The sky is not falling: lessons learned from nature and climate change

I arrived in Boulder on September 11th, 2013, the first day of the historic 2013 floods. I spent Wednesday night in Fourmile Canyon at a little creekside hotel. I watched as the quaint little creek turned into a raging river, flooding the far side of the property and floating away a large gas grill like it was a an innertube. Boulders tumbled down stream and crashed into the wooden footbridge that joined the hotel rooms to the now-flooded picnic area across the creek. Eventually, I decided to return to my room where I fell asleep to the sound of water and dreamt of floods and changing landscapes.

            When I mention to people that I was in Fourmile canyon that night I am frequently met with shock and awe. “Were you okay?” They ask, often concerned that I had spent the night in one of the hardest hit areas. “Yes” I explain, “The hotel is built on solid granite on the high side of the river.” However, this technical explanation does little to quell the fear instilled by the thought of spending a night in a narrow canyon during a 1000-year flood. There is something innately unnerving about powerful natural phenomena that obscures the often important details of the event and limits our ability to see the nuances of what is unfolding. Nature is always more intricate than we can currently observe.

            The floods made national news and lots of people who live on the Front Range got calls from friends and family during those days of rain. The vast majority of folks who live on the Front Range, however, were relatively unaffected. Homes that lay on the outside corner of a bend in a river saw water leap the banks and flood the house, or worse, the force of the water eroded the land at the bend in the river and the house collapsed. Water fanned out in flat areas drowning structures that lay there. Normally dry drainages in the mountains became raging torrents of mud and debris, washing out roads and anything that was built too close. There was so much water that it bubbled from the sewers where it then ran down hill and into neighborhoods that were nowhere near the flood plain of a creek or river. The ground was so saturated that water cascaded down hillsides turning the normally arid sagebrush ecosystem into ephemeral waterfalls. Some of these hillsides also collapsed as their once-strong soil became waterlogged and unstable.  Even in this widespread rain event where flooding was experienced from Fort Collins to Colorado Springs, the hazards were localized. Only a handful of particular hydrological phenomena were responsible for the loss of life and property. The exact mechanisms of damage were very specific and difficult to foresee.

            Yet for all the different ways that damage was caused, there were also many ways in which damage was averted. Similar to what happens when a tornado or a wildfire hits a populated area, some houses were totaled while others merely feet away averted any major damage. The damage was specific to that terrain, at that point in time, with that particular pattern of rain. However, the perception of damage was different. The prevailing lore about the floods seems more akin to broad-brush strokes of destruction rather than the pinpointed areas of damage that were the reality. My experience of the flood stands as a reminder that nature is far more nuanced than it’s often given credit for, and natural disasters are not the indiscriminate catastrophes that we imagine them to be. Even natural disasters adhere to the laws of physics. Even hurricanes are tranquil at their core.

            The discussion around climate change is loaded with catastrophic rhetoric. Examples of sea level rise, ocean desalinization, the unchecked spread of tropical diseases, shifts in the magnetic poles of the earth, massive rapid expulsions of natural gas, no more snow, no more food, "the sky is falling"; the list of theoretical effects of climate change is long and growing. It seems that every week there is a new “earth shattering” effect of climate change that requires our immediate attention or else. Or else what? My intention here is not to take issue with the projections about climate change. I am not a physical scientist. Instead, I work with the human mind, which happens to be exceptionally good at misconceiving risk and consequences especially when danger is involved.

            There are many people who misconceive risk toward the negative end, negating the risk that climate change poses to us. There are also those with a tendency to misconceive risk on the positive end. The air of Armageddon that taints the climate change debate is an example of such a misconception. The nuances of the reality of nature—how it acts, what it does—have no place in the catastrophic rhetoric that surrounds climate change.  Mother nature is far more complex than the latest not-so-veiled proclamation of apocalyptic doom. Give mother earth a bit of credit, eh? The earth works in mysterious ways, and often not immediately. Nature is a process. Changes as significant as the climate not only take time, but also occur in unfathomably complex ways.

            I need to be careful here, since this line of thinking could easily lead down the familiar path of complacency. That is not my intention. Something is happening and climate change is the most significant event of modern history. However, it’s essential to note that the debate around climate change is steeped in urgency and annihilation. These are simply not the ways of nature. Urgency and annihilation are, however, frequent intruders in the human psyche, built on structures of anxiety that harken back to that earliest time in life when our only capacity is to elicit and accept care from our environment. The prevailing rhetoric around climate change is simply incongruous with the nature of nature.

            Paul C. Stern of the National Research Council recently said: “The only thing we can say accurately is that we don’t really know what’s happening.” Wise words, however we must be careful not to let this uncertainty shapeshift into complacency and disbelief of climate change. While I agree with Mr. Stern’s lauding of uncertainty, I’d add that we can also speak to our own realities and that the “real” reality of climate change lies somewhere at the intersection of our collective and subjective experiences of it, maybe with a little something that nobody’s thought of. Nature always surprises us.

            In my reality, much of our lives are predicated on consuming more resources than we create. In my reality, our culture childishly expects the world to be there “for us” and cannot tolerate any way in which it is not. In my reality, human beings are terrified of nature and need to keep it separate and subordinate. In my reality, the earth and its inhabitants are changing but human beings are ill equipped to predict the these changes. In my reality, climate change will be more complex and nuanced than anyone can imagine. In my reality, the sky is not falling and the sun will shine tomorrow.