Sunday, July 30, 2017
Denying the Undeniable
The most stunning thing about the Icefields Parkway is how far off the road one has to walk to see any ice.
It's a spectacular drive up Canada's spine. Heading north from Lake Louise, the highway climbs steadily up to a World Heritage Site, the Athabasca Glacier, an icefield that empties into three oceans (Pacific, Atlantic, and Arctic). As recently as the 1980s, summer drivers would've needed sunglasses for much of the route, as the glacier would've come right up to the road, and much of it is still closed in the winter. That's not the case anymore: as we saw on our way north two days ago, the glacier has retreated drastically. In fact, since 1892, when the first measurements were taken, the Athabasca has receded almost a mile. Reaching the ice now involves driving a half mile off the road, then climbing a steep trail. Along the way, one passes markers that show the former extent of the ice.
Interpretive signs on the trail make no bones about why visitors are looking at gravel rather than ice as they climb: climate change is causing the glacier to shrink at a frightening rate, endangering the fragile alpen ecosystem. The cause is unmistakable: human beings and their dependence on fossil fuels.
As I read these signs, which did not tell me anything I didn't already know, the most striking thing about them to me was that they even existed. They weren't put up by activists, after all, but by Canada's national park service. This told me that teaching about climate change and its human cause is official policy of the Canadian government. There's no silliness about the science being controversial: this creeping catastrophe is real, it's our fault, and here's a national park dedicated to teaching visitors the truth.
There were many things that caused my jaw to drop during that drive--it's the most spectacular road trip I've ever taken--but the biggest surprise was the simple existence of those interpretive signs. I've gotten so inured to the steady stream of climate denial from Washington that it was a breath of mountain-fresh air to see such solemn, sensible messages coming from Ottawa. There's no silliness about taking a snowball into the legislative chamber as proof that climate change is made up. It's plain to see: where once there was ice, now there is rubble.
Seeing it led me to speculate that the National Park Service of my own country may find itself constrained from speaking the same truth, and to wish I could hop down to Glacier National Park to see if the signs at Logan Pass tell anything like a similar story. I haven't been to Glacier since 1993, but I've read that many of the park's namesake icefields have shrunken to the point of nonexistence. Just to see what the NPS is saying, I went to Glacier's website, where I found carefully worded statements about the reality of climate change, acknowledging that it is wholly natural for temperatures to rise and fall, but that the extreme increases being experienced now have to be attributed to human-caused increases in atmospheric carbon dioxide levels. I was pleased to find the science was still there in those official statements, but I couldn't help wondering how long it would take the White House to strip them away.
I'd like to think there's no denying that this is happening to our world: each successive summer sets new temperature records, planes are grounded in Phoenix, heatwaves send Portlanders on a quest for the air conditioning they never used to need, and yes, now one has to drive and walk nearly a mile to see a glacier that used to come right up to the highway even in late July. Unfortunately, we now have a President who denies reality on a daily basis, making ridiculous claims about vote tallies, inauguration attendance, legislative accomplishments, crime statistics, climate change, and, most recently, the effects his signature health care abomination would have on the country's general welfare were it to pass--not to mention the ability of his Senatorial minions to get it the 50 votes it needs.
Donald Trump lives in his own reality, a money-buffered reality that never has to care about the collateral damage brought on by his destructive policies. He's the living, breathing embodiment of the old joke, "Ready, Fire, Aim!" He sees one of his favorite celebrity windbags promulgating a policy on Fox News, pulls his phone out of his pocket, and Tweets it into a decree. Since taking office, the ethos of his regime has been that of Julius Caesar's ghost: to "cry havoc, and let slip the dogs of war." His Cabinet appointments have, for the most part, engaged in the work of dismantling the agencies they head up, resetting decades of progress back to the days when robber barons dictated national policy. His foreign policy has eschewed the delicacy with which even hawkish administrations dealt with hostile nations, blundering a trail of ruffled feathers and broken relationships across the globe. His White House is in chaos, a shifting tapestry of back-biting, leaks, and threats. Both he and his closest loyalists dish out constant threats, most of them empty, against any who do not fall in line.
It's easy to be swept up in the maelstrom, being blown from one scandal to the next, shocked and offended by the statements, terrified by the possibility that this nonsense will become reality. And some of it may, and already has: immigrants to America, even those with proper documentation, have come under greatly increased scrutiny, government sanctioned harassment, and a far higher incidence of deportation. And the US has pulled out of the Paris climate agreement.
But stop for a moment and look at what hasn't happened: despite one-party government, Congress could not pass the ACA repeal. Across America, local governments, state governments, and even corporations have announced that, no matter what Trump's climate policies may be, they're not altering their plans for emission reduction and alternative energy sources; and all the other nations in the Paris agreement are not only staying in, but are likely to exceed its goals. Trump is finding that, no matter how rich you are, no matter how important your office may be, telling a frog to jump won't make it do that.
Don't get me wrong: Trump Nation is a scary place to live. Thinking about the Athabasca, I have to say that "glacial pace" has new meaning for me, and there's nothing comfort about saying that's the rate at which climate change is happening. Glaciers are shrinking fast, summers are getting hotter, sea levels are rising, and the President is denying all of it. His idiocy may be nakedly obvious to the rest of the world, but in his own eyes, he's dressed in the finest of raiment.