he wants it to be hot. This is held distinct from “global warming” (the actual cause of climate change), a secular concept conservatives reject, because it seems to elevate man over God by implying human beings can halt or reverse the process.

In drawing a distinction between climate change and global warming, GOP fundamentalists are allied with GOP corporate interests in an awkward marriage of convenience. To admit the existence of global warming and undertake to deal with it means companies, as well as individuals, must change the way they do things — companies by ending business as usual (e.g. not polluting), individuals by altering their lifestyles (e.g. not wasting energy). This will be a hard sell, and Republicans, both in the boardroom and farther down the pecking order, will resist every step of the way.

President Obama and the Democrats at least recognize the problem. Though it would be unrealistic to expect them to focus on it extensively in the 2012 campaign, given demands for economic growth and the insistent clamor for jobs, we can hope (and assume) it’s on their to-do list for 2013 and beyond. In the meantime, keep that warm-weather apparel handy.

Wayne O’Leary is a writer in Orono, Maine, specializing in political economy. He holds a doctorate in American history and is the author of two books.

From The Progressive Populist, November 1, 2012



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