The Climate in Emergency

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


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The Ecology of Predator and Prey

This is another article I wrote in college about coping with various kinds of worry and grief, including that related to global warming and other environmental problems. I am not personally grief-stricken at the moment. Instead, I am tired and pressed for time, having just returned from a few days’ vacation. Hopefully this essay will prove food for thought.

Just before Yule this past year, I was chatting on the phone with a friend of mine, Robert, while doing some sewing. I turned to do something in the kitchen only to discover upon my return that my cat, her ulcerated tumors bleeding again, had covered my workspace, including my dress pattern, with irregular, red spots. I hustled around trying to separate my patterns so they could dry and protect my fabric without interrupting the flow of conversation, whose subject seemed bizarrely civilized under the circumstances; we were discussing the genome of the grape and the proper ways to serve different kinds of wine while I stared, transfixed, at the red, Rorschached blotches like footprints, stalking, taking, slowly, my cat.

Here, observe, three views of life on Earth.

One:

Saturday morning in January, warm, hot as May; the breeze moves, gentle, as I stand on the sidewalk waiting for the bus by the Ethan Allen furniture store and St. Phillips Lutheran Church, chickweeds growing in delicate riot by my feet, so far so good, but also dandelions, clover, greening grass, while the trees stand mute above like skeletons. This isn’t right; though the air is pleasant on my simple skin I can’t enjoy it. This weather is as apocalyptic as last summer’s heat waves when I lay, sick and dreaming, too hot to work, all thought, all feeling driven off by the eternal, heavy, heat, save one; this isn’t the way it’s supposed to be, but this is the way it is going to be, more often now, because of us. A funeral procession drives by, headed by slowly flashing police escort, dozens and dozens of cars of mute, hard-eyed people. Most of the cars have only a single passenger, or at most, two. An oil truck cuts through the line to make a delivery to the strip mall behind me, its presence as lyric to the day as a line of poetry. I wonder, whose funeral is it?

Two:

My cat wants to go out, and I can deny her nothing, except for all the things I have denied her and all the things it simply isn’t mine to give; this leash, for example, is a compromise between her exuberance and her body, too sick to take a rabies vaccine. She has never gotten fully comfortable outside and never developed her body to its feline potential; as far as I know, she has never climbed more than a few feet up a tree. Probably, she never will, now. Maybe she might have if I had simply let her out and hoped she didn’t get bitten, or maybe I should have gone out with her more, for longer. Who am I to draw this line here? Who am I to bring a cat in out of the sun just because I have something else I need or want to do? These are judgments I do not feel competent to make and I never have felt competent to make them through these long years of one kind of leash or another hanging between us, yet make them I must. Nothing that I gave her could ever have been enough to absolve her of further desserts. We walk, and she pauses to scent-mark the bottom twig on the lilac bush, rubbing it with her nose, her gums, sniffing it delicately. I sniff it after her and compare the scent to that of one higher up, above the reach of cats and foxes. I fancy I can detect a difference. She stalks a bird in the ivy bed, and I flatten myself out behind her, trying to move forward without frightening her quarry, giving her as much range as possible with the leash, my arm, and the length of my outstretched body. The bird must have flown while neither of us noticed, for now it is no longer there. The day is fine and high and blue, and she doesn’t seem to know she’s sick. Or, at least she doesn’t favor herself, she goes full-bore, always, along her small, plucky way. I mean, what else does she have to do? It’s not like she’s going to get better, it isn’t like she has time to spare in self-pity. She just plays the cards she’s dealt. This animal is a carnivore, whose kind prune and in so pruning, create the reproductive exuberance of small rodents and birds. Fed on organic ground beef through the agency of human loyalty and partisanship, this cat has lived almost nine years. In that time, how many steers have died young for her?

Three:

Walking through campus I can see that the remaining old elms are dying–they have brownish yellow stripes running up the grey and furrowed trunks. My Dad told me about Dutch elm disease when I was little; I have never known a time when its inundations were not part of my history, but as I’ve been watching, over the better part of thirty years, the pandemic has progressed and more of the great cambium fountains have come down. When I was little, I remember, the elms met over the walkways, across the greens. I remember walking, on Community Day, a visceral memory, the smell of cotton candy and funnel cake, a grown-up hand—whose? I only remember the hand—in mine, and above an arching green roof full of multicolored balloons escaped from the careless hands of other children. The greens are open, now, the places of most of the giants taken by smaller trees, another kind of elm, I think, their stems slowly thickening into adulthood. My friend, Robert, is an ecologist who is busy mapping the community types of my state. When I brought him here, on the way to a coffee shop, he remarked that the campus probably counted as Modified Meadow or Modified Hardwood Forest. He’s grasping at straws; this isn’t altered, this is new: American Collegiate, typified by dying elms, manicured grass and a fauna of Frisbee players, grey squirrels, and playful dogs. No matter how aberrant this slow death of trees seems to me, the elms would never have died in such numbers if they hadn’t been planted unnaturally thick to begin with.

