The Climate in Emergency

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

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Hot News from Down South

The latest climate news to light up social media is that Antarctica has hit a new, all-time record high of 63° F.

According to CNBC,

A single temperature event doesn’t make a trend, but it’s a situation worth watching, said Jordan Gerth, a researcher at the Cooperative Institute for Meteorological Satellite Studies. “One rare temperature doesn’t tell us a whole lot,” Gerth said. “But if we see these events happening more frequently over the next decade or so, it could be a larger story to tell.”

This comment is a strange one. I’m going to give Dr. Gerth the benefit of the doubt and assume he is being misrepresented or misunderstood, somehow, but the implications of the quote are worth discussing.

It is quite true that one event does not make a trend. Without context, an extreme weather event is not evidence of anything because even if our climate were not changing, the occasional hot day would still occur. To find the footprint of climate change, you need to look at weather records over time. But then, why can’t we just look at Antarctica’s weather records over time and determine if there is a trend? Dr. Gerth appears to think we can’t do that for some reason, but must look to the future instead. Either that, or his words might be taken to mean global warming has not been conclusively spotted in Antarctica yet.

And that is rather patently not true.

I am inclined to think Dr. Gerth meant that there isn’t enough data on Antarctic weather to draw conclusions. Frankly, I don’t see how there could be much weather data on the frozen continent, given how sparsely populated it is and how recent the human presence is there. There are, indeed, weather stations on Antarctica, some of them the better part of a century old, though their records are not necessarily continuous–but there aren’t very many of them. Until the age of weather satellites, there must have been huge swaths of the continent where any weather could have been happening at all and no one would know. The signal of climate only emerges from the noise of weather once you have about thirty years of data to look at and the satellite temperature record is only 37 years old.

Antarctica is also fairly big and some of its associated islands (including the sites of the recent temperature records) are actually well outside the Antarctic Circle. The emotional punch of the headline (“Antarctica tops 60°!”) is a bit misleading, given the tendency of the outside world to equate all of Antarctica with the South Pole.

And yet we do have a fairly simple way to tell that Antarctica’s temperatures are indeed going up; the sea level is rising. About half of the observed rise is due to melting ice, as opposed to thermal expansion and other factors, and much of that ice was in Antarctica. Even if we had no weather data for that continent at all, we would know its climate is warming.

We also do have long-term climate data for the south of the world,quite apart from weather stations. The glacial ice records evidence of temperature, along with other important information, such as atmospheric composition, in layers, for thousands of years. A British team drilled in and got a sample some years back:

What the scientists discovered, however, removed any doubt. “We found that the peninsula has been warming for the past 600 years,” said lead author Robert Mulvaney, of the British Antarctic Survey, in an interview. “But the rate of warming has been much faster during the past century, and fastest over the past 50 years.”

From this and other studies, we know that Antarctica is warming, and is in fact warming faster than anywhere else in the world. Also, Antarctica is not the only place that has set a new heat record recently: Equatorial Guinea, Ghana, Samoa, and the Wallis and Futuna Territory have all either set or tied their high temperature records in 2015. Five national or territorial heat records in a year not quite four months old yet is remarkable, especially as exactly zero have set cold records (sorry, Boston).

So why did CNBC quote Dr. Gerth as saying there is no larger story to tell?

There is, in fact, a regional story here as well as a global one, and it’s an oddly familiar story for those of us in the United States since it involves the polar vortex.

Polar vortexes are not some unusual type of winter storm, popular media representations to the contrary. Instead, they are simply the cold air masses around the poles. The boundaries between these air masses and more temperate air are quite abrupt and marked by currents of upper-air winds–the jet streams. The location of the boundary changes, sometimes developing huge meanders that bring unusual temperatures to unusual places. Over the past few years, we in the United States have seen several such events in which the Southeast of our country froze while Alaska (and many other places) saw record warmth.

The recent unusual warmth in parts of Antarctica is also due to a wavy polar boundary and was also associated with unusually cold temperatures (even for Antarctica) elsewhere on the continent. The same wind pattern was also responsible for the other major climate-related news story, the flooding of the Atacama Desert, in Chile. While the rainstorms only brought about an inch of water, that is as much as the area usually gets in fourteen years. And with little vegetation to absorb water or stabilize the ground, the floods were dramatic.

Now, I’ve written before about the link between melting Arctic sea ice and the recently wavy polar boundary, but I do not know if an equivalent process is at work in the south. It may well not be, since Antarctic sea ice is actually expanding. The sea and air are both steadily warming, but both are still cold enough to allow ice to form in the Southern Sea–meanwhile, wind and water currents that previously limited sea ice are changing, allowing more ice to form (sea ice has no effect on lea level; the land-based ice that does influence sea level is melting rapidly).

So, is this particular extreme weather event related to global warming in an clear, causal way? I do not know. But when an entire system changes, it is unrealistic to expect any corner of that system to remain untouched.

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The Yellow Rose of Assateague

The following is an article I wrote for college almost eight years ago, on the personal dimension of environmental responsibility. The Chris in this article is now my husband.

I believe in the importance of relationships.

When my friend, Chris, asked if I would cheer for him on his firefighter pack test, I said yes. Later, he back-pedaled, asking only for help adjusting his straps, but I thought he really still wanted the cheering. I believe in paying attention.

