The Climate in Emergency

A weekly blog on science, news, and ideas related to climate change


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The Green New Deal

A few days ago, the phrase “Green New Deal” suddenly splashed itself all over the news and social media. Something to do with climate change. I’d never heard of it before, but it looked promising. I wanted in–just as soon as I found out what it is.

Having done some research, I now want to share what I’ve learned and issue a Call to Action. But first, an important caveat.

What the Green New Deal Is Not

A friend of mine recently posted on social media, questioning whether the Green New Deal is economically doable. We need to be clear that such concerns are premature. The Green New Deal–let’s call it the GND–is not a bill or a policy, or even a plan. Except in a very vague way, it doesn’t have a budget, so we can’t talk yet about whether that budget makes sense. The GND is instead a group of goals.

If I announced an intention to get a PhD, “how are you going to pay for that” would be a reasonable question, but “bad idea, too expensive” would be premature because there are lots of different paths to a PhD, each path involves a different budget, and there are lots of different ways to fund pursuing a degree. Some possibilities might not be options for me, but others could be. I won’t really know until I start working out the specifics, but working out the specifics has to come AFTER forming the intention to get a PhD.

Demanding that an intention can only be entertained if it comes with a finished, workable plan is a good way to stay paralyzed.

First we have to say “averting climate disaster is our goal.” THEN we can start figuring out how to pay for it.

What the Green New Deal Is

The words “Green New Deal” refer to several different but related ideas, some rather vague, others quite specific. In general, these words are a slogan, a rallying cry towards the principle of actually taking climate change seriously–in some contexts, though, the GND is rather more than that.

The History of the Green New Deal

The phrase “Green New Deal” goes back to 2007, when two different people, one American, one British, each made vaguely similar proposals that happened to have the same name.

Thomas Friedman, a New York Times columnist of centrist politics and a self-described “free-market guy,” originally proposed the Green New Deal as a kind of large-scale investment in innovation and development in order to respond to what was then a growing financial crisis and in order to regain American dominance as an economic and scientific powerhouse–a moon shot, in other words, with all the attendant societal benefits that implies, but with the goal being environmental sustainability, not space exploration.

Mr. Friedman has updated his ideas somewhat, but he stands by the original concept. He is a committed environmentalist personally, but believes success depends on getting non-environmentalists on board, and that the best way to do so is to tie achieving sustainability to more broadly-accepted economic goals. The basic plan is to use a combination of regulation and community development (such as building a lot more community colleges) to set certain national goals and then let local government and private enterprise try things and see what works.

At around the same time, Richard Murphy, a British political economy professor, formed a loose organization of newspaper editors, economists, and environmentalists called the Green New Deal Group. Together, they discussed the possibility that a fiscal stimulus program could resolve both the growing financial crisis and the ecological crisis. The group then issued a report offering a series of suggestions. Their approach involved massive government spending (funded through various forms of borrowing) to fund renewable energy, zero-emissions transportation, energy conservation programs, and jobs training.

Both men saw their ideas taken up, in part, by their respective governments, then discarded after the national legislatures of both countries were taken over by unfriendly majorities. The GND dropped out of the public conversation for several years.

The GND returned to public consciousness, at least in the United States, in 2017, during the campaigns for the mid-term elections of 2018. A massive progressive movement had been triggered by the campaigns–and defeats–of the year before, so multiple candidates came out calling for some version of a Green New Deal.

Again, the same term was being used for multiple, sometimes very different proposals, all of which in some way combined economic development with action on environmental issues. The idea, of course, is to draw political inspiration and, to some extent, technical inspiration, from the original New Deal enacted by President Franklin D. Roosevelt.

It’s a radical idea, in other words, but not unprecedented, and it worked last time we tried it.

The Congressional Resolution

One of those progressive candidates with a Green New Deal proposal was Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who won her election to the US House of Representatives. She has now introduced a “resolution” for consideration by the House, “Recognizing the Duty of the Federal Government to Create a Green New Deal.”

