The Climate in Emergency

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

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The Fault Lies Not in Our Stars

I recently happened upon an article about a prediction that today would see massive earthquakes caused by a planetary alignment. Apparently, Nostradamus predicted something of the sort as well. The author (quite correctly) explained that the movement of other planets does not and cannot cause earthquakes–he quoted a “contrary view” (contrary to the earthquake prediction) that the gravitational influence of the moon is much greater than that of the other planets, and that because its orbit is elliptical, the moon’s gravitational influence on us varies every month. Since we do not get massive earthquakes as the moon moves around, there is no way the other planets could cause earthquakes.

Well and good.

But the author went on to state that in his “opinion,” the sun has a stronger effect on earthquakes than other planets or the moon. And that is a very odd word to use in this context–“opinion.”

I do not mean to make fun of this man, or the several people who commented on the article. They are all obviously thinking carefully about important issues, and they all apparently care about the truth, reject fear-mongering, and support critical thinking about what they read and hear. What they’re not doing, though, is thinking scientifically. Lots of people don’t think scientifically–I’m willing to bet that even most scientists don’t think scientifically all of the time. There are, in fact, some things science is no good for. But I’ve encountered a lot of misunderstandings about what science actually is and these misunderstandings make public discussion of issues like global warming much harder.

Science is a process.

It is not a world view. There is no reason, for example, that telepathy is not scientific. It’s true that science has found no evidence confirming the existence of telepathy, and it seems unlikely at this point that it ever will–but it has found evidence that some animals can sense electrical signals from the muscles of other animals, which sounds at least as fantastic, if you think about it. The history of science is full of things that intelligent, reasonable people considered impossible turning out to be true. World views, lists of things understood to be true or not true, possible or impossible, are the result of science, or of the other processes humans have developed for understanding our world. It’s not what a person thinks that makes him or her a scientist, but how.

The how of science is that you start with verifiable facts, look for patterns in those facts, and then go look for more facts that either confirm or refute the patterns. You keep track of the facts you verified and the patterns you noticed and how they were either confirmed or refuted.

My favorite example involves baseball.

Randall Monroe, famous among nerds everywhere for the webcomic, xkcd, also has both a blog and a book called What If? in which he uses physics to answer frankly ridiculous questions. One such question was “what happens if you try to hit a baseball that is going 90% of the speed of light?” After deciding to ignore just why and how the hypothetical baseball accelerated, Mr. Monroe explains that because air cannot move out of the way of an object going that fast, the atoms of the air and of the ball would actually undergo nuclear fusion, causing a massive explosion. Also, the batter would be considered “hit by pitch” and could advance to first base, except for being dead.

Mr. Monroe acknowledges that he’s not sure this is exactly what would happen, and obviously the experiment cannot be performed. But the point is that he did not just think up a scenario that seemed plausible to him–he used what we know of physics to make an educated guess. He could, if he wanted to, defend his guess by citing his sources and constructing an extended “if-then” argument stretching all the way back to actual observations of the behavior of air molecules and subatomic particles. Other physicists could then either confirm or refute the plausibility of his guess by constructing arguments of their own. So we might not know for sure what would happen to a baseball pitched at 90% of the speed of light, we can use reason and experience to talk about what might happen with some confidence.

It’s worth noting that an experiment on a similar scale of outlandishness has been tried–when the first nuclear bomb was detonated, obviously no one has any experience with that type of explosion. Yet the physicists responsible for the bomb predicted fairly accurately what would happen–that the thing would explode, that it would explode upon deliberate detonation and not before or after, and that the observation bunker and the people inside it would not be destroyed in the process. That is an amazing degree of predictive power.

The simplicity of the scientific process means that arguments about science work differently than arguments about anything else (at least in principle–scientists are human beings, and as such are just as capable of unexamined bias and threatened egos as anybody else). You simply find out what other people have observed and what theories about those observed phenomena have been supported, and construct a reasoned argument, the same way you might build a tower of blocks. Your opponent in debate then either offers competing observations and theories or demonstrates that you made a mistake somewhere.

There is no reason why a scientist should ever qualify a professional statement with “in my opinion,” or “I feel that….” As a teacher of mine once said, we don’t care how you feel.

We don’t care what your opinion is, does the sun actually cause earthquakes? Has anybody checked? How do you go about finding out if the sun does cause earthquakes? (What you do is keep track of changes in solar behavior and see if any of the things the sun does or any changes in the relationship between the sun and the earth correlates consistently with changes in earthquake behavior–and yes, it has been done, and no, No, the sun does not cause earthquakes).

More importantly, is the earth warming up? Do certain gasses trap heat in the atmosphere? Are human beings increasing concentrations of those gasses to the point that it is changing the climate? Has anybody checked? How do you find out?

Yes, of course, lots of people have checked, and yes anthropogenic climate change is quite real.

And yet the public discourse on the matter proceeds, like that little online discussion I found about earthquakes and astrology, by statements of opinion and belief, and by confident appeals to various emotionally potent tropes (conspiracy, for example–somehow, the idea that some powerful organization is suppressing information makes an assertion seem more believable). And none of that is necessary. A climate scientist does not have to be likeable, popular, possessed of the same political and cultural affiliations as you, or able to argue well in the public sphere in order to be right. All he or she has to do is construct a sound connection between observation and prediction. And you can always check on the validity of that connection yourself, if you want to (you may have to get a science degree or its equivalent, but you are free to do so. The information is not secret).

It’s worth noting that the scientific process is the best means of figuring out how things work that human beings have ever come up with. There are issues it is no good for (like “what is the meaning of life” and “how do I be a good friend right now?”) but if you can read these words, then you have proof that science works.

So, let’s not allow anyone to drag the discussion into the realm of opinion, ok?

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They Make Floods Bigger, in Texas

On the PBS NewsHour yesterday, during the wrap-up, stuck in without comment between other tidbits was the following:

The governor of Texas declared disasters in two dozen counties today, after a weekend of catastrophic flooding and tornadoes. And the severe weather continued early today, as a storm blasted a Mexican city just across the Texas border….Central Texas bore the brunt, with creeks and rivers rapidly swelling, sweeping cars away. At least a dozen people were missing after flash flooding sent the Blanco River rising 26 feet in an hour. Across Texas, hundreds of homes were destroyed, and nearly 2,000 people were forced to move to higher ground….In India, there was no break in extreme heat that’s killed more than 500 people in recent weeks. Temperatures in one northern state reached 116 degrees on Sunday. People suffering from dehydration inundated hospitals that were battling power outages. And streets in several major cities were abandoned as people sought out shade.