But I am too self-conscious to be a cheer-leading squad of one, so I settled on making him a boutonniere instead. I’d use a yellow rose and maybe, if I could get it, some lavender. Lavender heals burns, so it’s appropriate for a fire-fighter. I know how to make boutonnieres and there is a florist in town from whom I can buy supplies.

But the florist is too far away for me to bike to. A co-worker offered to give me a rose from her garden, but hers are coral-colored–according to tradition, a coral rose symbolizes desire or seduction or something like that. Yellow symbolizes friendship, and Chris and I are definitely friends. I wouldn’t want him to get the wrong idea, so I’ll have to go to the florist’s.

That means asking for a ride.

A ten mile trip means about half a gallon of gas, which means about ten pounds of carbon dioxide released into the sky. One of the consequences of climate change is drier, hotter weather in some areas, which increases the chance of catastrophic wildfires—as in the kind that kill firefighters.

Now, are ten pounds really going to make much difference in the global scheme of things? Possibly not, but of course that isn’t the only instance of petrochemicals in my would-be rose’s history. I have just called the florist. They do, indeed, carry roses, imported from South America, California, and Holland…the designer didn’t seem to know or care which. Obviously, they take a long trip, whatever their origin, probably mostly by airplane. Any way you slice it, that’s a lot of hydrocarbon and a lot more drought in the Southwest. That’s not a good gift for a firefighter–I mean Chris already has a steady job.

This is the sort of thing I think about.

In my pocket I have a dollar, and that dollar is a vote towards the kind of world I want to live in. That dollar might not seem like much, but consider that corporate profit margins are sometimes calculated in pennies per purchase. Advertisers consult psychologists to mine our unconscious biases as they struggle to snag as many shoppers as possible. The corporate world understands the power of our individual choices very well.

I believe in the importance of relationship; the oil that makes the gas that might take me rose shopping is the medium of many relationships–between me and gas station attendants, delivery drivers, workers at the refinery, sailors on tankers and workers on pipelines, crews operating drill rigs, teams of geologists, and, in all probability, soldiers and contract workers in Iraq.

All these people are hidden from me by the complexity of our economy, by its sheer facelessness, but they do exist. I help put food on their tables, and they get me where I need to go.

Through the medium of oil, I also participate in relationships with the various employers of all these people: the board members, CEOs and major stockholders of Exxon-Mobil, perhaps, or British Petroleum. I don’t like these people. They are destroying the world in which I live, and using my money to do it. I don’t want to participate in abusive relationships anymore.

Nor do I want to hide from the true nature of the relationships I participate in.

Take this rose, for example. First of all, Chris is a guy, and while I hate to stereotype, I have worked at a florist’s over Valentine’s Day and most guys had no idea how to even order flowers let alone knowing—and taking seriously–the symbolism of different colors of roses. Chris is not going to see a coral-colored rose, gasp, and run off to buy breath mints and prophylactics.

Second, a yellow rose, coming from me, is distinctly weird. Yellow roses are what you give a friend who worries you might have other designs. A yellow rose says “See, I love you, but not that way.” It’s a sweet gesture with an asterisk attached. But Chris isn’t worried. And I don’t normally give my platonic friends roses anyway. If I did, it would be because he or she likes roses. I’d select my friend’s favorite color without even worrying about symbolism. I don’t even know if Chris likes roses, let alone what color roses he likes.

I saw a similar sort of fixation on roses at the florist’s; young, awkward men coming in with only a vague notion of what they want, knowing only that having a girlfriend means buying her flowers. Some have special requests—arrangements in her favorite color, a prominence of lilies or some other bloom she’s always loved–but the vast majority of them want roses. Roses, particularly red ones, are different. They are the chocolate box of flowers, the medium of choice of a ritual deeper and more universal than any couple’s personal preferences.

So why am I getting my purely platonic friend Chris a rose? Particularly a yellow one? Perhaps I protest too much. Perhaps I’m just trying to hedge my bets by indulging in a frankly romantic gesture while insisting he not perceive it as such, thereby protecting myself from having to make any definite decisions about what kind of relationship I want with this man.

Perhaps, in this case, yellow simply symbolizes chicken.

A few weeks ago I had an argument with the maintenance staff where I live. The issue was my refrigerators. The thing is, my building had two of them, since it was designed to house a dozen or so seasonal workers, but I was alone and I needed neither of them. As a vegan, my food seldom needed refrigeration. So, one day, acting on a suggestion in a book I’d read, I went looking for unnecessary energy use in the house. I unplugged the night-lights, unplugged the microwave (it has a clock that can’t be turned off) and turned off the refrigerators.

It felt amazing. I’d always taken constant electricity load for granted—little dribbles of electricity like the night-light, which was in the house when I got there, or the dozens of pointless digital clocks on all the household gadgets, or whole unnecessary floods, like the empty refrigerators. It had never occurred to me before that I could turn them off, that I could actually act on my world in that way.

That night, when I went to bed, the house wasn’t using any electricity at all, except for its smoke detectors. The next day, I laughed out loud for happiness just walking down the street.

And then my boss, who provides the house I live in, told me the refrigerators weren’t designed to be turned off and might not actually go back on again. That wasn’t what the maintenance people told me when I first asked, but then they all changed their minds. I argued, but lost, and so I did what my boss told me to do. I turned the refrigerators back on.

