The Climate in Emergency

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


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Giving Ground to Climate?

Last week, I attended a presentation on climate change and the Maine coast. In general, it was an excellent presentation, but since I’m going to be somewhat critical of it here, I will not draw attention to the presenter or her employer.

There was some information in the presentation on climate science (which I’ll work into other posts), but most of the emphasis was on communication—the idea being that instead of telling people scary, alarmist stories about climate disasters, it makes more sense to give them tools to help with mitigation and leave it up to them whether to use those tools. No persuasion, in other words, and no education that might hint at persuasion. Apparently people feel more respected and less overwhelmed this way, and some start to believe climate change is real on their own, eventually.

“This is a long game,” said the presenter.

That’s when I started to boil over. I mean, we have no time for long games, for one thing, and the disaster stuff isn’t alarmism, it’s just an alarm. Did you know some researchers are pushing to add an extra class to the hurricane rating system, to account for the stronger storms that seem to be the new normal? It’s alarming. I’m alarmed. Let’s face facts, people.

Of course, there’s the old question—do you want to be right or do you want to be effective? In other words, let go of the need to win the argument, and keep your eye on the prize. There is a lot to be said for gentle non-confrontation, for respect of other people’s sovereignty and dignity…not many people can really hear you if you’re shrieking at them, even if the things you’re shrieking happen to be 100% correct and a perfectly understandable thing to shriek about.

She says her method is getting results, and that’s exactly why I held my piece in the presentation, and why I’m not identifying her or her organization right now. I don’t want to get in her way.

But at the same time, it’s worth considering that climate denial is not a natural phenomenon, not a simple matter of people needing to hear the message in a gentle and accessible way. No, climate denial is deliberately manufactured, which is why is it is virtually non-existent in countries that don’t speak English and therefore don’t get the propaganda. So, clearly the old-style environmentalist messaging works, it did work, and it worked so well that people with a different message started pushing back—quite effectively. The lesson isn’t to abandon persuasion, it’s to get better at it, because we’re not the only persuaders out here.

The other thing I think about is The Letter from Birmingham Jail, in which Dr. King famously calls white liberals out for telling black people to be less assertive in their demands for freedom and justice, as if white people might concede if only black people asked more nicely. That anyone, anywhere, achieves justice by becoming less strident about asking for it is a crock when it comes to racism, and it’s a crock when it comes to climate change, too—which, make no mistake, is also a matter of justice. Climate change is landing on the heads of the poor and the marginalized, not on those who make bank on the industrial processes that put us in this mess.

Climate denial did not become a political force because we were too strident, and it will not go away if we cease being strident. It will simply win.

What we need to do is to become smarter and more strategic in our stridency.

Yes, of course, be respectful. Ordinary people who don’t know whether climate change is real are not the enemy, and should not be treated as such. Offer solutions to problems people have, not the problems they don’t have or don’t think they have. Listen, learn, and acknowledge the importance of the collateral issues, such as race, class, and ethnicity, that can prime a person to reject a message for reasons that seem irrelevant but aren’t. Be accessible. Be empowering. Do everything and anything that experience and social science tell us might work.

But don’t take your eye off the prize.

Don’t cede ground lightly or without paying attention to the strategic value of that ground.

And don’t let your adversaries define the terms of either engagement or retreat.

For example, if you’re speaking to a group that may include climate skeptics, sure, go ahead and use some tact. Put the emphasis on issues you can agree on. Acknowledge their right and ability to make up their own mind. But do not refer to scientific controversy over what is causing climate change, because there is none. You’d just be repeating someone else’s lie. That’s an example of ceding ground without paying attention to its value—you have ceded the truth, and you’ve given your adversary the power to redefine consensus reality as needed. Do not do that.

Likewise, the suggestion that we focus only on offering tools to help with mitigation concerns me because it does nothing whatever for the fight at the ballot box—which is where the end game we’re looking at will play out. We need pro-climate government leadership, or we simply aren’t going to win this thing.

How very convenient.

