The Climate in Emergency

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

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Another Novel Passage

This is another excerpt from a novel-in-progress set twenty years after the end civilization and, with it, the end of the Age of Oil. The project is about exploring what might come afterwards, both in terms of society and in terms of climate. The mountain described here is Mount Monadnock, in New Hampshire. Thanks to Peter Palmiotto for his projection of how the forests of Monadnock might look in the future.

“This was once the second or third most climbed mountain in the world,” commented Andy.

“What rank does it have now?”

“Oh, I don’t know. I don’t know who climbs what mountains anymore.”

“We climb this one.”

“That we do.”


“Yes, Elzy?”

“This college is focused on forestry and climate change. That seems an odd pair. The mountain is forested so I can see having a forestry school here, but why climate change?”

“See if you can figure it out while we’re here.”

“Ok, I will.”

The day was warm and the path gentle and scenic. Elzy kept an eye out on her surroundings as she walked, expecting a quiz at any time.

She had grown up thinking of global warming as a problem of the past. No one used fossil fuels at all anymore and most people ignored problems larger than their own farms and counties anyway. In college, though, she had learned that anthropogenic climate change was not over.

Warming takes time, so the carbon dioxide released twenty years ago was still heating the sky. And although the age of fossil fuel was over, old gas wells, landfills, and melting permafrost still leaked methane. Forest fires and volcanoes liberated carbon dioxide. On the other hand, at least in North America and probably elsewhere, the forests were re-growing, sucking up carbon. Did the rate of sequestration equal or exceed the rate of emission? No one knew. The old research satellites had all deorbited or stopped worked, mostly years ago, and even many of the ground-based sensors were still offline. In any case, And with few scientists left and less money, no one really had a clear picture of how living systems were adjusting to all these changes. But Elzy could think of no connection between all of that and a mountain in New England. She had a feeling the answer was staring her right in the face.

But then Andy led her off trail to search for a study plot he remembered and could not find. He couldn’t find the trail again either and Elzy forgot about climate change in her fear of getting lost.

“Getting lost is when things get interesting,” Andy reminded her, and set out confidently uphill. Of course, on a mountain, they only had to go up to find the summit and a trail.

As they kept going up, the forest began to change.

The first thing Elzy noticed was a kind of disorganization or ratty-ness. Somehow, the forest reminded her of an old, worn rug. The impression puzzled her until she realized that a lot of the trees around her were dead or dying. Most of them were spruces. There were living spruces as well, sometimes large clumps of them, plus old, tangled blowdowns of indeterminate species, victims of summer squalls or maybe Hurricane Odette. But the dead and dying spruces predominated, standing skeletal and draped with lichen or sometimes still clothed in brown needles. And wherever the canopy was thus opened up, young, deciduous trees, their buds just starting to open, were coming up, knee high, waste-high, or taller, according to the age of the opening. It was this variability, the seemingly disorganized decay and regrowth, that made the woods look ratty. Elzy would have asked Andy what had happened to the trees, but she knew he’d only ask her to figure it out so she puzzled over the matter in silence.

But then, almost between one step and the next, they walked into an unusually large patch of healthy spruces, one so big that Elzy could not see any other kind of forest, except by looking back the way she had come. The place had an utterly different feel, all cool black shadow and primeval reserve. Thin patches of old snow persisted in the shade.

Elzy stopped and looked around and Andy watched her look. After a moment, her eye fell on a particular tree. It was not a spruce, though its needles were just as short. It had smooth grey bark scattered with small oval swellings.

“It’s a sap-tree!” Elzy exclaimed. She reached up to grab a branch and inspected the twigs and needles. Back in Pennsylvania she had learned a lot of species in a herbarium from twig samples and drawings alone, so she needed the twigs to find the tree’s name in her mind.