I can hear them humming now. I try to ignore them because I don’t want to think about things I can’t do anything about. And I don’t look so closely at beautiful things as I did when the refrigerators were off. I don’t feel as strong in my life. I don’t laugh as I walk down the street, unless I think of something funny. Turning a blind eye to the subtleties of my economic and ecological relationships constitutes a gap into which the better part of my day has apparently fallen.

I believe in the importance of relationships, and I believe in paying attention. I believe in the power of one individual to affect another, and in the moral necessity of taking responsibility for my actions, however small or subtle. I shall find a way to divest myself of those refrigerators, or I shall find a way to live with their influence without turning away. I shall count every ounce of petrochemical if that’s what I need to do, although I suspect that’s both much more and much less than what the planet really needs.

And I shall give my Chris a rose, if I can get one, and I shall not care what color it ends up being.


BOEM Scoping, Part 2: Not in My Backyard

Last week, I wrote about how BOEM, a US government agency, is currently accepting public comment about whether to allow oil and gas exploration off the coast of part of the Atlantic Seaboard.

The comment period runs to the end of this month. You can find more information, and you can comment online, here.  You can also comment on the other proposed leasing areas, most of which have already been open for drilling for a while, but if you think that should change, this is your chance to say so.

The reasons some of us don’t want the Atlantic opened for drilling are two-fold.

First, drilling means accidents, sooner or later, and we don’t want anywhere on the Atlantic coast contaminated with oil. I am particularly concerned about the horseshoe crabs. Delaware Bay has some of the most important spawning beaches for horseshoe crabs in the world. Their eggs, in turn, are a critical food source for the red knot, a migratory bird that makes a stop in Delaware to refuel. The red knot population is already crashing, and if the spawning beaches were oiled we could lose the species. Delaware and Maryland have not opted into the drilling program, so our waters are not being considered, but Virginia and North Carolina have. It’s not hard to imagine that a spill off the coast of their states could contaminate our waters.

Second, finding the oil and gas deposits involves blasting the seabed with extremely loud noise. This sonic testing is loud enough to kill or maim wildlife in its path, and to disturb wildlife lucky enough to be farther away. Some of that wildlife–whales, for example–are legally protected, so the oil and gas companies that want to do this testing must apply for a “take permit.” Essentially, they need to ask for permission to kill whales and other animals. Does this really make sense? Is oil and gas really worth the life of whales and dolphins? Do we want mass strandings of disoriented and deafened whales and dolphins dying on our beaches?

I don’t.

Go ahead: comment here.

We went into that meeting hoping to be able to get the Atlantic taken off the table for gas and oil entirely. This comment period is not the last opportunity to ask for that, but it is the most promising. We have the best shot right now that we’ll ever have. I left that meeting much less optimistic. I still say we should go for it; unexpected victories are possible, as long as David actually shows up to the battle with Goliath. But the reasons for my pessimism are important to discuss as well.

What I gathered, from meeting with the representatives of BOEM, was that BOEM is not the enemy (they were all very friendly and helpful) but that they work on the basic assumption that oil and gas exploration will happen. Their job, in their eyes, is to direct the process in such a way as to minimize harm. They may, for example, reduce the area available for lease so as to protect the horseshoe crabs, or to protect whale spawning grounds, as much as possible, and their sister agency, BSEE, will ensure that the drilling itself is done in the safest way possible given current technology. But they will not rule that drilling should not happen at all, even though that is the best way to protect our oceans and coasts, because drilling is a given for them.

As I said last week, I do not think BOEM should be vilified for this order of priorities. I even think it’s possible that the reason the BOEM representatives were so friendly to a group of obvious anti-drilling activists like us is that they want to say “no drilling,” and really hope we can give them the political cover to do that. Realistically, if they oppose the oil and gas industry too vociferously, the industry will likely respond by funding the election of Congressional candidates willing to defund or dismantle BOEM. And if the public does not care about whales and horseshoe crabs and tourism and fishing, those candidates will win. And then sonic testing and drilling will simply happen everywhere. BOEM is not the enemy. Ignorance and complacency are the enemy.

And the assumption that oil and gas exploration will happen is an enemy, an enemy largely created by the American people when they insist upon an economy based on fossil fuels no matter what.

What we’re looking at here is the concept of NIMBY, Not In My Back Yard. The phrase is sometimes used as an insult–someone is a nimby who wants to keep their own neighborhood clean for selfish reasons. I agree with the negative connotation as applied to people who are perfectly happy to mess up other people’s back yards instead. Someone who would rather get their electricity from a coal-fired plant elsewhere than from a wind farm that they have to look at is a nimby in the worst possible sense. But in other contexts, I think the nimbys have it right–certain things shouldn’t happen in anybody’s back yard.

I get in my car, turn the key, and drive to the grocery store, say. Is that trip really worth even a small contribution to sea level rise, species extinction, international conflict?

I tend to think that if anybody really put the matter frankly, this entire fossil fuel project would look like a really bad deal. Hey, let’s destroy whole mountains, pollute rivers, blow up small towns when oil trains explode, gum up birds and fish and poison coastlines when offshore well heads break or oil barges wreck, and warp the atmosphere so that sea level rises and a lot of people have their homes flattened by hurricanes, all so that a small minority of people can get rich and the rest of us can pretend we have a couple of spare planets available.


