The Climate in Emergency

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

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Thanksgiving Yet to Come

“It’s that time of the year again,” warns a fairly cynical-sounding blogger, “when warmists try to think Thanksgiving and climate change.”

Well, yes; we want to be seasonal, don’t we?

And yes, there are linkages to be made. A brief Internet search on the subject yields two main narratives: Thanksgiving as an opportunity to talk about climate change and agriculture (as in turkeys could get more expensive as feed prices rise because of recurrent drought); and Thanksgiving as an opportunity to talk about communication (as in what you have to do with your climate-skeptic relatives). These are excellent points and I’m not going to try to make them all over again.

Instead, I want to talk about gratitude. I want to talk about abundance.

Have you ever thought it strange that we give thanks by eating a lot? If anything, American Thanksgiving sometimes seems more a celebration of greed and gluttony, with a perfunctory discussion of life’s blessings sometimes thrown in among the other topics of discussion at the dinner time. And yet, there is one thing that being surrounded by more food than one could possibly eat is good for; it brings home a sense of bounty, the reassurance that, no matter what, there will always be enough. And that is something to be thankful for.

It’s an illusion, of course. There is no such thing as an infinite resource; use enough of anything for long enough and eventually you will run out. Even renewable resources are only sustainable if you use them slowly enough that they can replenish themselves. We know from sad experience that it is indeed possible to run completely out of precious things that once seemed all but limitless. Passenger pigeons, for example. Ever more efficient harvesting techniques hide the extent to which our fisheries are depleted. Expensive extraction procedures, like deep-sea oil drilling and tar sands mining, are now economically competitive–the more accessible oil is mostly already gone. It’s not necessarily that humans don’t have enough food and water. As a general rule, famine is a distribution problem, not a production problem (so far). But we no longer have abundance, a planetary Thanksgiving table groaning with reassuring excess.

Want a visual of the problem? Check this out:

Humans already use more than the entire ecological product of the entire planet. That is possible because we are, in effect, spending planetary capital, reducing Earth’s total richness a little more every year.

I’m not trying to be gloomy for the sake of gloominess, I’m talking about the physics of the environmental crisis, the details of how the planet works. I’ve gone into detail on this before, but the basic idea is that the planet has an energy budget and that when part of the planet (e.g., us) exceeds this budget, the planet as a whole destabilizes. The biosphere actually shrinks and loses diversity. One way to describe global warming and all its awful permutations is as a complex system being pushed into an entropic state.

The bottom line is that there is no way to sustainability that does not involve radically reducing our resource use–and the longer we put off doing so, the more stringent a budget our descendents will have to keep. We got into this mess by treating the entire planet as a Thanksgiving feast that would never end, but the feast is over now, and has been for a long time.

Does that mean we shouldn’t celebrate Thanksgiving? Of course not.

Real, literal feasts are never actually about unlimited consumption. We know perfectly well that the Thanksgiving table may groan, but it’s not actually infinite. It just feels reassuringly infinite, and it is that feeling that is important. The illusion of physical abundance is a needed reminder of the truth of spiritual abundance–which is the actual point of the holiday, the thing we’re actually remembering to be thankful for today.

The psychological power of the illusion of abundance does not depend on vast resources, something families of limited means understand well. By saving up and looking for deals and cooking skillfully, it is possible to produce a sumptuous feast that feels abundant and actually sticks within a fairly modest budget. The spiritual value is accomplished, and nobody goes into debt.

That’s what we have to do as a species. We have to find a way to live within our ecological means–the first step is to get off fossil fuel–and yet work with what we have so skillfully that what we have feels like more than enough. By staying within a budget we can stop worrying about running out–a paradoxical but very real form of abundance. Then the planet will have a chance to heal. The biosphere will grow again. And it is possible, just possible, that our descendants will live to see a more bountiful feast than what we have.

And that will truly be something to be thankful for.


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The Pause that Isn’t

There isn’t a pause.

I know a lot of climate deniers have written about climate change having paused or stopped about eighteen ago. I know a lot of reputable science writers and even scientists have tried to explain the pause away. Nevertheless, there is no pause.

The basic outline of the story is that since 1998 land surface temperatures have not warmed as quickly as the overall warming trend would suggest and that climate scientists have struggled to explain the discrepancy. Over the past year or so, several dozen explanations have been put forward as to where the missing heat has gone, but they still don’t know which of these explanations is most important. Climate deniers are delighted.

This outline is true in much the same way that, as of the year 1790, the United States had never had a worse President than George Washington.

To unpack how the “pause” narrative is so misleading,we have to look at several interrelated points*. The first, and maybe most important, is that 1998 was a really hot year–it had a strong El Niño. Choosing an unusually hot year as a starting point creates what looks like a 15 year period of slowed warming. Start the fifteen year period in 1996 instead, and you get a decade and a half of unusually fast warming. In the years where the two periods overlap, from 1998 to 2010, was the planet warming both slower and faster than normal at the same time?

Of course not.

The fact is that fifteen years is too short a period to study climate. It’s like trying to catch the changing of the seasons by looking only at fifteen days in March–it’s not enough time for the underlying warming trend to show itself through surface variation. Climate scientists seldom pay attention to blocks of time shorter than about thirty years.

