This Should Hurt

Vegas

I was in Las Vegas for a conference last week. Yes, business as usual. That’s what we do in America these days.

As our plane touched down at McCarran International Airport, I looked out my window to the Mandalay Bay Hotel. Three weeks ago a gunman opened fire from his room there on a crowd enjoying a country music concert across the street. Fifty-eight people were killed and 546 injured in one of the most horrific mass killings in U.S. history. We are still searching for the killer’s motivation, but may never find an answer. Perhaps, there is none; perhaps, the answer is the same as the one given by the mass murderer in Springsteen’s song Nebraska, “Well sir, I guess there’s just a meanness in this world.”

On a break between meetings, I walked down the Strip to the site of the shooting. It was something I needed to do, to pay my respects. Around me, everything was seemingly as it should be in Vegas. Bachelorette parties passed by in limousines; a tour group from Japan followed a guide’s flag into a casino; a group of frat boys paraded around toting barbell shaped plastic glasses filled with daiquiris; and a retired couple from the Midwest discussed their plans to see a show that evening. All felt normal, but it shouldn’t.

At the entrance to the Mandalay, there are two small memorials to those killed in the shooting. They are the type of spontaneous remembrances containing flowers and notes from family, friends, and others that are becoming too commonplace in our country. Overhead temporary plywood panels were being removed from the shooter’s room and replaced with glass. Already the tragedy is receding from our collective consciousness. It’s as if the volume and velocity of information in our lives is keeping us in a perpetual state of distraction. Release of the Kennedy assassination documents. Squirrel! The border wall. Squirrel! Did Tillerson call Trump a moron? Squirrel! I’m not saying that these aren’t important news events, but their sheer quantity creates an environment where we rarely take the time to seek solutions. After all, in a 140 character world, there is little time for deep thinking. And so we move on.

There now hangs from the Mandalay Bay Hotel a large banner proclaiming #VegasStrong. While well intended, it has become the latest form of in memoriam marketing, the corporate equivalent of when politicians say “thoughts and prayers.” In a matter of days after the event, it was already visible on billboards, t-shirts and beer koozies. But the truth is, it’s the NRA, and the firearm lobbyists and manufacturers who are strong – not Vegas and not us. That’s the only explanation for our country failing to enact reasonable gun safety laws that are supported by most Americans and American firearm owners. Eighty-five percent of gun owners, for example, support background checks, yet they have never been enacted. (And lest anyone think that I’m anti-firearm, they’re wrong. I come from a family of military veterans, hunters and, soon, a gunsmith.) The NRA and associated powerful interests rely on our short attention spans, along with creating artificial divisions among us, to prevent common sense measures to increase firearm safety and reduce the likelihood of the next Sandy Hook, Virginia Tech, Orlando, Las Vegas, or the more than 700 firearm fatalities annually in Chicago, and other cities.

The only way that firearm safety becomes a reality is if we keep this incident in our heads and hearts.  Simple actions like calling a congressman, especially if you are a firearm owner, can be effective. Also, contributing to gun violence prevention organizations.

But what about something more enduring, something that would focus and galvanize our citizenry until this issue is finally addressed? Imagine if Maya Lin was commissioned to create a memorial to those who lost their lives to firearms.  Imagine something similar to Vietnam Veterans Memorial. Something which starkly reflects the loss of so many beautiful and talented lives. Something where you could run your fingers across the victims’ names beginning with: Hannah Ahlers, Heather Alvarado, Dorene Anderson, Carrie Barnette, Jack Beaton, Stephen Berger, Candice Bowers, Denise Burditus, Sandra Casey, Andrea Castilla, Denise Cohen, Austin Davis, Thomas Day, Jr., Christina Duarte, Stacee Etcheber, Brian Fraser, Keri Galvan, Dana Gardner, Angela Gomez, Rocio Gullen Rocha, Charleston Hartfield, Christopher Hazencomb, Jennifer Topaz Irvine, Teresa Nicol Kimura, Jessica Klymchuk, Carly Kreibaum, Rhonda LeRocque, Victor Link, Jordan Mclldoon, Kelsey Meadows, Calla-Marie Medig, James Melton, Patricia Mestas, Austin Meyer, Adrian Murfitt, Rachael Parker, Jennifer Parks, Carolyn Parsons, Lisa Patterson, John Phippen, Melissa Ramirez, Jordyn Rivera, Quinton Robbins, Cameron Robinson, Tara Ann Roe, Lisa Romero-Muniz, Christopher Roybal, Brett Schwanbeck, Bailey Schwitzer, Laura Shipp, Erick Silva, Susan Smith, Brennan Stewart, Derrick Taylor, Neysa Tonks, Michelle Vo, Kurt von Tillow, and Bill Wolfe, Jr.

