Looking Beyond the Garden: A Convinced Gardener Considers Climate Change

By Larry Rettig (LarryR) on March 28, 2013

As a gardener, I’m concerned about climate change and convinced that it is real. While I love the intimate relationship I have with the soil and the plants in my garden, I know that I need to look past them to larger, more global issues that will ultimately affect me and my garden as well as those who come after me.

What are the likely impacts of climate change where you live?  Click on the map. Then mouse over your region of the country to find out.

Those larger issues could be the westward march of the Japanese beetle or the emerald ash borer or the country-wide spread of viruses among hostas and cannas that threaten to infect my garden.  But I am most concerned about the extremes in weather that have impacted me and my garden in recent years.  They include severe drought, premature springs with late frosts, more and more severe flooding, and increasingly frequent high winds that damage or destroy vegetation.

On a national scale, 2012 was the hottest year on record and the year before that, the carbon dioxide emissions that are considered a primary cause of climate change were the highest ever.  In 2011 we also had 14 climate and weather related disasters, costing us more than $1 billion, an all-time record.  And that doesn’t include hurricane Sandy.  Arctic sea ice has shrunk to a record low and is continuing to shrink.

What Scientists Say

U.S. climate scientists who have published research papers—including those in the National Academy of Sciences, which guides the nation on science and science policy—say climate change is real, that the quirky weather affecting my garden is a result, and that much of it is caused by human activity.  It is a serious problem, they say, but that we should be aware that there are solutions available to counteract it, if we choose to act and to act soon.

The scientists also warn us that unless we slow global emissions from fossil fuels in an attempt to keep the earth’s temperature from rising a further 3.6 degrees Fahrenheit (2.0 degrees Celsius), the earth’s polar ice will melt away, producing consequences of catastrophic proportions.  Time is running out.  The current rapid rise in fossil fuel emissions, if not curtailed, will result in  global havoc.  I’ve listed at the end of this article some of the expected outcomes.

It should be noted that there are scientists who have expressed doubts about various aspects of climate change.  However, I was unable to find published research that refutes current findings.  Unless such research appears and clearly demonstrates that current findings are incorrect or badly flawed, I will remain convinced that climate change is real.

What Americans Think

There are at least six different ways Americans view the global climate change issue.  Researchers label these groups as follows:

  1. The alarmed.  About 16% of the public believes that climate change is real, that it is caused by humans, and that it is a serious problem of great urgency.  They are ready to proceed with solutions but don't quite know what they can do as individuals or what society should do collectively.
  2. The concerned.  A group comprising about 29% of respondents, these folks think climate change is happening, that it is human-caused, that it is serious, but that it is not of immediate concern.
  3. The cautious.  About 25% of the public is still on the fence, trying to make up its mind.  Is climate change really happening? Is it natural or caused by humans? Is it really a serious risk?
  4. The disengaged.  About eight percent of the public has heard of climate change but doesn’t really know much about it.
  5. The doubtful.  About 13 % of the public says, "I don't think it's happening, but if it is, it's natural.”  They tend to think that climate change is not a problem.
  6. The dismissive.  Eight percent of Americans are firmly convinced that climate change is not happening.  They say it is not human caused, and it is not a serious problem.  Some claim it is a hoax, that scientists are making up data or that it is a UN plot to take away American sovereignty.