This is a resolution, not a law. If passed, it will only mean that the House (and then, hopefully, the Senate) agrees on a certain group of goals. Figuring out how to enact those goals will come later. And yet, Representative Ocasio-Cortez’s Resolution is not a vague leaning or a generic slogan. Her language specifies several important ideas, not all of which are part of every Green New Deal proposal out there:

  • Taking the problem seriously Climatologists tell us that we must radically cut our emissions in the next few years if we are to avoid catastrophe, so Ms. Ocasio-Cortez calls for making those recommended cuts–in contrast to many political leaders who, even if pro-climate, call for only gradual change that will not avert catastrophe.
  • An alliance with labor, rather than management Economic development and prosperity can be defined in any number of ways, including the size and vigor of the economy as a whole or the profit margins of the super-wealthy, but Ms. Ocasio-Cortez is very clear that her sympathies lie first with the economic interests of the masses. Her version of the GBD includes a massive government jobs program aimed at making sure everybody who wants to work can do so at a living wage. The original New Deal also included a massive jobs program, one that was, arguably, wildly successful.
  • A focus on justice Ms. Ocasio-Cortez calls for “transparent and inclusive consultation. collaboration, and partnership with frontline and vulnerable communities,” among others, presumably referring to racial and ethnic minorities and low-income people, all of whom are especially vulnerable to climate change. Here, they are supposed to be among the architects of the solution, not merely its hopeful beneficiaries. The language of the proposal also includes specific social justice protections, including for indigenous peoples.
  • The inclusion of government spending Not all versions of the GND involve much government spending. Mr. Friedman’s version, remember, was (and remains) largely organized around incentivizing free-market solutions. Ms. Ocasio-Cortez, in contrast, is proposing an unabashed massive spending program–the language of the Resolution does not specify where the money is supposed to come from, but an associated website asserts that new taxes will not be necessary. It’s worth noting, though, that taxes on the wealthy were once much higher than they are now, and the country did not seem to suffer–and there is a good argument to be made that running up a deficit as part of such an organized plan would help the country, and did help the country in the original New Deal.

I don’t know whether Ms. Ocasio-Cortez’s approach will work, but I don’t know that it won’t, and it parallels an approach taken before that did work. And hers is currently the only approach being taken by anyone at the Federal level that even attempts to avert unthinkable disaster.

You can read the full text of the Resolution here.

Consider the Alternative

Whether the GND Resolution is technically or economically feasible remains to be seen. Personally, I think it can work, but as noted earlier, it’s too soon to tell. Whether it is politically feasible…?

A year ago, six months ago, I would have thought not. Ms. Ocasio-Cortez’s approach is unabashedly leftist, and the United States has been swinging to the right for a generation, now. That anyone would even propose a massive government spending program as a solution for anything seems bizarre, if only because public discourse has been dominated for so long by the assumption that small government and balanced budgets are the way to go.

But there is no real proof that a small government and a balanced budget are capable of delivering on anything promised of them. The modern era has not seen a genuine attempt at either, only a shift of government attention and spending away from regulation, research, and social safety nets and towards the military, law enforcement, and corporate welfare. So maybe “fiscal responsibility” as often defined is a good thing, but maybe it isn’t. We don’t really know.

In contrast, the original New Deal worked.

It’s also worth remembering that those who think life is expensive should consider the alternative. Climate change is expensive and getting more so all the time–and spending on disaster recovery and so forth is not an investment, it’s just a cost. There will be no return, no upside, not in the long haul.

The question we must answer–and must answer now–is what we want for the world 30 years from now? Do we want to be facing existential threats to the country from escalating infrastructure losses, public health problems, and mounting national security threats, or do we want to buy ourselves hope at any cost?

I don’t think the Green New Deal is going to trash the national economy–I think the country will be dramatically enriched, in both metaphoric and literal ways. But so what if it isn’t?

If I could guarantee my little nephew a 40th birthday only by bankrupting myself personally, I’d do it. Frankly, I don’t see why the country as a whole should not stand ready to do the equivalent.

Steps to Take

The Green New Deal as proposed by Ms. Ocasio-Cortez is the first really serious attempt I’ve seen to address climate change by the United States. Given the lateness of the hour, it may also be the last. There is time and room to adjust the concept going forward, but we have to go forward now.

This is it.

The most immediate step is to contact your congresspeople and ask them to co-sponsor the Green New Deal Resolution (or to thank them, if they have done so already).

