The Climate in Emergency

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


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Global Warming and Extinction

This is the first in a four-part series on the relationship between global climate change and mass extinction. I wrote it for the old iteration of this blog, on the Climate Emergency Institute’s website, and I’m re-posting it here. Stay turned for the other three parts of the series, though be aware I probably won’t post them all back to back, as current events may require our attention, too.

According to one groundbreaking study published in 2004, in the next forty years climate change could commit over a third of all species to extinction.

It is important to understand what this means—and what it doesn’t mean. Future articles in this series will explore in more detail how predictions of this type are made, how climate change causes extinction, and how climate change interacts with other environmental problems to put stress on vulnerable species. For now, we will focus on a couple of take-home messages from the current research.

First, the numbers themselves are approximations because scientific knowledge is limited, yet this limitation of knowledge does not constitute a sort of generalized fuzziness. A good analogy might be short-term weather prediction. Weather predictions are sometimes wrong, but they are not randomly wrong. Instead, the factors which meteorologists are sure about form a kind of frame of certainly within which some details can shift across a known and limited range, like a door swinging inside its frame.

Even if the door swings open unexpectedly, it isn’t going to get up and walk off down the hall.

By the same token, when an ecologist says that anywhere from fifteen to thirty-seven percent of species are likely to go extinct, and then other ecologists come up with different predictions by using different models, that does not mean their warnings shouldn’t be taken seriously. The solid frame of their certainty is that we are in trouble.

And it’s worth noting that so far, when climatologists and ecologists studying the effects of climate change have been wrong, it’s because they have underestimated the speed and severity of change.

Second, the paper uses the phrase “committed to extinction,” which sounds scary but vague to a non-specialist’s ear. What this phrase means is that extinction is a process, not an event, and a species can sometimes go on existing for decades while this process plays out. In the same way, we might say that someone falling from a great height is committed to death. Yes, it is sometimes possible to save a falling person (we can suppose a lucky interception by a skilled sky-diver with a spare parachute), but barring intervention, the person will die. The falling person is still alive, but there is no sitting back and hoping for the best on the way down.

The authors of the study did not mean that a third of all species could be extinct in forty years; they meant that if we keep causing more climate change, then in forty years the conditions that these species need to maintain themselves will no longer exist. They will be in ecological free-fall. How long it will take after that for the last individuals of these species to actually die is hard to say, and until that final thud intervention may still be possible. However, we are currently engaged in a process that, if we don’t stop, will soon render a mass extinction as certain as gravity.

Third, this study makes clear that global warming is not a simple, on-or-off event, like someone flipping a switch. We have already warmed the planet considerably, and some further warming is already certain because of the greenhouse gasses we have already put into the sky. However, how much further warming there will be depends on how humanity behaves going forward. The 37% extinction prediction is based on a worst-case scenario of uninhibited greenhouse gas emissions (though the history of climate modeling suggests that if this scenario plays out reality will be far worse than the prediction). Reducing emissions to the point where the extinction risk is much smaller, around 15% of species lost, is not only still possible, it might be politically in reach. That is, we are already committed to disaster—we are falling. Yet the scope of the disaster is still under our control; the degree of our losses will be proportionate to our apathy now, and any improvement on our part will yield a corresponding cushion, small or large, to our fall.

To recap, global warming stands to disrupt the conditions that allow today’s animals and plants to survive. Therefore, some number of species alive today will likely be lost. At least a few species have been lost to global warming already. This is in addition to the wave of extinctions being caused by other factors, which has already reached geologically significant proportions; only five other times in the four billion year history of the earth has an extinction event occurred on this scale. The most famous of the previous extinctions caught the dinosaurs. Scientists can predict the extent of global warming-related extinctions for different climate scenarios by using a variety of means. Although there are still too many unknowns to be able to say exactly what is going to happen, scientists are sure of two things: human behavior is causing a major extinction event and the severity of this extinction, how many species die, can be directly affected, for better or worse, by the choices we make now.

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Having Enough

In calling for an immediate end to fossil fuel use, I have risked overlooking a serious problem; a planet without fossil fuel can’t support as many people as currently live here. A third of greenhouse gas emissions are related to agriculture, through agricultural machinery, food processing, petroleum-derived fertilizers, irrigation pumping, food transportation, and the clearing of land. Without fossil fuel, we couldn’t produce as much food as we do. In plain terms, if the oil tap turned off tomorrow, some number of people would starve to death.

Of course, the situation is complicated by so many other factors that we don’t really need to worry about this.

