The Climate in Emergency

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


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Day of the Dead

I’m re-posting this one from last year, with minor edits. I have not found any new species to add to the list, though unfortunately that doesn’t mean there aren’t more that belong on it. There is a leak in the world and life is running out of it…

Tomorrow is Hallowe’en, of course. A rollicking, morbid carnival, a celebration of the mortal flesh through sugar, alcohol, sex, and fake blood (if you don’t believe me about the sex, look at the women’s costumes available in stores), a blurring of identity and the thrill of things that go bump in the night.

I could write about the impact of the holiday on global warming, but that’s been done. I could write a scary story about our possible future, but that’s been done, too.

But, basically, I’m not all that interested in Hallowe’en anymore. I’ve grown out of trick-or-treat and I’m not frightened by blood, fake or otherwise. I’m more interested in the older traditions of taking a day to honor and remember the dead. This is therefore a Day of the Dead post, a Samhain post. I want to mark and honor the dead of climate change–not as a scare tactic or a self-flagellation of guilt, but simply as an act of witness. Because it is the right thing to do.

There are several possible ways to go with this. I could focus on individuals who have died of climate change, but linking global warming to particular deaths is very difficult. The result would also be too similar to my recent post comparing the mortality rates of climate change and Ebola. Instead, I want to honor whole species that have died. I’ve often thought that reading a list of recently extinct species names, the way the names of individuals lost to some accident or disaster are sometimes read, would be a powerful way to add an ecological dimension to Samhain. I’ve never done it, in part because finding such a list is difficult. Compiling a list of the extinct is hard, since we don’t always know a species exists before it stops existing again, and because it’s hard to be sure a whole species is really gone and not holding on in some remnant population somewhere. What lists exist seldom turn up whole on Internet searches, perhaps because many of the species on the list are plants and animals most people have never heard of.

Still, I intend to observe the Day of the Dead by formally noticing our planetary losses.

Looking for Smoking Guns

Which species, if any, have gone extinct because of climate change is a bit complicated.  I addressed the question in some depth in an earlier post, but it comes down to the difference between ultimate cause and proximate cause; if you fall off a cliff, the ultimate cause of your death is your poor footing, while the proximate cause is your impact with the ground. The problem is that the connection between those two causes is rarely as obvious or straight-forward as in that example.

Climate change as the ultimate cause of extinction might be linked with any number of proximate causes. Some of them are: drought; habitat loss (think polar bears and ice); the extinction or relocation of an ecological partner; and new competitors, pests, or diseases that take advantage of warmer weather. Of course, most of these problems can have other ultimate causes as well. Climate change is not likely to be the species’ only major problem–consider the paper birch, which is dying out in parts of New England because of a combination of exotic diseases, climate change, and probably the advanced age of the relevant stands. Against this complex backdrop, it is hard to say for certain which extinctions actually belong at global warming’s door.

Some years ago, scientists announced the extinction of the Seychelles snail, the first species known to go extinct because of climate change. Fortunately, a previously unknown population of the snail turned up recently–it’s not extinct at all (though presumably still in grave danger). Many writers have treated the snail’s resurrection as some kind of embarrassing “oops” for climate scientists, which of course it is not; the species took a huge hit because of global warming, and the fact that it’s still hanging on is great news. Confirming an extinction is very, very hard–a bit like looking for the absence of a needle in a haystack. Mistakes are inevitable, and welcome.

The golden frog and the Monteverde harlequin frog are sometimes cited as victims of climate change as well. The proximate causes of the golden frog’s demise were habitat loss due to drought and also the chytrid fungus, which could be exacerbated by climate change. Chytrid has extinguished or gravely endangered many other amphibians world-wide, so at least some of them might be considered victims of climate change as well–as could various non-amphibians, including some no one knows about yet.

But there is another way to look at all of this.

Climate change itself has a cause, and that cause has other effects. As I explained in another previous post, our burning fossil fuel has destabilized the biosphere as a whole by altering how energy flows through the system. Climate change is one consequence of that destabilization, but systemic biodiversity loss is another. That is, no matter what the proximate cause of an extinction is (whether climate itself is directly involved), the ultimate cause is usually related to fossil fuel use somehow.