I’m being strident at the moment. I’m being slightly impolitic, perhaps. But I’m deliberately speaking to the converted right now, and not to anyone else:

Yes, definitely, use whatever gentle message works for your corner of the issue, for your own specific campaign. No one can work on all fronts simultaneously, anyway. But figure out a way to be gentle and tactful without spreading climate-denier propaganda yourself and without abandoning the fight to get the climate-sane leadership we so desperately need.

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Tick, Tick, Tick, Tick, Tick

When I was little, the appearance of a tick itself was reason for alarm.

“So-and-so found a tick the other day!” Mom would announce. “Be careful!” I think I had one on me–just one–my entire childhood. I’m not sure whether there were really so few ticks, or if we were simply bad at finding them. I do know that when I moved to Maryland, I didn’t have to be good at finding the little parasites. Huge numbers of them found me.

Seriously, go for a walk in my neighborhood in the summer, and you’re likely to pull off ten or twenty just while you’re walking. When you get back to the house, strip off your clothes and find a dozen more. They won’t have had time to embed, yet, so it’s not a big deal. You just get in the habit of routine regular tick checks.

Incidentally, I don’t find the standard advice of long pants and so forth very useful. Sure, fewer ticks will make it to skin that way, but some will, and they’ll be impossible to find without taking your pants off, which the neighbors tend to frown on. So the ticks get more time in which the crawl into someplace inaccessible and bite.

My advice?

  • Wear as little clothing as possible and then investigate every tickle and itch immediately–it might be a tick.
  • Do a thorough tick check and take a shower immediately upon returning home.
  • If you walk through a tick-hatch and get zillions of the tiny things on you, don’t panic. They can’t give you any diseases because they’re babies and don’t have any diseases yet. Remove them as best you can, stick them on a length of tape so they can’t escape and bite you again, then invest in a large supply of anti-itch cream.
  • Don’t bother learning to identify different species of tick. They can all give you SOMETHING, so just avoid getting bitten by any of them, and if you get sick, go see your doctor.
  • Look up the proper way to remove an embedded tick. NEVER put anything on the tick to make it let go, because that makes the tick vomit into you first and then you’ll definitely have whatever it was was carrying.

I’m not a doctor, this is just my personal approach to the problem.

The reason I bring all this up is to make clear I am personally familiar with the density of the tick population in the mid-Atlantic region of the United States, and I am equally aware that New England has fewer of them. Don’t get me wrong, New England does have ticks–Lyme disease is named after a town in Connecticut, after all–but the problem is simply not on the same scale.

That could be changing.

There are reasons other than climate change. Tick population dynamics and the epidemiology of tick-borne illnesses are complex, inter-related topics with a lot of variables. For example, modern land-use practices, which has converted vast areas of the United States into mosaics of tiny forested patches with houses mixed in, favors white-footed mice, which are the primary hosts of deer ticks–which transmit Lyme disease. The mice, after all, can use tiny habitat patches (and houses) just fine, but their predators can’t. No foxes, no bobcats, no black snakes, no owls, etc., all adds up to oodles of mice and oodles of ticks. So, some kinds of ticks would be a bigger problem than they used to be, even without climate change.

But yes, the climate is helping.

The story is a complex one, because not only do factors other than climate influence tick populations, but the response of ticks to climate is not straight-forward. For example, ticks of the same species may become active at different temperatures in different parts of their range. All these different variables working together mean that predictions of what climate change will do to different species of ticks can disagree with each other widely. But some increases in tick-borne illnesses have been traced to climate change–so we don’t know what’s going to happen in the future, but in the present, the ticks are worse in some places already because of climate.

For example, the two species responsible for infecting people I actually know, deer ticks and lone star ticks, are both expanding their range because of climate change. Both can transmit multiple illnesses. Lone stars, named for the white spot on their backs, can give you a (possibly life-long) allergy to red meat. Without giving away any individual’s medical history, I can say I’ve seen this one, it’s quite real. And lone stars are now in all New England states, though they didn’t used to be.

(By the way, the article that I’ve linked to above describes lone stars as “hunting in packs.” I’ve seen the behavior the article is describing, and the phrase is misleading. The ticks aren’t acting cooperatively, like mini-wolves. But, unlike deer ticks, they can and do walk towards potential hosts. In my neighborhood, population densities are often high enough that half a dozen might be near enough to notice the same person, and if you stay still for a few minutes they’ll converge on you. They’re easy to avoid or remove, but it’s creepy to watch.)

