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A climate-change activist prepares for the worst

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“The era of procrastination, of half-measures, of soothing and baffling expedients, of delays, is coming to its close. In its place we are entering a period of consequences.” – Winston Churchill

By Mike Tidwell Posted Feb 28, 2011

Climate ChangeTen years ago, I put solar panels on my roof and began eating locally grown food. I bought an energy-efficient refrigerator that uses the power equivalent of a single light bulb. I started heating my home with a stove that burns organically fertilized corn kernels. I even restored a gas-free lawn mower for manual yard-work.

As a longtime environmental activist, I was deeply alarmed by new studies on global warming, so I went all out. I did my part.

Now I’m changing my life again. Today, underneath the solar panels, there’s a new set of deadbolt locks on all my doors. There’s a new Honda GX390 portable power generator in my garage, ready to provide backup electricity. And last week I bought a starter kit to raise tomatoes and lettuce behind barred basement windows.

I’m not a survivalist or an “end times” enthusiast. When it comes to climate change, I’m just a realist.

I haven’t given up the cause. I still work overtime to promote clean energy, and I take solace when top climate scientists say we can still avoid the worst effects of global warming if we move quickly. It’s just that, well, we’re running out of time.

The proof is everywhere – outside my front door, in my neighborhood, on the news. After a decade of failure to address climate change at the national and international levels, our weather has gone haywire. In the Washington region alone, in barely a year, we’ve annihilated all records for snow accumulation, we’ve seen appalling power outages associated with year-round thunderstorms, and we’ve experienced the hottest summer in the 140 years we’ve been measuring. Winston Churchill’s oft-quoted warning on the eve of World War II now applies directly: “The era of procrastination, of half-measures, of soothing and baffling expedients, of delays, is coming to its close. In its place we are entering a period of consequences.”

Those consequences explain the generator in my garage and why I’m reinforcing my basement windows to protect emergency supplies.

This may seem like a stunt, or a sign that this frustrated environmentalist has finally lost it. But I’m not crazy. Just wait. The mega-storms and social disruptions on the horizon will be the best proof of that.

It wasn’t the wildfires that blackened much of Russia last summer that led me to buy my portable generator, nor the unspeakable rains in Pakistan that inundated nearly a quarter of that country. It was the one-two punch of thunderstorms that blew through the D.C. area on July 25 and Aug. 12 of last year. The first storm, with wind gusts of 90 mph, knocked out power to 400,000 people and generated a wave of lightning that, by a freak tragedy, killed my friend Carl Henn at a community picnic in Rockville.

The second storm hit while I was in the parking lot of a TV station in Northwest Washington, about to be interviewed about Arctic ice melt. Suddenly, darkness overcame us, and it became midnight at 8 a.m. The street lamps flickered on. Cars turned on their headlights. And I saw the largest, darkest, windiest thunderstorm I’d ever seen, approaching from the west. I whipped out my cellphone and called my wife in Takoma Park. “Go to the basement now!” I said. Inside the TV studio, I watched the anchors switch to a live report about apartment dwellers trapped by a massive fallen oak as the first of more than 100,000 homes began to lose power. Houses across the area were ripped open by wind and crashing tree trunks.

Throughout 2010, my neighborhood lost power more times than I can remember. This included blackouts during the “Snowmageddon” storms, of course, when Washington traded in sidewalks for white trenches and roads for deep canyons. And yes, major snowfall events are increasing in the eastern United States even as the planet warms, according to data from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

It makes sense, too. We’re not setting records for average low temperatures, after all. Not even close. We’re setting records for precipitation intensity across a huge swath of America, in summer and in winter. A warmer atmosphere evaporates more water from oceans and lakes. And what goes up must come down. Last year was the wettest year on record worldwide, NOAA announced last month. That’s what’s driving the snow extremes – while the mercury rises.

After the August storm, I made the financially painful decision to buy the Honda generator. My solar panels, by themselves, can’t power my home. I spent $1,000 on the generator, money that would have gone into my 13-year-old son’s college fund. I’ve expanded my definition of how best to plan for his future.

On the security side, it was the global food riots of 2008 and 2010 that led me to replace the 50-year-old locks on all my doors last fall. I’m not normally the paranoid type, but when extreme weather alternately baked and flooded wheat fields in Australia and Russia, helping to jack up grain prices more than 40 percent worldwide and leading hungry people to protest from Mexico to Mozambique to Serbia, I took notice. After all, the many climate effects we’re already seeing – massive wildfires, bigger hurricanes, astonishing Arctic ice melt – all result from just 1.2 degrees of planetary warming since 1900. Now scientists at the U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change say the planet could warm another five degrees by the end of this century.

After all, the many climate effects we’re already seeing – massive wildfires, bigger hurricanes, astonishing Arctic ice melt – all result from just 1.2 degrees of planetary warming since 1900. Now scientists at the U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change say the planet could warm another five degrees by the end of this century.

