Monday, January 09, 2006

Talking About the Weather Is Talking About Us

A few days ago in Bloomington we had odd weather. It became dark as night at 2:00 PM, began thundering, and then rained in buckets, the kind of absolutely drenching down pour that will soak you to the skin in less than half a minute. That's not the unusual part; rains like that happen in Indiana during the late summer regularly. What was unusual was that it was in winter.

Now, I know, the plural of anecdote is not data. But I do believe the data, from all sorts of places in the world, that finds global warming to be a real phenomenon, beyond a reasonable doubt. And I find the preponderance of evidence indicates that human activity (releasing carbon dioxide) is the reason. (Note the certainty level on the second statement is rather lower than on the first). (The graph shows tree-ring data from Mongolia, gathered by the Tree-Ring Lab at the Lambert-Doherty Earth Observatory.) And the pattern is clear: winter temperatures have risen by several degrees. Unfortunately for those hoping for saving the earth in three easy steps, I also believe that the Kyoto protocol is pretty much useless, and if implemented would result in a recession or depression without much reducing the scale of carbon emissions. And I believe if the US had a Democratic president and a Democratic Senate the chance of the US actually ratifying it are about the same as the chance of the European Union or Japan actually following it: that is, zero.

But somehow, thunderstorms in mid-winter is something I just don't seem to recall in the past. I don't want to become a "blame all bad weather on President Bush" type, but yes, my gut impression is that the weather is really changing, in ways that make me nostalgic and anxious. Or am I just projected my worry about social change?

In the summer of 1997, when I was in Mongolia, a bunch of friends and I were going to hike in the Bogd Uul park south of the capital Ulaanbaatar to find a cave in which the Jibzundamba Khutugtu, the blind Tibetan cleric who became Mongolia's last khan in 1911, used to meditate. As we passed by the city square, where a lot of oldsters hung around and played chess and gossiped, my friends wanted (as a kind of camp joke) to ask one of the men there, who did divination by coins, to divine the success of our enterprise. I forget what he said, and in any case we never found the cave, but somehow the topic got on weather. Now Mongolia had great weather in the early 1990s that helped out a bit in the serious crisis of the transition: warm winters that kept the coal fired power plants from breaking down under the strain and promoted a rapid rise in the number of livestock. But a year ago in 1996, the youth-oriented, libertarian-style Democratic Coalition finally beat the more old-school, statist Mongolian People's Revolutionary Party. The oldster who was doing the coin divination didn't seem like a fan and he announced what many other conservative (in the small c- , temperament sense) oldsters in Mongolia had told me, that since 1990 (the year of the democratic transition), "the winter isn't winter and the summer isn't summer." Was a genuine impression, or a projection of his feeling that somehow the democratic transition, openness, influx of western ideas and habits (many good, some bad), had made Mongolia no longer really Mongolia? It has long been a trope of Mongolians that their climate is special because it has "four seasons" sharply distinguished (I don't know quite where they got the idea that this is unique to Mongolia, but anyway they believe it), and for most oldsters, national identity is bound up with the idea of a powerful and paternal state that was vanishing. I got the impression that for them, the weather turning bad was a cosmic reflection of the decline of human nature.

This is an old idea: that when human life is out of balance, when wicked rulers are in power, then heaven will respond with disasters. (Indeed the Democratic Coalition got voted out in 2000 in part because of the massive snow-falls or zud that killed millions of livestock. God may not be a Republican or Democrat but in Mongolia He seems to vote MPRP.) Greeks and Romans believed it, Chinese believed it, Luther believed it, and the Puritans believed it (as you can read in this great book). If one wishes to find a way in which science has changed our world, the abolition of the idea that natural events reflect human rule would be a good place to start.

But what science has taken away, science is giving back. We might smile when we read that the birth of a deformed animal is a sign that the emperor is evil, or that the covenant community is in declension. But isn't the discourse of global warming today permeated by the idea that Nature must be responding to the rule of The Tyrant (George Bush, of course) with natural disasters? Count me out from that claim. But I wonder if global warming, as a whole, is not in some sense a sign of "Life out of balance," of a process of change that keeps on pulling us away from our past.