Um, what? A river rose 26 feet in an hour?

The video that flashed by behind Judy Woodruff’s words included a highway bridge that was just completely gone. An emergency vehicle, its light flashing, itself became a victim, tumbling over and over in the rushing, brown water. There was no mention as to whether there was anyone in the vehicle at the time. In India, unhappy women in saris huddled in the shade and children say on cots and cried.

Ms. Woodruff provided no commentary or context for any of this, no hint of whether these stories comprise an ordinary rash of bad luck or something truly bizarre. How hot does it normally get in India in May? How often do bridges wash out in Texas? I do not mean to pick on Ms. Woodruff or any of her colleagues–I call out the PBS NewsHour on its lack of climate coverage often because I watch the show often. Overall, I very much like it. But part of the job of a journalist is to give the audience some kind of context.

Of course, my first thought, watching the news, was that these events are signs of climate change. I’m not alone in that reaction–an Internet search on “Texas flooding and climate change” yields lots of recently posted results. It’s true that because anthropogenic climate change is happening, all weather plays out against its reality, but this particular group of events seems notably freakish, a reminder that we really are living with a new normal. Are we? Intellectual honesty demands that we make sure we’re not reacting simply to variations in news coverage–perhaps disasters on this scale are actually fairly common, but this is a slow news weeks or something?

I have not found a precise answer to that question. I’ve been focusing on the floods–since I’m in America, it is easier for me to research an American disaster–and I have found some comparrisons and some numbers.

Houston, one of the cities affected by the recent flooding (and still mostly under water) gets an average of 4.45 inches of rain in May. Yesterday (Monday) parts of the city got about 10 inches–that’s over twice the month’s rainfall in a single day, and Monday was hardly the only day of rain–parts of Texas and Oklahoma have been getting unusually heavy rain for months now. Austin has had its wettest May since 1921. The Governor has called it the worst flood in that part of the state in its history, and while he may or may not be accurate, the extreme language is striking–the floods follow hard on the heels of the state’s worst-ever drought (parts of Texas are still in a mild drought now, so great was the deficit).

So, clearly these events are unusual. But are we talking “Cat 5 hurricane in Florida” unusual, or are these recent storms are the equivalent of a Category 5 hurricane in Wyoming?

I asked a friend who lives just outside of Houston–who, by the way, currently has no electricity–and she said the flooding reminds her very much of Hurricane Allison, in 2001. She says that flooding in her area is just something she and her neighbors know to watch out for, since their area is vulnerable to hurricanes. She seems shocked the way one always is by frightening, destructive things, but what she’s seeing is not outside the  realm of what she’s seen before (although it’s possible she doesn’t know how bad it really is, yet).  She also made an important point:

Floods are not just about how fast water comes out of the sky, but also how quickly water can leave again.

Houston is still growing, still being further built up. The area is losing its permeable surface area and with it the capacity to absorb rainwater. Meanwhile, sea level rise also makes it harder for rainwater to get out of the way–as my friend put it, the water has to have some place to go. An historically ordinary downpour, therefore, could still cause an extraordinarily severe flood, at least in Houston. I am not sure how such issues apply to the other flooded areas. So the issue is more complex than climate.

In any case, more droughts and more flooding is exactly what is predicted for climate change in Texas.

We know that a warmer atmosphere drives faster evaporation, which means both deeper droughts and more moisture-laden clouds. More extreme weather is therefore predicted in a general way all over, and Texas specifically is supposed to get more floods because of the moister air (the severity of the heaviest rainfalls on the Plains has gone up by 16% since the 1958) and because of changes in the behavior of hurricanes.  We also know this is an El Niño year, a weather pattern that tends to direct wet weather to the southern half of the US, but it is possible that global warming exacerbates El Niño, no one knows for sure. So, freaky or not, the current weather in Texas and Oklahoma is entirely consistent with the reality of climate change.

Are these storms really a freakishly new thing that could not have happened without climate change? I have not been able to find out–someone will have to do a statistical analysis of data I don’t have access to to answer that question. But, if they aren’t, that’s not really comforting.

If this isn’t the new and destructive normal yet, then we can expect both droughts and floods in Texas to get worse.



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Well, yes, I got caught up in something today and did not write a new post. So, instead, I offer this poem; it’s one of mine, and it is certainly relevant. Enjoy.




September 23, and it’s been a day for dirges.

Nuni, my friend’s small white cat, felled by fleas

lies dead beneath a heart-shaped row of stones

while Kendra’s dog plays host to tumors,

and Kofi Annan invokes the specter of a world 9 billion strong

by 2060.

I don’t know what will become of us.

I don’t know what blood

stains the momentum of our innocence.


there must be half a dozen PhD’s in this room tonight

and just as many guitars.

These are people who should know better

than to seek comfort in laughter, drink, and song

but these are also people who know we do not know


Joni Mitchell, Dave Carter, Bob Dylan,

voices thrown in familiar elegy,

the scientists invoke the sacred

the tapping foot becomes the thumping shaman’s drum.

Though rage and grief and fear

may be implicit,

this yellow room is safe tonight.

If the Earth has a temple, we sing its hymns

and offer the ground our local beer libations

with goofy, rag-tag grace.

In this puddle of life and light and laughter

in the exposed and urban night

this open, objective eye offers

the world

its care-worn, fierce



Heretics and Fools

Note; although the conversation described here is based loosely on a real event, names and identifying details have been changed.

My friend Larry was loaded for bear that night, and I never did find out why. He’d gone looking for someplace he could be contrarian, and he turned up at our table. We were discussing the role of human communities in conservation, but in Larry’s view, all our talk of empowering tribal peoples to take care of ecosystems sounded dangerously naive. It’s not that Larry has any objection to social justice, he’d just seen too much human stupidity to believe that empowered people would always do the right thing.

He may have had a point.

We had asserted our commitment to both ecology and social justice, but where would our loyalties lie if forced to choose between humans and nature? Were we prepared to use force to protect the planet if we had to, even against some already abused minority? Or did the right of self-determination extend to people determined to destroy the last refuge of some endangered plant or beast? And if we said no to both questions, did we have some rationale for such a feel-good non-choice other than mere squeamishness? There were some hard questions we were not asking ourselves. Every group of like-minded idealists needs a contrarian.

