A Climate Carol
2018, High School, Prose
Carl had just finished breakfast when the storm started. It had wasted no time opening with a light drizzle, but jumped directly into the torrential downpour portion of the event. Carl placed his dirty plate into the sink, turned on the hot water to let the plate soak, and shuffled into the empty living room that had grown dark from the overwhelmingly large clouds up above. He pulled the chain on the small, ornate lamp in the corner of the otherwise bleak room, but no light came on. Carl unscrewed the lightbulb, shook it, and heard the quiet rattling from inside signifying the time for replacement. Carl slowly placed it on the table and shuffled to the back of the house. He opened the door to the basement, where he kept the extra light bulbs, and descended down the steps.
At first, Carl stared blankly at the water on the floor. He didn’t know where it was coming from, but it was already about a foot deep—and rising. In the 50 years he’d lived in the house and the ten he’d lived in it alone, there had never been any flooding. He began to climb back up the stairs to find the plumber’s telephone number he had written down somewhere—he would know what to do. Carl got to the top of the stairs, turned the knob of the basement door, and pushed. “Stuck,” he mumbled under his breath. He pushed again. And again. And again. He looked back down to the bottom of the steps—the water was already up to about one-and-a-half feet deep—and still rising.
When the water reached two-and-a-half-feet deep, Carl gave up pushing. His heart began to beat slightly faster as he watched the surface of the water continuing to move closer to him with no sign of slowing down. He looked around the basement and located the axe in the corner, with the top of the handle sticking up out of the water. He looked back at the wooden door that wouldn’t budge. There was no other choice. He took off his slippers, rolled up his pants legs, and dipped his toes into the cold water. As he got to the bottom step, with the water already covering most of his legs, he felt the sharp prick of a splinter in his foot, which came from the unfinished wooden steps. Catching him off guard, he spastically moved his foot away and lost his balance. He crashed into the water, getting some in his eyes and mouth. A pang shot through his body as he splashed around, trying to get back up. Once he finally stood upright, his back hurt to the extent that he had to crawl back onto the steps to sit down. He could only make it to the third step, which meant that, as he sat, the water was up to his stomach. For the first time since he had been living alone, Carl felt helpless.
A knock came at the door. “Plumber!” exclaimed the voice. In his excitement, Carl forgot that he had never gotten a chance to call a plumber. He yelled for the plumber to open the door and come help him up. The plumber responded, “You know, you shouldn’t just leave the hot water in your sink running all day to clean your dishes.” Getting anxious as the water began to reach his ribs, Carl demanded that the plumber open the door. He also made it clear that it was none of the plumber’s business how he washes his dishes.
“See, that’s the problem,” said the plumber. “It is my business. It’s all of our businesses. When you waste electricity to heat the water like that, you’re just contributing to global warming.”
Carl did not want to be talked to about global warming. Frankly, he told the plumber, he didn’t “give a rat’s ass.”
“Well that’s too bad,” said the plumber, “because I’m not going to open this door until you do. I’m not just here to help save you, Carl; I’m here to help you save everyone else. As the water rises, you’ll be visited by three ghosts who will hopefully get you to want to turn off that faucet. Good luck, Carl.”
Carl started to get up to give the plumber a piece of his mind, but the pain in his back was so strong that he had to sit back down. He winced and shut his eyes.
When Carl opened his eyes, he was in the backseat of a car driving down the highway. He looked around, confused, and saw that the driver was his old work buddy. He asked his friend what was going on, but the friend did not respond. “He can’t hear you, Carl,” said a man who suddenly appeared next to him. The man explained, “I’m the Ghost of Climate Past, Carl. I’m here to show you some of the many things you’ve done to contribute to global warming. See your friend right here? He’s driving alone because you refused to drive with him to work. Twenty years ago, he told you it would help the environment to carpool, and you told him that you’d rather not interact with more people than you have to. So you both drove alone to work every day after that. You hurt both the environment and his feelings, Carl.”
