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Sleighs and sleds, &c.


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Is there a subject more boring than the weather? Maybe not, but I’ll try to make this first item here as painless as possible. I was reading a Corner posting by my colleague Bob Costa two days ago. It concerns Robert F. Kennedy Jr., a leader of the environmentalist movement in America. In a 2008 column, he was reminiscing about the old days, and saying how the weather had changed. He had some specific words to say about the Virginia suburbs of Washington, D.C.:

Recently arrived residents . . ., accustomed to today’s anemic winters, might find it astonishing to learn that there were once ski runs on Ballantrae Hill in McLean, with a rope tow and local ski club. Snow is so scarce today that most Virginia children probably don’t own a sled. But neighbors came to our home at Hickory Hill nearly every winter weekend to ride saucers and Flexible Flyers.

And so on and so forth. Kennedy has come in for some razzing — understandably so — because, in recent days, Greater Washington has come in for the snow of its life.

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I must say, I am not entirely without sympathy for RFK Jr. Tell you a couple of stories. You can even call them anecdotes — and, as we know, all God’s chillen got anecdotes. These personal tales should have no place in scientific discussion.

Or should they? I’m fond of quoting a statement — maybe more like a quip — by the late, great political scientist Aaron Wildavsky: “One anecdote’s an anecdote, two anecdotes are data.”

Anyway, I went to school for a year on the Leelanau Peninsula of Michigan — specifically, on that peninsula’s Sleeping Bear Bay. (Dune country.) In the bay are two islands, the Manitou Islands, North and South. They are not inhabited by very many — and in the winter, the population is really low. At least this was the case in my school days.

While in school, I read a book that gave the history of the area. And I learned that, in the early 20th century, there was a mail sleigh, to and from the islands: The sleigh would cross the bay, dropping off mail, and picking up mail from what few residents there were. It was inconceivable to me, in my own time “up north,” that the bay could freeze over, ever.

Okay, let me take you down south to Ann Arbor, Mich., my hometown. When I was a kid, we would go sledding at Huron Hills Golf Course — given the hills, why wouldn’t you? It seemed fairly routine, this sledding. But later, when I was an adult, there was relatively little snow: Sledding seemed exceptional, not at all routine.

Things like that, in the words of the old rap song, made you go hmmmm . . . Maybe there was something to this global-warming bit?

But, of course, one has to take a long view, a sensible view. There is the weather of a moment, or a childhood, or a lifetime; and there is the weather of a century, or a millennium — or many millennia. I heard Al Gore say in a speech once, “We’ve been having some pretty weird weather lately, haven’t we?” And that’s a little unfair — don’t you think? I mean, as long as there has been weather, there has been “weird weather.” Maybe not in San Diego.

By the time I was about 25, I was pretty much immune to environmental alarums. I had heard about the coming ice age (when people would be cross-country skiing in Miami). I had heard about the population explosion, and the dire shortages it meant. Etc., etc. After people have cried wolf enough, you tend to forget about the wolves.

And the IPCC — the U.N.’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change — isn’t looking so hot these days, is it? Wonder if the Nobel Committee is feeling a little sheepish about giving its peace prize to this crowd in 2007. Probably not.

Anyway . . . people such as RFK Jr. do some harm to their cause, I think. They do it through extremism — extremism in thinking and extremism in rhetoric. In the wake of Hurricane Katrina, I wrote a piece called “All the Uglier,” about the reaction to that disaster. And I did quite a bit of quoting of RFK Jr. In the Huffington Post, he wrote a piece called “For They That Sow the Wind Shall Reap the Whirlwind.” (The relationship between modern environmentalism and religion is an important topic.) Let’s revisit that piece a little:

As Hurricane Katrina dismantles Mississippi’s Gulf Coast, it’s worth recalling the central role that Mississippi Governor Haley Barbour played in derailing the Kyoto Protocol and kiboshing President Bush’s iron-clad campaign promise to regulate CO2. . . .

Now we are all learning what it’s like to reap the whirlwind of fossil fuel dependence which Barbour and his cronies have encouraged. Our destructive addiction has given us a catastrophic war in the Middle East [blood for oil!] and — now — Katrina is giving our nation a glimpse of the climate chaos we are bequeathing our children.

In 1998, Republican icon Pat Robertson [icon!] warned that hurricanes were likely to hit communities that offended God. Perhaps it was Barbour’s memo that caused Katrina, at the last moment, to spare New Orleans and save its worst flailings for the Mississippi coast.

Those temperate words were written, of course, before the hurricane hit New Orleans. And Kennedy penned an update: “Alas, the reprieve for New Orleans was only temporary. But Haley Barbour still has much to answer for.”

I don’t mean to single out RFK Jr. for mockery, I really don’t. He has a famous name, and is convenient to quote, but there are scads like him in his movement, the environmentalist movement. They have many crazy moments. That should not discredit the movement, or the cause, at large. But, you know — a little temperance. Like the weather so many hope for.



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