(The fifteen year increment is the result of historical accident; the “pause narrative” gained popularity in 2013, after fifteen years and some months of supposedly slowed warming)

Another important point is that, even given 1998 as a starting point, global warming has not stopped. Writers who say that is has are either making a mistake or deliberately lying. What the globe has done is warm more slowly than some people expect. There is a big difference between slow change and none, as anybody going broke gradually can tell you.

Presumably, at least some of the “global warming stopped years ago!” articles are deliberate lies. There are certainly climate skeptics who are just not convinced yet for whatever reason–I’ve written already about how and why they deserve respect–but true climate deniers, people with an investment in sowing doubt, do sometimes lie. But while the popularity of the pause narrative might well belong at the deniers’ footsteps, even the most cynical cannot blame climate denial when scientists themselves write about the pause as though it were real–as they do when trying to explain where the “missing” heat went.

The explanation here is two-fold.

First, scientists like to push the envelope. So, fifteen years is too short a period to study with any reliability–but some people want to study it anyway. They know that short-term variation really has nothing to do with climate change one way or the other, but they still want to explain the variation. Second, climate scientists are not immune from the siren song of the media, even though many of them are really bad at responding to that song.  When the public started talking about the pause, some scientists and science writers figured they’d better talk about the pause, too.

In the Spring of 2013, The Economist published an article that referred to the pause or “hiatus.” The article did not directly question climate change as a whole, and its overall point was not that the so-called pause meant that we shouldn’t take the problem seriously. Instead, the author used the recent couple of relatively normal years as a starting point for a fairly intelligent discussion of some of the things scientists don’t know yet about the climate. For example, volcanic ash can lower global temperatures by blocking the sun, but large eruptions can also change global air circulation patterns in ways that might warm the planet. So, when a large eruption happens, does that make things better or worse as far as global warming goes? Nobody knows yet. Although the author failed to make clear that a slow couple of years is not really significant and generally underestimated the severity of the problem, the article did correctly point out that all this uncertainty is not good news. After all, if it’s possible climate change could be milder than initially predicted, it’s also possible it could be much worse.

But despite its measured, detailed intelligence, the Economist article drew attention to the idea of the pause and got the public talking about the possibility that global warming had stopped. The IPCC was, at the time, finalizing the language of the first installment of its Assessment Report 5 and some in the committee evidently felt that the groundswell of talk meant they should respond in some way. An early draft of the report pointed out that fifteen years is really too brief a period to matter, but that the slowdown wasn’t explained by any of the models. When the draft was leaked to the press, the media took this language as an admission of incompetence and ran. By the time the IPCC had corrected its language so it was less easy to misunderstand, the damage had been done.

A final irony was that the mystery of the “pause” had already been solved; once the models were updated with additional data, they reproduced the slowdown just fine. But the IPCC collects papers for its reports only during a specific window. Once that window closes, no new work will make it into the report. And the solution to the “slowdown” mystery came out after the window shut. The IPCC’s draft report acknowledged a mystery that not only did not matter but actually no longer existed–but when scientists tried to set the record straight, it looked to some like the so-called alarmists were backpedaling.

The pause narrative probably isn’t going to go away. Or, rather, it will eventually be superseded by some bauble more enticing to the public eye, but the climate deniers who use it are not going to stop and issue retractions just because I, or anyone else, writes an article on the subject. Climate denial is not, fundamentally, about a dearth of correct information.

But what an article like this can do is push back a little–and encourage others to push back–so that the disinformation campaign cannot run around on an entirely open playing field. If every time someone says “global warming has stopped!” someone else nearby says “no, it hasn’t,” maybe that particular nugget will lose its value.

That’s where you come in.


*For this article, I drew heavily on one article in Mother Jones, which is where the link attached to this asterisk goes. It might look like I’m making a lot of statements without citing any sources, but really I didn’t want to just link to this one article over and over and over again.

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Conversation with a Skeptic

This is a rewritten version of a piece I wrote in college–it is a fictional representation of mt attempt to play “devil’s advocate” with what I knew about climate change at the time. The character of Skeptico is entirely fictional. The information in the piece came largely from the book, Global Warming: The Complete Briefing, by John Houghton, from Cambridge University Press. It’s an excellent book, but it was written in 1997, so if you read it, remember the case for climate change being real has grown even stronger in the past seventeen years.

I remember posting this piece here, but cannot find it in the archive, so I’m posting it again.

Let us say that I sit down on the edge of the dock next to my friend, the climate skeptic, whom we will call Skeptico. The tide is up, so I can swish my bare feet in the water, as my companion is already doing. We admire the view in silence together for a few minutes before either of us speaks.

“I don’t get why you environmentalists have to be so negative,” he says. “Look at this! It’s beautiful. If you had your way, no one would ever see this, no one would fish here, no one would get to enjoy this…all these things take fossil fuels. I don’t think we should consider getting rid of all the modern conveniences that let so many people enjoy the environment in the first place.”

“Is that a rhetorical statement or a real question?” I ask. “Do you want to talk about why I do the things I do?”

“Yeah, I do, actually.”

“Ok,” I begin, “you mentioned fossil fuels. It sounds as though you don’t think their use should be limited. That implies that you don’t think global warming is a problem. Is that true?”

“Yes, that’s true. I don’t think we should give up things we want and need and worked hard to get just because of some unproven theory.”

“Why do you call it an unproven theory?”

“Well, that’s what it is, right? It’s just a theory, it’s not fact.” Skeptico seems almost angry, saying this, and fidgets a bit. I think for a minute.

