The Climate in Emergency

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

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Corals have been turning up in my social media lately. Not the actual corals, of course, but stories about them. A very large coral reef has just been discovered in the mouth of the Amazon and the Great Barrier Reef is evidently badly bleached at the moment thanks to abnormally high sea temperatures. I figure this is a good time to talk about some coral basics.

Corals are animals in the same phylum as jellyfish—it seems odd that corals are climate losers while jellyfish might well be winners until one remembers that a phylum is a very large group. Sharks, for example, belong to the same phylum we do. So they’re not closely related, they just have very broadly similar structures.  Corals are colonial, so what might look like a single coral is actually a whole colony. Individual coral animals, polyps, are rather like tiny upside-down jellyfish, each sitting in its own cup-like exoskeleton.

Many corals depend on symbiotic algae (zooxanthellae) for food, though they also grab and eat plankton. The color of corals depends on the algae in their bodies. Under stress, corals will expel their algae, turning white in the process. That’s coral bleaching. Bleached coral isn’t dead and can get new algae, but until they do they are extremely vulnerable (and, one imagines, hungry). Frequent or severe coral bleaching events can kill corals, as can any additional stresses that might occur while the animals are vulnerable.

Unusually hot water is one cause of bleaching. The warmer the water is, the faster the algae photosynthesize, meaning the more oxygen they release into the coral bodies. While corals do need oxygen to live, too much oxygen is a poison and the corals dump their algae to protect themselves. Corals vary in their heat tolerance, but they live at the upper edge of that tolerance, so even slight increases in temperature can hurt them. Bleaching on a large scale appears to be new–there’s no evidence for it before modern times.

Corals have very narrow habitat requirements, especially those that use zooxanthellae. Their water must usually be clear and sunlit, for photosynthesis, so they cannot grow anywhere more than a few hundred feet deep. The water can’t be too hot or too cold. In theory, a warmer world could support more coral, since a larger portion of the sea would be warm enough for them. In actual fact, though, climate change is moving too quickly—new reefs cannot establish quickly enough to balance out those lost to increasingly warm water in the tropics where they live. Rising carbon dioxide levels are also causing the oceans to become more acidic, and acid water eats away at the calcium-rich exoskeletons corals build. It’s not to the point where corals are shrinking, but they grow more slowly than they used to. Changing ocean currents and storm tracks also can stress corals and are also related to climate change.

This year is especially bad because it’s an El Nino year, which piles its own warmth on top of longer-term climate change.

Corals face risks from other directions, too, such as water pollution and physical damage from boats. So, as usual, the losses we’re seeing come from multiple sources. Between one thing and another, corals around the world are in trouble. Some areas have lost 80-90% of their corals already.

Obviously, corals are intrinsically important themselves, but coral reefs also provide a lot of habitat space for other animals. Some, like parrot fish, actually eat coral. Many others hide in nooks and crannies in the reef or take advantage of different microhabitats in different parts of the reef—a coral reef has a lot more surface area than a barren sea floor, so the reef essentially makes the part of the world it occupies a lot bigger. Something like a quarter of all marine species worldwide depend on corals.

Reefs are the oceanic equivalent of rainforests in terms of their biodiversity. If we lose the reefs, we lose the reef inhabitants–which is another example of how climate change can simplify and shrink the biosphere by taking out many species indirectly.

Lest this seem all like doom and gloom only, remember that we can still do something about climate change if we hurry. So don’t get so distracted by the presidential horse race that you forget to vote climate-sane people into Congress. Despite what you may be seeing on social media, voting matters.

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Political Drive: Going to the Anti-Trump Rally

I know I’m politically neutral here except as regards climate change, but Mr. Trump is a climate denier. In any case, I don’t really want to talk about the candidate himself so much as the process of protest. I’m posting this a few days early so that I can write the story while it’s still fresh.

The issue is that Donald Trump was within ten miles of my house today, in Berlin, Maryland. Or maybe he still is. Or maybe he never showed up, I’m not really sure. He was supposed to speak at the Stephen Decatur High School at 7 PM tonight, so, naturally there was a counter rally and a counter-counter rally. I attended. I made no attempt to actually get inside to hear him speak. I’ve heard what those people do to protestors. I probably have “liberal” stamped all over my forehead.

I wasn’t sure whether I should go. I wasn’t sure if I even wanted to. Would attending a counter-rally make a difference? Would it make enough of a difference to justify my burning the gas to drive there? Does it even make sense to protest a political rally given that the freedom to rally for the candidates we like is part of the point of America? How do I even find the answers to these kinds of questions?

I did what I normally do when faced with a judgment call: I hopped on Facebook, moped around the house for a while, then called my mother.