But Larry pushed his point too far. As I said, he was loaded for bear that night, but no bears showed up. So Larry just started getting angrier and angrier, never raising his voice, but still lashing out at anyone who tried to disagree with him, until he finally lashed out at the whole human race. My friend Larry is not a bad guy. Far from it; he’s a kind and sweet man who loves what he loves very deeply. But something had gone very wrong for him that night, some frustration had reached flashpoint, and Larry had no answers, easy or otherwise.

“There are days,” he said, grabbing a paper napkin and carefully folding it and folding it again, “there are days when if I had a button, and if I pushed that button I could wipe out the entire human race and just let Nature go back to doing its thing without us, I would push it. I would kill every one of us, even myself, even my little girls.” You don’t need to know Larry very well to notice how much his girls mean to him. His heart rises and sets with their small heads. But Larry had folded his napkin into a very small square, a button-sized square, and he brought his fist down on his little napkin-button with thunderous finality into the stunned silence that had once been a friendly conversation.

I have never asked Larry what had been going on for him that night. I couldn’t tell whether he knew how frightening, how out of character, his terrible darkness had seemed. He did not seem to want to talk about it, and I wasn’t about to push him. Instead, I later joked that an intelligent, well-educated man such as himself could probably find the means to wreak such species-wide havoc, if he really wanted to.

“You mean, Osama bin Larry?” he asked, taking a bite of his pizza. His face was inscrutable.

Of course, Larry would never hurt anyone deliberately. He’s a good guy. And yet, where did that pizza come from? Where did the clothes he was wearing come from? Just like the rest of us, he buys the better part of his daily bread through an economic system that is destroying the planet.

“The Fool Button” is the title of a Jimmy Buffet song that got stuck in my head that night Larry joined our discussion. “Push it! Push it! Push it!” the singer chants, daring his audience to go ahead and do the unreasonable thing, the thing with consequences, the thing that can’t be taken back. Buffet meant getting drunk and stupid, of course, but the phrase works as well, maybe better, in another context. Now, Larry is not a fool. He is indeed an intelligent, very well-educated person. He is therefore aware that the environmental movement, far from being alarmist, has, if anything, down-played the degree of disaster we face. There are no easy answers, and there might not be any hard answers anymore, either. Sometimes, an extravagant foolishness is the only option left.

Push it, push it, push it!

The willingness to take leave of sane constraint can free heroes and it can also free terrorists. The Fool Button is not evil as a fantasy, nor are the people who harbor it exactly caught in despair. People who truly despair make hay while the sun shines. Instead, the Fool Button is the mark of a last, desperate faith, a faith that the world is worth caring about, even if we don’t always know what to do to help. The Fool Button is the dirty little secret of environmentalism. It’s the shadow of the most dire of dire predictions about global warming, peak oil, human overpopulation… some of these predictions may well come true, but that’s not the point. The point is that these predictions sound apocalyptic because they are apocalyptic.

Though couched in secular, or even pagan terms, it is the same underlying narrative as the Christian prophesies of Apocalypse, and it is wishful thinking. No matter whether the central sin is taken to be moral, ecological, or technological, there is the same underlying assumption–

–that something is wrong with human nature

—that something was lost with the garden of our innocence.

–that our brokenness is not reparable but will soon catch fire and consume itself, and in the calm after that terrible storm the world will be made new.

How is this not the End of Days? And—be honest—who does not, in the quiet place behind the worry and concern, imagine themselves, with friends and family, making it past the tribulations to the New Earth? Who does not imagine being one of the Chosen?

Larry doesn’t. At least when Larry considers the Fool Button, he has no illusions about saving himself or his loved ones. He knows that sinners love their daughters, too. He knows there is no Chosen, only those who make choices.

The Fool Button is the dirty little secret of environmentalism. The dirty big secret is that the Fool Button is not a secular heresy; it’s orthodoxy. It’s nothing less than the logical extension of the paradigm that creates and maintains the National Park System. Consider that parks, and other refuges under other jurisdictions, seek to protect nature by keeping people out (with the exception of the carefully managed visits of tourists). We protect these little pockets, the best, the most critical, the last places. In these precious refuges at least, we assume, nature can proceed unimpeded. The implication is that nature is what happens when humans don’t interfere–but then it follows that when humans get involved, nature is necessarily destroyed, as silence is destroyed by sound. This puts us in a serious fix, for while it may be possible for humans to live sustainably, it’s not possible for us to live without having any influence. We’re large, active mammals. No sane scientist would expect us to be ecologically invisible. We incontrovertibly need this planet, and in having it we must change it. If anthropogenic change is inherently destructive, then a well-educated human being who so loves the world can only give his life—or hate himself.

Orthodoxy isn’t bad, and in presenting my friend on a bad night as its exemplar I don’t want to give the wrong impression, of orthodoxy or of him. Orthodoxy was originally a religious concept, and my sister, as a Catholic, would remind us that religious orthodoxy is the product of an ongoing lineage of extremely intelligent people all thinking very carefully together about very important questions. Orthodoxy is only the insistence that newcomers to the conversation not ignore what has already been said. Orthodoxy is a rule against continually reinventing the wheel, and if its champions object to heresy it may be simply that they would rather get on with inventing the rest of the cart.

I am not interested in continually reinventing the wheel. I am not interested in creating a new, schismatic orthodoxy where contrarians are not welcome. I am interested in getting on with building the cart, and I am interested in hard questions. But I suggest that if the logical extension of the dominant paradigm is suicide, then there is something not quite right with that paradigm. I, too, have daydreamed about the Fool Button, that’s why I recognized Larry’s version of it as kindred to my own thoughts. I would never actually hurt anyone on purpose, either, but I have bad days. Mine is a desperate faith, too.

And it is faith, the faith of a heretic, that tells me there must be another way, that the existence of the Fool Button, even if never pressed, is a warning sign that some important point has been missed. I pick up the trail of that missing piece with a question; how could human beings, who are the product of the biosphere, actually be outside of the biosphere’s processes? How could we come to be the only large mammal with no ecological role, the only species that would not be somehow missed if we went extinct? I find no answer. Is it therefore possible that we are not outside of nature, that nature actually needs us for something?

Is it possible that we don’t need more and bigger parks so much as we need a new and all-encompassing garden?