“Balsam fir, Abies balsamea,” she announced. “I didn’t know balsam fir was the same as sap-tree!” She reached for the trunk with her hands. “I used to love these!” she exclaimed, glancing at Andy. “Me and my brother used to…”

[Here the characters have an interaction that is important to the plot, but unrelated to climate change]

Up on the summit cone a cold wind swept around bare rock and shrubby, young trees. They ate their lunch perched on angular fins of grey granite and Andy told Elzy about the fire that had killed the forest on the peak and the tourists whose trampling feet had kept it from re-growing for generations. It was starting to re-grow now, but the young trees were still small enough to leave an open view, three hundred and sixty degrees of forest, farm-fields, and a few isolated clusters of buildings. Clouds were moving in, the weather starting to change. They headed back down by a different trail so they could see another side of the mountain. It was an advantage of not having to return to a car, of having time and freedom to walk.

It was only on the way down, when they walked out of the snowy spruce-fir forest and back into the deciduous woods of spring, that Elzy suddenly realized what the mountain had to do with global warming.

Red spruce and balsam fir are cold-climate trees, she had known that already. That’s why they grow on top of mountains. So, of course, the dying trees she’d seen were the mark of warmer weather moving up slope—climate change. But, she also remembered that spruce and fir don’t actually grow very well in cold climates. They dominate such places where other trees can’t grow at all. Left alone, the spruces and firs would have prospered in a warmer world, but they could not fight the insects and the competition from faster-growing broad-leaved trees and pines that the milder conditions unleashed. An entire community, the spruces and firs and all the plants and animals dependent on them, was collapsing in the new and gentle world.

Elzy thought about those plants on her way down the mountain, and how surviving, even thriving, does not mean you don’t get hurt.

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A Novel Passage

Here is an excerpt from a novel-in-progress of mine. It is set in the near future, twenty years after the Age of Fossil Fuel (and civilization) ends in a cataclysm triggered by a global pandemic. Two characters are talking while hiking in Western Maine.  Andy is middle-aged now and remembers the world before the pandemic (our world) clearly. He is an ecologist. Elzy is in her mid-twenties and has lost her childhood memories.”Data” refers to a tropical storm that passed through recently. “Loosianer” is another hiker. This novel won’t be out for a year or two, but if you want to see what else I’m working on, check out my website, News from Caroline.

“Why did the pandemic have to happen?” She asked Andy. They were walking now through a mixed conifer forest with a rocky, irregular floor and a broken, equally irregular crown. The area had been damaged by an ice storm the previous winter and a couple more trees had come down in Data’s deluge. The place had a primeval, mystical feel. The weather was hot, sunny, and almost literally steaming after yet more rain.

Several days had passed since they’d seen the back of Loosianer, and they’d spent those days talking of inconsequential things or, more frequently, not talking at all. But the whole time, Elzy had kept returning to the thought of what might have been and the losses she could not remember. She stopped at the top of a little rise and waited for Andy to catch up to her. She was faster than he was on short slopes, though he had more discipline and hence more stamina.

“Why did the pandemic have to happen?” he repeated, when he came up alongside her. “What do you mean? I don’t know that it did have to happen.”

“I don’t know. Maybe it’s an irrational question. It just seems so meaningless for all those people to have died.”

“Maybe nothing has meaning unless we decide to give it some.” He leaned on his hiking poles for a moment, puffing his breath out in a sigh. Whether he was physically tired or emotionally so, Elzy couldn’t tell. Either way, he walked on, conserving momentum. He would not risk resting for long.

“I just keep thinking,” Elzy began, picking her way downhill after him, “why couldn’t everything have stayed the way it was? But I don’t suppose that’s an answerable question.”

“On the contrary, that one is answerable. Humanity’s energy use was unsustainable. Pandemic, transitioning away from fossil fuel, global warming, whatever form it took, radical change was inevitable.”

“Climate change and everything else would have changed things already? I mean, if we hadn’t been forced to quit oil?”

“Things were changing already when I was a kid.

“No, I mean, would things have fallen apart already?”

“Maybe. Maybe not, unless you lived in Manhattan, or Boston or Miami or Mobile.” He was referring to cities whose ruins had been raked by major hurricanes and which, presumably, would have been destroyed either way. It wasn’t an exhaustive list. “But generally? It’s hard to say. The climate might not be too different from what we see today—there’s a certain amount of lag-time in the system. Before the pandemic, heat-related illnesses and deaths were rising. There were a lot of droughts and floods and heat waves and so on. Food prices were starting to rise globally. It triggered weird problems in some of the poorer countries, revolutions and extremism and terrorism, which they then exported to their neighbors and to us. But you could ignore it, if you were wealthy and lucky, and many people did.”