Why Action to Counter the Threat is so Slow in Coming

  • As human beings, as with other sentient beings on our planet, we are attuned to the physicality of our immediate environment—what we can see around us and what touches us physically.  But we can’t see carbon dioxide in the air nor can we feel it when it touches us.  One of the consequences of these properties is that they make CO2 invisible to us—the out-of-sight out-of-mind phenomenon.
  • As a nation, we are just beginning to realize that we are not fundamentally different from the natural world.  When it comes right down to it, when we look at DNA in plants and animals, we share a good bit of our genetic material with flowers, trees, fish, bears, and other sentient beings.  We need to process this fact as a society.  What does it mean to be descendants of the same lines as other beings on our planet?  How does that change our perception of the world and our place in it?
  • The national media are not helping to educate us.  The only way most of us learn about climate change is through these media.  So when very little is reported about climate change, that old saw I mentioned earlier (out of sight, out of mind) comes into play.  It is estimated that the environment and related issues only get about one or two percent of total news coverage in the U.S.
  • Our efforts at dealing with climate change have largely been top down.  Some of us implore our federal and state politicians to do something about negative environmental impacts, but there has been little political will to do so.  Why?  Because there is no groundswell for political action.  If there is no political price to pay for opposing action or doing nothing regarding climate change, it is very easy for a senator or representative to say, “I’ve got lots of other issues on my plate to deal with, so I’m not going to bother with this one.”
  • We may perceive the predicted temperature change of 3.6 degrees F as miniscule and therefore of no consequence.  Think about this analogy:  Our normal body temperature is somewhere close to 98.7 degrees F.  If it rises one degree, you may feel vaguely unwell but still go about your daily business.  If it rises two degrees, you begin to feel sick and may take the day off.  At three degrees you are quite ill.  At four degrees and higher, you may actually slip into a coma and be at risk of dying.  That is how our climate works as well.  An increase of a few degrees begins to raise considerable havoc.


Those of us who believe that climate change is real need to start thinking about ways to reach and educate the six population groups above about current scientific findings.  (Those at the bottom of the list are most likely so set in their beliefs that we may do well to save our energies and work with the other groups first.)  We need to let the alarmed know how they can work effectively to bring about a change in attitudes and how to contact organizations that work to that end.  We need to educate the concerned about the immediacy of the problem.  We need to provide a complete climate change education for the cautious, and we need to engage the disengaged.  Organizations that strive to accomplish these goals must form at the grassroots level, not at the governmental level.

We must gauge the effect of our climate change education programs.  At some point in the future, we must evaluate how well these programs are working.  If the majority of Americans at that point still are not sure whether climate change is real and whether action is urgent, we must reevaluate our educational efforts as well as the state of current research.

Click here for a brief overview
of how to stabilize emissions
and stop global climate change.

We must de-politicize the issue.  This is not a partisan problem.  Mother Nature doesn’t care whether you are Democrat or Republican, whether you are liberal or conservative.  Hurricane Sandy did not destroy the houses of the Democrats and spare the Republicans.

As I write this, I believe climate change is affecting all Americans—many unknowingly—regardless of their political beliefs, their race, class, or creed.  Only if we come together as a country do we have any hope of avoiding climate catastrophies in the future.  We need to have a serious conversation, not about whether climate change is real, but what we can do about it before it is too late.

If that conversation comes to pass and we take positive action, my garden and I will be eternally grateful.

Next in the Looking Beyond the Garden series:  How did all those plants come to be?



  • Republic of Maldives: Vulner-
    able to sea level rise

    Sea level rise

    Global sea level rose about 17 centimeters (6.7 inches) in the last century. The rate in the last decade, however, is nearly double that of the last century.4

  • Global temperature rise

    All three major global surface temperature reconstructions show that Earth has warmed since 1880.5 Most of this warming has occurred since the 1970s, with the 20 warmest years having occurred since 1981 and with all 10 of the warmest years occurring in the past 12 years.6 Even though the 2000s witnessed a solar output decline resulting in an unusually deep solar minimum in 2007-2009, surface temperatures continue to increase.7

    Warming oceans

    The oceans have absorbed much of this increased heat, with the top 700 meters (about 2,300 feet) of ocean showing warming of 0.302 degrees Fahrenheit since 1969.8

    Flowing meltwater from the
    Greenland ice sheet

    Shrinking ice sheets

    The Greenland and Antarctic ice sheets have decreased in mass. Data from NASA's Gravity Recovery and Climate Experiment show Greenland lost 150 to 250 cubic kilometers (36 to 60 cubic miles) of ice per year between 2002 and 2006, while Antarctica lost about 152 cubic kilometers (36 cubic miles) of ice between 2002 and 2005.