Most obviously, the real threat is not that we’ll quit using oil too abruptly but that we won’t voluntarily quit at all, in which case huge numbers of people will die anyway, from food and water shortages and extreme weather. Even the most rapid plausible shift away from fossil fuel will likely be gradual enough that we could reduce our population through simple attrition. Ultimately, getting off fossil fuel as quickly as possible is probably the safer course for humans individually as well as for our species and our planet as a whole.

Besides that, the absolute amount of food on the planet is only very loosely related to how many people get to eat. People starve to death today, not because the Earth doesn’t produce enough food, but because financial, geographic, and political problems keep food from getting to a lot of people. More people are obese today than starving. How many people can eat for how long under various carbon scenarios of the future will probably also have more to do with politics and money than global carrying capacity.

Finally, even in a fantasy where all petroleum use somehow does abruptly stop tomorrow, reduced global carrying capacity isn’t what kills people. What kills people in this scenario is not a reduction in food production but the failure of food transportation. About half the human population, maybe three and a half billion people, live in cities, according to a U.N. estimate. Some additional multitude live in rural areas but are likewise dependent on store-bought food. Without fossil fuel, most of those people would die, probably in panicked riots, long before global food reserves actually started to run low. Associated social instability would kill millions more. By the time the dust settled and the survivors started to pick up the pieces, overpopulation probably wouldn’t be a problem.

But I digress.

The point is that although some Hollywood-ready apocalypse is extremely unlikely (and would be only indirectly related to the end of oil if it did occur), the post-fossil-fuel world will not be a world of unlimited resources. We can live well without fossil fuels, and it is entirely possible that, due to further advances in technology, we will still be able to do and have most of the things fossil fuel gives us. Nevertheless, we will have less energy available to us than we have now.

Energy is not some vague thing that can be created or increased by wishing or by the right technology. In fact, energy cannot be created at all, nor can it be destroyed, although it does dissipate. These are the First and Second Laws of Thermodynamics. What they mean in practical terms is that if you have energy, whether that’s food in your belly or gas in your car, you must have got it from somewhere. And you’ll need to get more of it because as you use your energy you will lose some of it. Energy cannot be recycled. When it’s gone, it’s gone for good.

Because energy can be measured and because it follows predictable laws, scientists can follow it as it moves through systems. For example, if you know how much solar energy falls on a certain area of land and you know how efficient the grass there is at harvesting solar energy (it might get 10%), and you know how efficient a cow is at harvesting the energy in grass) then you can calculate how many pounds of cow you can get out of so many acres of grass. If you cut your pasture in half, you must cut your herd in half, too. Likewise, if you grow trees on your land instead of grass, you can calculate how many acres of sunlight you need to keep your house warm.

Of course, there are a lot of other factors involved with grasslands and forests, because ecology is fiendishly complex, but the amount of energy available provides an absolute limit on how much can grow where.

Prior to the Industrial Revolution, human activities were also limited by the amount of energy that falls on Earth from the sun. Food production, fuel to warm houses and make tools, feed for draft animals, wind to push sails, all were driven by the sun. Over time, we got better at harvesting this available energy and so the global population grew, but it grew slowly. The Industrial Revolution changed all that, triggering a dramatic increase in population; from the 1200’s through 1850, the world’s human population doubled perhaps every hundred and fifty to hundred years, but by 1950 global population had doubled again, this time in only a hundred years. Since 1950, as industrialization spreads over the world, humanity has almost tripled. In just sixty-four years.

While changes in economic structure, culture, and medicine have played a role in these increases, the most dramatic difference is that we have been using fossil fuel–harvesting the sunlight that fell on forests of fern and giant club-moss trees ages ago. It’s as though we made our pasture bigger than the planet actually is by grazing our cows on the fields of the past. So our herds got a lot bigger.

It can’t last. It won’t last. Climate change, environmental degradation, mass extinction of species, all of these are consequences of burning up the past, and though it may be possible to use fossil fuel less destructively than we have done, destruction is an inevitable consequence of altering the energy flow of an entire planet, as we have done. Our choice now is simply whether we will stop using fossil fuel voluntarily while we can still put some planning into the transition, or if we will instead wait until we are stopped by our planet’s response.

Without fossil fuel, our pastures will again shrink to the size of our present. Our herds and ourselves will have to shrink accordingly.

For a long time, now, we have lived with more. Various empires have expanded their influence, creating the illusion of ever more land for their own subjects. New technologies have allowed more extensive harvest of Earth’s resources, creating the illusion of more fish, more metal, more wood, etc. And fossil fuel use has created the illusion of more and more energy. Our culture, our public policy, even our economic theory is based on the principle that we are not limited by resource availability, only by our ingenuity at using and distributing those resources. And none of that is really true.

