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STILL OUT ON A LIMB

A Warm December Day

Friday, December 11. The morning fog has finally burned off, ushering in another warm sunny afternoon in interior Southern New England. We’ve had a string of them recently and the next several days are predicted to get even warmer. In fact, it is so mild that I’m planning to mow the lawn once I’m finished writing. Great to spend time outdoors in such comfortable temperatures at this time of year, but it is disquieting too. I’ve lived here for over four decades and I’ve never had to mow the lawn in December.

I know the difference between weather and climate. No spell of weather in any region is necessarily a manifestation of global warming induced climate change. But it has been so consistently mild at my house and in all of the northeastern United States, that it is hard not to believe that we are sampling what will become “normal” in a couple of decades.

This weather seems a boon to the neighborhood’s plants and animals. I still see flies, and even bumblebees pollinating the remaining flowers in my yard. Thankfully the mosquitoes are gone. Chipmunks, squirrels, rabbits and many seed-eating birds have a much easier time gorging themselves when there is no snow cover. But whether flora or fauna, the local species have evolved in conjunction with the region’s climate. Weather that is far outside the expected range of climatic variation is disruptive of their life cycles.

At first, the plants and animals will adjust. The climate has always changed. Sometimes, even without human influence, those changes are too sharp for some and some species face extinction, but most survive. This time the change is happening with unprecedented rapidity, and it appears to be gathering momentum with each passing year. To begin with there will be a few species who are “winners,” but planetary life is a vast interconnected web. It will disintegrate once too many strands are lost.

I’ve observed later autumns and earlier springs over the last forty years, but for the most part the changes haven’t been sufficiently dramatic to shock us. While generally warmer, we haven’t had a horribly hot summer or a snowless winter… yet. Last December was our warmest on record, but February was very cold and snowy. So although it was short and statistically average, many perceived last winter as overly harsh. That could happen again this year, but sometime soon, we’ll have a winter that will feel more like Northern California than Southern New England. Hopefully, that will goad a few more neighbors into swelling the ranks of climate change-related activists.

In the meantime, while New Delhi and Beijing endure their worst pollution ever and an unprecedented December tornado was reported in Eastern Washington State, voting members at the COP21 conference in Paris have adopted a woefully inadequate plan. No matter how foggy it gets on these weird December mornings, it has never been clearer that our leaders will only take the actions needed to save us when we force them to.
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