Aaron Sawatsky-Kingsley

Aaron Sawatsky-Kingsley

This past week, the fourth annual Indiana Climate Leadership Summit was held in Goshen. The prior three summits occurred in Indianapolis.

The gathering brought together mayors, municipal officials and employees, farmers and scientists, engineers and landscapers, gardeners and lawyers, and many residents from across Indiana. They came from as far south as Evansville and Bloomington, as far west as West Lafayette, as far east as Richmond, and a few from Ohio.

Significantly, there was a large high school contingent, with students from Goshen, Elkhart, Manchester, Indianapolis area and Lafayette. The purpose was to hear about and discuss the latest information on climate change and its impacts for us, in this state.

One of the themes which I heard most clearly — which seemed to be picked up by different speakers in different ways through the day — is that climate change is a symptom, not the disease. That’s not necessarily a new idea, but in the context of this summit, and in much of the content, this is what I heard: higher summer heat, many more days above 95 degrees, fewer and fewer days below freezing, more heavy precipitation events, more flooding, more invasive plants, animals and pests, degradation of existing ecosystems, increased stress on existing infrastructure (concrete, asphalt, stormwater systems, energy), exacerbation of human health and economic conditions especially among the most vulnerable. These are symptoms, impacts, of climate change; these are some of the things which we are feeling now, and which we will feel more of in the future.

Several of the speakers addressed these symptoms and impacts in great detail. Climate scientists from the universities of Purdue and Notre Dame highlighted updated information from the Indiana Climate Change Impacts Assessment (https://ag.purdue.edu/indianaclimate/). Their work, along with the work of many others, has focused climate projection science not only on the state of Indiana, but now on to every county in the state.

A water engineer spoke about the large challenges of planning for these larger and more frequent flood events — how to identify neighborhoods at most risk, how to protect them, how to make decisions about moving people and property, and ultimately how to make water move.

The Midwest generally, and Indiana more particularly, are expected to experience more flooding in the future, especially in late winter.

Dr. Alan Hamlet from Notre Dame made this point: the longer we take to do something about the causes of climate change, the greater and longer-lasting the impacts will be. If we wait to do something for another 30 years, and then decide that we don’t like what we’re living with, it will be too late; there will be no way to go back.

The analogy of symptom and disease works very well. The longer the symptoms are ignored — the longer the disease is allowed to persist — the greater the damage will be and the more irreversible the effects will become. It is important to treat the symptom, to learn how to live with the effects of a given disease, and hopefully lessen those effects. But ultimately, unless the disease itself is addressed, a body’s health will remain continually compromised and likely deteriorating.

Author and professor Dr. David Orr gave the keynote address. He focused on the disease, on the cause of climate change. In doing so, he actually talked very little about climate change — other than to note that the images of it which we see (wildfires, flooding, refugees) are not pictures of what climate change will look like in the future, but what it looks like at the beginning, at the very outset. What he talked about instead was democracy and discourse. He wondered about the capacity of our society to have meaningful public and private conversations about any number of things. He wondered about the extent to which we are unable to live with uncertainty — again, about any number of things — and so instead retreat into blind silos of rigid dogma. He wondered whether our democracy has devolved into a zero-sum kind of game, as though it is something which can be captured and won and held by one team or another, rather than an ongoing conversation. He wondered most importantly, whether the religion of “I, me and mine” has been deemed holier than the spirit of “we, us and ours.”

We, us and ours. My feeling is that the breadth and depth to which we can extend those words, those concepts — that is, the number and varieties of people and organisms who we can include — will define our ability to address the disease at the root of climate change.

Aaron Sawatsky-Kingsley is Goshen’s urban forester. He can be reached at aaronkingsley@maplenet.net or at 537-0986

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