In one way or another, we’re going to have to wrap our minds around the concept of there is no more, and we’re going to have to do it soon. That means learning how to make touch choices fairly. It means redefining freedom and empowerment to mean not unfettered opportunity to grab as much as possible, but unfettered participation in the conversation about who gets what.

The world of the future will be different than the world of today. It won’t be as populous. It won’t be as rich in a material sense. Goods and people will, once again, move slowly. That doesn’t mean we’ll be transported back to the 1600’s; I expect we’ll have a solar-powered Internet, a small number of cars and trucks burning vegetable Diesel for use in emergencies, advanced medicine, and so forth. Our human ingenuity will ensure that we have enough.

The only thing we really have to give up–and this is not negotiable–is the belief that we can and should have more than enough.


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Evitable Disasters

Earlier this week, in honor of St. Patrick’s Day, Time used the Irish Potato Famine as a segue to talk about the impact of climate change on world food prices. The connection may be more apropos than Time intended, since, like the climate-related famines of the future, The Great Potato Famine wasn’t a natural disaster. It was a genocide.

Climate change is a scientific and environmental issue, but it is also a moral and political issue. Overlooking those dimensions, and treating global warming as something that’s just sort of happening, hides the dynamics that help create the problem and further disenfranchises those who bear its burdens. At best, not calling a spade a spade makes it harder for everyone to stop digging themselves into a hole. At worst, it protects the people who actively create problems for others, as happened in An Górta Mór, the Great Hunger of Ireland.

An Górta Mór did not just happen. As Time pointed out,

The Great Famine was triggered by the potato blight, but it was intensified by cruel policy on the part of Ireland’s British masters, who ensured that rich stores of grain and livestock were exported out of the country even as Irish citizens starved to death in the streets.

More accurately, British policy caused the famine. To blame mass starvation in a country that is exporting food on the failure of just one crop is disingenuous at best. At the time of An Górta Mór, in the 1840’s, Irish Catholics were effectively barred from eating much of anything besides potatoes (in the Irish context, religious identity is a shorthand for ethnic identity; Protestants are descendents of English colonists while Catholics are native Irish). Not only did they not own their own land, they were also legally barred from both hunting and fishing.

Now, all this doesn’t mean there were any cartoon villains twirling their mustaches as the Irish starved. Probably, the absentee landowners thought of themselves as simply protecting their own economic rights and they thought of the Famine as not their problem. The Irish were widely blamed for their own deaths for reasons that sometimes sound blatantly racist (one stereotype was that the Irish were lazy and backward) but would have been taken for granted at the time. But the fact of the matter remains that a million people died because their landlords chose receiving rent over their tenants’ lives.

What does all this have to do with climate change?

Like the potato blight, unchecked climate change would likely cause widespread starvation, social upheaval, and the mass displacement of refugees due to a combination of extreme weather and rising sea levels over the next century. And, as in An Górta Mór, these burdens will fall disproportionately on the poor. While monster storms can, of course, fall on rich and poor alike, wealthy people–or middle class people in wealthy countries–are better able to escape large storms and better able to either rebuild or move away afterwards. And the global economy ensures that major crop failures anywhere in the world raise food prices everywhere in the world, effectively directing want to the poor wherever they happen to be.

Countries that have potential resource shortages within their boarders have some options, of course. Various countries around the Gulf of Arabia have spent the past decade buying well-watered land elsewhere in order to grow food, for example. This sort of thing almost never works out for the country doing the selling, as countries that have resources but little money or influence abroad end up losing their resources and still remaining poor. While some transnational trade is mutually beneficial, it’s hard to imagine that a severe climate-related resource-crunch won’t result in a lot of desperate land-grabbing.

At best, the uneven distribution of climate consequences makes it harder for people who could do something about global warming to really see that anything needs to be done. For example, the Arab Spring of 2011 and 2012, was, in part, triggered by spikes in the price of wheat caused by a severe drought in China. The drought was consistent with the more severe weather patterns of a warming climate. While the United States had its own economic and political troubles during the same period, including our own drought-related crop failures in 2012, but I was in the United States the whole time and I noticed no particular change in food prices. Global disaster could be ignored here, and mostly was.

At worst, our society, like the British Isles of the 1840’s and ’50’s, is ignoring the extent to which disaster is actually being caused by the wealthy in order to further their personal ends.

Most readers, at least, probably recognize that global warming is not a natural disaster but a problem made by humans. However, we usually talk about it as if it were a natural disaster, for all the responsibility we assign for it. We talk about “fighting climate change” without irony, as though the problem were something external to ourselves and not a thing we are actually causing (and could stop causing). Talking this way obscures the fact that climate change is a moral issue.