I realize that makes me sound superficial and immature, but the thing that I like about Facebook is it allows me to address a whole group of people at once, the equivalent of standing up in a crowded room and shouting “hey you guys!” And in the “room” that is my Facebook friends list there are a lot of intelligent and wise people. As for calling my mother, I happen to be the daughter of a very smart woman. From Facebook I got several responses:

  • My friend the peace activist said that when Mr. Trump comes to his area he will go. A group he is part of plants to go inside the rally to stand as silent witnesses, which I take to mean that they will go and allow themselves to be witnessed as people who quietly disagree. He wished me luck with my decision-making.
  • My friend the ornithologist said the whole thing would be a waste of time and I ought to do something positive instead.
  • A woman I went to grad school with said to go and report back, as she wants to hear about it from someone who was actually there whom she knows.
  • My friend the ornithologist said I ought to go grab a beer with some friends and do something constructive and enjoyable.
  • A woman I went to high school with said to “Go…and write an article about it.” And we had a neat little discussion about whether the candidate is actually who and what he presents himself to be.
  • My friend the ornithologist said “Eh*.” When I asked him what the asterisk led to he explained that Donald Trump has gotten too much attention already and we should not give him any more of it and really there are better things I could be doing with my time.

My mother, when I called her, initially said the same thing, that Mr. Trump should not get any more attention.

“It might be a little late to hope he’ll go away if we ignore him,” I said.

“You’re right.”

“I don’t want to go if it’s not going to do any good. I don’t want to waste the gas,” I said. “But on the other hand, if this guy becomes a worst-case scenario, what am I going to say when people ask me what I did to stop him?”

“I just don’t think we should add to his divisiveness. Like, if someone insults you, you can laugh it off or you can tell them their mama wears combat boots, you know?”

“Yeah…but, ok, if this guy ends up being like Hitler, there’s going to be a moment when we have to stand up and say No. Maybe this isn’t that moment. Maybe this isn’t that situation. But if this isn’t that moment, what is?”

“I don’t know. I just think it could be dangerous. I can’t make your find up for you.”

“I know. But when is that moment? When is it time?”

“Go. Be safe. Report back.”

So I went.

And, as it turned out, all my worry about fuel use was for naught–when I checked the directions I realized I could have biked it if I’d just started earlier instead of worrying and moping. One of these days I may stop underestimating my options, but apparently today wasn’t the day.

As I drove down the familiar roads towards the Harley Davidson dealer where our counter-rally would meet, I started to see people walking on the side of the road. In pairs or alone they came, mostly walking towards me on the side of the highway, mostly older people. I have no idea if they were associated with the event (if they were, why were they walking away from it?) but their presence was odd. As I got closer there were more and more people in larger and larger groups going in both directions. State troopers stood at the intersections directing traffic, their cars parked nearby, lights flashing. Crowds swelled and surged. Parking was obviously a zoo. There was no way to tell who was protesting what or where I should go or where the battle lines, if such lines there were, had formed. The late afternoon was clear and beautiful and blue. An abject terror seized me.

What was I afraid of? This was no mere anxiety, but straight-up, full-blown fear such as I am lucky enough to rarely experience. And yet I felt no urge to run, only to be very alert. What was I afraid of? Trump’s bad hair? The presence of incarnate evil? I have no idea. Perhaps it was only the sudden obviousness of reality that frightened me.

I want to be very clear; when I suggested to my mother that “this guy” could end up being “like Hitler” I did not actually mean that I think Donald Trump is literally a genocidal Nazi. I don’t actually know what he could be if he came to power. Nor was I simply using Hitler’s name as a rhetorical cudgel, the way many folks are fond of referring to anyone or anything they simply dislike as Hitlers or Nazis. What I meant, and my mother knew this because we’ve talked about it before, is that the way Donald Trump is going about building support is very similar to the way that several historical fascist dictators, including Adolph Hitler, pursued their power. This blog is not the place to elaborate on that, but I do see some value in looking for models, both historical and mythical, with which to put my own experiences in some kind of larger context. What history tells me is that sometimes how one responds to a demagogue becomes an important moral choice.

I drove along, past the crowds, and ended up running out of parking lots to turn into. My area is pretty rural and there are large areas still of just woodlots, corn fields, and the ruins of old drive-in movies and the like. I made a U-turn and parked next to a small office complex. I walked the rest of the way back into the turmoil, perhaps half a mile. The flowers blooming in the grassy verges were lovely, henbit and shepherd’s purse and forget-me-not.

“Can I help you?”

The man turned out to be a parking attendant. I asked directions to the anti-Trump protest and he waved in the general direction of the crowds–unhelpful, but he seemed friendly.

“Let me ask you this; why are you protesting Trump? Doesn’t he have a right to speak?”

“I’m not protesting the fact that he is speaking,” I said, carefully. “But I don’t like the direction he could take this country, and I think it’s important to stand up and say so. And I know this is going to be on the news and I don’t want the story to be that everyone on the Lower Eastern Shore liked him.”

“It won’t be,” he assured me. “I think it’s about 50/50, for and against.”

As it turned out, the man didn’t much like Mr. Trump, either. He didn’t like any of the candidates, though he had a different reason for disliking each and seemed to regard Donald Trump as one of the least objectionable. We had a very pleasant conversation and wished each other a good evening. I started to feel less afraid. The crowds surged ahead.