If that happens, Iowa is done for. Corn and wheat will wither and die on a scale never before seen. That’s because heat-triggered mega-droughts will intensify across much of America’s “continental interior” regions, scientists say, as flooding increases elsewhere. Iowa and much of the Heartland will resemble a scrub desert.

How will we feed ourselves adequately if our breadbasket is a desert? Answer: We won’t, and there will be social unrest as a result. How much is anyone’s guess, but people don’t sit still when food gets scarce. Indeed, when the options are extreme hunger or pillaging the neighboring village, history tends to favor pillaging.

So I even took my first-ever lesson in firearms use last December, an introduction to skeet shooting. I told myself it was in part for sport, but I did it mostly to test various types of shotguns for eventual purchase. I’m fundamentally a pacifist, and I’m not planning to join the Earth Liberation Front or some such militia. Eco-crazies who sabotage Hummers and burn suburban-sprawl homes are just that: crazy. I coach Little League and go to church on Sundays and contribute to a 401(k). I’m normal. But wouldn’t even a level-headed person want to be ready to defend his family if climate chaos goes to the max?

My wife and son, meanwhile, have obviously noticed the changes I’m making around the house. My son, when not focused on his iPod or skateboard, thinks the Honda generator is cool and wants to be the one to yank the pull-cord starter during the next storm. And my wife, God bless her, accepts the truth about what’s happening to our planet. She knows we have to prepare.

My actions may seem alarmist to just about everyone else, I realize. And if you think so, I can’t really blame you. I’d be confused about climate change, too, if I got most of my information from the half-asleep news media, much less the committed disinformers at Fox News and the Heritage Foundation. Virginia Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli’s witch hunt targeting a climate researcher at the University of Virginia? The “climate-gate” e-mail flap in Britain, which doubters said proved scientific malpractice? These scandals are trivial, irrelevant and depressing beyond measure. They delay collective action to solve the problem – and they hasten my desire to prepare for the worst.

But here’s a question for Cuccinelli and other skeptics: Why would private insurance companies lie about climate change? Already, Allstate has stopped selling new homeowners’ policies in coastal Virginia and Maryland because the warming Atlantic Ocean is bringing larger hurricanes to the region. And Munich Re, one of the largest insurance companies in the world and a leader in drawing attention to the role of carbon emissions in driving global warming, announced in January that weather-related disasters soared in 2010, providing “further indications of advancing climate change.”

Those still unimpressed should just hang on – more is on the way. Surely we can all admit that the weather’s been strange lately, that we’ve heard our friends and neighbors utter the words “I never saw that before” with increasing regularity. Four or five power outages in a year? The Jan. 26 traffic disaster, when staggering masses of Washingtonians were stuck on flash-frozen roads for hours and hours and hours? Wildfires in February shutting down highways? Never seen any of those before.

Anecdotal, you might say – so let me predict a few more anecdotes. Our trees are going to keep falling in ways we’ve never seen before. Our streets are going to flood. Our neighborhood bridges will wash out. Our roofs will sag from freak snowstorms and bake from unimaginable heat. And our power will keep going out, no matter how many “service improvements” Pepco makes. We’ve waited too long to avoid all this.
That I already understand it just means I’ve probably gotten a better price for my backyard generator than you will once the rush starts.

Sure, sometimes I wonder if doing all this sends the wrong message – if talk of barred windows and home generators undermines the message of positive social action needed to combat climate change. But if we’re honest, we have to admit that we’ve already lost a significant part of the battle. I only hope that this realization can shock and motivate us to push harder for wind farms, electric cars or other solutions that are still possible.

But if we’re honest, we have to admit that we’ve already lost a significant part of the battle.

In his new book, “Eaarth,” the great nature writer Bill McKibben purposely misspells the name of our planet because that old planet no longer exists; the once-dependable seasons and crop-nourishing rains that gave rise to human civilization are gone. McKibben worries about security, about “fighting other adult males over the fall harvest,” as he puts it, even as he emphasizes the plausible goal of creating locally self-sufficient economies that can help us survive climate change. Life will be more difficult in this new world, McKibben admits. But life has been difficult for humans for most of our history, and somehow our ancestors pushed on.

So that’s what I’m doing. I’m pushing on. I’m adjusting. Ten years ago, I put solar panels on my roof as an act of love for the planet. Now I’m making new changes, focused on my immediate loved ones. The era of consequences, at every conceivable level, has entered our world.

Ready or not.


Mike Tidwell is executive director of the Chesapeake Climate Action Network. His most recent Outlook essay was “To really save the planet, stop going green.”

Posted in Preparedness Tags , ,
  • Mia

    I think you're being realistic in planning to take care fo your family. You sound defensive about this but it's the people who are denying reality who should be defensive. I'm lookingfor a home with enough property to grow food on. People used to build fallout shelters in their yards during the cold war, I think the threats today are even more real and we all be preparing to be more independent. Thank you.