In the 1840’s and ’50’s, the Potato Famine didn’t look like a moral issue to a lot of people because of the assumptions about economics and ethnicity that those actually responsible made. Irish Catholics themselves knew, and many of their descendents, both in Ireland and otherwise, still know, but until recently few were interested in listening. Now, of course, the fact that the Irish were legally and economically prohibited from eating all foods except the one crop that failed is an obvious indictment against those responsible.

In a similar way, the fact that wealthy countries have not substantially shifted away from fossil fuels, despite knowing about global warming and its causes for thirty years, is also an indictment. During that time, how many people have continued growing rich from fossil fuel? Again, we are making assumptions about economics and ethnicity whereby rich people have a right to extract fossil fuel and burn it and if poor people are hurt thereby it is a tragic natural disaster.

The point in all this is not simply to place blame for its own sake (or to engage in collective self-flagellation), the point is to identify the actual causes of the problem in a way that empowers change.

If the landowners of Ireland had chosen to forgo rent 169 years ago, the Great Hunger would not have happened.


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A Positive Outlook

Positive feedback isn’t always good. In fact, in a scientific context, positive feedback is one of the things that keeps climate scientists up at night.

Feedback, in a scientific or engineering context, doesn’t mean compliments or criticism. Instead, it refers to any force that turns around and influences its own source. An oven with a thermostat contains a feedback loop, since rising temperature turns the oven burner off and falling temperature turns the oven burner back on. That is a negative feedback loop because the thermostat acts to say “no” to whichever direction the temperature is moving. The oven stays at a nice, even temperature this way, until your pumpkin bread is done and you turn the oven off.

Positive feedback, in contrast, never says no. It only says yes. Imagine an insane oven set to turn the burner on HIGHER when the temperature rises. A hot oven would only make a hotter oven and the whole thing would very quickly burn up. Not all positive feedback loops are bad—a child who feels encouraged by good grades and so studies even more is also experiencing positive feedback—but you can see how this sort of mad oven scenario would be a problem for the climate.

So strong is our association between the word “positive” and the word “good” that some otherwise very educated people sometimes get it wrong and say “negative feedback” when they mean “positive feedback.” But remember, “positive” basically just means “yes,” and “yes” is not always good.

Feedback loops are always part of our planet’s climate. Our planet maintains its temperature in much the same way that our bodies maintain ours, through a complex network of interacting feedback loops, including some limited positive loops. While it might be too much to attribute conscious intention to the planet, it’s important to realize that the Earth is not a passive system. The Earth is capable of doing things, like bodies can do things, so when we do something to the Earth, it doesn’t just react in a linear way like a bookshelf falling over. It responds, and we can’t easily predict what it will do.

The way the planet responds is through a shift in the pattern of feedback loops.  If something triggers a new positive feedback loop the world as we know it could change very suddenly.

Accurately modeling all the factors that could possibly impact our climate would require a computer as complex as the actual world. Not surprisingly, we don’t have one. So scientists use simplified computer models instead, models that are capable of generating predictions that are roughly accurate in a general way. The computers ignore a lot of the feedback loops we do have or could have, but at least they tell us what will happen if things keep going along as they are now.

That kind of simplified prediction should be enough. We can clearly see what climate change is, why it is happening, and the fact that we’re headed in a disastrous direction.  We should take these predictions as a warning and a motivation to all work together to stop adding greenhouse gases as soon as possible. But that isn’t what business leaders and policy makers are doing, for the most part.

Instead, when policy makers look to these predictions at all, they seem to see not a warning but a kind of budget. So, if the prediction says that X tons of greenhouses gases will cause Y disaster, they see that as permission to emit greenhouse gases up to X tons. And that is a problem because we already know that the prediction is an underestimation, maybe a gross underestimation. We know it doesn’t contain the feedback loops, the mad ovens suddenly turned on.

So here, for your edification, are some of these missing loops.

The Amazon rainforest sits under a rainy part of the global air circulation pattern, but the forest also makes itself rainy, rainier than the area would be without the forest. There are two mechanisms involved. First, the trees of the forest recycle much of the rainwater. Normally, of course, rainwater flows away to the sea. Rainforest trees, however, draw massive amounts of water up out of the soil and release it again through their leaves. There are so many trees massed together that a lot of the water never gets a chance to flow away. The same water keeps raining on the same land over and over again. Second, for water vapor to become rain, it must have particles of the right size to condense around. Spores, pollen, and plant debris from the rainforest provide ample condensation nuclei, again creating more rain right over the forest. Because of these two factors, the more rain there is, the more trees grow, and the more trees grow the more rain there is. That’s a mild positive feedback loop, one that we like because it is held in check by other factors.