Andy’s voice grew distant while Elzy climbed over and through a fallen tree. When she caught up to him he was waiting for her beside a soft little low point in the trail. She could see where water had coursed here, muddy and foaming, when Data came through. Wrack-lines of needles and leaves ran along some two or three feet above where clear water now trickled through braided beds of mud and sand.

“If we say for the sake of simplicity,” Andy continued, “that those trends would have continued…would national security and natural disaster costs between them have bankrupted the country by now? Would something else have caused the United States to unravel? Our descendants would be pretty well done for, but it’s possible the lucky and wealthy would still be able to pretend otherwise. Except”–and he hopped lightly across the water, turned, and faced her again. “Nothing is ever simple.” His eyes lit. All hint of exhaustion was gone. He grinned like he was daring her to join him in something.

“How so?” Elzy asked, from her side of the little stream.

“You remember bifurcation points?”

“Yes.” She had studied them in a class he taught, years ago in Pennsylvania. They were instances where complex systems—organisms, ecosystems, the biosphere—changed suddenly, like a switch had been flipped, and thereafter followed a completely different set of rules. Like how a hollow ball of cells could abruptly fold in on itself, becoming a human embryo with the recognizable beginnings of a spinal column, in a matter of hours. Bifurcation points aren’t random, their locations in familiar processes (like embryo development) are well-known, but neither can they be predicted from prior conditions alone. The first time such a system goes through a new process, anything could happen. “So, you mean we could have passed a tipping point by now, some kind of runaway positive feedback loop that would make everything horrible?”

“Or made everything better. Don’t forget, human societies are complex systems, too.”

Elzy hopped across the stream and landed beside him.

“You mean–we might have done it. We might have gotten off fossil fuel on our own?”


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It’s HOT!

Ok, it’s cooling down slightly now, but according to our home weather station, the high of the day was 93 degrees Fahrenheit. In the shade. The heat index reached 110 degrees, likewise in the shade. And we have not used the air conditioner.

No, we are not masochists. We actively manage the temperature inside our house by closing windows and drawing blinds, and it’s been at least ten degrees cooler indoors for most of the day–the temperature’s starting to climb in here now, we’re at 85 degrees, but fans and the option to take a cold shower make it bearable. In a few hours, when the outside temps come down, we’ll open up the windows and doors and cool down the house again and I will go for a walk. We put off vigorous physical activity, or anything that could heat up the house, like cooking, until the evening.

People used to live like this, adjusting daily activity levels to cope with the heat and using architecture, such as high ceilings, thermal mass, or, as in our case, excellent insulation, to keep living spaces as cool as possible. In some communities, in some parts of the world, such methods are still the standard. All our neighbors, on the other hand, seem to be running their air conditioners.

Air conditioners are a problem.

Not only do air conditioning systems use a lot of electricity–about 20% of US residential electrical consumption goes towards air conditioning alone. Even more seriously, the coolant inside air conditioners is a very serious greenhouse gas, sometimes thousands of times more powerful than carbon dioxide.  I want to go through that part in more depth, because it can be confusing.

Air conditioners (and refrigerators and freezers) work on the principle that the temperature of a gas is related to its density. These machines all feature a closed loop of some kind of gas. At the beginning of the cycle, the gas is compressed, making it hot. The hot gas then flows through a radiator-like coil, where it cools off (and condenses into a liquid). Then it is re-expanded–and now it’s much cooler. The process is something like wringing out a dish towel, squeezing the water out so that when the cloth expands again it carries much less water. The cooled gas then pulls heat out of the room (or out of the refrigerator) and then goes through the cycle again. The coolant itself could be any of several different kinds of gas, but for decades chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) were the standard because they’re non-toxic. Unfortunately, they are also greenhouse gasses and ozone-layer eaters.

