Mike Tidwell (Zaire 1985-87) Saving Our Planet One Op-Ed at a Time

[This piece entitled “A climate-change activist prepares for the worst” was in the Washington Post Outlook Section on Friday, February 25, 2011. It was written by Mike Tidwell (Zaire 1985–87) who is executive director of the Chesapeake Climate Action Network, and author of The Ponds of Kalambayi: An African Sojourn, newly re-released. Sarge Shriver called The Ponds the best  Peace Corps memoir ever written.]

A Climate-Change Activist Prepares for the Worst

Ten years ago, I put solar panels on my roof and began eating locally grown food. I bought an energy-efficient refrigerator that uses the power equivalent of a single light bulb. I started heating my home with a stove that burns organically fertilized corn kernels. I even restored a gas-free lawn mower for manual yardwork.

As a longtime environmental activist, I was deeply alarmed by new studies on global warming, so I went all out. I did my part.

Now I’m changing my life again. Today, underneath the solar panels, there’s a new set of deadbolt locks on all my doors. There’s a new Honda GX390 portable power generator in my garage, ready to provide backup electricity. And last week I bought a starter kit to raise tomatoes and lettuce behind barred basement windows.

I’m not a survivalist or an “end times” enthusiast. When it comes to climate change, I’m just a realist.

I haven’t given up the cause. I still work overtime to promote clean energy, and I take solace when top climate scientists say we can still avoid the worst effects of global warming if we move quickly. It’s just that, well, we’re running out of time.

The proof is everywhere — outside my front door, in my neighborhood, on the news. After a decade of failure to address climate change at the national and international levels, our weather has gone haywire. In the Washington region alone, in barely a year, we’ve annihilated all records for snow accumulation, we’ve seen appalling power outages associated with year-round thunderstorms, and we’ve experienced the hottest summer in the 140 years we’ve been measuring. Winston Churchill’s oft-quoted warning on the eve of World War II now applies directly: “The era of procrastination, of half-measures, of soothing and baffling expedients, of delays, is coming to its close. In its place we are entering a period of consequences.”

Those consequences explain the generator in my garage and why I’m reinforcing my basement windows to protect emergency supplies.

This may seem like a stunt, or a sign that this frustrated environmentalist has finally lost it. But I’m not crazy. Just wait. The mega-storms and social disruptions on the horizon will be the best proof of that.

It wasn’t the wildfires that blackened much of Russia last summer that led me to buy my portable generator, nor the unspeakable rains in Pakistan that inundated nearly a quarter of that country. It was the one-two punch of thunderstorms that blew through the D.C. area on July 25 and Aug. 12 of last year. The first storm, with wind gusts of 90 mph, knocked out power to 400,000 people and generated a wave of lightning that, by a freak tragedy, killed my friend Carl Henn at a community picnic in Rockville.

The second storm hit while I was in the parking lot of a TV station in Northwest Washington, about to be interviewed about Arctic ice melt. Suddenly, darkness overcame us, and it became midnight at 8 a.m. The street lamps flickered on. Cars turned on their headlights. And I saw the largest, darkest, windiest thunderstorm I’d ever seen, approaching from the west. I whipped out my cellphone and called my wife in Takoma Park. “Go to the basement now!” I said. Inside the TV studio, I watched the anchors switch to a live report about apartment dwellers trapped by a massive fallen oak as the first of more than 100,000 homes began to lose power. Houses across the area were ripped open by wind and crashing tree trunks.

Throughout 2010, my neighborhood lost power more times than I can remember. This included blackouts during the “Snowmageddon” storms, of course, when Washington traded in sidewalks for white trenches and roads for deep canyons. And yes, major snowfall events are increasing in the eastern United States even as the planet warms, according to data from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

It makes sense, too. We’re not setting records for average low temperatures, after all. Not even close. We’re setting records for precipitation intensity across a huge swath of America, in summer and in winter. A warmer atmosphere evaporates more water from oceans and lakes. And what goes up must come down. Last year was the wettest year on record worldwide, NOAA announced last month. That’s what’s driving the snow extremes — while the mercury rises.

After the August storm, I made the financially painful decision to buy the Honda generator. My solar panels, by themselves, can’t power my home. I spent $1,000 on the generator, money that would have gone into my 13-year-old son’s college fund. I’ve expanded my definition of how best to plan for his future.

On the security side, it was the global food riots of 2008 and 2010 that led me to replace the 50-year-old locks on all my doors last fall. I’m not normally the paranoid type, but when extreme weather alternately baked and flooded wheat fields in Australia and Russia, helping to jack up grain prices more than 40 percent worldwide and leading hungry people to protest from Mexico to Mozambique to Serbia, I took notice. After all, the many climate effects we’re already seeing — massive wildfires, bigger hurricanes, astonishing Arctic ice melt — all result from just 1.2 degrees of planetary warming since 1900. Now scientists at the U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change say the planet could warm another five degrees by the end of this century.

