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Living in a "world of wounds"

by Jordan Schneider

Sixty years ago, naturalist Aldo Leopold wrote that much of the damage humans inflict on the environment is invisible to those without an ecological education—that it takes knowing what a healthy environment should look like to see the “world of wounds” in which we live.

Things have changed. It doesn’t take a degree in climate science to see the impact of the gaping “wounds” global warming is opening up in our world—particularly when the impacts of climate change combine in unexpected, unpredictable and often disastrous ways.

On Friday of last week, about three feet of black, muddy water came rushing down the main avenue of my hometown of Manitou Springs, Colo., flooding shops and restaurants, destroying five houses, killing one person and injuring several others. A thunderstorm had dropped just 1.3 inches of water on the burn area of the Waldo Canyon wildfire—which until this summer was the most destructive in Colorado history—upstream from the town; and without trees to absorb the runoff, water flowed both into the creek that runs through the town and off the canyon walls, converging in a muddy mess in the heart of historic downtown.

Then, on Saturday, I spent the day at an outdoor wedding in Grand Lake, Colo., completely surrounded by a dense forest of scraggly, brittle evergreen trees that covered the normally green mountainsides in an a depressing shade of gray-brown. I had never seen beetle kill so severe, and on several occasions, I caught myself staring at it as though it were a still-unfolding train wreck. 

Fires, floods and insect infestations are just a few of the disastrous events that are likely to become more common in years to come. Emerging research, including our own, suggests that higher temperatures caused by global warming are likely to increase the frequency and intensity of extreme weather events, including drought, heat waves, extreme downpours and tropical storms. Where I live, this means more intense wildfires, more flash floods and continued destruction of the forest by pine beetles, which are now able to survive warmer winters and can breed throughout the year. Along the East Coast, it probably means more intense “superstorms” such as Hurricane Sandy; in the Midwest, it probably means more “500-year” or “1,000-year” flooding events, such as those that inundated southern New England and Tennessee in 2010. However, in these areas and in the U.S. as a whole, the full extent of the damage global warming may cause in the years ahead is difficult predict, given that climate change can affect our economy and environment in unexpected ways.

Writing about the impacts of global warming is part of my day-to-day job; but even if it weren’t, it would be hard to miss the growing number of climate-linked disasters that are affecting my community and thousands of others. It’s time for the U.S. to get serious about making the deep cuts in carbon pollution that we know are necessary to avoid the worst impacts of global warming.