We, in fact, make this deal by how we spend our money and how we vote and we do it because the chance of any of those awful consequences happening to us are very small. Most of the people who benefit from fossil fuels don’t experience injury from them directly. The costs are borne by a small number of people somewhere else. When those people object, they are called nimbys, basically for not being team players. The logic, it seems, is that what benefits a large number of people is worth the loss of life and livelihood of a few, especially if it’s not clear who those few are going to be–we don’t know where or when the next oil spill will happen, only that it will happen somewhere, sometime. Fossil fuel is like a reverse lottery, where everybody buys a ticket and whoever holds the winning number has their property stolen and distributed to everyone else. It looks quite fair from a certain perspective.

Or, we could build a society where one litmus test we apply to any technology or policy is that it not destroy anybody’s backyard.

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Cyclone Pam

Last week was a strange week for weather in the South Pacific. Not only were four tropical cyclones active all at the same, but one of those four was Cyclone Pam, a monster storm equivalent to a Category 5 hurricane that more or less flattened the island nation of Vanuatu. Of course, climate change is involved.

To be clear, Pam was the same kind of storm that is called a hurricane or a typhoon in other parts of the world. By a rather confusing accepted convention, the words for these storms vary depending on both how strong they are and where they are on the planet. “Tropical cyclone” is the collective term.

Vanuatu is among those several archipelagos that curve around Australia between Southeast Asia and New Zealand. In material terms it is very poor, and its average life expectancy, adult literacy rate, and availability of doctors are all lower than what people in the “developed” world are used to. That being said, it is a democracy, its life expectancy is quite good compared to economically similar nations, and the people did extremely well in terms of both environmental sustainability and quality of life–at least until last Saturday.

Only 20 people are confirmed dead so far, but some of the more remote islands have not been contacted yet. The nation had good disaster planning and successfully evacuated a lot of people. More dramatically, tens of thousands of people are homeless, their crops completely destroyed. Those people will be dependent on food aid for months. Many currently have no access to fresh water and some people are drinking salt water instead–a practice that will kill them if fresh water supplies don’t arrive soon. The aftermath of the storm could kill more people than the storm did, and the disaster could change the political and economic outlook of the country for a long time, depending on how the reconstruction process goes.

Vanuatu also threatened New Zealand (remember, in the Southern Hemisphere tropical cyclones track south), triggering storm warnings and possible evacuations, but the storm seems to have been a complete non-issue in New Zealand. There’s little to no information available online and my Kiwi friend is happily posting pictures of her dogs on Facebook, just like normal.

The other three storms in the same basin are, individually, unremarkable–the only thing is there are so many of them.

How Unusual Is This?

Most of my readers are American, and we do not get news about the South Pacific very often. Most of us probably didn’t know Vanuatu existed until this week. So, to put this newsworthy weather in context:

Cyclone Pam was probably not a record-breaking storm, but it was among the most powerful known to history, with estimated top sustained winds of 165 mph and gusts up to 200 mph. Its central pressure could have been as low as 879 millibars, which would put it behind just two Atlantic hurricanes. Unfortunately, no one flies aerial reconnaissance into Pacific storms, so there is no way to know for sure exactly what Pam’s numbers were.  Vanuatu itself rarely gets hit by cyclones because it is a very small place (total land area is just larger than the state of Connecticut, divided among many islands) in a very large ocean.

But we also don’t have very good historical records for the area’s weather. In fact, there’s really only about thirty years of tropical cyclone data for Vanuatu–how Pam relates to historical trends is therefore very hard to say.

Four active storms in the same basin is unusual, though hardly unprecedented. It has happened at least twice before in the Atlantic, and is probably more common than our records suggest because storms that never made landfall were easy to miss until modern times. Two storms at once in the same basin is actually quite common. Essentially, how “friendly” a given ocean basin is to tropical cyclone formation varies and a very storm-friendly ocean forms a lot of storms. Interestingly, the same large atmospheric pattern that caused the four storms last week is also causing cooler temperatures in the United States this week. Whether this particular pattern is anything other than chance seems unclear.

What Does Cyclone Pam Have to Do with Climate Change?

In general, climate change is a trend and part of that trend is probably more powerful tropical cyclones. Whether storm behavior is actually changing is hard to say, because we have too little historical information. At least some studies have shown definite increases. We do know that storm surges are getting worse because of rising sea level, and that storm surges are usually the deadliest part of the storm.

Specifically, the ocean surface around Vanuatu was a few degrees warmer than normal at the time Pam moved through it, thus feeding more energy and moisture into the storm. That warmth was partially due to global warming and partially due to a weak El Niño–and nobody knows what the relationship between global warming and El Niño is. It is possible they interact. Very large storms often have sea surface temperature anomalies underneath them, which is ominous in a world of rising temperatures.

But sea surface temperature alone does not dictate the power of a tropical cyclone. Instead, the upper limit of potential storm power in any one place and time is based on the difference between sea surface temperature and the troposphere as a whole. The troposphere is the part of the atmosphere where weather happens. Above it is the stratosphere an there is a distinct boundary, called the tropopause, between the two. The thing is that while the sea is definitely warming, the troposphere is warming, too. If both warm at the same rate, the upward boundary on storm power will not change (although other aspects of storm behavior could).

