Within My Lifetime
2018, High School, Prose
Soviet revolutionary Vladamir Lenin, when talking about political revolutions, once stated, “There are weeks where nothing happens, and there are weeks when decades happen.” But never once would he be able to predict that there would be decades over which epochs would happen. This was no mere overthrowing of a government, a construct of man within the last 10,000 years, but a paradigm shift of the climate and global cycles of the Earth itself, a massive change in something steadily built and rebuilt since the beginning of time.
This was a shift that damaged or severely altered an infinite number of powerless lives, yet was hardly even noticed by the only group that had the power to stop it. A shift that could upend the global cycles in a manner not seen since the fall of the great Cretaceous reptiles, but those who warned of it were endlessly belittled and delegitimized. A shift that has already wreaked havoc on man and nature alike, leading to thousands of plaintive cries begging to be heard. But, as has happened since the dawn of mankind, those who pleaded the loudest also had the most suppressible and disregardable voices.
But those who ignore these cries will not be shielded by their mere ignorance. Even if these enablers of climate change do not live long enough to have their lives truly trammeled by their own direct or indirect creation, their children very likely will.
I, for one, most certainly will. In fact, the shift happened within the measly decade and a half that I call my lifetime.
Our first stop on the timeline featuring the motley combination of my life, the oceans, and climate change is the rather “eventful” year of 2001. This was the year that President George W. Bush was sworn in (having been bailed out by the Electoral College despite losing the popular vote to Al Gore), beloved British naturalist and TV presenter David Attenborough broadcast his hit documentary The Blue Planet, and a group of Wahabbi extremists calling themselves Al-Qaeda launched a horrific attack on September 11th on the World Trade Center in New York City, not far from where I was born less than a month later.
The 9/11 attacks may be one of the most neglected factors leading to the climate dilemma that we are stuck in today. By wracking the nation and drumming up patriotism, they also led to an unwavering support for the Bush administration, and for good reason, due to Bush’s quick and deft response to the attacks. But this did not mean that Bush or his cabinet were infallible, and far from it. Indeed, in 2002 Bush decried a climate change report from the State Department, and in 2003 officials actively tried to tamper with an EPA report about climate change before it was released (Union of Concerned Scientists, 2004).
Despite this, public support for Bush mostly remained.
Our next major stop on the timeline is the period from 2004 to 2005. During this period, I was still a little toddler with an inherent fascination for the natural world of both current and prehistoric times. I had a special interest in dinosaurs, watching BBC documentaries such as Walking with the Dinosaurs. Coral reefs in the Caribbean, heavily affected by climate change, started to bleach (Gaskill, 2010). Around the same time, polar ice caps continued to melt as an oil boom hit the Arctic to extract oil from the land left behind by the receding ice (Duval-Smith, 2005). There would have to be a drastic shift of leadership if the oceans were to be saved. Luckily enough, at the moment things weren’t looking too rosy for the Bush administration; it had begun to receive flack over perceived misdeeds like the Iraq War and was in the thick of another election season.
Yet, it persisted and won again.
American voters are fickle people.
The only way to knock some sense into them is to hurt them in their pocketbooks.
Now we get into the mid-2000s, the period from 2006 to 2008. Now this is the good part! This period was likely the single most important period of my life in shaping who I am today. While I was still interested in dinosaurs, my interest was growing much faster in another part of the natural world: the oceans. I wanted to know all I could about them, and I realized exactly where I could: the Internet.
While allowing a 5-to-7-year-old kid to browse at his own whims on the unregulated “Wild West” of the mid-2000s Internet sounds about as safe as dropping him off in the middle of the seediest bar in your city, my browsing was relatively wholesome, and I never fell afoul of anything too “advanced” for my sensitive eyes. My browsing in order to learn everything about the ocean was so extensive, it took me all over the Internet, from a young and fresh YouTube to sites that no longer exist today. At one point, I chanced upon a promotional website (that is now defunct) of author Claire Nouvian’s photobook The Deep: Extraordinary Creatures of the Abyss, which contained all sorts of abyssal creatures that I wanted to learn about, and I managed to receive it as a birthday present. But this would not be the most important oceanic discovery I made on the Internet. In another one of my online jaunts, I found another website showing a dramatic clip of a sixgill shark in the depths of the ocean scaring off a conger eel in order to eat a sunken tuna carcass. After a bunch of researching, I finally found the source of the clip: The Blue Planet. As I prepared to watch the episodes, little did I know what I was getting into.