Eventually I found a tight knot of perhaps two hundred people, many of them carrying signs and chanting mostly incomprehensible slogans, standing on the grassy margin between the Harley Davidson place and an access road facing the high school. In the access road stood four or five state troopers and then, on the other side of them, perhaps five hundred other people mostly without signs, just staring back. Behind the five hundred was another road and the swelling, moving crowds flowing into and around the event itself. The area smelled strongly of sage smoke. Several vendors sold Trump t-shirts and other campaign merchandise, though nobody seemed to be buying. They were, quite literally, on the wrong side of the event. Every so often a huge cheer went up, although nobody seemed to know why. Less than twenty feet of pavement separated the protesters from the staring, pro-Trump, counter-protestors.

Moving through the crowd I caught pieces of stories I would obviously never know the rest of.

“Don’t say anything!” begged a middle-aged woman of a teenage girl. “You can’t say anything.”

“Relax. I didn’t give my name. Nobody knows I’m here,” said the girl.

“I’m proud of you. Be safe.” And the woman hugged what I’m guessing was her daughter and, as she turned away, crossed herself, almost in tears.

Two young men walked by, one of them holding a sign that said “Get Weed Here.”

“That’s the problem,” one of them whined loudly to the crowd as a whole. “That’s the real problem. People keep trying to lock me up just for smoking weed.”

“It smells like a cheese factory here,” asserted a man next to me. He was white, skinny, and perhaps about twenty. “Cheese and Axe and K2”

“K2?” I asked, confused.

“A cheese factory!” he insisted. “Like it’s been running for a month straight!” Another young man, maybe the same age, but chubby-cheeked and black, grinned in a friendly and confused way.

“Are you going to post about this?” I asked, since the skinny one was texting away as he spoke.

“I don’t know. Maybe not. I never plan anything!” He smiled with a weird, exultant joy.

“Please tell her this isn’t like Woodstock,” a young woman said to an older man, who laughed.

Another cheer rose up, then booing, as a line of vehicles with dark-tinted windows and emergency lights flashing moved by slowly. Speculation rippled through the crowd that The Donald might have just shown up, but I certainly didn’t see him and the line of vehicles slowly moved away. A few minutes later another eruption of booing announced the passage of a tour bus emblazoned with Trump 2016 in big letters, plus various other messages in smaller type. The only one I was able to focus on said “My Struggle,” which was, of course, the title of Adolf Hitler’s book. Was the bus and its lettering satirical or not? I couldn’t tell.

Someone standing near me announced to no one in particular that he had seen the Trump supporters and they were all white “except for one who is questionable, but I think he just has a deep tan.” I looked around and noted that the crowd I was in was almost half black, a larger proportion than we normally see around here. A certain racial tension in the situation was simply understood. A young black woman told me, because I happened to be there when she wanted to talk, that she had a friend who was darker than her, “he looks African–because he is African, he’s half African–and he’s wearing a dashiki!” who was standing right in front of the crowd and yelling at the Trump supporters. She was obviously scared for him.

“More power to him, to your friend who is yelling,” I told her, and meant it. She smiled at me.

The signs on our side were mostly positive: WE ARE LOVE! and DON’T EAT HIS FEAR. One of my favorites had actually been abandoned up against a parked car: I LOVE YOU ANYWAY, LIL TRUMPIES. Some were more blatantly snarky, like PUT AMERICA IN BIGGER HANDS and BUILD A WALL AROUND TRUMP AND MAKE HIM PAY FOR IT!  Someone else had made the Nazi connection besides me, I noticed: WRONG BERLIN, MEIN TRUMP. We were all friendly to each other, and I noticed no overt hostilities directed at the people of the counter-counter demonstration across the way (though it was hard to see because the crowd was very dense). A woman wearing bold, purple eye make-up showed me a sign that said I’M THE BLACK, LESBIAN FEMINIST YOUR PARENTS WARNED YOU ABOUT! and she apologized for some weird, hurried spelling, but I liked the sign and we grinned at each other, in mutual cahoots. The mood felt warm, good.

And yet there was a basic nervousness, an underlying fear. One woman told me she planned to leave before sundown “because that’s when the violence tends to happen.” People walked through the crowd, trying to find companions they’d been separated from. “She said she was going to try to get in, she had tickets,” said one to no one in particular. “I’m sure she was only was going in for a few minutes, but anything could have happened. I don’t want to leave her.” I noticed a nearby parked pickup truck decked out with two actual flag poles. One flew the Maryland state flag and the other the Confederate flag. I commented on it, addressing the two people who happened to be standing closest to me, a pair of black teenagers: “That’s weird, why fly a Confederate flag at a rally for a candidate for a Federal position? Unless it is about race, which those people always claim it isn’t?”

“We don’t do interviews,” said one of the two boys, glancing at my notebook. I’ve always taken notes at political events, and I’ve never encountered a negative reaction about it before, but this boy clearly saw me with suspicion. He wasn’t the only one. The crowd seemed friendly and supportive but ready to close ranks against hostility, against any sign of threat, and a white person who might be a journalist apparently read as borderline. I shouldn’t have brought the notebook.