“Sounds like you’re saying that theories are ideas that are not yet proven, that when it is proven, it graduates to fact-hood.”


“Ok, that’s not what a theory is, not the way scientists use the term, anyway. Theories are attempts to organize and explain the things you know so you can make educated guesses about the things you don’t know. Like if I know why the water is warm today I can get a good idea whether the water will be warm tomorrow. Makes sense so far?”

“Yeah, I know what a theory is,” replied Skeptico, irritably, “but theories do change. They say one thing this year, another thing the next. You can’t tell me that a theory is the same thing as a fact.”

“No, I’m saying a theory is a completely different thing than a fact. You’re right, theories do change, and sometimes they are abandoned altogether and replaced. But that doesn’t mean that theories are just guesses; theories are the ideas with which we make guesses. The more consistently right the guesses are, the more reliable the theory is. When high tide was yesterday is a fact. We can use a theory about tides to predict when high tide will be today—and that’s reliable enough that you’ll plan your day around it so you can go fishing. I’ve seen you do it.”

“You know it like a poet,” Skeptico replies, but seems slightly embarrassed and lapses into thought for a moment before speaking again. “Oh, so when they say ‘theoretically, such and such is true,’ they’re guessing, but the guess isn’t a theory–it’s theoretical because a theory generated it?” My friend seems pleased by this insight, but frowns again a moment later. “But why is global warming a reliable theory? I don’t see the sea level rising.”

“You don’t? This island was wider ten years ago,” I point out.

“That’s erosion from storms. That’s different.”

“I’m not so sure about that,” I respond, “but in any case, global warming isn’t a theory, it’s data. The greenhouse effect is a theory.”

“That’s just rhetorical,” Skeptico protests. “It’s not my fault if I don’t use exactly the right terms. You know what I mean!”

“No, it isn’t rhetorical. Global warming isn’t a theory because ‘global warming’ just means the globe is getting warmer—which it is. It’s been measured. That’s data, not an explanation of data. The theories are about why the globe is warming and what is going to happen next.”

“Ok, well, either way, how do we know the theory is reliable?”

“Because it’s the same set of theories they use to predict the weather.”

“The weather! Weather predictions are completely unreliable!” Skeptico scoffs.

“Really?” I challenge. “It’s not exact, but in the last few years they’ve gotten pretty good. I’ve seen you decide not to go out on the water when they’re predicting thunderstorms. Weekly outlooks are usually right, and they can predict the track of hurricanes within a few hundred miles a week ahead of time.”

“Ok, that’s a few days. That’s different than the decades you’re talking about with climate change.”

“There are longer-term predictions as well, like for El Niño-related events. It all depends on what kind of simulation the computers run. But there is a lot of overlap in both theory and data for climate vs. weather. And the weather reports are accurate enough to act on, so the climate predictions should be, too.”

“Ok, that makes some sense. But I’m still not going to just take some weatherman’s word for it.”

“Nor should you,” I say. “Listen, at their most basic, these theories are pretty simple. The idea is that several of the gases modern human activity produces trap heat. As the atmospheric concentration of these gases rise, so does the global temperature, creating all sorts of problems. That’s the idea on the table here. Where do you see weaknesses?”

“How do we know the planet as a whole is getting warmer? Couldn’t it just be some kind of sampling error? Or some kind of natural cycle?”

“They compile measurements from all over the planet and take an average. They can also chemically analyze the air bubbles in glaciers to see what temperature the air was when the snow originally fell—that’s not enough to get a global average from, but it does go back many thousands of years, and ice cores can be taken at many locations all over the planet and compared. According to that record, the warming over the recent few decades is not normal.”

“How do we know these gasses trap heat? Has that been proven?”

“Basically, yes, it has. For example, was identified as a greenhouse gas back in the eighteen hundreds. I can look up the names of the people who made the discovery if you like, when we get back to the computer lab. The Earth doesn’t actually receive enough sunlight to account for the planet being as warm as it is, unless something in the atmosphere were trapping heat. When CO2 was first identified as a greenhouse gas, they calculated out what would happen if carbon dioxide concentrations increased, and they came very close to predicting the actual warming we’ve experienced. Wouldn’t it be strange if their theories were wrong but something else heated up the planet exactly as if they were right?”

“Ok, but what if carbon dioxide levels aren’t rising? Is that possible?”

“If carbon dioxide levels aren’t rising, where else is all the carbon dioxide released by modern industry going?”


“Yeah. Anyway, changing carbon dioxide levels have been measured, too. I suppose—theoretically—that data could be wrong, but there’s so much data involved from so many different sources that would have to be an awfully big foul-up or a ridiculously vast conspiracy. If we’re going to go there, we might as well say nothing is reliable ever, which is not particularly realistic.”

“Ok, but we’ve been talking about a simple version of these theories, right? It’s not really simple. I’ve read articles about these things, how increased cloud cover could block a lot of sunlight, or how melting ice in the North Atlantic could change ocean currents and cause another ice age…even if in the simple version the Earth would continue to warm, how do we know what will happen in real life where things aren’t simple?”

“Well, most of that detail, is accounted for in those computer programs. That’s why climate predictions require so much computer power to calculate. Yes, it’s possible some undiscovered something will fix the problem or buy us more time, but it’s equally possible that some surprise will make things much worse. There have been a couple of nasty surprises already, like Antarctic and Greenland ice melting much faster than expected.”