This series served as my ultimate gateway to the oceanic world. Attenborough’s soothing voice never ceased to keep me entranced in the beautiful Earth I observed, and the phenomena the series displayed was so rare and unique that I envied the documentary crew for having experienced all of this with their own eyes, even if it probably took a lot of effort. I marveled at all the different habitats I saw, from the open seas to the deep seas to the tidal seas to the shallow seas. Yet two of the most memorable episodes in the series for me were the episodes focusing on coral reefs and on the poles. I was awestruck by that shot of the mother polar bear leading her two cubs across that endless expanse of ice. So was I captivated by that intense scene when a whole school of whitetip sharks invaded a reef in the middle of the night, eating anything that dared to venture out of its burrow. Such timeless images, I thought. Hopefully they would be preserved far into my adulthood, when I could visit them on my own, as well as into the far future, where all future generations could see the beauty of nature with their own eyes. This documentary showed me that the oceans were a wonderful and pristine place, and I thought that while man may be damaging them, they would be strong enough to withstand the onslaught for at least a while, before people would come to help.
But in the meantime, ill omens towards the health of the oceans were appearing over the horizon. The Bush Administration continued to push its own anti-environmental policies, with only a few conciliatory actions such as listing the polar bears as endangered (Sheppard, 2008). Its economic mismanagement even led to the Great Recession, causing thousands to lose their jobs and their trust in the president. This, along with other misdeeds such as the Iraq War, caused an air of cynicism to rise among the public. This cynicism included general antipathy towards climate change; after all, the authorities said climate change was a bad thing that we should intensively fight, but at the same time the authorities failed us and we don’t have the strength to fight it, so why should we believe them and why should we care? This is evident in media of the time such as the 2006 South Park episode “ManBearPig.” In this episode, Al Gore is shown as “fighting a monster that exists within his own mind,” an obvious lampoon of climate change and efforts to stop it. And in the meantime, reef health continued to deteriorate and polar ice caps continued to melt. This was likely the most critical period of the decade to take action against climate change, and the United States blew it.
From the period between 2009 to 2014, I continued to grow and, having finally quenched my thirst for ocean knowledge, moved on to learning about how to help them. I learned more and more about the dangers of climate change. With all the attention I saw everyone giving it, from my schools to the nature documentaries to YouTube videos, I assumed that we were indeed moving to stop it, and everything would be okay. There were few major climatic events to change my mind, aside from occasional minor coral bleaching and the steady melting of ice caps. Indeed, climate change efforts in the United States were given a lifeline when President Obama was elected. Obama, a much more environmentally supportive leader than Bush, championed the cause of climate change prevention. Everything seemed to shape up just as optimistically as I thought.
And yet, something didn’t go right. Despite over eight years in office and helping the environment in a myriad of ways, Obama’s administration did not succeed in reversing the shift. But why? Was it the frequent obstruction of Obama’s policies in Congress? Was Obama too willing to compromise with everyone, thus taking the teeth out of his climate change policies? Or was it the lack of public support for climate change policies due to the cynicism and general mistrust persisting from the Recession years? No matter what, one thing was clear: the U.S. was once again throwing away its shot. Yet I myself paid little attention to this. I was obviously too young during this period to understand politics and deteriorating efforts, so I assumed things were going along smoothly.
Then 2015 happened.
The first thing that jolted me to the true face of climate change was the news of heavy bleaching in the Great Barrier Reef and the rest of the world (NOAA, 2018). This incident opened my eyes to the true realities of climate change. Unlike most bleaching events, which just bleached one small area of an obscure reef, this one bleached almost two-thirds of the largest reef on Earth, outright killing a portion of it. Similar bleachings struck worldwide, lessening hope of reef survival. The fact that I had grown up with the beauty of the reefs thanks to documentaries like The Blue Planet, and in fact planned to visit them once I got older, made this news even more heartbreaking. With the knowledge that climate change was getting more dangerous, it was then that I realized how hot it seemed outside during the autumn and winter months. I realized that climate change was no more an obscure faraway threat that scientists were busy tackling before it arrived. It was already here, and it was wreaking havoc.