The Green New Deal is being championed by an organization called the Sunrise Movement, a generally non-partizan, “neither right nor left but forward” group with what looks like a comprehensive, multi-year plan that should result in legislation on the desk of a climate-friendly president in just a few years.

I highly recommend offering them whatever help you can. It’s go-time.

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Groundhog’s Day!

The following is a slightly re-edited version of an older, but clearly seasonal post. I’ve always liked this time of year–it feels optimistic, when optimism can be hard to come by.

-C.

This weekend was Groundhog Day, the day when, supposedly, a groundhog in Pennsylvania predicts the weather by seeing or not seeing his shadow. It’s the closest we have to a climate-related holiday.

It’s an odd holiday–never mind how a groundhog could predict the weather, how can one groundhog give a single prediction for the entire country? And why six weeks? We can explore these questions briefly and then I’ll get back to talking about climate.

Groundhog Day itself goes back to Europe, where a group of interrelated traditions had various animals–hedgehogs, bears, badgers, perhaps even snakes–breaking hibernation in February to predict the remaining length of winter. The underlying idea is that clear weather in early February is, counter-intuitively, a sign of a late spring. And that association may well hold, at least in parts of Europe, for all I know.

February 1st or 2nd is also a cross-quarter day, one of the four days per year mid-way between a solstice and an equinox (the solstices and equinoxes are the quarters). The other three are May 1st, August 1st, and November 1st. All four were holidays in at least some of the pre-Christian European religions and all four survive as folk traditions and Christian holidays. All four are also holidays within the modern religion of Wicca. So today or yesterday is not just Groundhog Day but also Candlemas, Brigid, or Imbolg, depending on your persuasion, and all involve the beginning of spring. I have always heard that in European pagan tradition, the seasons begin on the cross-quarters, not the quarters–thus, spring begins not on the Spring Equinox but on the previous cross-quarter, in February. I’ve always wondered if perhaps “six more weeks of winter” is a remnant of cultural indecision as to which calendar was correct–whether spring should begin in February or six weeks later, in March.

In any case, we in America got Groundhog’s Day when German immigrants in Pennsylvania adapted their tradition to the New World–Germans looked to hedgehogs as prognosticators, but hedgehogs don’t live in America (porcupines are entirely unrelated). Groundhogs do. In the late 1800’s, the community of Punxsutawny announced that THEIR groundhog, named Phil, was the one and only official groundhog for everybody, thus utterly divorcing the tradition from any concern with local weather. There are rival Groundhog’s Day ceremonies, but Phil is still the primary one.

Groundhogs (which are the same thing as woodchucks) do sometimes take breaks from hibernation, though they don’t necessarily leave their burrows. There are various theories as to why, but most involve the need to perform various bodily processes that hibernation precludes–including, perhaps, sleep. Hibernation is not the same as sleep, after all. But there is evidence that male groundhogs spend some of their time off in late winter defending their territories and visiting females. They actually mate after hibernation ends for the year, but apparently female groundhogs don’t like strangers. Thus, it is actually appropriate that Phil is male–the groundhogs who come out of their holes in February are.

Anyway, underneath the silliness at Gobbler’s Knob in Punxsutawny, Groundhog’s Day is about a cultural awareness of weather patterns and animal behavior. Certain times of the year are cold and other times are not, dependably. If we pay attention, we can know what to expect and we can organize holidays and cultural observances around that knowing. In this sense, then, Groundhog’s Day is not about weather but about climate. Climate is the roughly stable pattern that makes it possible for ordinary people who don’t have supercomputers or satellites to predict the weather simply by watching the world around them.

We’re losing that, now. It’s fifty degrees outside, where I live. In February. And while warm, springlike weather is pleasant and I intend to go out in it as soon as I’m done writing this, there’s always something unnerving about unseasonable conditions. But the patterns our cultural traditions are build on–climate–are eroding. The world is getting less reliable, less like home.

It’s a little thing, as consequences from climate go, but one likely to have a profound effect on us psychologically. There is still time to do something about it. Get involved politically, support climate-sane candidates.

Now.


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How Do You Know?

We’re in the deep freeze, thanks to a destabilized polar vortex, and predictably, certain people are publicly complaining that the cold disproves climate change, not realizing that this weather pattern is, in fact, a symptom of change.

Old news.

