The Climate in Emergency

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


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So, the Thing Is….

So, my computer has not been co-operating today, and also family duties have eaten most of my attention. So my plans to write an intricate post pretty much fell apart….But there is a very real possibility that real climate legislation could pass soon–everybody, call your House reps!–and that’s worth noting. Is it enough to save us? No, of course not. But it’s more than we’ve ever had before, it’s a step in the right direction, and it may buy us a little bit of time. So, yay.

Yay.

Despite everything else, yay


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Subsidies?

So, for years I’ve been hearing about fossil fuel subsidies–money given by the government to the fossil fuel industry. It’s pretty clear why this shouldn’t be happening. For one thing, it gives the industry a huge competitive advantage relative to renewable energy. But what exactly are these subsidies, and how do they work?

This morning I decided to find out.

What’s a Subsidy?

A fossil fuel subsidy is anything the government goes to lower either the production cost or the price of fossil fuel. It doesn’t have to be a cash payment, and often isn’t. Subsidies can include tax breaks, protection from liability, or direct assistance. For example, a government-funded program might do research and development that energy companies would otherwise have to do themselves.

There are several different types, and the definitions aren’t always clear.

Production Subsidies

Production subsidies lower the cost of production. These are often spoken of as if they were direct payments (“handouts to Big Oil”), but they almost never are. They are tax breaks, legal protection from liability, reductions in fees, instances where government programs do things so that private energy companies don’t have to (real life example: figure out how to do fracking), and so forth.

Production subsidies are not a single, unified, government policy or program. There is no law that says “the government shall pay Big Oil seven gillion dollars every Tuesday.” If there were, it might be easier to repeal. Instead, there are multiple laws and policies that have been instituted and adjusted and sometimes removed over the decades by various people for various. They don’t even always benefit the same people; the subsidies that favor natural gas do so, quite deliberately, at the expense of the coal industry.

Some subsidies are clearly just gifts to energy companies, while others aim to stabilize fuel prices, increase American energy independence, increase competition by supporting smaller companies, or shift the energy sector towards some practice deemed better for whatever reason. When policy makers suggest cutting fossil fuel subsidies, each one likely has a different group of subsidies in mind to cut.

It’s not not always clear what the value of a subsidy is. For example, say a tax break stimulates economic activity that results in an increase of tax revenue overall. That’s a subsidy, since the government did something to reduce fuel production costs, but what’s the dollar value? Is it the amount by which the energy company’s tax bill was reduced? The amount of profit the company realized as a direct result of the tax break? The total cost to the US taxpayer? In this case, the taxpayer turned a profit.

It’s not even always clear whether something is a subsidy. The UK claims not to subsidize fossil fuel industry at all. Others disagree. It comes down to a question of definitions.

There’s an interesting timeline of subsidies given to the US oil and gas industries over the years that show the variety in all these different policies. You can find it here.

Consumption Subsidies

Consumption subsidies lower the price paid by the consumer. For example, the recent gas tax holidays passed in some states was a consumption subsidy. Programs paying for heating oil for the indigent is another example. Consumption subsidies are much more common in poorer countries, though wealthy oil-production countries sometimes use them as a form of profit-sharing.

Consumption subsidies don’t necessarily aid energy companies and aren’t generally designed to do so. Mostly they are either part of a social safety net or a policy designed to avoid political unrest. Subsidized fuel can also help steer people away from burning wood, a fuel that can its own environmental problems.

And yet consumption subsidies do probably help the fossil fuel industry long-term. If the government is simply paying people’s heating bills, that’s clearly taxpayer money in energy company pockets. The gas tax holidays reduce the price at the pump without reducing the gas company’s profit margin–more people buy gas, so hooray for the gas company. And while societal change should never come at the expense of the poor, social safety nets involving fossil fuels do delay the implementation of renewable social safety nets.

Hidden Externalities

This one is debatable.

An externality is an economic factor that isn’t part of a given financial transaction in an obvious way. For example, the way our economic system is structured, a company may insist that using biodegradable packaging rather than plastic would be too expensive–that’s because the environmental costs associated with plastic pollution aren’t the company’s problem. It’s an external cost. Ralph Nader (remember him?) had a great phrase for this, and I can’t link to a source here because I heard him say it in person in a speech I attended: “privatizing the profit and socializing the cost.”

If all the costs of a company’s activity were privatized, that is, born by itself, you can bet plastic packaging would not seem so cheap.

That governments generally allow many of the costs of fossil fuels to remain “socialized,” that is, born by society as a whole, certainly benefits these companies financially, allowing them to exist when it would not otherwise be economically feasible for them to do so. But does this count as a subsidy? And if so, what is the monetary value of the subsidy? What should be included?

No one can agree on this one, yet.

Subsidies Aren’t Bad Unless

There’s a natural tendency for people to reduce complex matters to simple good/bad dichotomies. Such simplification is pretty much always a bad idea, as I’ve discussed before. So while fossil fuel subsidies are generally a bad thing, I don’t want readers to fall into thinking of “subsidy” as a bad word.

There are those who do believe that the government should never interfere in the processes of the free market. From that perspective, subsidies are a bad thing, but very few people are such strict, free-market capitalists–I’m certainly not. And while explaining the problems with free-market capitalism is rather above my pay grade, I’m willing to bet I don’t need to explain it because you already know. We may disagree about where and how the government should intervene, but we probably agree that it sometimes should. Interference generally means subsidies.

It’s not wrong for the government to economically support something that should be supported.

For example, the US government has, for generations now, made a special project of space exploration, paying for technological innovation, research, and infrastructure in a very big way. Private industry simply cannot muster the funds necessary to spend twenty or forty years investing huge amounts of capital before seeing any sort of profit. Government can because government isn’t about profit (or, at least it shouldn’t be). Now, thanks to the US space program, we have weather satellites, GPS satellites, and communications satellites, all of which make modern life inarguably better (plus the more debatable benefits of military dominance and a better understanding of the cosmos). And private industry is beginning to take over the field. This is how it’s supposed to work.