Humans are capable of a certain impartial perspective, but at heart we’re partisan animals living in a non-partisan world. Global warming and human-associated habitat destruction are surely no more radical than the asteroid that marked the KT boundary. Life recovered, growing even more diverse in time, and will again; nothing stays the same for long. Similarly, the birthrate of any given species is adjusted to its mortality rate; if it takes three dozen mice born per one that makes it to adulthood to keep even with the hunger of cats, then that is the number that mother mice produce, yet every pup is an individual. One could say each mouse deserves a full and happy life, just as every cat does, but it is the nature of both cats and mice, in their fullness, to produce more than can so live; to lower the mortality rate would require lowering the birthrate which would change the nature of the animals’ lives. Anyway, which individuals don’t get born in that case? Isn’t it better to live for at least a little while? Like climate change and disaster, death and even personal tragedy are just part of how things work; if these things did not exist, life as a whole would be different and probably the poorer for it.

Yet we are partisan, and we must behave in partisan ways; we act, we do one thing rather than another, and so we must make choices based on some judgment, some assessment of value, even if the value is a purely private priority. Mass extinctions happen, and in the grand scheme of things may not actually be a problem, but I must throw my small weight either for this one or against it, and I do not want a mass extinction on my watch, on my conscience. Plants, animals, and diseases do invade each other’s territory; humans may be causing an unprecedented invasion, but we are not causing the only one. Communities adapt and change. Diversity will recover. Nonetheless, I want my trees not to die of some imported disease, even if their gothic branches were themselves an artificial presence. And I want my Gertie to have not had cancer to begin with, I don’t care if she’s no better or worse than a mouse or a beef steer–or me, for that matter, I wanted this one, this particular one, to get the proverbial sun, moon and stars. That I, a mortal human, couldn’t reach them for her does not reduce the injustice any less.

We live in a world of change and transformation; one thing eats another, one thing subsumes another, one thing takes another’s place. Even if it were possible to pick sides, once and for all, on moral grounds, it would not be possible on physical grounds, for not only does the success of a predator mean the failure of a prey animal–and vice versa–but it is the very opposition, the very dynamism of the system, that makes the system in the first place. Under whatever happy facade of civilization or rationalization, we are incontrovertibly members of a system where things break and change and die as an inevitable matter of course, without violating the integrity of the whole. Under whatever veneer of educated perspective, however, we remain organisms who fight and try to win.


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An Even More Inconvenient Truth

Yesterday, our TV news and internet news feeds erupted with tales of rioting in Baltimore. As a Marylander, this seems decidedly more personal than the events in Ferguson last year and the other recent incidents of justifiable, if entirely unhelpful rage. Also, I have a friend in Baltimore. He could get hurt in the riots. He is also black, so how Baltimore police treat black men is not an abstract issue for me. From any direction, this is a news story that hits home.

Let me just say it; for these officers to claim that they don’t know how Freddy Gray developed life-threatening injuries while in custody is an excuse unworthy of two-year-olds.

This is, of course, a blog on climate change and not on civil rights, but I would be remiss if I did not acknowledge current events. Also, there is an overlap between this topic and ours. As I discussed during the protests after Michael Brown’s death, part of the overlap has to do with the necessity of radical protest. Here is some of what I said then, edited for space:

A few days ago, I read the entire text of the Letter from Birmingham Jail for the first time.  It is the response, by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., to an open letter written by a group of white clergy condemning civil disobedience actions in Birmingham, Alabama. The Statement of Alabama Clergymen calls for the illegal protests to stop, praises the police for their non-violence in handling the protestors, and says that outsiders (by which they meant King and his associates) should stay out of it. Instead, the black people of Birmingham should be patient, obey the law, and work for their rights exclusively through the court system. They would get their rights respected someday. In essence, King replied that someday isn’t good enough.

This same week, I’ve read an article in The Atlantic, by Charles C. Mann.

Mr. Mann’s basic thesis is that nobody really knows how to talk about climate change [among other charges, he says that “extremists” should stop being so strident]. The charge that environmentalists should stop shouting “emergency” is an old one. We are told that we are scaring away potential allies, making people “feel guilty,” and if we only tone things down a bit we might make more progress.