In the meantime, I’ve been thinking about uncertainty, and how climate deniers sometimes use the fact that climatologists don’t know everything to argue that they don’t know anything.

Actually, it’s a fair question. While no one could fairly expect any expert to literally know everything in their field, how can climatologists be so sure of some things and so unsure of others? When a climate denier makes a wild claim (for example, that climate change on Earth can’t be due to carbon dioxide emissions because other planets are warming, too–which, by the way, they mostly aren’t), how can the rest of us be sure it is wild?

I thought of an analogy.

Imagine someone says to you “I just saw someone walk by the window, but I can’t be sure who it is.”

So, you start asking questions–what gender, what age, what clothing–and the person isn’t sure. “I think it was a man, but I’m not sure. Dark hair, blue clothing? I really didn’t get a good look.”

You then ask “OK, what about skin color? Was the skin purple?”

Even though your informant knows very little, the question is ridiculous, because humans can’t have purple skin. Three nipples, sometimes. Four kidneys, occasionally. But not purple skin, and we’re all familiar enough with our own species that we never ask if barely-glimpsed people have purple skin.

Knowledge comes in different levels–for any topic, some types of information are superficial, while others are fundamental. If you know those fundamentals, and a claim violates those fundamentals (as any suggestion that rising carbon dioxide levels aren’t causing warming does) then you don’t need to do any research on the specifics to know the claim is false.

Now, most of us don’t know the fundamentals about climate–it’s not difficult to study up, but not everybody has the energy or the time. If that’s your position, then you can’t identify wild claims as balderdash on your own–but you can trust that the genuine experts are not being arbitrary when they call foul.

This trust is important. I do not mean thoughtless trust, I mean informed trust, based on a carefully-developed capacity to identify which people have the fundamental knowledge and the understanding that such knowledge isn’t universal. There are things we really do need experts for–like performing surgery, flying airplanes, and sorting out real science from hooey.

Such trust makes us smarter, not dumber, because it means we don’t have to make sense of the world alone.


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The Lonely Search for Purity

The other day, I threw a stink bomb into the middle of an online forum.

I didn’t exactly mean to do that, I meant to start a conversation, but I knew the conversation might prove contentious. I was OK with that. I did not expect the contention to be as depressing as it was–I had intended to get people talking, but what I got was more evidence that when people talk, no one listens.

I have serious concerns that when I describe this conversation, readers will get distracted by the details and get angry and again stop listening. I had considered writing this post in a vague way, in order to prevent such distraction, but vague enough to disguise the original issue is too vague to make much sense, so I’m simply going to have to risk it.

OK, here we go. Stay with me, people.

I’m talking about the Women’s March, which lost a lot of support recently when it got out that one of the organizers of the march admires Louis Farrakhan, who is both a noted civil rights leader and a vocal anti-Semite. I threw my stink-bomb by commenting that unless the Women’s March itself is anti-Semetic, this tenuous connection to Farrakhan is irrelevant.

BOOM!

I won’t march with an anti-Semite!

You white women are using this as an excuse to exclude us from OUR march!

What makes you think she is an anti-Semite? Where’s your evidence?

You non-Jews wouldn’t be so calm if this were about misogyny or homophobia!

You’re all being ridiculous! Forgive and forget! We all need to work together!

Do you even know what you’re talking about?

What’s so hard about don’t march with anti-Semites?

Of course, these are not exact quotes, I’m just summarizing the general range of comments on the thread. The important point is that none of these people were listening to each other, and few if any were really listening to me. As far as I could tell, everyone had simply retreated into absolutist positions, responding to what they thought others were saying, if they responded to others at all.

For example, no one on the thread identified themselves as a gentile, so “you non-Jews” was an assumption. And no one engaged with the suggestion, made by at least one commenter, that there might be some underlying racial complexity being overlooked.

Certainly, no one engaged with my original point, which was not that anti-Semitism is benign (it’s not), but rather that accomplishing anything important requires allies, and allies must be chosen (or rejected) intelligently and thoughtfully, not on the basis of knee-jerk reactions and blanket condemnation.

On to Climate

Absolutism–including the search for ideological and moral purity–is a feature (or rather, a bug) of human thought generally, or at least of the parts of humanity that I frequent. I suspect the root cause is our tendency to seek the simple, the complexity of actual reality be damned.

