October 18, 2021

A View from My Porch:  Is it Time for Americans to Acknowledge Climate Change?

Last April, LymeLine.com published a “Primer on Global Warming and Climate Change

Since that time, there has been a change in Presidential leadership; and, in January, the United States transitioned from a science-averse, to a science-centric Executive Branch, which may have an impact on how the Country views climate change. 

This essay is a “refresh” of the April essay, and reviews a few recent weather events, in light of the consequences predicted by climate scientists; and lays out the climate priorities proposed by the Biden Administration. My goal in this essay is logically and concisely to present the issue of climate change for the reader’s consideration. 

The Fundamentals:

Global warming is one symptom of the overarching phenomenon of climate change. The “side effects” of that warming include some significant shifts in weather patterns, and an increase in the frequency of abnormal and severe weather events. 

The Paris Carousel:

In 2015, representatives of 196 nations negotiated the Paris Climate Agreement under the auspices of the United Nation’s Convention on Climate Change. The goal, when signed in 2016, was to strengthen the international response to climate change mitigation. 

The Obama Administration pledged that, by 2025, the United States would cut carbon emissions by 26 percent below 2005 levels. He hailed our leadership in developing this Agreement as one of his major accomplishments.

His successor, Donald Trump, announced, in mid-2017, that the United States would terminate all participation in the Paris Agreement. He stated, “The climate deal was less about the climate, and more about other countries gaining a financial advantage over the United States. We don’t want other leaders and other countries laughing at us anymore.” 

As the first and only country formally to pull out of the Agreement, his decision stunned our allies. He also then went on to roll back or loosen many of America’s key environmental policies and regulations.

President Biden signed an Executive Order soon after his inauguration that initiated the process for the United States to reenter the Paris Agreement. In February, Secretary of State Tony Blinken called it, “A good day in our fight against the climate crisis,” and promised that the United States would, “Waste no time in engaging our partners around the world to build our global resilience.”

The Focus on Fossil Fuels:

Burning carbon-rich fossil fuels produces water vapor, carbon dioxide (CO2), and trace gases like methane and nitrous oxide, which are collectively referred to as “greenhouse” gases, Photo by Anne Nygård on Unsplash.

Since the mid-20th century, human activities have had an extraordinary impact on the Earth’s climate; and scientists have concluded that burning carbon-rich fossil fuels, like oil, coal, and natural gas, is the largest driver of that impact.

When they burn, fossil fuels produce water vapor, carbon dioxide (CO2), and trace gases like methane and nitrous oxide, which are collectively referred to as “greenhouse” gases.

Their accumulation in the atmosphere is responsible for the “greenhouse effect”, which is the warming that occurs when these gases trap heat in the lower atmosphere; i.e., in a manner that’s similar to the heat-trapping glass on a greenhouse.

The most important of these gases is CO2. Although it absorbs less heat per molecule than methane or nitrous oxide, it is remarkably more abundant and remains in the atmosphere much longer. 

Data from NASA’s Orbiting Carbon Observatory show that we now add about 40 billion tons of CO2 to the atmosphere every year, mostly by burning fossil fuels. Scientists estimate that this increase in atmospheric carbon dioxide is responsible for about two-thirds of the total energy imbalance that is causing the Earth’s temperature to rise.

In 2019, coal accounted for 40 percent of global CO2 emissions, oil for 34 percent, and natural gas, 20 percent. Note that, worldwide, China and the United States rank first and second, respectively, in annual volume of CO2 emissions. 

Carbon dioxide levels today are higher than at any point in recorded history. According to Princeton University-led research published in the journal “Nature Climate Change,” even if we immediately stop all new CO2 emissions, the carbon dioxide that is already in the Earth’s atmosphere could continue to warm our planet for hundreds of years. 

It’s been well said by Theodor Geisel: “How did it get so late so soon?”

Recent Unusual Weather Events:

I have selected a few events to illustrate the outcomes predicted by climate scientists.

You might argue that these examples do not really reflect climate change, but are more akin to changes observed by, and often attributed to, Mark Twain: “If you don’t like the weather in New England now, just wait a few minutes.”

The Lefthand Canyon fire, pictured above, started on Oct. 18, 2020. The fire burned 460 acres of brush and timber approximately one mile west of the town of Ward in the area of Lefthand Canyon and Spring Gulch in Boulder County, Colorado.

Last year, five of the six largest fires in California history, and three of the four largest in Colorado history, all burned.

By the end of the year, more than four percent of California’s landmass had been consumed by fire, making 2020 the worst wildfire season in California’s modern history. The U.S. Forest Service observed that California’s mean air temperatures have risen since 1980, resulting in increased evaporation, drier brush, and, with concomitant reductions in rainfall through recent decades, had generated one of the worst “megadroughts” in California history. 

