Thomas Belton is an author with extensive publications in fiction, non-fiction, magazine feature writing, science writing, and journalism. His publications include his professional memoir, Protecting New Jersey’s Environment: From Cancer Alley to the New Garden State, his most recent short story, “The Murderous Wood,” and his short story, “Murder at the Trocadero.” He has also published short stories in Cicada and Art News. He has numerous publications in the scientific literature and as an Op-Ed writer for The New York Times, The Baltimore Sun, and The Philadelphia Inquirer.
This interview was conducted via e-mail by Fiction Editor Grace Tobin. Of the process, she said, “Thomas Belton’s essay, “Sea Level Rise and the Two Cultures,” shows a deep level of intelligence and thoughtfulness regarding the climate crisis, and he expands this reputation here.” In this interview, Thomas Belton talks about his work using writing to combat climate change, his beliefs on the current state of the world, and what he hopes for future generations. You can find his essay here.
Superstition Review: You worked on environmental research for the state of New Jersey for about 30 years. What would you say is your biggest accomplishment from your work in New Jersey in regards to combating climate change.
Thomas Belton: My time as the Research Coordinator for the Governor’s Barnegat Bay Action Plan in New Jersey was the most significant for climate change reach as it involved designing and managing ten interrelated academic studies of the largest estuarine water body in the state. This ecosystem-based study included five years of data collection and analysis for both physical features (e.g., water quality, flow, bathymetry, wetland features, and contaminant transport) as well as the biological condition of the food web (e.g., algae, seagrass, shrimp/crabs, clams, fish and waterfowl). There was also an assessment of human impacts both negative (e.g., nuclear power plant heated water discharge) and positive (e.g., the designation of a Marine Conservation Area). Direct human impacts included the loss of habitats due to development and runoff pollution, and long-term effects due to climate change that is equally insidious. Climate change effects documented included sea-level rise as oceans expand under more heat, upstream flooding due to increased rain events with more humidity, and the loss of land due to erosion. More importantly, the food webs due to warmer water are changing which has both ecological and human resource management impacts. For example, we found that habitats are dying—such as salt marshes that are sinking and seagrasses on the bay floor that are disappearing. In addition, microscopic floating algae, which are the base of the aquatic food web, are also transitioning to smaller and more heat-tolerant species that are less nutritious to the filter-feeding consumers like shrimp and clams. Moreover, economically important cold-water food-fish populations like flounder and lobster are moving northward and out of state jurisdictional waters, which will affect the livelihoods of thousands of New Jersey commercial fishermen.
SR: Your writing on climate change has a beautiful blend of factual evidence, stimulating imagery, and intense pathos. What makes climate writing a formidable form of combating climate change? What makes it valuable? What makes it unique?
TB: I believe that most people understand the broad basic theory of climate change, whether they believe in it or not, based on the way it’s continuously presented in the media. To get through the technical jargon is oftentimes impossible with a general audience—they simply turn it off. I have found that the best way to convey science to a general reader is to tell a good story. Like a novel, it should have three parts: an opening hook, some development, and a satisfying (although not necessarily a happy) ending. As I note in the introduction to my book, Protecting New Jersey’s Environment: From Cancer Alley to the New Garden State, at the beginning of an essay, an Op-Ed, or a book chapter, I try to engage the reader in a specific topic with real human-interest stories about people and their surroundings. This leads to an exposition of the science underpinning that environmental issue and finally, the public policy infighting that goes undocumented behind the scenes and beneath the controversies. What makes it valuable is the emotional connection from a story about people (not things) that allows the reader to question and/or change their perspective through empathy with the protagonist in your story. It’s unique because it’s neither fish nor fowl, not a truly scientific appeal nor a pandering approach to any moral question. It’s just a story.
SR: You are well versed when it comes to what the world needs to change in order to prevent climate disaster. What is one thing you would change about society today that would have the most valuable long-lasting climate impacts?
TB: Stop pandering to the fossil fuel industry and invest in renewable energy. Some sort of carbon tax might help as well as a real assessment of the long-term impacts of fracking. Legislation to decrease greenhouse gas emissions that is unassailable with every new administration like a new Clean Air Act.
SR: What do your literary circles look like, and can you discuss how those circles have influenced your creative process?
TB: There are really two answers to that question based on whether you mean science writing or literature. In science writing, my circle includes other co-authors since most scientific endeavors in my field of ecology and environmental management are interdisciplinary team efforts where we all edit and help drive the narrative. This is where flights of descriptive language are discouraged. For my literary circle, I’m a bit of a loner. I do participate in activities at the Kelly Writers House at the University of Pennsylvania, my Alma Mater in Philadelphia. I regularly attend readings and lectures on writing but rarely take part in close readings or workshops. A while ago, I did it to read an essay I’d written at a Kelly House writing workshop, which was savaged by most of the students and professors in attendance. Unknown to them, I had submitted it as an Op-Ed piece to The Philadelphia Inquirer newspaper and it was published the next day “as is.” I was paid $100. I didn’t go back to the workshop.
SR: Your most recent mystery short story, “The Murderous Wood,” features T.S. Eliot, Sir James Frazer, and Robert Graves as sleuths and was published in October 2019 by Mystery Weekly Magazine. What about writing real people in fictional settings is alluring to you? How does it change your writing process from a purely fictional story?
TB: I enjoy the research and to be factually correct to the zeitgeist of the timeline. In addition, I find it amusing to find the voice of a well-known personage and turn it into a character. The fun I had in this particular process regarded how my research of where these three men were at that time affected the plot. This took me to Palestine during WWI and away from Europe. Graves and Eliot worked together on a literary magazine in London and both knew and admired Frazer the Anthropologist. It was like a spiderweb unspooling ideas that I had not anticipated, which fed the plot development and added a minor character that became integral to the mystery’s denouement. Great fun!