The thing is, historically, change hasn’t worked like that. Dr. King knew this. To the call that his movement should exercise patience, he replied,

“We know through painful experience that freedom is never voluntarily given by the oppressor; it must be demanded by the oppressed. Frankly, I have yet to engage in a direct action campaign that was ‘well timed’ in the view of those who have not suffered unduly from the disease of segregation. For years now I have heard the word ‘Wait!’ It rings in the ear of every Negro with piercing familiarity. This ‘Wait’ has almost always meant ‘Never.’ We must come to see, with one of our distinguished jurists, that ‘justice too long delayed is justice denied.'”

The men whom Dr. King addressed in his letter were self-described liberals who at least nominally supported racial justice, but they cared about public tranquility more. For them, the atrocities of racism must have seemed far away and abstract. In contrast, the social unrest, the protests, the disregard of law, must all have seemed very frightening and very real for them. Like the writer, Mr. Mann, they faced a choice between the solidity of the world they knew and the welfare of “distant, hypothetical beings.” They chose the former.In their letter calling for an end to public protest, the group of white clergy tried to paint their choice as a reasonable response to a strategic mistake on the part of Dr. King and his colleagues. They claimed that the civil rights demonstrators could not rightly call their actions non-violent because their protests incited violence against them. Dr. King rightly called them out on that particular piece of nonsense as well.

The other main point of overlap is that climate change is also a civil rights issue. Extreme weather, of the sort that climate change exacerbates, kills the disenfranchised first. Part of the problem is that poor people tend to live in vulnerable areas by default, such as those parts of New Orleans that everybody knew would flood eventually. Part of it is that the poor often lack the resources to leave before disasters and rebuild after them. Heat waves kill more people in poor urban neighborhoods, because such places have fewer shade trees and no air conditioning. But disasters also provide cover for the worst of privileged human impulses to come out; in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, there were white people who quite literally hunted black people. Many of those murders were never even investigated.

The greatest beneficiaries of fossil fuels will never see their sons hunted through the streets of a ruined city. They will never lose everything they have to a monster storm because they have multiple houses in multiple regions and can simply move. They will never lose their homes and livelihoods to eminent domain exercised in service to an oil pipeline or see their families die slowly of cancers caused by water polluted by shale oil exploitation. All these things are happening to people who lack the means to mount effective protest while the captains of industry raise billions of dollars to buy the upcoming presidential election.

I deplore these riots in Baltimore. They are quite literally self-sabotaging. But I applaud the urgency that fuels them. We need more of it right now.


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Making Landscapes

This is an essay I wrote for college many years ago–it was winter, hence the references to wearing gloves for warmth. I’m posting it here for three reasons. First, I’m pleased with it as a piece of writing and wanted to share. Second, I’m going through one of my periodic spots of depression and finding it very difficult to work. For those of you who either don’t understand how a bad mood can make writing difficult, or don’t know how to explain this fact to your friends and relatives, please check out Boggle the Owl. The author is wonderfully compassionate. Anyway, the third reason I’m posting this today is that yesterday was Earth Day and this article talks about the connections between the outer environment and the one between the ears. While the piece doesn’t mention climate change specifically, this interconnection is very relevant to how and why we care as we do.

 

This morning I was depressed when I woke up. I know, I know, you didn’t pick this up to hear about the black fog inside my skull, you want to hear about something in the world you can relate to, but this is where the story starts, and anyway, I know sometimes you wake up with the black fog, too. It curls up on your chest in exactly the way warm cats don’t and nothing seems worth getting up for, but you know this is an illusion. You knew there was something worth getting up for last night because you wrote a to-do list, and if you can just get out of bed long enough to start in on it everything will be alright.

To-do lists; I am not talking about the long mental list of anxieties, the things undone that keep me up in the dark pretending they’re the real issue. No, I’m talking about a well-crafted to-do list that will help me sort out exactly what I got out of bed to do. It’s picking the first thing that’s rough. After that, the others all go one right after the other like penguins from an ice floe. First on the list today, after prayer, mediation, and breakfast, is landscaping.

I do free-lance landscaping, trimming my neighbors’ hedges and related labors for about 15 dollars an hour. Today’s client is a woman I’ve never met, since she lives most of the year at her other house, but a mutual friend ferries money and instructions between us and through her, this woman has requested that I cut her hedges “way down, and if they die it’s ok.” Reasoning that death is not actually the aim of the mission, I grab my clippers, a handsaw and a soda bottle full of water and head out to have some serious discussions with the growth patterns of shrubs.