A “perfect storm” of weather events, which included a prolonged heat wave followed by a remarkable and unprecedented lightning siege of over 10,000 strikes over several days, finally precipitated the conflagration. 

Earlier this year, the Texas “deep freeze” brought the coldest temperatures in over a quarter century to the state. Most of the state was covered with snow, a freak event, and their under-prepared and poorly-designed power grid was brought down for almost 4.5 million Texans, many of whom were forced to remain in poorly insulated, freezing homes for more than a week.

At least one elected official decided to flee to Mexico.

Extreme weather events have also been on the increase in the northeastern United States. Major winter storms impacted the region in both December 2020 and February 2021; and a study recently published in the journal, “Nature Climate Change”, reported that the 27 major Northeast winter storms that occurred in the decade spanning the winter of 2008-9 through 2017-18, were three to four times the totals for each of the previous five decades. 

The Administration’s Climate Agenda:

President Joe Biden

In January, President Biden said, “We’ve already waited too long to deal with this climate crisis, we can’t wait any longer. We see it with our own eyes. We know it in our bones, and it’s time to act,” (Come on, Jack!)

He ordered a pause on new oil and gas leases on public lands and waters, setting a goal to conserve 30 percent of U.S. lands and ocean waters over the next 10 years. He also added new regulations targeted at reducing greenhouse gas emissions, and directed federal agencies to eliminate fossil fuel subsidies.

He reiterated his daunting climate goals. I’ve listed the highlights of his $2 trillion plan in the following:

  1. Achieve net-zero emissions by 2050. (i.e., we can still produce some emissions, as long as they are offset by activities that reduce greenhouse gases already in the atmosphere (e.g., planting new forests.)
  2. Make the electricity sector free of carbon pollution by 2035.
  3. Make all new U.S.-made buses zero-emissions by 2030.
  4. Create jobs for construction workers, scientists, and engineers to build electricity-producing sources from wind and solar. 
  5. Develop an Energy Efficiency and Clean Electricity Standard for utilities and grid operators.
  6. Create a climate research agency that works to make nuclear reactors safer and more efficient.

Final Thoughts:

The issue of mitigating climate change will be very contentious, and it appears that Republicans are already digging in against the President’s plans. 

For example, Wyoming’s Senator John Barrasso (R) has said, “I’m not going to sit idly by, or my colleagues, if this administration enforces policies that threaten my State’s economy …” As a point of reference, Wyoming produced 102.1 million barrels of crude oil in 2019, up from 87.9 million barrels in 2018.”

In contrast, the President insists that a shift to clean energy will create better paying jobs, saying, “We can put millions of Americans to work modernizing our water systems, transportation, and our energy infrastructure.” 

I just don’t know, after more than a year of dealing with COVID, whether a divided United States will have the mettle for climate. The biggest hurdle I see is transportation. Americans are buying more cars and driving more miles. We’ll soon be flying more. Prior to the pandemic, air travel had been up 5 percent a year over the past few years. 

Electric cars are becoming increasingly popular, but there is no equivalent for air travel. Photo by Ernest Ojeh on Unsplash.

Unlike the promise of electric cars, there is no electrical alternative for long distance air travel. 

Further, in Climate Change: The Science of Global Warming and Our Energy Future, the authors observe, “Many Americans view the findings of climate science through a partisan or ideological lens. For those who reject the scientific consensus, their views are based more on emotional reactions than rational responses. It is of course also true that some people who accept the consensus are doing so for reasons that are not exclusively rational.”

I mentioned “planting new forests” above. I realize that climate mitigation efforts like planting trees may be a long-term and certainly idealistic solution, but there is also the option of slowing down or putting a halt to deforestation. We should probably do both.

In closing, my next essay considers the epic poems of folk and rock music.

In starting the transition, I wonder how Dylan would revise the lyrics of Subterranean Homesick Blues to reflect climate change. Would he still say, “You don’t need a weather man to know which way the wind blows”?

This is the opinion of Thomas D. Gotowka.

Tom Gotowka

About the author: Tom Gotowka’s entire adult career has been in healthcare. He’ will sit on the Navy side at the Army/Navy football game. He always sit on the crimson side at any Harvard/Yale contest. He enjoys reading historic speeches and considers himself a scholar of the period from FDR through JFK.

A child of AM Radio, he probably knows the lyrics of every rock and roll or folk song published since 1960. He hopes these experiences give readers a sense of what he believes “qualify” him to write this column.

A View From My Porch: Remembering Connecticut Icon William Gillette

Gillette Castle, former home of the iconic movie star and playwright, Connecticut-born William Gillette, who died in 1937.

Editor’s Note: Feb. 12 is the 90th anniversary of William Gillette’s final performance as Sherlock Holmes, given Feb. 12, 1930 at the popular Parsons Theatre in downtown Hartford.

