Skip to main content

Russell: Animal insanity

"The animals are going crazy!;'

Years before Al Gore's ''An Inconvenient Truth,'' the Internet sounded the alarm for those of us who talk to Inuit or Athabascan Indians. Animals, they said, were turning up in the wrong places or at the wrong times, or failing to turn up at all. For people who still practice subsistence hunting, such things are hard not to notice. Buildings situated on the permafrost were turning out not to be so perma.

I took the remarks about the animals seriously. My grandmother used to say that the chickens were better fixed to warn us of an approaching tornado than the weathermen on the Tulsa TV stations; and while I no longer keep chickens, I do think she had a point. Animals seem to know a lot more about the weather than most modern human beings are equipped to learn from them.

It was only after Gore that I learned a 1-degree rise in temperature at the equator could translate into 12 degrees in the polar regions, and that the Earth moves heat to the poles on currents of air and water just as the Earth ''breathes.'' When the Northern Hemisphere is tilted towards the sun, exposing most forests, the globe sucks in carbon dioxide, letting it out when the Southern Hemisphere is exposed. So the concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere goes up and down with the seasons, but the ''down'' has been a little higher every year measurements have been taken.

Gore tells us there are three sticking points in talking to people about global warming. (1) It doesn't exist. (2) It exists but it is not caused by human beings, but is rather part of a natural cycle. (3) It exists and is caused by human beings, but the problem is so huge we really can't do anything about it.

Most Indians, I quickly discovered, breeze right past (1) and (2). They have already noticed that for some years now the weather has been out of whack. They have blood memories of major ecological catastrophes caused by the settlers long before the term ''ecological'' was coined. The Kiowa know that human beings caused the buffalo to go away. Indians in the Pacific Northwest have been missing the salmon, and they understand it's not because the salmon just decided to leave.

My childhood view of human environmental depredations was colored by the oil boom and how in those days the oil companies were not forced to care about the waste products of drilling. Migratory birds drowned in oily water and foul stinks in the air were the price of getting rich, or at least some people getting rich. Natural gas, not having the market value it has today, was simply flared off, lighting up the night among the oil derricks that were emblematic of the ''new'' Oklahoma.

So Indians understand that the climate is changing and people have the power to change it and no better sense than to let it happen. That third problem has a peculiar spin in Indian country. It's not so much that nothing can be done as an attitude that we are not responsible and therefore it is not our problem. The white man broke it and he should fix it.

The Indian spin is certainly true, but the fact of the matter is that fixing it is everybody's problem, whether that's fair or not. It's also true enough, as the naysayers use Indians to make fun of environmental progress, that if we all lived in tipis and gave up electricity and air conditioning and went back to riding horses, our carbon footprints would diminish considerably. Admitting to the truth in that bit of ridicule does not mean an 18th century lifestyle is what will be required.

It's true that we will have to give up some things to maintain the sort of habitat to which humans have adapted, but it's up to us which things to give up. The main thing we have to give up is greed. Every human being, every family, city, state, tribal nation or continent, has a ''carbon footprint,'' an amount of carbon we put into the atmosphere because we live and because of how we have chosen to live.

Human beings in the U.S. have the largest carbon footprints in the world. Can anyone suggest a moral justification for this? Suppose you have a pond on land owned by three families jointly and it can produce a hundred pounds of fish a year without killing off the fish. Should one family get more fish per person than the others? It's that simple in moral terms.

The Union of Concerned Scientists has proposed a world carbon budget that they claim, if followed, would reduce the chances of catastrophic climate change to 50-50. No, I don't like those odds either. Within that budget, all the industrialized nations could release 700 gigatons of carbon between 2000 and 2050.

The U.S. share by population would be 160 gigatons. This is what most people in the world think would be fair. I wonder why?

The U.S. share based on our share of gross domestic product would be 245 gigatons. I'm not sure what the argument for this method is when our GDP is no longer based on manufacturing and smelting, which tends to release a lot of carbon.

The U.S. share based on maintaining the share of carbon release we have now would be 265 gigatons. This method seems to me, on its face, immoral.

Last time I looked, there were seven bills pending in Congress to address climate change, none of which had even come to a vote. One is expected to be voted down this term. None of the bills would get us within 160 gigatons. Only two, Sanders-Boxer (S. 309) and Waxman (H.R. 1590), would even get us within 265 gigatons, and neither of those bills is likely to be voted upon.

So you can see that our relatives up north were correct: the animals are going crazy. The two-legged animals.

Steve Russell, Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma, is a Texas trial court judge by assignment and an associate professor of criminal justice at Indiana University - Bloomington. He is a columnist for Indian Country Today.