“Frostlands” — Our Climate Future Foretold

Once upon a time I testified before the great assembly of our land.

When I describe this event to our children here in Arcadia, it sounds like a fairy tale. Once upon a time this old woman was a young idealist who tried to persuade our mighty Congress that a monster was stalking the land.

“Did they listen to you, Auntie Rachel?” the children ask.

“Oh, they listened to me, but they didn’t hear me.” “So what did you do?”

“I thought and I thought, and I wrote and I wrote, and I put together an even better presentation,” I say patiently. “I had to somehow describe the monster in a way that these mighty people could understand it.”

“What did the monster look like?”

“It was invisible, my dear children, but we could feel its hot breath and see the terrible things it did. It could make the oceans rise. It could make the crops wilt in the fields. Still, we kept feeding this terrible beast.”

“But why?”

“It’s what the monster demanded. Some monsters want to devour little children. Others insist on young maidens. But this monster demanded tankers of oil and truckloads of coal. Even as it grew, it demanded more and more.”

The children are wide-eyed by now. “What did you do?” “I talked to those great people again and tried even harder to describe the monster.” As I slip into the past, the faces of the children become those of long-dead politicians. “I provided more detailed graphs of rising temperatures. I cited statistics on the impact of burning coal and oil and natural gas. I displayed photos of what the melting ice and the surging sea had already done. And then I showed them the future: submerged cities, drought-stricken lands, dead seas. They looked, but they didn’t see. They listened, but they didn’t hear.”

Exclamations of concern jolt me back to the present. I gaze at my little students. They are simultaneously confused and upset.

“Great people are not always good people,” I conclude. “What did you do then, Auntie Rachel?”

“I stopped talking, my darlings. I came here to escape the monster. I came to Arcadia.”

They look disappointed. The children know their fairy tales. They expect someone — a knight in shining armor, an orphan child with special powers — to appear suddenly and slay the monster.

“There was no knight,” I lament. “The monster still lives. We can feel its hot breath even today.”

“It’s not fair,” complains a little boy. “You should have killed it.”

“Why didn’t our grandparents run the factories every other day?” a bright young girl pipes up. “Why didn’t they drive those stupid cars just on the weekend?”

“Ah, my dears, it was our failure, the failure of the international community.”

Our children know nothing but Arcadia and our fully sustainable life here. What we don’t grow, we synthesize or produce on our 3D printers. We conduct limited trade with nearby communities. If there’s an unexpected death, we issue an extra birth permit. If our solar batteries run low during the winter, we ration energy. Everything is reused or recycled, from our chicken bones to our night soil. The children of Arcadia don’t understand waste any more than my generation could have comprehended slave labor. It lies beyond their moral universe.

They also don’t understand the antique notion of an international community. They’ve never ventured beyond the walls of Arcadia — they don’t get their travel permits until they’re eighteen — so it’s only thanks to virtual tourism that they’ve seen anything of the world outside. And what they’ve observed on their VR jaunts only reinforces their desire to remain here. Today, the world is a collection of sharp little shards, what my ex-husband used to call the Splinterlands. My students can’t grasp how these shards once fit together to form larger nations that, in turn, cooperated to tackle common problems like climate change. It reminds me of that old story of the elephant and the blind men. The children of Arcadia can understand the parts; it’s the whole that eludes them, because there is no whole any more. The elephant’s been carved up like a holiday roast.

Think of the international community as a human being, I tell them. In 1945, it was a squalling infant born to bickering parents. A troubled childhood was followed by an awkward youth. Only in middle age, with the end of the Cold War in 1989, did it finally thrive, a period that ended abruptly in the new century when it progressed prema- turely into its dotage. In 2020, at seventy-five years old, the international community was past retirement age, frail of health, and in desperate need of assisted care.

This aged body, this Knight of the Sad Countenance, was supposed to be our savior, the slayer of the horrible monster. Unfortunately, it could barely lift a lance.

Without some knowledge of the life cycle of the international community, my students can’t possibly understand why global temperatures continued to rise in the first part of this century, despite the best efforts of scientists, environmentalists, and concerned citizens. Several small countries — Uruguay, Bhutan — went to extraordinary lengths to reduce their carbon emissions, and more than a dozen cities eventually became carbon neutral. Individuals adopted vegetarianism, drove electric cars, turned down their thermostats in the winter — as if lifestyle changes alone could slay the monster.

A global problem, however, required a global response. A treaty signed in Paris at the end of 2015 attempted to keep temperatures from rising two degrees Celsius over the preindustrial average. I told our mighty Congress that it wasn’t enough. In a clear indication of just how highly they considered my opinion, these political grandees ignored what I had to say and, like a community of addicts, continued to seek out their drug of choice offshore, under Alaskan snowfields, and in the frackable shale substrates of the heartland.