And then there’s the winter ticks, which have always been in New England, but warming climates are letting their numbers surge so high that they’re literally bleeding moose calves to death.

All of which is to say that if you head north in the summer, as we do, and you notice more ticks on yourself and your pets than you used to, as we have, it’s not your imagination.


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Ellicott City

Ellicott City, Maryland flooded again, about a week and a half ago (May 27th). We are not talking about a little water in the parking lots, here—for those who haven’t seen the coverage, the streets became rapids. I’ve seen video of cars flowing along in the water, their windshield wipers beating back and forth forlornly. I keep thinking about the people in those cars. The first floors of the buildings are completely gutted. At least one man has died.

The river crested at a record 23.6 feet after rising almost 18 feet in just two hours.

What makes the flood especially upsetting for locals is that a similarly catastrophic flood all but destroyed the town only two years ago. The community was just getting itself together again, and now they have to start over again.

Since 1768, Ellicott City has flooded 15 times. Not all of the floods have been catastrophic, but the town does get wet often. It’s not just bad luck; Ellicott is an old mill town, so of course it sits in a place with plenty of water power. Three streams converge here and flow into the Patapsco River, bringing all the runoff from a large, bowl-shaped valley straight through town.

But while Ellicott City has always been flood-prone, but they haven’t always been the same kind of flood. Traditionally, the problem was the rise of the Patapsco, meaning that the floodwater would rise up into the community. Now, the smaller streams also jump their banks, which is why recent floods have roared down through the town, turning the streets into rapids.

What’s different?

Development over recent decades has increased the area of impermeable surface in the watershed dramatically, making flooding much more likely. Also, of course, there’s climate change.

As readers may know, climate change in general increases the chance of extreme weather. Rain storms are both less frequent and more intense, so that areas with no net change in rainfall get both more droughts and more floods. And in the Northeast of the United States, or, by some measures, the whole eastern part of the country, rain intensity is increasing faster than anywhere else in the country. So, yes, repeat catastrophes such as Ellicott City has suffered are part of the new normal.

(Note that we’re talking about likelihood, not possibility: for the same location to get two 1000-year floods back-to-back, as Ellicott City has, wouldn’t have been impossible under the old climate regime, because “1000-year flood” doesn’t mean once per 1000 years, but rather a one-in-1000 chance of occurrence in any year. It’s unlikely, but entirely possible, to have several in a row. The issue is whether these really were 1000-year floods; climate change and development together may have changed the odds.)

In fact, recent flooding in Maryland (an identical weather pattern developed over Frederick two weeks earlier) may have a more direct connection to warming temperatures, although this information comes from an article arguing almost the opposite point. Apparently, we have been “stuck in a late July weather pattern, one in which the jet stream has built a ridge of high pressure over the Mid-Atlantic.” But because this was May and early June, the ocean waters are still cool. The combination sends unusually wet weather into Maryland. So, while the author was quite correct in describing all of this as a local weather event, something that could occur by bad luck regardless of climate change, it is a weather event caused by the atmosphere behaving as though July had come two months early—hotter, in other words.

Yes, weather is weather and climate is climate, and it’s worth bearing the difference in mind, but when unseasonably warm weather causes record-breaking storms, it seems disingenuous to say global warming is not at fault.

But disaster is never just about climate. Ellicott City is far from being the only flood-prone area in Maryland, but most flood zones aren’t aren’t also the busy centers of quaint historic districts. So putting a city in harm’s way, and then exacerbating the harm through risky development, is definitely part of the picture.

The other major issue is that Ellicott City has been studying its flood risk and fielding proposals for mitigation since the 1970’s. Not much has been done. One proposal offered after a flood in 2011 was actually rejected by town leaders as too expensive. They changed their mind after the 2016 flood, but the work hadn’t been completed yet before the place flooded again. This historical failure to act is having serious political consequences, now.

