The Climate in Emergency

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


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On Needing a Village

I had a conversation with a friend yesterday about therapy. He pointed out that–with the exception of a few individual therapists–psychotherapy has been and remains all about the individual or, at most, about couples, families, or small groups. The field doesn’t address whole human communities or the relationships between communities and the land, although that is precisely where much of our sickness and pain live.

It is an empirical fact that over a century of psychotherapy and many decades of psychologically-inspired self-help groups and books have not saved our world from teetering on the brink. Collectively, we make very, very bad choices. Individually, far too many of us are deeply lonely and battling despair.

Something important has been left out.

There is, indeed, a movement within psychology to take the mental and emotional dimensions of ecological issues seriously: ecopsychology. I have discussed before the mental health implications of climate change, and there are psychologists looking to use their expertise to help society make more sustainable decisions, both individually and collectively. But all this remains a minor voice in the field.

What occurred to me yesterday is that the problem may be less philosophical than practical. Society may be sick, but society can’t sit down on a therapist’s couch. Even couples therapy is difficult to arrange–for both partners to simultaneously agree to counseling requires a minor miracle. More often than not, it is a single person sitting on the couch seeking guidance from the therapist, so is it any wonder that therapists focus on treatments that can be given to one patient at a time? And part of that focus means defining problems in terms that allow individual solutions. An understanding of the role of context, of the community dimension of mental health, of the importance of the relationships between people and the land, all of that becomes collateral damage to the unavoidable limitations of the therapeutic relationship.

I’m speculating, of course. I further speculate that the focus on the individual by therapists may be one of the factors that has been eroding community over the decades, teaching us all to believe that the individual, and only the individual matters.

Consider:

We need each other to be happy–and others need us.

Societal problems and the actions of others can impair our mental health and our ability to function.

Where we live–whether our surroundings are beautiful, ecologically intact, and deeply familiar–matters to our mental health. Where we live matters.

Even saying those words feels transgressive because therapists, self-help groups, self-help books, and inspirational internet memes all declare the exact opposite. The zeitgeist and the experts seem to agree that each of us can control nothing besides ourselves and therefore must learn to depend on nothing but ourselves to be happy.

I agree about the impossibility of control–actually, I can’t control myself, either. Willpower is effective only over a very narrow slice of human experience and behavior. But the fact of the matter is we need lots of things we can’t guarantee ourselves. We need food and water, yet some of us can’t get either and so die. We likewise require intact bodies, yet injury and illness can’t always be avoided. Is it too far-fetched that we might also need love, community, and an intact home to survive?

The appalling truth is that all of us are two things most of us don’t want to be; vulnerable and morally obligated.

Perhaps I’m digressing a bit.The point is that an expanded understanding of our mental and emotional needs is important, both from the perspective of supporting mental health for its own sake, and from the perspective of understanding how to solve the various environmental crises we face, most critically, climate change.

But how is that to happen, given that it’s still almost impossible to get more than a few people on a therapist’s couch at once?

The therapist must come out of the office. What we need are communities organized around supporting both individual and collective mental health. Healing and happiness needs to be part of how we live.

All of which stands parallel to another principle–that it’s all very well and good for an individual to make more sustainable lifestyle choices, but ultimate success depends on society-wide change made possible by environmentalism at the ballot box.

The bottom line may be that we need to become a society that takes care of ourselves, each other, and the planet–which reminds me of something a different wise friend once said:

It’s not enough to try to conserve the environment; we have to conserve the human community that conserves the environment.

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Drought?

A week or so ago, we visited the St. Michaels area in Maryland. And the corn was bad.

I mean the corn in the fields,not all of which had been harvested yet. Have you seen corn growing? Are you familiar with it? When corn plants are stressed, the leaves, which usually have wavy edges and an arched, downward-pointing shape, instead become straight and point upward, like green swords. I’ve seen them like that often, but it’s usually temporary; eventually, rains come, and the plants relax. What I saw last week was different. The corn plants hadĀ  stayed stressed right through to the end of their season, and the stood, dry and ready for harvest, leaves still pointing at the sky, the stems abnormally thin. The harvest was starting to come in, and we heard that in some places, the yield was a third of normal.