TR, Where Are You Now?

I said earlier this week that there is no point in my doing a profile of any Republican candidate for President, because our interest here lies in identifying (and supporting) those candidates who are serious on climate and at present no Republican candidate is. I also said that I very much hope that will change.

I do not say that just because I want all political leaders to do something about climate change, nor even because I want environmentalists to become a voting block impossible to ignore. Both of those are true, but more important is the fact that although I personally lean towards the political left, I know not everyone does–and not everyone should. There are important things that liberal political philosophies do not do very well. There are people whose needs liberal political leaders do not serve. If the Republican party could develop its own version of environmentalism, a competing vision of climate sanity, it might bring something to the table that has so far been missing.

It might seem strange to talk about Republican environmentalism, but there is nothing inherently anti-environmental about the core principles of that party. Climate change will be financially disastrous, so shouldn’t fiscal conservatism mean climate sanity? The Republicans have long favored a strong national defense, so shouldn’t that mean paying attention to the Pentagon’s concerns about the destabilizing effects of climate? The Republican umbrella shelters the religious right, the socially conservative and largely rural culture of the American heartland–so exactly how are they supposed to stick up for the needs of farmers and ranchers without doing something about this increasingly extreme weather?

This last is an important point, because it gets to the heart of climate change denial. Barbara Kingsolver has written that the United States does not have a divide between Liberal and Conservative so much as it does a divide between urban and rural people–and that the rural people generally come out the worse for wear in any interaction between the two. Urban-based business interests exploit rural people and their land and give little back, while urban-based media either ignores rural communities or mocks them. In recent years, at least, the Republicans have been somewhat better at advertising themselves to rural voters, which is why many states with large rural populations have gone “red” in recent elections, although the actual distribution of political beliefs on the ground is far more complicated. But the point is that “liberal” and “conservative” are often proxies for “urban” and “rural,” and that when the latter distrust the former, they actually have good reason. When Al Gore, a man thoroughly identified with the liberal, urban elite, made himself the face of climate change he accidentally framed the issue as a liberal cause.

Classic case of ignoring the message because you don’t like the messanger.

The problem is that science has gotten very very complicated and it is not humanly possible for anyone to keep up with all of it. Graduate students forgo sleep in order to read everything ever written on their own very narrow thesis topic, and otherwise everybody depends on other people to summarize and explain new developments to them–which presents the problem of deciding which explainers to trust. And if you don’t have a science background yourself, you basically have to make your decision based on personality, cultural cues, and who the explainer’s friends and allies are. This is how social conservatism became linked to climate denial.

We liberals are used to hearing about “socially conservative” in its negative form–racism, sexism, homophobia, etc. As far as it goes, that isn’t inaccurate (though liberals have their ugly biases, too). What we don’t hear about–or don’t talk about–is that socially conservative American culture also prioritizes loyalty, charity, personal responsibility, and honor.There is a reason why people want to defend this culture. There are also reasons why members of this culture sometimes feel under attack.

Here is Barbara Kingsolver, speaking through a fictional character in her book, Flight Behavior:

I’d say the teams get picked, and then the beliefs get handed around. Team camo, we get the right to bear arms and John Deere and the canning jars and tough love and taking care of our own. The other side wears I don’t know what, something expensive. They get recycling and population control and lattes and as many second chances as anybody wants. Students emailing you to tell you they deserve their A’s.

One of the beliefs she’s talking about being “handed around” is climate change. Somehow, this particular bit of science has gotten firmly associated with “team something expensive,” such that if you want to demonstrate your belief in tough love, community loyalty, and personal liberty, announcing that you don’t believe in global warming is a good way to do it.

The Republican Party does not, of course, actually speak for poor and middle-class farmers any more than the Democrats do. Both parties belong to moneyed interests–with certain exceptions. But those exceptions do exist and the cultural differences between the two parties mean that they support different kinds of exceptions, different versions of trying to do the right things. And we need a variety of approaches to sound environmental policy in order to have a real conversation about how to get out of this mess. And when an individual exception–someone who does stick up for the little guy–does arise, he or she is much more likely to be able to speak to and for rural communities as a Republican.

What might such a Republican look like?

Turns out, we’ve already had such a Republican in the White House–and he did a fantastically good job within the context of his times.

Theodore Roosevelt was not just an outdoorsman; he was an accomplished naturalist. He could just as easily have become a scientist  and once dreamed of doing so.  His environmental record as President is unparalleled:

  • federal protection for almost 230 million acres of land
  • 150 national forests
  • the first 51 federal bird reservations
  • the first 18 national monuments
  • five national parks,
  • the first four national game preserves
  • the appointment of Gifford Pinchot as first Chief of the US Forest Service, another pivotal person in the history of American conservation.

One hundred and seven years ago today, Teddy Roosevelt, speaking at the Conference on the Conservation of Natural Resources, had this to say:

We have become great because of the lavish use of our resources and we have just reason to be proud of our growth. But the time has come to inquire seriously what will happen when our forests are gone, when the coal, the iron, the oil and the gas are exhausted, when the soils have been still further impoverished and washed into the streams, polluting the rivers, denuding the fields, and obstructing navigation. These questions do not relate only to the next century or to the next generation. It is time for us now as a nation to exercise the same reasonable foresight in dealing with our great natural resources that would be shown by any prudent man in conserving and widely using the property which contains the assurance of well-being for himself and his children.

Teddy Roosevelt was a Republican. It would be easy to say that the Republican Party has changed and that the Parties have switched places somehow–the Party of Lincoln and TR becoming the Party of racists and climate-deniers. As always, the truth is more complicated. The truth is that each party has held to a few core principles, with occasional exceptions, consistently, and that almost any issue of the moment can be championed in light of either set of principles. Sometimes one party’s approach eclipses the other for a while on a given issue, which then becomes identified with that party for a while.

Consider the Republican Party Platform of 1908, when Teddy Roosevelt was head of the Party and sitting in the White House. Although some planks do sound a little odd, given where the Party went later in the twentieth Century (the passage and enforcement of the Sherman Antitrust Law, the total denouncement of any and all racial discrimination), it is basically a recognizably modern conservative document in somewhat antiquated language. There is a recurrent focus on the protection and enhancement of private property, the equality of opportunity to succeed (not a social safety net for those who fail), and expansion of American influence abroad. There is a call to more carefully define the powers of Federal courts, which is reminiscent of the modern call for limited government. There are various pot-shots at Democrats. There is a self-congratulatory note about an insurrection in another country having been suppressed and how American involvement would soon prepare the people there to reclaim a measure of home-rule–the country was the Philippines, but the line is eerily familiar given that another Republican President was saying almost exactly the same thing about a different country exactly a hundred years later.

