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What A Cherokee Legend Can Teach Us About Climate Change

04/25/2017 01:35 EDT | Updated 04/25/2017 01:35 EDT

Years ago, I remember listening to a radio documentary that reconstructed the dramatic final moments in the control room of the Chernobyl nuclear power plant in Kiev, Ukraine on April 26, 1986. That re-enactment came to mind recently as I read two news stories: one about accelerating warming of our oceans, and the other about the incredible strides being made in renewable energy technology.

chernobyl

Chernobyl Nuclear reactor 4, which exploded in 1986. (Photo: Oktay Ortakciouglu via Getty Images)

Critical seconds

According to the radio dramatization, the final seconds in the Chernobyl control room came down to a race between two opposing factors: one, an unstable nuclear reactor about to surge out of control and the other, the plant's control rods being lowered into the reactor in time to prevent a catastrophe.

As the reactor began its ominous surge, the operators suddenly realized what was happening and a switch was thrown to lower the control rods -- but the process would take several seconds. Would they descend in time to stave off disaster?

Alas, had that switch been thrown mere seconds earlier, Chernobyl might still be an unknown, ordinary place in Ukraine. Instead, we know it as the site of the world's most devastating nuclear accident ever.

aerial ocean current

(Photo: Plainview via Getty Images)

Two stories

So what two stories brought this narrative to mind?

The first was the news that Earth's oceans are warming much faster than previously believed, and that that warming is accelerating. The conclusions were reached thanks to the Argo float system, a new network of temperature sensors deployed in oceans around the world. Whereas previous ocean temperature sensors were only capable of measuring surface water temperatures, Argo floats can measure ocean temperatures at depths of up to 2,000 meters. Ocean temperatures a critical indicator of global climate change as over 90 per cent of extra heat reaching Earth ends up in oceans.

The second was an optimistic overview of the revolution that's happening right now in renewable energy. Technologies are advancing quickly, costs are dropping much faster than expected and installations around the world are exceeding forecasts. Over 98 per cent of Costa Rica's electricity came from renewables in 2016. China has scrapped plans for 85 new coal fired power plants, and is investing over $350 billion into new wind, solar and hydro power.

One story about a climate on the verge of sliding out of control, the other about the technology that can prevent that from happening. A bit like the race between the nuclear reactor and the control rods.

wind turbine oil derrick

(Photo: Ales_Utovko via Getty Images)

Two wolves

In a traditional Cherokee legend, an elderly brave tells his grandson about the battle that goes on within every person.

He explains that there are two wolves inside each of us, continuously in conflict. One is evil: it is anger, jealousy, resentment, greed, arrogance and lies. The other is good: it is serenity, contentment, love, generosity, humility and truth.

The grandson thinks for a minute, then asks, "Which one wins?"

The old man answers simply, "The one we feed."

arctic ice melt

(Photo: Bernhard Staelhi via Getty Images)

So... which will we feed?

The accelerated warming of our oceans is just the latest rumble of a changing climate. January was the third hottest on record; February and March were second hottest. In March, the ice cap over the Arctic Ocean reached its annual winter maximum size -- except that this year that maximum was the smallest on record, for the third year in a row. Ice around Antarctica reached its annual summer minimum last month, too -- the smallest on record, by far.

Yet globally, greenhouse gas emissions from our consumption of oil, coal and natural gas remain at or near record levels. Fossil fuels are a hard habit to break; they're the evil wolf.

At the same time, solar panels cost a fraction of what they did just a few years ago. Wind turbines are becoming cheaper and more efficient. Tidal and wave energy technologies are on the cusp of breakthroughs. Collectively, they're the good wolf.

So which will win -- the evil wolf that's ruining our climate, or the good wolf that can prevent that from happening? The choice is ours -- it will be whichever we feed.

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