When CFCs’ role in ozone depletion was discovered, the world stopped using them, as per the Montreal Protocol, although some CFCs lingered in older machines. They were replaced by HCFCs, which were less dangerous for the ozone, but worse for the climate. HCFCs were then replaced by HFCs, which do not damage the ozone at all, but are still very bad for the climate. The problem is that the Montreal Protocol only protects the ozone; there is no equivalent to protect the climate and thus no legal mechanism to limit the use of HFCs.

One complicating factor is that all of these chemicals can be called Freon, a brand name that covers multiple chemicals. So it’s easy to hear a lot of conflicting stories on whether Freon has been banned or not; the truth is that some Freons have been and others have not.

Refrigerant systems do not vent coolant when they are functioning normally; running your air conditioner does not release the gas. However, systems can leak. Worse, once the gas is created, it will almost certainly get into the atmosphere eventually. Freons don’t biodegrade, so no matter how much time goes by, they are still a threat to the climate. Choosing not to run your air conditioner, as we do, does not actually help with Freon. Only not getting the machine in the first place does that. But not running the air conditioner does cut down on electricity use, and that matters.

Climate-neutral refrigerants do exist, but have not yet won regulatory acceptance. There are cooling systems advertized as “green,” but usually because they use less electricity. That matters, too, but efficient air-conditioners, refrigerators, and freezers still contain those powerful greenhouse gasses. Keeping those systems in good repair, so that they do not leak, is important, all of this, efficiency, preventing leaks, everything, is all about making a situation less bad. Only switching to climate-friendly coolants–or giving up the machines–will solve the problem.

For individuals, efficient machines are a good intermediate step, but for society, they are a drawback. For one thing, the more efficient machines get, the more people use them–often resulting in even more electricity use. For another, cheap air conditioning leads to dependence on artificial coolness. For example, huge numbers of elderly people have retired to sun-belt cities. Not only is this demographic more vulnerable to heat-related injury and illness, but those cities have been developed with air-conditioning in mind–without architectural and community-planning details known to bring down the heat, like high ceilings, good night-time ventilation, and community green spaces. The result is a series of intense heat-islands filled with people who need air conditioning as a matter of life and death.

So what’s the value of an individual family, like ours, going without air conditioning on a day like today?

It does reduce electricity use, sometimes a lot. Just as important–or maybe more importantly–it’s a good way to remember that air conditioning really isn’t necessary much of the time, a way to remember that we as a society can turn the machines off, except for occasional therapeutic use. If going without air condition seems difficult, just remember–by turning on the chillers we’re actually making our days even hotter.

Indoors and outdoors, the temperature is now 86 degrees–outside, the temperature is falling. It’s time to open all the windows and doors.



Alaska Burning

Alaska is on fire at the moment.

Well, not all of it, but the state’s wildfire Preparedness Level is at 4. The scale only goes up to 5, so PL 4 means the state is starting to have real trouble dealing with its fires and needs help from other states. For a state, or region to go to Level 4 is not all that unusual–the state and regional wildfire response systems are not designed to be self-sufficient–but the fires are not inconsequential, either. In recent weeks, both forests and tundra in Alaska have burned–and some of the fires have been quite large and dangerous.

Fires are not exactly a new thing in Alaska, but there are more of them now, for a variety of reasons including the current successional stage of previously logged forests, the effects of fire-suppression policies, and, yes, climate change. Alaska’s climate is changing much faster than that of more temperate areas, becoming both hotter and drier. And the fires, in turn, might be causing dramatic changes to both the climate and ecology of the region.

In forests

Recent research suggests that larger, more intense and frequent fires might dramatically alter forest compositions that have been stable (despite repeated natural climate changes) for six thousand years–although the forests themselves could then act to slow further changes.

In the interior of Alaska, there are essentially two main types of forest; most areas are dominated by black spruce, berry bushes, and moss, but there are forests of aspen and other deciduous trees as well. Both types of forest burn, perhaps every hundred years or so, but after the fire, the same type of forest eventually grows back. The result is a mosaic of different forest communities that has kept the same pattern since before the pyramids were built. Basically, each forest type produces its own distinctive type of forest floor. Because spruce forest floors are very thick and wet, they don’t burn down to bare soil, whereas the thin deciduous leaf-litter layer does. After a fire, the two different forest floor types guide ecological succession in different directions so that, in time, black spruce and aspen each return to the areas where they grew before.