Curious, I finally pushed my way to the front of the small but dense crowd, trying to see what was going on and why people were periodically cheering. It was almost 7:30 by that point, and we still had no idea whether Mr. Trump had even arrived. I chatted companionably with the woman next to me and we moved through the crowd together, circumstantial friends in the chaos. Suddenly a ripple of concern moved through the crowd and people started saying the SWAT team had arrived. Despite being at the front, I still couldn’t see anything. There is no way to tell where information comes from in the middle of a protest or if any of it is even true, but we fled backwards from the curb, trying to make the group of us look as un-aggressive as possible.

“How far we move is irrelevant,” I said to my companion, “the point is to be on the outer edge so if we have to leave, we can.”

“I’m just worried about my chairs,” she said. “They won’t care about my chairs.”

“Do you want me to help you fold them up?”

“Please. Here’s a bag.”

“Are they the ones who will tear-gas us?” someone else asked.

“I’ve never been to a demonstration where there were different sides before,” I said.

Everyone surged across the access road, apparently spontaneously relocating the whole protest and counter-protest 500 feet to the west for no apparent reason. No tear-gassing occurred. No riot erupted. The sun started to set. The threat we all felt might or might not have been real. Our gathering might or might not have mattered, or even been noticed by anyone. Whatever political value a demonstration does or does not have, its import ceases to be clear once one is inside it. The same chants, the same bull horns, the same sage smoke flow from one event to another the way dandelions pop up on lawns no matter where the lawns happen to be. You go with it. You observe. You add your body to the visual mass of the crowd and hope somebody takes note and that it matters. When the news helicopter flies overhead you all wave and show it your signs.

More inexplicable cheering. More speculation about where Trump was and what was going on. A couple of young women opined among themselves about the Trump supporters who had brought young children with them. “I think some of these people have never been to a protest in real life before. They want to see what it’s like. They want to see the blood and gore. That woman over there? I know her! Why is she supporting him? She’s on welfare!” I made suitable noises of disbelief. A tall, middle-aged man lectured a much younger Trump supporter on sexism, who lectured him right back about collectivism while a young woman held a sign high above her head and provided commentary under her breath.

“You are! You’re so being collectivist!”

“I am not. I have a seven-year-old daughter. How to I justify it to her?”

“Don’t show it to her.”

“That’s not the point!”

“He denigrates individual women, so that means he denigrates all women? He denigrates Cruz and Kasich, too, does that mean he hates all men? It’s a classic, collectivist, leftist–”

“He said he wants to have sex with his daughter! How do I explain that to my girl?”

“I don’t know, I’m not a f—ing parent!”

“You will be!”

I wandered away, leaving the men arguing and the woman beside them muttering.

I found myself near the edge of the crowd again, where one woman explained to another that politics in America isn’t always like this. A bearded man wearing what looked like a kippah listened in. He seemed to be the woman’s partner. The three included me in their conversation immediately, as I’d found most people at the protest more than willing to do. Almost everyone was very generous with their social space, with their basic friendliness. We chatted about the oddity of the current election cycle for a bit and about the oddity and variety of America in general. The woman next to me spoke with a definite accent and she and the man both looked vaguely middle-eastern. Their clothing was definitely not the local style. I suddenly felt like a host with guests. We talked some about this blog and about climate change rallies and she told me about interviewing Bill McKibbon. “He’s really nice. And he’s really tall!”

The Trump bus went by again, and everybody booed.

“This reminds me of the protest against Ahmadinejad a couple of years ago,” my new friend said. “The bus kept going by and everybody booed.”

“Is that where you’re from?” I asked.

“No. We are Russian. That was a protest in New York. In Russia, when we have protests, the police aren’t there for your protection.”

“I know.”

“Oh! I just realized I have to go! My baby-sitter is going to leave!”

“You should hire her as a babysitter!” said the man, indicating me.

“Oh, no, you need a lot of experience to do it.”

I asked about her children and said I have none of my own, but do have nieces and a nephew.

“You have spiritual children,” she said. “The people you teach, the people who read your blog, they are your children.”

“I hope so.”

A glorious sunset glowed beyond the building where Donald Trump might or might not be talking. The sky blazed orange and yellow and pink. I had to leave, too, so we turned and walked away from the crowd, which was still chanting and waving signs and sometimes cheering for no reason, and we said our goodbyes.

“I’m glad I met you,” she said.

“I’m glad I met you,” I told her. And I meant it.



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The Difference Between a Liar and a Heretic

A few days ago The College Fix, an online student paper, published a piece entitled “The Pushback Against Attempts Punish ‘Heretical’ Views on Climate Begins in Earnest.” The thrust of the article is that attempts to silence or punish climate deniers violates the principle of free speech. I should say that I have no wish to launch a personal attack on either The College Fix or the author, David Huber. As far as I can tell, they are simply raising an important concern for discussion. I accept the invitation. I’m discussing.

The thing is, neither American law nor American values literally protect all speech. There is libel. There is fraud. There is the bully at the dinner table defending his or her obnoxious drivel with “hey, it’s a free country!” (which is true inasmuch as being obnoxious isn’t illegal, but no law requires inviting the obnoxious to dinner again, either). Free speech exists on two levels, legal and social, but neither level literally protects everything a person could possibly say. Differentiating protected speech from something else requires careful thought. As a general rule, freedom of speech, correctly applied, is the refuge from bullies. Misapplied, it is the refuge of bullies.