    Visualization of the 2007 Arctic
    sea ice minimum

    Declining Arctic sea ice

    Both the extent and thickness of Arctic sea ice has declined rapidly over the last several decades.9

    The disappearing snowcap of
    Mount Kilimanjaro, from space.

    Glacial retreat

    Glaciers are retreating almost everywhere around the world — including in the Alps, Himalayas, Andes, Rockies, Alaska and Africa.10

    Extreme events

    The number of record high temperature events in the United States has been increasing, while the number of record low temperature events has been decreasing, since 1950. The U.S. has also witnessed increasing numbers of intense rainfall events.11

    Ocean acidification

Since the beginning of the Industrial Revolution, the acidity of surface ocean waters has increased by about 30 percent.12,13 This increase is the result of humans emitting more carbon dioxide into the atmosphere and hence more being absorbed into the oceans. The amount of carbon dioxide absorbed by the upper layer of the oceans is increasing by about 2 billion tons per year.14,15




IPCC Fourth Assessment Report, Summary for Policymakers, p. 5

B.D. Santer et.al., “A search for human influences on the thermal structure of the atmosphere,” Nature vol 382, 4 July 1996, 39-46

Gabriele C. Hegerl, “Detecting Greenhouse-Gas-Induced Climate Change with an Optimal Fingerprint Method,” Journal of Climate, v. 9, October 1996, 2281-2306

V. Ramaswamy et.al., “Anthropogenic and Natural Influences in the Evolution of Lower Stratospheric Cooling,” Science 311 (24 February 2006), 1138-1141

B.D. Santer et.al., “Contributions of Anthropogenic and Natural Forcing to Recent Tropopause Height Changes,” Science vol. 301 (25 July 2003), 479-483.


In the 1860s, physicist John Tyndall recognized the Earth's natural greenhouse effect and suggested that slight changes in the atmospheric composition could bring about climatic variations. In 1896, a seminal paper by Swedish scientist Svante Arrhenius first speculated that changes in the levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere could substantially alter the surface temperature through the greenhouse effect.


National Research Council (NRC), 2006. Surface Temperature Reconstructions For the Last 2,000 Years. National Academy Press, Washington, DC.


Church, J. A. and N.J. White (2006), A 20th century acceleration in global sea level rise, Geophysical Research Letters, 33, L01602, doi:10.1029/2005GL024826.

The global sea level estimate described in this work can be downloaded from the CSIRO website.






T.C. Peterson et.al., "State of the Climate in 2008," Special Supplement to the Bulletin of the American Meteorological Society, v. 90, no. 8, August 2009, pp. S17-S18.


I. Allison et.al., The Copenhagen Diagnosis: Updating the World on the Latest Climate Science, UNSW Climate Change Research Center, Sydney, Australia, 2009, p. 11


http://science.nasa.gov/headlines/y2009/ 01apr_deepsolarminimum.htm


Levitus, et al, "Global ocean heat content 1955–2008 in light of recently revealed instrumentation problems," Geophys. Res. Lett. 36, L07608 (2009).


L. Polyak, et.al., “History of Sea Ice in the Arctic,” in Past Climate Variability and Change in the Arctic and at High Latitudes, U.S. Geological Survey, Climate Change Science Program Synthesis and Assessment Product 1.2, January 2009, chapter 7

R. Kwok and D. A. Rothrock, “Decline in Arctic sea ice thickness from submarine and ICESAT records: 1958-2008,” Geophysical Research Letters, v. 36, paper no. L15501, 2009



National Snow and Ice Data Center

World Glacier Monitoring Service








C. L. Sabine et.al., “The Oceanic Sink for Anthropogenic CO2,” Science vol. 305 (16 July 2004), 367-371


Copenhagen Diagnosis, p. 36.