I am going a few miles upstream in this essay towards East Haddam and its medieval gothic castle to consider William Gillette’s impact on how Sherlock Holmes has been portrayed in movies and television. My goal in these essays is to cover the subject thoroughly enough to either satisfy your curiosity, or to pique your interest to pursue some additional research.

Assuming the editor’s forbearance, I will also review, in a subsequent essay, several of the actors who played Holmes or Watson to judge how true they were to either Gillette’s or Arthur Conan Doyle’s artistic vision.

Gillette was born to a progressive political family in Hartford’s Nook Farm neighborhood where authors Harriet Beecher Stowe, Mark Twain, and Charles Dudley Warner each once resided. His mother was a Hooker, that is a direct descendant of Connecticut Colony co-founder Thomas Hooker. Gillette is most recognized for his on-stage interpretation of Sherlock Holmes. He may have been America’s first matinée idol or to put it another way, the era’s rock star.

The Sherlockian Literature

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. See below for photo credit.

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle wrote 56 short stories and four novels between the 1880s and the early 20th century that comprise the “canon” of Sherlock Holmes. The stories were first published in Strand Magazine and two of the novels were serialized in that same periodical. 

Holmes defined himself as the world’s first and only “consulting detective.” He shared rooms at 221B Baker Street in London with Dr. John H. Watson, who was a former army surgeon wounded in the Second Afghan War. 

Holmes referred to Watson as his “Boswell” because he chronicled his life and the investigations that they jointly pursued as did 18th century biographer, James Boswell, of Dr. Samuel Johnson.  Watson was described as a typical Victorian-era gentleman and also served as first-person narrator for nearly all of the stories.

Holmes was known for his incredible skills of observation and deduction, and forensic science and logic, all of which he used when investigating cases for his myriad clients, which often included Scotland Yard. He played the violin well and was an expert singlestick player, boxer, and swordsman. He summarized his investigative skills for Watson this way, “Once you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth,” and, “It is my business to know what other people don’t know.”

However, Holmes had shortcomings. He was a very heavy smoker of black shag pipe tobacco, which he kept in the toe of a Persian slipper on the fireplace mantel at 221B. He also smoked cigars and cigarettes. A very difficult problem was called a “three pipe problem.” 

He used cocaine and morphine to provide “stimulation for his overactive brain” during periods when he did not have an interesting case or as an escape from “the dull routine of existence.” This was not really unusual in that period because the sale of opium, laudanum, cocaine, and morphine was legal and often used to self-medicate or for recreation. This habit was worrisome for Dr. Watson, although he once said of Holmes, “He was the best and wisest man whom I have ever known.”

The Holmes stories were immensely popular and Doyle’s last publication in Strand, “The Final Problem,” elicited such public (and Royal Family) outrage, that there were mass subscriber cancellations bringing the magazine to the brink of failure.

William Gillette. See below for photo credit.

Doyle decided to write a stage play about Holmes, set earlier in the detective’s career. He was probably compelled to do so because there already were several Sherlock Holmes on-stage productions, which provided him no income, and were of such poor quality that he felt the need to both protect his character’s legacy and improve his own income stream. 

He drafted the play and shared it with his literary agent, who sent it on to Broadway producer and impresario, Charles Frohman. Frohman reviewed it and said it needed substantial work before anyone would consider production. He suggested that William Gillette be offered the rewriting task. 

At that time, Gillette was already well-known as a talented actor and a successful and prolific playwright. His approach was a significant change from the melodramatic standards in the American theater of the time. He stressed realism in sets, lighting, and sound effects. Holmes Scholar Susan Dahlinger described Gillette’s acting style this way, “He could be thrilling without bombast, or infinitely touching without descending to sentimentality.” 

So, Doyle agreed with Frohman, and Gillette began the project by reading the entire “canon” of Holmes stories and novels. He began drafting the new manuscript while touring in California with the stage production of “Secret Service,” which he had also written.  He exchanged frequent telegrams with Doyle during the process and, with Doyle’s blessing, borrowed some plots and detail from the canon in adapting Doyle’s original manuscript into a four-act play. 

Unfortunately, neither Gillette’s first draft nor Doyle’s original script ever reached stage production. A fire broke out at Gillette’s San Francisco hotel and both manuscripts were lost. So, Gillette began a complete redraft of his lost script, and Doyle was finally able to present a play before the century’s end that he deemed worthy of Sherlock Holmes.

It is worth noting that Frohman perished on the Lusitania in May, 1915, after it had been torpedoed by a German submarine.

In 1899, Gillette was “predictably” cast for the lead role in “Sherlock Holmes A Drama in Four Acts.” Initially presented in previews at the Star Theatre in Buffalo, NY, it opened that November at the Garrick Theatre in New York City, and ran there for more than 260 performances before beginning a tour of the United States and then on to a long run in London, where it received great critical and public acclaim.