Before Carl had any time to defend himself, they were suddenly transported to his empty house. “This is that same day,” said the Ghost of Climate Past. “You have just left for work. Do you notice anything strange, Carl? I do. All the lights are on. Every day until you retired, you left the lights on when you left for work so your house would not be dark when you got home. That same friend who you refused to drive with suggested that you buy timers to make the lights come on in the evening, but you told him it was too much work. Do you know how much electricity you were wasting, Carl?”
Carl was looking around at his house with the ornate lamp sitting in the exact same place, this time lit. He asked the ghost how these tiny actions had anything to do with global warming. The ghost responded, “Don’t you see, Carl? These actions add up. Driving two cars instead of one every day. Wasting electricity on lights in an empty house every day. These are just two examples of the things that you have done to increase carbon dioxide emissions. The sun’s energy warms the Earth, and some of it is radiated back in the form of infrared waves. More carbon dioxide in the atmosphere means more of that energy being trapped, Carl (Gore). You can’t tell me you are in favor of this?”
Carl said of course he wasn’t, but rather he simply did not care about whether or not “some kid” 10,000 years in the future would not get as many snow days.
“Global warming isn’t just affecting the future, Carl. It’s affecting the present.” Suddenly, Carl was standing on basement steps—but it wasn’t his basement. Now there was a woman standing next to Carl.
“Recognize this basement?” she asked. “This is your brother’s house right now. I’m the Ghost of Climate Present, here to show you that global warming isn’t just a problem for the future. See your brother and his wife sitting at the bottom of the steps? He’s trying to console her because all their wedding photos were down here. The water got to every last one. I believe you were in some of those photos. They were the last photos of you and your brother getting along before the fight. He cherished those photos, Carl.”
Carl was not heartless. He said that he felt bad for the couple, but it was a flood. And floods just happen. “They do happen, Carl. But they’re happening even more now. Along the East Coast, where your brother is, water only reached flood levels about five times a year before 1971. Since 2001, it happens about 20 times a year. That’s because the sea level is rising, Carl. It’s five to eight inches higher than it was in 1900. In the 2,000 years before that, it barely changed at all (Frost). And guess what all this is a result of? That’s right, Carl: global warming. When the sea level rises, it’s because of two factors: warmer waters causing the molecules to expand, and melting land ice that’s going into the ocean (US Department of Commerce). Carl, your brother and his wife are just one example of people being deeply affected by what is simply called ‘nuisance flooding.’ The water rises during a storm and ends up flowing through the streets on land. Everyone around him in his coastal neighborhood is feeling the effects, and this will only happen more often (US Department of Commerce).”
At this point, Carl was speechless. He watched as his brother rubbed his wife’s shoulder while she stared at her ruined basement, wiping away tears.
The next thing he knew, Carl was standing on a roof of a two-story house. He looked
around and saw what no one ever would ever want to see. Everywhere he looked, there were
battered houses, some barely recognizable, all surrounded by deep, still water.
“A hurricane,” said the man next to Carl. It was the Ghost of Climate Yet-To-Come, and they were in the year 2100. Carl asked where they were. “It doesn’t matter—this could be any coastal town. Look around, Carl. Sad, isn’t it?”
Carl grunted and exclaimed that it was useless to be shown an empty town after a type of storm that’s been happening for hundreds of years.
“That’s just it, Carl. This town isn’t empty. It’s now haunted by the men and women, boys and girls, who lost their lives during this hurricane. Many of them drowned, Carl—in their cars and even in their very own homes. And this type of storm that’s been ‘happening for hundreds of years’ killed so many people because of humans’ actions in the last century. Since 2013, the sea level was expected to rise between 0.5 and 1.2 meters, depending on how much carbon dioxide everyone added to the atmosphere (Mann & Kump). Well, guess what? The rise was much closer to 1.2 meters. Everyone saw climate change as a problem of the future—it would be bad, but they would never have to worry about it. So they all continued their daily lives with no regard for the atmosphere: overusing hot water, leaving on lights, and driving more than they needed to. And now here we are.”