But remove too many trees and the loop reverses direction; the fewer trees, the less rain, and the less rain, the fewer trees, because rainforest trees need a lot of water. This means that if deforestation progresses too far, the rainforest will begin to shrink ahead of the axes. Then even if logging stops entirely, and the forest would continue to shrink.

Fire adds another layer of feedback. Not only does fire, like logging, sometimes kill the trees that make the rain, but a drier forest burns more often. The faster the wheel spins, the faster it spins. Also, smoke from fires disrupts cloud formation, reducing rainfall, and making the forest more likely to burn. Forest fires themselves are not bad and even rainforests have always burned occasionally. The problem is that increased fires are one part of the looming complex of new positive feedback loops. If fires become too frequent, the forest will not have time to grow back during the interval.

Global warming stands to increase drought, and therefore fires, in the Amazon, even aside from drought caused by deforestation itself. Whether the recent droughts and fires in the Amazon were the result of global warming specifically is one of those misleading questions, like whether a single hurricane or typhoon is caused by global warming; climate change is a trend, and trends are only visible in multiple incidents. But we can expect more bad droughts (just like we can expect more hurricanes) if global warming continues.

And here is where the positive feedback loops get really scary.

The Amazon rainforest is, at present, a carbon storage facility. The weight of all those plants and animals is made out of carbon compounds that would otherwise be floating around the atmosphere. The Amazon also sends a lot of nutrients downstream and out into the Atlantic, where huge numbers of phytoplankton use those nutrients to grow like crazy. Those well-fertilized phytoplankton create a huge percentage of our planet’s oxygen and, in the process, sequester huge amounts of carbon. So, both directly and indirectly, the Amazon rainforest is slowing the progress of climate change. Deforestation, both through logging and, recently, through fire, is a major source of greenhouse gasses because it releases the carbon from storage and impairs the forest’s ability to soak the carbon back up again.

But we know that at some point, if the combined pressure of deforestation and drought continues, the forest will start to shrink. It will die back. And whether that die-back takes the form of dramatic forest fires or only a slowing in the growth of trees to the point where dead trees rot faster than new ones grow, the Amazon will stop being a carbon sink. It will become a carbon source, bleeding its substance uncontrollably off into the sky. And, with more greenhouse gasses to play with, climate change will get worse.

So, the more the planet warms, the faster trees will die and the faster trees die, the more the planet will warm.

We are facing the mad oven scenario, but all is not gloom and doom. In fact, despite having already committed ourselves to some amount of further warming, we still have time to make the future better by stopping our use of fossil fuels and our unsustainable deforestation now. We still have a chance. And as long as we are still capable of making things worse, we will also be capable of making things better. And we can make things better, if we collectively start treating the time we still have as an opportunity to change instead of as an opportunity to not change.

Climate change is a serious problem, but it isn’t, at bottom, a complicated problem. Or, at least the solution isn’t actually complex. Just turn the fossil-fuel-powered machines off. Find something else to do.


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A Family Expecting

Note; I wrote this article a couple of years ago, but I’ve always liked it so I’m republishing it now, with a few minor edits.

Yesterday, my first nephew was born. He is small and wrinkled and has acne on his nose. He has wispy black hair and silvery-blue eyes. He knows the voices of his mother, father, and grandmother, and now the scents and sounds of the hospital. Mostly he’s been asleep when I’ve visited. He does not know about his home, going to school, or getting a job. He doesn’t know about casual friends, mean people, or birthday cake. He doesn’t know what the world will be like for him.

Life expectancy for a white male American at birth is currently 75.9 years. I don’t know how that is calculated, but it’s probably something like an average, drawn down a bit by the mortality of the young, and that the men of this generation who die of old age will last a bit longer than that. I figure my nephew has a good shot of seeing 2100, and his 89th birthday. He will be an old man, with great cottony billows of hair spilling out his ancient ears and nostrils. He might be cranky, but hopefully he’ll still be sharp as a tack. Given his family history, he has a one-quarter chance of being bald. Either way, his breathing will be slow, regular, marred by occasional coughs and rumbles.

Today, he breathes rapidly, his tiny barrel chest bared to the sun-lamp to treat a mild case of baby jaundice. When he remembers he is all alone in his tanning bed he cries, his lower jaw vibrating oddly, and his mother reaches in to rub his belly. Her hand cups his entire ribcage.

