Tradition can guide climate strategy

(September 8, 2017)

Hurricane Harvey’s assault on Houston and other parts of Texas is the North American version of similar devastation elsewhere in the world. Extreme weather disasters are set to become as commonplace as traffic accidents, unexpected for those involved but, unfortunately, both frequent and inevitable.

It’s not just bad luck. It is the consequence of living on a warming planet. Every place will have its own local variation of what that means.

For some places, the temperature will get so hot that no plants or people will be able to live outside. Others will see droughts, or repeated flooding, or tornadoes and an overall disruption of rainfall and temperature patterns that have been more or less consistent for thousands of years.

Imagine what the United States would look like if there were several hurricanes a season — such as Harvey, followed closely by Irma, Jose and Katia — making landfall somewhere along the coast, accompanied by rising tides, especially when even now so much of the Eastern seaboard is at (or below) sea level.

Officials at the National Weather Service made a striking admission as the hurricane continued, saying they could no longer predict what was going to happen. Harvey was so far outside the parameters of their historical data and weather models that it had become a unique event.

Our data will be of little value, rendering our climate prediction models increasingly unreliable, because we continue to treat ecological systems as though they are linear and mechanical. Most days right now in Manitoba, we can’t even manage to predict Winnipeg’s weather 12 hours ahead of time, because there are too many variables.

In a climate-changing world, those difficulties are multiplied exponentially. Environmental risk analysis using current climate models effectively means getting lucky with a crystal ball.

We need to find other ways of approaching the problem — other tools, other methods, other perspectives — if we want to do more than just sit on the front porch and watch the horizon.

When it comes to human behaviour, we use dynamic systems to predict what is likely to happen and why. We can’t be sure where or when the violence will break out, but when racist rhetoric is combined with poverty, bad government and poor community leadership, a fight becomes inevitable. Lack of respect breeds more lack of respect, making the presenting issue only the trigger for the violence that will certainly happen. People eventually demand to be respected; how they choose to communicate that, and whether they are heard, will shape the future stability of any society, including our own.

When it comes to the Earth, it is much the same thing. How we live reflects a lack of respect for ecological systems, as we tear up the landscape, contaminate the water and pollute the air. Because we are woven into all those ecological systems right to the core of our physical being, disrespecting the Earth means disrespecting ourselves.

We are part of the Earth. Its air blows into our lungs; its water runs through our veins; its soil provides food to sustain us.

Our understanding of the Earth needs to be based on respect and on relationship if we want to live well with the planet that is our home. The irony, of course, is that this is what traditional societies have learned the hard way over thousands of years. They have learned that survival depends on respecting the Earth and honouring all our relations with which we share it.

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