Watching Drought

I see drought in Maryland often–usually mild, sometimes moderate, but it is often. And it’s part of climate change.

It’s not that climate change is making Maryland drier overall; in fact, Maryland’s annual precipitation is increasing slightly. But the increase is coming in the winter and the spring. Summer and Fall have about the same precipitation that they always have, but higher air temperatures have increased evaporation and transportation, leaving the soil drier during the growing season. And of course, as in other areas, more of the precipitation we do get is in large storms, leaving longer, drier, periods of no rain in between.

But, as I said, I’ve never seen the corn look so bad–which is why it surprised me to see that the area is not under a severe drought.

Current Conditions

I took a look at the US Drought Monitor, a website that doesn’t archive its pages, meaning that the link won’t show the same information next week. My area is not listed as in drought at all; that’s correct, though we are borderline. It’s raining now, and we were starting to need it badly. About half the rest of the state is listed as “abnormally dry,” which, according to the key at the bottom of the page, is enough to stunt crops and increase fire danger. And the area immediately around the Chesapeake Bay, which includes St. Michaels, is in “moderate drought,” which is enough to reduce grain yields–and, curiously, honey production.

However, the actual conditions on the ground seem rather worse than that. Eyeballing drought severity is a pretty unreliable activity at best, but the Drought Monitor site does include a note that it “focuses on broad-scale conditions. Local conditions may vary.” Just as a picture made of pixels obscures detail smaller than a pixel, the scale Drought Monitor uses must reduce areas below a certain size to a kind of average. There may be patches of severe drought that are smaller than that.

Conditions Elsewhere

In California, electricity is being shut off during periods of high fire danger because of the possibility of sparks from electrical cables causing wildfires. That certainly sounds dramatic, as though California’s drought must have entered new, unprecedented territory–but California’s famous megadrought is over. The US Drought Monitor shows only a few areas of “abnormally dry” on the edges of the state. But parts of California are fire-prone even when conditions are normal, and while this has been a very quiet year for fire (my husband is a fire fighter and keeps me informed) the terrible consequences of sparking power lines last year may have inspired an abundance of caution.

Conditions Vary

The reason I’ve brought all this up is to highlight the difficulty of assessing climate stories. Based on widely-available information, there is no extreme-weather emergency in Maryland at present, but since we know actual farmers, we know one is, indeed, in progress–and that there was one last year as well. Conversely, the stories about the electricity shut-offs in California suggest an unprecedented degree of fire risk, yet at least some evidence suggests that what we’re seeing is an unprecedented (but possibly quite correct) responses to typical fire risk. But what truth would someone on the ground reveal?

Climate change is real, and it is serious, and it is an emergency. And its symptoms can easily be different, or much worse, than the stories we hear on the news suggest.

 


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Responding to Greta

Greta Thunberg can’t save the world. She doesn’t claim that she can. In fact, the whole of what she is doing is to beg other people to act. She is telling the truth, and doing so with an unapologetic stridency that resonates–and many others are joining her, giving the issue the importance readers of this blog know it deserves.

If her actions carry a hint of hope, if we see in her some suggestion that perhaps we might still pull this thing out of our hat, it’s because the climate strike movement is new, and anything new is good.

But calling for change alone can’t save the world; the powerful still have the option to ignore the call. And frankly, many of them still are.

Last week, I posted a list of things you can do–it’s not my first such list, and I’m not the only one drafting such lists. Lists are good. But mine and those I have read have all so far missed an important distinction, an important way to be relevant to the specific challenge we find ourselves facing today, the challenge posed by tens of thousands of young people marching in the streets.

The thing is, Greta Thunberg can’t save the world, and those of us who rely on her to do so, responding to her with admiration only and not action, betray her as surely do the haters.

She can’t save the world, but we can.

The Powerful and the Powerless

In the realm of climate response, a continuum exists between the powerful and the powerless. It’s true that no one is so powerful as to be able to end anthropogenic climate change by an unaided act of will, and no one with the mental capacity to understand the problem to even the simplest degree is entirely without resources–and yet it’s also true that we’re not all alike. We’re not equals.

