Warming Comes to Town

Yoshiaki Nishimura, from the portrait series When It Changed, by Joel Sternfeld

Who wanted to go inside on a sunny Colorado afternoon and see an art exhibit on global warming? It was a tough sell with the temperature a perfect sixty-five degrees and the garden screaming for attention. The trouble was, it was November 10. So everyone in Colorado, not to mention the Rocky Mountain West, was already at the global warming exhibit. More accurately, we were in it.

Past the newsstands bearing the front-page headline “Let It Snow, Please” stood the Boulder Museum of Contemporary Art, home to Weather Report: Art and Climate Change, a collaborative effort between artists and scientists. Near the entrance was a pile of postcards depicting a stocky, furry, adorable rodent called a pika. It lives in the Rockies at elevations above eight thousand feet, hibernating snug beneath the deep winter snows. When visitors picked up a postcard, the speaker above them emitted the pika’s signature warning squeak-bark. The display informed us that pikas have disappeared from 30 percent of the sites in the Great Basin where they were known to exist during the last century. They could become the first creature to go entirely extinct due to global warming.

Everyone at that exhibit, which was entitled Pika Alert, looked like they wished they’d stayed home pulling weeds.

Farther into the museum, a videotaped conversation that occurred a couple of months before among environmentally minded Boulderites comprised The Unfinished Journey of Carl Linnaeus. Their dreadlocked and hemp-capped heads contained an awful lot of information about global warming. One spoke about terawatts of energy hitting the Earth; another pointed out that he has cut his electricity bill by 90 percent since he started keeping the indoor temperature to forty degrees (which should do it) and keeping himself warm while working by erecting a little dome over his lower body, computer, and a ceramic heater. (“My neck gets a little cool,” he allowed.)

There were diagrams of the terrible things that will happen to the coast of Bangladesh when the oceans rise, and beautiful photographs of Alaska’s Porcupine caribou herd (which lost thousands of its calves when higher than normal spring-runoff floodwaters swept them downstream).

Time for a break. Outdoors, the sun beat down and the exhibits continued — they were all over town and in the surrounding foothills as well. In Arapahoe Glacier: What Goes Around Comes Around, a chunk of Boulder’s own frozen water supply had been sawed off, brought down into town, and displayed on the lawn in front of the Boulder Public Library. The ice would have melted in a few days except that it was in a solar-powered refrigerator surrounded by heat-deflecting aluminum screens. Hardly anyone stopped to look. Maybe the enormity of global warming is too much to allow in. It really was uncomfortably warm outside. A year ago, several of Colorado’s ski areas had one hundred inches of snow at the end of November. This year, opening dates were being pushed back and local ski-area officials had been photographed on a little patch of snow, looking like penguins on a too-small iceberg.

Back in the museum, there was a comfortable bench in front of an exhibit called When It Changed. Joel Sternfeld’s contribution was a simple series of fifteen candid portraits of participants at the 2005 United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change in Montreal. The subjects were from every corner of the planet. Their expressions weren’t dramatic, but they did not look happy. The faces on the wall registered the early dawning of realization and deep dismay, like they were in the midst of hearing — really hearing — news so bad you couldn’t look away, so bad you wouldn’t wish it on your worst enemy.


  1. Seasonal disruptions are only the beginning. The wind and weather patterns that we could once count on in Ohio are no longer there. We have seen I-75 closed twice in a six month span due to flooding. To my knowledge this has never happened in the history of our time. Frost come at different times later this year making it very difficult to gage when to plant. In my noble attempts to educate I have came to the conclusion that most are merely content to indifference. Skiing is a business farming and agriculture are life. All this rain now and perhaps there is not guarantee that the rains will come during the summer. Yes the climate is shifting. Here in Ohio the rumor is ocean front property and tropical climate. Perhaps not in my life time, but it is a rather scary thought none-the-less. Perhaps the deist had something correct when it came to having the world as a big watch. I hate to say that time will eventually stand still. Then it will be to the great watch maker to wind the watch. The question we have to ask ourselves that as a species what lengths we are willing to go to in order to survive.

  2. I know the feeling. I applaud the makers of the exhibits for the information is important and some don’t believe it or have it. Indifference is one thing, misinformation or lack of it is another. I ask myself, what is indifference and what can I do? Personally I look to some of the developing countries. (look at that word ” developing”! into what?) ..and to earlier times. What is attractive about earlier times where community was stronger than consumption. Everything seems to be consumable now, even information. I am struggling to find the paradigm for change, radical change. I seems to be teetering on solutions as an individual vs. as part of a collective or community, including a community proceeding into the future. The large carbon producers for individuals are home heating and cooling and transportation (including transportation of goods, like food etc.) The large carbon producers of our society are supply of consumer goods, war, institutional lethargy. We can see examples of human kind struggling and sometimes succeeding to break through, to create new models.

    In Germany, Factor 10 , is studying ways to produce like nature does, with zero waste. It has been called the de-materialization of society.

  3. While I believe that denial is a force that is nearly as powerful as love and gravity, I don’t believe the problems presented by global warming are nearly as simple as the description of an ambitious exhibit as reported in this article. The fact is, Boulder often enjoys warm and sunny weather in November – so it’s not at all unusual to have a 65 degree day in the late autumn. It’s not unusual to have a 65 degree day in January, either, though it would be strange in a mountain town like Aspen. Speaking of the mountains, though last year didn’t have very much snow, this year – the one reported in the article – had record snows in many places. Climates cycle. Fashion is ephemeral. Trends disappear in a heartbeat. We must learn to be engaged and interested in our planet’s health for the rest of our lives.

  4. I live in Boulder, Colorado. Here we have a wonderful group – Boulder Relocalization that is working to bring back lost knowledge in communities through projects where individuals creat projects that address issues global warming will foster. The strongest focus, so far is local food. The goal is to make Boulder able to feed itself with no outside help. This ia a great model for other communities. It is,in fact, a national model.

  5. Readers might be interested in a book by Robert Leslie Franklin, Miracle at Square Top Mountain..An extraordinary man whose written other books and his relationship with creatures…he spent a summer with the pikas back in 1959. Incredible and true story of his relationship with these creatures!!! And sad of course as we see yet another devastation of our beloved creatures lives…


  6. Climate has been in constant flux on this planet since time began. In Missouri, where I live, we’ve had more snowfall this year than I remember having in the last 8, and weeks at a time where temperature has been 10-20 degrees below average. This article is hardly comprehensive or convincing as a piece of anthropogenic global warming propaganda.

  7. Let me guess, you moved to the Colorado area eight years ago from some sea-level town and now you think you know what the climate should be on any given day in any given month, right? Sixty-plus degrees in November is nothing out of the ordinary. Twenty degrees can be normal too. What was it the next day, thirty and snowing? Is this to say that something is wrong with our climate? Get used to packing a goose-down jacket AND your swimsuit everywhere you go in this great state of mine and you will not be so disillusioned. Oh, and if you think these types of temperature swings are only occuring recently, do some research of your own and look up historical weather data for Boulder. I am sure you will be enlightened.

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