As Alaska dries out, however, the black spruce forest burns more intensely and more often, destroying its distinctively thick duff. Once the soil is bare, the deciduous trees can move in–and there they stay.

The neat thing about ecology, though, is that nothing is simple–as the number of deciduous groves in interior Alaska increases, it seems likely that the situation will stabilize itself because the deciduous trees do not burn as easily and may act to slow down and break up large fires. These trees are paler in color, too, and they release more water back into the air and so may act to cool the region somewhat. Both effects may act to protect the remaining black spruce forests, at least for a while.

All by itself, changes in the composition of Alaska’s forests is not necessarily a disaster, although we don’t know for sure that it isn’t, either. Both the human cultures in the region and much of its wildlife have developed ways to use both types of forests in different ways, and it is not obvious what changing the proportion and distribution of the two types is going to do. Change is not automatically bad, but the fact that we are changing something this old should certainly give us pause.

Of more obvious, clear-cut concern is the fact that black spruce forests, with their thick, slowly-decaying duff, are a carbon-sink. That is, they take in more carbon than they release and thus are one of the reasons global warming is not worse than it already is. The loss of these duff layers, either because forests convert to deciduous communities or because spruce forests can no longer build up as much duff between more frequent, more intense fires, is already starting to convert Alaska’s forests into a net carbon source.

That’s a problem.

In the tundra

Much of Alaska is still treeless tundra, plant communities dominated by shrubs, mosses, grasses, and lichens. The tundra, too, is a net carbon sink, because huge amounts of organic matter build up in the soil and do not rot. The layers of ligroundving and dead organic matter also insulate the soil, helping to keep the permafrost from melting. The permafrost, in turn, keeps groundwater close to the surface and keeps buried methane trapped. As permafrost melts, some lakes are actually draining away, destroying important habitat for fish and for migratory birds. And, of course, that methane is bubbling up–methane is a much more powerful greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide is.

Alaska’s forests have permafrost as well, but it is discontinuous–rather like big, underground boulders of ice. Beneath the tundra, the permafrost is more like bedrock.

The thing is, when the tundra burns–as it may be doing more often now, in part because northern Alaska is getting more lightening strikes because of its warmer weather–it’s not just the thin living laying but also the soil that goes up in smoke. A tundra fire can release as much carbon dioxide as a forest fire can. Without as much insulation, and given the much darker color of the charred surface, the permafrost beneath can then melt all the faster.

Positively problematic

I have written before about how positive feedback loops are anything but positive in the colloquial sense of good or happy. A positive feedback loop is a self-intensifying cycle, such as where rising temperatures melt permafrost, releasing methane, which makes temperatures rise faster, melting more permafrost….

The really scary thing here is that initiating these loops–pushing systems to the point where they start releasing greenhouse gasses–means that even if we stopped burning fossil fuel tomorrow, climate change might continue to get worse. We are losing the option to save ourselves.

That isn’t an argument to give up, of course–no situation is so bad that it cannot be made worse, and that means no situation is so bad that we  cannot make things better by our restraint. But it does mean that the hour is later than we might think. The Earth is a live thing, and it has been protecting us from ourselves to some extent–but it won’t do so forever. To those of you who are doing the equivalent of calmly reading the paper while your house burns around you; it is time to get up, now.





Bigger Floods in Texas, Reprise

Texas is flooding again, unfortunately.

Tropical Storm Bill formed in the Gulf of Mexico overnight and is–right now, as I write this–coming ashore between Houston and Corpus Christi. Bill is “only” a tropical storm, not a hurricane, but that ranking depends on wind speed, not on overall severity. Tropical storms, by definition, have sustained wind speeds somewhere between 40 and 74 miles per hour–any more, and they become hurricanes, which Bill will not do because these storms can generally only strengthen over water. Bill is not a very windy storm; its highest gusts are likely to be around 50 MPH. But the real problem is flooding.

Historically, most of the people who die in hurricanes and tropical storms drown.