The problems with fossil fuel subsidies are two-fold.

Most obviously, the fossil fuel industry needs to go out of existence now, so paying it to keep going is counterproductive. If fossil fuel were subsidized less, perhaps renewables could be subsidized more?

Second, it’s a rhetorical trick of many fossil fuel defenders to pretend that their industry is not subsidized, such that any government support of renewables is interference in the free market–as if such interference were inherently bad. America generally thinks of itself as a capitalist country. We’re raised to have fond associations with phrases like “the free market,” so even though most of us do want at least some economic intervention by the government, and even expect it (note that voters tend to act as if the President were personally responsible for setting gas prices), “interference with the free market” still sounds like a bad thing to many of us.

The rhetorical trick works.

So government subsidies aren’t a bad thing unless something is being subsidized that should not be, or the fact that subsidization is being done is hidden somehow or denied.

In the US, and in many other countries as well, it’s absolutely critical that we recognize that our governments are actively supporting the fossil fuel industry. Do we really want that done anymore?

Bringing It All Together

In general, fossil fuel subsidies need to end, but that doesn’t mean they all must or should end at the same time. In fact, consumption subsidies could be an important part of protecting the economically vulnerable during transition. And while I’m not in a position to judge the matter for sure, it’s quite possible that encouraging the switch from coal to natural gas (which does produce less CO2 when burned) is appropriate.

In fact, many politicians agree that at least some fossil fuel subsidies do need to stop. There is even an international agreement to get rid of “inefficient” subsidies. But what exactly that means isn’t clear. Not much is being done about it.

We can’t meaningfully expect to get rid of fossil fuel until we can muster the political will to stop paying it to get stronger.


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Hot

Seems like every year, I post something entitled “Hot” or “Heat” or something similar. That’s because every year, the warming part of global warming asserts itself in a way I can’t not write about. I may end up sounding like a broken record, but the records just keep breaking.

The Latest Hot News

Perhaps not “the latest,” as some of these stories are a few weeks old by now, but the point is I’m going to begin with a summary of recent, heat-related events.

I don’t usually use Wikipedia as a source, but you’ll notice I’m doing it here–that’s because I’ve been following the story and know basically what happened, but I need to refresh my memory and don’t want to track down a dozen different news stories to do it. Anyway, Wikipedia’s article on heatwaves of 2022 thus far looks pretty good.

There have been heat waves in various places starting in January this year, but most didn’t make the news, and most were relatively local. That changed in June, when dramatic and dangerous heat waves hit parts of the United States, parts of Europe, and Japan. The heat then abated somewhat and came back even stronger in July. More than 85% of the US reached 90 degrees F. or higher, and at least 19 people died (doubtless some heat-related deaths weren’t recorded as such). Parts of the UK may have topped 104 degrees F., which has literally never happened before, and for which the country was absolutely unprepared. Parts of China may be reaching 122 degrees F. this week.

Besides simply being too hot, the unusual weather has been dramatically exacerbating droughts and causing terrible fires and other problems in the UK and elsewhere.

The UK is not known for hot weather, and it’s infrastructure isn’t designed for it. Air-conditioning is not standard. Heat-wise architecture is not standard. During the heatwave, rail lines had to be closed down, power cables developed problems, IT systems started to fail, and water systems started to lose pressure because demand for water was so high. The temperature alone does not indicate the scale of the disaster–104 degrees in London is not the same as 104 degrees in Phoenix.

I’d heard various scary rumors about what caused the fires, but I have not been able to substantiate all of them. The reason there were so many fires in the London area during the heat wave was that grass in parks and lawns got so dry (heat drives evaporation) that almost anything could cause ignition–dropped cigarettes or sunlight focused, magnifying-lens-style, through bottles were major sources of flame. Once started, the fires burned hot and fast, melting cars and destroying whole neighborhoods. London firefighters have not been as busy since World War II.

There are a lot of news stories about wildfires in the US and Europe, but so far I have not found a good summary of the situation that puts it all in context. This year’s fire situation seems pretty bad all over, though.

Between one thing and another, one place or another, over a thousand people are dead.

Whats and Wherefores

So is climate change causing all this? The short answer is “yes.” I mean, yeah, yeah, we all know by now that linking individual weather events to an overall climate trend is dicey at best–we can only say that climate change makes heat waves, etc., more likely. But heat like this July, particularly the UK heatwave, wasn’t likely at all before, and now extreme heat is becoming almost routine. This is what climate change looks like, unambiguously.

There are a couple of different mechanisms by which global warming increases heat waves.

I’ve written before about how heat waves get more intense simply as a matter of statistics. Basically, the frequency of a thing drops off fast the more extreme it is–think of the difference between how often you see a six-foot-tall person verses how often you see a seven-footer. A slightly-warmer “normal” thus makes temperatures that used to be virtually unheard-of become merely unusual.

But climate change also seems to be causing changes to the behavior of the jet stream–the poles are warming faster than the lower latitudes, changing the way air-currents move across the planet. And one of these changes is an increase in the frequency of a split or double jet stream over western Europe, a situation that creates an island of mostly still air between the two jets–heat builds up within that island until the configuration of the jet changes again. Western Europe is experiencing more heatwaves and more severe heatwaves than most of the rest of the Northern Hemisphere.

(The Southwest and Midwest of the United States is another heat-wave hot spot, as the article I linked to makes clear, but it does not say whether the cause of our hot spot is the same as that of Western Europe).

Learning about these kinds of mechanisms is important because they show how climate change isn’t just some mysterious and amorphous change of probabilities–instead, certain measurable changes over here cause certain changes in atmospheric behavior over there in a way that might be difficult for non-specialists (like me) to understand, but can be understood by those who put the time and effort in to learning. The heatwave in the UK is no more of a mystery than would be the collapse of a building whose bearing wall has been broken. These relationships are not deniable by anyone who knows how they work. Climate change is not deniable.

There are other heat waves that involve very different relationships.