“Natural disasters” are always the result of a combination of extreme weather (or extreme geology) and human responses to those events. The scale of the tragedy is always either compounded or mitigated by the economic wherewithal of the affected people and by political decisions about acceptable risk, acceptable loss, and how much money certain people’s lives and livelihoods are worth.

And now, climate change itself is a result of decisions, both large and small, about who or what we are going to treat as important.


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A Break for Puffins

“How’ve you been liking the hot weather?”

I turn around and spot the man sitting on the rock at the edge of the parking lot. He works at the restaurant across the way and he comes here to take his smoke breaks. We say hi to each other every time he does. He’s one of those strangers who’s almost a friend.

“I don’t like it, much,” I say, of the weather. I’ve been either under- or over-dressed all day.

“Yeah, it’s funny,” he says, “yesterday it was warm in Bar Harbor, but cold here. Today, it’s hot here, but it’ll be cold in Bar Harbor.”

Bar Harbor, I should add, is not that far away, yet he could be right. I’ve known it to rain in town but stay dry just three miles away.

“You know, I’ve heard the Gulf of Maine is 11 degrees warmer this year than normal?”

“Yeah, I know,” he tells me.

“It’ll be a bad year for puffins,” I add.

“Oh?”

“Yeah, when the warm water comes in, so do warm-water fish, which are a little bigger and rounder. The adult puffins can catch the warm-water fish just fine, but the chicks can’t swallow them. So, in years when warm-water fish species predominate in the Gulf, every puffin chick in Maine starves to death.”

“That’s really sad.”

“Yeah, it is.”

“That’s really sad.” He seems to really feel for these puffin chicks. “But there’s nothing anyone can do about it.”

“Well, stop global warming.”

“Yeah, but we can’t do that,” he protests.

“Yes, we can,” I counter. “Not immediately, because of atmospheric lag, but you know, nothing is so bad that it can’t get worse? By the same token, nothing is so bad that we can’t keep it from getting worse.”

“Yeah. I like puffins. I have paintings of puffins hanging in my bathroom. I tell people, these are real birds. They’re not made-up! I’ve only ever seen a couple of them.”

“I’ve never seen even one,” I admit. “Where did you see them?”

“It was last year. They took us on a cruise—among the islands.”

“Neat.”

“Yeah. You know, I’ve seen another Maine bird? I can’t remember what it’s called, but I can remember the sound it made, at night, in the water….It sounded like a frog, you know—a, a, bullfrog? Where I’m from, we have another frog that makes weird sounds, it’s called something else. It sounded like a frog, but my friend said, no, that’s a bird.”

“Can you imitate the sound?”

“No, but I can hear it in my head. I saw it, and it was a bird. It was dark, and sort of duck-like….”

“A loon?”

“Yes! That’s it! A loon!”

“They winter with us, in Maryland,”I told him. “They’re here in the summer and with us for the winter. They do make lots of sounds.”

“Cool! Well, I gotta go. It’s been nice talking to you.”

“Nice talking to you,” I tell him, and mean it, and I watch him head back into the restaurant through the back door.


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I Have a Dream

Some days ago, I heard someone on NPR (I forget which program) assert that a central weakness of the environmental movement is its lack of tangible vision. Martin Luther King, Jr., this radio person reminded listeners, invited us to imagine, to anticipate, black children and white children joining hands in sister-and brotherhood. The image is specific, personal, and easy to see as real.

In contrast what sort of vision is “take care of the Earth”? What does that even mean? No one, this commentator said, is giving us a goal we can really grasp.

I beg to differ, because here, as tangible as you like, is my dream.

(Before I get into the poetic part, I should say I’m talking about a future in which fossil fuel use has ended, largely through a dramatic reduction in our collective energy use, plus the use of alternative energy sources. The human population has shrunk dramatically through peaceful attrition, allowing widespread reforestation and a reduction of our collective use of all resources. Most of the reduction of consumption involved the wealthiest socioeconomic groups, while the least-wealthy have become less impoverished. Environmental regulations and ethics are robust, and conservation and restoration are prioritized at all levels of both public and private activity. MLK didn’t need to provide such a preface, because everybody in his audience knew what he meant.)

Close your eyes and open them in the future, where we’re all going. I dream of what you experience as you move around.