Led backward by the United States, which announced in 2017 that it would withdraw from the Paris agreement, the international community abandoned all hope of sustainability and embraced instead its lesser cousin, resilience. I try to explain to my children that sustainability is all about harmony — maintaining balance, never taking more than what we give back. Resilience, on the other hand, is about making the adaptations required by a crisis. The judgment of Paris, with its nod toward resilience, was an acknowledgment of failure. Global temperatures crossed the two-degree mark in 2034, decades ahead of schedule. By that time several small Pacific islands were already gone and millions of climate refugees were pushing further inland from their flooded coastal homes. Still, today, the waters rise.

“But we have to do something!” the children cry.

“We are doing something,” I reassure them. “Every day that we live here in Arcadia, we send a message to that dragon. We send a message that we will not be defeated.”

I provide them this reassurance but refuse to give them false hopes. I could tell them about my research project, about how close I am to cracking the mystery of the ice-albedo feedback loop. But it might hit an unexpected snag. Or we might not be able to persuade what remains of the international community of scientists to back the program. Or I might be carried away suddenly in my sleep by a heart attack.

In any case, almost no one in Arcadia knows about my project. They think I’m just an elderly ex-scientist who potters around without purpose in her laboratory. Good old Rachel, they whisper to each other, it’s nice that she keeps her mind active. But maybe, instead of using up our precious resources to keep up that laboratory of hers, she should just do crossword puzzles and leave science to nimbler minds. They’re more interested in the immediate applications of science, like squeezing extra energy from our solar paint.

We Arcadians are acutely aware of the dangers of climate change. But, like most people who haven’t been submerged by coastal waters or swept up in the latest superstorm, we’ve become inured to the urgency of the situation. Our human brains are structured to focus on the short term — on getting through the day.

But I’m a scientist. I take the long view. And the long view is not reassuring. Consider the graptolite.

Graptolites were tiny sea creatures that once lived in colonies huddled at the bottom of the ocean. Other graptolites floated like ribbons of seaweed on the water’s surface. They looked like jellyfish from Mars, with their bulbous heads and dangling, hairy dendrites. For nearly 200 million years, they prospered in their aquatic world. They probably thought — if they thought at all — that such longevity guaranteed them eternal life on this planet. Then came the Carboniferous Period and a brief but severe ice age. Goodbye, poor graptolites, along with 86 percent of all other species. It was just one of several purges to which the earth has submitted.

Before evolution culminated in mankind, its most glorious and destructive creation, the planet witnessed five episodes of mass extinction. The most devastating came at the end of the Permian era, around 250 million years ago, when 96 percent of all marine species and 70 percent of all land animals died out because a huge volcano exploded in present-day Siberia and set off a chain reaction that radically raised the temperature of the seas. All those long-gone creatures left behind no more than a few marks on stone and some petrocarbon pools beneath the earth’s surface. Compared to the Permian event, the Carboniferous extinction that knocked off the graptolites was a relatively minor apocalypse.

But not for the graptolites.

“Who cares about those stupid animals?” says one of my low-performing students.

“Exactly,” I respond. “And who ultimately cares about us and what we leave behind?” They have no answer.

I once studied ice. I traveled to the polar extremes to extract frozen columns of water from the ground in an attempt to understand more about our own era of global warming. This work accustomed me to think geologically, to consider the grand sweep of human history as the merest sliver in the planet’s 4.6-billion-year timeline. The earth has repeatedly warmed and cooled in a set of protracted mood swings that has encompassed the epochs. Many species have died out thanks to spectacular events, like an asteroid crashing to earth or a massive volcanic eruption. But no wrathful god or malevolent alien force has proven necessary for human beings: we’re quite capable of being our own worst cataclysm.

At first, we just scratched at the ground, altered the landscape, replaced majestic trees with quotidian corn. Eventually we discovered the great gift that the graptolites and the giant ferns and the mighty dinosaurs left us — themselves, turned carbon beneath the ground. In an instant of geologic time, we heedlessly burned through our natural resources while creating weapons of mass destruction capable of doing in the world hundreds of times over. We flirted with the option of going out with a bang but now seem determined, like the proverbial frog in a pot, to go out with a whimper of heat exhaustion.

The easiest way for the earth to regulate itself during this moment of increasing disequilibrium would be to cast off its most troublesome creatures. We’re like the bad guests who continue to overstay our welcome: no matter how many hints we get from the hostess, we just keep eating and drinking and bloviating. Meanwhile, the planet checks its watch and wonders when it can safely declare “Time!” and shoo us out the door.

We could have turned things around in the 2010s. In- stead, in one country after another, we elected the least capable people to navigate our way out of treacherous waters. Nowhere was this more obvious than in the once-United States. The election of Donald Trump in 2016 proved such a disaster that a chastened nation, instead of christening public buildings after him when he left office, bestowed his name on the devastating, climate-change-energized hurricane that struck the East Coast in 2022, causing billions of dollars of damage. Like its namesake, Hurricane Donald began as a squall, only later developing enough force to destroy the national capital.