Apparently, some climate deniers like to point out that there was an anomalous hot period during the Dust Bowl, implying that if the Dust Bowl heat was just random variation, so must this be.

It’s true there was a hot period during the Dust Bowl–it’s the reason why this past month’s heat wave has broken few if any records, whereas the one in Europe broke many. The American July heat wave covers a geographic area that got very, very hot in the mid-1930’s, and we still haven’t quite caught up to that.

But the Dust Bowl heat was the result of very specific relationships, too. Random variation did play a role (it always does), but the region’s temperature had been goosed by bad land management. Intensive, unsustainable farming killed off the vegetation that had previously retained moisture, causing desertification. Dry air heats up faster (and cools faster) than humid air, so in the intense (and human-caused) drought, temperatures soared. The result was a hot period very different from the hot periods we get now–the warm area was smaller, isolated the the particular region of the Dust Bowl, and the region was able to cool significantly at night. It’s notable that the records that were broken in the last few weeks in the American Midwest were high lows–that is the night-time lows have been warmer than night-time lows for the region have been before. The greenhouse effect, remember, does not add heat to the planet, it prevents the planet from cooling. Global warming shows its ugly head first at night.

This sort of thing, this understanding of relationships, is how we know climate change is real.


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The Entropy Effect

The Entropy Effect was a Star Trek novel I read a great many years ago. Other than having a very well-written sex scene (I don’t mean hot, it wasn’t especially, I mean well-written) the book was largely forgettable. Mostly I’m just using the title. But it did include a character who had just come from a possible future in which entropy had been increased. He didn’t say exactly what that involved, but remarked that things were “really getting bad.”

Things are really getting bad.

Things in the US, I mean. I don’t know enough about conditions in other countries to comment. Now, to be clear, I am not one to say “this country sucks” or anything similar. In fact, lots of folks from certain other countries still want to come here. We’re clearly not the best country there is (I doubt there is one–of the best, each is probably good at some things and not others), and it’s important to recognize that our ideals have only ever been imperfectly carried out at best–the United States has been, and remains, an agent of abuse for many people. But it’s still better than a lot of other places and has a lot going for it. In fact, in many ways, conditions in the US are better than they have been for most of our past. That’s not what I mean by “things are getting bad.” What I mean is we are experiencing entropy.

The Entropic Age

I’ve discussed entropy on this blog before, here and here and here. I’m bringing it up again (without re-citing my sources–just read the earlier posts) because I’ve just received confirmation that I’m not the only one thinking along these lines.

The Anatomy of Systemic Collapse

You probably remember that entropy is the tendency of everything to become less-energetic–slower and simpler–over time. You are probably also aware that even though entropy is universal, there are apparent exceptions–babies becoming stronger and more complex as they grow, for example. In fact, living beings can fight entropy and win by actively drawing in energy from outside themselves. There are other sorts of systems besides living beings that have this same characteristic, plus a whole group of related similarities.

As long as such a system can take in more energy than it loses, it will get larger, more stable, and more complex–it is anti-entropic. If it loses more energy than it gains, it gets less stable and less complex–it is entropic. If the entropic phase continues long enough, the system in question goes out of existence. It’s like a house falling down. All the boards and the bricks are still there, but the house is gone.

When living beings become entropic and then go out of existence, they die. We can use the same language for other such systems, though it’s important to recognize the parallel isn’t exact, here. It’s not exactly death. It’s just very similar, to the point that we can learn things about the decline of, say, a society or an ecosystem, through comparison to the illness and death of an organism.

These complex systems naturally fit within each other–nesting dolls is the usual metaphor. A cell is a complex system nested inside an organism, which is nested inside a society, which is nested inside an ecosystem, which is nested inside a biosphere. Each draws its energy from the next-larger system. One of the things that can kill a complex system–that is, drive it into an entropic state–is if one of the systems nested inside it draws too much energy. A cancerous tumor is a clear example, for while tumors do some of their damage directly, pressing on or breaking up necessary organs, cancers also cause problems by drawing in so much energy that the patient can no longer eat enough to cover the losses.

As I’ve explained before, by using fossil fuels, humanity is drawing in so much energy that it has pushed the biosphere into an entropic state.

Both our current mass-extinction event and climate change are examples of the loss of complexity and stability characteristic of entropic states. Our world is very, very sick. It will recover if we stop our energy-drain before it dies–and one way or another we almost certainly will. Either we’ll wise up and live sustainably, or we will go extinct.

That’s just the way it is.

As Goes the World….

I’ve been thinking for a while now that human society–or at least my human society, as again I’m not familiar enough with other countries–is also now entropic. Frankly, it’s reminding me too much of dying people (of whom I’ve seen rather many in recent years). There is that same sense of weirdly familiar bizarreness, the same cascade of ever-increasing woe.

I have just brought the matter up my friend and teacher, Tom Wessels, whose eye-opening lecture started this whole train of thought in the first place. I wrote:

“Is our current political woe (which is not limited to the US, I realize) related to the systemic collapse of the biosphere? That is, we already know our society is collapsing the system it’s nested in, but is some subset of our society also collapsing the society as a whole? Having seen way too many entropic states up close in recent years, I have to say this has the same feel–but of course feelings can be fooled.”

He responded:

“In terms of entropy and society, I think you are on the right track since everything is linked. As the biosphere is degraded it impacts society and the economy creating greater anxiety in the populace. When people become anxious they start to see things in rigid, often inaccurate ways. Those people become the subset that degrades society, which is obviously, and very sadly, at play in the country.”

His description of what’s happening is a little different than mine. If one of us is wrong and the other right, I’d put my money on him being the right one, but there are many ways in which we could both be right.

My rather simplistic understanding of all this suggests that some system nested within society is hoovering up our energy the same way our society as a whole is sucking down the energy of the biosphere. Such seems plausible to me. We may be reaching a point that biosphere degradation is now limiting our collective energy supply, and since the monied classes are not reducing their energy use, their withdrawals are now more than society as a whole can spare? Of course, simplistic understandings are often wrong.