    • Greg Seaman

      I remember neighbors building fallout shelters in their back yards. Today's threats are no less real, and reasonable precautions are far less expensive and easier to undertake. I think your goal of finding property to grow on makes good sense, regardless of the outcome of climate changes.

  • Jamal

    Thank you for this article. We have been thinking this way for some time now and hearing that others are as well makes us feel less "crazy". We are realists who also see warning signs. The problem we face is that we are in our mid-twenties and do not have a house or large capital reserves or pensions to build a safety barrier around us. I know several people in the same predicament. Outrageous home prices, high living costs and lack of decent paying jobs have made it near impossible for our generation to have many of the things mentioned in your article. I guess we might have to join the "Earth Liberation Front". Would love a follow up article with your thoughts on how a aware, committed young population might weather the upcoming storm.

    • Greg Seaman

      Your comment is a good one Jamal, and gets to the point which many people may be thinking.
      I don't have a simple answer for anyone, but I can offer this suggestion. The solutions which best suit you will come from you, by thinking creatively and working with your friends who share similar feelings. I see young people in my community who are exploring new ways of living and sharing, and they have limited resources and money. They are independent thinkers and not following prevalent models of living that are hard to achieve and unsustainable.
      What worked for me, as a young man with no money and a longing to live independently in nature, was to join with other people and form a land coop. It's too long a story to go into here, but it enabled us to live at very low cost in an area where we could build our own homes, grow our food and live independently.
      I'll try to write more about this in the future, but if you want to talk more you can email me at greg@eartheasy.com.

  • zara

    even without the threat of climate change its a good idea to plan for emergencys and prepare for food and service shortage. we are learning to grow our food and ways to save food and water.

    • Emma

      makes good sense to me too. why not learn ways to be independent and more efficient? considering the state of our planet and economy, this is what schools shoud be teaching.

  • Oyunaraci

    Thanks for taking the time to post this article, If possible, as you gain expertise, would you mind updating your site with more information?

  • bradappleton

    I think being prepared for a disaster of whatever nature is just being prudent. Humans are generally complacent until things happen close to home that make them realize they are not immune. I live in New Zealand and just a few hundred kilometers away Christchurch, a city of about 400k, was hit by an earthquake that caused $20 billion worth of damage. I have food and water storage already but I have certainly checked and re-assessed the adequacy of what I have stored.

    • Greg Seaman

      Well said Brad.

  • Sesli Panel

    Thank you wery much

  • Eduardo

    i saw a video on youtube which says that by 2060 there will be no water on earth.. but i did read on bible that the world will end and that in the last days the sun would be 7 times more hot!

  • Lissa

    Very interesting article and a very serious issue. I wonder how your generator is powered though? Surely if its natural gas that would be more difficult to sustain long term than other alternatives? I do think learning to be more self sufficient is important these days in a highly consumer driven culture. Its scary to think about how reliant we are on purchasing almost everything we "need" for everyday life. I am hoping that with the recent world developments such as Libya and Egypt, even people who oppose change for environmental reasons will see that moving toward things like alternative energy is a worth while effort.

  • Les

    I think you are wise to prepare but I don't think bars on the window is going to do much. If things get that bad I mean. Developing networks of support among like minded friends seems like the first and maybe best approach to take.

  • Dave

    Kudos! Don't feel like an alarmist…I believe you are right! We ARE reactionary. Until it hits us between the eyes, humans in general are complacent. A little preparation goes a long way. My worry would be if things don't go well and you're one of the few who are prepared, it's gonna get ugly. Let's hope that doesn't happen!

  • Connor

    The tone of the article is defensive but shouldn't be. Being prepared is just common sense. I have preparation for short and long term emergencies. It's not bunker mentality, it's responsibility.

  • BlakeR

    The signs of climate change are all around, and the boy scouts have it right – be prepared. I'm saving for a country home where we can be more independent.

  • http://www.acnedietsreview.org Anthony Vanwhy

    The Churchill quote is one of my favorites. Big changes have been happening recently. One can hope they are unrelated or coincidental, that they won't snowball into more, but it's a very real danger. Congratulations for being one of the few who does their part.

  • http://www.opirguoft.org?p=4548 herbalife

    I like this blog very much so much fantastic info . “Fate chooses your relations, you choose your friends.” by Jacques Delille.

  • http://www.tchernovcable.com Cable

    We in Germany are also actively use solar panels. But in winter the power of these batteries is not enough.
    And I heard that there is a technology that the cable in the ground dig in and it gives more heat.
    If anyone knows share your opinion?

  • ben b

    Join the scientifically aware. Change is happening.
    Asking if this is normal is asking if you want the approval of the crowd.
    I am preparing for contingencies, just not publicly announcing it.
    And find the cost of preparation about par with buying more expensive insurance policies.
    If you need extra food and supplies, you will be thankful for the expense invested.
    If you never use the contingency supplies, no different from an unneeded insurance premium.

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