SR: In your essay, “Sea Level Rise and the Two Cultures,” you wrote, “Climate change is no longer a hypothesis but a fact that must be understood, measured, and adapted to.” Why do you think there are still so many people that still don’t take climate change as a serious subject? Or more specifically, a serious fact?
TB: I think science education in the United States is poorly funded, poorly taught, and barely emphasized in schools. In addition, it’s seriously underestimated as critical to self-development. It’s impossible to be a critical thinker if you don’t have the tools to evaluate technical facts. The other part is more insidious; there are some people and corporate cultures that want to spread misinformation about climate change for pecuniary purposes. Denying climate change keeps the fossil fuel industry humming, which keeps them rich. This also keeps their employees paid who depend on the industry to stay employed at least until the oil or coal run out. I believe based on my years of experience as a government scientist that many climate politicians who deny climate change are not stupid. They do it for the industry lobbyists who send them money or to fulfill promises to their constituents hoping to save a dying industry like the coal miners in West Virginia or oil wells in Texas and Louisiana. Unfortunately, what the polis from these states do not say is that fracking has killed coal/oil and the power has shifted to the gas fracking fields of Pennsylvania and other fracking states in the Midwest.
SR: In your essay, “Sea Level Rise and the Two Cultures,” you discuss the gap between the experts in the fields of science and humanities. Why do you think closing this gap is important in the fight against climate change? What could be better accomplished if the two fields worked together?
TB: Without understanding, there can be no motivation to act. To gain an understanding of mankind’s effect on our planet’s air, water, and natural landscape requires not only information but a willingness to learn and the intellectual tools to see cause-and-effect relationships. Most phenomena at the scale of climate change and sea-level rise occur slowly and with unperceived frequency such that the scientifically naïve citizen with an untrained eye may misunderstand man’s involvement in driving the process. Yet through gestalt, the public is beginning to perceive the connections based on empirical evidence witnessed every night on TV and the internet. The droughts, forest fires, increasingly intense hurricanes, and coastal flooding articulate through increasingly frequent “states of emergency” the connections between greenhouse gas emissions, our carbon footprint, and the damage that can ensue. The time is ripe for humanists and scientists to join hands and message the populace to the adaptations necessary to weather and hopefully alter the causes of climate change and adapt to a changing planet. Only then when the polis has spoken will politicians listen.
SR: In your essay, “Sea Level Rise and the Two Cultures,” you said, “It is unfortunate that many of today’s politicians and policymakers confronted with the same kind of empirical facts about climate change and its more insidious symptoms such as the sea-level rise and the increase in extreme weather events, fail to see the facts and trust the scientists hired to inform them.” Were you referring to yourself? During your time working for New Jersey, were your interactions with the politicians and policymakers counterproductive to the real work that needed to be done?
TB: Yes, there were many instances when politicians ignored my scientific advice, and other times that they listened. It’s not just about partisan politics because I’ve found that politicians from both parties may take umbrage at information that upsets their political predispositions. In my book, I point out an occasion when we found levels of pesticides in commercial food fish that required health advisories to not eat the fish as the concentrations could cause cancer in adults and birth defects in children. The Governor listened and gave us the green light to make the announcement to limit the consumption of these fish species, even though the commercial fishermen’s organization lobbied heavily against it. In contrast, I had another Governor of the same political party who in spite of all the empirical evidence we presented on climate change and especially sea-level rise impacts on the state of New Jersey refused to act. In fact, he did the exact opposite in order to conform to the party’s position and told his policy appointees in all State agencies to remove all mention of climate change and sea-level rise from planning documents such as The Clean Water Plan and the State Land Use rules. In those instances, all a scientist can do is speak truth to power and let the chips fall where they may hoping that the documented science will come out eventually or that a new next administration may take a more serious attitude to scientifically-based decision making.
SR: In your essay, “Sea Level Rise and the Two Cultures,” you say, “The tragedy is that in this current era our children may have the reciprocal experience of watching helplessly as the islands are reclaimed by the sea due to human negligence.” What do you want your legacy to be in regard to those children and grandchildren who will face the bulk of the climate crisis when they look back at our actions now?
TB: Yes, the tragedy is that in this current era, our children may have the reciprocal experience of watching helplessly as the islands are reclaimed by the sea due to human negligence. The waves pushed ashore will be aided by the unseen hand of man, the greenhouse gases of our industrial revolution undoing in a century what it took a millennium for storm surge and wind to create. So, from my perspective, sea-level rise research projects are more critical and convey a greater sense of urgency than any other environmental scientific endeavors that have gone before. Because of the greater risk at stake, it is important that we study, plan, and act now before it’s too late. The coastal landscape in New Jersey will be different when my grandchildren see it, as it was to me and my father in his day. Seeing this change, they may wonder what we did or did not do, to protect that most valuable natural resource. I’d like to think I could answer that I helped to preserve a beach, a forest, or even a headwater swamp reclaimed to the forest along a mountain ridge along the Appalachian Trail. And when they saw it, they might say, "Yes, that's beautiful."
SR: What does your writing space look like?
TB: I have an office on the second floor of my drafty cedar shake house which was built in 1906. My mahogany desk faces a drafty window that looks onto the lawn and trees in my backyard where the dogs, Tess and Buster, wander about looking for squirrels. I find natural light perfect for writing and rarely turn on the overhead lights. I’m surrounded by bookcases: science books to my right and family photo albums; Classic texts to my left in Latin and Greek along with large format Art Books; and behind me the bookcase with novels, poetry, and collections of short stories. The floors are red pine and there is a big soft easy chair for reading by another window with a standing lamp behind it. An overhead ceiling fan swirls in the summer.