But either way, it’s important to recognize that we’ve made a shift.

For decades, American society (and the global society we are part of) had been growing. We were growing richer, certainly, but our advances in human rights and environmental awareness were arguably examples of our increasing complexity and stability as a people. To be sure, we were growing at the expense of the biosphere–that’s where the energy fueling us came from. The situation was dire. However, we could not see that it was dire except by looking outside ourselves, as environmental scientists and nature enthusiasts did. But we were fine. We were fine in the same way that somebody falling off a sky-scraper is fine (until the sudden stop at the bottom), but still.

But now we’re not fine. The larger systems we are nested in are collapsing at ever larger and deeper scales. We aren’t getting the energy flow we became accustomed to–the prices of food, water, environmental security, fuel and other raw materials, they’re all rising. We’re starting to feel our global limits at last.

And those with the power to do so are taking steps to secure their personal energy supplies at the expense of the rest of us. Whether the specific problem is that they are draining the rest of us of wealth or if it is simply their attempt to look after their own that is destabilizing us (disenfranchising the vulnerable, exacerbating cultural divisions, dismantling the middle class), I do not know.

Either way, no, we have not been thrown back in time 50 years. Back then, we were growing. Now we are not. Taking flight and crashing are two very different processes, even if you happen to be at the same altitude for the moment.

Personally, I suspect we started feeling our limits sometime in the late 1970’s, and that the Reagan Administration was the beginning of a very long, very deliberate effort to insulate certain people from those limits. It would be interesting to see if economists could confirm or refute that somehow. But that’s really a secondary question.

What Can We Do?

The primary question is, of course, what do we do now?

Individually? The best plan is probably to do whatever we can to practice damage control while standing by in case the opportunity to do more comes up. For some of us, that might mean contacting Congresspeople and signing petitions. For some it might mean getting elected to government office and trying to push through policy changes. You start where you are and work from there.

I recognize that signing petitions might seem very nearly pointless at times like these, but it’s not–and, moreover, none of us know what effect the things we do might have. I’m sure most of us can think of examples of people who had a great impact on us personally through doing seemingly small things–a kind word, an inspiring sentence, a good idea triggered by an offhand remark. Now and then we hear stories of a different kind of unexpected consequence, such as when someone works mightily to help a single person who turns out later to be of historical prominence.

Shortly after World War II, a young veteran, exhausted from fighting and grieving the death of his best friend, decided to go for a very long walk to clear his head. He was aware it was a walk no one had done before, but that wasn’t the point for him. That was Earl Schaefer, the first person known to have hiked the entire Appalachian Trail in a single season. He inspired a movement of long-distance hiking that transformed the lives of thousands of people. I was at the Appalachian Long-Distance Hikers Association convention the year after Earl died–that is, the first such convention for which he was dead. I saw hundreds of people give him a standing ovation for having lived.

So you never know. You never know what you might do that changes the world.

Stand by.

But as a societal matter, I think it worth noting that–if I am right–we will not regain our stability and nuance as a people until the energy drain stops.

We have to stop using fossil fuels and live sustainably. And we have to stop whatever subset it is within society that has decided to act like a cancerous tumor and save itself at our expense (which, by the way, doesn’t work; the tumors that killed my various friends, family, and pets are all themselves also dead). If this does not happen, our society will collapse, hopefully before the biosphere does.

We will then pick up the pieces.


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Primary Considerations and Endorsements

So, here they are, my endorsements for this year’s Democratic primary elections for Maryland. The electron itself is July 19, 2022, meaning we’re less than a month away. You can still register to vote, if you haven’t yet. Early voting starts on July 7th and runs through the 14th. You can look up your polling place online fairly easily.

I’m only looking at the Democratic primary because this blog focuses on climate change, and Republican candidates are so seldom reasonable on that topic. I wish they were. I’d love to see Republican solutions to this dire problem.

I want to be very clear: these endorsements relate ONLY to climate change. While I believe we are at a point where only climate-hawks should be elected, that doesn’t mean no other issue matters or should matter–but this blog doesn’t address other issues. You can and should at the ballot box, and so will I.

Quick List of Endorsements

Here we go:

  • Governor: Jon Baron
  • Attorney-General: Anthony Brown
  • Comptroller: Brooke Elizabeth Lierman
  • US Senate: Chris Van Hollan
  • US House of Representatives (District 1): Heather Mizeur
  • State Senate (District 38): Michele Gregory
  • State House of Delegates (District 38A): No endorsement due to lack of candidate information

Why and Wherefore

And now, here’s why I picked these people–and why, in a few cases, I’m a little uncertain of my picks.

Governor

Now, the League of Conservation Voters has endorsed Wes Moore on the strength of his commitment to environmental justice and his leadership ability. I take that endorsement seriously, in part because LCV has more resources than I do and therefore can base its endorsements on a much deeper understanding of both individual races and the overall political landscape than I have.

But Mr. Moore is not promising to do much of anything that isn’t already being done, as far as climate action goes, whereas Jon Baron wants to take a leadership role on climate among the other states–something that desperately needs to happen, since we cannot count on climate leadership at the Federal level because of active blocking by Republican Senators and because of the strong possibility of an unfortunate ruling by the Supreme Court.

If Jon Baron wants to step up into this leadership vacuum, I say we let him.

Attorney General

Once again I disagree with LCV, which has endorsed Katie O’Malley. Again, I disagree reluctantly, because LCV is very good at what it does. And I agree that Ms. O’Malley has some impressive qualifications for the position. She is far more experienced in most respects. However–

Ms. O’Malley’s list of climate-related goals is just that–a list of things she wants to happen. It’s a good list, I want those things to happen, too, but she doesn’t explain, at least not on her campaign website, how being attorney general would her her to further those goals. Most of them have no obvious connection to the role of the attorney general, though perhaps there are non-obvious connections.

