In southeastern Minnesota where I recently gave a couple of talks, ice fishing shacks normally dot the many lakes this time of year. Cross-country skiing and ice-skating are everyday activities in winter. And, those not inclined to winter sports are normally forced to participate in the universal winter recreation of snow shoveling.
But, this is not a normal winter in Minnesota, nor indeed in the whole upper Midwest. On a lake near where I was staying, only one lone ice fishing shack could be seen just off the shore. My host said the ice was simply too thin for anyone to venture beyond that point.
How curious then that the response of many Minnesotans to the warmest winter in decades was to say how lovely the weather is. There are those like my friend, of course, who are disappointed that all their usual winter activities are curtailed. But even an ice-skating instructor whom I met at a coffee shop complained on the one day it got below freezing that it was too bad the weather had suddenly gotten so cold! This from a Minnesotan for whom 20 degrees can seem like a heat wave in the dead of winter.
The proximate cause of this warm weather has been the failure of the jet stream to dip down from Canada into the United States. But the longer-term cause can no longer be ignored as we have just concluded the warmest year on record. Global warming has arrived in Minnesota, and the consensus opinion is in: It's great!
It is here where the troubling tale of delayed feedbacks enters the story. The global warming we are experiencing today is the result of greenhouse gasses spewed into the atmosphere as of 30 years ago. And, since the rate of release for such gasses has only increased since that time, we can expect some rather nasty results 30 years hence. Perhaps Minnesotans believe that three decades from now they will be celebrating their state's new status as a tropical paradise. More likely, they will wonder about the grain harvest which is so critical to the Minnesota economy, a harvest increasingly likely to be devastated by droughts. They will wonder whether the mild winters are worth the exceedingly hot summers that will regularly take the lives of many who are frail but cannot afford the mandatory air-conditioning. They will wonder whether they should have looked so idly upon the myriad coal trains that passed through the state every day en route to the Midwest's many coal-fired power plants.
We are like the proverbial lobster sitting in cold water in a pot on the stove; the warmth that comes from the flame underneath at first seems welcome. As the temperature rises, the poor lobster moves aimlessly in the pot enjoying the new climate. Finally, gradually, without any announcement, the temperature exceeds the lobster's tolerable range and he or she becomes dinner. Of course, to save the lobster one would only have to turn the burner off before the water reaches the critical temperature. While turning a burner off only takes a second, turning off global warming will not be so easy; it could take a generation or two, and then only if we are very serious about it.
It is we who are now in the pot as the temperature slowly rises across the globe. But our bodies are giving us a deceptive signal. The warm winter weather seems like a gift, rather than a curse, from nature--even to those who accept global warming as real and potentially very dangerous.
It is a gargantuan effort for the mind to contradict the body and tell us that something which seems so pleasant now will be our undoing. But, human beings are uniquely capable of this, and, in truth, that capability is our only hope.