And the thing is, different strategies apply to different points along the spectrum.

No matter how much or how little power you have, you can make a difference, but not if you deny the reality of your position. If you put all your energy into changing the things you have direct control over, and all you have control over is what brand of toilet paper you buy, then you won’t get very far. It’s not that personal lifestyle changes don’t make a difference, they do, but they depend on the coordinated action of many people, and rarely succeed unless some other strategy is also being carried out. If personal lifestyle change is all you can do, go ahead and do it, but you also need to join Greta in the streets calling for change. On the other hand, if you happen to be the head of a multinational company or the prime minister of a whole country, joining the marching strikers is silly at best–you’re demonstrating against yourself, you know that, don’t you?

In either case, to act as though your power were something it isn’t is to refuse to act.

The Power of Direct Action

“Direct action” has a specific meaning in activist circles, but I mean something slightly different here. I am referring to actions that you can take on your own authority, actions that definitively reduce emissions all by themselves. For example, if you are the sole owner of a car company, you can decide to produce only fuel-efficient vehicles.

Everybody has some power of direct action. Greta Thunberg, for example, has decided not to eat meat. You can lead a kid to a hamburger, but you can’t make her eat it. Meat, especially beef, does have a large carbon footprint, so in and of itself, hers is a step in the right direction. But we all know it’s not a very big step, that’s why she’s striking–to make sure the bigger steps get taken by the people in a position to take them.

It is, as I said, a continuum, not a binary distinction between the powerful and the powerless, but it’s still important to recognize that not all steps are equal. When drafting a list of the “50 simple things you can do to save the Earth,” there is one very important thing to know; who are you?

Are you a 16-year-old kid? Are you a working stiff struggling to make rent? Do you own a house and a car and take regular transcontinental trips? Are you a business leader? A US Senator? The President of the United States? The more power of direct action you have, the more of your time and energy must be taken up by taking climate-friendly actions.

It’s possible you have more power than you think you do. It’s easy to fall into the habit of doing things as they’ve always been done, without realizing they could be done differently. Ask yourself the following:

  • Do I ever make purchasing decisions for anything larger than my household?
  • Do I ever make investment decisions for more than a trivial amount of money?
  • Do I ever create plans that a team of people will follow?
  • Do I ever design, or help design, policies at my place of business?
  • Do I ever design, or help design, policies for a government agency, whether local, state-level, or national?
  • Do I ever decide, or help decide, how anything will be built?
  • Do I have the authority to decide how policies will be enacted?
  • Do I ever decide, or help decide, what someone else will be taught or notified about?

A yes to any of these questions indicates a place where you may be making climate decisions for more than your own personal lifestyle–a place where pleas to save the planet might actually be addressed to you.

You can make a climate action plan for your team, your organization, your event, your town, your state, your nation. Then enact the plan.

Go.

The Art of Influence

Most people, even if they can take some direct action, are going to be frustrated by the limits to their power. To one degree or another, part of your effectiveness is likely to depend on convincing someone to act. You can begin by turning up at rallies and demonstrations, and of course voting (and donating time and money to campaigns and registration drives). But the next step is to target specific people whose actions you want to change.

Who has the power to take what direct actions? What can you do to influence those actions?

The flipside of asking what unacknowledged power you might have is asking who else around you might have the power to change something. Once you have identified someone who can make a change, you can go about providing the necessary combination of pressure and support to make that change happen.

Here we have traditional political activism–marches, emails, petitions, coupled with lawsuits, whistle-blowing, boycotts, and civil disobedience. If you have the talent for organizing, you can get involved with strategy, or you can find existing campaigns to join. It’s not that activism is less powerful than direct action, it’s just that it is a different kind of power and requires a different strategy.

One or the Other

Greta Thunberg is saying some important stuff. Each of us has a fundamental choice in how to respond: we can join her in calling the powerful to act, or we can admit to being the powerful and respond to her call with action.

Do neither, and you are part of the problem. Don’t feel guilty; fix it!


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I Am Not Greta Thunberg

Last week, we joined the local iteration of the Climate Strike. Sort of.