Anthony Brown, on the other hand, points out that currently, the Maryland Attorney General derives the power to prosecute environmental crimes only from an invitation from either the Maryland Department of Agriculture or the Maryland Department of the Environment. That means that a governor who does not want these crimes prosecuted can effectively tie the AG’s hands–and to an extent that happened under Governor Hogan. It’s a serious problem, one that can render all Ms. O’Malley’s goals moot, and Mr. Brown wants to fix it. That tells me he’s thinking about how to use the tools of his office.

And that, together with his record of environmental advocacy in other offices, tells me he’s serious.

Comptroller

This one’s easy. Only two people are seeking the Democratic nomination for the position, and one of them doesn’t mention climate change at all on his website. The other, Brooke Elizabeth Lierman, has a detailed and well-thought-out plan for exactly how to use the office of comptroller to further climate action. Good for her!

League of Conservation Voters agrees with me on this one.

US Senate

One of our senators, Chris Van Hollen, is up for re-election and is facing a primary challenge. His challenger is not well-organized, has no prior political experience, and her climate-related campaign promise is to re-instate the Paris Accords, which has already been done. I have no trouble at all with endorsing Senator Van Hollen for re-election. His climate record with the League of Conservation Voters is excellent.

US House of Representatives (District 1)

District 1 is currently represented by Andy Harris, a Republican. Dr. Harris has shown himself to be a personable, charming man who is not entirely unresponsive to his constituents and is also somebody I’d dearly love to see out of office for all sorts of reasons, some of them climate-related. Two people are battling for the right to take him on. Both look pretty good, frankly.

I take that back; Heather Mizeur is not “pretty good,” she’s fantastic. Not only is she strong on environmental issues, including climate change, but she’s a farmer and wants to work with with farmers to find solutions for environmental problems that work for them–something many environmentalists neglect to do. She’s perfect for the district. Please, oh please, oh, please!

State Senate (District 38)

Michele Gregory is running unopposed at the primary level. She will face the incumbent Republican, Mary Beth Carozza, in the general. Our district being staunchly Republican, I personally expect Ms. Carozza to win. That wouldn’t be a disaster; while I suspect I disagree with Ms. Carozza on many fronts, I have met her–she comes to the annual firefighter’s banquet. She is attentive to her constituents, at least. But I suspect I will endorse Ms. Gregory in the general election.

I have no other option but Ms. Gregory in the primary, but my endorsement of her now is not be default. She includes environmental issues on her website’s landing page (something very few other candidates do) and as the first on her list on her “Issues” page. And although she places greater emphasis on the health of the Chesapeake Bay, her goals for tackling climate change are intelligent and thorough.

Maryland House of Delegates (District 38A)

Todd Nock is running unopposed at the primary level. He will face the incumbent Republican, Charles Otto in the general. I know nothing whatever about Mr. Otto (I’ll look him up before the election, don’t worry), but Mr. Nock is a friend of my husband’s and a good man.

Of course, his friendship with my husband is not, all by itself, a reason to vote for him, and his website does not discuss his stance on issues at all. My (admittedly minimal) knowledge of him as a person suggests that climate change is not a front-and-center issue for him, but that doesn’t tell us how he’d vote on bills–he might be a reliable climate vote, for all we know. An internet search on his name and “climate change” yields nothing, meaning he didn’t make the news on anything climate-related as a Pokomoke City Council Member, but city council members rarely make the news on anything, so again that doesn’t tell us much.

I can think of lots of good reasons to vote for Mr. Nock, but none of them relate to the topic of this blog. In the absence of more information, I have to delay my endorsement of him until the run-up to the general, after I’ve had a chance to talk with him about it.

Not that it matters. He’ll get the nomination. And I’m personally glad that he will.


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Primary Considerations, Part II

Two weeks ago I profiled the many Democratic candidates for Governor of Maryland. Here, I do the same for most of the rest of the state (at least in my district). I am aware that not everybody lives in Maryland (let alone in my voting district), but I figure I can at least provide an example of how to look up this sort of information.

My method is simple; look up the list of candidates on Balletopedia, then do an internet search on each candidate’s name. In most cases, I’m simply looking over their campaign website–I want to know how they are presenting themselves, what they are promising. Where a candidate has a history of serving in Congress, I can also look up their scorecard with the League of Conservation Voters. The idea is not to do a deep dive on any one candidate but simply to get a basic sense of all of them.

I am only paying attention to climate change, not because other issues are unimportant, but because this here is a climate change blog exclusively.

I am only paying attention to Democrats because currently Republicans are not taking the climate crisis seriously. There’s no good reason Republicans can’t come up with their own climate solutions, and as soon as any do, I will happily cover their campaign.

Next week I’ll issue endorsements.

In the meantime, make sure you are registered to vote and, if your state has not held its primary yet, when voting is and where your polling place is.

Attorney-General

The Attorney-General is responsible for deciding which crimes to prosecute and which to ignore, and is therefore a critical office. Our current Attorney-General, Democrat, Brian Frosh, could seek a third term but has chosen not to. He is retiring after a long career in public service. The race therefore has no incumbent. Whomever gets the nomination is likely to win the general election, giving added importance to voting in the primary.

Anthony G. Brown

Mr. Brown was Lieutenant-Governor under Martin O’Malley and ran unsuccessfully for the governorship at the end of Mr. O’Malley’s term. He is currently a member of the US House of Representatives. While climate change does not appear to be his signature issue, he does address it on his campaign site as a critical environmental concern alongside protection of the Chesapeake Bay. He also does have a history of environmental advocacy while in office.

Mr. Brown promises to seek greater autonomy for the attorney-general position specifically so that the office will have the authority to prosecute environmental crimes even if not invited to do so by the administration of whomever happens to have been elected governor.

Catherine C. O’Malley

Ms. O’Malley is an experienced attorney eager to point out that Mr. Brown is not. She addresses climate change on her campaign site, among other environmental issues, though it’s not entirely clear how she intends to use the office to accomplish her environmental goals–especially if she does not end up with a climate-friendly governor to work with.