Carl was stunned. Here we are? What did the ghost mean? “Well, a higher sea level makes storm surges more destructive, which is exactly what happened here. Remember Hurricane Sandy? Sea level rise alone added 25 square miles of flooded area (Mann & Kump). And that was 88 years away from where we are now.”
Carl’s legs grew weak, and he fell to his knees. He couldn’t help but look at each house, wondering what lifeless bodies could be floating inside—because of people like him. Suddenly, the entire world around him seemed lifeless, with not a dash of hope left in the air. For the first time in ten years, Carl began to cry.
When Carl opened his eyes back in his basement, the water was up to his neck. Despite the soreness in his back, he got up and began to crawl up the steps. “I get it now!” he exclaimed at the plumber on the other side of the door. “I really do! All this time, I’ve been sitting in this house, not thinking about the lives of anyone outside of it.”
As he spoke and climbed, the water followed him. With each foot he rose, the water rose by just as much. “This flooding…this flooding is a taste is what others are going through—and what others will go through if nothing is done! Please, sir. I really get it now. Please let me out!”
As Carl reached the top of the stairs, he reached for the doorknob to jiggle it. As he began to call for the plumber again, the door budged. Carl stared in disbelief as the knob twisted completely and the door swung open. As he crawled out of the basement, the water reached the very top of the steps. Carl slammed the door shut and took a sigh of relief. He looked around, but the plumber was nowhere to be seen, and there was no evidence that he had ever been there.
Barely able to stand upright, Carl rose, staggered into the kitchen, and turned off the faucet.
Dickens, Charles. A Christmas Carol. Chapman & Hall, 1843.
Frost, Emily. “Sea Level Rise.” Ocean Portal, Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History, 11 Jan. 2018, ocean.si.edu/sea-level-rise.
Gore, Al. An Inconvenient Truth: The Planetary Emergency of Global Warming and What We Can Do about It. Rodale, 2006.
Mann, Michael E., and Lee R. Kump. Dire Predictions: Understanding Climate Change. DK, 2016.
Rowe, Mark. “Come hell or high water.” Geographical, Apr. 2011, p. 34+. Environmental Studies and Policy Collection, http://link.galegroup.com/apps/doc/A255086637/PPES?u=mlin_m_brookhs&sid=PPES&xid=18539dfd. Accessed 9 Feb. 2018.
“Sea-Level Rise.” The Science Teacher, vol. 78, no. 1, 2011, pp. 16–16. JSTOR, JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/24122191.
US Department of Commerce, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. “Is Sea Level Rising?” NOAA’s National Ocean Service, Department of Commerce, 27 Oct. 2008, oceanservice.noaa.gov/facts/sealevel.html.
Williams, S. Jeffress. “Sea-Level Rise Implications for Coastal Regions.” Journal of Coastal Research, 2013, pp. 184–196. JSTOR, JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/23486512.
After researching various carbon dioxide emission scenarios, I began to wonder: what will ultimately decide which scenario we enter? Will we need to rely on governments and their policies to make significant changes on climate change? Maybe. But then I thought about the people. To think that the government will handle the problem is dangerous, and to think that the problem is not even a problem is more dangerous. I decided to zoom in on the large portion of people who understand that climate change exists, but who are misinformed and/or do not want to change their lifestyle in order to help the environment. Jumping at the somewhat rare opportunity to implement creativity into science class, I decided to create a fictional story that connected to real life. I challenged myself to bring in unrealistic plot elements while still retaining a realistic message. Thinking about my main character, I connected him to Scrooge in A Christmas Carol . He undergoes a positive transformation over the course of the story, and I wanted my character to do the same. Paralleling this famous story, I aim to bring about a sense of hope. I truly believe that people have the ability to change for the better, and I hope that this story spreads that sentiment.