The thing is, you can’t really go on strike if you’re retired (as my husband is), or self-employed (as I am). Anyway, our local event wasn’t organized as a strike–as far as I know, nobody walked out of work to attend. It was instead a demonstration or, probably more accurately, a rally.

I’ve talked about the distinction between strikes and demonstrations before. A rally is something else again. In a demonstration, the focus is external–you want someone, the media, the government, or, broadly speaking, “the Man,” to notice that you’re upset about something. In contrast, a rally has an internal focus–you’re coming together to show each other how you feel. The point is motivation, encouragement, and sometimes organization. An event can be all three at once, of course, but this was a rally.

A Day in the Park

We met in a local park, perhaps a hundred and fifty of us, to listen to live music and to various speakers, as well as video recordings of Greta Thunberg’s speeches and interviews. Local organizations had tables set up offering information and voter registration cards. There were tables of food, mostly donated but some of it brought by attendees. There was plastic cutlery. There was talk of how Friday afternoon is such an inconvenient time, we can’t really expect a lot of people to show up.

Which is about when I started to cry.

Something to Cry About

The advantage of having just lost my sister to cancer, if there is one, is that when I break down weeping in a public place, nobody really holds it against me. And I admit if circumstances were different, I might have held my composure better. But I wasn’t weeping for my sister. After all, lots of individuals die, and the rest of the world goes on. Sometimes it doesn’t seem like it should, but it does; life as a whole gets over individual tragedy pretty thoroughly. An entropic biosphere, on the other hand, is something else.

I didn’t weep for my sister but for everyone and everything else. I wept because I didn’t feel free to shout “plastic cutlery? What the hell were you thinking?” or other such railings at the business-as-usual tone of the whole event. And I wept because I am not Greta Thunberg.

A Personal Note

The thing is, that was supposed to be me. I had the same commitment to environmentalism from an early age, and at 16 years old I was making personal lifestyle changes and anticipating a life as an activist. I understood the science of the crisis. I wanted to change the world and I expected to.

Did I?

Not yet, as far as I can tell. In the 36 years since I was 16, the environmental crisis has gotten substantially worse, while most of my time and energy have gone into my personal concerns. For all my good intentions, I have become one of the adults who let Greta down.

It’s true it’s not exactly from moral laziness on my part, and it’s certainly not due to greed or selfishness. I didn’t lose my ideals or abandon my dreams. Instead, the issue is that whatever mental ability allows most people to look at a situation and find their role in it, it’s an ability that I appear to lack. With certain rare and limited exceptions, I just don’t know what I can do to help. And no, pamphlets entitled “What You Can Do” don’t solve the problem. So far, nothing does. So I get very little done.

But the validity of my excuse does not make any practical difference; the climate doesn’t award anybody E for Effort, it just keeps getting warmer until someone succeeds.

If I had started shouting about the plastic cutlery, I doubt I would have been understood. The others would have protested that they have good intentions and frustrating limitations, too, as if I don’t understand, as if I don’t appreciate what they are doing. And it’s not true. I do understand–and I do appreciate. Maryland is taking some real and important steps towards environmental stewardship, and it’s happening through the efforts of remarkable activists–and voters–some of whom were with me that day in the park. These are people who are, overall, more effective than I have been. These are people who organized a successful rally for the climate, something I, honestly, probably could not do, or at least could not have done as well. It was a step in the right direction, one of many steps being taken, and it was a good party. I cheered up eventually, had a good time, and found some organizations that can use my skill as a writer to accomplish something.

But if the climate strike is going to mean anything, it has to include honesty about the crisis we are in. It must include a restless, focused urgency, and–for anyone who is already an adult–it has to include some soul-searching. Who among us can really say “I have done enough” when the biosphere is still dying?

Frankly, I don’t understand why everyone else isn’t weeping, too.

A Shot in the Dark

Greta Thunberg is telling the truth. She’s demanding action, enforcing a kind of societal honesty. The fact that she can get other people to listen to her and join her in her demands is extraordinary. The fact that she can stay focused on her message in the face of hostility, apathy, and flattery is also extraordinary. Very few people could do what she is doing.