Yet this was only the beginning.
Come 2016, coral bleaching became even worse. Massive amounts of coral across the Indo-Pacific and the rest of the world were outright killed rather than bleached. Sea ice in the Arctic, which I also so admiringly watched in Blue Planet, reached its second-lowest extent known to man (Vizcarra, 2016). Carbon levels in the atmosphere passed the 400 ppm threshold for the first time (Jones, 2017), not only ensuring that the excess carbon was here to stay, but showing that humans were doing basically nothing to halt emissions. And of course, Donald Trump, the most anti-environment president of all time, was elected.
There’s no way this could get any worse, right?
2017 was just as ghastly for the world’s coral as 2016, with the only silver lining being that the El Nino causing it had ended (though there will more than likely be another in the near future). Arctic sea ice hit its minimum extent of all time (Vizcarra, 2017). And near the end of the year, devastating natural disasters such as the California wildfires (Kahn, 2017) and the deadly Caribbean hurricanes (Ward, 2017) were clearly worsened by climate change. This all occurred to the backdrop of the Trump administration slowly dismantling the environmental protections for climate change and the oceans piece by piece.
While most of my classmates were worrying about issues revolving around their personal lives, I was worrying about that, too, but also tearing my hair out over climate change. The whole world which I had grown up on through nature documentaries and the like was essentially crumbling away before my eyes. The bountiful tropical seas, the vast white Arctic ice sheets, the scintillating tropical fish, the ever-persistent polar bears… all going away or gone. Within my lifetime, I had seen the rise and fall of the world’s greatest natural wonders.
I had always wanted to see the world change during my lifetime.
But not like this.
So, have we doomed our greatest ecosystems to a slow and painful death? Has humanity finally sawn off “the limb on which it perches” (Elizabeth Kolbert, The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History)?
It is hard to say.
On one hand, the ridiculously high number of climate disasters over the past year or two seems to indicate that the byproducts of humanity’s greed have finally ingrained themselves into Earth’s systems, thus destroying habitats and exacerbating disasters. No doubt that Trump and Co.’s efforts will likely also affect climate change for the worse.
Yet, in a way, this chaos has helped to give attention to climate change like never before. In the 2016 election, climate change, despite truly rearing its ugly head that year, failed to receive any attention from the audiences or the candidates (Pilkington and Chalabi, 2016). Perhaps people thought that because Hillary would mostly likely win, no discussion was necessary. Perhaps the news media found the immigration and military issues more headline-grabbing than climate change. But after Trump won and dismantled the United States’ role in the Paris Climate Accords, climate change received the attention that it should have deserved. Studies showed a growing awareness towards climate change issues among citizens (Dager, 2017), no doubt due to the Trump administration’s climate antics. It is, however, worth noting that there is still heavy skepticism and apathy towards climate change evident in those surveys despite changes in awareness.
So, with this conflicting evidence, what does the future hold?
In the movie Star Wars: Episode V – The Empire Strikes Back, the character Yoda tells Luke Skywalker, “Difficult to see. Always in motion is the future.” And to no other subject does this quote apply to more than climate change. Perhaps humans will find a way to sequester carbon at an impossibly fast rate. Perhaps nothing will change. Perhaps voters, remembering the mistakes of Trump, will usher in a new science-supporting administration. Or perhaps denialism will increase, and worse administrations gain control.
I’ve had more than a decade and a half to see the rise of climate change and the fall of our environment. I have many more decades to see what the next paradigm shift on Earth will be and how it affects our planet.
But, all in all, as stated by the former presidential candidate Al Gore, “The hour of choosing has arrived.”
- Dager, Daniel. “Climate Change Survey Shows Growing Awareness.” Yale Daily News, 30 Nov. 2017, yaledailynews.com/blog/2017/11/30/climate-change-survey-shows-growing-awareness/.