As it happens, the difference between sea and sky is increasing in the South Pacific, enough to have raised the potential storm intensity for that region by about 5 mph per decade. That is a lot–it adds up to an increase of almost 20 mph since I was born. Presumably, not all storms reach their potential, but increasing potential suggests increased storm intensity over time. Climate models so far predict only a much smaller rise in storm severity potential for the future, which could mean that something other than the greenhouse effect is causing much of the shift–or it could mean the models are overly optimistic.

Basically, what we’re looking at is a real possibility that tropical cyclones in the South Pacific and the Indian Ocean have gotten more severe in recent decades, though it’s hard to say how much more severe because we don’t have enough data–and the probability that such storms are going to get more severe going forward. The only real question is how much worse are they going to get?

The Take-away

I have written before about tropical cyclones as a human rights issue, since the poor and otherwise disenfranchised bear a disproportionate burden from disaster. I have also written before about how wind speed per se is not a good indicator of what climate change is doing to these storms, since global warming is unquestionably increasing storm-related flooding whether wind speed changes or not–and flooding causes much more death and damage than wind.

But there is another point I had not encountered until recently, and it is a very good point.

Tropical cyclones are rare. While a few dozen might form in any given storm basin per year, the oceans are big places. It’s rare for a big storm to make a direct strike on the same place twice in a generation–Vanuatu, for example, has not been hit this bad before. That means that development patterns, building codes, public willingness to take evacuation orders seriously–cultural storm preparedness generally–is based largely on legend and rumor.

My area illustrates the point nicely; I live on the Atlantic side of the Eastern Shore of Maryland. We were hit by both Irene and Sandy, but neither did significant damage here. We’ve also weathered some severe nor’easters, but those are not hurricanes–the Ash Wednesday Storm of 1962 was hurricane-like in its destructiveness, but even that was 53 years ago. A lot of people (me included) have been born since then. I just asked my husband when the last disastrous hurricane hit us and he wasn’t sure. He guessed the 1950’s or 60’s. If a monster storm hits here next year, a lot of people could well ignore evacuation orders (because we survived Irene and Sandy, after all) and a lot of new waterfront housing will wash away–as will a lot of older buildings and farmlands made newly vulnerable by sea level rise and by the loss of coastal wetlands to development. Disasters are things that happen to other people, we will think, not to us.

And what cultural memory we do have of hurricanes is almost sixty years out of date.

Storm rarity means that society takes a long time to adapt to the new normal, needing perhaps two or three big storms to really get the message–and that could take 75 years. By that time, of course, there will be a new new normal, unless we as a society stop warping the atmosphere. That’s really what we’re looking at. If we do not stop pumping greenhouse gasses into the sky, climate will change faster than we can adapt to it and it will keep changing faster than we can adapt until anthropogenic climate change stops–or until we stop.



BOEM Scoping Part 1: Comments Needed

Last week, I attended a protest and an informational event in Annapolis, Maryland. The objective was to keep oil and gas exploration away from our shores.

It is a seldom-discussed fact, but for people who live on the Eastern Seaboard of the United States, large-scale oceanic oil spills are a disaster that happens somewhere else, to someone else. Tragic, and we’re glad to donate money and outrage to the cause, but not really our problem. I don’t mean to sound smug, it’s not like we’re above disaster (we do seem to be developing a problem with hurricanes), it just usually happens elsewhere and we don’t really think about why.

Turns out, the reason we don’t have oceanic oil spills it quite simple; we don’t have off-shore oil and gas exploration, as per US energy policy. And that is about to change. Hence the protest.

The Situation

Where and how energy development takes place in America’s oceans is the purview of the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, or BOEM. According to one of the handouts I picked up at the meeting,

BOEM promotes energy independence, environmental protection, and economic development through responsible, science-based management of offshore conventional and renewable energy and marine mineral resources. BOEM is responsible for resource management, including leasing, economic analysis, resource evaluation, and environmental analysis.

BOEM is engaging a wide range of stakeholders to gather as much input as possible for consideration of potential new leases in Alaska, the Gulf of Mexico, and the Mid- and South Atlantic.

By “South Atlantic” they mean the sea off the coast of Georgia and South Carolina.

While it may sound odd for a single agency to simultaneously promote both fossil fuel exploitation and environmental protection, it’s worth noting that the alternative–what existed prior to BOEM’s creation–was a piecemeal permit process without any formal means of large-scale planning or public input. As long as fossil fuel exploitation is allowed to exist, there must be agencies capable of limited and shaping the process in accordance with the public and environmental good.

BOEM operates according to the Outer Continental Shelf Lands Act (OCSLA), which states (again, according to the handout) that

The Secretary of the Interior must prepare an oil and gas leasing program every five years showing the size, timing,  and location of potential leasing activity and precisely as possible. The process beings with a Request for Information and culminates with a final program, with drafts and comment periods in between.

