The Climate in Emergency

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


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Too Much

Too much rain, to much drought, too much fire, too much waste, too much news. The problem is that I went hiking yesterday and, though I had a good time, got behind on some of my projects. Normally, that wouldn’t be a problem–there are certainly things I can say about climate change that don’t take very long to write–but this week doing less than a fully-researched piece seems wrong.

I have seen a photograph of a street in Europe piled with flood debris almost up to the second windows. I have seen a photograph of a pasture in Montana where the grass has died from drought, grass that was meant to be the winter forage of a herd of cattle–a family’s livelihood, gone. It seems important to weave all this together, to understand how it fits, and I am discombobulated by busyness, by mild but real sleep deprivation, by the fact that we’re migrating across country next week, and such disruptions always leave me out of sorts.

Something I noticed that I want to share–today, an unusually large number of people all viewed The Carbon Footprint of Spaceflight. Is it a coincidence that today also a billionaire, an elderly woman, and a very young man all spent a highly questionable amount of resources to spend a few months on the edge of space together? Or did multiple people out there all wonder what impact the beginning of space tourism might have on the climate–and their curiosity brought them to me? If so, I’m tickled. I hope what I wrote helped.

So this is a short post about why I’m writing a short post. Next week will probably be brief, too, but then I’ll be able to do a long, involved one.

Before I sign off, though, does anybody really think that Wally Funk’s few minutes as a tourist today does anything to mitigate the injustice done her by NASA?


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On a Lighter Note

Today I happened to see a garbage truck turning into a campground. I won’t say which campground, as this next bit could be taken as critical of said campground, and that’s really not my point at all.

The thing is, this garbage truck comes every day. There are multiple Dumpsters in the campground, perhaps half a dozen, and while they don’t all fill up every day, they do get enough use to justify daily visits of the truck. Clearly, campers throw out a lot of stuff. Sort of odd, considering they came here to commune with nature.

To be clear, this area has single-stream recycling, meaning that the truck is picking up the recycling also. It’s not all “trash.” Also, it’s a big campground, so the per-person trash production figure may well be significantly below average–I’m not saying the campers are unusually anti-green. I’m just saying that they’re not, as a group, the sort of radicals who avoid producing any waste. They seem to drive a lot, too–the parking lots empty out during the day as campers use their cars to get to trail heads and restaurants and so forth.

“Communing with nature” means enjoying being in the woods, not being unusually environmentally aware.

So, I got to thinking, what would a campground be like that was designed for radically pro-environmental behavior? You could go for a week and experience an ideal “green” lifestyle, for better or worse, plus get the normal amenities of a camping vacation. You’d get to literally live in the solution for a while, meet people on the same page as yourself, then go home reinvigorated and ready to fight the good fight again.

Camp Inspiration

So, my imaginary campground, Camp Inspiration, has a dual mission: provide opportunities for a wonderful vacation; and normalize pro-environmental behavior by showcasing sustainable living options. The two missions are equally important, so the fact that this is mostly tent-camping should not be taken to imply that sustainability means not having a house. The objective here is a vacation spot that is fully carbon neutral and as sustainable as possible in other respects, at leas within stated parameters. Let’s take a look at the major systems of the facility and see how they work.

Transportation

How visitors get to Camp Inspiration is not counted in the campground’s carbon footprint. How goods and supplies get there is. How visitors move around while they stay at the camp is also included.

To minimize the transportation footprint, the campground is designed to make using a car during your stay unnecessary. Necessary goods and services are available on site (see below), and the campground includes trail heads for several hiking trails and bike trails, as well as water access for swimming and paddling. There are bicycles to borrow. A veggie-Diesel bus is available for excursions to a nearby town and other places.

Housing

The facility offers three types of lodging: tent camping with the option to park a vehicle at your site; dispersed hike-in sites, where you park and then walk (or in some cases, roll, as there are wheel-chair accessible sites) for up to half a mile to get to your site, for those who want more privacy and seclusion; and tiny dwellings–these are small buildings divided into multiple primitive cabins “cabins.” All options have toilet facilities and so forth nearby, but none have running water. This is camping.

