These graphs depict the mean global atmospheric burden of carbon dioxide as analyzed from measurements collected by NOAA’s Global Greenhouse Gas Reference Network. Graphic courtesy of NOAA Global Monitoring Laboratory

Lately TV meteorologists have been airing interesting little pieces on changing weather patterns. The subtext, it seems pretty clear, is that the changing weather patterns point pretty consistently to a changing climate.

The “average temperature” for any given day, for example, is apt to look noticeably higher than it did in past years because NOAA will be calculating the average from the most recent decades, rather than previous ones as before. Temperatures in the last 10 years are markedly higher than any time in recorded history. The inescapable implication: The climate is changing.

Making this a subtext, rather than a full-on statement of fact, is an expedient means (as parables and metaphors are called in some religious traditions) of speaking indirectly to those who do not believe in the fact of climate change. If you can show them that the weather is changing, then maybe it will dawn on them that the climate is changing.

This kind of persuasion takes time. Unfortunately, we do not have much time. In 2016, the climate scientists were warning that we had until 2030 to drastically reduce the roughly 40 billion tons per year of carbon that we throw up into the air, if we wanted to stave off the worst effects of climate change coming in the later part of this century. In the U.S. we essentially skipped the first four of those 15 years. Now we have around 10 years to accomplish this enormous feat. It’s necessary for the continuation of life as we know it.

It’s not preferable — it’s necessary. One huge catch is that it’s not going to happen through individual choice. It requires a collective effort. Everyone — individuals, businesses, corporations, and yes, I’m sorry to tell you, governments — has to be involved.

Let me tell you a parable of why the effort will not work as an individual consumer choice.

About 12 years ago, thinking we would try to get some of our carbon waste out of the air, we looked into ways of retiring our oil burner. Solar was far too expensive for us. So was geothermal, which anyway would probably drain our well in a few days. Wood and natural gas were problematic pollutants, too.

So we borrowed $20,000 and had an electric heat pump installed. The first incarnation was a disaster because the technology was fatally flawed and the guys who installed it disappeared. Two years later we put $3,000 more into a whole new outside unit. This one works as intended, but it’s old technology — it only heats down to 25 degrees outside temperature. Below that, the oil burner kicks on.

Last year, thinking maybe we could upgrade our contribution to cutting carbon emissions, we looked into getting a state-of-the-art replacement for the outside unit. The cost was thousands of dollars more than we have to spend. (We used up our energy credits on the previous replacement.)

Home research had already indicated that using our inefficient wood stove would not be the best solution to reducing pollution either. A Backyard Naturalist column I wrote on this topic prompted several people who sell wood stoves to reply.

They explained that over roughly 40-year cycles of growth, decay and cutting, wood used for fires releases less carbon than rotting deadwood, so woodburning is better than oil and better for the environment. Which is a good argument that I was already familiar with, except it leaves out one key problem: We have no more 40-year cycles left.

We have about 10 years to get as much carbon and particulate matter out of the atmosphere before hell’s traction takes permanent hold. And the unpleasant fact is, as a couple of studies I read pointed out, wood burning day by day loads more carbon and particulate matter into the air than most heat sources other than oil. The loading has to stop now, not over the next couple of 40-year cycles.

So we replaced the wood-burning supplement to the heat pump and the oil burner with an oil-filled electric space heater, which generates enough heat in the living room and kitchen to keep the oil burner off. Until it gets too cold out, and the space heater becomes expensively inadequate, and we burn oil on winter nights. When it gets really cold (which is less and less, year by year), we sometimes run a kerosene heater for a couple hours a day. All its heat stays directly in the house so it’s better than the oil burner, but it’s still oil. When the electricity goes out, we burn wood and kerosene.

None of these half-measures is enough.

Enough would be a solar-electric heating system. When we did the original heat pump research, we discovered the best solar arrangement we could hope for would only heat water, and would cost a backwoods fortune to install. We have the added problem of being in the woods on the north side of a steep slope; in December, a few solar panels on the roof would often be almost useless.

Since then, solar technology has improved mightily and gotten much cheaper. But the conversion costs are still way out of reach for people of average means, like us. And then there are the many, many people of scanter means than us burning oil, wood or kerosene exclusively, many of whom not only can’t afford to convert to solar, but see no reason to either.

Most people who want to do their part to stave off environmental disaster are in household budget predicaments similar to ours. We have an electric heat pump, but its efficiency is dismal. (A discouraging lot of the electricity it uses is generated by oil burning. Why do we bother?) We drive a hybrid car because we can’t afford an electric one. We recycle everything we can.

Not only can we not afford solar power, there are myriad other issues. Manufacturers keep devising new unrecyclable packaging. Politicians keep lying about oil-based pollution. Oil companies keep making plastic that’s choking the ocean, the landscape and even the air. Agricultural corporations keep destroying the ecologies of massive tracts of land. Glaciers are disappearing. Sea level is rising measurably.

It’s not that no action is being taken. A lot of people know what’s happening and are trying to do their little bit. But so far, it is nowhere near enough.

No one person, family, town or green lobbyist can affect any of this. We all need each other. If everybody, people, businesses and governments, work with all our ethical might to stem pollution and carbon emissions in the next 10 years, then the worst effects of the changing climate can be curbed. What human living conditions are like 50 to 100 years from now depend on what we do, or don’t do, in the next 10.

We’re like children playing in a burning building. Some of us smell smoke. We can’t get a window open.

Dana Wilde lives in Troy. You can contact him at [email protected]. His book “Winter: Notes and Numina from the Maine Woods” will be available soon from North Country Press. Backyard Naturalist appears the second and fourth Thursdays each month.

Related Headlines


Only subscribers are eligible to post comments. Please subscribe or to participate in the conversation. Here’s why.

Use the form below to reset your password. When you've submitted your account email, we will send an email with a reset code.