The author of the College Fix piece, Dave Huber, is concerned that attempts to prosecute ExxonMobile for its climate denial activities constitutes a violation of the First Amendment. Further, efforts to publicly vilify the company violate fair play. Mr. Huber contends that these efforts constitute a decision to stifle speakers based on which side they occupy in public debate, something that obviously cannot happen in a functional democracy.

The important point is that ExxonMobile is not in trouble for speaking–the company is in trouble for lying, and specifically for lying in such a way as to undermine political support for government regulations that would have protected the public at the expense of ExxonMobile’s business. Arguably, that’s fraud.

There are two other important points, here.

One is the limit of the concept of “opinion.” As a society, we generally share a conviction that everyone has a right to form, express, and share their opinions, and to hold on to those opinions without censure from others. And we do have that right, but not every thought or idea is an opinion in that sense. Opinions are matters of taste or judgment. In my opinion, lemonade is better than coffee. Your opinion may differ, but there is nothing whatever you can do about mine except accept it. I’ve tasted both, and I’d rather have lemonade. I can also have professional opinions, where I render a judgment based on my experience as a writer, and I have opinions on questions that have no secular answer, such as whether heaven exists. But for questions that have answers that are clearly and unambiguously answerable by secular means? They just aren’t matters of opinion. For me to say that, in my opinion, New York City is in New Jersey is balderdash. The word “opinion” is not a license to just say whatever. New York City is not in New Jersey.

And Planet Earth is getting warmer.

The other important point is that debate must be rooted in the truth, so far as the truth is knowable. If we’re going to have a public discussion about what to do about an issue–say, unemployment, crime, pollution, or the fair distribution of marshmallows at a Girl Scout camp-out, we have to base our discussion on the known facts. I can’t insist that there are more Girl Scouts on the trip than there actually are, because that would defeat the whole purpose of the discussion. Introducing error in such a discussion is just as bad as suppressing a particular voice, because either undermines the process of group decision-making. So, while there are circumstances where the law must protect speech regardless of its truthfulness, morally speaking, there is no right to lie publicly.

And ExxonMobile, and climate deniers generally, lie.

There is a neat little rhetorical trick where people defend their actions by speaking to legitimate, but inapplicable, anxieties. For example, there is the classic false populist who orates about the high unemployment rate in order to gin up support for policies that only benefit the rich. There are the privileged who yell “I’m being oppressed!” when anyone tries to even slightly level the playing field. And there are climate deniers who, as a group, lie, bully, even threaten in order to keep the truth about climate change out of the public debate and then become very concerned about freedom of speech when anyone tries to stand up to them.

Essentially, if I can convince you that the best way to avoid being robbed is to give me a hundred dollars, I’m going to get your money because you are very worried about robbery. You’re worried about robbery because, on some level, you know you’re being robbed–by me.

So, let’s go over this; yes dissidents should be allowed to speak freely. Condemning people for their opinions or ideas is contrary to the ideals of a free society. We don’t hunt heretics anymore, or shouldn’t, anyway. But no, ExxonMobile is not a beleaguered dissident and no, climate denial is not simply an example of an unpopular group of ideas.

The problem with climate denial is not that 97% of climate scientists disagree; the problem is that climate denial is being propagated by and for bullies. The rest of us have a right to stand up and protect ourselves.


Author David Huber also uses the College Fix article to indulge in a somewhat tangential ad hominim attack on Bill Nye that deserves rebuttal. The substance of the attack is that Nye is an engineer, not a climate scientist, despite calling himself “The Science Guy,” and that such misrepresentation would never be tolerated in a climate denier. The fact of the matter is that having hosted a TV show called “Bill Nye the Science Guy” does not constitute a claim to be a scientist any more than Mr. Wizard ever claimed to actually practice sorcery. Bill Nye is not a scientist, he’s a science communicator. That is, he is not, nor does he claim to be, authoritative. He’s just a messenger. When climate deniers are called out for not being climate scientists, it’s because either they or their supporters have done something to suggest that they are climate scientists. Either that or, yes, somebody is being snarky because they don’t like the message.

There is no double-standard here; messengers are judged by the reliability of their message, not by their own expertise, unless they claim to be experts themselves.

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The Carbon Footprint of a Book

So, I’ve got a book coming out.

Technically, this is a second edition. Last summer, I published my first novel, To Give a Rose, but a few months later my publisher had to drop the project for reasons that had nothing to do with me. After much difficulty and confusion, I have finally found a way to get my book back into print; it’s due out next month.

Of course, this will make me responsible for a huge weight of paper product when (hopefully!) I sell lots of copies. Of course I’m concerned about the environmental impact of all of this, so I set out to do some research, beginning with the search term “carbon footprint of a book.” What I found was interesting and somewhat contradictory and uncertain.

How Carbon Footprinting Works

The problem is that carbon footprinting anything is complex and uncertain. In theory, to find the carbon footprint of an object, you look at how it’s made, how it’s transported, how it functions, and what happens to it when it’s disposed of, add up all the sources of greenhouse gasses in all these processes, and there you go. The figure is usually expressed as pounds (or kilograms, or tons, or tonnes) of carbon dioxide equivalent–different greenhouse gasses have different warming potentials, so for simplicity we use the warming potential of carbon dioxide as a kind of standard.