The day is clear and blue, with white, streaky clouds, not too cold, but I’m glad I’ve got my gloves. It isn’t too far of a walk, and it’s not entirely possible to be depressed when outside in the sunshine; there’s a relationship between the interior landscape and the exterior one, a kind of feedback or bleeding of experience. If I felt better as a psychological baseline today, I might better connect with the real sky, but since the sky is real, the day can be happy, and I, embedded in the day, can partake.

I have decided to begin at the back, with a pair of hollies—the kind with small blue berries and pinkie-nail-sized leaves, not the spiky American holly that grows wild here—and I remember that last year she wanted them lower than the windows. Unfortunately there is an absolute limit to how small I can cut something because the visual solidity of a hedge-type shrub is created by a shell of tightly packed tiny leaves, and that shell is only a few inches deep. Cut lower than that and the whole thing turns out skeletal and twisted. Death my client can deal with, but I’m guessing she’d rather not have to deal with ugly. I had the same problem last year, of course, and compromised by cutting windows in the shell so the few interior leaves could reach some sun. I see now my strategy worked, and the old, muscular armature of the bush is covered by little green shoots. Another year and they’ll be up nicely and I can cut the older branches back. The plant is still not going to get lower than that window, and the life of this plant and a small corner of my reputation may be riding on my ability to pull off a suitable degree of “way back.” Hmmmmm. Something large, a fox, say, crashes through the underbrush on the other side of the house. If I were myself more wild I’d find out what it is, make sure it isn’t a dangerous predator, but let’s pretend can only be carried so far and there are no bears or wolves here. I cut the top off the bush, make it into a bowl shape, open at the top but perfectly civilized from the side view. We’ll hope that flies. I move on to the other holly and there do the same thing.

Hours have passed. The moon, waxed almost exactly to the half, stands high in the noon sky the color and visual texture of cloud. Midday is bright and silent, and I have the street to myself as I work around from one shrub to the next. A folk song called “What are you at?” burbles its way cheerfully through my mind. I’m not thinking about anything in particular. I’m not depressed anymore.

I hear honking and look up in time to see a flock of geese break formation, turn, and reassemble briefly into a V, then into a line heading southwest. They’re flying low, a local commute, but I can’t tell whether they’re Canada geese or snowies. I’m not good with geese at a distance yet. All I can tell is that their bodies reflect the sunlight, a bright, coppery color, but their wings are dark. Also, their honking ceased as soon as they completed their turn. Was it an auditory turn signal? I think about the last time I saw geese up close, this past summer, when I worked at a landscaping company. We did some properties out along the Chesapeake Bay, where the geese, the ducks, the herons are as common as squirrels and, in some cases, about as well received. That’s where I learned to prune a hedge properly; set your clippers at an angle and work around, shaving off the past year’s growth. You can use power shears also but I never got trained for that and, anyway, don’t like the noise.

Pruned properly, an artificial landscape might remain consistent in appearance for a generation, I suppose, and that must be part of the appeal. Similarly, people find it appealing to plant non-native species in artificial-looking groupings marooned in the middle of generous ovals of bare mulch. Real landscapes grow and change and die, real places include diseases and parasites and little nibbled edges, but last summer we seemed to be in the lucrative business of forcing real plants to do a credible imitation of plastic. I wonder how and when real life became unfashionable. What is going on in these people’s interior landscapes, cause and result of their living in plastic?

Landscaping, as a commercial art, exists to stimulate thoughts and feelings on the part of the homeowner, their neighbors, and their guests. Since I never was in on the design component of the business last summer, I don’t know precisely what our clients wanted to stimulate, but I can make an educated guess based on the work we did. Certainly prettiness was part of it; most of the plants we cared for flowered, and many had interesting textures and shapes. Even I, by no means an ardent fan of the genre, could appreciate many of the beds in full bloom. Part of what we did was justifiably a concentration of that simple prettiness, for the plants were arranged in such a way that, at any given season, attractive plant parts were well spaced along the beds, the bygone heads and foliage of yestermonth pruned and trimmed out the way of possible distraction. Yet most of the beds were not really designed to be seen much by their owners. With a few notable exceptions, they faced out on the roads and front walks, at a height and spacing that made them almost invisible from the windows. The lawns generally had no picnic tables, no patio chairs, no swings, no jungle gyms, no charcoal grills, and no trampolines. There were no facilities that might give the family any comfortable or interesting context from which to enjoy their absurdly expensive gardens. By their orientation, these beds indicated that their target audience was in fact the general public, who would be informed, in no uncertain horticultural terms, that here lives the rich and fashionable.