“I heard about that, but I don’t really know who to believe. You don’t even think scientists are always right–you take vitamins with no established daily value, you’d rather take unproven herbal things than medicine….”

Ooh, touché! I chuckle a bit before speaking.

“I question mainstream science; I don’t reject it wholesale. I question everything, as do you, which is why we get along. Look, if modern science was completely out to lunch, modern technology wouldn’t work as well as it does, and it clearly does work. One aspect of science is an extended community of people who share data and check each others’ conclusions. Sure, sometimes they still make mistakes, but the system works well enough that we’ve created the modern world. So, when the top scientists of almost every country in the world say an issue is important, I pay attention.”

The tide has ebbed while we talked; I can’t reach the water with my feet now. The swallows that darted over the water after insects by day have been replaced by bats as night comes on. We watch the bay turn pink and silvery under the reflected light of the fading sunset and then Skeptico speaks again.

“Ok, so we know the temperature is rising because it’s been measured. We know the atmospheric concentration of greenhouse gases is rising because that’s been measured, and anyway, where else are the gases we produce going besides the sky? We know they are greenhouse gases because they have been studied by chemists whose predictions proved reliable, and we know rising temperatures are going to cause problems because weather forecasters say so and they’re usually at least partly right. We know all this isn’t the product of some wild-haired maverick because many well-respected scientists agree with it, and we can’t just assume that all of them are crazy together because if they weren’t right most of the time modern technology wouldn’t work. That’s an answer for everything…but I still don’t know. I don’t know if I trust mainstream science.”

“Look, I’m not saying to trust them. I’m saying think about what is most likely. Do you really want to bet the future of life on Earth that thousands of the most intelligent and well-educated people on the planet are all wrong at the same time in the same way?  And that their “mistake” actually conforms to common sense in most respects? I mean, you read the news. Does it look like the weather has been normal for the past decade or so?”

“Do you want to bet the economy that they’re right?”

“Who said the economy is really on the line here? Isn’t using less petroleum and wasting less energy a good idea anyway?”

“That’s another conversation.”

“Yes, probably for another time. I’m getting bit up. But think about it. When you do arithmetic, how do you check your answers? You do the problem again, right? Maybe you even do it two different ways. If you get the same answer, that means you’re right, right? If your only remaining argument against anthropogenic climate change is to suggest that thousands of scientists all made the same mistake over and over again for decades on end, that really doesn’t sound too convincing.”

“No, I suppose not. I still want to think about this, though.

“Good. Thinking things through is good,” I say.

Skeptico gets up, stretches a bit, and fumbles for shoes. Neither of us thought to bring a flashlight, although the moon is almost full and should make additional light unnecessary. I fish a bottle of bug spray out of my pack, explaining that I plan to stay out a bit longer. Before going, Skeptico turns to me and thanks me for our conversation.

“I didn’t think you’d actually talk to me about this stuff, but you really took my questions seriously.”

“And neither of us died!” I laugh. “Good night!”

“Good night. See you tomorrow.” And my friend walks off.

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It’s *%@$ing Cold

Actually, no it isn’t, at least not where I am. I’ve just been outside and the air is definitely brisk, I’d want a coat if I stayed out long, but it’s not unpleasant and the day looks beautiful and bright. But it is noticeably colder than it was yesterday, and I understand almost all of the United States is in a cold snap right now.

Predictably, the Internet is chattering about a “polar vortex” again, as if the term simply meant an unusually severe cold snap. It doesn’t–the polar vortex is not a weather event but a current within the atmosphere. There is always a polar vortex; it is the southern boundary of the polar air mass. It’s basically another name for the familiar jet stream. Sometimes the jet stream is almost straight, a circle drawn around the northern part of the globe. Sometimes it is wavy, bringing cold air farther south in some places and warmer air further north in other places. Right now, the boundary between polar and non-polar air is extremely wavy, and it is colder in Texas than in Alaska. What this is, really, is a good old fashioned cold-snap, albeit one that extends unusually far south.

There are signs that this year the media may shift to “arctic outbreak” as their buzzword of choice.

The current cold-snap is a little different than last year’s, where the cause of the extremely wavy boundary was debatable but might have been related to melting sea-ice in the arctic. Right now, we’re looking at the effects of the former Super Typhoon Nuri, which formed in the Western Pacific, became one of the most powerful storms of the year, and then weakened and recurved, heading northeast. By the time it reached Alaska it had lost its tropical characteristics (meaning its structure and the way energy moves through the system were no longer hurricane-like) but retained much of its power. Last week, the air mass formerly known as Nuri was among the most powerful storms in the Bering Sea ever recorded. Pacific storms can and do interact with the jet stream, causing weather changes hundreds of miles away. In this case, Nuri caused the boundary to become extremely wavy, freezing Texas.

Probably, some climate skeptics are wondering about global warming about now, and while I haven’t seen it yet, I expect some deniers are going to advance this cold-snap as proof against climate change. In writing this post, I’m being preemptive.

Yes, cold weather can be a symptom of global warming. A warmer atmosphere is generally more active, more prone to extremes of all kinds. A destabilized, extremely wavy polar vortex specifically could well be more common now that the arctic ice is melting, and Nuri, like all tropical cyclones, has a link to to global warming through the rising temperature of ocean water. This year’s Western Pacific typhoon season has not been startlingly intense (except for the monstrous Super Typhoon Vonfong, which fortunately weakened before it hit anyone), but it has been stronger than average. The sea has also been exceptionally warm.