And there is no way to do much good if your starting principle is to ignore reality.

We see the problem in the environmental movement often. Most pervasive, maybe, is the concept of “going green,” where certain products or activities are said to be “green,” and people assume that by doing or buying these things they can save the planet. Reality is more nuanced. The “right thing” is context-dependent. “Green lifestyles” can be pointless or even harmful to the planet, if entered into thoughtlessly.

Then there are the absolutists who, for example, insist that anyone who really cares about climate change must be a vegetarian. While it’s true that meat-heavy diets have much larger carbon footprints, there are people with special circumstances to consider, and there are other people who, yes, really don’t have any excuse, but they eat meat anyway and do good work, and do we really want to reject their efforts out of hand?

Finally, there are the cultural, economic, and racial issues that have a dramatic effect on how and why people do what they do–and yet tend to be ignored by at least some people in the environmental movement. Vilification and alienation result.

If we’re going to win this thing, we need all the help we can get–including the help of people who might be doing things in other contexts that we find deeply wrong wrong. Some of these differences are going to be the kind that dissolve with better communication and more understanding, but some won’t be. Remember, Churchill and Roosevelt worked with Stalin to defeat Hitler. Imagine if they had not?

Listen. Think. Black-and-white thinking is not green.


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What Walls Between Us

So, about this wall.

In case you don’t know (I do have overseas readers, and I assume American politics are not front and center of your daily lives), the United States currently lacks a functional Federal government. For reasons beyond me, if one Federal budget expires before the next one is approved, the US government suddenly becomes unable to spend any money. Most of its functions shut down, those few workers considered absolutely necessary work without pay, and chaos gradually descends on the country until Congress and the President quit playing chicken and pass a new budget.

Seriously, I don’t understand–why doesn’t Congress pass a new law saying that if the new budget is not approved on time, the old one stays in force until replaced? It’s not like government shut-downs save anybody any money. Nobody really wins, except (maybe) at chicken.

Anyway.

The issue this time is the wall that Mr. Trump promised his followers and now can’t admit was only a rhetorical device. Democrats–and some Republicans–do not want to approve money for the wall, arguing that it will do nothing to stop illegal immigration (most of what Mr. Trump says about border security is factually incorrect) and that the money is better spent on other issues.

While I’m personally concerned about many aspects of the situation, the one I’m most qualified to talk about is the one I see getting little attention in the news.

Basically, voices are being raised to the effect that Democrats ought to compromise and fund the wall in order to get the government back on–the assumption being that while there is strong evidence that the wall would be a pointless waste of money, the wall itself would only be useless. And that’s not true.

Long border walls are environmental disasters.

What’s Wrong with a Wall?

A continuous wall along the US/Mexico border would cause a whole series of environmental problems. Here is a brief review of a few of them.

Construction

Building a long wall would be an enormous construction project, especially in remote areas that lack roads, storage facilities, and other necessary infrastructure, all of which will have to be built. That’s a lot of disruption in the wilderness–cutting of plants, compaction of soils, increased erosion, dead wildlife–which will be all the worse because the Department of Homeland Security is exempt from environmental laws. That means if the wall is routed through the last breeding ground of some endangered species, so what.

Carbon

Exactly what the carbon footprint of Trump’s wall might be depends on the final design and it’s actual length (there is a lot of wall on the border already), but it’s sure to be huge. That’s because the wall would likely be made out of either concrete and steel or steel alone, and both are very carbon-intensive materials. I’ve seen estimates as high as 7.6 million metric tons of CO2.

And that’s not counting the carbon cost of construction, or of changes in infrastructure necessitated by the presence of the wall, like re-routing traffic.

That’s a big climate impact, for a wall that won’t even accomplish its intended purpose.

Location

The wall is scheduled to go through multiple wildlife sanctuaries, environmentally sensitive areas, a famous butterfly sanctuary, and other places that shouldn’t be destroyed. And destroyed they would be–remember, we’re not just talking about the wall itself, but also the construction zone around it, a literal swath of death.

While construction zones do generally re-wild afterwards, there are places that are unusually sensitive or unusually important that either require special damage mitigation or shouldn’t be constructed in at all. The wall will not respect such places. It will simply follow the border.

