We may live in a post-truth era, but nature does not


Cynthia Barnett

TRUTH does not always find the light. But there is one truth that outs every time, and that is nature. Spurning the doubt still funded and spread by the fossil fuel industry, Earth’s temperatures are rising with carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, triggering longer droughts, more-extreme rains and many other troubles. The deluges setting records in Southern California are as real as the record drought they are extinguishing. Like an earthquake rattling fracked Oklahoma, nature’s truths are bluntest in times when the nation has ignored its best scientists, quashed reports to benefit industries and been awash in fake news. And those times have been frequent.
In the 1910s and 1920s, another land boom spread across the Plains, luring a new generation of farmers unaware of the previous century’s drought disaster. Tractors that could rip through thick native grasslands replaced the old plows. Bullish news stories on generous rainfall, war-inflated wheat prices and farm subsidies helped bring tens of thousands of settlers. When wheat prices collapsed, farmers with large mortgage payments responded by tearing up even more of the grasses that had evolved over thousands of years to hold the Earth together in dry times. Early ecologists warned of need for a conservation ethic. Most farmers never heard those warnings. Those who heard them did not believe.
The next great drought settled in around 1930 and seared for a decade. Summer temperatures passed 115 degrees. Thousands died from the extreme heat. When hot prairie winds met stripped ground, they kicked up violent black dust storms. These storms really did follow the plow. Rather than rain, they carried millions of pounds of dirt. After riding out blinding blizzards in Oklahoma on Black Sunday in 1935, AP reporter Robert Geiger dubbed the region “the Dust Bowl.” In response, writes environmental historian Donald Worster, chambers of commerce formed “truth squads” that worked systematically “to deny, and to repress, Dust Bowl label.” But winds would not be censored. They blew five more years of dust and death.
At the close of 2016, the Oxford English Dictionary declared “post-truth” its word of the year. The adjective is defined as “relating to or denoting circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief.” But Earth and its breath — the climate — paid no heed. Nature had its own declaration, ending 2016 as the hottest year in the global record, the third consecutive record-breaking year.
The climate does not care that new Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, the former Exxon Mobile CEO, and Oklahoma Atty. Gen. Scott Pruitt, nominee to lead the Environmental Protection Agency, continue to repress the scientific consensus that greenhouse gas emissions are causing its warming. The oceans — their sea levels, temperatures and acidity all on the rise — do not read Breitbart News in the United States or the Daily Mail in the United Kingdom, which by spreading science denial put the most vulnerable at risk. Regardless of alternative facts, fake news or scientific censorship, nature tells the truth. That truth will flood in torrential rains. It will sear in extended droughts. It will sweep into coastal homes, especially where it has been suppressed; in North Carolina, for example, where the state general assembly banned the use of sea-level rise projections in coastal policymaking, and in South Florida, where thousands of condos and rental apartments are under construction in areas known for serious tidal flooding.
As in historic droughts, floods and hurricanes, the wealthy — including the peddlers of falsehoods — will be able to move or bunker up. Those who are poorer, and the ill prepared, will be left to face the truth directly. “Post-truth” may be the word of the year, but nature always has the last word. The writer is author of three water books, including “Rain: A Natural and Cultural History.” She is environmental journalist in residence at the University of Florida’s College of Journalism and Communications.
— Courtesy: Los Angeles Times