The OCSLA process receives input, not just of from the public, but also from an environmental impact assessment, as required by the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA). In essence, each program defines the areas within which oil and gas leasing can even be considered. The area is divided into small plots and only a small number of those plots are actually made available for lease. Then, before a company actually does anything to the plots it leases, it must do another environmental impact assessment. Oil and gas exploration involves sonic testing, which is harmful to marine life and therefore requires a permit–and the permitting process is again separate from the OCSLA process.  BOEM does not enforce any of the conditions of its various leases and permits, but the Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement, or BSEE, can and does. The BSEE can, if necessary, shut an extraction operation down completely if it violates the law. At least on paper, then, there are a lot of safeguards in place to ensure that the oil and gas industry operates without inflicting undue harm on anybody or anything.

The proposed 2017-2022 Gas and Oil Leasing Program includes parts of the Gulf of Mexico, some of the waters off the coast of Alaska, and areas off the coast of Georgia, South Carolina, North Carolina, and  Virginia. Maryland’s waters are not included, but we’re uncomfortably close to areas that are. BOEM is currently conducting a “scoping process” preparatory to the first environmental impact assessment. That means they are accepting public comment to find out what our concerns are–what we’re worried might happen if drilling in these areas goes ahead. Then, they can address those concerns when they do the assessment. BOEM called the meeting in Annapolis, along with meetings in other affected regions, in order to let the public know how to use the comment process. The comments themselves must be made online or by mail.

We’re hoping that, based on our comments, BOEM will remove the Atlantic from the 2017-2022 program.

The Problem

The problem is that, no matter how safe a drilling operation is, an accident sooner or later is close to inevitable. The Mid- and South-Atlantic sections don’t begin until 50 miles off-shore, which might offer some protection to the coast, but also means that most of the lease areas will be in deep water–just like the Deepwater Horizon, in the Gulf of Mexico. Part of why that disaster was as bad as it was had to do with how far the damaged wellhead was under water. We’re looking at running exactly the same risk in the Atlantic.

Let’s say there is an accident.

We’re looking at a major economic and cultural hit, since a lot of communities in this region depend on the seafood industry, tourism, or both. We’re also looking at a major ecological hit, since both the Delaware and Chesapeake Bays are vulnerable. Just as an example of what’s at stake, the Delaware Bay is a critical stop for the Red Knot on its migration route. The birds “refuel” there by eating horseshoe crab eggs on quiet beaches. Red Knots already have Threatened status under the Endangered Species Act, in part due to the over-harvesting of horseshoe crabs. Now, if those beaches were oiled, as could happen if an oil well in the northern part of the proposed program area leaks badly, what will happen to those horseshoe crabs and those birds?

And even if everything goes perfectly, sonic testing is a routine part of marine oil and gas exploration. This involves blasting EXTREMELY LOUD noises at the sea floor, killing, maiming, or disorienting any marine life that happens to be in the way.

The Event

I went to the scoping meeting with Assateague Coastal Trust, and advocacy organization that stands up for the coastal bays of Maryland, Delaware, and Virginia. Although we knew the meeting would not include any formal opportunity to register our comments, we thought it would do some good for BOEM’s representatives to see and hear us. We arrived early so we and a group from Oceana, another organization, could have a rally out on the sidewalk. There were perhaps thirty of us, waving signs and toy windmills and waving at passing cars. Four people wore fish costumes (two striped bass, one weakfish, and one Atlantic sturgeon) and one wore a hazmat suit. Various reported spoke to us. Cars honked as they drove by. One of the Oceana people said our turn-out was much better than for some of the other scoping meetings that have already happened.

One of the BOEM people came out and told us it was fine for us to rally, but please don’t block the sidewalk or stand in front of the restaurant. We all scooted over cooperatively.

When we went in, the helpful, respectful treatment continued. They asked us to leave our signs behind the front desk, but we were allowed to carry our windmills in and wear our costumes. We got a lot of compliments on the fish. Everyone from BOEM was friendly and welcoming.

There were several information statements and we could wander around and ask questions at each station. We did so, and they answered our questions. They often asked whether their answers were helpful and clear. A few times some of them answered slightly different questions than what we had asked, a common evasive technique, but maybe they were simply trying to be clear when we asked questions that weren’t. Certainly, BOEM representatives frankly admitted to paying a lot of attention to the needs of the energy industry, something they surely would not have done if they were trying to greenwash themselves.

We didn’t see any members of “the public” at the meeting besides ourselves.

The Takeaway

I was heartened by how friendly and helpful the BOEM people seemed. I believe them to be genuine. At the same time, it seemed abundantly clear the BOEM will not say no to the fossil fuel industry as a whole. If the industry wants to extract fuel from the Atlantic, BOAM will use its authority to direct that activity into the least destructive channels possible. It will not say that “least destructive” isn’t good enough.

The truth is that fossil fuel extraction is a given in our society.

But the other truth is that if BOEM hears mostly silence from the public on conservation and a deafening roar from the industry, they will have little choice but to side with industry. They live and work in a political and economic reality that won’t go away by wishing. It’s possible that the BOEM people were so friendly precisely because they welcome the intervention of environmentalists. Many of them are probably environmentalists themselves, fighting a war on the defensive, with very few tools. They need reinforcements badly. We can provide reinforcement by commenting.

They’ll accept comments until the end of the month. Go to for information or to comment online.




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Calculating Cost Part 1

It’s a common complaint; we can’t reduce our carbon emissions or adapt to climate change because it costs too much money. Of course, global warming costs money, too, so which costs more? Does investing in the post-petroleum future actually work out to a savings?

