Climate change, salmon and the case for optimism
by Patrick McGann
Five years ago Thanksgiving I was told I could probably expect to live ten more years — maybe. That was a prognosis about double what I was reading at the time, but the doctors told me to pay no attention to anything written more than six months prior. Plus, my first oncologist said that I seemed too much like 99-cent chuck to go down that easy.
The fact is I’m bobbing up and down on a sea of science. Science let them suck the marrow out of my bones and then kill everything else—a ghastly thing—then clean up my cells in a lab in Seattle and inject them back into me. Kind of like an oil change. It didn’t send me into remission, but it bought me some time.
Time enough for science to come up with a new bag of tricks, like teaching my white blood cell guard dogs to bite first and ask questions later. My case is difficult enough that I qualify for “testing parachutes” for a pharmaceutical company. I don’t fully understand how immunotherapy works, but I do understand the concept. It is receptors and antigens and monoclonals and whatchadiggies. It’s a little scary and voodoo. At any rate, it seems to be working and the guinea pig endures.
My sister-in-law was diagnosed at about the same time I was but with ovarian cancer. She did not have faith in science. A beautiful, kind, generous, intelligent soul, she was, tragically, not cheap steak tough. She listened to her fears and suspicions. She told me about conspiracies. She questioned motives. She refused treatment. Her cancer was treatable conventionally, but she didn’t trust the science. Her emotions were self-persuasive. Her inability to look through the difficulties of treatment—real as hell—blinded her to taking action. The science was right, but she couldn’t accept it. Science didn’t argue, it just did what science does. And just like science said would happen, she died. Right in front of me.
And so it is with climate change and salmon and steelhead. Science is going to happen whether we believe it or not. And science is now saying it’s going to be getting realz sooner, not later. Glaciers, polar bears, baby arctic seals, Alaska spawning streams as hot as bathtubs, the blob (again), northern pike, space alien fish viruses …
This last summer the Journal of Geophysical Research, Oceans published a massive study, widely reported, that showed the north Pacific above 50 degrees north warming up 6 degrees Celsius over its historic norm and the ocean off California, Oregon and Washington increasing 1.5 to 2 degrees Celsius. That’s off the hook. The study concluded that climate change will produce recurring “blobs” of exceptionally warm water with increasing frequency, persistence and size. There is one as of this writing off the Columbia again. This is bad.
But what does that mean? Let me ask you this, knowing how sensitive salmon and steelhead are to temperature change and how dependent they are on cold water, what do you think science is telling you right now about taking out a 100 month boat loan?
I know, yeah, plastic straws, gas ranges, bring your own bag… blah, blah, blah. Maybe it’s real, maybe not. Anyway, maybe you’ll be dead before the salmon are all gone, right? Trust me, I understand that line of thinking. I reject it with every breath I breathe, but I do understand it. When you get where I am—and you are, know it or not—the future becomes more important, not less. But this is not the future we’re talking about. This is right now.
Jonathon Franzen, a fine scribe who writes complicated novels about suburban Californians who think too much and do too little, had an interesting article in the New Yorker recently. About climate change, he quoted Kafka (of course): “There is infinite hope, only not for us.”
He wondered if it isn’t time to stop pretending that we can do something about it. That’s not an insignificant point. I mean, even if we could somehow get all the Chinese Marxo-capitalists, psycho Russian oil fascists, Brazilian robber barons and Trump’s merry mob of deplorables to stop belching carbon or for that matter just stop monkey wrenching everything that’s been done so far to save fish, could we still do anything about climate change at this point? Franzen thought not. He’s not alone. Despair is pandemic.
“I can run ten thousand scenarios through my model, and in not one of them do I see the two-degree [Celsius] target [reduction] being met,” he wrote, referring to the modest goal of just stopping the increase in global temperature.
Franzen implies we are heading for the same kind of climate driven socio-economic collapse that is driving people right now from the lower latitudes (in Africa and Central America) in a desperate stampede north, a real ‘zombie apocalypse’ really underway. And that, he hopes, might drive humans into a more earth friendly and local-centric way of living. I call that the Susan Sarandon ‘let ’em screw it up so they’ll see their error’ approach. Any day now, right, Susan?
He did acknowledge that his conclusion would draw criticism from people afraid it would be used as rationale for doing nothing. But he countered that we are already doing nothing. I would say that we are not doing nothing. Rather, we are doing very little. And the very little we are doing is better than nothing. More importantly, the very little we are doing is a result of a reservoir of will to do something and that can be built on.
Mr. Franzen’s pessimism is understandable but wrong. I do agree there is plenty of reason to draw in a deep breath over the immensity of the challenges we face, but my health journey has taught me that we are clever monkeys … if we want to be.
I am reading a new book out, Stronghold, One Man’s Quest to Save the World’s Salmon, by Tucker Malarkey (Spiegal & Grau). It is the true, enjoyable and well written story of Guido Rahr, a naturalist from Bend, Oregon who cut a wide swath in protecting salmon habitat from the Pacific Northwest to the Kamchatka Peninsula in Russia in the 1980s and ’90s.
I’m going to be talking more about Stronghold in a future issue—my own history intersects it—but there is something important to bring up now in the gloom of this predicament. It’s a story of passion, almost bottomless passion for the viability of these fish, that, paired with competence is itself an almost irresistible force. If there is one thing besides salmon and steelhead that salmon and steelhead spawn, it is warriors.
And in that lies hope. It’s why I think, yes, you can take out a long term loan on a boat meant to last. Yes, you can go ahead and re-power that old beast. Yes, you can lay down some cheddar for a pair of G. Loomis rods. Yes, it’s worth the time and aggravation to demand the Oregon and Washington fish and wildlife commissions get their shit together.
I have been watching with growing encouragement the emergence of a campaign started by Jack Smith and Dave Schamp (speaking of warriors) this last spring called Hatchery & Wild Coexist (hatchery-wild-coexist.com). Pat Hoglund and Bill Herzog wrote about it here in April. I’ve followed it since then on social media which they’ve employed brilliantly. Since then, to say it has flourished is not an understatement. People are starting to get it.
There is no way to overstate the immediate threat to salmon and steelhead posed by climate change. There is no amount of just-leave-it-alone that will work. We are literally looking at the end.
I’ve seen the end. It’s not good. I’ll give you all, pro-hatchery folks especially, the same advice I gave my sister in law. Fight. Pick up a rock, break a bottle, bite, go for the eyes, never give up … Hatcheries are our immunotherapy. They’re how we’re going to fight.