The flooding is from two sources, rain and storm-surge, although the two interact in coastal areas if the storm surge makes it harder for rainwater to drain away. How much rain falls is not just a factor of how much moisture is in the clouds (typically a lot, but it can very) but also how big the storm is and how fast it moves. A large, slow storm takes longer to move over any given area and therefor rains more. Bill is about as wide as the Gulf Coast of Texas–big, but not monstrous. I have not learned whether it is slow-moving.  An old frontal boundary across Arkansas and North Texas will likely merge with Bill, adding more moisture to the system. A sickle-shaped area across parts of Texas, Oklahoma, Arkansas, Kansas, and Illinois is now under a flash flood watch. A much larger sickle of less severe rain reaches all the way to Maryland (which is ok, we need it).

Storm surges are caused by winds and pressure changes pushing along a dome of sea water. The surge looks something like a very rapid, unusually high tide–it can roll in within a few minutes. Before the modern era of accurate storm tracking, people sometimes went down to the beach to watch dramatic surf and then died as unexpected storm surges came in faster than they could run. Tropical Storm Bill’s winds are fairly modest, so its surge is only about four feet at the most, but the storm is rolling in at high tide–and we’re close to the New Moon right now, so this is one of the highest tides of the month. So, while we’re not looking at a monster surge by any means, Bill’s timing makes it worse than it might otherwise have been.

Again, this is weather, not climate. While human-caused climate change underlies all weather, just as a rising tide underlies all waves, this tropical storm is not, all by itself, a climate change story. So far, Bill looks like the same kind of storm the Southern US has always been vulnerable to. But what is a climate-change story is the context into which this storm is now moving.

First and foremost, Texas and Oklahoma are already soaked from weeks of intense, sometimes disastrous rain (following years of horrible drought). When the ground is already wet and rivers are already high, it doesn’t take much more rain to cause a major flood all over again. And while some flooding has always been a fact of life, the rapid swing from drought to weeks of torrential rain has all the hallmarks of the new, globally-warmed normal of extreme weather. It is because of this recent history of saturated ground that I am frankly worried about my friends and family in Texas right now.

Of course, Bill’s storm surge is also eight inches higher than it would have been were it not for sea-level rise–both from seawater expanding as it warms up and from the melting of glaciers. Eight inches might not seem like a lot, but imagine the difference between zero and eight inches of salt water inside your house.

Finally, according to a Alan Weisman, whose really neat book, The World Without Us, I have just read, the Gulf Coast of Texas is now uniquely vulnerable to storm surges because of the oil industry:

When oil, gas, or groundwater is pumped from beneath the surface, land settles into the space it occupied. Subsidence has lowered parts of Galveston 10 feet. An upscale subdivision in Baytown, north of Texas City, dropped so low that it drowned during Hurricane Alicia in 1983 and is now a wetlands nature preserve. Little of the Gulf Coast is more than three feet above sea level, and parts of Houston actually dip below it. –p. 143

So, a storm surge coming ashore near Galveston of “only” two to four feet is really serious business. Petrochemical extraction is not itself climate change, but it’s obviously intimately related.

This is not the first Tropical Storm Bill, nor will it be the last. Meteorologists reuse storm names, only retiring those that, like Katrina, become particularly note-worthy. None of the previous Bills has earned that distinction, and this one probably won’t, either. But we live in a world where even modest storms are more destructive than they might otherwise have been.

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Back to the Future

Now and then, someone complains that environmentalists want to “take us back to the stone age” and I feel compelled to explain why this is not anything we have to worry about. The time has once again arrived.

We’re not going back to any previous time period. History doesn’t work like that. For better or worse, the past is over. We will not somehow fall backwards five thousand years, five hundred years, or even fifty years, forgetting all we have learned and undoing all the changes we have made in the process. For example, turning off the machines of the Industrial Revolution will not reassert the 1700’s and make smallpox magically reappear.

But ending human-caused climate change might well involve adopting some practices from the past. Our lives might come to resemble the way people lived before the Industrial Revolution, or even before the development of agriculture, in certain key ways. And that isn’t a bad thing.

