In many of his plays, William Shakespeare used natural disturbances to mirror the transformations of human character. I wonder what he would have made of global warming, a scalable threat to humanity as the Black Death was at that time.
Snorkeling in the Virgin Islands last week, I marveled how the decline of shallow-water reefs is funneling more boats into spots where, by virtue of proximity to cool currents, reef patches still appear functional.
Floating on the surface, swimmers are always transfixed by clouds of blue tangs, lurking barracuda, jacks and yellowtail snapper, seemingly oblivious to how, on the three-dimensional plane of time and space, tens of thousands of years of evolution are breaking apart.
What happens if the coral reefs completely disappear?
People go to places because of the attributes of climate. They get on planes in cold Ohio to cruise ships in Florida to sail to pellucid waters of the Caribbean. On ski lifts in Colorado, for deep and untracked powder snow. Beaches, from Captiva to India.
If the reason people travel to a particular destination dissolves, will local economies survive? Then, climate change may force residents away, too.
It is happening to Inuit villages in the Arctic north, which have been forced to relocate because of rising tides and erosion, and on some South Pacific Islands.
Shakespeare never wrote, “Nature bats last,” nor did he anticipate how the inventions of the Industrial Revolution would turn hostile. (That would wait for William Blake.) Certainly, Shakespeare would not be surprised.
“I personally have done a bunch of ice climbs around the world that no longer exist,” Yvon Chouinard told The Associated Press recently.
Chouinard, a renowned climber and surfer and founder of Patagonia Inc., an outdoor clothing and gear company that champions the environment, added, “I mean, I was aghast at the change.”
We are all aghast, but we are also funneling into airports, departure gates and airplanes, seamlessly contributing to a world economy that is fundamentally at odds with the climate.
The tables are turning: The subtext of the second report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change is that in the not-so-distant future the climate will be fundamentally at odds with the world economy.
We are getting signals of this, already. They are buried in rapidly escalating insurance rates in Florida. There is inflationary price pressure on food crops like corn. Part of the reason is the rising demand from Asia, and part, from governmental plans to use corn to fuel solutions to our energy crisis.
But the biggest part of inflationary price pressure will be climate.
If corn can’t be planted reliably because of extreme weather in early spring, or extreme drought in summer, Americans may have enough trouble feeding ourselves — never mind supplying ethanol plants.
Perhaps European Alpine regions can convert to non-winter economies at scale — leaving multibillion-dollar industries like skiing to wither on the vine. There was grass growing in Davos, Switzerland, in mid-December.
But what happens in a place like the Virgin Islands?
In Brussels, over the global climate change report one of the points of disagreement among the world’s diplomats and scientists was whether to state an 80 percent as opposed to a 90 percent certainty that global warming is due to man-made impacts.
But a similar debate whether 80 percent or 90 percent of St. Thomas’ economic activities are threatened by global warming is immaterial.
We already know the answer: Already in the Virgin Islands, every necessity is imported from the mainland.
It is easy enough to say that the risk of global warming is catastrophic. And for those who don’t believe it, to attribute doom and gloom instead of facing up to the opportunities for adaptation.
The seamless operation of the world economy is absolutely dependent on a stable climate. Our reward for taking the risk to drastically reduce carbon-dioxide emissions is, simply, a stable economic environment in which mankind will soldier on.
World markets do seem to be adjusting to the need for a new energy future — but what the glaciers and the coral reefs are telling us, and what the scientists are reinforcing with hard data — is that we need a warp-speed response and not an incremental one.
Much depends on being able to see clearly, and we may take from this exactly the words of the poet and clergyman John Donne, Shakespeare’s contemporary, writing in response to a terrible scourge of illness in England, “No man is an island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main. If a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe is the less, as well as if a promontory were, as well as if a manor of thy friend’s or of thine own were: any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind, and therefore never send to know for whom the bells tolls; it tolls for thee.”
On Sunday, my yoga teacher’s T-shirt read, “Love THIS life.” For an Easter meditation as I thought about global warming, it needed no further explanation.