So, it’s a good bet that most extinctions over the past century or so have something to do with climate change, directly or indirectly.

We know what to do about it. You know what to do about it. But this is the festival to honor the dead, and we should take a moment to do that–to remember that these are not just numbers, political statements, arguments, but actual animals and plants, whole ways of being, that will never again exist.

I did find a list of historical extinctions today. It is only partial, but fairly inclusive. You can look it up here, but there are too many for me to copy over all of them. I’ll just focus on those that have been lost since my birth.

Pinta Island Tortoise

Chelonoidis abingdoni

Last seen, 24 June 2012

Vietnamese Rhinoceros

Rhinoceros sondaicus annamiticus

Last seen, 29 April 2010

Christmas Island Pipistrelle

Pipistrellus murrayi

Last seen, 27 August 2009

Chinese Paddlefish

Psephurus gladius 

Last seen, 8 January 2007

Yangtze River Dolphin

Lipotes vexillifer 

Last seen, before 2006

Po’o-uli

Melamprosops phaeosoma

Last seen, 28 November 2004

Saint Helena Olive

Nesiota elliptica

Last seen, December 2003

Vine Raiatea Tree Snail

Partula labrusca 

Last seen, 2002

Pyrenean Ibex

Capra pyrenaica pyrenaica 

Last seen, 6 January 2000

Sri Lanka Legume Tree

Crudia zeylanica

Last seen, 1998

Nukupuu

Hemignathus lucidus

Last seen, 1998

Western Black Rhinoceros

Diceros bicornis longipes

Last seen, 1997

Aldabra Banded Snail

Rhachistia aldabrae

Last seen, 1997

Zanzibar Leopard

Panthera pardus adersi

Last seen, 1996

Swollen Raiatea Tree Snail

Partula turgida

Last seen, 1 January 1996

Golden Toad

Incilius periglenes

Last seen, 1989

Antitlan Grebe

Podilymbus gigas

Last seen, 1986

Alaotra Grebe

Tachybaptus rufolavatus

Last seen, September 1985

Eungella Gastric-brooding Frog

Rheobatrachus vitellinus

Last seen, March 1985

Kaua’i ‘O’o

Moho braccatus

Last seen, 1985

Christmas Island Shrew

Crocidura trichura

Last seen, 1985

Ua Pou Monarch

Pomarea mira

Last seen, 1985

Amistad Gambusia

Gambusia amistadensis

Last seen, 1984

Conondale Gastric-brooding Frog

Rheobatrachus silus

Last seen, November 1983

San Marcos Gambusia

Gambusia georgei

Last seen, 1983

Kama’o

Myadestes myadestinus

Last seen, 1983

Guam Flycatcher

Myiagra freycinet

Last seen, 1983

Aldabra Warbler

Nesillas aldabrana

Last seen, 1983

Galapagos Damselfish

Azurina eupalama

Last seen, 1982

Marianas Mallard

Anas oustaleti

Last seen, September 1981

Southern Day Frog

Taudactylus diurnus

Last seen, 1979

White-eyed River Martin

Eurychelidon serintarea

Last seen, 1978

Little Hutia

Mesocapromys minimus

Last seen, 1978

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Your Tuesday Update: Windy Fudge

NRP just ran a story on why Hurricane Patricia can’t be blamed on climate changebecause it is just one event and single events can’t be definitively pinned on a trend.

Yeah, yeah, yeah, we’ve heard that before. And it’s entirely correct. Yes, this record-breaking storm is clearly related to a powerful El Niño, and no, we don’t know what the relationship between El Niño and climate change is. I’ve addressed all of that before, and probably so has every other climate change writer on the planet.

But that isn’t what people mean when they ask if this is climate change.

They’re not asking for a lecture about the difference between climate and weather or the definition of “trend” or any of that, they’re asking is climate change real? and is this the sort of thing we can expect more of? And the answer to both of those questions is unequivocally YES.

No, we don’t know if there has been a statistically significant change in hurricane behavior yet because we have no good baseline data to compare against. So while we can say Patricia was startling, we can’t really get a handle on how unusual the storm was. It had the highest winds of any storm measured, but we haven’t been measuring storms very well for very long. Yes, El Niño is a complicating factor. It’s important for anyone interested in seriously discussing climate change to understand these details so that we won’t be caught hanging when some climate denier twists them up for use as semi-true window-dressing for propaganda.