My husband and I lost our home in Hurricane Donald. Having never liked Washington, I was happy enough to leave the city to the floodwaters. That’s when I also decided to slough off my previous life as if it were little more than a sheet of dead skin. I divorced Julian and reverted to Rachel Leopold, the name I’d been using only for my scientific publications. And I retreated to Vermont where an old friend, Anuradha Shiva, was starting an experiment in sustainable living.

Here in our community of Arcadia, I’ve cultivated our gardens and watched the inexorable rise of the global thermometer ever since. We have a good library, a real one, assembled from the basements and attics of farmhouses in the area. No one reads books anymore, not the paper versions at least, so we had our pick. What did Cicero say? If you have a garden and a library, you have everything you need. Well, almost. These days you need a good semiautomatic as well. In addition to overseeing the greenhouses, I teach science in our school. And I work on my pet project, the culmination of my six decades as a glaciologist.

In this Vermont community where I’ve lived for the past quarter-century, I no longer take ice core samples. There isn’t much point (or much ice left, either). Instead I focus, with the urgency of the condemned, on my project. Meanwhile, we survive as best we can while bracing for yet another tempo shift that will force us to measure our lives not in decades but in years, or even days.

Here’s how I try to explain this to my students. “Imagine that you are a healthy and happy ten-year-old looking forward to many decades of love and life. Then, one terrible day, a doctor tells you that you have cancer, stage four. Fatal. You had been measuring the future in decades. Suddenly those decades disappear, leaving you with only a few years to go. Your parents, skeptical about vaccinating you as a baby, now reject conventional cancer treatments. First they deny the diagnosis outright. Then they urge you to eat ground-up apricot pits, drink special teas, and go on a high-fat diet. Nothing works, and the years turn into months, and those months into days, as the world closes in.”

“Now,” I go on, “substitute ‘human race’ for ‘ten-year- old’ and ‘climate change’ for ‘cancer.’ Do you see the problem?”

Some of the more sensitive students begin to cry. Their parents will complain to me, but I won’t listen. That’s one good thing about being eighty years old. You can get away with a lot — and when you don’t get away with it, you don’t care. I tell the parents that we have to toughen up their children, not just with work in the fields but here in the classroom as well. They’ll need mental fortitude to survive the existential traumas that await them.

“We all have cancer?” a young boy asks in a quavering voice.

“Shush, that’s not what she’s saying,” his classmate whispers to him.

But of course the tearful student is right. We all have cancer. In that pivotal year of 2016, we’d already received a poor diagnosis. The election of Donald Trump was our way, as a country, of first denying the problem, then refusing medical treatment, and finally embracing one quack remedy after another. I dearly hope that Arcadia doesn’t turn out to be a hospice facility.

In the aftermath of that election, I struggled with the contraction of time and space. As geologic time shifted into human time, the map of my world shrank while the international community crumbled into ever smaller pieces.

During the first part of my adult life, I imagined myself part of a global fraternity of scientists. Then I worked at a national level to save my country. Here in Vermont, I’ve ended up confined to a small plot of land: an intentional community that’s walled itself off from an increasingly dangerous and hostile world. Soon enough, I’ll find myself in an even smaller space — underneath the rosebushes. Thus does the world close in on us.

We’re still doing fine here in Arcadia. Climate change has turned northern Vermont into a farming paradise, and our citrus crop was excellent this year. No federal government interferes with our liberal community guidelines. We have enough guns to defend ourselves against outside aggressors. Everything that’s killed the larger community beyond our walls has only made us stronger. So far.

Perhaps, like the monasteries of the Middle Ages, communities like ours will preserve knowledge until the distant day when we exit this era of ignorance and pain. Or perhaps, like the graptolites, we’ll fade away and evolution will produce another species without the flawed operating system that doomed us. The graptolites were mute. We humans can speak and write and film ourselves in glorious 3D. These skills haven’t saved us, but our ability to document our times — as I am now documenting mine — will perhaps save someone, someday, somewhere. Everyone prefers a happy ending to a tearjerker. With these documents, these core samples of our era, perhaps we can still somehow save the future.

“Tell us what to do,” my charges implore me. They are still of an age when everything seems possible and the future looks friendly, not armed and dangerous. I’m probably the first person to tell them otherwise.

I can fill them in about the past, but I can’t tell them what to do. I barely know what to do myself.

The ice, all the precious ice that I once studied, has nearly disappeared, and with it the ability of the earth to reflect the sun’s rays. Unprotected by the ice and snow, the ocean waters absorb more and more of the sun’s heat, growing warmer still. This is the ice-albedo feedback loop. Yet a greater catastrophe lies just around the corner: huge amounts of methane are trapped beneath the remaining Arctic permafrost. If this gas is released, then it’s game over.

So, that is my project — to preserve and regenerate the permafrost before it’s too late. I’m close to a solution. I just need a little more of that most precious commodity for an eighty-year-old.

Time.