Flooding

Border walls, and even fences, cause flooding. We know that because there is a lot of border wall up already, and it has caused floods. Even if the wall has an open design that allows water to pass, floating debris will soon clog up the openings and block water.

Divisions

Walls are very bad for wildlife. Not only do walls cause problems for individual animals, who may have food on one side of the wall and water on the other, for example, but walls divide breeding populations. Not only might a small population go extinct because of inbreeding, but if it does, the area can’t be re-colonized if the remaining populations are on the other side of the wall.

There is a whole area of ecology concerned with the size, shape, and location of animal habitat, and the message is clear; two small places (with a wall between) simply aren’t as good as the one big place was before the division happens. When boundaries go up, the number of species goes down.

There are 93 endangered species threatened by the planned border wall. There may be others that are doing fine now, but will be endangered by the wall.

Extinction can take a long time, sometimes decades. While some might hope Trump’s wall will be taken down again fairly soon, before it can do much damage, walls can divide wildlife even after they no longer exist.

During the Cold War, the border between East Germany and West Germany was heavily fortified, and animals avoided the border–not only could they not cross it, but the border must have been very noisy and frightening. That wall doesn’t exist anymore. The border doesn’t exist anymore, hasn’t for thirty years.

But at least one species of deer still acts as though it’s there.

Roe deer learn ranging patterns from their mothers and only rarely depart from traditional patterns as adults. They evidently don’t question why the traditions are what they are, they just do as they’ve been taught, and they teach their young to do the same. So even though no roe deer is left alive who actually saw or heard the fortification, the deer keep acting as though the boundary is still real. If that division damaged the deer in any way, the damage is still being done.

Sometimes when you cut something, you can’t put it back together.

The Wall and the Climate

It’s also worth noting that while the wall itself would cause environmental disaster, it is also ostensibly intended to solve a problem caused by environmental disaster.

Today’s immigrant crisis is new, not because more people are coming north (actually, fewer people are), but because these aren’t young men seeking better-paying jobs. These are families with children trying to stay alive. Many of them are not even illegal immigrants–they’re asylum seekers. They’re running from various forms of crisis, from the personal (domestic abuse) to the societal (gang violence), but a major part of the problem is agricultural and economic collapse caused by drought and other extreme weather in Honduras and its neighbors.

What’s causing the bad weather? Climate change, of course.

No one willing to take their children  from Honduras to the United States on foot is going to be stopped by a wall. The level of desperation implied by such an act cannot be underestimated. Probably, nothing can stop them, not unless the United States becomes not worth living in, either. Until and unless that happens, there will be more of them. And more. If we were in their shoes, we’d do anything to survive, too.

If this country is serious about not being over-run by climate migrants, we have only three options:

  1. Prepare ourselves to accept large numbers of migrants without disruption
  2. Help Honduras (and any other country in trouble) so that it can keep its own people healthy and safe
  3. Stop anthropogenic climate change.

President Trump  wants $5 billion for the wall. How far would that money go towards programs to shift our country off of fossil fuel?

Call your Congresspeople.


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The Carbon Footprint of a Beagle

So, we just got a beagle.

We already had one beagle, but after the death of her co-dog (a Lab/pit mix) last month, she’s been lonely, so we got her a companion. His name is Reilly, and he is sweet and affectionate and already causing trouble in his distinctively charming and beaglish way.

This seems like a good time to cover a topic I’ve been interested in for a while, the relationship between climate change and pets

The Carbon Footprint of Pets

Turns out, there have been serious scientific studies of the carbon footprint of dogs and cats. Results vary, but the general consensus tends to be that pets, collectively, have a large carbon footprint because there are a lot of them and dogs and cats eat mostly meat, which is a carbon-intensive food.

There are a couple of interesting points, here.

First, these studies may be studies of the carbon footprint of pet food, not pets. One research team is quoted as having looked at dog food only, based on the assumption that other aspects of dog care have minimal impact. Their assumption may be correct, but personally I’d like to see a study that examined all aspects of dog (and cat) care so we could check the accuracy of that assumption. I’m also amused by their conclusion, that big dogs have a larger carbon footprint than small dogs, since big dogs eat more. Personally, I’m not sure why anyone would assume the non-food aspects of dog care have minimal impact (a complicated question involving lots of data most of us don’t have) but then perform and publish a formal study on whether big dogs eat more than small dogs do.

