Wednesday, April 22, 2015

Climate change? Yes, I believe so

During an interview on Face the Nation, GOP presidential contender Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) pretended to articulate his position on climate change. But instead of a candidate who presents himself as a young avatar of new ideas he came off sounding about as lucid as someone singing "The Star Spangled Banner" while brushing their teeth. (Rubio on climate change)

Rubio's talking points were reminiscent of those used by the tobacco lobby some thirty years ago during the debate about the harmful effects of smoking, namely, to raise doubts about "the science."

"Humans are not responsible for climate change in the way some of these people out there are trying to make us believe...," Rubio said. That sounds like the tobacco industry's old litany that the "science [was] not there" and therefore there was no justification to restrict the sale of cigarettes. Indeed, that strategy of disinformation fended off government regulators for about twenty years.

Backhoe-proof rocks dot our land, particularly downhill. 
Claims of ignorance seem to be a common mantra among a number of GOP candidates concerning climate change and what can be done about it. It's either, "We just don't know enough" or "I'm not a scientist," Duh. Next question. (GOP candidates on climate change)

I'm not a scientist either, not by a long shot, but looking out my window at the mangy mountains around our ranch, I believe I may have had a mini-epiphany just in time for Earth Day which is today: Humans can inflict incalculable damage to their natural surroundings and that can lead to degradation of the fauna, flora—and the climate.

My epiphany actually came on Monday, when we hired a backhoe to dig jumbo holes, about 1.5 meters wide and a meter deep, to plant seven more trees: two Mexican sycamores; one called a "Mexican maple" which I was assured will thrive in our impoverished soil; three stumpy, contorted coral trees, that have little grace except a short-lived blast of red flowers once a year and an ability to survive harsh conditions; and two "truenos," that are a bit like ficus trees.

Earth Day 2015: A Mexican sycamore,
one of seven trees we planted this year.
Even in the most propitious spots on our ranch backhoes can barely excavate more than barely a meter before running into solid rock—frequently not random "rocks" in the plural but giant lone specimens about the size of a Volkswagen Beetle.

Most of the one-hundred-odd trees we've planted are located uphill on the land where the topsoil is marginally deeper. Downhill lies an almost impenetrable layer of rock with little vegetation except cacti and super hardy mesquites, huizaches and other desert fare.

Friends, including Félix, who have climbed some of the surrounding hills and mountains (Stew and I are too lazy for that) report vestiges of what this area used to be like. They have found actual craters that remind us of considerable volcanic history, probably hundreds of years before the Spaniards arrived in the sixteenth century, that dumped rich volcanic ash and dirt on the ground.

Xeriscaping: To use the unlimited supply of
rocks on our land, we've created several rock gardens,
populated mostly by cacti. In the background are the
three greenhouses in which we grow seasonal vegetables
year-round.  
Other relics include huge oak trees, some with trunks almost a meter in diameter, growing isolated or in small groups that point to the existence—incredible as it seems now—of forests of oaks and other hardwoods. Félix says he's also seen small herds of deer up on the hills.

But when the Spaniards arrived the forests virtually disappeared as the wood was used to fuel mining and other extractive endeavors. "Sustainable logging" was not on the menu then and I doubt the get-rich-quick Spaniards would have embraced the concept anyway.

Clear cutting led to soil erosion that we can still see during torrential rains when muddy rivulets carry whatever soil is left sometimes along with some sizable rocks. Our amateur landscape restoration efforts at the ranch, aside from planting trees and bushes all over the place, also include using rocks to create small terraces to mitigate runoff and collecting rainwater in a cistern the size of a swimming pool.

More recently, ignorant and unsustainable land uses such as overgrazing have further denuded the land down to bare dirt in some places. Before we fenced off our land there was barely any grass growing as hungry sheep and goats ate practically anything in sight even the thorny branches of huizache bushes.

So the landscape around us today—the result of indiscriminate human activity exacerbated by rapid population growth—is semi-arid with degraded soil and mountains with barren crags where forests used to be.

It's nothing like Arizona or New Mexico, with their single-digit annual rainfall and true deserts. We receive between twenty and twenty-five inches of rain a year and valleys around here still sustain cultivation of vegetables mostly for export to the U.S. But increasingly such farming requires extensive irrigation that is in turn depleting the aquifers.

As in California, eighty percent or so of the ground water here goes for agriculture. That sector, which provides thousands of jobs and income for the area and for Mexico, is not likely to accept any water restrictions. Instead we have thirsty golf courses recently popping up on the outskirts of San Miguel.

The result of overgrazing is scalping of the landscape. On the
upper right-hand corner is a new vineyard, set up about
a year ago and which required drilling a huge well. 
I'm not a scientist, to repeat the Republican mantra on climate change. But somehow I'm persuaded that unbridled human activity and exploitation of the land can affect the environment. I can see compelling evidence as I look out my office window.
And if our local experience is but one frame in a dismal epic of global environmental depredation I can easily believe that climate change is not only possible but likely occurring and accelerating.

During the twentieth century human population roughly tripled to seven billion, tens of thousands of square miles of forests have been cut down and annual emissions of carbon dioxide are measured in billions of tons a year, making large cities practically unfit for human habitation.

Yep, I'm persuaded that human activity is affecting the world's climate, mostly for the worse.

Native cactus is bloom. I don't know its name. Félix calls it
 "cardón" but I don't think that's right. 
(A great book on the subject is Elizabeth Kolbert's The Sixth Extinction, which just won the Pulitzer Prize for non-fiction.)

As for the "devastating effect" any policy to reduce carbon dioxide emissions would have on the U.S. economy, as Rubio fears, well, I must confess I'm not an economist either.

But on this subject I'd tend to err on the side of prudence: Taking action to control the human impact on the environment might be costly in the short term but not nearly as much so for future generations as doing nothing.

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3 comments:

  1. The cataclysm is us - Bottom line.

    Timely essay and well done - thanks. Just got a copy of the book.

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  2. Very nicely put: you should work for a newspaper :-)

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  3. A lucid essay on an important day. Hopefully, the upcoming generation, my granddaughter's age WILL force the issue. She certainly joins in any and every way she can to make a difference, as do her friends. I realize we need legislation, but grass roots (pardon the pun) is important as well. BTW, all the golf courses cannot get permits without a guarantee and commitment to recycled water usage only. That's what held up so many courses here. The city government wouldn't permit them without the guarantee.......

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