I went out today and checked on my palm tree. It’s a small thing: the trunk is only about a foot from the ground, with the palmate fronds spreading out from the upper part. New fronds appear as compressed blades sticking up from the center. They have a kind of fuzz on them, like the lanugo on a newborn baby. What makes my little palm unusual is it sits in my front yard in Maple Glen, Pennsylvania, about 10 miles north of the edge of Philadelphia. It’s clearly not a native species to this area, but it is doing surprisingly well. Although we’ve had a number of nights now when the temperature dropped below freezing, including two when it dropped to about 26 degrees, the fronds are still bright green, and the shoots have continued to grow.
While the palm is pretty, and striking in its own way, standing out against the backdrop of deciduous trees that have finally shed all their leaves for the winter, it is also a little disturbing -- a harbinger of an enormous climate change that is taking place in front of my eyes.
I have good reason to believe that this little tree is going to survive our Philadelphia winter (which last year never went below 25 degrees, and then only for such short periods of time that the ground never froze below about an inch or two of soil), and that it will continue to grow where I planted it, perhaps becoming the first palm in Pennsylvania.
As I write this, negotiators are meeting in Doha, Qatar, supposedly to negotiate a treaty that will lead to serious efforts by the nations of the world to finally start reducing the release of more carbon into the earth’s already overloaded atmosphere. We hear from UN researchers that the global emissions of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere have risen by 54% between 1990 and 2011, and that by the end of this year, that number will be 58%. They were supposed to be going down over that period.
Meanwhile, the evidence that all this carbon is starting to have a snowball effect on global warming. Ice caps in both the Arctic and the Antarctic are melting, and at a faster rate than anyone was predicting even five years ago. The oceans, both as a result of that melting, and thanks to the expansion of the water itself as it warms, are showing a measurable rise, which was one of the reasons for the extraordinary damage done to New York City and the surrounding shorelines by the recent late-season super-storm Hurricane Sandy. A similar superstorm, with winds up to almost 200 mph, located further south than ever recorded in the Pacific, just tore through Mindanao in the southern Philippines. (Both storms were powered by a historically unprecedented rise in ocean surface temperatures.)
We know all this. We know that central US is experiencing a historic drought that shows no signs of easing. We know the whole globe is warming. We know that the ice at the North Pole is vanishing in summer, so that within a decade it could vanish, with the darker waters of the exposed Arctic Ocean soaking up the summer sun instead of the ice reflecting its rays, so that the heating will be even more rapid. Worst of all, we know that vast stores of methane frozen in cathrates under the Arctic Ocean and under the permafrost of Siberia, northern Scandanavia and Alaska and the Canadian north, are starting to thaw, bubbling up into the atmosphere where it is 20 times as potent a global warming gas as is carbon dioxide.
Yet the negotiators at Doha say they are making no progress. The representatives from the US are playing a negative role. Instead of taking the lead, they are reportedly throwing a wrench into the process, saying the US is “already doing all it can” to combat global warming. This as the US prepares to approve a pipeline to transport oil from Canada’s tar sands down to the lower-48 for use heating homes, fueling SUVs and other oversized gas-guzzling cars, and running generators. The truth: the US is doing next to nothing to slow the ever expanding burning of fossil fuels.
Yet the news is all about a supposed fiscal “cliff,” a totally artificial legal construct erected by Republicans hoping to extort Democrats into continuing to authorize reduced tax rates for the rich. There is little to no reporting about the real cliff, which is the climate change cliff.
The goal of limiting global heating to 3.6 degrees Fahrenheit (2 degrees Celsius) is already dead, scientists are saying. It cannot be done. Now the best that can be hoped for is to stop it at 4 degrees Celsius. That’s 7.2 degrees Fahrenheit of average global temperature rise. If we act decisively now, that dreaded change could be held off until around 2100. If we don’t act, it could happen by 2060.
If you didn’t know that, it’s because it has not been front page news.
Why not? Because corporate America doesn’t want you to think about that nightmare, and so the corporate media, which covet the advertising of corporate America, are obligingly keeping the story quiet.
Our politicians aren’t even discussing the matter. There is no leadership here. It’s all about gun rights, terrorist threats, taxes, entitlements and movie stars.
In the end, we Americans are all to blame. We continue to buy our outsized, deliberately fuel-ineffecitnt cars, to drive alone in those cars to and from work every day, to over-heat our oversized homes in winter and to over-cool them in summer, to vote for politicians who won’t trouble us with major issues and who will pander to our worst instincts. And we don’t demand that our corporate media act responsibly and tell us what we need to know, and certainly also don’t financially support those news organizations -- like this one -- that tell do tell us.
That’s all good news for my palm tree, which at least in the short term will benefit from the warmer winters and balmier summers. I may have to water it to get it through dry spells in the summer, but otherwise, all in all, global warming should be good for a tree that would ordinarily prefer to be well south of the Mason Dixon line.
But it’s not good news for the rest of us.