Towards the end, the document describes the two Parties in contrast to each other. One may assume a heavy dose of political spin, of course, but we do get a sense of how the Republicans thought of themselves:

The present tendencies of the two parties are even more marked by inherent differences. The trend of Democracy is toward socialism, while the Republican party stands for a wise and regulated individualism. Socialism would destroy wealth, Republicanism would prevent its abuse. Socialism would give to each an equal right to take; Republicanism would give to each an equal right to earn. Socialism would offer an equality of possession which would soon leave no one anything to possess, Republicanism would give equality of opportunity which would assure to each his share of a constantly increasing sum of possessions. In line with this tendency the Democratic party of to-day believes in Government ownership, while the Republican party believes in Government regulation. Ultimately Democracy would have the nation own the people, while Republicanism would have the people own the nation.

I suspect that this was before “socialism” became a political boogeyman and that the Democrats probably were somewhat socialist at the time. It’s worth noting that the Republican call for government regulation, which looks strange to modern eyes, is here placed in contrast with the specter of even greater government involvement.

The bottom line here is that Teddy Roosevelt was an environmentalist, the best and greatest environmentalist President we’ve ever had. But he was an environmentalist in a particularly Republican way. He wanted to use the Federal government to protect the land from industrialists, yes, but only to free the people to do their individualistic best with those resources. He saw environmental conservation not just in terms of his personal fondness for the outdoors, but as a critically important part of the path to prosperity and fairness. His carefully cultivated wild west persona was, yes, his personal version of macho, but also his version of being a man of the people–he was doing his best to give himself the cultural markers that would make him trustworthy to rural people. Nor was he simply posturing–he championed major irrigation projects, free rural mail service, and improved rural roads.

If TR were alive and politically active today, there is no way he’d be a climate change denier. He’d probably take anyone who was over his knee. But his approach to the issue would be different than what we see from Democrats today–he’d be a progressive, but not a liberal. He might, of course, be a Democrat, for the same reasons his protege, Franklyn Delano Roosevelt, became one–a judgment that the parties had shifted in such a way as to make the left a better home for progressive policy. But I’d like to suggest a different fantasy.

Imagine, for a moment, Teddy Roosevelt as a kind of Bernie Sanders on the right–perhaps an independent or a member of a third party for most of his political career, but shifting to a major party for a final run at the White House. Remember, he still has a second term he could serve. He has strong cultural ties to rural America–he’s the kind of guy you could see yourself having a beer with. He takes economic and social positions that make liberals (including me) twitch, but he goes after moneyed interests and corruption without fear. He’s charismatic and energetic and he cannot be bought. He steps up to the microphone at a press conference to introduce his ambitious new climate change plan.

What does he say?




Jack vs. Jenny for Climate

I could do an entire series on Presidential contenders and climate change, but barring a major change in the field I probably won’t. There is no real reason for me to cover the Republicans, unless one of them comes out strongly in favor of climate action (something I dearly wish would happen), and I’m guessing that  the Democratic field is more or less set, now. Yes, a Warren campaign would be fun to see, but she has disavowed interest for this cycle and we badly need her in the Senate right now. Her political star is rising and she will have time to run for President (and quite possibly win) at some point in the future. Joe Biden has run before but has no plans to do so now. His Presidential boat has probably sailed sailed. Martin O’Malley has shown some interest, and he certainly has his merits, but nobody outside of Maryland has heard of him and he has not announced.

So, we’re looking at Bernie Sanders and Hillary Rodham Clinton.

We’re also looking at the most important American Presidential election the world has ever seen. I’m not indulging in hyperbole, this is the big one. President Obama has made an important start on dealing with the problem, but he’s only been able to act through executive order, which means his successor could wipe out all his gains with the stroke of a pen–and without US leadership, much of the world’s climate response will fall apart. It’s not that the US is a shining example of climate concern–we’re rather the opposite–it’s that a huge portion of the problem belongs on our doorstep and everybody knows it. We got rich and powerful as early adopters of fossil fuel, and the only way to get countries like India and China to forgo their fair share of that wealth is for us to bite the bullet and clean up our own mess. And since the chance of getting a climate-sane veto-proof majority on both houses of Congress is roughly nil, and since we really don’t have time to wait another four or eight years  to act on this issue, the upcoming Presidential election is basically about saving the world. Or not.

So, the big question is, which Democrat should climate-sane people support? Yes, I said Democrat; the place to create a viable third party is in state and local elections. Who can go toe-to-toe with whichever champion the Kochs decide to anoint?

(The title of this post, by the way, is a reference to the male and female Democratic hopefuls; most people know that a male donkey is correctly called a jack, but less well-known is that female donkeys are jennets or jennies. I find the idea of “jenny” as a technical term for an animal completely charming. And, the unfortunate connotations of “ass” notwithstanding, donkeys make fine political mascots–they are extremely strong and sure-footed, and they have a reputation for not letting people push them around.)

Personally, I would love for Mrs. Clinton to become President. She is clearly capable of doing the job and it is simply ridiculous that the United States hasn’t had a female chief executive yet. But I hardly ever hear her speak on climate and she has a reputation (which may or may not be deserved) for political expediency. Would she really make the issue a priority if it got in the way of her ambition? Mr. Sanders clearly has no problem whatever with political integrity (if he were interested in lying to improve his image, he wouldn’t call himself a socialist) and his loyalty to liberal, progressive causes is unassailable. And while it’s true that he seems a long-shot for the White House, so did Mr. Obama, and for almost exactly the same reasons (complexion aside, of course). But those were first impressions, and the moment clearly needs more than that. So, let’s take a look at these people. And since both Mrs. Clinton and Mr. Sanders have extensive experience in office, we have something other than campaign promises to look at.

Bernie for President?