Comptroller

The state comptroller is, essentially, Maryland’s accountant. The position is intended primarily as a counter-balance for the state treasurer and a check on any possible financial wrong-doing in state government. By extension, that means making sure that state revenues flow where they should in an efficient and honest way–so the comptroller has a voice in everything the state government does that involves money. That means, basically, everything.

It’s an un-sung position that can easily become merely procedural, but for the right person, it can become a position of real power.

The current comptroller, Peter Franchot, could run again but has chosen not to. He is instead running for governor. This race therefore has no incumbent, and the Democratic nominee, whomever it is, is likely to win the general.

Tim Adams

Mr. Adams does not mention climate change at all on his campaign website.

Brooke Elizabeth Lierman

Ms. Lierman not only mentions climate change on her campaign site, she has a detailed plan for exactly how to use the comptroller’s office for climate leadership. You can read her plan here.

US Senate

One of Maryland’s two senate seats is up for election this year. The current holder of the seat, Chris Van Hollen, is running again, but has a primary challenger. It is likely that whoever wins the primary election will win the general, since Maryland is a strongly blue state.

Chris Van Hallen

Senator Van Hallen has been a member of the US Senate since 2018. Before that, he was a member of the US House of Representatives since 2003, so his scorecard with the Leave of Conservation Voters is almost 20 years long by now–and his record is excellent–98% overall. He’s also introduced a number of climate bills and has repeatedly called for more climate action.

Michelle Smith

Ms. Smith does not have prior political experience. It’s difficult to find information about her background. Her campaign website does include a section on climate change, but it consists largely of calling for the return to the Paris Climate Accord, which has already happened.

US House of Representatives

There are A LOT of candidates here, because Maryland has eight House districts, and among the Democrats, every single one of them is being contested in the primary–some seats have four Democrats vying for them–one has nine!

I’m not going to write about all of them, only the two candidates for my own district, House District 1. This race will have an incumbent, Republican Andy Harris. He is one of our state’s few Republican Congresspeople, but our district is staunchly Republican. The Democratic challenger, whomever it happens to be, has a very slim chance.

Dave Harden

Mr. Harden has a background in the Foreign Service and was an Obama appointee within the US Agency for International Development. He is proud of his deep Maryland roots and his service in the Peace Corps in Africa. His website talks about climate change as a serious threat to the state and a national security issue, and frames climate action as economic opportunity.

Heather Mizeur

Ms. Mizeur worked on Capitol Hill for a variety of Congressmembers before being elected to Maryland’s House of Delegates. She is also a farmer. Her plan for addressing climate change involves working collaboratively with farmers to both mitigate the effects of climate change and support the transition to more climate-friendly practices. She is well aware that farmers and environmentalists tend to see each other as adversaries, and she wants to change that, noting that climate change is very much an issue that impacts farmers. This is probably exactly the right approach for the district, which is dominated by farming and the concerns of farmers.

State Legislature

There are A LOT of people running for various state legislature seats, though some seats have only one Democrat running in the primary–and some have none at all.

I will profile the candidates for at least my district next week.


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Flood, Fire, Etc.

A photo taken just after sunset--a ridge line appears silhouetted in black against a deep blue sky. Bright orange and yellow flames are visible along the top of the ridge, and there is much smoke coming off the fires. The smoke is lit up by the fires, purple and orange.
The Calf Canyon Fire approaching my friend’s house. Photo by Charles Curtin

The other day, I emailed a friend to wish him happy birthday and to ask him how he’s doing. Among other things, he said:

“Partly still getting caught up since the fires and getting ready for the floods likely to appear as soon as the monsoons start.”

Um, what?

I’d known about the fire–a month or so ago, a major wildfire swept through his area, and I spent about a week alternately amazed by the photos he was posting to Facebook and scared he might die–the risk to his safety was actually quite small, as he is familiar with fire and understands very well when and how to get the hell out of Dodge. But I’d worried anyway.

I could also guess why floods are likely: major fires kill the plants that stabilize soil and soak up rainwater, and monsoon rains can be intense.

(Note: “monsoon” is not just slang for “a lot of rain,” it’s an actual season that some areas have, characterized by a change in prevailing wind direction that brings a radical shift in precipitation pattern. The American Southwest, where my friend lives, has a monsoon from early July through August)

But still, to hear someone just casually say that he is busy dealing with the aftermath of a fire and getting ready for the floods is…something.

More recently, I’ve been seeing all sorts of dire natural disaster reports posted to Facebook.

I have written at great length in previous posts about how various sorts of natural disaster are exacerbated by climate change, and I’m not going to repeat myself today. But when you have one of those the-future-is-here-now-and-it-ain’t-pretty moments, it’s appropriate to notice.

This, ladies and gentlefolk, is climate change.

A photo that shows, in the foreground, a grassy field, then behind that in the distance a very large, leafy tree or trees and some buildings, and behind that a high ridge or hill silhouetted purple-gray against a sky filled with roiling orange and purple smoke. A bright ball of what looks like yellow fire sits on the ridge line surrounded by red smoke. While this ball could be fire, it could also be the setting sun illuminating the smoke from behind.
Calf Canyon Fire again. Photo by Charles Curtin

New Mexico Wildfires

New Mexico is not having a good fire season so far. In fact, the largest fire in state history is still burning. You can look up that fire here, but the site will likely be updated regularly, so bear that in mind if you’re reading this post well after the posting date.

Also, you may notice a place called Las Vegas on the maps–it’s not THAT Las Vegas. This is New Mexico.

It began as two fires that then merged, producing the unwieldy name, Hermits Peak and Calf Canyon Fires. Wildfires are named after the place where they start. Both were prescribed burns that escaped–that happens sometimes, and IS a risk of prescribed burn programs, but to stop prescribed burns is to made catastrophe inevitable. These fuels WILL burn eventually, and if they aren’t burned on purpose when conditions minimize the danger, they will burn naturally when conditions maximize the danger.