This is the same principle that drives the development, in some cultures, of completely impractical clothing and body modification; a person obviously incapable of seeing to her own upkeep must equally obviously be rich enough and powerful enough to be cared for by servants. Just so, a manicured garden is as freakishly un-natural as levitation; things want to grow, to change, and to hold a place in stasis, permitting no growth and admitting no decay (which is also a kind of growth), requires an enormous amount of work. I suppose these people, who do not even want to touch their own soil or water their own plants (a hesitancy I cannot relate to), get a light feeling in their step knowing that their power is in evidence to passersby.

I suppose there are those who would call me a kind of middle-class elitist at this point; these people got rich by their own no doubt mighty efforts; they are pillars of the economy, and they can do with their money as they like. To this I reply that no person’s influence stops at his or her property line, and all that fertilizer and pesticide and mulch washes right into the Chesapeake Bay, where even on a good day visibility is less than ten feet, an estuarine smog that smothers the shellfish and the water plants. The carbon footprint of these kinds of activities is such that many of these properties will likely be underwater before the century is out, and they’ll be uninhabitable with storm-surges and floods long before that. I don’t understand how anyone could be anything other than depressed in this kind of situation, and indeed depression rates are skyrocketing in this country; I bet most of our clients are in therapy, and that some of them take antidepressant medication. The landscapes they make bleed back into their minds, and they bleed into mine, too, plastic, static, and lonely.

I suppose there are some who might point out that my job at the landscaping company, and hence the fashions for land-use on the part of the rich, paid a good many of my bills. Before you yourself say that, I would like to explain that I quit last August and don’t intend to go back. I’m grateful for the money, yes, and the experience in pruning even more, but I don’t like making plastic places. No one there did, I think, although I doubt any of them could have articulated the problem; I’ve never worked anywhere that had more collective misery.

The difference between me and my former coworkers, if there is one, is that they were content to be miserable if it permitted them to be personally secure. I am not. That is why I quit, and why I am making ends meet with small dribbles of money like this until I get a worthwhile job instead of signing up for a different job where everyone is miserable and contentedly so. And it is also why, when I wake up miserable, I have my list, my prayers, my something to do.

The inner and outer landscapes bleed into each other, after all, and while I truly believe that the outer world has enough intrinsic value to render my personal depression and its remedies entirely boring by comparison, I expect I’ll make better outer landscapes if I take some care for the inner one—and the inner landscape is absolutely dependent on having a living place outdoors to go.


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When I Don’t Feel Like it

Frankly, I don’t feel like writing today. I’m emotionally under the weather, as happen occasionally, and I’m physically under a large number of beautiful trees to whose pollen I’m rather allergic. So I don’t feel like it.

I have to write anyway, and the predicament got me thinking of all the ways that feelings are sometimes less than helpful. For example, today is gorgeous (despite the pollen)–birds are singing, the weather is lovely, all seems right with the world, and yet the online news media are full of climate-related horrors (the broadcast news media, as usual, is mostly silent on the subject). How do I reconcile the idyllic day with the catastrophe that is mostly elsewhere at the moment? I do not know what the weather is like where you are, but I’m sure you have days when it really feels as though nothing whatever could be wrong. Days when it is hard to get motivated for battle.

And, like me, you probably also have days of acute awareness of impending horror, and then it’s hard to get motivated, too. Or you feel too shy to talk to your friends and neighbors about climate change. Or you’re just plain tired of putting yourself out there every day and figure it’s somebody else’s turn.

These feelings have to be dealt with, of course. Feelings are occasionally wise and always insistent, and the person who attempts to ignore them sooner or later soon learns that the hard way. Sometimes, indeed, it is necessary, even beneficial, to back off and take a break. Edward Abby said it best, in lines that are periodically quoted on websites and posters:

One final paragraph of advice: do not burn yourselves out. Be as I am – a reluctant enthusiast….a part-time crusader, a half-hearted fanatic. Save the other half of yourselves and your lives for pleasure and adventure…. Enjoy yourselves, keep your brain in your head and your head firmly attached to the body, the body active and alive, and I promise you this much; I promise you this one sweet victory over our enemies, over those desk-bound men and women with their hearts in a safe deposit box, and their eyes hypnotized by desk calculators. I promise you this; You will outlive the bastards.

But that being said, environmental problems do not go away because one happens not to be in the mood to deal with them. Just like utility bills, student loan payments, crying children, and excessive amounts of tree pollen, climate change needs to be dealt with whether we feel like it or not.

I’m keeping this post quite short for reasons that should be obvious, so I’ll finish with a little story, a parable, if you will.

A few weeks ago, my husband noticed an odd thing; there was a bird inside the bird feeder. The feeder in question is a large, clear plastic cylinder with a lid at the top for refilling and a tray on the bottom for use by birds. The seed comes out onto the tray a little at a time through small openings along the bottom and the whole thing hangs by a bungee cord off of an overhang of our roof. Well, the seed had all been eaten up and one very small bird, hoping for another meal, had squeezed itself in through one of the openings and was flapping around and struggling inside the plastic tube.

