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Passionate thinking about climate change from an environmental scientist and toxicologist

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I’ve heard pundits state there is no solid evidence for global climate change, the data are inconclusive, even saying it’s exaggerated hype, that these changes are within statistical range for normal climate conditions, not anomalous for 50 to 100 year events. To them it is a point of debate.  For me and those I know, it’s more than theoretical, the heat waves, record cold, droughts, flooding, storms, water shortages, and fires are a reality. 

To those who have not quite felt the considerable cost of climate change I’d say to them, your time is coming.  Visit the towns, cities, and villages that have been decimated by the ravages of global change, to experience what it is like to survive and recover from these catastrophic conditions, to feel the hardships of rising temperatures and drought, to experience the heartbreaking loss of wildlife and their habitats, where changing landscapes, flooding, and rising sea levels are deadly realities.  Even if they are survivable, often the ensuing financial and emotional hardships feel insurmountable.  It may not be a single catastrophic event, but may manifest as a malignancy, rising produce costs, water restrictions, flood insurance prices, or no snow at the ski resort, are only early warning signs.

The trauma and anxiety, mental, spiritual and logistical challenges, and financial ruin are what survivors must live with, for days after, and sometimes even years. I survived many natural catastrophes: earthquakes that toppled freeways and buildings, wildfires that turned my town to ashes, droughts that made me value every drop of water, floods that turned creeks into rivers, mudslides that ripped chasms out of mountainsides, unimaginably massive hurricanes, tornadoes that shredded my barn and evaporated livestock, even 160 mile per hour windstorms that tore rooftops like paper and flipped cars down the street like tumbleweeds.  We like to think we know what we would do if we had to go through a natural disaster, but you don’t truly know until you actually go through it.  If you survived one, you don’t want to go through another.  No matter how well you prepare, you cannot fully predict the ensuing chaos, and that fear quietly resides in the hearts and psyche of those who survived these events.

I have lived and traveled to extreme climates as a lifelong environmental scientist and toxicologist, and sailing, surfing, mountaineering, skiing and climbing have trained me to be an avid observer of weather conditions.  I check NOAA websites and track meteorologic conditions daily.  In the case of “Superstorm Sandy” I felt a pit in my stomach that told me I was in harms way.  As reports rolled in, I weighed my instincts with storm history, statistical models, assessed the timing of landfall to tidal charts, and moon phase. I was able to take care of my needs early, then helped my neighbors and loved ones.  As the storm hit, I had already dry docked my sailboat, secured fresh water, my property, food, fuel, emergency/survival and sleeping/shelter gear, and reviewed contingency plans, and began helping loved ones prepare.

As the winds picked up and rain turned sideways, I watched the water levels rising from the Long Island Sound onto the roadways and towards the houses, and saw waves break in the park down my street.  Unlike before, the 80 year old houses below me, near sea level, were not just flooded, but swept away, gone.  No power, sirens, emergency lights, speeding news vans, were all familiar.  I was angry at myself.  As prepared as I was, there was something inside me that said I could have done more. 

 I knew years before Sandy hit that these storms were likely, but when I spoke to people, they felt helpless and upset.  It was the same when I spoke of toxic ecosystems 30+ years ago.  I am committed to the environment and human wellness, to make things better, to ease suffering.  I’ve endured hard battles to improve the planet, seen significant progress, but this is different.  It’s more universal, global.  There is no corporate polluter to go after, no obvious source to abate, no clear solution. Ethnicity, socioeconomic position, or any other human classification is meaningless in the face of global warming. It will affect everyone adversely.  If we lose our livable spaces, agricultural capacity, water supplies, and diminished natural resources, we will have no means to sustain ourselves.

 Looting, anti-social and inhumane behaviors are part of any natural disaster. My neighborhood was locked down for days after Sandy, because homes near me were looted.  But aside from some cold-hearted opportunists and hoarders, what I experienced was people coming together, sharing, helping, acting courageously, sharing, supporting and comforting in so many countless heartfelt ways.  Neighbors who I had only waved to for years, shared their lives with me, invited me into their homes to share food and drink, warmth, make repairs, or to simply comfort each other. This affirms my deep trust in humanity and Spirit, and reinforces my choice to be a minister and trained spiritual healer.

These monumental climate changes are forcing us to create bonds, to expand beyond our homes and neighborhoods, to connect with people and communities we may have never imagined who share similar human needs and desires. Nobody can stop the Ocean from surging, to believe that is folly, but to educate others about it is the responsible thing. We may not know the causes of global warming, but we can communicate what we know about it, and do everything we can to pool our vast resources, knowledge and experience, whether they’re high tech or ancient wisdoms.

If I am to act in a responsible manner, I have to help others grow beyond the lingering myths of global climate change and bring all my knowledge, skill, intuition and commitment to this problem as I have done with all of my life’s passions.

Jon Cuizon is a member of "Rethinking Home: Climate Change in New York and Samoa," a Museum Connect Project sponsored by The U.S Department of State and The American Alliance of Museums. 

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