Hope   4 comments

Today is the start of COP26. Am I hopeful?

The effects of climate change are obvious in Maine, a place I call home. Increased severity of storms, warmer temperatures (winter up by 5 deg), longer growing seasons, rising sea level, etc. These well-documented changes are already having impacts on humans and a wide range of kindred species in the state.

In the Southwest, where I’ve just spent four weeks carrying out fieldwork, climate change is also well documented. But here’s a difference: in the SW climate change is IN YOUR FACE! This past May and June in the Chiricahua Mountains, during the driest spell I’ve witnessed in my more than 30 years of fieldwork, two lower elevation oak species dropped their old leaves from last year but did not grow new leaves, as they usually do that time of year. It was just too dry. Permanent streams in deep canyons, the lifeblood of wildlife, were empty over long stretches–drier than I’ve ever seen them. Luckily, the monsoon rains of July-September brought normal amounts of rain (unlike last summer). The two oaks leafed out and the streams partly refilled, although still far below their usual levels.

Scarce water sources, such as this one in the Devil’s Hall, Guadalupe Mountains National Park, are crucial for wildlife

The impacts of uncharacteristically large and severe wildfires are also common across the landscape. If you’re traversing higher elevation terrain, they’re a common landscape feature. It’s not uncommon to see large areas of forest and woodland, where everything was killed above ground. Some of these areas are growing back just fine, but others are returning, not as complex pine and pine-oak forest but as shrublands and grasslands.

The Wallow Fire in eastern Arizona burned more than 500,000 acres in the extremely dry year of 2011

That’s just a small sample of what I’ve seen in my recent work in the Southwest. (In an earlier post, I also mentioned the dramatic 150 foot drop in the levels of Lake Powell.)

The following is naive, to say the least. More of a feeling than a thought. But it’s beyond frustrating to see such plain and compelling evidence that we humans are damaging the ecological system that supports life on Earth, including us. YET politicians fail to act…because of ideology, because of lust for power, because of lust for money, because of cynicism…

When the winds of destruction blow so briskly, how can we maintain hope? I can speak only for myself. Hope, I think, is a fundamentally personal longing. I can’t believe that I’m going to start by quoting a football coach (not that I don’t like football). I heard a couple days ago (while listening to the World Series and entering data) that Vince Lombardi said that “winning isn’t everything, trying to win is,” which is weird because I thought he also said that “winning isn’t everything, it’s the only thing.” Oh well, I’ll take the former take to make my point that, for me, striving gives me hope, and striving with others gives me even more hope.

This year is the 20th anniversary of the University of Maine at Farmington Sustainable Campus Coalition, an organization that I founded with Grace Eason. Many people have built the SCC into what it is today: employing many students and involving faculty, staff, and community members, all striving to reduce campus energy use and carbon emissions, provide food and clothing (through its thrift store and food pantry), help with the campus garden and community farms, educate campus and community, and have lots of fun. The organization also offers me (and I think many others) hope that we can make things better. So, here’s to everyone who has been part of the SCC: happy birthday!

Over the past month I spent alot of time working with Guadalupe fescue (Festuca ligulata), a recently listed endangered plant in the US and protected species in Mexico. We know of only five populations in Mexico (northern Coahuila) and one in the US (Big Bend). The populations consist of only 100 to a few 100 plants each. I’m lucky to be part of a team of Mexican and US researchers and agency folks seeking to understand and sustain this small, unassuming grass. More on the project another time. For now, below is a photo of one of the six seedlings that have survived the first six months after being transplanted from greenhouse to the field by team member Javier Ochoa (of CONAMP in Mexico). Tears, joy, and a little hope at seeing these little wisps.

One of six surviving seedlings transplanted by Javier Ochoa (CONAMP in Mexico)

And this brings me back to COP26. Do I have hope? Despite strong winds blowing against progress, yes, I am hopeful. Maybe I’m too optimistic — by nature. And maybe we shouldn’t be pitching COP26 as our very last chance to change the course of history. Time is indeed short, but I’ll take some tacking in the right direction.

Posted October 31, 2021 by changingnatureofthemainewoods in Uncategorized

4 responses to “Hope

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  1. Very compelling essay. I like the way you wove together your observations at your research sites in the southwest with the collaborative efforts on sustainability at University of Maine, Farmington. Here in Oxford, Ohio, I am heartened by our City’s commitment to the Global Covenant of Mayors for Climate and Energy (plus efforts of the Climate Action Steering Committee and citizens to find ways to reduce fossil fuel use) and Miami University’s signing on to the Presidents’ Climate Leadership Commitment to similarly reduce emissions. I serve on the Steering Committee and see my colleagues working on the University side.

    • Thanks for reading my blog, Dave! As you can imagine, it’s pretty interesting being here. A little overwhelming, but illuminating. Seems like we need both the bottom up approach (as in Oxford and Miami U) and the top down approach of the UNFCCC. Now, if we can just get politicians to agree, we might get something done.

  2. Good to read this Drew, and to see you in the late summer. I’ll subscribe and see what you can teach me!

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