And the thing is, the bird had gotten itself in there, so it should have been able to get itself back out. The holes work both ways, after all. But the bird, quite obviously, was never going to realize that. Songbirds are very intelligent animals, but with some important exceptions, theirs is not a creative intelligence. Nothing in this small being’s evolutionary history had prepared it to deal with a see-through prison, and it kept battering its body fruitlessly against the invisible walls. It would have died in there, I’m sure.

Of course we freed it, although even with the top of the feeder off it wouldn’t go through to freedom. The bird kept trying to fly through the walls. At last I had to dump it out on the ground like a stuck tennis ball. Finally free, it took to the air with an irritated chirp I do not think I deserved.

That bird had every reason, within the parameters of its own experience and psychology, to do exactly what it did–to try, over and over, to fly through a barrier that its instincts said could not possibly be there. Looking for an opening must have felt like an unnecessary and dangerous waste of time.

I think it’s important to not act like that bird.

 


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Greenwashing vs. Climate Sanity

Now and then, I come across an organization that is very proud of itself about some climate-related action or other and I suspect that not all is as it seems.

No, I’m not going to launch into a rant. No, I do not want to make great be the enemy of good. I do not want to discourage anyone from making changes even if those changes are small to begin with. I do not want to let great be the enemy of good.

But greenwashing is not the same thing as baby steps, and it is important to no the difference; to greenwash, either as an individual or an organization, is to make it look like you are doing more than you really are so you get political and social credit without having to actually earn it.

There is no hard and fast line between greenwashing and genuinely pro-environmental behavior. Rather, between the extremes of angelic purity on the one hand and dastardly lying on the other lies a whole spectrum of organizations interacting with each other and with the public to raise money and win support for activities environmental and otherwise. Any attempt to judge on sincerity or intent takes a person down a rabbit hole of abstracted ethics that has little to do with the political and economic reality within which real activists operate. Instead, let’s look for signs an organization is seeking disproportionate credit–and insist that they step up their game so as to deserve the credit they get.

Here is my personal list of red flags:

Missing low-hanging fruit

An organization calls a press conference about their beautiful new bike shelter (meant to encourage low-carbon commutes) but employees do not routinely turn out the lights when they exit rooms.

Misleading photo-ops

The CEO appears prominently in publicity materials for programs he or she did not actually organize.

Mismatch between new “green” programs and ordinary activities

Building a fancy new bike shelter (with press conference) while also maintaining strict climate controls in the buildings (e.g., 78° F. year-round) and selling bottled water in the cafeteria.

Mismatch between the values of different departments

A company owns two brands of similar products, one of which has a very small carbon footprint (and is advertized as such) and the other has a very large carbon footprint.

Conflict of interest

A company publicly funds climate research while investing in petroleum.

If any of the above is going on, it is possible the organization is actually misrepresenting themselves. It is also possible they are completely above board, but just able to do better than they are. The thing is, if an organization makes being perceived as “green” part of its business plan, then that means they care about public perception–and the public can sway them by insisting that they uphold higher standards.


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Sticking Together for the Climate

Last night, the PBS NewsHour told the story of Ferrock, a climate-friendly alternative to cement invented by the aptly-named David Stone. It was a good story, well-told—almost.

The reason that traditional (“Portland”) cement needs an alternative is that it is currently responsible for 5% of carbon dioxide emissions globally. And since cement is the binding agent used in concrete, the preeminent building material in the world, the demand for cement is likely to grow.

How does all that carbon dioxide follow from cement? PBS Newshour correctly reported that making the material takes a huge amount of energy. The first step in the process involves making limestone and other ingredients to 2,800 F. in order to create clinker, essentially a new mineral. Clinker plus gypsum is Portland cement. Cooking enough clinker for one ton of cement requires 4.7 million BTUs of energy. If that energy comes from coal (as it often does) then a ton of cement is another ton of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere.

What the Newshour did not add is that the kilns are only responsible for about 40% of the carbon emissions of cement production. 5-10% more comes from transporting raw materials and finished cement and the energy necessary to run machinery. The rest, 50%, comes from the chemical creation of clinker itself.

Limestone is calcium carbonate. Clinker is mostly calcium oxide. Transforming the one into the other liberates carbon dioxide as an inevitable byproduct. Worse, that is carbon that had been sequestered back when the limestone was created, millions or even billions of years ago. As regards climate change, there is a fundamental difference between recently sequestered carbon and ancient carbon.