The question is hardly new. In the 1970’s, the economist W.D. Nordhaus argued that we should figure out exactly when fossil fuel use would start costing more than it was worth and that we should keep using it up until that point. For the purpose of argument, he guessed that point might lie somewhere around 2° C. of warming, a figure that should sound familiar to readers.

But Nordhaus’ suggestion had a number of interesting flaws.

Most fundamentally, Nordhaus, like many economists, assumed that all value could be expressed in the same terms (money) and then compared by arithmetic. Subtract the cost from the benefit and if you get a positive number then whatever you are doing is worth it. To facilitate such calculations, modern economists have developed a number of techniques for affixing dollar amounts to intangible things like beauty or wildness. They argue, perhaps correctly, that in a society as obsessed with money as ours is, priceless is just another word for worthless. To protect wild places, these economists believe, we must acknowledge their worth in money. The problem is that value really isn’t always comparable. If you want a $100,000 wetland, a $100,000 car just won’t do (and vice versa, of course).

Even granting the premise that comparing values is as simple as arithmetic, the costs and benefits of greenhouse gas emissions exist on different timescales. A highway bridge, for example, might be designed for 30 years of service while its environmental costs (cement production has a very large carbon footprint) might persist for tens of thousands of years. Carbon dioxide stays in the atmosphere a long time. There is no way to predict and add up all the costs that climate change might incur over multiple millennia–we don’t even know if there will be money that far in the future. And even if we could do the calculation, will the people responsible for building the bridge care?

The most complete and honest answer to questions of relative cost is that anthropogenic climate change costs too much and should therefore be stopped immediately.

But those responsible for sticking to a budget, whether personal, municipal, or national, still do have to justify their financial choices to other people. For them, it is possible to make a couple of estimates, provided everyone is clear that such estimates inevitably leave out the greater part of the costs. Some of these estimates have already been made and are publicly available. Others require more information and mathematical skill than I have, but I can at least discuss where the costs in question might lie.

I’ll go into more detail in a subsequent post, but basically we’re looking at a continuum of costs from the direct and obvious to the indirect and debatable. For example, sea level rise is unambiguously a result of global warming. We know how much the sea has risen and how fast it is rising. Calculating the costs of that rise in flood damage is very straightforward. In contrast, there is the connection between global warming and ISIS; Syria had a bad drought a couple of years ago, which forced a lot of people off their land and into cities, fruitlessly looking for work–the resulting civil unrest provided very fertile ground for extremism. Climate change makes severe weather, including droughts, more likely. If the connection sounds tenuous to some readers, it does not to the Department of Defense, which takes climate change very seriously. But how much of the cost of coping with ISIS really belongs at the feet of global warming (as opposed to the feet of Bashar al-Assad, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, or, say George W. Bush) is obviously debatable.

But even where costs and benefits can be calculated, there is a problem; they aren’t always borne by the same people.

Disasters effect poor and otherwise disenfranchised people disproportionately. At the same time, the benefits of fossil fuels accrue disproportionately to the wealthy. It’s not that cars and trucks and railroads and cement are of no benefit to the downtrodden, but Kochs or Rockafellers we are not. Pretending otherwise–pretending that a cost/benefit analysis done for an entire country actually reflects the experience of individuals is disingenuous. For some of us, climate change has long since passed the point where fossil fuel just isn’t worth its true cost. For others, climate change costs nothing and oil revenues continue to build.

Guess which group of people is in control of the mainstream media and the political process?

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The Real Time Bandits

This is a re-post from the Original Climate Emergency Blog

Dr. Jane Goodall thinks you are a thief. Considering the physics of global warming, she may be right. And it turns out that standing accused of theft may be the least of our problems.

In 2009, during a lecture at Oxford, Dr. Goodall said that the popular quote about how “we borrow the world from our children” is a lie, since we have no real plan to pay our descendants back for the environmental destruction that we cause. Instead of borrowing the world from the future, she says we are stealing the world. These are powerful words, chosen to make the point that environmental destruction is a moral issue, a crime with victims, a fit subject of outrage. But is the crime in question literally theft? Or is this a metaphor meant only to indicate the moral stakes involved?

Theft means that the victim loses what the thief gains. If I run a red light, hit your car, and cause $2000 worth of damage, then I am at fault and you are my victim, but I’m not a thief because your loss is not my gain. It’s not like those two thousand dollars magically appear in my bank account. Air pollution itself is like a car crash, because while the perpetrators may be making money from their polluting activities, the loss of air quality itself is of no benefit to them. Yet there is one circumstance in which pollution is very much a theft.

Climate change means stealing real estate from the future.

Using resources means controlling land. The fact that all wealth is ultimately access to real estate is hidden by the complexity of our global economy, but if everyone had to live wholly within impenetrable biosphere bubbles, then rich people would have bigger bubbles. In reality, all the land that would be inside a person’s biosphere bubble is scattered all over the world, but interested consumers can at least get a rough idea of how much land they are using by calculating their ecological footprint. For example, if half a pound of carrots requires a square foot of land to grow, then a person who eats twenty pounds of carrots per year has forty square feet of carrot patch somewhere in the world. It isn’t necessary to know where that land is to know that a certain lifestyle requires a certain number of acres. For more on how ecological footprint estimates can be used for sustainability planning, check out Our Ecological Footprint, by Wackernagel and Rees. According to their calculation, oddly enough, the total ecological footprint of human activity is now bigger than the actual planet.

