In 1967, my 4-H Hereford steer was the champion at a county fair, so we were sent to the Royal Winter Fair. The girl, whose steer captured the Royal grand championship, received a huge cheque from Dominion Store executives. Their singsong ad was “Why do more Canadians shop at Dominion than at any other store? Well, it’s mainly because of the beef.”
The winner pulled off an amazing feat of commerce. She cried, at first softly, but the tears got bigger as she hugged her steer. Dominion brass already knew the newspapers would carry a story and photographic evidence of them giving her a cheque for the best beef in Canada, at an unimaginable price per pound. They simply told her she could keep her steer.
While in stunned disbelief about crazy Toronto business culture, I noticed the manager of Wallenstein Feed and Supply bidding on my steer. I recalled every sad memory I could muster but not a tear would fall. When I saw him weeks later at the Wallenstein General store, he told me the beef was excellent. I believed that.
In Grade 11, we read Romeo and Juliet. I was skeptical about the servant, who couldn’t read, but was given a list and instructed to invite specific guests to a big party. Give me a break.
Our helpful English teacher explained that to appreciate literature it is sometimes necessary to willingly suspend disbelief. Hmm. I didn’t really think Romeo could get away with climbing the high orchard wall and dropping to the courtyard below Juliet’s window to woo her, get out, marry her the next day, then again hop over the wall and get out, in spite of Juliet’s suspicious, hostile male relatives. I decided to set aside my disbelief for the sake of the adventure.
However, as we read further I couldn’t understand how Romeo, Benvolio and Mercutio had time to stay out all night, sleep all morning and then hang around the square, the next afternoon, make fun of the nurse and quarrel with Tybalt, ending with a sword fight.
I asked the teacher, “Didn’t they have to work?” He patiently explained that they were of the nobility. I was not willing to suspend my disbelief about these rich boys having so much time to do nothing. Later, as with other insights, I realized Shakespeare had captured a truth that took time for me to see.
In 1979, I first heard about the greenhouse gas effect in my Ecology class. Dr Merriam explained how increasing levels of carbon dioxide (CO2) allow sunlight into our atmosphere, while trapping more heat trying to escape to space. Then atmospheric CO2 concentration was at 335 parts per million (ppm), well above pre-industrial levels of 280ppm. The upswing of 55ppm over 200 years was a lesson that stuck with me but was mostly drowned in the noise of student life and concerns about the nuclear arms race.
In 1990, I started teaching my own university classes and was warned by a retiring colleague about the increasing threat to food production as CO2 concentration increased. Although atmospheric CO2 had risen to 354ppm, I was skeptical and thought soil degradation was a much bigger problem.
By the early 2000s, when atmospheric CO2 had pushed to 372ppm, I had completed a report on the risks to agriculture and its potential to sequester greenhouse gases. Any remaining disbelief about climate change was being gnawed away by data.
In early 2010, a student had just returned from attending the UN Climate Change Conference in Copenhagen and to her credit would not allow me to burrow into busyness to avoid seeing and feeling the evidence. Atmospheric CO2 had by then advanced to 392ppm. Would we really crash through the 400ppm threshold?
In 2020, atmospheric CO2 is 415ppm, an 80ppm jump over 40 years, while still relentlessly rising. Historically, when CO2 was above 400ppm, average global temperatures were 3°C higher and seal levels were up to 20m higher, than today (www.nature.com/articles/s41598-020-67154-8).
In 2019-20, my 13 year-old friend, Spencer Lippa, “not seeing any real action on the part of politicians,” did what he could with a school strike, every Friday. Although COVID-19 is a challenge, it is not an excuse to ignore human impacts on atmospheric CO2 concentration. For the sake of Spencer’s generation, all people and all creatures, we are compelled to suspend our disbelief and act together, to arrest climbing CO2.