Releasing recent carbon, for example, burning wood or even breathing, does not change the global carbon budget any (although deforestation on a large scale does)—just like adding and subtracting grocery money from a short-term checking account does not alter a person’s retirement savings. But liberating carbon that has been sequestered for millions of years does change the overall carbon budget—and warms the planet. In that sense, baking limestone is as bad as burning coal.

Ferrock offers an alternative because it is chemically different from Portland cement. The Newshour did not provide any detail on this point, and since its report did not explain the chemistry of clinker production it could not make clear how a “different recipe” could make Ferrock superior to Portland cement. But the report did include a brief shot of some chemical formulae and did state what Ferrock’s primary ingredients are: iron, silica, and carbon dioxide itself–the material takes carbon in, rather than putting it out.

That the raw materials are the wastes of other industries (steel dust, which is typically landfilled, and post-consumer recycled glass) is an added benefit of the process. The Newshour spent a good chunk of time explaining how the glass was originally sourced through a recovering alcoholic who picked up litter as a kind of self-appointed service position—a charming tale, but one that rather emphasized how small-scale Ferrock was, at least in the beginning.

Scale is Ferrock’s problem, according to the Newshour, which interviewed Steve Regis, the owner of a large Portlantd cement production facility, who asserted that

“Dave’s idea, I think it has a good niche market for — for nonstructural block, yard art, benches. But consider the scale of that compared to a 200-mile six-lane freeway eight inches thick or a runaway.”

David Stone appears to concede the point, or, at least, the reporter concedes the point and does not quote any rebuttal by Dr. Stone. He does say that

“I’m doing my part, as best I can, to respond, so that when the time comes and the world wants to build with new materials that are carbon-neutral or carbon-negative, I will be able to step forward and say, yes, I have such a material.”

Dr. Stone’s quote ends the report, except for some concluding narration, but Mr. Regis was the last person to actually provide the audience with information on what Ferrock can and cannot do–for a competitor to be given such an authoritative last word in an ostensibly friendly profile is striking, especially given that Mr. Regis’ claim is hard to believe. There is no shortage of post-consumer recycled glass, and steel dust is an otherwise unclaimed byproduct of the steel industry and probably quite plentiful. And of course, we have a lot of carbon dioxide…. So, why can’t Ferrock be scaled up? Perhaps it actually can’t, but in that case the reporter should have insisted that Mr. Regis make his case more clearly. Why should he be able to condescendingly bad-mouth his competition with a questionable argument, unchallenged by a journalist?

Most probably, if Ferrock can’t scale up it is because the construction industry is conservative. Industry standards and even the law require Portland cement and those standards are not likely to change without outside pressure because of a big alternative-cement project does fail, people could die and careers could end.

And this is true even when the alternative cement has shown itself in laboratory testing, as Ferrock has, to be superior to Portland cement in certain critical ways—the stuff is blast-resistant, meaning that an explosion (whether accidental or deliberate) that could collapse a building made of standard concrete would leave a similar building made of Ferrock-based concrete damaged but standing.

Industry conservatism is the real bugaboo of David Stone—and a startlingly large number of other people.

I have not done an exhaustive survey, but just a few minutes online turned up the following list—for ease of comparison I’ve included Ferrock on the list.

Ferrock

A cement-alternative made, apparently without kiln-baking. It uses iron and silica (from glass) rather than limestone and is a carbon sink rather than a carbon source. Concrete made from Ferrock is five times stronger than Portland cement-based concrete. Among other advantages, it is blast-resistent.

Liquid Granite

Liquid Granite is a cement-alternative whose composition is a trade secret; it is said to be made from an “inorganic powder” that is up to 70% recycled industrial waste and to be “carbon-free,” although it is only offered as a way to replace “more than two-thirds” of the Portland cement in concrete mixes. Its strength is comparable to Portland cement but with superior heat-resistance. Portland cement does not burn, but it does crack and crumble in fires.

Novacem

Novacem is not a substance but a London-based company that produces a cement-alternative based on magnesium silicates. Production requires lower temperatures and does not release carbon dioxide directly the way the creation of limestone clinker does. Over time, the material absorbs carbon dioxide and so becomes carbon-negative.

Calera

Calera is a company that produces calcium carbonate by bubbling flue gas through sea water. Flue gas is carbon dioxide created by gas-powered power plants (coal-fired plants would work as well). The sea water is a source of calcium and magnesium. The process adds nothing to the water, which can then be desalinated and used or released back into the sea. Waste heat in the flue gas is enough to dry the calcium carbonate, which is then used as a carbon-negative clinker.

