The Importance of Stories to Climate Change

Mike Smith
May 22, 2023
An image of a broken down house on a prairie with gathering storm clouds in the background.

In the late 19th century, white settlement in the interior of the United States was accelerated by several intersecting events such as the Homestead Act of 1862, the completion of the transcontinental railroad, the end of Civil War, and series of gold rushes. Wide adoption of agriculture across the American West did not seem originally possible, but by the dawn of the 20th century, the United States counted 45 states in the union, all with some degree of agriculture.

In 1819, Stephen H. Long described to President Monroe that the Great Plains were “wholly unfit for cultivation and… uninhabitable by a people depending upon agriculture.” The famous American explorer John Wesley Powell wrote in his 1878 report that there was effectively a climatological boundary dividing agriculturally viable eastern North American from the rest. West of the 100th meridian, less than 50cm of rain fell per year, making non-irrigated farming unlikely. Settlement largely followed these trends. As a lifelong westerner, I recognize that it isn’t the mountains that I love that define the west, but the lack of water.

But something happened as pioneer farmers started plowing up virgin prairie in Nebraska, Kansas, Colorado, and elsewhere in the 1860s and 70s. It started to rain. Steel furrowed earth gave off the sound of a zipper being ripped open, exposing dark, rich soil loaded with eons of organic material and moist soil. Areas thought incapable of hosting farms became surprisingly workable. It was said, from reporters, settlers, and politicians, that “Rain follows the plow.” Wrapped within the zeitgeist of Manifest Destiny, this junk science was seen as confirmation of American exceptionalism and man’s dominion of nature. That by plowing “unproductive” land, it would feed a growing nation and the world. Amber waves of grain made America beautiful.

In retrospect, it is unclear whether the increased precipitation was borne of climactic cycles, or one brought about briefly by rapid and large ecosystem changes, but the rains didn’t continue. Many settlers went bust in the 1890s and 1910s as the moisture failed to continue. More left in the 1930s with the coming of the Dust Bowl.

It illustrates the power of storytelling. That we believe the stories that we want to believe and, in doing so, can change the literal world.

But it also illustrates that the only thing manifest about our destiny is that climate will drive it.

A line chart from the US Department of Agriculture showing rising and falling wheat productivity, with a general downward trend since about 1960 and a drastic collapse in the past two years.
Source: US Department of Agriculture, Bloomberg

Though it is getting little attention outside of commodity markets, the US wheat crop collapsed this year. We now have to import wheat from Europe, giving aid to top exporter Russia and expanded leverage to their control of Ukrainian export. Even at the height of the Dust Bowl, we didn’t see such a drop in production. And the trend has been clearly downward for decades.

This is being driven by climate, as there is evidence that the dividing line no longer lives at 100 degrees west, but two degrees further east, effectively absorbing the eastern half of North Dakota, South Dakota, and Nebraska and the majority of Oklahoma and Texas. That this tightly correlates to the areas where we grow wheat in the United States isn’t coincidence, nor is it Tragically Hip. This is an effect of global warming.

A map of the contiguous 48 US states, with dots indicating locations of wheat production and the majority of dots being located in Texas, Oklahoma, Kansas, Colorado, and the Dakotas.
Source: US Wheat Associates

Water isn’t just disappearing from the skies of the Great Plains, but also from the Intermountain West. The Great Salt Lake is failing. The Colorado River is suffering from a multi-decade decline. I’m currently breathing in smoke in Denver from Canadian wildfires brought about by record heat. It hasn’t escaped my attention that this is a lung cancer risk for my family and me and that I can blame a scientifically-estimated 37% of the wildfire smoke we’re breathing on the climate emissions of 88 major fossil fuel companies.

This isn’t just in the United States, either.Last week in Science, a paper was published stating that more than half of the world’s large lakes were drying up. The primary reason? You guessed it – climate change, followed by human use. Nearly 2 billion people live within these dying watersheds.

One particularly vivid example is around the Australian “Black Summer” bushfires of 2019-2020. Quickly forgotten as the fires’ abatement coincided with the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, they were caused by incredible climate-related aridity and burned almost 92,000 square miles of land. That’s an area bigger than 38 different US states and lands between Minnesota and Michigan. It was extreme enough that it likely pushed the world into three years of La Niña, with effects likely including hurricanes in North America, droughts in Africa, and crop failures in South America. It also damaged the recovery of the hole in the ozone layer.

An image of the fires in 2019-2020 in New South Wales, Australia.
Credit: NASA

Though it takes time for the science to document impacts, the most upsetting impacts are the widespread reports of children from the Black Summer who are suffering long-term medical impacts, including the children of women pregnant during the time and born with black and gritty placentae. If you have a chance, I’d encourage you to watch the video, but you can read about it here.

Why am I writing all of this? I think it is important for us all, even those deeply involved, to take periodic stock of the consequences of global warming and climate change news. We’re watching the world we know change before our eyes in ways that are causing and will continue to cause sorrow and suffering.

I also think it is critical that everyone decides how they fit into the problem and whether they will be a part of the solution. More plainly: What story are you a part of?

Here are the choices as I see them. You can either:

  • Pretend it isn’t happening for as long as you can ignore it.
  • Acknowledge the reality and deny your ability to affect the outcome.
  • Get into the fight.

I chose the third option and I think you should, too. You aren’t truly ignorant, so there won’t be bliss with option one and the helplessness of option two only leads to depression.

But option 3? There’s power in it. The same forces that drove environmental stress – story and economics – can drive its recovery. It will give you purpose. It will give you happiness. More importantly, it will make a difference.

So how can we stop climate change?

The IPCC says that every decision matters and every fraction of a degree matters, so make every decision with climate up front, whether large or small.

But in my opinion, the biggest lever you have in making change is your relationship with work. Your footprint is relatively small when compared with that of your employer and your co-workers. The beauty is that you don’t have to change the world, just the minds of a few people you already know. Getting them to be part of the solution is where you can make a real difference.

In spite of the real and building challenges, I remain stubbornly optimistic. If you are part of the solution to climate, I think you could be optimistic, too.

This should be part of your story.

Mike Smith
May 22, 2023

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