Bernie Sanders’ senator’s website (as opposed to his campaign website) includes a poll on climate change. The first question asks respondent to choose between cutting Medicare and similar programs and imposing a carbon tax on “big polluters” as a method of deficit reduction, so the political bent of the poll is obvious. The point is to frame climate change as a liberal, progressive issue and to paint any objectors as big-business bullies who want to take money away from old people. I don’t really like such bald politicking, and I worry that it could backfire by further alienating social and fiscal conservatives from the environmental cause, but at least Bernie and his advisers are willing to put a lot of their eggs in the climate basket. That’s a good sign.

(I make a point of using respectful last-name address here, but Bernie likes to be called Bernie, apparently).

Bernie Sanders is a career grass-roots politician with a long record of dedication to economic and environmental issues. He has been almost continually in office since 1981, first as Mayor of Burlington, Vermont, then in the US House of Representatives and now the US Senate, where he currently serves. He is 73 years old, so we can expect his physical fitness to be questioned at some point, but Mrs. Clinton is almost as old as he is and both belong to a long-lived generation. He has spent much of his career advocating for the middle class and for alternative energy, especially distributed solar energy (household solar panels rather than the solar equivalent of a big power plant).

He is currently ranked 1st on climate leadership within the Senate and in recent years has sponsored or co-sponsored a number of important climate-friendly energy bills (that went nowhere, unfortunately). He is certainly aware of oil money in politics and openly refers to it as an adversary he intends to conquer by mobilizing massive grass-roots support–an inspiring image. He attended the People’s March for Climate Change (as did I) and is responsible for a brilliant little political move earlier this year; he amended a bill that would approve the Keystone XL Pipeline with a question on climate change, forcing Senators to go on record as to whether they believed climate change is real.

However, Mr. Sanders has stopped short of asserting that all remaining fossil fuel should stay in the ground. There is some speculation that he might say it, but he hasn’t yet. And of course there is the question of whether he can get elected in the first place, given that he is an outspoken giant-killer. Giants don’t like giant-killers and they fight back.

Hillary! Hillary! (maybe)

Hillary Clinton actually had a very good voting record on environmental issues as a Senator–87%, according to the League of Conservation Voters, a record that would have been higher had she not missed some votes while campaigning for President eight years ago. In that campaign, she included an ambitious climate action plan in her platform.  On climate alone, in fact, her record is nearly as good as Mr. Sanders’, it’s just that he talks more than she does about it. Almost more to the point, Mr. Clinton has supported exactly the same climate policies as Barack Obama, both as a presidential candidate in 2007 and 2008 and when she was Secretary of State. That means that she has disappointed environmentalists and will probably continue to do so (as Secretary of State she championed fracking overseas, ostensibly because natural gas produces less carbon dioxide when burned than coal), but she is a vocal opponent of climate denial and has stated that “the unprecedented action that President Obama has taken must be protected at all cost.” Wherein she is absolutely right.

Where does this leave us?

So, where does all this leave us? In a pretty good position, actually. It means that whichever of the current two hopefuls actually get the Democratic nomination, we’ll have a major-party candidate who takes climate change very seriously and will, if elected, preserve and possibly extend Mr. Obama’s critical executive actions and diplomatic work on the issue. And it’s encouraging that they each have a passionate fan base that has been calling for their champion to run since approximately twenty-five minutes after Mr. Obama took office for his second and final term. We could win this.

The question really comes down to which one is more likely to beat a Republican and which one, if elected, is going to be better able to enact the climate-sane policies they both want.

At this time, I actually think that Bernie Sanders is the more electable of the two, and not because, or not only because, he is male. The issue is that neither of them are going to be able to win with a centrist, appeal-to-moderate-Republicans strategy–though Mrs. Clinton may try, since she seems to be temperamentally a pro-establishment moderate Democrat. The problem for her is that a lot of people really dislike her and always have. Frankly I do think sexism is part of it; as a candidate, Bill Clinton had a serious political problem in the person of his powerful, outspoken wife, who quite clearly was going to help him run the country if she could. A female President is no longer quite so scary a prospect a quarter-century later, but the venom spit on her then still clings to her career. She remains the target of an ongoing series of ad-hominem attacks thinly veiled as controversy and scandal. She can’t make people like her who don’t already. Like Mr. Sanders, Mrs. Clinton is only going to be able to draw additional votes by mobilizing people who would not otherwise vote at all–and as a pro-establishment politician, she’s unlikely to be able to do that. Bernie Sanders can and already is; radicals have been trading Bernie Sanders quotes on Facebook for a couple of years now.

But could Bernie Sanders use the Executive Branch effectively if Congress proves as intractable for him as it has for Mr. Obama? As an experienced legislator he clearly knows how to work with the Legislative Branch, but that won’t help if it refuses to work with him and that may happen (see my earlier comment about giant killers). Maybe he can, but he’s something of an unknown in that respect. Mrs. Clinton, in contrast, has extensive experience with executive power and diplomacy, and while she’s even more likely to face a hostile Congress (see my earlier comments about people disliking Hillary), it is entirely clear that she can and will play hardball when necessary. We will not lose President Obama’s climate actions on her watch.

We have time in which to make up our minds (or to watch registered Democrats make up theirs, in states with closed primaries). What we do not have to for is to be lackadaisical about making sure that everyone gets out to vote this time. We cannot see a repeat of the recent mid-term election, when liberal and progressive voters stayed home and pro-business, anti-climate candidates swept gubernatorial and congressional races in state after state.

The Earth has to win this one.



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“What Are You Obedient to?”

This is going to get to global warming at some people. Please bear with me.

My sister once asked me what I am obedient to. Her question needs to be understood in context, because “obedience” has something of a negative connotation for many people. I’m not fond of the word myself, because it makes me think of having to do what somewhat else tells me to, even though I don’t want to.

But my sister did not ask me whom I am obedient to, but what. She wanted to know what principle I placed higher than my own druthers and impulses–we’d been arguing, and she was having a hard time understanding where I was coming from. It was a good question, though not one I had a ready answer for. I told her I would obey science, although I could not explain how that had anything to do with our discussion of the moment and we let the matter drop.

I’ve thought of that unresolved conversation, off and on, over the years since, and I think I can explain myself better now.

There are several ways to understand the idea that drove my sister’s question in the first place. The simplest to explain starts with an informal Zen Buddhist retreat I stumbled into, more or less by accident, as a teenager. The lay practitioner leading the retreat told a story about passing a deli on her morning jogging route and seeing a sign: FRESH WARM COOKIES. And oh, how she wanted those cookies. But stopping for cookies would completely derail her exercise routine. She realized that stopping for cookies would be giving over her power to that enticing sign. She asked herself “who is the master? Me, or those cookies?” Later, while we were sitting in meditation, if somebody scratched an itch she would say, loudly, “who is the master, you or the itch?”

