The Independent Newsweekly
Issue Date: November 21, 2003
Talking about the weather
Affluent northern nations may benefit from global warming, but the poorest nations will suffer
By ROSEMARY RUETHER
I have recently moved from the Chicago area to California, a return after 35 years in which I lived in Washington, and then in Evanston, Ill. For several years before that move I bilocated, teaching in Berkeley, Calif., in the fall and in Evanston in the winter and spring. I currently bilocate in a different way, living in Claremont, Calif., in the Los Angeles area weekends and holidays and in Berkeley during the school year. These migrations have afforded me an opportunity to compare weather talk in these locations.
One thing that struck me with some astonishment when I began to teach in Berkeley was what I came to call California weather chauvinism. Californians assume they have the best weather in the world, and this fact somehow reflects their personal glory and allows them to look down on everyone from other areas of the country as pathetically benighted. During the years when I traveled back and forth from the Bay area of California to the Chicago area, people in California frequently expressed their surprise that I was actually going to Chicago in December. When I returned to California from such travels, people would ask me in a pitying voice, How was the weather? I would cheerfully declare that the weather was beautiful. Bright sun, with blue skies and soft, clean white snow on the ground, I would report. I would then enjoy the mixture of disbelieving astonishment and disappointment that came over their faces.
Now that I bilocate between the Los Angeles and the Berkeley areas, I find myself caught between the rival weather chauvinisms of southern and northern California. During the summer in Claremont, the weather is hot and sunny during the day, a dry desert heat that I generally find pleasant. Early mornings and evenings are typically cool. Despite what, to my mind, was quite livable weather, I found myself assaulted several times in the library as to why I was so maladroit as to be in Claremont in the summer when I could be in Berkeley. Exactly why these several people felt they needed to tell me this in an air-conditioned library escaped me. I responded with the lame comment, Weather isnt everything. One day, while walking in the pleasantly cool early morning in Claremont, I came across one of these weather monitors jogging in the other direction. Weather suit you? I inquired.
This summer, the weather in the Berkeley area has had spells of unseasonable heat, and this has continued well into September. I recently returned from a weekend in Claremont to find the temperatures in the 90s during the day in Berkeley. Everyone was complaining bitterly about the heat. One woman, on passing me on the steps, remarked angrily to me, This is Southern California weather and you can have it, as if I had personally brought this warm weather to Berkeley. I pulled my Chicago trick and said, Oh, it was lovely and cool in Claremont, a slight lie, but worth it to see the disappointment.
This sort of California-style complaining about the weather differs markedly from Chicago weather talk. People in Chicago talk ruefully about the weather and trade tales of long weeks of subzero weather with heavy snow, as if surviving such weather was a personal accomplishment. Bad weather is something to endure, and ones capacity to endure it something to boast about. By contrast, people in California seem to assume they have a right to perfect weather. If it is not perfect, they should complain.
We may all have further reason to comment on the weather and to find new culprits for heat and storms. Climatologists tell us that the Earth has exhibited slow swings of temperature -- from ice ages to milder periods -- over hundreds of thousands of years, closely correlated with the amount of carbon dioxide in the air, which has varied from 180 to 280 parts per million. However, in the last 200 years we have been pouring carbon dioxide into the atmosphere at an unprecedented rate, raising the level to 370 parts per million and threatening to go much higher. This is caused by the burning of fossil fuels, coal, oil and gas, drawn from ancient buried forests. In effect, we are converting this buried carbon below the earth into gaseous carbon in the atmosphere. This is causing the melting of the polar ice caps, rising sea levels and wilder storms.
Those who profit from this fossil fuel economy, the elites of the world, especially in the West, show little disposition to take this threat seriously, and in fact the present Bush administration has refused to accept even the modest efforts to curb atmospheric gasses agreed to by most of the other nations of the world in Kyoto, Japan, in 2000. Whether the unusually hot weather in Europe this summer was a foretaste of such global warming is not yet certain. Other than the ELF (Environment Liberation Front) activists, people in the Northern Hemisphere have not yet turned on the SUV owners and others who make extravagant use of fossil fuels for being the culprits who bring the warm weather, perhaps because we know it is us.
The irony of the predicted climate change is that it may actually make parts of the Northern Hemisphere more pleasant, perhaps allowing a longer growing season. A friend from Oslo wrote me that the hot weather in Europe simply made for a delightful summer, with much swimming and boating in Norway. On the other hand, many small island nations in the South Pacific look forward with fear to losing their countries altogether from rising seas. Low-lying cities may become permanently flooded and uninhabitable. This is likely to affect the poorest countries in the world the most severely. We might say that humans are only paying for their sins, the sins of greedy affluence. But the god of climate change does not seem to be a just god. Those who sin the most, the northern nations, will suffer less and may even benefit, while those who burn the fewest fossil fuels, the poor southern nations, will be the ones to pay the biggest price. Whos talking about the weather?
Rosemary Radford Ruether is the Carpenter Professor of Feminist Theology at the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley, Calif.
National Catholic Reporter, November 21, 2003
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