But all of that is a footnote to the story. The story is that unusually warm water produces unusually powerful hurricanes. Global warming includes the waters of the globe. This is what climate change looks like, among other things–monster hurricanes.

No single events will ever be pinnable to any trend because trends are only visible in multiple events. That isn’t going to change. It isn’t news. So, to NPR and every other journalist working on the topic, please stop misframing public questions in a way that allows you to answer “no” when the true answer to the real question is “yes.”


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More Candidates!

I have already profiles the two front-runners for the Democratic nomination, Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders, plus Martin O’Malley, who is also seeking the nomination. I have not profiled any of the Republican hopefuls because this here is a blog on climate change and none of them are serious on the issue (although their collective denialism shows signs of weakening). But there are more candidates to cover.

To be clear, our next President will almost certainly be either Clinton, Sanders, or one of the Republicans. I don’t mean to discourage anybody–I’m in favor of underdogs, and anyway limiting the Presidency to those who are already politically powerful is antithetical to democracy. But at the same time, I doubt most people will have a chance to cast a vote for Lincoln Chafee or Lawrence Lessig. I think they will probably drop out before the primary process is complete. And most independents and “third party candidates” will not have ballot access in most states.

But they are still running and should be heard–and may in some cases be able to shape the political discussion for the front-runners.

Lincoln Chafee is the Democratic hopeful no one has ever heard of. Or, at least I hadn’t heard of him until he turned up on the debate stage the other week, though he declared back in June–and while I’m not a news junkie I am pretty aware. Publicly, he seems best well-known for favoring the metric system, although that is hardly his most important or most interesting platform plank (that would be his self-identification as a pacifist, a truly radical stance for a prospective Commander-in-Chief).

He does have experience, having served in the US Senate and as Governor of Rhode Island. He is also a former Republican–he switched as a Senator, first to Independent, then to Democrat. His website paints a picture of him as an intelligent, thoughtful, and principled person. His main drawback as a potential President seems to be that no one has heard of him and therefore few people have bothered to write anything about him. He is a bit of a cipher.

As far as climate change, he certainly talks the talk, acknowledging the seriousness of the problem and pledging to do something about it. He says he would not approve Keystone, a nice and concrete promise and one not without some political risk. And while he refused to pledge not to take campaign money from the fossil fuel industry, at least he acknowledged the question, which Hillary Clinton did not. He also walks the walk, at least to some extent–in addition to a history of sticking up for environmental legislation generally, he is responsible for putting Rhode Island on track for a very steep reduction in fossil fuel use.

On the other hand, his economic plans center around the concept of “growth,” something that is logically incompatible with sustainability given that the Earth’s resources are finite. His score with the League of Conservation Voters is 78, which is not bad but is not stellar.

Would he stand up for the planet if he made it to the Oval Office? Maybe. I don’t think he’s in Martin O’Malley’s league or Bernie Sanders’, but he certainly wouldn’t be a disaster, either. His presence on the scene is encouraging.

Lawrence Lessig is a political outsider who plans to stay that way. Not only does he have no prior experience in public office (he is a writer and law professor), but he plans, if elected, to resign after just one year. Lack of experience is not necessarily a problem except that it means we more or less have to take his word on his values and intentions. His intention to resign is a problem. I expect he’s trying to underline is lack of ambition, but the job is a four-year minimum commitment. Says so in the Constitution.

Frankly, I think he should run for Congress instead. His entire game plan is to get a law passed that would get money out of politics–a noble and necessary goal, but that’s not something a US President can do. The Chief Executive can support legislation as part of his or her agenda, but the White House just isn’t where legislation happens. Mr. Lessig knows that, of course, and is almost certainly using the cachet of a Presidential campaign to draw attention to his cause, not actually hoping to win. I’d rather he simply go to Congress where he belongs and get the job done.

But he is interesting in that he recognizes that climate change is part of his one issue–that the problem of money in politics really has to be solved for our country to make much progress getting off of fossil fuel.

I wish all candidates would have an equivalent recognition–that Mr. Chafee would address climate change in terms of his primary issue (peace and security), for example…most people treat the environment as a separate issue, and it really isn’t.