So, that’s the simplest way to understand what I’m talking about–there is me and there are my various itches. “What am I obedient to?” is another way of asking what is more important that my itches? Or am I only obedient to my itches?

I don’t mean to draw a clear dichotomy between reason and impulse. While there do seem to be multiple brain processes in play–the ancient intuition that each of us is actually multiple, sometimes conflicting selves is at least partially correct, reason cannot actually function alone. People who, through brain damage, lose the capacity to have emotions also lose the ability to make decisions, even decisions that seem emotionally neutral, such as whether to use the blue pen or the black one. And a huge part of our every-day activities are more or less on automatic pilot, directed by impulses outside of conscious control or even, sometimes, awareness. We call these habits and get irritated when we can’t break bad ones, but if we had no automatic pilot and had to think over every little thing we’d never get anything done. I only mean that, by whatever mechanism, there is what we do and feel and think because it’s easy or pleasant, and there are other things.What calls a person to the other things is not necessarily reason–it could be emotional devotion to a person or a cause, some overriding craving (FRESH WARM COOKIES), or literal obedience to a person or a set of rules.

My sister wanted to know what my thing was. I said science.

So, how does science differ from reason, which is the answer my sister would have given? At the time I could not say and the distinction I was making puzzled me. The solution to the puzzle lay in a tomato.

I’m serious, I had an argument the other day with someone over tomatoes. It was one of those tiffs that erupts without warning, where an apparently innocent comment triggers an underlying fault-line between the continental plates of two personalities. I asserted that birds are dinosaurs and he said that was as ridiculous as saying tomatoes are fruit. I pointed out that botanically tomatoes are fruit, something he knows perfectly well, and he proceeded to get really seriously offended by the idea that botanical concepts might have any place anywhere besides the narrow confines of botany. He wanted to stick to “normal ideas that actually relate to how people live.”

Now, I could argue the point about birds, but I won’t because it is both irrelevant and legitimately controversial, but tomatoes are fruit. A fruit is a particular type of botanical structure, the plant equivalent of an egg, and tomatoes fit the definition unambiguously. It may seem strange to think of tomatoes that way, but if you compare a tomato to a watermelon and to a stalk of celery by any standard other than what to put in minestrone soup, the tomato groups more naturally with the watermelon. If you want to grow them, if you want to understand what they mean to the plants that make them, if you want to figure out when they are ready to eat, watermelons are a better guide to tomatoes than celery is–you don’t have to wait for celery to get ripe.

Most of us are most familiar with tomatoes as a taste, we’re not used to thinking of fruits as savory. It’s a bit mind-bending to consider that not only are tomatoes actually fruits, but so are beans, squash, and ears of corn. But here’s the thing–that mind-bending sensation? It’s a good thing. Because there’s more to this world than how to make minestrone. And taking botany seriously is one way to find that out.

In the sense my sister intended, obedience means conceding one has lost an argument even if one really didn’t want to lose. Obedience in this case has an almost physical force. Last night, I walked into a door frame by accident, instead of into the bathroom as intended, because it was dark and I was disoriented. It hurt. I really would have preferred to walk into the bathroom rather than, nose first, into the door fram, but I was obedient to the reality of physical objects and so the collision occurred. In a similar way, even if I wanted to insist that tomatoes are not fruit, I would collide with the inevitable fact of their anatomical resemblance to watermelons, because I am obedient to science. And whatever necessary rearrangement of my opinions of the world would follow from there.

I do not mean I am obedient to scientists or to a list of “truths” that scientists currently espouse. Science is not a collection of truths, but rather a process and a certain type of reasoning. This is why science is reliable even though what scientists say changes over time–it is the way scientific understanding changes, and not the thing that is changing, that constitutes science.

And the heart of the matter, the core of the process, is not just reason, but the insistence that a line of reasoning always begin with observable phenomena that anyone can go check out for themselves. I can say I know a thing to be true if I have observed it myself, if I have reliable documentation that someone else observed it, or if I can construct a logical argument that connects my idea to something I, or someone else observed. If I can’t do that, then I simply don’t know yet. Here is a joke:

Two scientists are driving together to a conference along an isolated, rural road, when their way is impeded by a large flock of sheep. The sheep, collectively, take a very long time to cross the road. While they are waiting, one scientist says to the other “those sheep have been sheared recently.” “Well, at least on this side they have,” concedes the other.

This principled insistence on ignorance is at odds with how most of us usually think–we normally blythely assume that whatever seems like it ought to be true automatically is. Nobody shears a whole flock of sheep on just one side only, chewing gum takes seven years to digest, if you sneeze with your eyes open your eyeballs will pop out, and there is no way human activity could change the climate.

See? I told you I’d get there.

Most people, I’d guess, have heard by now that the vast majority of scientists insist that climate change is real, being caused by humans, and a serious problem. Whether they believe it is another question. Curiously, more education about the facts of the issue does not sway many of the people who disbelieve–it may actually strengthen their denial. Science literacy isn’t the problem. The problem may be, at least in part, that these people are obedient to something other than science.

I mean no disrespect in saying that. The thing that wins the argument for these people may well be something noble or even quite rational, since there are forms of reason that do not begin with empirical evidence. Indeed, there are important questions for which science is no good whatever. You cannot, for example, scientifically verify whether my husband is really as loveable as I say he is–by its nature, that question is not amenable to objective research.

I’m not even convinced that everyone should be obedient to science, even on those questions where science can confidently speak. Certainly, I will not waste time spewing facts act figures at someone who places more stock in some other way of demonstrating an idea. It’s true that at least part of the reason why I am obedient to science is that, from early childhood to graduate school, the people who have taught me about science have always been people I’ve liked and trusted. If that were not true, I might well look at the matter very differently. As per climate change, we have no time to waste on secular evangelism, and if arguing for climate action through religious, cultural, emotional, or economic channels  works, then so be it.

But I’m also going to keep talking about the science, for those who want to listen, because I like science. Frankly, I recommend it. I know of no better way to escape bias and preconceived ideas (which all of us have) than to say “I will construct my understanding of the world from lines of reasoning that begin in the observable world as it actually is, not as I think it should be, even if that reasoning takes me someplace surprising.”