No humans have been hurt (so far), but many people have had to evacuate, some buildings have been lost, and while fire is a natural and necessary part of Southwestern ecology (yes, there are forests in New Mexico, and yes deserts can burn because they aren’t just sand), if fuels have been allowed to build up, fires can burn much hotter than the ecosystems are prepared to handle. So yeah, this is a big deal.

A photo of a series of low, rolling hills covered sparsely in drab bushes, small trees, and cactus. On the farther hill leap tall, orange flames sending up a huge bank of smoke. A pair of electrical lines are visible.
Do deserts burn? Yes! This was two years ago, in Arizona. Photo by Chris Seymour

And there are other fires in the state, some of them quite large.

New Mexico does usually have fires in the late spring and early summer, but this year there have been dramatically more of them, especially early in the season–the fire season started off with a really unusual bang.

Why?

The problem is a really serious drought combined with high winds that make fires move fast and keep firefighters from being able to do much about it. Much of the state is still suffering from decades of poor management, too, in which wildfires have been suppressed and prescribed burns weren’t done, meaning fuel loads have built up to very dangerous levels. Of course, that history of mismanagement is true every year, and will remain so until everything either burns or gets properly thinned and then put on a prescribed burn regimen, but it does mean that bad fire years get really bad in some areas.

A photo showing a fire at night, bright patches of yellow and red on a group of rolling hills. Everything but the dire itself is black, but vegetation is silhouetted in the foreground against the flames.
Desert on fire. Prescribed burn, 2020, Arizona. Photo by Chris Seymour

So climate change is not the only thing going on. There is land management history, natural year-to-year variation, and bad luck involved, too. But with the climate of the region getting drier and hotter because of climate change, more wildfires are to be expected.

Yellowstone Flood

So, a few days ago, the area in and around Yellowstone National Park got a lot of rain and some unusually warm weather–the warm temperatures melted a lot of snow very quickly. The meltwater and the rain together made for the biggest flood in the region’s recorded history, breaking records set a century ago. Buildings and roads built without so much water in mind have been destroyed. Many will have to be rebuilt somewhere else, if they are rebuilt at all.

And the floodwaters are still moving downstream–as of this writing, Billings, Montana has no access to fresh drinking water because its treatment plant can’t operate in the flood. Hopefully, the flood will go down because the city exhausts its stored supply.

Floods happen, and for the most part natural landscapes can recover without difficulty. It’s the damage to human infrastructure that is the problem here–and the economic problems. Currently, the park is entirely closed–no visitors at all allowed. Parts of the park may open again later this season, but other parts will not. Gardner, Montana has an economy entirely dependent on park-related tourism and is now in dire straits financially.

No one has been killed, but people have lost their homes and, in some cases, their livelihoods. Recovery will take years.

Big floods happen. Record-breaking floods happen. In any given year, the chance of a record-breaking flood is small, but even without climate change, the chance would not be zero. And yet this is exactly what climate change for the Yellowstone region looks like, where average precipitation is increasing but individual rain events are getting farther apart while warmer temperatures drive more evaporation and transpiration–that means repeated serious droughts interspersed with floods. And warmer temperatures driving earlier and faster snow-melt just makes it all worse.

Under these conditions, big floods become much more likely. We’re in a “new normal” situation.

Heat Waves

The New York Times headline is “Dangerous Heat Descends on 60 Million Americans.” And they do mean dangerous; people die from heat stroke. It’s a complex and fascinating malady for which heat is only one of several interacting factors, but the short version of the situation is that there are people alive right now who will not be next week because the air is just too hot and humid. Large areas of the country are under heat advisories right now.

It’s not just humans suffering. 2000 cattle in Kansas died of the heat and humidity last weekend. There must be other animal fatalities we don’t hear about.

A photo of a dirt road passing between two low hills sparsely covered in shrubs.In the distance, above and beyond the hills, is a massive, yellowish storm cloud.
Arizona, 2020. That’s smoke! Photo by Chris Seymour

Heat triggers or exacerbates drought by increasing both evaporation and transpiration, thus drying out the soil, just as many plants and animals (humans included) need more water. Heat also increases fire danger, both by making fires more active and more likely, and by making firefighting more difficult and dangerous.

Think about those cattle and the people who owned them. Think about the communities scrambling to distribute water and get vulnerable people to safety. Think about families coping, or about to begin coping, with sick, ill, injured, or dead loved ones. The effects spread like ripples in a pond.

Climate change means more heat waves.

(Note: Europe is also suffering under intense heat waves right now, but I’m not attempting a global news summary, just one for the United States)

Also?

There is a plume of African dust moving into parts of the United States and possibly causing respiratory problems. Such plumes are not altogether unusual, but this may be a bit larger than typical. The dust could interfere with hurricane formation for a while, which is not, all by itself, a bad thing.

The relationship between African dust plumes and climate change is not clear or simple, and I haven’t looked into whether this one is abnormal in any way, but there’s a sense in which it just seems to fit. Like, we’ve got record flooding, record fires, a killer heat wave, and, of course, an African dust storm in Texas. What’s next? Earthquakes? Space aliens? I’d better not say that too loudly, someone or something will hear me, and the aliens will make contact.

Seems a fitting way to end this post.


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Primary Considerations Part I

Well, it’s that time again. An election looms. Some of you have already had your primaries–mine is next month. So, for the edification of my fellow Marylanders–and for those in other states who want an example of how to get electoral information–here is the first of what will probably be several posts on who is running in the primaries.

I’m focusing on climate change and that means focusing on Democrats–if a Republican candidate has a position on this issue that is at all serious, I will let you know in a future post. If a minor-party or independent candidate is taking a serious shot, I will likewise let you know. As usual, I will not discuss candidates on issues unrelated to climate change. It’s not that other issues are unimportant, it’s that this is a climate-change blog.

In Maryland, to vote in a party’s primary, you must be a member of that party. However, if you really like a candidate, you can help their campaign whether you can vote for them or not.