Water and Sewage

Fresh water is available by spigot only, an inconvenience designed to discourage excessive use (plus, this is camping). Grey water can be disposed of at designated drains where the water is filtered through rock and soil. There are minimalist showers–outdoor privacy booths where campers may hang and use shower bags (whether they heat the water is up to them) with filtered drains. There is no black water as such because all privies are waterless composting units.

Waste Disposal

There ARE trash and recycling facilities–collected waste is recycled so far as local infrastructure makes possible. Food waste and equivalent items are composted on-site. Basic necessities are for sale at the camp store with little to no packaging, and there is a reuse center where unwanted or slightly damaged items can be offered to whoever wants them–thus, garbage production is minimized.

Food, Drink, and Other Supplies

The campground has its own restaurant, plus a coffee shop with an indoor children’s play area so people can hang out together on rainy days. The food and drink is locally sourced and plant-based (animal products are used in some dishes, but are carefully sourced and not dominant). There is also a store that sells food for campers to prepare themselves, as well as other basic supplies so they won’t have to leave to shop during their stay. The items sold are as sustainably-sourced and made as possible.

Electricity is another supply. The campground has renewably-sourced electricity for charging devices and so forth. Depending on what the local grid is like, the campground might have to generate its own.

Entertainment

In addition to social opportunities (the coffee shop) and outdoor recreation, there are semi-regular events, from interpretive talks to author visits to dances and pot-lucks, all that sort of thing. Again, the idea is that you don’t have to drive somewhere else, nor do you need to rely on electronic devices.

Back in the Real World

This has been a mental exercise–mostly just for fun. I don’t know whether such a thing exists. It might.

Maybe it should.


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Let’s Talk About the Weather (Follow-Up)

Two weeks ago, I pointed out that we were in the middle of multiple interrelated severe weather events, all more or less attributable to climate change. Now I feel obligated to follow up on that post by acknowledging that the heat wave I discussed then has killed hundreds of people in the US and Canada. The dying is not yet over, either.

Saying exactly how many died of the heat is difficult, in part because it takes time to investigate cause of death–if enough information is available, which it isn’t always. Then, too, it can be difficult to say exactly what “dying of heat” means because there are multiple ways heat can play a role, large or small, in a person’s death. What we know is that during the five days of the heat wave, a lot more people died suddenly than normally do in that region in a five-day period–while slight variation can be expected and requires no explanation, a big jump is highly suspicious. Even if we never find out exactly who died of heat last week, it is virtually certain roughly 237 people in Canada did, plus more in the United States.

Important Tangent: How Heat Kills

It’s possible for a person to literally cook to death. It happens in fires and so forth. It’s horrible. But that’s not what happens to most people who die of hot weather. The most obvious way hot weather can kill someone involves heat stroke or hyperthermia (not to be confused with hypothermia, which means being too cold), a potentially deadly condition often described simply as just getting too hot. But as I described in an earlier post, it’s not like boiling an egg, where a certain temperature causes a predictable physical reaction. Instead, heat stroke is a cascade of interrelated problems that is triggered by heat but includes inflammation–including fever. It’s important to know that the body temperature that triggers heat stroke varies depending on a person’s current medical status.

Some people are a lot more vulnerable than others.

Heat can also exacerbate a number of other medical problems, so that a person’s death certificate might not read “hyperthermia,” but hot weather hurried their death up anyway.

It’s also possible for high heat to contribute to deaths indirectly–any natural disaster that can disrupt transportation, the electrical grid, or sleep (and excessive heat can do all three) means extra people dying somewhere. Heat has also been implicated in increased rates of violent crime.

Perhaps most frighteningly, people who survive heat stroke remain at an elevated risk of death for decades–in other words, heat stroke survivors tend not to live as long as other people, everything else being equal. The body sustains damage that never entirely heals.