But it’s worth taking note of what she isn’t doing, too. She’s not organizing. She is an independent public speaker and climate striker, and while she sometimes cooperates with various groups, she does not lead any organization herself. She doesn’t organize the international strikes and demonstrations that she has inspired–other people, mostly other teenagers, do that. She also isn’t offering or enacting any solutions.

I don’t mean that as a criticism; fire alarms seldom also put out fires, but fire fighters still rely on alarms to wake them up and get them moving in the right direction.

But it’s important to recognize that Ms. Thunberg can’t, all by herself, save us. She is, in fact, begging us to save her.

If we respect her, we have to take further action.

Solving the Problem

Climate change is both a simple problem and a very complex one. The simple part is that burning fossil fuels, plus certain activities that fossil fuels make economically viable (such as destroying the Amazon rainforest in order to produce beef for export), is destroying the world. We have to stop doing those things at once.

But the complex part (aside from the details of the climate response; they don’t call climates a complex system for nothing) is that if it’s done the wrong way, keeping fossil fuels in the ground is likely to cause other problems–some of themĀ  drastic. And it’s not altogether clear what the right way to do it is. We know where we need to go, but how best to get there isn’t obvious, even supposing we were all trying to get there. Then, too, “keeping fossil fuels in the ground” is not something that can be done by a single person acting alone. Large numbers of people all have to act together, each in their own role–political leaders, economic leaders, diplomats, activists, consumers, voters, educators–and all more or less coordinated.

And of course, we do all have to attend to other elements of our lives simultaneously, striking balances among competing interests that we don’t actually know how to balance.

While I believe I do have unusual difficulty with finding a place to be of service, I’m clearly not the only person who looks at this mess and says “I don’t know what to do.”

But we must each do something, and do it hard and fast and well.

Steps to Take

I am not Greta Thunberg. I don’t have the abilities she has. But I have the abilities I have, and I also have a blog. And I also have the power to use language to explore options–I can, perhaps, help with charting a solution.

I therefore offer the following suggested actions:

  • Weeping It’s impossible to act as though something is important without feeling as though it’s important, and feeling as though the planet is important entails rage, grief, and fear. It also tends to involve guilt, shame, and frustration, helplessness. While sitting at a picnic table and literally weeping in public might not be everyone’s style, it’s important to let the uncomfortable feelings happen. Be where you are.
  • Community It’s very difficult to accomplish anything in isolation. Most of us need social support and affirmation. That includes not just encouragement and reassurance, but also actions that might on the face of it seem critical–calling on each other to do better, letting each other know when we’ve missed something. We need to form friendships in which climate action is a shared and acknowledged priority, even when it means not being polite. We need more parties, too.
  • Local Action Many of us are in positions where “green” lifestyles aren’t really an option. There isn’t enough local food production, there isn’t energy-efficient mass transit, there isn’t renewable electricity, communities aren’t walkable, there are laws that make “green” lifestyles difficult or impossible. These challenges are places to start, places to get to work.
  • Political Pressure Much of the work that has to be done requires the leadership of elected officials. We need to make such leadership politically expedient. Send emails, make phone calls, turn up at demonstrations, make sure that friends and neighbors know about demonstrations and help them get there. Make it obvious to our leaders that climate is important to the people.
  • Focused Flexibility We need to hold ourselves and our leaders to a high standard, but we also can’t let rigor become an excuse for inaction. We can’t refuse to take action because the action plan isn’t perfect. We can’t refuse to work with allies because those allies are also our adversaries on other issues. We have to embrace a certain pragmatism. Purity won’t win the war.
  • Voting We have to become single-issue voters. If a candidate is not a climate hawk, we must not vote them into office. We need to contribute time and money to candidates who are climate hawks. As more climate hawks run, we can choose among them based on their stance on other issues we care about.

It’s not that climate is the only important issue, it’s that all the other important issue depends on this one.

 


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About that Climate Strike

The organizers of the climate strike are offering tools that allow websites to participate in the strike. Unfortunately, in order to use them, I’d have to upgrade to a paid version of WordPress, which I’m not able to do.

Instead, I’m going to get creative and make my own tools.