Unless I get seriously distracted by other topics, in the next week or two I will post on a few of the even longer shots out there.


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Your Tuesday Update: The Day of Inaction

First of all, I want to apologize for skipping Friday’s post. I was in the process of migrating across country, had accidentally sat on my computer, was under-slept, etc. I’m on track to post as normal this week.

I had anticipated having a lot to talk about, too. Wednesday was supposedly an International Day of Climate Action and I’d planned to attend a rally in Manchester, New Hampshire–I was in Keene, New Hampshire at the time, and Manchester was the closest event. Friday’s post would therefore have been my description of that rally.

We ended up not going. The basic problem was that we’d have to drive an hour and a half each way to get to the event and couldn’t find anyone willing to car-pool with us. How much sense does it make to use that much gas to get to a climate change rally, especially when no other environmentalists in the area seem to be going? Plus, we were tired, being in the middle of our fall migration down the Eastern Seaboard. We went back and forth on whether we should go and finally realized we had not gone. It was pitiful.

And apparently most people did exactly the same as us.

I don’t know anybody who attended an event, although I started trying to spread the word a few weeks prior. The organizers never responded to my offer to volunteer, nor did they respond to my mother’s offer. The Day of Action did not make the national news. When I went hunting for information I learned that Manchester’s rally was the biggest such gathering in the state’s history, but only because the state’s history is very poor–barely 100 people showed up. Even in New York, which should, at least, have mobilized thousands, only a hundred people came out–and I learned that from a brief notice way down the page on an activists’ website. You have to hunt for it. The organizer’s own website does not even appear to have been updated after the event–no “thank you for making this day a success!”

Because this was not a success. I am reluctant to chide other people for not doing something I didn’t do, either, but the fact of the matter is I didn’t attend because I wasn’t convinced doing so would really matter. It just didn’t seem like anyone else was going to show up or that the organizers were serious about getting anyone to show up. And I didn’t want to drive a hundred and thirty miles out of my way to go have a two-person protest that nobody would ever hear about. It is the job of event organizers to convince potential participants that showing up matters and they didn’t. So we didn’t.

We have to do better, people. Demonstrations that are big enough to make the national news are absolutely critical because they show political candidates that if they take climate change seriously as a threat then we, the electorate, will have their backs. If we fail to do that then they’ll ignore the issue and if the US Government does not get behind climate action this election cycle we may well simply be out of time.

There is another event planned in November. Let’s make sure to show up.


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Your Tuesday Update: Prosecute ExxonMobile

As some of you will have heard, Exxon knew that climate change was real and largely caused by fossil fuel use back in the eighties. The company then publicly denied climate change for decades, working through many of the same PR experts who had previously worked for the tobacco industry.

In a way, this should not be news. After all, I knew about climate change in the eighties. And I was a little kid at the time, not one of the leaders of a major corporation. Of course Exxon’s leadership knew.

But for Exxon to use climate research to plot corporate strategy (such as deciding to pursue drilling in the Arctic because the warmer climate would make doing so cheaper) while simultaneously insisting to the public that these same studies were unreliable…it’s just insulting, is what it is.

And, as it turns out, the whole strategy may be illegal under the RICO statutes–the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act, a law originally passed in order to tackle organized crime. The tobacco industry was successfully sued under RICO for exactly the same strategy of willful disinformation–so why not EXXON? The settlement could be big enough to fund some serious climate adaptation and mitigation and could discourage other professional deniers. This could be big.

I don’t suggest specific actions very often, but this seems important; please click here to sign a petition asking President Obama to sue ExxonMobile under RICO for climate denial.


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When the Sky Does Not Make Sense

As I explained on Tuesday, the East Coast of the US has been pummeled recently by horrible weather. The worse of the flooding struck South Carolina, but the storm caused flooding every state from Georgia north to Maine and inland as far as Ohio. The storm was remarkable for many reasons, not least because of its vast size and the shear amount of water that fell out of it:

  • In Maine, Caribou, Millinocket, Houlton, and Portland all broke daily rainfall records–Portland’s new record is double the previous record, which was set in 1922. One area, Searsport, received more than ten inches in total from the storm.
  • In Massachusetts, Boston almost doubled its daily rainfall record, previously set in 1899. The worst of the rain had not get moved through the state at that point.
  • In Rhode Island, Provincetown set a new daily record and New Bedford had to shut down Route 18 for two hours due to flooding.
  • Some parts of South Carolina got one or two feet of water out of the storm in total. Dams breached, highways flooded, and caskets literally floated up and out of their graves.