Fossil fuel use gives us a huge amount of energy. Most of the “advances” we have seen in the past two hundred years have not been the result of scientific and social development alone but have also involved a dramatic increase of the amount of energy we harness. Cars don’t go faster than horse-drawn carriages because they are technologically more advanced (although they are) but because they use a lot more fuel. Of course, horses eat hay whereas cars eat gasoline, so it’s hard to make the comparison, but just as a mental exercise consider why we don’t design cars to run on hay.

Basically, hay isn’t a very energy-dense fuel and so a hay-car would need an impossibly large fuel-tank. There probably isn’t enough hay in the entire world to fuel even a modest fleet of hay-cars anyway.

And the massive energy-use is part of the problem. As I’ve explained before, destabilized weather and dramatic biodiversity losses are just what we can expect from using more energy than the biosphere we live in can handle. An enhanced greenhouse effect is the way fossil fuel accomplishes these disasters, but if we invented an alternate way of using too much energy, an alternate path to the same disaster would develop.

So, in the climate-sane future, we’ll use advancing technology to live better on less energy. Greater efficiency will allow us to keep some of our high-energy luxuries, but others will have to go; better rather than more will be the watch-word of the day.

For example, turning night into day across entire cityscapes as we do requires a lot of energy. Even with more efficient lighting, cities that never sleep might have to go. But when people go home at night they need not illuminate their houses with whale-oil lamps as in days of old—they can use LEDs run off batteries charged by rooftop solar cells during the day. LEDs don’t require killing whales and they don’t set fires when they fall over. For the same small amount of energy, they unquestionably do a better job producing light.

But can we look forward to more as well as better?

We can—if we think about what it really means to have plenty. We’re used to thinking of plenty in absolute terms, where a person with thousands of dollars has more wealth than a person with hundreds of dollars. By this logic, a person who wants to have more must go about getting more. And if there isn’t more to get (the approximate situation of modern humanity), that person is stuck.

But in real life we know that’s not how plenty actually works. We know that a person who earns only a few hundred dollars in a week can be in a much better position financially than someone who brings in several thousand if the latter has a lot of unavoidable bills and a large amount of debt. What matters is not so much what you have so much as the relationship between what you have and what you need. It is possible to achieve a state of plenty even with a falling level of income by reducing expenses to the point where saving money is easy.

Think about the difference between a working professional trying to support three children in private school, a stay-at-home spouse, and a home big enough for the whole family, and the same person as a widowed empty-nester living in a small apartment with a modest pension and able to finally go visit Paris.

We can do that as a species in the distant but foreseeable future by radically shrinking our population.

How many people Earth can support is definitely subject to debate. There were certainly those who expected us to have fallen into chaos and horror due to resource shortages by this time and, by and large, they were wrong. I suspect that getting off fossil fuel will require shrinking our numbers (hopefully by attrition), but it’s possible that I am wrong. But trying to identify the maximum number of people who can cram themselves onto the planet—how little we can get by with per capita, in other words—is poverty-thinking. Let’s think about plenty instead.

If our species were, once again, very small—perhaps a few million of us scattered all over the Earth—our per capita Earth-shares would each be very large. So long as we kept our numbers contained and our needs modest, we’d all have more in the way of natural resources than we could ever hope to use. And we’d have some valuable things that money just can’t buy these days. For example, anyone who wanted adventure and freedom could walk out into the wilderness and just keep going as long as they wanted. And that beauty you see in National Parks and on nature specials on TV? It would be everywhere, basically for free.

True, such small population sizes might involve some sacrifice. You couldn’t go see a show on Broadway because New York couldn’t exist. In fact, population sizes like what they had in the Paleolithic might require something of the lifestyle of the Paleolithic.

But that wouldn’t be so bad. Historically, when stone-age peoples have met with so-called “advanced” cultures, they have fought very hard to retain their supposedly “primitive” way of life—these fights continue still. It’s not that these people want to maintain themselves as museum pieces, resistant to change forever—they generally accept steel tools, guns, snowmobiles, and whatever else makes their lives better by their own definition. The point is that there are aspects of Paleolithic (e.g., pre-agricultural) life that are worth more than life itself to the people who have it.