Second, sorting out the carbon footprint of food may be trickier than it appears. For example, pet food is often made, in part, from meat by-products, which humans can’t eat. By-products are essentially waste for which a market has been created, stuff that would not exist if the primary product (muscle meat for human consumption) were not being produced. So is it really fair to assign the carbon footprint of the meat by-product to the dog who eats it rather than to the human whose demand for steaks created that steer in the first place?

The carbon footprint of food can vary a lot, as we know from studies of human diets. For example, beef and lamb are much more carbon-intensive than chicken. I’d like to see a detailed break-down of several different kinds of pet food and the different aspects of their production.

To Pet or Not to Pet

What does the question “what is the carbon footprint of a pet?” really mean? We could ask about the carbon footprint of Reilly and what we, his guardians, can do to make him a “greener” dog. Alternatively, we could be asking about our own carbon footprint and whether not having Reilly would make my husband and I “greener” people.

And since Reilly’s personal impact on the climate would presumably be about the same no matter who had him, the latter question really boils down to the draconian “should Reilly be alive?”

In a similar spirit we might debate, or refuse to debate, the lives of human children. Indeed, since humans have huge carbon footprints, especially in the so-called “developed” world, some list “having a child” as the worst thing a person can do to the planet, even worse than airplane travel, car travel, or eating meat.

My husband and I don’t have children, and environmental impact is part of the reason, but phrasing the decision as a measurable reduction of our carbon footprint as a couple seems very wrong.

What if the child in question were the next generation’s Rachel Carson?

The very idea of reducing a child to a carbon footprint is offensive. Reducing Reilly in such a way is less so, but still pretty bad.

But Haven’t There Always Been Dogs?

There is an argument to be made for having fewer dogs and cats in total. Their collective environmental impact is not negligible, and most humans could get along without them quite well (I said most, not all). But if all dogs and cats suddenly vanished, would the carbon footprint of humanity really shrink? Or would some other use be found for meat by-products?

Perhaps more to the point, would climate change really slow?

This whole line of questioning reminds me of cows. There is an argument to be made for having fewer head of cattle, too, after all, since their environmental impact is quite large, and we can eat other things. But when I brought up such an argument a while back, a friend of mine posed an interesting question; haven’t there always been cows?

And yes, cows are not new. I’m fairly sure there are a lot more now than there used to be, but surely before the modern mountain of moo there were other ungulates, bison and caribou, antelopes and takhi and quagga, to take up the slack.

Ok, those last two aren’t exactly ruminants, but you get the point. The only way large herds of cattle could actually change the climate would be if the total number of ruminants, domestic or otherwise, had grown–and how would such increased stock find enough to eat if something else hadn’t changed?

The same question applies to dogs and cats. If these animals have not simply replaced their wild counterparts but actually exist now in excess of the total historical animal mass, where did the excess food come from and why isn’t it accounted for in the historical carbon balance, where the carbon each animal releases came ultimately from plants and returned to plants again for no net change?

Some other source of energy must be fueling the swelling populations, something from outside the old balance–fossil, presumably, in one way or another. In other words, if the total population of dogs (or cattle or humans) has grown too large for the planet, it is a symptom, not a cause, of our problem.

As useful as carbon footprint calculation can be, it’s possible to get lost in the weeds here and miss the larger picture, which is that the climate is changing because the concentration of greenhouse gasses is rising, period.

Reilly can’t introduce additional carbon to the system. He just can’t. If he is alive because of such an introduction, his death at some shelter would not begin to solve the problem.

Take Home Messages

Yes, certainly it makes sense to feed pets the most climate-friendly diet possible. And people who are bound and determined to buy a pet from a breeder might seriously consider a little vegetarian, like a rabbit, instead of a big carnivore, like a retriever–shift the market in a more climate-friendly direction.

But you are not going to fight climate change by not getting that beagle from the shelter.

Let’s keep our collective eye on the ball, the ball being to get off fossil fuel completely as soon as possible. Only then can we fix the problem that causes all the other problems.