But there are a couple of other points worth bearing in mind:

  • It isn’t cold everywhere. Yes, the weather is unusually cold today in the eastern half of the United States, but there are other parts of the world and some of those parts are unusually warm. An unstable polar vortex doesn’t actually make the average temperature of the world drop, it just redistributes cold air. Last year, while the Eastern U.S. was freezing and questioning the existence of climate change, the same weather patterns were causing record-breaking heat in California, Alaska, and parts of Europe. The hot weather exacerbated the California drought and caused a dangerous avalanche in Alaska that completely cut off one town’s road access. For the people there, global warming was not in doubt.
  • Coldness is relative and we have been spoiled by warm weather in recent years. Although the current “arctic blast” may break some local temperature records, it feels a lot colder than it really is because we’ve gotten used to the new normal of warm temperatures. Much of what we saw last winter would have been quite normal twenty or forty years ago (yes, I did just cite the cartoon, XKCD, but the cartoon in question does cite its sources and its author is an actual scientist).
  • Global warming means cold weather is rare, not that it never gets cold anymore. Yes, there are going to be genuinely cold years going forward, probably including some record-breakers where the entire planet is colder than it has been since record-keeping began. The weather on Planet Earth is extremely variable, and that isn’t going to change. What we are seeing, and will continue to see, is that the cold snaps are fewer and less severe than the warm spells. On average, we’re going up. 

This year, we have been especially far up. May, June, August, and September each broke global heat records. I am not certain, from the wording of my sources, whether May, June, and August were each in turn the hottest month ever, or simply the hottest May, June, and August ever. In either case, the records were based on a global average, meaning that they included measurements from places experiencing Fall or Winter at the time. September was definitely the hottest of any month ever recorded. 2014 is likely to be the planet’s hottest year on record, cold snaps in the U.S. notwithstanding. This is a big deal. put the situation in startling perspective:

Earth hasn’t set a monthly record for cold since December 1916, but all monthly heat records have been set after 1997.

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For All the Tea in China

U.S. President Barack Obama and Chinese President Xi Jinping have just made an historic agreement to dramatically cut carbon emissions for both countries!

Except that the agreement isn’t legally binding, would not reduce emissions enough to meet the IPCC’s recommendations, Mr. Obama has virtually no support from Congress, and the Chinese office of President is ceremonial. It’s complicated.

Basically, the agreement is excellent news and could represent a starting point for some truly critical work in the years ahead. But it is important to put the agreement in context, to understand how this starting point might be used as a foundation of progress. I also want to explore China’s climate politics a bit, since I have already explored America’s. Eventually, I want to do profiles of all the major climate players.

First, to be clear, while the Chinese Presidency is an almost purely ceremonial position, President Xi is not a mere figurehead. In China, it is possible for one person to hold several political offices simultaneously and Mr. Xi does. It’s the equivalent of a single American simultaneously serving as President, Speaker of the House, and Chief Justice of the Supreme Court. I don’t mean that the executive, legislative, and judicial branches are each headed by the same person, because China’s government branches according to different principles than the American one does. I mean that China’s initial attempt to divide power so as to prevent to rise of another such as Mao Zedong has been effectively undone some time ago.

To someone used to the U.S. system, the Chinese government looks chaotic, despite the actual fact of its tight internal control. Part of the reason is that in Chinese politics personal relationships are primary and official title is secondary; it’s who you know that’s important. I have not been able to find information on whether President Xi faces substantial opposition at home or whether he has the political ties necessary to make the new policy stick. So far, it is a non-legally-binding promise only. But given Mr. Xi’s status as China’s ultimate authority and the fact that the Chinese government still controls much of that country’s economic development, he does have advantages that Mr. Obama does not.

Not that I wish the U.S. had a dictatorship–I wish our democratically elected Congress cared about climate. But that is another topic.

The deal was essentially President Obama’s idea. He and Secretary of State John Kerry initiated and pursued months of negotiations that concluded successfully almost literally at the last moment. But the Chinese government has been facing political pressure over the thick, dangerous smog blanketing much of the country because of its reliance on coal for energy. Many wealthy Chinese people even leave the country because the air is so bad. In recent years, China has invested heavily in clean, renewable energy, and regards such investment as a sound business strategy. Its government has everything to gain politically by literally clearing the air.

In brief, China has agreed to cap its emissions by 2030 (or sooner) and to shift to at least 20% non-fossil fuel energy sources, also by 2030. The U.S. has agreed to cut its emissions 26-28% below what they were in 2005 by 2025, extending existing goals by almost half again. Together, the U.S. and China are responsible for almost half of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions. At least as important, the United States is a developed country while China is a developing country, meaning that the old deadlock of which type of economy should cut emissions first may be easing. Finally, both the U.S. and China have been intransigent on climate for a long time, now. Once we stop blocking the flow, further work on the subject is possible.

By the end of the current century, these agreements would result in about 20 billion tons less carbon dioxide going into the air every year, over a projected “business-as-usual” scenario. That’s about 10 billion tons better than existing U.S. and EU pledges. If other countries follow China’s lead by making similar pledges, global greenhouse gas emissions could start to slowly edge down in the next decade or two, bringing us to just under 40 billion tones per year by the end of the century.