The problem is that in practice literally adding up all associated greenhouse gas emissions is usually impossible. Our economy is so complex, and manufacturing chains are so long, that a single product–in this case, a book–might involve resources sourced in dozens of countries and handled in multiple factories in a dozen different countries. That’s hundreds or even thousands of steps, each of which could have its own separate greenhouse gas emissions.Totally unworkable.

Carbon footprinting depends on imagining a simplified version of whatever manufacturing process you’re looking at, one that has a carbon footprint approximately the same size as the real one. But this simplification process is always a judgment call, and different analyses of the same product can yield very different results.

There are two other sources of complication.

One is that similar products might be products of very different manufacturing processes. A book printed in the United States using paper made from American trees might have a different footprint than one printed in the UK on paper made from European trees because of differences in the forestry practices and energy grids of each country.

The other complication is that it can be hard to determine what belongs in a given object’s footprint and what does not. For example, the footprint of a book should clearly include emissions associated with felling and milling the tree used to make the paper, but should it also include the lost carbon sequestration potential of that tree? What about the car the logger used to get to the job site to fell the tree? What about the Freon in the air conditioner of that car, if the logger used the air conditioner on the way to work? And so on. Clearly one has to draw a line somewhere, but where? A particularly vexing version of this problem comes up with recycled paper. Obviously, processing the same fibers twice uses more energy than processing them only once, so recycled paper ought to have a higher carbon footprint than non-recycled paper–unless you consider that the carbon footprint of the initial processing belongs to the first, “virgin” generation of paper only, in which case the recycled paper’s footprint might be much lower.

Again, judgment calls abound and can differ.

All things considered, carbon footprinting is only a rough tool useful for estimation. Its best application is probably for comparison of several alternatives all analyzed according to the same set of judgment calls–for example, a comparison among different protein sources or different types of energy generation. The technique does not yield definitive figures. An object cannot have a known carbon footprint the same way it can have a known weight or size or calorie count.

Carbon Footprints of Books

A Canadian paperback

I was able to find several different versions of carbon footprint assessments of books. The most extensive was probably one published in the Journal of Industrial Ecology, which presented the footprint of a paperback book printed in Canada on American paper. Unfortunately, that journal does not make itself available for free and I don’t have money. I was only able to read the Abstract (summary), which is available for free but does not have as much detail as I’d like.

The study came up with the figure of 2.71 kilograms CO equivalent (CO2-eq) per book, based on a production run of 400,000 books mostly distributed in North America. That figure applied only to the book through its production up to sale. The study also looked at three different end-of-life scenarios for these books (how long they last, how they are finally disposed of, etc.), but unfortunately the Abstract didn’t describe those scenarios or list their results.

One curious result of the study was that post-consumer recycled paper had a much higher footprint than virgin fiber. As noted earlier, that could be due, in part, to debatable judgment calls in the analysis method, which the Abstract did not fully describe. However, the non-recycled paper they analyzed came from a mill that used wood residue and other byproducts to generate power, thus substantially reducing reliance on fossil fuel and yielding paper with a lower footprint. Presumably, a recycled paper plant would not have access to such residue and is therefore much more likely to depend entirely on fossil fuel.

A Finnish hardback

This analysis comes from a brochure on the environmental impact of Finnish book production. The brochure describes its methods in detail and is both easy to read and thorough. To read it yourself, click here.

Among many other interesting facts, the brochure asserts that a single book has a carbon dioxide equivalent of 1.2 kilograms. Again, that leaves out the impact of the book’s disposal. Does a Finnish hardback really have less than half the carbon footprint of a Canadian paperback? We can’t really say, because the two studies are not directly comparable, but it is possible–especially if Finland has a less carbon-intensive power grid than Canada does.

The brochure further states that the vast majority of a printed book’s footprint is in the production of its paper and in the printing process–fiber supply and transportation contribute relatively little (at least in Finland).

An American book

I also found a reference to an analysis of the American printing industry that gave roughly 4 kg CO2-eq per book and listed the use of virgin paper as far and away the highest contribution to the footprint–in apparent direct contradiction to the other two analyses. Probably the discrepancy is again due, at least in part, to details of how the analyses were completed.

What About eBooks?


What about books that don’t require paper? eReaders themselves have a carbon footprint associated with manufacture, transport, and disposal. These devices also have other environmental impacts associated with the production of metals, heavy metals, and plastics which are important but are outside the scope of the article. According to at least one study, the carbon footprint of the ereader alone is cancelled out after a few years because of all the paper books it replaces.

Curiously, the number of paper books replaced could be much higher than it might at first appear, since they don’t just replace the printed books that people read but also the printed books that people don’t read. Roughly a third of all the books that arrive at a book store are never sold. These go back to the publisher and are either pulped and recycled or added to the waste stream. Presumably, some percentage of books are actually thrown out soon after purchase as well. Incinerating or landfilling paper releases its carbon, meaning that the carbon footprint of a book in the trash is higher than that of a book in a library. If each printed book in a personal collection has a shadow-footprint of sibling-books that never made it, then switching to ebooks could carry substantial carbon savings.