If that happens, Iowa is done for. Corn and wheat will wither and die on a scale never before seen. That’s because heat-triggered mega-droughts will intensify across much of America’s “continental interior” regions, scientists say, as flooding increases elsewhere. Iowa and much of the Heartland will resemble a scrub desert.

How will we feed ourselves adequately if our breadbasket is a desert? Answer: We won’t, and there will be social unrest as a result. How much is anyone’s guess, but people don’t sit still when food gets scarce. Indeed, when the options are extreme hunger or pillaging the neighboring village, history tends to favor pillaging.

So I even took my first-ever lesson in firearms use last December, an introduction to skeet shooting. I told myself it was in part for sport, but I did it mostly to test various types of shotguns for eventual purchase. I’m fundamentally a pacifist, and I’m not planning to join the Earth Liberation Front or some such militia. Eco-crazies who sabotage Hummers and burn suburban-sprawl homes are just that: crazy. I coach Little League and go to church on Sundays and contribute to a 401(k). I’m normal. But wouldn’t even a level-headed person want to be ready to defend his family if climate chaos goes to the max?

My wife and son, meanwhile, have obviously noticed the changes I’m making around the house. My son, when not focused on his iPod or skateboard, thinks the Honda generator is cool and wants to be the one to yank the pull-cord starter during the next storm. And my wife, God bless her, accepts the truth about what’s happening to our planet. She knows we have to prepare.

My actions may seem alarmist to just about everyone else, I realize. And if you think so, I can’t really blame you. I’d be confused about climate change, too, if I got most of my information from the half-asleep news media, much less the committed disinformers at Fox News and the Heritage Foundation. Virginia Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli’s witch hunt targeting a climate researcher at the University of Virginia? The “climate-gate” e-mail flap  in Britain, which doubters said proved scientific malpractice? These scandals are trivial, irrelevant and depressing beyond measure. They delay collective action to solve the problem — and they hasten my desire to prepare for the worst.

But here’s a question for Cuccinelli and other skeptics: Why would private insurance companies lie about climate change? Already, Allstate has stopped selling new homeowners’ policies in coastal Virginia and Maryland because the warming Atlantic Ocean is bringing larger hurricanes to the region. And Munich Re, one of the largest insurance companies in the world and a leader in drawing attention to the role of carbon emmissions in driving global warming, announced in January that weather-related disasters soared in 2010, providing “further indications of advancing climate change.”

Those still unimpressed should just hang on — more is on the way. Surely we can all admit that the weather’s been strange lately, that we’ve heard our friends and neighbors utter the words “I never saw that before” with increasing regularity. Four or five power outages in a year? The Jan. 26 traffic disaster, when staggering masses of Washingtonians were stuck on flash-frozen roads for hours and hours and hours? Wildfires in February shutting down highways? Never seen any of those before.

Anecdotal, you might say — so let me predict a few more anecdotes. Our trees are going to keep falling in ways we’ve never seen before. Our streets are going to flood. Our neighborhood bridges will wash out. Our roofs will sag from freak snowstorms and bake from unimaginable heat. And our power will keep going out, no matter how many “service improvements” Pepco makes. We’ve waited too long to avoid all this.

That I already understand it just means I’ve probably gotten a better price for my backyard generator than you will once the rush starts.

Sure, sometimes I wonder if doing all this sends the wrong message — if talk of barred windows and home generators undermines the message of positive social action needed to combat climate change. But if we’re honest, we have to admit that we’ve already lost a significant part of the battle. I only hope that this realization can shock and motivate us to push harder for wind farms, electric cars or other solutions that are still possible.

In his new book, “Eaarth,”  the great nature writer Bill McKibben purposely misspells the name of our planet because that old planet no longer exists; the once-dependable seasons and crop-nourishing rains that gave rise to human civilization are gone. McKibben worries about security, about “fighting other adult males over the fall harvest,” as he puts it, even as he emphasizes the plausible goal of creating locally self-sufficient economies that can help us survive climate change. Life will be more difficult in this new world, McKibben admits. But life has been difficult for humans for most of our history, and somehow our ancestors pushed on.

So that’s what I’m doing. I’m pushing on. I’m adjusting. Ten years ago, I put solar panels on my roof as an act of love for the planet. Now I’m making new changes, focused on my immediate loved ones. The era of consequences, at every conceivable level, has entered our world.

Ready or not.


Mike Tidwell is executive director of the Chesapeake Climate Action Network.

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