He comes from farming people in the Piedmont of the Mid-Atlantic, an extended, cheerfully argumentative community likely to hold him close for many years. He could stay here. This land could be his world until he dies, the outer reaches of what we can imagine for him coinciding curiously with the outer reaches of time across which global climate change predictions make any claim at all to be reliable.

Climate change predictions are made by powerful computers working off various scenarios of technological and social development. For each scenario—how well future emissions are controlled, what future birthrates and economic development patterns are like—there are various predictions that diverge, as time goes on, like the anticipated tracks of a hurricane. Which scenario will play out is impossible to predict; these are not prophesies, they are examples, what might happen as a result of what we, collectively, do or don’t do. They are the best we’ve got.

This child will go home soon, and become the son of the land. He’ll rest in a cradle on the floor of a barn, his mother rocking him with one bare foot as she directs customers picking up vegetables in June. In two or three years, he’ll carry handfuls of squash guts as gifts for the chickens, and a rooster as tall as he is will look him in the eye and decide he’s ok. He’ll listen to his parents worry about droughts. He’ll learn to hope the heavy rains don’t rot the tomatoes, and that rising gas prices don’t break the bank. There will likely be more such worries as he gets older. Summers will be hotter. His mother will say it didn’t used to be like this, but grown-ups always say that.

According to the IPCC, by the time he’s a teenager, temperatures in the Mid-Atlantic will average maybe two degrees higher than they did during his mother’s childhood. That does not sound like much, but averages rarely do. One degree can turn a pretty snow into a destructive ice storm.

Warming, in and of itself, will be good for the crops; only a local rise of about five degrees or more hurts productivity. That’s unlikely to happen here until my nephew is a very old man. But the Great Plains may warm faster, enough to cause a problem; he could study the shifting agricultural economics in college. Or, he might prefer the shifting flights of birds, since many migrants head south based on conditions in Canada, and Canada will warm faster yet. Should be interesting.

Our area could either get wetter or drier. Parts of northern and central Mexico will almost certainly get drier, maybe much drier. These areas are dry already, so I imagine a lot more people will start heading north. My nephew will discuss the refugee problem with his friends, lean on his shovel in the morning sun and wonder if the United States has a responsibility to keep Mexicans from dying when Congress is already deadlocked over how to pay for the flooding in New England. Seems you can’t keep a bridge built in Vermont, anymore. He takes off his sun hat and scratches his thinning hair.

Years pass. My nephew thinks about his next birthday, his fiftieth, and also about New York City, where three of his grandparents grew up. It’s turning into a ghetto. It’s not under water, exactly, though the highest tides creep slowly across abandoned parking lots in some neighborhoods, spilling over the older seawalls. The problem is this is the second time it’s been stricken by a hurricane, and now no one can get the insurance money to rebuild. The same thing has happened to New Orleans and Miami. Boston may be next. Those who can get out, do. Those who can’t, riot. They have a right to be angry. His daughter is pregnant with his first grandchild. My nephew cannot keep his family safe indefinitely. He’s glad his parents taught him how to grow food.

Sixty-five, now, and semi-retired, my nephew is proud of his skill as a farmer, especially with the way the rules keep changing. The farm seems to be in Zone 8, these days. He’s got new crops and new weeds. He’s got friends in southern Maryland who haven’t had a hard frost in two years. Maybe this year they will; Farmer’s Almanac says it’ll be cold. Last year he and his wife took a trip through New England, let his kids take care of the harvest for once. They stayed at romantic little bed-and-breakfasts and took long walks in the woods, holding hands. There was white, papery birch-bark on the ground, here and there, the stuff takes a long time to rot, but he knew he’d have to go to Canada if he wanted to see one alive. In the coffee house in Danby, where they still have that pie he’d remembered, the waitresses complained about the economy because the sugar maples were dying. No sugar maples, no leaf-peepers, no local syrup. Pretty soon, you’d have to go to Canada for that, too. It’s sad.

My nephew lives long enough to see more change than any prior human generation has, and that’s saying something. A lot of the change is environmental, but not all of it. Major technological shifts rework the country yet again, and the entire political and economic center of gravity pulls away from the coasts. He is aware of this upheaval intellectually, but viscerally he is used to the world he lives in. He lives well. He is loved and he is useful. No dramatic disaster befalls him because lot of disasters that could have happened didn’t and lot of disasters simply happened to other people. My nephew is sympathetic. He writes his Congress-people, gives generously through his church whenever he can.

But a lot of good that could have been done decades ago wasn’t.

_ _ _  _ _ _  _ _ _

I saw my nephew tonight. He’s at home now, wrapped in a blue blanket like an animate dumpling, slowly fretting against the swaddling, his wrists and ankles as thin as my thumbs. He’s too young for baby fat. He doesn’t know what his future holds. And neither, really, do we.

