Last week during the worst of the blizzard, many of my students took photos with their cellphones and sent them to friends and family all over the country. They would send, for example, a photo of a car completely buried in snow, with just an antenna showing, along with a text message: "Here is my car. I have to be at work in an hour."
My students at Small Green take courses in environmental science, and many of them come from conservative towns in the rural parts of the state. In class Monday, one student read us a text message a family member had sent back after seeing his photos of the big snowdrifts: "So much for your theory about global warming."
The whole class erupted at that comment, all talking at once. The big snowfalls we get here in Snowstorm region are caused by something called the lake effect. Cold air passing over the great lakes pick up moisture and heat, which then turns into a big snowstorm once that air passes over land. The warmth of the big lakes, the way they retain their heat, is what causes the huge amounts of snow. According to my students, unusually big snowfalls could well be a sign of global warming, not the opposite.
Students argued whether they preferred the term "global warming" or "climate change." It's true that global warming perhaps does not include the whole picture; climate changes caused by humans forces extremes of all kinds of weather. But other students felt that "climate change" as a term seemed too innocuous, too innocent, for what is actually happening to the earth.
But mostly, the students discussed how frustrated they are that scientific information simply does not get to the public. "Scientists have studied this stuff for years," one student said, "How is it that the public is still so ignorant?"
"I think it's fear," another student said. "People don't want to know."
Ironically, we were discussing in class that day an essay that takes place in New Orleans, written several years before Katrina. In the essay, the author mentions casually, sort of as an aside, that a hurricane will wipe the city out at some point, that the city is a disaster waiting to happen. I can recall the first time I taught this essay, back in 2002. My students, scientists and landscape architects, kept saying, "Oh, yeah. Everyone knows that." They had studied it in several courses here at Small Green. They all knew that the city would be facing a huge disaster some time soon.
So when Katrina hit, I was not surprised. My students had told me it would happen. And now when they talk about global warming, or climate change, or whatever you want to call it, and the dramatic changes we humans are causing, I feel anxious. As they talk about droughts and heat waves, glaciers melting and sea levels rising, I listen carefully, with dread.
They were right the last time.