This month, Minnesota is in suspense as to whether we’ll have a white Christmas. It’s a perennial question, even in the coldest state in the continental U.S.: there’s always the chance that this will be one of those occasional years when the forces of nature conspire to leave us with a distinctly un-magical view out our windows on Christmas morning.
It’s been a warm December, and though it’s good and cold right now, our coat of snow is thin: one December rain, of which we’ve recently had several, could zap it and leave us with a brown, soggy landscape that makes the snow-bare Vermont seen in the movie White Christmas look like something out of Currier & Ives.
That happens. That’s weather. This December, though, has been different. We’ve smashed local records for warmth and humidity in December, and this holiday season isn’t an outlier: it’s the latest advance of a growing trend. Minnesota winters are getting warmer and wetter, and for me, the implications of that are hitting home this year in a way they never have before.
One reason we so want it to snow on Christmas (even if, ideally, just a small and convenient amount) is that the holidays are all about traditions. For many, December just doesn’t feel right if there’s no tree in the living room, if there are no cookies baking in the oven, if there’s no Bing on the box. Even if some of those are as new as the Elf on the Shelf fad, the stories we tell about these traditions tie them to ancient times.
The TV special Rick Steves’ European Christmas lays this out in fantastically cheesy yet inevitably heart-warming fashion: as Rick traipses through Europe, watching French sophisticates select their Christmas Eve wines and Norwegian schoolkids sing smugly to a bunch of equally smug old folks, he’s constantly making reference to the ye olde pagan traditions, reminding us that Christmas is even older than Christ.
It’s reassuring: people live and die, governments rise and fall, but Christmas is forever. There will always be trees, and candles, and carols. The ever-popular story of the Christmas Truce of 1914, when soldiers on the Western Front laid down their weapons and broke bread together, tells the same tale: Christmas—or the seasonal celebration of your choice—transcends all. This mythology has occasioned some excruciatingly Eurocentric bluster, whether negative (the annual “War on Christmas” hoo-hah) or misguidedly positive (the face-palm anthem “Do They Know It’s Christmas?”), but it’s also occasioned countless genuinely heartwarming moments.
When White Christmas was released in 1954, the greatest threat to the human race was nuclear war. The conflict that left Bing and Danny with such fond memories of their steadfast commanding general ended with an atom bomb, and the ensuing Cold War terrified families from the Cuban Missile Crisis to my 80s childhood, when pop culture was debating the colorization of Holiday Inn while wryly rocking to “Weird Al” Yankovic’s “Christmas at Ground Zero.” (“Everywhere the atom bombs are droppin’/ It’s the end of all humanity/ No more time for last minute shoppin’/ It’s time to face your final destiny!”)
That worldwide nightmare is far from over—this Christmas New Yorkers are visiting the new 9/11 memorial, while nuclear hardware races across the worldwide black market and Mikhail Gorbachev himself defends the invasion-minded Vladimir Putin—but suddenly (actually, not that suddenly), it’s starting to look like in a couple of centuries, humanity will be lucky to have the luxury of having nothing bigger to worry about than a hundred Hiroshimas.
If that sounds hyperbolic, consider: the Earth is warming. That’s not something you need to crunch data to discern any longer—if you’re in Minneapolis, you can just dig your toe into the snow. That mud you’ll find is ominous.
Right now, global leaders are seemingly reaching a landmark agreement to cut emissions worldwide. That’s hopeful news, but hopeful only in the sense that you feel good about your financial solvency when your credit card isn’t immediately rejected. The agreed limits are only half of what scientists say are necessary to prevent catastrophic climate change, and even that’s going to be hard to enforce.
In other words, it’s time to buckle our seatbelts: it’s going to get bad. People are already dying as a result of droughts, storms, and other consequences of climate change, and that’s just going to get worse. Flooding and crop failure will force migrations, and the people in the areas being migrated to—probably including Minnesota—won’t be thrilled about it. There will be wars, and more people will die.
Back when An Inconvenient Truth was released, raising awareness of the reality of the global-warming threat, it still didn’t seem responsible to extrapolate much farther than that. Decimated coasts, disappeared glaciers, and desiccated fields were bad enough. Now, though, scientists are actively contemplating much worse. “The objective now,” the New York Times reports that negotiators are saying, “is to stave off atmospheric temperature increases of 4 to 10 degrees by the end of the century; at that point, they say, the planet could become increasingly uninhabitable.”
Uninhabitable. In other words, unless they have a ticket on that Mars shuttle, humans could be facing environmental disaster, starvation, and ultimately asphyxiation.
That sounds bleak, but it’s a possibility that’s getting hair-raisingly close to becoming a probability. Containing this disaster makes ending the Cold War look like child’s play. Keeping two fingers off of two buttons won’t be enough. there will need to be truly global cooperation, with leaders and ordinary citizens on every single continent working to reduce emissions even as it becomes increasingly difficult to do so. If even wealthy, comfortable Americans can’t make the necessary sacrifices, how can we expect the developing world to?
“May all your Christmases be white,” wishes Bing at the end of White Christmas. That’s an easy metaphor for peace and stability, but we’re now living in a world where the metaphor has become terrifyingly literal. The goodwill, generosity, and self-sacrifice that are supposed to characterize Christmas are going to have to become a reality worldwide—starting in our own driveways—or for our grandchildren, every Christmas will be Christmas at Ground Zero, and Weird Al won’t be there to save them.