That’s assuming that more ebooks actually mean fewer printed books and fewer printed books wasted, something that is not necessarily true.

Books online

But there is a book difference between a book on a machine and a book on a shelf–once a book is printed and shipped, it causes no further emissions until its eventual demise. If the book lasts as long as the tree would have, which is quite possible, its eventual yielding of its carbon could be no different than the eventual rotting of an old tree. In any case, the longer the book lasts and the more people read it, the lower the carbon footprint of reading it gets. With an ebook, reading it requires electricity every single time–and for books stored in the cloud, electricity must be constantly in use to keep those books available on servers. I am unclear whether that continued electricity usage has been included in the calculation of the footprint of ebooks.

The internet uses a fantastic amount of energy, though exactly how much seems debatable. That’s the bad news. The good news is that companies with a large online presence can use their economic muscle to build renewable energy capacity and some have done so. eBooks could therefore be a potential driver of conversion away from fossil fuel use, if the industry chooses to put its weight in that direction.

Bringing It All Together

If indeed most of a book’s footprint is due to paper manufacturing and printing, if that figure is not unique to Finland, that suggests that whether a book is printed on recycled paper is actually a lesser consideration. The real bang for the buck, as far as shrinking footprints are concerned, lies in making paper manufacturing and printing more efficient and less carbon-intensive.

In both cases, the mechanical efficiency of the plants themselves could probably be improved, but I really don’t know. The big deal is almost certainly the power grid; the carbon footprint of a book depends largely on the emissions of the power grid its production is plugged into. Since the power grid also determines much of the emissions related to ebooks, shrinking the carbon footprint of a book is really about transitioning the power grid off of fossil fuels–and paper mills, printing companies, and internet servers can all help drive the transition by demanding capacity that other users can then tap into.

So, What Does this Mean for Writers and Readers?

Arguably, the carbon footprint of a book belongs to its reader–personal carbon footprinting assumes personal responsibility for anything we buy. Since the same footprint can’t belong to two people, that would mean authors don’t bear the weight of the carbon emissions of their books–but that way lies paralysis. A reader seldom has an opportunity to choose low-carbon books over high-carbon copies, and in any case, reading materials are seldom a significant part of household footprints. Readers are unlikely to drive any sort of change, here. Writers have a little more power.

Writers can ask their publishers to take certain steps towards “greening” their processes. The publisher may or may not say yes–we live in an era when writers who are not J.K. Rowling or Stephen King have very little power–but we do have options and can explore them. I have already asked the printer I’m using now to use a paper with a higher post-consumer recycled content when possible and they said yes. This was before I found out that recycled paper might have a higher carbon footprint, but I’ll stick with it, since it sounds like virgin paper is only lighter on carbon because its production has access to alternative power generation. That implies that recycled paper could be just as climate-friendly if the mill that produces it buys renewable power. I therefore intend to ask whether we can get paper from a company that does so.

Climate-friendly paper might not be available, but it’s worth asking. If enough people ask, it might become available.


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The following is a somewhat edited article I originally wrote for a class assignment–it was immediately after the lecture I describe in the post, The Good Fight. The assignment was to simply write about how we felt in and after the discussion. The “you,” therefor, is my professor, Tom Wessels. Note that ellipses (series of dots) do not signify deleted material, as in formal writing, but rather extended pauses, as in informal writing.


How did I feel in and after the class discussion? This was not the first time I’ve watched you chart out the context of the current crisis in terms of entropy, so it did not pack the emotional punch of surprise. The first time, in Community Ecology class, I was quite literally nauseated…I had been familiar with most of the information you presented, but was lacking a few pieces and the overall structure that so starkly and rigorously defined our position as that of members and murderers of a dying planet. And I put it that way well aware that this condition of dying will not likely result in actual, overall death…I’m aware that the biosphere has survived five mass extinctions before, and will survive this one. I just don’t want to be culpable for it. And it saddens me to be here for it, although when I talk about it with most people I emphasize our position of opportunity and power; I used to do an interpretive talk, ostensibly about sand dynamics on barrier islands, where I took the opportunity to tell people that we are the most powerful generations (deliberate plural) that have ever lived…I want people to see this positively so they don’t shut down, remain apathetic in guilt and fear. But to you, since you have invited candor, I can admit to being scared and pessimistic myself.

I don’t think we’ll collectively turn this around voluntarily. The critical issue, as I understand it, is perceived limitation. People adjust themselves not to what is but to what seems to be. Fossil fuel gives us the illusion of a bigger, less vulnerable planet than the one we have. I think the thing that will make us change will not be a culturally driven realization, though I am trying to foster one, but rather the onset of more obvious limits. Wars, famines, plagues…and I’m going to live through it, I think. Maybe I’ll be able to help some way. Maybe that’s why I’m here. In which case, ok, I’m here, I sign up, I agree. If I can help, fine, I’m ok with being here now, whatever trouble that turns out to entail. But it makes me sad and angry.