This daydream about the future life of my little nephew is based on the coincidence that climate predictions tend to reach about eighty to a hundred years into the future, the same number of years that an optimistic aunt can hope her baby nephew will have. Most of the climate predictions I used were taken from the website of the International Panel of Climate Change (IPCC). The prediction that Northern Delaware could end up the USDA Growth Zone 8 is conjecture taken from a variety of sources. That New England might no longer support sugar maples is consistent with this conjecture, although I know of no one else predicting a loss of sugar maples. The loss of paper birch due to climate change, on the other hand, has already begun. The predictions I made about sea level rise are taken from a variety of sources as well, mostly from the website of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and a Science Daily article on sea level rise with respect to North Carolina. As noted, I wrote this article several years ago. My prediction that New York City would be flooded by hurricane storm surges became creepy when Hurricane Sandy hit and did exactly that.

I want to be clear that the predictions I used are not some kind of worst-case scenario. I assumed, perhaps optimistically, that some global constraint on carbon emissions would be worked out, that no uncontrollable positive-feedback cycle would be triggered, and that a lot of the disasters that could happen would not (historically, only a few of the things that could have gone wrong really did). However, I also assumed that some aspects of climate change would be faster and worse than anyone can predict, since this has been true so far.   I assumed that we don’t take a lot steps we could take to slow climate change.

But the present is the future’s past; we still have time to make our future better than the one I have imagined.


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Space, Climate, and Congress

About two weeks ago, NASA, in cooperation with the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA), launched the first of a prolific six Earth-science missions scheduled for 2014. NASA does not often come up in discussions of climate change, but actually the space agency is critical to our ability to both predict and respond to our climate. Like other government funded scientific ventures, however, NASA’s activities are ultimately subject to the will of the United States Congress. Occasionally, political pressure rises against such programs and NASA’s budget is cut.

That means American citizens especially need to keep track of what NASA does so we can make sure NASA is allowed to continue doing it.

NASA is one of several agencies (along with NOAA and the space and weather agencies of several other countries) that maintains a fleet of satellites in various orbits designed to observe different aspects of Earth’s weather and climate. Thanks to these satellites, we here on Earth can precisely measure variables like cloud cover, ocean temperature, and rainfall anywhere on Earth every day.

With this information we can study the causes and progress of climate change and also make the detailed day-today predictions that help us cope with more frequent extreme weather. Thanks to data collected by weather satellites, meteorologists were able to predict Hurricane Sandy’s abrupt left turn into New York and New Jersey early enough to issue hurricane warnings. After the fact, just to see what would happen, researchers ran the same simulations using only data collected from weather stations and airplanes; without the satellite data, the computers showed Sandy staying safely offshore. Without the satellites, Hurricane Sandy would have been a surprise.

Although there are already many climate and weather satellites in orbit around the Earth, gathering the data we need requires an active space program able to put new satellites up there regularly. There are two reasons. First, scientists continue to develop new research tools and so we need to launch new satellites that can carry the new, more advanced devices. Second, satellites eventually get old and break and have to be replaced. No one knows exactly when one is going to break, so to ensure an unbroken stream of data, new satellites have to go up while the old ones are still working.

There are four new space-based devices going up this year.

The first is already up there. At the end of February, NASA and JAXA launched the Global Precipitation Measurement (GPM) Core Observatory from a Japanese launch facility. The job of this satellite is to measure rainfall and snowfall much more precisely and completely across most of the planet. With these data, scientists will be better able to understand the planet’s hydrological cycle, leading to better weather forecasting and better water resource management.

In June, a device called the ISS-RapidScat will be sent up to the International Space Station. The device will be mounted on the space station where it will help monitor ocean winds, again aiding both climate modeling and weather forecasting. The idea is to turn the space station into a cost-efficient platform for a large number of scientific devices.

In July, a second satellite, the Orbiting Carbon Observatory (OCO)-2, goes up. The OCO-1 was accidentally destroyed during launch in 2009. This one is a replacement. It’s job will be to measure carbon dioxide levels more precisely so scientists can pinpoint the different sources of this greenhouse gas and track how it moves through the planetary system.

In September, another device goes up to join the Space Station. The Cloud-Aerosol Transport System (CATS) instrument improves our ability to study tiny airborne particles such as dust and pollution. These aerosols block some sunlight and cool the planet, partially offsetting the greenhouse effect, but scientists still don’t know exactly how powerful this cooling effect is or how to include it accurately in climate models. After September, we’ll get closer to modelling the influence of aerosols correctly.

