Penguins and the Post-Pandemic Climate Curve

Flattening the COVID-19 curve is formidable, unnerving, dispiriting, taking forever — and just a harrowing prelude to the post-pandemic “climate curve” we’ll face when our lives begin anew. I know because I work at climate’s cutting edge. We’re in for another lengthy fight that’s straight uphill, but I have hope. Let me explain.

The Antarctic Peninsula, where I count penguins and monitor environmental change, is about as far away and physically distanced from the rest of humankind as is possible. It’s a place that truly deserves to be called “awesome” and I feel blessed and privileged to have spent 36 of the last 39 austral spring and summer field seasons cavorting in, on, and among beyond-description landscapes, seascapes, and icescapes. Being there is like being present when time began.

The whole continent is the size of the U.S. and Mexico combined and almost completely covered by ice up to more than two miles thick, which represents 90% of all ice on the planet and 70% of our fresh water. It’s unowned and governed collectively for peace, science, and conservation under the 54-member nation Antarctic Treaty. There are more than six million penguin nests of five species continent-wide. On the ground, one is consumed and becomes acutely aware there are no newspapers, no airplane contrails, no modern conveniences, and no politicians — just you, penguin noise, and throbbing heartbeats pounding through your parka as you witness the most spectacular scenery on Earth. I’m not particularly religious, but this is my spiritual home. It makes me dream.

Despite the far proximity, we carbon consumers to the north have caused havoc way south. My penguin workplace has warmed by a whopping 3˚C. / 5˚F. year-round and I’ve witnessed changes, big changes, up close and personally. I now can walk beaches that were formerly icebound. Some of my penguin study colonies have shrunk in half. Winter sea ice has diminished and springtime rain is more common. Ice shelves the size of U.S. states are calving off to sea. Huge glaciers are melting and cracking and relentlessly pursuing a similar fate.

In this circumstance, I’m humbled recalling that penguins, my research subjects, have been cavorting Earth in some form or another for 40-60 million years. We humans, by contrast, are mere millennial twigs on Darwin’s evolutionary tree. These toddling, upright, human-like creatures might not be the smartest animals on the planet, and their guano-laden colonies are olfactory nightmares, but, to my open eyes and ears, penguins are sending messages we shouldn’t ignore.

In particular, that now’s the time to really make a difference for our children and grandchildren, to ensure the vital aspects of our lives as the warming comes our way.

The scope of the COVID-19 pandemic on our entire world is almost inconceivable. But one thing is certain: While we’re hopefully going to flatten the curve and ultimately wipe out this virus, in regard to climate change, there’s no way to flatten the carbon curve without a massive, global rethink about who we humans are and all we do. The pandemic is, surely and clearly, just a harbinger of our climate-changed world to come.

Soon, it will be about that curve, all the time, and the focus must be on whether, like penguins, we’ll be able to live in a sustainable world with food to eat, good homes, a healthy environment free of disease, and continuing to produce kids and grandkids.

It means reaching and engaging everyone we can — irrespective of political persuasion or economic situation — about adapting to a new reality. It will be costly, it won’t be easy, priorities will change, and we’ll need enlightened leadership. A daunting prospect? Perhaps. And yet, I’m optimistic.

Why?

Because of what we learn from the penguin world. One species in the Antarctic Peninsula — gentoo penguins — is thriving, increasing its numbers, and expanding its breeding territory amid the vast warming they face. We’re also aware of total wipeouts of a season’s chicks in a number of emperor penguin colonies; and yet, these colonies’ populations remain stable or are actually increasing.

And so I dream that we, like penguins, will be resilient. After all, they’re biological creatures with the same vital needs for life that we have. We, too, can adapt and survive.

But we have to do this together.

It’s time to think big, structurally, communally, and otherwise. In our country and globally. No question, we’re looking at huge and unprecedented investments in science, a large degree of international cooperation, and a collaboration of major global funding sources.

Because flattening the “climate curve” and adapting to our new reality involves all of us, everywhere. For the sake of humankind, we have no choice.