And some aspects are all that climate-sane future humanity would have of the Paleolithic, anyway. We can’t go back, and wouldn’t have to. Some communities might indeed be hunter-gatherers, or subsistence farmers or pastoralists. Horses and oxen and human feet might replace cars and trucks for most purposes. Leather, wood, and bone might replace metal and plastic for daily use. But we’d still have steel when we needed it—there’d be plenty of it available for recycling, just mine a landfill. And we’d still know how to make things like vaccines, antibiotics, and radios. Probably, technological advancement will continue and our hunter-gatherer descendants will be able to do things like replace their internal organs with synthetic ones when they fail.

Just something to imagine next time someone starts talking about the stone age.

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How About that Weather?

Recently, a friend of mine posted a picture on his Facebook page, commenting that he “didn’t know it was that bad.” I didn’t, either, though I did suspect it, and it does not seem to have made the news at all. I’m talking drought figures. Frankly, I am confused by the legality of re-posting pictures online, so I usually don’t. In the interests of avoiding a thousand extra words I’m making an exception and providing the picture. Please, if you own this one and don’t want it here, let me know and I’ll take it down.


The legend at the top indicates this is a map of how many more inches of precipitation different parts of the United States would need to get to “PDI -0.5.” A bit of poking around online reveals that PDI is probably the same thing as the Palmer Drought Severity Index, or PDSI, and that -.5 means is more or less the drier boundary of normal for a given area. According to this map, then, as of June 6th, to get to Normal, parts of California would need 9-12 inches of rain, which is a problem because that’s about as much as what that area gets all year.

But we knew California was in trouble. That’s not the surprising part.

The surprising part is the serious drought in the East. Southern Florida apparently needs 12 to 15 inches of rain to get to normal, parts of Vermont, and some parts of the Southern Appalachians need 6 to 9 inches. Where I live, in Maryland, needs up to 3 inches, which might not sound like a lot, but we did just get a solid week of rain. Much of the rest of the East is at least mildly dry. It’s not that any of this is severe (Florida is very rainy, so a proportionately mild or moderate deficit still has a lot of inches), it’s that people act like it’s invisible. I have heard no mention of it on the news, heard nobody (except the friend who posted the picture) talking about it, and I have not found anything discussing any of this online.

According to another graphic on the same site, much of the Eastern US has gotten about half to three-quarters of its normal amount of rainfall so far this year. Another site, one run by the USDA, lists Maryland as having no drought as of June 2nd, with some areas merely “abnormally dry” the week before. The disparity could be due to the use of different methods–calculating the severity of drought is somewhat complicated, since it depends on knowing not only how much moisture a place has but also how much it needs. The dates on the two sites (June 2nd vs. June 6th) could also be relevant.

Personally, I’d go with the site that says Maryland has a bit of an issue. It has been a dry spring. with some parts of the state (like ours) getting no rain at all for weeks on end in April and May. We have also had some fantastic rainstorms, most recently a series of interrelated storms that lasted almost a solid week, but much of that water probably ran off without soaking in–heavy rains on dry soil tend to slide off. I spoke with a farmer who said her neighbor found completely dry soil just a few inches down after the first big downpour of that rainy week.

Which brings up another reason why the reports of Maryland’s drought could be wrong–measured by actual inches of rain as compared to what we typically receive, we could be ok. Measured by soil moisture and groundwater recharge, we might not be; the thing is, Maryland currently has no effective way of checking whether its groundwater is being recharged.

All of this is, of course, weather rather than climate. And in the grand scheme of things, my state’s drought is, at worst, still mild. But the situation is still worth noting for two reasons. One is that this is what climate change looks like–larger, more intense rainfalls less often. It’s not dramatic for us Easterners this week, but it is vaguely, eerily, different from what we’re used to, and we should notice. More importantly, a society that isn’t in the habit of noticing the weather, either as individuals or through the news media, leaves itself vulnerable to being told lies. Like when pretty much everybody except the Eastern US was horribly hot last winter and various climate-denying wags asked “where’s global warming” because the East happened to be snowy.

Personal, casual observation of the weather is not, of course, a reliable measure of climate, that’s why we have climate scientists and data collection protocols and big, giant computers, etc. There are important patterns that just aren’t visible without analysis. But if we abandon looking for those patterns we can see, the step into a dangerous apathy becomes very short.