This is not new. I’ve been thinking about this stuff for a long time, trying to formulate my ideas, make myself into a being of some use…I’ve been going in circles. I’m not a very practical person, I’m not very good at getting things done, thirty-two years old and I can hardly support myself, let alone get myself into a position where anyone will listen to me. What have I done? Of course, at my age [President] John Adams was asking himself a very similar question, working through radical new ideas about democracy and independence and wondering if history would pass him by…I tend alternately towards despondency and something bordering on self-inflation. I’m afraid this is way-too personal an essay, but you asked. What is new this year particularly is that starkness…and a better way of organizing these ideas. And of course going to graduate school has everything to do with my attempt to DO SOMETHING.

Today in class I got all kinds of neat ideas. Like I think that our species’ timeline is not only one of gradual growth recently succeeded by rapid growth, but also it is a story of the progressive increase of the scale on which carrying capacity is calculated. The scrub jays are part of a very local ecology; when their population peaks and crashes, it does so locally. Their scale of feedback is local. When they change their local environment, their local environment changes them back, and so a kind of rough balance is maintained. We were that way once, but very quickly our ancestors built trade networks that lifted our relevant scale to the regional. So a community could exceed its local carrying capacity and not notice, not stop drawing resources, until it triggered a regional crash, as you said the Maya did…and as you said, the regional collapse is deeper and lasts longer than local scale collapses are. Then we became continental, global…. The Industrial Revolution extended this trend dramatically by artificially and temporarily extending our scale to something larger than the actual planet by accessing the stored solar energy of the past (not quite a new idea there) thus preventing us from collectively “hearing” the feedback of the actual planet—at least for a while. Then the crash larger than a whole planet.

Maybe you’re right. Maybe everyone will wake up. But I fear it won’t happen until the limits become more than an intellectual thing for most people, until we have no option. I wish I could say “I’m not with them.” I hate feeling powerful enough to be culpable but not powerful enough to change.

One more note. I mentioned not being a very practical person. I think that’s changing. I heard your question “what can you do?” in very concrete, practical terms. I can shrink my foot-print, I can be an example, I can start up a website, I can run my Yahoo group, I can go to graduate school, I can start emailing around to get somebody to figure out how to turn those lights off in the class-room. I’m doing all those things (except I haven’t addressed the lights yet). When I figure out more to do I’ll do it. I hear your question as a request for a plan, a concrete proposal I can enact today. Most of the other students addressed the questions in conditional, abstract terms, in generalities. I don’t know what to make of this….

I am glad you’re teaching this class, that someone is. Before class, a few of us were talking briefly about imaginary friends, and I was thinking of how children often let go of imaginary friends and stuffed animals because they find no one else believes. It is hard to go on treating something as important that people around us do not. And it is hard, too, given that there is a certain strategic quality to any discussion of this subject—always, there is the need to consider whether saying the wrong thing might frighten away “light green” allies. How much can I say, how serious can I be, before my audience reaches overload and shuts down or lashes back? But who do I talk to when I’m overloaded, when I despair or I don’t know what to do, when I want to run gibbering off into the night?

Tom, this paper has turned out a good deal more personal than I would normally address to someone I do not know outside of a professional context. I have never chatted casually with you, much less told you anything about myself. But you asked, and I find myself unwilling to do less than answer the question. I hope you do not mind.

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Contest: Three-Minute Climate Fiction

Many years ago, I entered a three-minute fiction contest with a story about a large house cat who inexplicably becomes a man. I tied for first place and went on to the final round where I placed well but did not win. I seem to remember receiving an anthology about zombies as a prize for participating. In any case, I had fun, and I enjoyed the challenge of fitting an interesting story into so few words.

I’d like to extend a similar opportunity for fun to you, but with a twist.

In this contest, your story must not only be very brief (300 words or less, including title), it must also be about climate change. I’ll accept entries until the end of April and I’ll announce the winner on this blog (and on one of my other blogs, News from Caroline) in the first week of May. The winner gets bragging rights and publication on one of my blogs. I might publish some runners up, too, depending on how many entries come in.

To enter, just shoot me an email at and make sure I respond to you. If you don’t hear back in a day or two, then Gmail probably ate your message and you should send it again.

The reason I’m holding a literary contest is as a proof-of-concept. If the contest goes well, I’ll hold a series of them, complete with a small entry fee and a modest cash prize as a fundraiser for this blog (part of the entry fee will go to the blog and part will become prize money). Also, I consider fiction an excellent way for society to explore the impact of climate change and I want to support the genre.

Here are the rules

Contest Rules

  1. Entries must be narrative fiction of no more than 300 words, including the title.
  2. Entries must relate to anthropogenic climate change in some way and MUST treat anthropogenic climate change as real.
  3. Entries may contain fantastical elements (e.g., unicorns, fairies, space aliens, etc.) but anything scientific must be accurate. Descriptions of the climate must be scientifically plausible.
  4. By entering the contest, the contestant affirms that he or she owns the rights to the entry and can legally give me the right to publish it online.
  5. I ask for only the non-exclusive right to publish the winning entry and any runners up online on my blog. The author keeps all other rights.
  6. I will judge among the qualified entries based on whether I like them. All judgments are final.

I look forward to reading your work!