So how many people died as a result of last week’s heat wave? It’s hard to say. There are the people who died of heat stroke, but then there are others who died of other things made worse by the heat–and almost certainly more will have their lives cut short by the after-effects of this event.

It’s not over.

Important Tangent: Heat Is Not an Equal-Opportunity Killer

Please remember that heat waves, like other natural disasters, don’t hurt all people equally. People with less money are less able to afford air-conditioners or to be able to get to cooling centers, more likely to have underlying health problems (because they don’t have reliable access to medical care), and more likely to live in urban “heat islands.” And poverty, we know, is not random; anything that disproportionately impacts poor people also disproportionately impacts the disenfranchised. In the United States and Canada, heat is very much a racial justice issue.

The ill, aged, or disabled are also at greater risk, not only because underlying medical issues exacerbate the risk of heat-related illness, but also because they are less able to get to safety (a friend of mine ran into this recently, forced to stay in an un-air-conditioned apartment by medical problems that precluded going to a crowded cooling center). Elderly and disabled people are also more likely to be poor (see above).

And people with less power generally (including people of color, LGBT people, women–or all of the above), are more likely to be victims of violence, which also increases with heat.

Natural disasters are justice issues.

The Numbers

In case you’re curious:

The Temperatures

Seattle, Washington hit 107 degrees, Fahrenheit

Portland, Oregon hit 112 degrees, Fahrenheit (other parts of Oregon hit 117)

Lytton, Brittish Collumbia, hit 121 degrees, Fahrenheit, a Canadian record (the town then burned to the ground. I am not exaggerating)

These are places not used to high temperatures. People, by and large, do not own air conditioners. The electrical grid is not built for these conditions, either. In Seattle, the Harborview Medical Hospital was literally overwhelmed by the influx of patients, just as it was at the peak of the pandemic.

I found these figures in this article, if you want to read it.

Canadian Death Toll

Canadian sudden deaths in an average five-day period: 250

Canadian sudden deaths during the heat wave: 486

Difference: plus 195%

American Death Toll

Deaths attributed to the heat wave in Oregon: 107

Deaths attributed to the heat wave in Washington State: at least 20

Other states were also impacted, but less dramatically.

When I Tell You to Insist on Climate Action, to Vote for Climate Hawks, to Demonstrate in the Streets This Is Why


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We’re Living in the Future

This week has gotten very busy (though not unpleasantly so), so I’m not going to do an in-depth article. Instead I’m just going to acknowledge that we’re living in the future–things are happening that were pure speculation not that long ago.

I was reminded of our futuristic status recently by an XKCD in which a time- traveler visited 1991 (the year I started high school and wrote a term paper on climate change) to tell them about our world, including the fact that “computers have cameras in them now, which is nice during pandemic lockdowns.”

What?

We have pandemic lockdowns, now. We also have heatwaves and droughts causing serious crop failures, among other scary consequences. We’ve had several long, intense fire seasons of late, and this year will likely be another one. We had last year’s hurricane season, remember that one?

Imagine explaining any of this, let alone all of it, to a person living in 1991.

My point is that the future eventually arrives. Some of our guesses are borne out, others are not, but either way the future, in all its strange and far-out glory, becomes the present.

So, what kind of present do you want for 30 years hence?


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Let’s Talk About the Weather

I’m sitting in the middle of some lovely weather right now. I hope you are, too. But some folks definitely are not.

Much of the western United States is way too hot and way too dry. About two weeks ago there was some serious flooding in parts of Maine (though other parts are still in drought!). And tornadoes keep dropping down, or threatening to drop down, in odd places. Extreme weather always makes me think of climate change, for good reason.