Coastal flooding–a storm surge driven by wind–was just as bad and, in some areas, worse. Just as unprecedented as the flooding was the storm’s structure–record-breaking floods in this part of the world are categorically hurricanes or tropical storms, but this was neither. There is simply nothing in the record-books remotely comparable.

There was a hurricane involved, though.

Hurricane Joaquin was an extremely strong Category 4 storm–its strongest sustained winds were just 2 mph shy of qualifying as a Cat 5. Hurricanes of this intensity are extremely rare–the last one in the Atlantic was five years ago. It hammered the Bahamas and sank a cargo ship with all hands. It never made landfall in the US, but its influence sent high surf along the length of the Eastern Seaboard (in Maine I heard surf about a mile inland–and the closest water is a protected cove that typically has no waves) and contributed to the huge storm surge in the South. The hurricane and the un-named storm were close enough to influence each other, with the monster un-named stormed steering Joaquin and the hurricane funneling moisture into its extratropical partner. This relationship between two storms was also highly unusual and was one of the reasons that meteorologists had trouble developing forecasts for Joaquin.

Detractors sometimes complain that any time the weather gets weird, somebody cries “climate change.” The reason for that is that an altered climate means weird weather. A climate is essentially the normal pattern of weather in a given area–or across the entire planet. When the pattern of typical weather changes, that is, by definition, climate change.

But what are the links between this particular weather event and the greenhouse effect?

Most directly, the sea is higher. Any time you get a storm surge, that surge is worse than it would have been because the sea starts out higher. The difference is only about eight inches (some areas see much greater effective rise because the land is also subsiding), but that is enough to have a huge effect. Anyone who doubts that should imagine the difference between zero and eight inches of water in their living room. Or, for that matter, the difference between zero inches and one inch! Last week’s storm pushed seawater up onto the land in South Carolina, North Carolina, Virginia, Maryland, Delaware, New Jersey, and Massachusetts. Today I saw, posted on Facebook, a video of a shark cruising down a flooded street in West Ocean City less than ten miles from my house. People who live in the affected areas can now go out and see exactly what climate change looks like simply by holding a ruler up to the high water marks. That’s about as unambiguous as it gets.

Secondarily, the sea over which Joaquin intensified was unusually warm–at least as of August, that area actually had record-breaking warmth. Warm water feeds hurricanes, so this pool of warm water explains Joaquin’s unusual strength. And Joaquin helps explain the huge amount of moisture in the un-named storm. Pools of warm water, like pools of warm air (heat waves) come and go, but global warming means they are more intense and more frequent now.

Third, a warmer planet means more extreme weather, including more extreme rain events. Again, the issue is frequency. This past week’s event was a thousand-year storm–that’s not a schedule but an expression of probability. The chance of such a storm occurring in any given year is about one in a thousand or 0.1%. Yes, it was certainly possible to get more than one per millennium, just as it’s possible to flip a coin and get heads seventeen times in a row, but you wouldn’t expect it. With extreme rain events happening more often, now we can expect these more often. I doubt this past week’s records will be broken any time soon, these things are still going to be pretty rare, but what isn’t going to be rare is the breaking of some record somewhere, especially those that involve precipitation (including snow!) or drought, or heat.

“We’ve never seen anything like this before!” is what climate change sounds like.


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Your Tuesday Update: Recent Floods

Hi, all,

I’m going to cover the recent flooding on Thursday. In the meantime, I just want to suggest that everyone hold in their awareness those who are currently waterlogged. Parts of South Carolina, North Carolina, and Georgia have flooded due to extreme rains. Coastal areas all up and down the southeastern US have flooded due to wind pushing tides much higher than normal. And the Bahamas are reeling from having been hit by a major hurricane–as is, in a way, Maine; several of the crew of a container ship lost in the hurricane were Mainers.