Which is, of course, still way too much. We need to phase out fossil fuel use entirely well before the end of this century in order to avoid climate catastrophe. The IPCC emphasizes this point and they are hardly the only ones calling for a complete phase-out. But this is a beginning. If these deals can stick politically, they may pave the way for more aggressive reductions in the future. They’ll help get the ball rolling in terms of developing green energy infrastructures as well. These small but historic deals are a foot in the door of the future.

Predictably, the American Congressional leadership is on the attack. They charge that this deal will hurt the U.S. economy and that China will not have to change as much as the U.S. will. Neither charge is true. The U.S. could actually see an economic boost out of this, since new regulations will indirectly spur growth. Green energy tends to be better for the economy than fossil fuel, since it tends to require more employees per unit of energy–an equation that suggests why industry leaders are so dead-set against it–more jobs mean narrower profit margins. Unfortunately, truth is seldom important to those resisting climate sanity.

If this deal sticks, we have a chance for more and better deals in the future. If it does not, we might not. Mr. Xi more or less has China covered, for better or worse, but Mr. Obama needs the support of his people and he desperately needs a successor and a Congressional majority serious about climate change.

Support the new EPA rules. They are the primary instrument by which President Obama can hope to reduce American emissions and the political opposition to them is fierce. You can make an official comment in support of the rules through this link until the end of November. Continue to attend any climate demonstrations that come up–large marches do have real political impact, the bigger the better.

And please stay politically involved. Vote, next time you can.


Deniers and Skeptics

I do not want to be misunderstood when I write about climate deniers.

Specifically, I don’t want anyone to think I’m disparaging people for questioning climate change. Unfortunately, climate change is quite real, but doubting that doesn’t make a person stupid or bad. With the exception of climate scientists themselves, all of us have exercise some degree of trust that what we’re hearing about the climate is the truth. There is just too much science out there for anyone to have the time to verify all of it personally. And some people, for whatever reason, do not trust the experts on this one. There is no shame in not trusting the experts–experts are sometimes wrong. And while I am satisfied that climate change is not a mistake or a conspiracy (I’ve explained why here), people who don’t buy my explanations might well have some good reason for their distrust.

I want to tell a little story about intelligent distrust.

Many years ago, I began making friends with a man of my acquaintance. He worked at a store I frequented, and we would chat companionably whenever we happened to meet. One day–I forget now why the subject came up–he asserted that the United States government is actively attempting to exterminate black people. This man himself is black and I am not, a fact which may have lent an unfortunate (and unintended) political weight to my incredulity. I refused to believe that the U.S. is currently engaged in ethnocide and he never spoke to me in friendship again.

The reason for my disbelief is simple and, I still say, sound; state-sponsored extermination is more efficient.

And yet, racism does kill, and some of that racism is institutional. At the time of that conversation, I did not fully appreciate the degree to which American black people really do have to swim upstream just to live. I doubt I fully appreciate it now. Racism has a curiously unidirectional function, like one of those plant stems with tiny, backward-facing barbs; run your hand along it in one direction, and the plant feels nearly smooth. Stroke in the other direction and it slices your hand. When a black man says the U.S. government is engaged in ethnocide, he might be wrong, but his fear on the subject is important to listen to.

The author, Barbara Kingsolver, describes climate change as one facet of a culture war in America between rural people and the urban wealthy. She discusses this conflict in her novel, Flight Behavior, and in many interviews associated with that book. She herself comes from rural people, and says that many of those who doubt climate change do so because most liberal environmentalists are urban. And while climate scientists are not actually trying to pull one over on hard-working people, some urban elites really are.

As Ms. Kingsolver has said, environmentalists do not seem to be getting results from talking to America’s climate skeptics. Perhaps it is time to try listening instead.

I use the term “climate skeptic” here deliberately. It seems a much more accurate and honest term for the majority of people who think global warming isn’t happening. Climate change denial is something else.

A true climate change denier is someone who has some sort of investment–emotional, political, or financial–in convincing other people to disbelieve in climate change.  Tellingly, much of what they say is factually wrong in ways that could not be innocent mistakes. That is, these people are lying, which means that they intend to deceive. Either they know the world really is warming (because of human activity), or they don’t care one way or the other.

Normally, I’d describe for you who these people are and how I know they are doing what I say they are doing, but that is a topic for another post–you can get most of that information by clicking on the links in the above paragraph anyway.

My point here is this; climate deniers are making money from what they are doing. People with money are somewhat insulated from the effects of climate change–they can rebuild after violent weather and they can absorb rising costs of food. In the long term, nobody benefits from climate change, but in the short-term some wealthy people do benefit from climate denial. But most of the skeptics are not rich. They don’t benefit from denial and they aren’t insulated from its costs. In fact, since so many climate skeptics are farmers and therefor vulnerable to extreme weather, they are really among the first people to be hurt by climate change.

So, let’s make this clear: rural, working-class people have a hunch that they are being cheated and so when climate deniers tell them global warming is a hoax, they believe it. They then vote for candidates who run on pro-business tickets, ostensibly in order to free hard-working people from the fetters of regulation based on a “hoax.” What actually happens is that those elected officials then block action on climate change, which makes money for climate deniers and causes economic ruin for most climate skeptics. Who, as it happens, are quite right to suspect they are being cheated.