Floods

Early on Wednesday morning, June 9, cloudbursts dropped as much as five inches of rain on parts of coastal Maine over just a few hours. Other areas got less, but still got a lot of rain. And this was only the most-intense period of a multi-day rainstorm. We were a few miles away from Bar Harbor, one of the towns that got the five inches, and while I don’t think we got anywhere near that much (weather around here can be weirdly localized, and this storm was no exception), I remember that cloudburst. Its sound alone woke us up.

Just to put that in perspective, on average, Bar Harbor gets just over four inches of rain for the entire month of June.

All that water had to go somewhere and do something, and it washed out some roads in a few towns, damaged or temporarily flooded others, and washed out parts of the carriage road system on Mount Desert Island (where Bar Harbor is) and parts of the bike trail system on the nearby Schoodic Peninsula. Some of those closures remain in effect.

Heavy rains here are not unprecedented; two years ago, the shoulder of the road that serves our campground washed out in places, leaving big pits, and parts of the campground flooded. But a road wash-out is serious, indicating rain the builders of the road did not anticipate.

It’s not that no road could have withstood the June 9th floods, it’s just that the climate has changed so the designs that used to be good enough aren’t anymore.

The weird thing is that as of June 15th (so, several days after the flood) the area was still listed as “Abnormally Dry.” Parts of the state are officially in drought, according to the US Drought Monitor.

Fire?

Well, not fire so much yet, but conditions out west are headed that way, and having started with flooding I wanted to stay with the Apocalyptic theme.

It’s not that there’s a heat-wave out there. Heat-waves are not unusual. But this heat-wave is huge, stretching from the Great Plains all the way west, and it is intense, setting multiple-all-time heat records. And it belongs to a type of weather pattern that is simply not seen in June–they are more typical of August. In other words, it’s weird.

And it’s dangerous. I’ve written before about what a serious health problem high temperature is, causing more human deaths than all other natural disasters combined, and even continuing to kill long after the temperatures fall (surviving a bout of heat stroke confers an elevated risk of dying for the next twenty years). I have not heard yet whether the current heat wave has killed any humans, but birds are falling from the sky. In general, birds are pretty heat-tolerant, too.

Much of the same region is in a very serious drought ( US Drought Monitor again), and drought and heat exacerbate each other–higher temperatures increase both evaporation and transpiration, drying the land faster, and without water in the soil, the land can’t absorb as much heat from the air, which then gets even hotter. Already, some National Forests in Arizona have initiated a complete closure–even most employees and contractors need to stop work. Other natural areas will follow suit.

Violators face heavy fines and up to six months in prison.

F3 Tornado

Well, not specifically F3, and it would be “EF3” now, anyway, since they’ve switched to the Enhanced Fujita Scale. But as I’m not covering famines in this post, I needed something beginning with an F.

Something I feel comfortable printing, anyway.

So, yesterday, June 21, several tornado warnings were issued for various parts of Maine on the basis of rotation seen on radar within supercell storms. No tornadoes were spotted, but sometimes they can be hard to see through rain and so forth. In at least one area storm damage was severe enough that there may have been a tornado. The matter is still under investigation.

A few days earlier, on June 19th, a different line of severe storms moved through parts of the state, producing lightning, hail, and at least one funnel cloud. A tornado warning was issued then, too.

The night of June 20/21 also saw a tornado outbreak in the upper Midwest, with tornadoes and suspected tornadoes in parts of Illinois, Indiana, and Iowa.

Tornadoes in the Midwest does not sound that unusual, but Maine?

Climate Connection?

The stories of drought and heat and flooding are all entirely consistent with known permutations of climate change in the relevant areas. We’re used to hearing how you can’t ascribe individual weather events to climate change, but that’s not exactly true; researchers can calculate the likelihood of a certain event under pre-climate-change, and if it was very unlikely, that’s evidence that the event belongs to the new normal, not the old one. I don’t know that anyone has done the calculations for these recent events, but it seems a fair bet what such calculations would show.

But the tornadoes?