Above all else, don’t become numb.

This should hurt.

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A Melting Future

_BED2367It has taken me longer than I thought to write this. I had wanted to share some of what I learned from our expedition in a way that was constructive and positive, but that’s proven to be a challenge. With what I’ve seen and read this summer, it’s difficult to feel encouraged and upbeat.

After a month of isolation in the Arctic, I returned home to news about North Korea, the pardon of Sheriff Joe, continued Brexit challenges, Guru Singh’s conviction in Delhi and the disturbing story that Kathy Griffin and Anderson Cooper are no longer friends – who saw that coming?

While these represent significant problems (well almost all of them), there is one that dwarfs all others – global warming. I’ve tried, without success, to think of another issue from the past of similar magnitude. The closest I can come is the influenza pandemic  that may have killed up to 60 million people between 1918 – 1919. That was a time when air travel was limited, so entire areas of the earth were unaffected. Unlike that calamity, global warming is currently affecting all 7.5 billion of us that inhabit the earth. And, it’s going to get worse.

Much worse.

For me, one of the more interesting parts of our Arctic journey was spending time with  Chris Horvat, a climatologist from Harvard (and a genuinely entertaining fellow). It was the chance to speak with a scientist and have him validate or dismiss what I’ve heard about global warming, and more specifically sea ice. We had a great deal of time to talk because Nares Strait, the area for our journey, was unexpectedly blocked with a chaotic expanse of broken sea ice (possibly related to the thinning of the ice due to warming waters). As a result, we spent many hours together pulling rather than paddling our kayak.

A few things I learned:

The Arctic is warming at 4 to 6 times the rate of the rest of the world. This is because the summer sea ice provides a shield that reflects 85% of the sun’s radiation. When the ice disappears, the water beneath it absorbs more than 90% of that radiation. Why? Because light colors, like ice and snow are more reflective than dark colors, like ocean water. This is what scientist refer to as the albedo effect. The result is that disappearance of Arctic summer sea ice will contribute to the acceleration of the rise in global temperatures.

Summer sea ice in the Arctic has declined – as much as 70% since 1980. In the next 10 to 20 years it will disappear entirely for the first time in human existence. Think about that nugget for a moment. (Indeed, earlier this summer, an Russian oil taker was able to navigate the Northwest Passage and, more recently, a British explorer attempted to sail a small boat to the North Pole.)

My reaction when Chris told me this was, “This is terrible. What can we do to reverse the decline of the ice?”

His response frightened the hell of me. “Nothing,” he replied.

“Nothing” because the carbon we have released through the burning of fossil fuels will remain in the atmosphere for up to 200 years. So even if we could wave a magic wand and immediately eliminate the burning of coal and oil, we would still feel the impact for centuries.

So is there anything we can do to minimize the future impact? Education and awareness are a starting point. While we can’t all spend a month in a kayak with a climate scientist, there are plenty of resources on global warming. Paul Hawken’s recent book Drawdown is a good place to start. It reviews and ranks 100 different actions for addressing global warming. High on the list are switching from fossil fuels to renewables. Although none of the actions discussed is an answer for the disappearing sea ice, all of them will help lessen the impact of global warming over time. More importantly, actions we take as individuals like installing solar panels, purchasing an electric car and eating a more plant based diet send economic and political signals to investors, manufacturers and governments. Hopefully, these signals will soon be strong enough that politicians will begin to listen to scientists, instead of lobbyists.

Meanwhile, 2016 was the hottest year in recorded history.

And 2017 looks like it will be a close second.

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