In the meantime, I encourage everyone to get involved and to tell everyone you know to get involved–because a lot of people who might otherwise be interested haven’t heard these events are even happening.

The brief explanation: while the worldwide event is being billed as a “strike,” and will, indeed, include widespread walk-outs, actually walking out of school or work is not considered necessary. There are many organized demonstrations you can join, and, whether or not you can attend an event, you can also use social media and any websites or blogs you might be involved with to demonstrate your solidarity with the movement.

To find an event near you, click here.

To find tools to participate online, click here.

The reason this is important is three-fold:

  1. We have to show up to show other people who care about the climate that they are not alone. It is hard to care about something if you believe no one else does–and we need people to care and to act.
  2. We have to show the news media that we are interested so that they will report on climate stories and show the undecided that this stuff is real and important. Seriously, I’ve seen a bump in climate coverage every time there is a really big demonstration.
  3. We have to show politicians that we care and that if they show real leadership on climate, we’ll have their backs in the voting booth.

We have to show up now so that other people do, too.


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One Less

My dog died yesterday morning.

Not Reilly, of whom I have written before, but his older co-dog, Una Mas. Although she’d carried a terminal diagnosis for the better part of a year, and had lately showed clear signs of failing health, I’ve seen “failing health” persist for months. 48 hours ago, I was somewhat concerned–she had fallen for no apparent reason, and seemed to be having a bad day–but I didn’t doubt she’d be around for my book launch party next month. I thought it possible she might hang on long enough to come with us to Maine next summer. Instead, her body simply began to fail in the middle of the night, and she died in the parking lot of the vet’s office in the morning. I can’t quite believe that she’s gone.

Reilly sits huddled on the couch, disoriented, perhaps, by his sudden singularity.

Those of you who know me–and even those who don’t, if you’ve been reading carefully–know this has been a rough year on my end, culminating several rough years, which may be why I have not been as politically active as I’ve wanted to be. I just don’t have the energy. And yet energy must be expended. The global emergency continues.

One of the great things about large demonstrations is that they require relatively little energy from individual participants. For the organizers, of course, it’s a different story, but for everyone else, you just have to show up–and showing up matters. If something’s on your mind and you’re having trouble focusing, that’s OK. You can still help. Even if you can’t get yourself together to do the kind of all-out problem-solving work this moment in history demands, you’re still needed–to turn up to make sure the organizing work of others makes a difference.

So, this Friday is a great opportunity for people like us, a world-wide day of action. To find an event near you, click here. To multiply your impact, reach out to others and get more people to participate.

Change can happen very fast. You wake up one morning, thinking the world will go one way, and by the next morning, there you are–missing a beagle, hit by a hurricane, living in a country you don’t always recognize anymore….

But not all changes, even all sudden changes, are bad. I didn’t know Greta Thunberg was going to come to prominence, but here she is, and people are listening to her. Maybe we have a chance–if enough people show up, if enough people get serious about climate change and act like it.

Be the change. Turn up on Friday.


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Considering 9/11

So, tomorrow is 9/11, a date that has become synonymous with an event. It’s been a long time, now. People born since those attacks are about to start turning 18; they’ll vote next year.

We don’t hear a lot about terrorism these days, not in the US–it’s no longer the dominant issue it was a decade ago, let alone nearly two decades ago, at least partly because violence tends not to be labeled terrorism if it’s perpetrated by white Americans who are not Muslim.

But it’s worth noting that attacks on civilians (not all of which ought to be called “terrorism,” but that’s another topic) are still very much an issue, and that climate change is making the issue worse.

Simply put, we know climate change makes terrorism more likely because it increases the frequency and severity of natural disasters to the point of putting large numbers of people in desperate circumstances–and desperate people do desperate things. Also, climate change makes certain kinds of attack easier to accomplish; during severe droughts, public drinking water is much cheaper to poison, since there is less water in reservoirs to dilute poison and wildfires are easier to start.

I’ve discussed before the way that political problems world-wide often have a climate-related component.

So it’s weird that we still tend to take terrorism (at least terrorism perpetrated by certain types of people) more seriously than climate change, given that climate change causes terrorism.

If you want to do something about the one, you must do something about the other.