It’s possible to look up the number of tornadoes per year in Maine on average (the number is just under two, by the way), but I haven’t found any figures on the typical number of warnings, so I have no idea whether the recent group of warnings is unusual. There is probably good reason why such information isn’t available; as technology and the relevant science improve, the conditions under which warnings are issued changes, meaning the number of warnings per year might well change even if the climate didn’t.

I haven’t found any discussions of these storms in Maine and climate change, and there’s probably good reason for that, too; studying climate change and tornadoes is notoriously difficult because tornadic storms are both too small and too brief for climate simulators to handle. It’s also still unclear how many tornadoes there actually are, let alone how many there used to be before the invention of weather radar and so forth.

So climate change could be making tornadoes worse, but we really don’t know, yet.


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The Price of Lobster

I’m in Maine for the summer, so I can’t help noticing that the price of lobster has jumped. Two years ago, a lobster roll (basically lobster salad on a hot-dog bun, for those unfamiliar. There is often a lettuce leaf, and almost always a side of potato chips) was usually $17 dollars, and even that was a slight increase over previous years. This year they’re $25, or even more.

Why?

We know lobsters like cold water. We know the Gulf of Maine is warming faster than almost any other body of water in the world. We know that the lobster fishery of Southern New England has already all but collapsed, and Maine will be next if things continue the way they are going. So has climate change come for Maine’s lobsters at last?

Maybe not. It’s a little more involved than that.

Climate Change and Lobsters

It’s easy to fall into thinking of climate change as something that simply arrives one day–as if,for example,Maine’s lobster industry will be fine until one day all the lobsters get up and walk across the sea bed to Canada. There are indeed climate change impacts that can be sudden and unambiguous, and anthropogenic climate change is happening very, very fast, as climatological shifts go. But on the scale of human experience, most changes still take time, happen in fits and starts, and have multiple interacting causes.

Lobsters do seek out cooler waters. To some extent, that’s already happening, as some Maine lobstermen and -women feel the need to shift to deeper, colder waters farther offshore–a shift that requires a different license and different equipment. Some still fish inshore waters (I see buoys literally only a few dozen feet from the edge), but the population is moving.

But the Southern New England lobster fishery didn’t collapse because the lobsters all walked north or out to sea (though some probably did). Instead, the population there dropped by a startling 70% because of a combination of disease and the stress of living in warm waters. Maine’s most recent heat-related scare happened by yet another mechanism, when unusually warm waters in 2012 triggered the lobsters to shed earlier and more often. The catch that year was therefore mostly softshells (recently-molted lobsters) which don’t sell as well as hardshells, since they are less meaty and more likely to be damaged during shipping. This year, the catch has been relatively small so far, but nobody seems to know why, yet. It could be yet another mechanism whereby warm water causes problems. It could be unrelated.

So the answer to my question, is climate change impacting Maine’s lobsters yet, is clearly yes. Climate is a big issue for Maine’s economy, in large part because of the importance of the lobster industry, and Mainers are aware of it. But that doesn’t mean the $25 lobster is primarily a climate story. In fact, it’s not clear to me whether anyone knows exactly what’s happening.

What’s That Got to Do With the Price of Tea in China?

No, I’ve never understood that saying about the price of Chinese tea, but it’s a handy phrase to use to introduce a section on economics.

A couple of us were talking about lobster prices the other day, you know, the way you do, and the others were pretty sure they had an explanation; restaurants are charging $25 and up for a lobster roll because they’ve suddenly realized they can. There are enough out-of-state visitors with money that the product will still move just fine. The product will move, that part’s true enough, but that’s not the whole story.

Apparently the current high prices are the result of high demand and low supply combined. Demand is high because of multiple factors: more people are buying lobster to eat at home now, since they learned how to cook during the pandemic; a lot of people want to go out to eat in restaurants, now that pandemic restrictions have eased; and China is buying up lots of lobster because Chinese people like lobster and are developing the economic infrastructure to get more and more of it. I don’t know how much of that is speculation–I imagine the figures on how much lobster is going to China are pretty solid, though. Supply is low because…well, nobody’s sure why, but there aren’t a lot of lobsters around at the moment. Or, there weren’t the other week, anyway. Things could be picking up, now. They’ve been saying things probably will. The beginning of the season is sometimes slow.