How to Get Information

My method is simple: I did an internet search on “Maryland primary candidates” and found the Ballotopedia website, which lists them. I then found the campaign website for each candidate online. I have not made an attempt to find other sources of information on the candidates, since many are relatively inexperienced in elected office and so do not have a clear record to check.

What Offices Are Being Decided?

Well, technically none are being decided yet–this here is a primary. The winners become nominees, not office-holders. But what offices will those nominees be nominated for?

Executive Branch

This cycle, there are four state-wide offices in the Executive Branch facing election:

  • Governor
  • Lieutenant-Governor
  • Attorney-General
  • Comptroller

State Legislature

Many districts in both houses are up for election this cycle, meaning there are currently ten zillion candidates, and I’m going to deal with them in a separate post. The state legislature is important, though–these are the folks who gave Maryland the best climate action laws in the country!

Federal Legislature

One of Maryland’s Senate seats is up for election and all of our House seats are. Some of these House seats have about ten zillion candidates each, but I’ll try to get through all of them for you.

Other Races

No local races are listed on Ballotopedia for this primary. I’ll keep you posted.

Who Is Running for Governor?

I was going to do ALL Democratic hopefuls today. Nope, not happening, I’ve hit a wall. So, here are gubernatorial candidates.

Governor Hogan, a Republican, is term-limited and is therefore not running again. The winner of the Democratic nomination will thus face no incumbent and has a good shot at election in this mostly-Democrat state. This means the Democratic primary is important.

The slate of candidates for this office is currently all-male and over half white. Most promise climate action, and some have good, ambitious ideas, but none appear to be making it central to their campaigns. Few discuss climate change as a part of other issues, such as public health or the economy.

Edit: I was originally going to list candidates for Lieutenant-Governor separately, but I’ve discovered that very few of them are campaigning on climate change. Most seem not to be campaigning much at all–they have simply allowed themselves to be added to their running-mate’s campaign to greater or lesser degrees. Given that relatively little information is available on these candidates, it’s not fair to assume that they don’t care about climate at all, only that it is not the signature issue of any of them. So I’ve simply added their names to each gubernatorial candidate’s profile.

Curiously, all but one are women, and hardly any are white. Have we reached a point where women are not electable as governor, but men are not electable without female running-mates?

Anyway….

Rushern Baker III

Mr. Baker is a former Maryland State Delegate and a former County Executive in Prince George’s County. Focused mostly on crime reduction and economic development. Does include “climate change” as a paragraph heading in his list of issues and calls for speeding up the shift to all-sustainable energy in the state (which may or may not also mean net neutrality) and for the passage of the Environmental Human Rights Amendment. His website does not discuss climate change as a factor in other issues, however, except for brief mention of “sustainability” under “transportation.”

Running with: Nancy Navarro (who has spoken up for climate action as a county council member).

Jon Baron

Mr. Baron is a former Congressional staffer and the founder of a non-profit dedicated to advancing evidence-based policy-making. The emphasis of his campaign appears to be poverty-reduction and a general commitment to evidence-based policy. His website is detail oriented (and somewhat verbose), so accordingly the section on climate change is very long. It lists a number of detailed steps and policy changes he intends to make based on the success of earlier work, including an intention to take a leadership role on climate change among the states. He does not discuss climate change as an aspect of other issues (such as public safety, public health, or racial justice), however.

Running with: Natalie Williams.

Peter Franchot

Mr. Franchot has worked as a Congressional staffer and for the Union of Concerned Scientists. He is a former Maryland State Delegate, and the current state Comptroller. He is proud of his record of environmental protection, among other achievements, but the emphasis of his campaign is on the COVID crisis and on economic reform. Oddly, his website does not mention climate change as such, although he pledges to pursue net neutrality (something the state is already doing) and to make Maryland a net source of sustainable energy. Separately, hos pledge to restore the Chesapeake Bay includes some steps that are protective of the climate, notably protections for mature forests. Some of his other pledges also mention renewable energy.

Running with: Monique Anderson-Walker (who does talk about climate change).

Douglas F. Gansler

Mr. Gansler is a former State Attorney and a former State Attorney General. He is proud of his record of environmental protection, among other achievements. His website emphasizes the exhortation to “keep Maryland safe,” though it’s not clear what that means or what the priority of his campaign are. He is advocating a Green Maryland Plan that addresses the shift to renewable energy, among other environmental issues, and states the importance of climate action. It’s unclear whether he is proposing any kind of climate action not already being done. He does not mention climate change in conjunction with other issues.

Running with: Candace Hollingsworth.

John B. King Jr.

Mr. King is a former US Secretary of Education and is proud of his triumph over serious childhood adversity. While his website’s discussion of climate change is a bit vague, it is comprehensive, including discussing climate in terms of jobs, economic development, and racial justice.

Running with: Michelle Siri.

Wes Moore

Mr. Moore’s website does not make clear his prior relevant experience. It focuses on economic issues and equality of opportunity. He does have a climate plan; it does not sound very different from the current plan, but does include a focus on mitigation and racial justice.

Running with: Aruna Miller.

Tom Perez

Mr. Perez says he is fighting for “jobs, justice, and opportunity.” He has served on the Montgomery County Council and as the State Labor Secretary, and as US Labor Secretary. His stance on climate-related issues is comprehensive, including climate justice, public health, and transportation, and he calls for accelerating the decarbonization of the state’s economy and increasing the state’s network of bike paths, among other measures.

Running with: Shannon Sneed.

Others

Three other candidates for the Democratic nomination for governor are listed on the Balletopedia website, but Ralph Jaffe has no campaign website (a bad sign, in this day and age), and neither Ashwani Jain nor Jerome Segal mention climate change or environmental issues on their websites–and both appear to be fringe candidates at this point.

Letrece Hawkins-Lytes is the running-mate of Mr. Jain. Justin Dipenza is the running mate of Mr. Segal. And Mark Greben is listed as a candidate for Lieutenant-Governor, but it’s difficult to find out who he’s even running with–Mr. Jaffe, perhaps?