Climate change, the science and the poetry

The STEM poets group held their inaugural session last night, with discussions and readings. Unfortunately I missed it, because of horrendous weather, ironically. I didn’t fancy driving a round trip of 150 miles with blizzards forecast on the higher ground on the way back, and public transport isn’t an option at the time I’d be leaving for home.

So I thought I’d post my own thoughts on STEM poetry, climate change science here, together with the poems I wanted to read last night.

I’ve read, and been disappointed by, a couple of recent anthologies of poetry purporting to be about climate change. For the most part, they weren’t. A lot of the poetry was about weather, which is not the same as climate, or about other unrelated subjects. Some of it was alarmist, and without any scientific content.

We need a dialogue between poets and scientists, and my feeling is that such dialogue is best mediated by those who straddle both cultures. In other words, those of us with a scientific background and experience, and who are also poets. There is a surprisingly large number of us.

Some poets have been ‘in residence’ at scientific institutions, or have been paired with working scientists. The outcomes of these collaborations have sometimes been successful, but not always. It’s not enough, I would suggest, for non-scientist poets to understand how to use the language of the discipline of the practitioners they are shadowing. They need to have an understanding of the nature and significance of the underlying science itself, and that doesn’t come easily or quickly.

My own scientific background is primarily in earth sciences and biology, with a lot of statistics from my PhD, so that informs the poetry I write. I know, for example, that the last major thermal excursion the planet had was the Paleocene-Eocene Thermal Maximum, when global temperature rose by 9C. The causes are probably volcanism releasing carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, and melting methane hydrates. The opening of the North Atlantic or the emplacement of kimberlite pipes in Canada are possible triggers.

So here’s my climate change poem, the one I was going to read last night:

Maybe We Can

It’s the morning of the Eve
of Christmas Eve. Just light.
There’s a narrow crescent moon
hanging below a pinkish cloud
in the palest blue sky.
Hold that image.

It’s mild, for a Scottish winter,
but most of them are these days.
I know weather’s not the same
as climate, but I remember
Decembers when you always looked
for frost, icy  air and frozen puddles.
We learned to drive on snow,
on rutted ice – even on a motorbike –
skills it seems no longer required.

By the law of averages, which isn’t a law,
just a saying, hearing about global values
of gases from burning coal or oil,
and the fractions of degrees of warming
they indicate, we expect to feel
less cold now. We didn’t expect
such extremes this year
as the Beast from the East
and the Summer Scorcher –
we felt 40C in France – but extremes
become more frequent as heated seas
send their moisture into the air.

And, feeling effects, we look for causes,
but we can’t; the trends are subtler
than we can detect. Australia burns,
but not because of Queensland coal.
A mild day in a Highland hamlet
is the Föhn effect, not the world warming.

But still, the world does warm
in tiny increments. Year by year,
decade by decade, an average rises,
in step with atmospheric carbon.

Our world’s not static, never has been
since the crust formed, started to move,
split, recombine in new configurations,
and how that effects the movement of air
over seas, over lands, how clouds reflect energy
into space, how orbital wobbles and cycles,
heat and cool our blue home. I know
how wandering waters flow in oceans,
melting ice, cooling coasts, rising
and falling, netting the depths
and shallows in complex patterns.

But this is a different thing, a new thing.
We’ve heated the world enough
to change it, by burning too much carbon.
It’s still reversible, but the system
has a lot of momentum – economic,
political, behavioural – and this is harder
than turning down a thermostat –
though that would help. Human inertia,
lack of knowledge, and a world dominated
by professional liars and their media,
are the things we need to change.

Year by year, decade by decade,
country by country, we might
make a difference.

Colin Will

Global warming can come with regional cooling. If the North Atlantic circulation is stopped, and it could be, things could get pretty cold in Western Europe. This is an earlier poem on that topic:

Ice Age

Down by the sea shore we saw no dark edge
to the white horizon. Pressure ridges
rose and fell with the tides,
creating temporary mountain ranges
with spiky summits. Far out, way beyond walking,
huge bergs growled and cracked on the swell,
pushed nearer by an unkind wind.
They streamed out from the Denmark Strait,
down the Sea of Labrador, across the track
of the dead Gulf Stream, these blue leviathans,
mountains of solid water.

Inland, we walked to the hills, foraging for firewood,
tramping through a fresh layer of powder snow,
avoiding the drifts and the cornices overhanging
the cliffs. Last year’s snow poked through the crust
in places, wind-sculpted, sun-eroded, slowly compressing
as layer upon layer recrystallised to ice, and began to flow
down to the sea.

In the petrified forest, as the wind rose,
dead songbirds fell out of the trees.

Colin Will


About sunnydunny

Poet, publisher, gardener
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