Blue sky guilt

Good weather in the age of new normals
montana farm road blue skies
On the way to the Missouri (photo: Chad Shmukler).

We’ve all heard stories about people who walked away from a horrific plane crash, or who came down off the mountain when their companions didn’t, or who returned home from Iraq or Afghanistan when so many of their fellow patriots made the ultimate sacrifice. Sadly, some of them end up suffering from “survivor’s guilt,” which the psychologist and writer Diana Rabb once described as “something that people experience when they’ve survived a life-threatening situation and others might not have.” It seems they can’t help but ask “Why me? Why was I spared?” — in spite of the fact that there’s no obvious or satisfactory answer. Now, as 2019 rounds the turn and races into August, I’m left to wonder if a similar form of guilt might apply to our ongoing climate crisis.

Here in Montana we’ve seen an actual litany of climate impacts over the last decade. Our snows are coming later and leaving earlier, our winters are warmer and our summers are hotter, our trout streams run low and tepid through the tourist months, our forests are succumbing to heat, drought and insect infestations, our wildfires grow larger and more catastrophic, and the glaciers just up the road in Glacier National Park melt away as our temperatures continue to rise.

This year, though, has been different. We’ve had a cooler than normal spring and summer, along with rain in both June and July. In short, we’ve been blessed with old-fashioned Montana weather. More than any other year in recent memory, 2019 harkens back to the way things used to be — and honestly, it’s been wonderful. Our part of Montana is incredibly fortunate that we’ve slipped into the dog days of summer without being burned to a crisp or blanketed with noxious wildfire smoke.

If it seems like I’m enjoying this particular Montana summer in a way I haven’t in what feels like forever … well, I am. Yet at the same time, I’m also well aware of our nation’s ongoing litany of climate-related headlines. For example, farmers in the Midwest have been inundated with so much rain that 2019 is liable to go down as a complete disaster. How can we feel okay about our good fortune when so many of our fellow Americans are facing ruination? How can we celebrate our moderate June and July temps when Alaska is baking and burning, or when my relatives on the East Coast seems to be constantly alternating between stifling heat and torrential downpours, or when a California town has been destroyed by a terrible wildfire?

While there’s no truth to the notion that our cooling summer rains or our lack of 90+ degree days are coming at someone else’s expense, I have to be honest. It sure feels that way. It feels like our good fortune, no matter how brief or transitory it may prove to be, is tied directly to the misfortune of other Americans. And that, at least for me, takes the shine off what has otherwise been a glorious, old-fashioned Montana summer.

We stand to lose so much to the ravages of human-caused climate change. Our economy is at serious risk, along with our agriculture, our infrastructure, and the trout fishing that means so much to us here in Montana. At the same time, the bright future we all hope to share with our children and grandchildren sits directly under a climatic Sword of Damocles. Given the existential nature of the climate crisis, it doesn’t seem fair that we should also have to sacrifice the joy that comes from waking to a perfect day. Yet that, at least for those of us who are paying attention, seems in peril as well.

When you think about it, most of us have been fortunate. We’ve never limped away from a tragedy that cost others their lives. We’ve never shed a tear for friends who died up on the mountain, or for comrades who didn’t make it home from Iraq or Afghanistan. We’ve been spared survivor’s guilt. Yet as the world warms, and as our fellow Americans begin to suffer more and more, even a few months of good weather can start to seem like a burden.