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Rudy Perkins: Moving forward on climate

It was early October in 1993 and I was scouting garden story possibilities in France for my job at the time as associate producer for PBS’ national television program, “The Victory Garden.” Monsieur Lesteni, the head gardener in charge of the Jardin Alpin du Lautaret alpine botanic garden, had warned me that there were often early, heavy snowfalls on the road to the 2,000-meter-high mountain pass, Col du Lautaret, where the Lautaret garden was located.

There might not be much to see but snow when I got there. As an October snow shower turned serious, and the snow began to climb the hubcaps of my little rented Renault, sliding around the curves of Route Nationale 91 from Grenoble up to the pass, I could see what he meant.

At a roadside phone booth, I tried to get Lesteni on the phone to cancel the visit. “I’m sorry, but he’s left for an appointment up at Lautaret, Monsieur.” This was in the ancient days before cellphones were ubiquitous, so there was nothing to do but keep fishtailing up the highway towards the pass.

When I got there, I was glad I wasn’t able to cancel the appointment. A spectacular panorama of snow-topped alpine peaks towered around me in all directions. The mountain air was moist and chill with the last of the fine-grained snow spilling down across the pass. The quiet garden had been neatly tucked in for the winter, so I trudged through the crusting snow towards the alpine hut that served as the garden office.

Barely past the greetings and introductions, the plantsman launched into the story he wanted me to hear. “These alpine species, they’re running out of mountain.”

“Pardon, what did you say?” I asked, thinking something was getting lost in translation.

“They’re running out of mountain,” he repeated.

Lesteni then explained how alpine plant species that had adapted to, and needed, cold and deep snow cover to survive were “moving” up the mountains, “looking” for colder weather. Each one had specific altitude bands where it showed up in the mountains, where heavy snow was reliable winter cover from certain dates, and melted off by others. They counted on alpine certainties for survival.

But the temperatures in the Alps were rising, he said. Plants that used to do fine at 2,000 meters in elevation were disappearing there, and appearing at higher altitudes instead. They were looking for a deeper winter — a deeper winter that was disappearing lower in the Alps due to global warming.

I took note of the gardener’s warnings about the issue of climate change, or global warming as we still thought of it then, mostly because I’d never heard about this. He planted some small seed of concern in my thoughts. After that, I did a little writing connected to the issue, and went to the occasional march, demonstration, or talk about climate change, but have to confess that climate change still wasn’t always at the top of my list of concerns.

The nation faces many life and death issues — the possibility of expanded war in the Middle East, southwest Asia and Africa, drone strikes and presidentially ordered assassinations, domestic gun violence, the growing impoverishment of our children and the ongoing healthcare crisis, to name just a few. But a strong case can be made that climate change is the most dangerous and overarching issue with life and death implications, not just for some, but for all.

Still, climate change has seemed to wax and wane as an issue in the nation’s political priorities.

That may have changed in the last year. Last year’s mass civil disobedience arrests protesting the Keystone XL tar sands oil pipeline, strongly linked to climate change concerns, were the largest number for an environmental issue since the height of the anti-nuclear movement in the 1970s. Hurricane Sandy, likely made stronger by global warming, had an enormous impact on the U.S. media and the national consciousness, and arguably, on November’s presidential election.

Climate change is now mobilizing our nation’s young people in a way few recent issues have. You saw that clearly in Portland, Maine a few weeks ago, in the faces of the crowd protesting the tar sands oil pipeline proposed there. Even President Obama, not exactly a firebrand on environmental issues, pushed “the threat of climate change” to the fore in his recent inaugural address.

In decades of political activism, I have rarely had the satisfaction of marching in lockstep with our nation’s president. On climate, I hope now President Obama will give me that satisfaction. Perhaps it is fitting then, that an alliance of environmental organizations, including 350.org and the Sierra Club, have called for a national demonstration on climate change in Washington, D.C., on Presidents Day weekend, this Sunday, under the Obama-esque banner “Forward on Climate.” Some folks will be there to cover the president’s back, others to make sure he doesn’t step back.

We’ve known of the problem for years. The science is increasingly clear. The rising ocean has surged through the streets of lower Manhattan. It’s time we moved forward on climate change, and fast.

Rudy Perkins lives in Amherst.

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