I have just completely re-written this post. I did it because, on re-reading the post this morning, I realized my first attempt was less coherent, easier to misinterpret, than I wanted. I had written it quickly, without much editorial care, because I was running about six hours behind schedule and was exhausted besides. I have little available time this week and I have not been sleeping well, because I am spending time with my sister’s family, helping out with the kids.

Yesterday, during the hours I might otherwise have been writing this post, I was playing with my nephew. He had decided that there were alligators (tiny, invisible ones) living in a pile of raked Fall leaves and that we had to make clothing for them. Later, he decided that some of the alligators had died and so we had to make more of them using a mysterious (and invisible) object called a “soom.” He is three. It is he about whom I wrote A Family Expecting, in which I used the arc of his life expectancy as a way to put climate change predictions in context. It’s a curious coincidence that both the predictions the climate models give us and the life expectancy of an American male of his birth-year stretch about eighty years. In the post, I guessed about his future:

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.

I continued on from there, on to the end of our current century.

But it’s been three years since I wrote that paragraph. Yesterday, he and I walked out to the chickens together so he could offer them gifts of food. He’s already taller than the rooster. We are running out of time to make the future better for him.

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No News Isn’t Good News

The IPCC (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change) issues its long-awaited Synthesis Report last weekend and officially stated that we as a species need to get off fossil fuel, and soon. This is no surprise, of course. That we haven’t gotten off fossils already has nothing to do with any dearth of scientific clarity–it’s not like we’ve been sitting around waiting for this report before we take action. Instead, we have been delayed by political and cultural reluctance, and we are delayed by it still.

The news out of the polling places on Tuesday was not good.

Leaving aside whatever advantages the GOP may possess on other topics, the many Republican victories could be disastrous for climate. They have taken the Senate and increased their majority in the House and will almost certainly use that advantage to try to force President Obama to approve the Keystone XL pipeline. They will increase their fight to invalidate Mr. Obama’s executive actions–including the EPA policies regulating carbon emissions–as illegal or unconstitutional. The United States will face the all-important climate conference next year with a legislature hostile to any progress at all. Our best hope may be that we just don’t lose ground.

How did this happen? In the races that I followed, the Republican candidates ran on an economic platform within which environmental regulation was implicitly recognized as part of the problem. There are all sorts of reasons why such an argument is disingenuous, not least of which being that environmental disaster–especially climate change–is extraordinarily bad for the economy. That other Republican candidates ran on an anti-Obama platform is a whole other complex topic.

In any case, the nightly news is full, not surprisingly, of post-election analysis. What isn’t on the news? The fact that hundreds of people just completed a walk across country–from LA to DC–and are now getting arrested for protesting outside the FERC building. For action on climate change.

The Great March for Climate Action was a mobile community demonstrating democratic processes, sustainable technology (they had their own solar panels for charging electronics), and non-violent protest. A core group of several hundred people walked the entire way, joined by others who walked with them a long way or a little. They stopped, here and there, for various climate-related events. In September they took a break, boarded a fleet of buses, and joined the People’s Climate March, in New York City. Then they took their buses back to their own route and kept marching. They covered about fifteen miles a day and camped at night. They arrived in Washington, DC on November 1st, as planned, and several of them went on to participate in a multi-day protest against the FERC (Federal Energy Regulatory Commission), which they say “rubber-stamps” natural gas-related projects. FERC, for its part, claims that it is impossible for them to estimate the potential impact of these projects, and therefore they cannot say no to them, which certainly sounds like rubber-stamping to me.

That’s why they’re getting arrested –for blocking traffic in front of the FERC offices.

I wrote about the Great March very briefly when they started, listing it among several large and fairly dramatic climate-related protests that got no mainstream media coverage at all. And, unfortunately, the Great March has continued being ignored by the media. My husband is a current events junky and hadn’t heard of them until now, when I asked him about it. The group’s own website includes a list of media notices (including, I’m rather gratified to note, a link to this blog!) but none of them are mainstream national news outlets. Which is insane–if a group that size had walked that far for fun they might almost have gotten more attention, simply as a human interest story.

I wrote about the march again, in conjunction with my coverage of the People’s Climate March, but while I was concerned that the latter might be ignored by the media–and was prepared to take steps to combat such willful ignorance, if it happened–I did not appreciate that the former might be ignored as well. Instead, while I did try to get one of the organizers to write us a guest post (something that ultimately fell through), I largely ignored the Great March as well.

And that’s how candidates who ignore climate change win. I don’t mean that my editorial decisions themselves allowed the Republicans to take the Senate–I don’t have that kind of readership, alas–but that the collective silence of the media on the vast majority of climate-related protest largely keeps the environment out of serious public discourse in this country. Political strategy is often less a matter of winning the game than of deciding what the rules of the game are. In my own state, Republican Larry Hogan won the gubernatorial race by a large margin (he captured every county in Maryland except those immediately around Washington DC) even though ours is usually a solidly blue state. He did so by repeating, over and over again, that he would rescue Maryland from the economic disaster the outgoing Democratic administration had caused. His opponent, Anthony Brown, is the outgoing Lt. Governor. In point of fact, the O’Malley/Brown administration caused no such thing, but Mr. Hogan succeeded in defining the terms of the conversation and so he won the race.