Finally, in November another satellite goes up. The Soil Moisture Active Passive (SMAP) will measure changes in soil moisture. How moist soil is, and whether the moisture is frozen, has a huge impact on both whether plants growing in the soil can sequester carbon and whether microbes in the soil can release methane, a very powerful greenhouse gas.

In addition to these space ventures, NASA will also use airplanes to fly two missions to research a wide range of topics, from polar ice to urban pollution.

The reader may wonder why NASA, the United States’ National Aeronautics and Space Administration, is researching weather and climate at all. In theory, climate change seems more a job for NOAA (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration) or USGS (United States Geographical Survey). Why isn’t NASA focusing on studying space?

The answer has to do with the political and financial history of the three agencies. Originally, their respective duties were much more separate. NASA did launch Earth science research devices, but these were paid for by NOAA and USGS. That partnership ended in the 1970’s when Congress cut the budgets of all three agencies. NOAA and USGS could no longer pay for satellites and pulled out of the partnership. Meanwhile, Congress lost interest in funding space exploration that didn’t directly benefit people on Earth, so NASA focused more of its attention here and gradually took on more and more responsibility for the Earth science studies the other agencies could no longer afford. The shift in focus also reflected a new interest in Earth as one planet among many. Also in the 1970’s NASA scientists had discovered that Venus and Mars have climates that are radically different both from each other and from Earth even though all three planets must have started out very similar, given their similar sizes and orbits. So the question became, how and why do planetary climates develop as they do? What makes a planet remain habitable? What needs to happen so Earth stays habitable?

The result is a Space Administration that uses many of its spacecraft and airplanes to study the Earth, providing data and analysis that the rest of us desperately need.

NOAA and USGS also have their own satellites again and there is some cooperation among the three agencies as well as cooperation between them and their counterparts in other countries. The exact balance of responsibility is constantly changing according to budget constraints and changing political priorities.

But no matter who runs these programs they must continue. Much of the information that proves climate change is real comes from satellites. And yet voices sometimes surface calling for an end to these programs on the grounds that they are wasteful. A cynic might be forgiven for wondering if these voices belong to climate change deniers or people with ties to the oil industry, but even if the calls to economize are made in good conscience they are wrong. Simply put, this country’s ongoing political fights over budgets, especially the infamous Sequester, puts our ability to study the climate and respond to it in jeopardy.

I am not personally aware of any bill to de-fund space-based climate studies at the moment, but this is something we will all need to keep an eye on.


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Focus on Solutions

I finished Tuesday’s post with a plea for people to use less petroleum. What we actually need to do is to use no petroleum (or coal or natural gas) at all.

I realize this sounds a bit pie-in-the-sky. Or, perhaps it sounds like an unreachable ideal, a star to steer by but never actually reach. The American way of life depends on fossil fuel, after all.

But I don’t mean to state an impossible ideal; I mean to issue marching orders. Getting off fossil fuel must be an immediate, tangible goal in much the same way that a driver headed towards an oncoming moose has an immediate goal of hitting the brakes.

Fossil fuel is killing the biosphere, period. Getting off fossil fuel is no longer optional.

Most efforts at reducing fossil fuel use ultimately fall short because, to one degree or another, retaining our accustomed way of life is the priority. We use more efficient technology, alternative energy sources, and even minor lifestyle changes to reduce as much as possible, but where these fall short we go back to fossil fuel because we “have to.”

The enterprising among us then bend our brains towards making further reductions possible in the future.

None of that is bad, but it’s ultimately a stop-gap, not a solution. The solution is to stop using fossil fuel–to prioritize getting off fossil fuel come what may–and then bend our brains to figure out how to live well anyway.

All this makes it sound as though the problem is that people choosing fossil fueled luxury over the planet. Realistically, some people are doing that, but others simply need the car to get to work in the morning.

The problem is that while the well-off can afford to take themselves off the grid, most people can’t. Many communities are not walkable and have little or no access to local organic food. Most apartments aren’t liveable without fossil fuel-fed utilities. Unless you can afford to create your own private infrastructure, there is really no way to go green.

The solution is that getting off petroleum can be a group venture, a community effort. If everyone who cared went about building the necessary infrastructure on a community level we could make a lot of progress quickly. Before the Industrial Revolution, no one was dependent on fossil fuel. That means we don’t have to wait for new technology to be fossil-free again. That doesn’t mean going back to life as it was in the 1700’s; it means using existing technology and modern knowledge to create new lifestyles that don’t harm the planet.

And the best part is, we’ll get to keep those lifestyles, if we want them. One way or another, we’re going to lose the lifestyle we’ve got.