Hmmm.


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How We Get There

This is another quick post, and it’s a repeat of something I’ve said before, but not a re-post. It’s a re-statement. Maybe the new way of putting it will catch somebody’s ear. Sometimes I say something to my husband and he points out that I’ve said the same thing before. I reply “well, it’s still true!”

So, we’re in Maine, on the coast, at the moment (our house in Maryland is being carefully looked-after, don’t worry). That means Maine plants, Maine animals, Maine rocks, and Maine political issues on TV. There is ongoing controversy here over whether to build a power-line corridor to carry in Canadian hydropower—the concern is that construction will require cutting a swath of forests in Western Maine, a fact nobody denies, but the counter-argument is that the relevant forest is already being logged periodically, so this is nothing new, and getting more renewable electricity will be worth it. I have no comment on the controversy at this time.

But the other day, I saw a pro-corridor spot on TV in which a noted environmentalist said the hydropower would reduce our reliance on fossil fuels.

No, it won’t.

The implication is that we need a certain amount of electricity, so if we get more from hydropower we’ll automatically use less fossil-fuel-generated power. That would be true if our total electricity use were capped, either by law or by some kind of market force. That is, if nobody could want any more electricity than they currently use, then if that need were met by renewables there would be no demand for anything else.

But there is no cap. There is no legal cap, and there is no market cap. There is nothing to stop Mainers from finding some use for all the Canadian hydropower they can get and all the other electricity, including that generated by fossil fuels, also. Consider that when electricity was first harnessed, there wasn’t much to do with it besides powering light bulbs. We’ve found lots to do with electricity since then.

You can’t reduce fossil fuel use by adding renewables. You just get more total electricity that way.

Ultimately, the only way to reduce fossil fuel use is to reduce fossil fuel use. We can do that through culturally-driven market changes or through legally-enforced policy. Most likely, we’ll need both. The availability of cheap renewable energy (whether that includes Canadian hydropower in Maine or not) will make that transition smoother and easier to swallow politically. It’s not like increasing renewable capacity isn’t relevant.

It’s just that increasing renewables and improving efficiency must be paired with either a cap on total electricity use or a progressive, enforced reduction of fossil fuel use. That’s how we get there.


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Rebellions of One

Quick post today, which would have been a quick post last week except this, that, and the other interfered. Anyway, a few weeks ago, around May 1st, there was a wave of protests across Europe and the UK organized by Extinction Rebellion, a group I’ve written about before.

The coordinated protests were called the Rebellion of One because each one involved a single protester, alone, stopping traffic by sitting in a road wearing a sign explaining why climate change frightens them personally. For example, “I am afraid because my daughter is going to have to live with extreme and violent weather.” That sort of thing.

Each solo protester had an incognito support team nearby able to jump in if there was an emergency (such as attack by hostile observers), but sitting in a busy street by yourself wearing a sign still requires a lot of courage. I don’t know whether any of the support teams had to jump in. Some of the street-sitters were heckled by passersby and angry motorists. Others received gestures of support—friendly greetings, gifts of water, even passersby who spontaneously sat down and joined the protest in a few cases. It was up to individual protesters to decide whether to leave the road when ordered to do so by police—some did, some did not and were arrested.

The reason I bring all this up is that I didn’t see anything about it on the news. There are more people who take climate change seriously—serious enough to sit in front of traffic—than you might know, because there are massive, coordinated, multi-country protests that don’t make the news.


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Note

Everything’s fine: I’ll post tomorrow, weather permitting (at the moment I need to go to the library to get online, and the library has no indoor public space because COVID. Right now it is raining, so I’m typing this from under a picnic table, where I obviously can’t stay long).