When the media ignores climate, regardless of why they do so, the resulting illusion that climate isn’t important to Americans allows candidates to ignore the issue and win anyway–because the frame of the conversation excludes the entire topic. Much of Maryland is coastal and low-lying, and much of the state is rural. Climate change is very much relevant to Maryland’s economy, yet Mr. Hogan’s economic message utterly ignored it.

We cannot afford to keep silent on this issue, nor can we afford to be silenced. Hundreds of people just walked thousands of miles for climate change and some are now being arrested for it. Contact your news outlets–newspapers, TV shows, radio new programs–and insist that they cover these stories.




The IPCC, Again

On Sunday (November 2nd), the IPCC released the final installment of its Assessment Report 5 (AR5), the Synthesis Report. I’ve written about the IPCC and its publications before, but this seems a good time to offer a recap before addressing the new report itself.

The IPCC is the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, a body that exists to brief the UN (and everybody else) on climate change. It conducts no new research and does not advocate specific policies. Instead, it compiles existing research into various types of reports so that the people responsible for drafting policy can get thorough, accurate information without having to read thousands of scientific papers themselves. The most extensive of the IPCC’s reports. and the real heart of its labor, are the Assessment Reports, which summarize the entire body of scientific knowledge on the subject–what we’re dealing with now and what we can expect for the future under various scenarios.

The IPCC is subdivided into three main Working Groups, each of which focuses on a particular aspect of climate change. The Assessment Report as a whole consists of each Working Group’s report, plus a final Synthesis Report at the end. Over the past year and a half, the IPCC has released one of these reports every few months. Each of these installments also has an associated Summary for Policymakers, and each has gone through several drafts, some of which were leaked to the press. Over the past two years or so, all of the many news stories we’ve heard on recently released IPCC reports have been installments, summaries, or leaked drafts of this one report–the AR5.

Each of these installments has attracted controversy, including accusations from both climate deniers and advocates that the IPCC must somehow be on the take, or at least bowing to political pressure to present a less accurate, more convenient result. There are three good reasons to believe that these accusations are baseless:

  • If the IPCC were lying for money or politics, wouldn’t it have done a better job of pleasing its patron? In point of fact, it has received criticism from both sides, suggesting that it is beholden to neither
  • If someone in the IPCC wanted to lie for money, he or she would not have joined the IPCC in order to do it; members serve without pay. There are much more lucrative options out there
  • There are simpler explanations for the concerns of both sides:
    • Climate advocates have complained that the AR5 presents a misleadingly rosy view, leaving out a lot of the more dire possibilities we face. The explanations involve the rules of the IPCC, especially the fact that only papers published before a certain cut-off date could be considered for the report. Between how long it takes for research to find its way into publication and the IPCC’s own lead-time, the AR5 comes off the presses almost five years out of date. Given that what we know about global warming keeps getting worse, old news is always comparatively bright.
    • Climate deniers have complained that AR5 is extreme or alarmist–in that they are right, inasmuch as the truth is extremely alarming.

The entire AR5 is or will soon be publicly available. For those who do not wish to read hundreds of pages of very dense and technical text, there are also the Summaries for Policymakers. The Summary for the recently released Synthesis Report is available here. It, too, is dry as toast, but it’s fairly accessible and only 40 pages long.

I’m not going to summaries the Synthesis Report in detail, since it is largely a summary of the three earlier reports, which I’ve already summarized. The main points are that climate change is real, mostly being caused by human activity, and very, very dangerous. If we do not drastically cut greenhouse gas emissions by 2050, and cut them to zero by the end of the century, cataclysm will be unavoidable.

But the report is a wealth of information for those with an interest in the subject–almost all of the figures and ideas we’ve been seeing in climate-related internet memes, in one place, from a reliable source. It is worth reading. There are some places that might be unintentionally misleading for the general reader, though. For example:

The period from 1983 to 2012 was likely the warmest 30-year period of the last 1400 years in the Northern Hemisphere, where such assessment is possible (medium confidence). [Emphasis original]
To the non-scientific eye–that is,to most of us–all those likelys and mediums look like fudge-factors along the lines of kinda and sorta. People who use words like that often probably don’t know what they’re talking about. But scientists use these words differently, at least in a research context. The authors aren’t saying they’re not sure of their results, they’re saying that their results come in clearly defined ranges and they use these words as a kind of short-hand to say exactly what those ranges are.
In other words, they know exactly what they’re talking about.
The IPCC has now officially said that we as a species must get off fossil fuel, and soon, or face dire consequences. Or, more precisely, we–our current generations–must divest ourselves of fossil fuel or future generations will face dire consequences. A certain heroism and courage is called for here, a willingness to do something difficult for the benefit of someone else. It’s the sort of thing most of us want to believe we would do.
But none of this is new. The Synthesis Report only pulls together ideas and information already published in earlier installments. AR5 as a whole only gathers and reports on existing research. On the basis of that existing research some of us (including me) have been calling for an end of fossil fuel for years. Most recently, the call was articulated by CAN (Climate Action Network).
The big question is not what we should do but how to do it–the primary challenge is not scientific anymore but political and cultural. Today, Election Day, could determine whether we get to keep the momentum we earned with the People’s Climate March, back in September, when it seemed for a while that the media and our political leaders were starting to take climate issues seriously.
Regardless of the election results, we have to hold our leaders to task on this.