The extra acreage has to come from somewhere, and it comes from both the past and the future. The reason has to do with the physics of energy.

Almost all energy on Earth ultimately comes from the sun, which means that the Earth has a maximum energy budget set by the amount of sunlight that falls on the planet’s surface over time. In practice, the Earth’s income is less than this maximum because not all the sun’s energy is absorbed. Using energy, whether by eating, burning fuel, or anything else, means taking advantage of acres of solar collection. Fossil fuel stores the solar energy that originally fell on swampland millions of years ago. Burning those fuels allows us to access acres of ancient sunlight. Burning fossil fuel releases carbon dioxide which will eventually have to be sequestered again. Carbon sequestration is another service provided by the land, and we have released so much that we do not have enough land to do the job. Sequestration is the same process as energy storage, and the process takes a long time. The extra carbon that our world cannot sequester will be passed on to the world of future generations. It is as though we have gone into debt by spending our energy faster than we can make it. The debt must be paid, if not by us than by our children and grandchildren—and their children and grandchildren, and so on into the future. It is possible to use land for more than one thing at the same time (the same forest can sequester carbon, provide habitat, and prevent flooding), but by committing future generations to manage their land primarily for carbon sequestration, we have definitely limited their options. The remaining acres missing from our ecological footprint belong to the future, and we did not ask their permission to use their land. This is, quite literally, theft. And it is ongoing, and we could stop it any time we like if we just decide to use less energy.

It is not only theft from the future. The fact that the total human ecological footprint is bigger than the planet means that there is no part of the planet that is not being used by somebody somewhere. Now, some countries have footprints bigger than their national territories, while others have footprints smaller than their land. Since there is no unused land, this is a zero-sum situation; the “extra” land in poor countries is being used by rich countries, even if only for carbon sequestration. Nor is this land paid for, because, since all wealth is ultimately land, a truly fair trade should not change either country’s footprint size. There are some complications here, obviously, but the overall picture is that many so-called “developing” countries are poor, not because they have not finished developing, but because the wealth of their land is being exported at steep disadvantage; in simple terms, wealthy countries have more resources because they have stolen them.

There is one more worrying permutation of the size of the human ecological footprint. Normally, communities of organisms that use up their resources suffer famine. A slight overdraft might only cause breeding failure for a few seasons in a small area. A major overdraft of ecological resources will cause a long and deep famine, possibly killing off the entire community. Animal and plant species have evolved different ways to deal with the limitations to their resources; basically, they can either respond to early signs of resource depletion by using less, or they can flee when the famine hits and start over somewhere new. But if the available space humans use is the entire planet, then there is obviously nowhere else to go. And with our resource base temporarily expanded beyond the size of our planet, through the use of resources taken from both the future and the past, we will continue to feel as though we have plenty until long after we have actually committed ourselves to famine. We cannot steal land from other time periods forever.

Our present and our future now depend on our collective ability to realize that we are hitting our limits even though it still feels as though we have plenty. Weather a critical mass of human beings are willing and able to choose thoughts over feelings remains to be seen.


Warm Winter We’re Having (Really!)

When some wag points to mountains of snow and ice and asked “where’s global warming?” a well-informed person counters “It’s actually ‘climate change.’ The climate is changing, with some places getting warmer and others getting colder.” Well, almost.

First, it’s still global warming; the globe as a whole is getting warmer. Second, the United States is not in some magically contrarian pattern of coldness. We’re getting warmer, too. Really.

The US is dealing with the same pattern we had last winter, where unusual (sometimes record-breaking) cold in the East is balanced by unusual (sometimes record-breaking) warmth in the West–more than balanced, actually, since the country as a whole just had its 6th warmest December and January on record. Stephen Colbert’s brilliant tweet, “global warming isn’t real because I was cold today! Also great news: World hunger is over because I just ate,” springs to mind.

But it’s a little more than that.

The same large-scale weather pattern is causing both extremes, so that the cold of the East and the warmth of the West are linked. We’re cold because they are warm. Also, even the east might not be as cold as it seems. There is this principle, of course:

From XKCD 1321 "Cold"

From XKCD 1321 “Cold”

It actually is unusually cold in the East at present, since we’ve set a few new records, but it isn’t quite as unusual as it feels. More importantly, even in the East, this winter as a whole has not been anywhere near as cold as the last few weeks make it seem. December, in fact, was quite warm all over the country, which is why the winter as a whole has not set any records for cold, even in the Eastern states.

Not too long ago, this winter actually seemed very warm and dry to me here in Maryland–was I wrong? Or was January not that cold, either? I looked up a few figures for Baltimore, Boston, New York, and Portland (Maine) and found that for each of these cities the temperature over the month was colder than the historical average, but only by one to three degrees. Each city had whole weeks of unusually warm temperatures, alongside the cold ones, and each city spent most of the month being more or less average.

So, if someone wants to know where the warming is, you don’t have to tell them that actually climate change makes some places colder. All you have to is tell them to remember Flagstaff, Arizona, which just had its warmest February on record. Or tell them to remember December, which, even in Boston, was slightly warmer than average–on Christmas Day the high there was sixty degrees.