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A Few Things Not to Worry About

Recently, the Internet has erupted with tales of increased volcanism and more extreme earthquakes. Depending on the writer’s point of view, this geologic bent towards catastrophe appears as either a certain sign of the Biblical End of the World, or as yet another deadly permutation of climate change. We’ll leave the Biblical debate for others, but can anthropogenic climate change actually cause earthquakes and volcanic eruptions?

In a word, yes–but it’s not anything we need to worry about.

How frequent are disasters?

First of all, contrary to popular claim, there is not an increase in geological activity right now. At least, not a significant increase–any event that occurs randomly through time is going to have some clustering, the same way when you flip a coin many times in a row you’ll get a few consecutive heads or a few consecutive tails here and there. It doesn’t mean anything. Statisticians can calculate what these random clusters should look like and how to tell when something more than random variation (something that’s “statistically significant”) is going on. And right now, with regard to geology, it isn’t.

Or, at least it isn’t with earthquakes. We are in a bit of an earthquake cluster these days (2014 had about double the recent annual average of quakes), but a team of scientists analyzed the data and found nothing that differs from chance. They were hoping for more–they suspect that large earthquakes can trigger each other across the globe and they were looking for evidence to support their claim. They didn’t find it. Tough break. As for volcanism, I found assertions that there is no increase, but no description of any studies on the subject. That could mean that there aren’t any, or it could mean the search engines are being distracted right now by a lot of gorgeous color photographs of disaster. But there are plenty of reasons why we could be hearing about a lot of volcanic eruptions even if nothing unusual is happening:

  • There are more people than ever before, so the chance of somebody being nearby (with a video camera!) when a volcano erupts is higher than ever.
  • We have better data collection than ever before, so the chance of scientists noticing the most remote eruptions is higher.
  • A lot of people evidently expect to see evidence of the end of the world these days, and most of us see what we expect.
  • Social media exists, meaning that rumors can fly across the world very fast (OMG!)

All these principles apply to earthquakes as well, so the fact that we are in an earthquake cluster is probably irrelevant to public perception.

Ok, but could climate change influence geology?

One of the drivers of all this geologic attention is the new book, Waking the Giant: How a Changing Climate Triggers Earthquakes, Tsunamis, and Volcanoes, by Bill McGuire. The book itself is evidently fairly measured, though its marketing is histrionic to the point of evoking a Hollywood big-budget disaster movie. But marketing aside, there are links between climate and rock.

The most obvious of these links involves isostatic rebound, or earth movements in response to melting glaciers. Glaciers are very heavy, heavy enough to depress the land they lay upon by many hundreds of feet. There is a particularly dramatic example of this principle on Mt. Desert Island, in Maine, where a short side trail brings the visitor to a shallow cave on the side of a mountain. What created the cave? It turns out the ocean did–even though the actual ocean depth was somewhat less than it is now. When New England was under a glacier, the weight of the ice pressed it down and then the ice melted faster than the land could rise. The sea, swollen from all that glacial meltwater, rushed inland, drowning the coastal plain and even filling the Champlain Valley with sea water–and that high sea, breaking against the resistant granite of Mount Desert Island (at the time, Islands, plural), hollowed out a cave–something like a larger version of today’s Thunder Hole, for those familiar with the area. In time, the land rebounded and lifted that sea cave up hundreds of feet above the water, where it is today.

All that rebounding causes earthquakes. Try leaning your weight on the hood of a car and then letting go suddenly–you’ll hear a noise just as your weight comes off the car, when the temporary dent you made fixes itself. That noise is a vibration, a car-quake, if you will. The earth does exactly the same thing, it just takes a lot longer.

And I mean a lot longer. In fact, New England is still rebounding after ten thousand years ice-free.

And the rebound must also have taken a very long time to get started, because the sea had time to carve out that cave–in granite, an almost unimaginably hard and wear-resistant rock. Under some circumstances, it can literally take and keep a smooth polish for thousands of years. I’ve actually seen it, bedrock surfaces still as smooth as a counter-top, just as the glacier left them. How long did it take the waves to chew away that sea cave before the land lifted up?

So, when Dr. McGuire claims that melting glaciers in Greenland and Alaska could cause earthquakes, he is almost certainly correct–but that doesn’t mean we should get ready for a summer blockbuster come to life. Now, the temperature is rising now much faster than it did at the end of the last ice age, and I wouldn’t rule out the possibility of something horrible getting triggered by that insane speed, but we should really focus on the disaster that is actually happening right now instead of worrying about that.

xkcd 748

Except from XKCD 748: Worst-Case Scenario.


There are also hints that yes, climate influences plate tectonics (which in turn involves earthquakes) and volcanism. Tsunamis follow from earthquakes and volcanism, so they, too are implicated. But again, the connections between these phenomena and anthropogenic climate change are tenuous and probably won’t make any difference any time soon.

Climate changes of the past definitely have influenced geologic processes, besides the isostatic rebound-related earthquakes I already described. Faster erosion from stronger monsoon rains has lightened the Himalayas enough to give the Indian plate a counterclockwise spin (over millions of years).  And massive ice-melt events have been followed by dramatic increases in volcanism, possibly because the loss of ice-weight from the continents, combined with increased water-weight over the ocean basins, changes stress patterns in the Earth’s crust, triggering some volcanoes to erupt. Although speed of change is definitely part of the picture, and we are looking at some incredibly fast changes right now, there is a reason why “geologic” is a synonym for “slow.” At this time, it looks like we can expect a lag of about 2,500 years before volcanoes respond to climate change.

So, where does all this leave us?

I am trained as a scientist, so accuracy is important to me. I find it irritating in the extreme that some writers are evidently making it sound as though something that may happen over the next several thousand years is an imminent catastrophe. Also, I care about general science literacy and I do what I can to further it. But in pointing out that geologic change is very slow I do not mean to say it is unimportant. If what we’re doing now means that our descendents 2,500 years from now have to cope with a lot more earthquakes and volcanic eruptions, then that is enough reason to stop and do something less damaging. After all, consider that 2,500 years ago, Rome became a republic. What humans do matters across long time spans.

Finally, as the cartoon above suggests, we hardly need to invoke earthquakes and volcanoes and tsunamis to argue against changing the climate–we already have flood, fire, and famine to contend with, quite literally.

Isn’t that enough of a reason?