- Duval-Smith, Alex. “Arctic Booms as Climate Change Melts Polar Ice Cap.” The Guardian, Guardian News and Media, 27 Nov. 2005, www.theguardian.com/environment/2005/nov/27/oilandpetrol.theobserver.
- Gaskill, Melissa. “Coral Bleaching Goes from Bad to Worse.” Nature News, Nature Publishing Group, 19 Nov. 2010, www.nature.com/news/2010/101119/full/news.2010.621.html.
- Gore, Albert, The Hour of Choosing, 2009.
- Hugar, John. “How the Serial Format Has Made ‘South Park’s Politics Even Harder to Decipher.” Vulture, 5 Oct. 2016, www.vulture.com/2016/10/how-the-serial-format-has-made-south-parks-politics-even-harder-to-decipher.html.
- Jones, Nicola. “How the World Passed a Carbon Threshold and Why It Matters.” Yale E360, Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies, 26 Jan. 2017, e360.yale.edu/features/how-the-world-passed-a-carbon-threshold-400ppm-and-why-it-matters.
- Kahn, Debra. “Scientists See Climate Change in California’s Wildfires.” Scientific American, Nature America Inc., 12 Oct. 2017, scientificamerican.com/article/scientists-see-climate-change-in-californias-wildfires/.
- Kershner, Irvin, director. Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back. Lucasfilm LTD, 1980 \.
- Kolbert, Elizabeth. The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History. Bloomsbury, 2015.
- “Coral Bleaching During & Since the 2014-2017 Global Coral Bleaching Event.” NOAA Satellite and Information Service, NOAA Coral Reef Watch, 19 Mar. 2018, coralreefwatch.noaa.gov/satellite/analyses_guidance/global_coral_bleaching_2014-17_status.php.
- Pilkington, Ed, and Chalabi, Mona. “Climate Change: The Missing Issue of the 2016 Campaign.” The Guardian, Guardian News and Media, 5 July 2016, theguardian.com/us-news/2016/jul/05/climate-change-voters-2016-election-issues.
- Sheppard, Kate. “Bush Admin to List Polar Bears as Threatened; Advocates Pledge to Continue the Fight.” Grist, Grist, 15 May 2008, grist.org/article/bearly-legal/.
- Vizcarra, Natasha. “2016 Ties with 2007 for Second Lowest Arctic Sea Ice Minimum.” Arctic Sea Ice News and Analysis, National Snow and Ice Data Center, 15 Sept. 2016, nsidc.org/arcticseaicenews/2016/09/2016-ties-with-2007-for-second-lowest-arctic-sea-ice-minimum/.
- Vizcarra, Natasha. “National Snow and Ice Data Center.” Arctic Sea Ice News and Analysis, National Snow and Ice Data Center, 19 Sept. 2017, nsidc.org/arcticseaicenews/2017/09/arctic-sea-ice-at-minimum-extent-2/.
- Ward, Bud. “Why 2017’s Hurricane Season Was So Bad » Yale Climate Connections.” Yale Climate Connections, Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies, 4 Dec. 2017, www.yaleclimateconnections.org/2017/…/why-2017s-hurricane-season-was-so-.
Many times I have just casually wandered on scuba diving or snorkeling forums and seen people discussing conditions at reefs where they have snorkeled or dived. There is an alarmingly high amount of people saying that whichever reef they visited was heavily bleached by climate change. But what is more intriguing and saddening is that many times they stated that they visited those reefs in the 2000s or even the early 2010s and found them pristine and full of life. This means that these age-old reefs died while I was already on Earth. I frequently think about my past, and now my observations are tinged with melancholy knowing that while I was younger, those reefs were still just as grand as they had ever been, yet very recently they suddenly turned into bleached wastelands. To say nothing of the vast, seemingly untouchable Arctic ecosystem that is now melting away at a rate that will be extremely difficult to reverse. And since our whole lives are based around fossil fuels, it will take a drastic change in society for us to stop emitting carbon. And the worst part is that excluding scientists, NO ONE seems to care about this. It’s just too much for someone who was raised on the beauty of the oceans by documentaries such as The Blue Planet. I thus created this essay as a way to share my thoughts about the disaster currently happening and why it affects me so personally.