(Courtesy of NASA)


1.   Weather

  • Waters will be warmer and there will be more hurricanes.  As water temperatures in the ocean continue to rise, so will the number and strength of hurricanes.
  • Thunderstorms will be stronger and more plentiful.  Increased atmospheric heat and humidity will fuel these storms.
  • The number of droughts and heat waves will increase and be more intense.  Some areas of the globe, especially Europe and Africa, will suffer very serious droughts and record high temperatures.  Water has already become a rare commodity in many areas of Africa, which could easily lead to conflicts and war (see number 10 below).
2.  Health
  • Increased warmth brings increased disease.  Disease bearing mosquitoes will multiply in much greater numbers, carrying malaria, West Nile virus, and dengue fever.  Other diseases will increase as well, including avian flu, cholera, ebola, plague, and tuberculosis.
  • A hotter climate produces more ozone, a component of smog formation.  Combined with the greenhouse effect that traps fumes from vehicles and industrial pollution, more potent and more frequent smogs will impact health, especially the health of those with emphysema, bronchitis, or asthma.

3.   Polar ice caps

  • Sea levels will eventually rise as much as three feet as polar caps continue to melt.
  • Fresh water from the ice caps will dilute the salinity of the oceans, causing changes in currents that will bring cooler temperatures to the eastern seaboard in the U.S. and the western seaboard in Europe.
  • Ecological changes due to warmer temperatures will endanger plant and animal life within the Arctic Circle.
  • After the ice caps have melted, a lot of reflective surface on the globe will have disappeared.  This will accelerate warming temperatures, because the sun’s heat in those areas will then be absorbed.

4.   Floods

One of the results of warming seas is a process called “thermal expansion.”  Warm water takes up more space than cool water which, in turn, causes the sea level to rise.

Steadily melting glacial and polar ice will raise sea levels as well and will cause flooding along shorelines around the world.

5.   Fires

Warmer temperatures and drought will cause more frequent and destructive wildfires.  The carbon dioxide and fine soot released by these fires will further accelerate air pollution problems and the greenhouse effect.

6.   Increased volcanic activity

Melting glaciations and ice caps will reduce the weight pressing down on the earth’s mantle.  These shifting pressures will cause the mantle to bulge, generating more volcanic eruptions, often in unexpected places.

7.   Loss of biodiversity and extinction of animals

Habitat loss at the poles will most likely impact polar bears and penguins severely.  Animals dependent on other cold environments will retreat northward as the planet heats up, encroaching on and possibly displacing existing flora and fauna.

8.   Deadly impact on ocean life

The earth’s oceans absorb about 30% of all carbon dioxide in the air.  As the amount of CO2 in the air increases, the oceans will absorb progressively larger amounts.  The ongoing destruction of phytoplankton will increase, due to higher levels of CO2 in the water, disrupting the oceans’ food chain and impacting the species at the top of the chain most severely.  Many will die.

Coral reefs are very sensitive to temperature changes.  As the oceans warm, reef death will continue to accelerate.

9.   Economic consequences

  • Hurricanes cause billions of dollars in damage.
  • Like hurricanes, devastation from fires and floods runs into billions of dollars as well.
  • Diseases generate huge medical expenditures.
  • Higher seas will require the relocation of homes, hospitals, power stations, refineries, and other businesses along any seacoast.

10. Social consequences

It is likely that increased friction will result among nations and ethnic groups as ever scarcer resources lead to migration from areas where climate change has had a severe impact.  Areas less severely affected will seek to control and protect their dwindling resources.  The inevitable result will be conflict and death.

Next time:  The Big Bang

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About Larry Rettig
"An enthusiastic gardener for over 50 years, my first plant was a potted Ponderosa Lemon tree ordered from a comic book ad at age 15. I still have it, and it’s still bearing lemons! My wife and I garden on 3/4 of an acre, both flowers and vegetables. Our garden, named Cottage-in-the-Meadow Gardens, is private and is listed with the Smithsonian Institution in its Archives of American Gardens. It is also on the National Register of Historic Places. We garden organically and no-till. Our vegetable garden contains a seed bank of vegetables brought to this country from Germany in the mid-1800s by my ancestors. My latest book, Gardening the Amana Way, is available at Amazon.com.

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Well . . . Sharon Apr 12, 2013 1:03 PM 16

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