He starred in that role for more than 30 years, and about 1,500 productions in the United States and Great Britain. He also starred in the 1916 silent film, “Sherlock Holmes,” which film-historians have called, “the most elaborate of the early movies.”

Playing a role for so many years was not unusual at that time in American Theater. For example, James O’Neill, father of playwright Eugene, played Edmond Dantès, The Count of Monte Cristo, more than 6000 times between 1875 and 1920.

Some Key Elements of Gillette’s Sherlock

Although William Gillette is really no longer a “household name” — except perhaps,here in Southeastern Connecticut, where much of how we imagine Holmes today is still due to his stage portrayal of the great consulting detective. 

Gillette actually bore some resemblance to the Holmes described by Dr. Watson in “A Study in Scarlet.” Watson notes, “His [Holmes’s] very person and appearance were such as to strike the attention of the most casual observer. In height he was rather over six feet, and so excessively lean that he seemed to be considerably taller. His eyes were sharp and piercing, and his thin, hawk-like nose gave his whole expression an air of alertness and decision. His chin, too, had the prominence and squareness which mark the man of determination.” 

Gillette’s Holmes appeared in deerstalker cap and Inverness cape. He smoked a curve-stemmed briar pipe, and carried a magnifying glass.  He crafted a phrase that eventually evolved into one of the most recognized lines in popular culture: “Elementary, my dear Watson.” Gillette’s direct style was said to lend a bit of arrogance to Holmes beyond that which Doyle had depicted —  that arrogance has become a hallmark of Holmes’ portrayal in contemporary movies and television.

And finally, Gillette introduced the page, “Billie,” who had actually been played by a certain 13-year-old Charles Spencer Chaplin during the London engagement. At the end of the run, Chaplin began his career as a Vaudeville comedian, which ultimately took him to the United States and movie stardom as the incomparable Charlie Chaplin. 

Some Final Thoughts

I first learned of William Gillette a few summers ago when I visited his remarkable home, “Gillette Castle” built high above the eastern bank of the Connecticut River. I left that visit impressed with Gillette’s creativity in his design of the doors, light switches, and some of the furniture; wondering about his secret multi-mirror “spying” system, and with the assumption that he was just an eccentric artist who liked trains. 

However, I enjoy the Sherlock Holmes literature; and began reading the “canon” at age twelve. I have certainly re-read many of the stories a few more times. Over the past several years, I began to read several authors who write Sherlock Holmes short stories and novels “in the style of Arthur Conan Doyle.” Some of these “pastiches,” as they are called, are quite accurate in style and continuity of Doyle’s themes. 

In researching this essay, I was surprised with the breadth of scholarly work that is currently available regarding Sherlock and Gillette. There are several national and international literary organizations that have also developed around Doyle’s work.

The Johns Hopkins Center for Talented Youth offers a “Study of Sherlock” course, wherein students engage in critical reading, thinking, and writing by studying the iconic detective.

Our local expert on Holmes is Danna Mancini of Niantic. He has lectured and conducted seminars on The World of “Sherlock Holmes.” He is active in at least two Holmes literary organizations: The Baker Street Irregulars (NYC) and the Speckled Band of Boston.

Of some note, the Special Operations Executive (SOE) tasked by Winston Churchill to “set Europe ablaze” during World War II, had its headquarters at 64 Baker Street and was often called, “The Baker Street Irregulars.”

So, the ‘consulting detective’ continues to inspire novels, movies, and television.

As noted above, I will review several of the actors who played Holmes or Watson in these media in my next essay, and judge how true they were to either Gillette’s or Arthur Conan Doyle’s artistic vision.

Photo credit for the photo of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle is as follows: By Arnold Genthe – PD image from http://www.sru.edu/depts/cisba/compsci/dailey/217students/sgm8660/Final/They got it from: http://www.lib.utexas.edu/photodraw/portraits/,where the source was given as: Current History of the War v.I (December 1914 – March 1915). New York: New York Times Company., Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=240887

Photo credit for the photo of William Gillette is as follows: Billy Rose Theatre Division, The New York Public Library. William Gillette Retrieved from http://digitalcollections.nypl.org/items/510d47de-e15c-a3d9-e040-e00a18064a99

Tom Gotowka

About the author: Tom Gotowka’s entire adult career has been in healthcare. He’ will sit on the Navy side at the Army/Navy football game. He always sit on the crimson side at any Harvard/Yale contest. He enjoys reading historic speeches and considers himself a scholar of the period from FDR through JFK.

A child of AM Radio, he probably knows the lyrics of every rock and roll or folk song published since 1960. He hopes these experiences give readers a sense of what he believes “qualify” him to write this column.