The climate of your childhood is with you still, and you will keep that familiar climate as you grow old. If it snowed on Christmas when you were little, it will snow on Christmas again. If you chased lightening bugs through the cool of a summer evening, the Junes of your great-grandchildren will have that same purple, shining cool.

When the weather grows extreme—and it will, on occasion—you may rest assured that things will return to normal afterward. If a city has stood on a seaside plain for a thousand years, you may expect it to stand for a thousand more. If a farm has belonged to your family for seven generations, know that rising seas will not sow your fields with salt, nor will warming skies bake your soils dry. The same carefully husbanded heirlooms will grow for your progeny for seven generations more.

The air smells good—everywhere. The water tastes clean in all places. All rivers and ponds and beaches in the world are safe for swimming, and if you fish, you may eat what you catch without fear.

And you will catch fish, you will fish and hunt and gather fruit and honey, if you please, for the table of the Earth will groan with permanent Thanksgiving, its bounty not literally infinite but so long as you receive with gratitude, humility, and care, it might as well be. You will have enough. All of you will.

Some of you may be poor, but your poverty will be a paucity of luxuries, not a lack of necessities. You will never worry about access to food or water or medicine. The halls of justice and of government will never be closed to you and the gates of academe will never be barred. No matter your color or your ancestry, your creed or ability, your risk of cancer or poisoning or want will never be greater than for your wealthier fellows, and that risk will be low and getting lower all the time.

Wealthy or poor, young or old, you will not have to travel long distances or endure expense and hardship in order to experience beautiful places and the company of fantastic, wild animals, for all places are beautiful and all lands and waters are rich with wildness. Should you want to travel, you will need no permit to seek the solitude of pathless places, for the forests and the prairies and the deserts will gape huge with possibility, and all places, both distant and urban, will be quiet enough to reveal the singing of a multitude of birds. The only sounds humans add to the landscape will be those that can improve on silence, and we will improve on silence often with our music and our words.

You might choose not to travel far, for transportation will never be both cheap and fast again—though either alone remains a possibility. What that limitation means for you is that the friends of your childhood will be the village of your parenting and the tribe of your old age. And yet no parochialism will limit you, no minority identity will isolate you, for you will reach across distances with radio, with microwave transmission, and with the internet. This world of yours is primitive in the best way, but in no other way could it be called so. Your technology keeps your future on its toes.

In this world of slow, deliberate movement, of precious, careful cargo, the products of your hands will be art, and the tools of your trade will be art, and the objects of your daily life will also be art, and nothing you make or buy or sell will be made to be thrown away. Your hands will be powerful and your mind strong, for should a tyrant arise among you the scope of the king’s jurisdiction or the industry boss’s beat will never reach farther or faster than your capacity to organize. You and your colleagues and neighbors shall have the world, for to the mighty you will be the world, no outsources will be economic, no offshoring will be available, and you will negotiate and win.

You will set your table with local fare in season, but neither will you fear the fortunes of the weather, for if the crops fail, or if the harvest already home is lost, help will come with the speed of clean electricity, the power of biodiesel, the focused intelligence of the latest, most complex computers possible. Your doctors will work wonders with medicines as yet undiscovered and surgical techniques as yet unsuspected. New organs will grow in nutrient baths, bones will be printed to order, new nerves will knit together across old scars and the lame will walk and the halt shall dance.

For the losses imposed by limitation shall be only that which you are happy to lose anyway, the ugly, the cheap, the slapdash. What is important to you to keep, you will keep and improve upon a thousand times. And in the opening created by that limitation shall grow the unlimited, and in the space after the ending of the un-checked, you shall have the endless. You gave given up the dross and slag and kept the treasure. Because you have let go your grasping after chaff, the good wheat is yours, forever.

There is no wound that cannot eventually heal. There is no moment that is not better than more dire moments as an opportunity to turn the world around.

I have a dream today.


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The Things That Work

Well, Hawaii is exploding, the Southeast is flooding, parts of the Northeast may have been hit by tornadoes, there was softball-size hail breaking windshields somewhere or other, and I can’t get a decent internet connection today so I can’t research and write to you about any of it.

