Click here to read an original op-ed from the TED speaker who inspired this post and watch the TEDTalk below.
In December 1874, a lean, bearded 36-year-old Scotsman clambered to the top of a towering Douglas fir tree in the Sierra Nevada as a powerful storm swept through the mountains. There John Muir clung for hours, swaying in the wind and delighting in "the profound bass of the naked branches and boles booming like waterfalls; the quick, tense vibrations of the pine-needles, now rising to a shrill, whistling hiss, now falling to a silky murmur; the rustling of laurel groves in the dells, and the keen metallic click of leaf on leaf."
Muir wasn't the last person to experience a storm that way (ancient-redwood occupier Julia Butterfly Hill was another, although her tempestuous night in a redwood giant sounds like it was more terrifying than ecstatic). Storm chasers and extraordinary environmentalists aside, most of us would just as soon limit those experiences to the Weather Channel.
In some ways, though, we may have done too good a job of insulating ourselves from the elements. If it rains, we can stay indoors. If temperatures soar, we crank up the AC. On a chilly night, we can pile on the blankets. But if we lull ourselves into thinking we're safe from extreme weather, our heads are in the clouds.
Extreme weather has always existed, but only recently has it become a categorical phenomenon that refuses to be ignored. Heat waves are so oppressive that crops are destroyed, wildfires rage out of control, and lives are lost. The rains are so relentless that cities -- or entire nations -- are inundated. Dark winds decimate entire towns or -- in the case of Superstorm Sandy -- miles of coastline. Here I speak from experience, as the house I grew up in on the Jersey Shore was completely flooded. My parents lost treasured photos and memories, but it could have been a lot worse. For thousands of Americans, it was.
Like it or not, extreme weather is our new normal. I don't, however, think that is cause for despair. Rather, it's a reason to act. The disruption to our climate is telling us plainly that there are consequences for our hubris in altering the composition of our planet's atmosphere. How dear the price we pay will depend on how urgently we take action to stop the pollution that is throwing the earth's climate off-kilter.
So, terrible though the effects of climate disruption are, we can take some consolation in knowing that the planet's paroxysms can't be ignored. Every day, more people hear what the weather is telling us, and they are realizing how we need to answer: by moving away from dirty fuels like coal, oil, and natural gas and toward clean, renewable energy technologies like wind and solar.
Ultimately, the sun will shine and the wind will blow regardless of what we human beings decide to do. We can't stop the weather. We can, however, harness those natural forces to create a clean energy future that doesn't fill our skies with climate-disrupting pollution. The sooner we do, the sooner we can face the skies with more awe than dread.
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