This description confuses me because it is exactly the same chemical process by which sea animals create limestone in the first place—and limestone has to be stripped of its carbon in order to become clinker. So why Calera’s artificial limestone does not need to be cooked is not clear to me. Perhaps the process was simply not well explained in the source I found.

Carbon Sciences

Another company creating artificial limestone using flue gas, although Carbon Sciences derive their calcium and magnesium from waste water from mining operations. The company also uses flue gas to force the material to absorb carbon dioxide faster than curing cement normally does, although it is not clear to me whether this process actually increases carbon absorption overall.

Ceratech

Ceratech is a company using fly ash, a byproduct of coal combustion, as clinker. Although dependence of coal would be problematic for a large-scale, long-term replacement for Portland cement, until coal use stops fly ash can serve as clinker at no additional carbon cost. Fly-ash cement is also stronger than Portland cement, so engineers can use less concrete for the same job. It can take longer to set and sometimes contains toxins, however.

CSHub

CSHub is not a production company but a research group. It is working to understand the chemistry of cement production which is, surprisingly, mysterious except in its general outlines. They are working on a way to reduce the processing temperature for limestone clinker. So far, the problem with the new material is that the raw material is much harder to grind, so the energy requirement and therefore the carbon footprint of initial processing goes up even as the cooking temperature comes down.

So, What’s the Story?

In pointing out details that The Newshour missed, I do not mean to attack PBS. I have discussed the shortcomings of various media outlets before, but I basically like and respect The Newshour staff. I am inclined to think well of them.

But in this case, they missed the story. What they presented as the work of a plucky, isolated inventor, someone who may someday make a different (a feel-good story that requires no public action) is actually just one example of a whole wave of potential solutions to a serious problem that cannot be implemented for want of supportive government policy—remember the legal standards that more or less mandate the use of Portland cement. This is a much more disturbing story, and one that does require public response.

So, the PBS report presented information, information I might not have encountered otherwise –I knew about the carbon footprint of Portland cement, but not that alternatives exist. PBS did not present that information in context so as to tell a story the public really needs to hear.

So, here—I’ll fill in the gap.

Alternative cement requires supportive policy in the same way that alternative energy does and for the same reasons. It is in the public good that these technologies develop to the point where these companies can compete for business on a level playing field. That does not mean that all cement alternatives will actually work as cement or that all cements presented as carbon-neutral actually are—we still need building standards. But we need standards that support the switch to a carbon-sane future rather than inhibiting it.

And we need to stop pretending that the transition is not being deliberately held up. We need to demand actual, committed progress.


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Feeling Overwhelmed?

Earlier this week I opened up my Facebook account only to see that the western black rhino is now extinct. Below that was somebody’s post about their (yes, very cute) cats, several posts about various people’s dietary struggles, a post about melting permafrost releasing a “carbon bomb” of methane, another one about oceanic currently slowing down because of melting ice, and then some more cat memes.

What the hell, people.

I quote the novelist, Ursula K. LeGuin, speaking here in the voice of the Archmage, Sparrowhawk:

There is a weakening of power. There is a want of resolution. There is a dimming of the sun. I feel, my lords—I feel as if we who sit here talking, were all wounded mortally, and while we talk and talk our blood runs softly from our veins.

I don’t mean to be overly dramatic, but that does seem to be where we are at. Like the Archmage, I would be “up and doing,” but like him it is far from clear to me what to do. There is a sadness and a great fear…and with no clear direction to turn to address the problem, there are bills to pay and emails to answer and cute internet cat videos to watch.

No, as far as I know, the extinction of the western black rhino is not directly related to climate change, but there is a strong connection between global warming and species extinction in general, as I have discussed before. The planet as a whole is wounded by our unsustainable behavior and climate change is one major symptom of that wound. Biodiversity loss is another. The seriousness of the situation is overwhelming and yet most people, most of the time, seem utterly ignorant of it.

“Seem” is the operative word. I do not mean to speculate about what’s actually on other people’s minds. I’ve been known to share cat videos myself.

I can’t help but assume that my emotional reaction is not unique. I think a lot of people are feeling overwhelmed these days. So while yes, I do mean to sound a clarion (get moving!) I also recognize that confusion, despair, and the logistics of day to day life are all legitimate distractions.

So, how do we get un-distracted?

How do we face reality without getting overwhelmed? How do we keep the heat on politically? How do we plot effective strategies by which we can make our caring mean something?

Because the people who stand to gain from furthering climate change, the fossil fuel industry leaders, are not flailing about, feeling overwhelmed. They are raising money and drafting their strategies as we speak. And if they win the next national election, they will win the whole game.