Why not? Well, my home connection is slow right now and wind and rain prevented my heading into town. Nothing dramatic, merely annoying.

I doubt Hawaiian volcanism has anything to do with climate change, but as to the rest of it, if you’re under any of this craziness, ask yourself when was the last time it rained that wasn’t a flood or a tornado or something of the kind? When I was a kid, we used to have normal rains sometimes. Really, we did.

But, like I said, I can’t research anything at the moment. So instead I’m going to tell you about raking.

At the campground where we’re volunteering, most people who need to go from one end of the campground to another drive. In fairness, it’s a pretty big campground, so walking it can take a while. Also, staff often have things to carry, such as ladders, trash bins, or firewood, that would be difficult or impossible to carry by hand. But mostly I think the driving happens because it’s just what you do. It’s a collective habit.

It’s not my habit, but then again I make a point of doing things my way, and I can do that because I am a volunteer. I have more leeway than some.

But today some of us were raking out sites and I tried to talk the others into walking it, in order to avoid using the gas.

There was reluctance. The main concern was what if some of us were needed elsewhere quickly? I suggested biking. That wouldn’t be good enough in some circumstances, but no one of us was on call for anything more serious than possibly having to go to the office and talk with some volunteers. But you can’t bike with a rake. Ok, well the people who aren’t on call can walk and carry the rakes for the people who are on call, who will ride bicycles. In the end, we just walked it and did our raking and everything was fine.

And this is the way it works.

You might have a goal that seems unpleasant or impossible—get to work without driving, cut your electricity bill in half, quit eating beef (a major greenhouse gas emitter), switch to eating all-local food. Whatever it is, it sounds good, but if only you could, right?

Ok, break down the objections. Why can’t this work? What is the hold-up? Be specific.

Now, address each concern. Maybe you work too far away, maybe you heat with electricity and its cold out, maybe you really like beef, whatever it is. The thing about problems is they have solutions. Assume there is a solution and find it or create it. Brain-storm, plot, plan, network, follow up on leads, find the solution. And then you can accomplish your goal.

Do all problems really have viable solutions? Probably not, but you’ll be surprised by how many do if you just make up your mind to look. The key is don’t just say “that’s impossible/unpleasant/impractical” and leave it there.

The same process, of breaking down reluctance into a series of discrete problems, then looking for solutions, can work on a community-wide scale, too. Want a bike trail? A farmer’s market? Curbside recycling? A safe place for kids to play? Figure out why you can’t do it, and then figure out how you can.

Might work on the national scale, too.


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Looking for–and Not Finding–Marches

If the planned Second Science March occurred, it did so utterly without fanfare.

I ended up not going, for various logistical reasons. I have a few friends who mentioned making the same decision for similar reasons. I don’t know anybody who went. I saw no mention of it on the news. I have just now done an internet search for “science march,” and the top page of results were all either sites planning the march or commenting on last year’s march. ZERO reporting on this year’s march.

Did it occur? Did anybody show up? Like the tree falling unheard in the forest, a march nobody noticed may indeed make a sound, but if nobody notices it might as well be silent because nobody cares.

In the process of looking for marches two weeks ago, I found a number of upcoming events, but I also learned that the organizers of the Second Science March were deliberately down-playing the march itself, and instead putting their focus on activism and advocacy. So, there was a reason why nobody heard about the march in time to make arrangements to go, and nobody reported on the marches when they happened–the organizers wanted it that way. I do not understand this strategy. Why expend money and effort planning a march, but then doom it to fail?

Do these people even want to succeed?

Last year’s Science March was a great deal of fun. I was disappointed not to be able to do it again. I’m also very concerned that climate issues (a subset of the issues addressed by the Science March) are falling out of the media again. For a while, there, news shows were starting to take the issue seriously, since it was obvious–from the marches–that people care. Now? Not so much.

It’s hard to care about something if nobody acts like it matters. It’s hard to know what others care about it if you never hear from them. If climate change does not make the news, the rest of us are left feeling very alone.

It’s hard to believe the people who benefit from climate denial are unaware of this.

 

I must apologize for not posting last week. There was a family emergency–now resolved–that made everything difficult.