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New Year’s New Round-Up

A new year begins and, as become semi-traditional for me, I want to do a re-cap of climate-related stories from over the past twelve months. I’m making no attempt at a complete, exhaustive summary, just a fairly casual look back at the-year-that-was.

January

January 2018 offers an interesting example of the importance of framing. One way to tell the story is that global temperature fell slightly due to a La Niña event; the month was cooler than the previous three Januaries, and also cooler than January of 2007. The other way to tell the tale is that four of the five warmest Januaries in 138 years of record-keeping all occurred in a row–and the fifth was only 11 years ago.

Both statements are true, but which sounds more ominous? Actually, the fact that a La Niña year could still crack the top five is pretty ominous, too.

The month also featured various instances of political climate denial (including the State of the Union speech, which I refused to watch and only read about later) and various instances of extreme weather, notably in New Zealand, which had several severe storms and heat waves.

February

February was again warmer than most Februaries in recorded history, but cooler than several recent Februaries. “Unprecedented” heat waves in the Arctic caused blizzards in Europe while parts of the American East Coast cracked 76° F. (due to atmospheric instability caused by climate change, as we’ve covered here before).

March

Did you know it’s impossible do find news about climate from the month between February and April? “Climate March” means something else to the algorithm….

March was the month my area got hit with four nor’easters in a row, though–and there was almost a fifth. That was pretty weird.

April and May

April was again either notably warm or notably cold, depending on framing. At the end of the month, and continuing into May, was the Bonn Climate Conference for discussing details of how the Paris Climate Agreement will work, as well as an informal discussion of each party’s progress. This meeting is one of two annual international climate conferences. One is for setting overall policy, while this one is for discussing issues and questions that such policy decisions bring up.

I remember being surprised to hear about this conference, as I’d seen no coverage of it until it was actually in progress.

May was also notable for lots of extreme weather events all over the planet, much of it involving flooding. The Ellicott City floods were my local example here–those rains were just the beginning of the worst year for farming for parts of Maryland in living memory.

June

June 2018 tied with 1998 for third-warmest on record–but 1998 was an El Niño year. They’re supposed to be warm, and that year set new records for warmth, including a record for warmest June that was only broken by 2015 and 2016. 2018 was a La Nina year and supposedly cool. Something is wrong when your cool year is as warm as the year that set the record for heat 20 years earlier!

July

Heat waves, floods, and fires (remember the fires?) swept across large portions of the planet this month and no less a source than USA TODAY (hardly considered a radical paper) reported that climate change definitely had a role in the devastation. The story interviewed scientists from Stanford and UCLA. It’s getting real….

August

August saw a flurry of articles, including in the mainstream press, about people everywhere starting to take climate change seriously. The month also saw the publication of a government report about how bad our situation really is, and the zeitgeist appeared to notice the report and, collectively, gasp. Better late than never, perhaps.

September

September, according to a quick internet search, was the month of lots of nation-wide, coordinated demonstrations and actions for our climate! Unfortunately, no one seemed to notice at the time. The events weren’t publicized in any way that got on my radar, which I found disturbing and bizarre. I wrote about the weird silence early in the month, but appear not to have known about events later in the month at all. I did not attend any, nor did I react to them in print.

October

In early October, the IPCC released a report warning that we have only 12 years to avert climate catastrophe, much less than everybody had thought, and again the world went Gasp! I’m surprised to hear we have that long, but I’m pleased to see more people noticing and talking about the problem seriously.

November

This month saw another flurry of articles in mainstream news media about the real and present danger of climate change–a big contrast with earlier in the year, when the name of the month, plus “climate change” yields only reports on temperature records and articles from a few environmentalist blogs. The release of another dire government report, this one on the economic and social impacts of climate change, is no doubt related to the surge in interest.

December

The last month of the year brought another international climate conference and another flurry of climate concern in the mainstream media. I don’t mean to sound trite–the fact that the media seem to have woken up is excellent news, even as other news coming out of these conferences and reports is worse and worse.

I have spent most of this past year in an ongoing slump for various reasons, personal and otherwise, and there hasn’t been much in the way of reason for hope, in my view, in any of these twelve months. But the fact that the story of the year can be told as a tale of dramatically increasing interest in climate change by the news media–a trend I’d thought I’d noticed and I’m glad to see it confirmed–might be the best news of the year.