The Climate in Emergency

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


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Climate Fiction: In Lullaby and Warning

Obviously, this is not three-minute fiction. It’s a longer piece I wrote for a different contest. I did not win, so I’m debuting the story here, instead. Much sympathy to the victims of the flooding in West Virginia; it’s been a bad week for extreme weather. –C.

 

“Where is my jet-pack?” demanded Andy Cote, the eminent scientist.

“Your what?” asked his nine-year-old daughter, Jordyn, from the living room floor. She was busy doing his portrait with crayons.

“He’s joking, honey,” explained her mother.  Alejandra Garcia came up behind her husband in his recliner and rested her hands on his shoulders. “If you had a jet-pack you’d just incinerate your feet,” she told him. She brushed his hair off his forehead and kissed him there.

“I would not!” he protested. Theirs was a marriage of professors (he of ecology, she of literature), but he was the absent-minded one and she would not let him forget it. “We’re halfway through the 21st century now,” he continued. “You’d think we’d have jet-packs. Or at least flying cars, like in ‘Back to the Future?’ Remember?”

“That was a little before my time,” confessed Ale. She was fifteen years his junior.

“You had to have seen ‘Back to the Future,’ though.”

“Nope.”

“Daddy, are you turning into a grumpy old man?”

“What? No, why?” Even as he spoke, Andy noticed that his daughter had selected the grey crayon for his hair and was scribbling away with it. She didn’t bother with the admixture of light brown he swore was still there.

“Because grumpy old people always talk about the past,” Jordyn explained, simply. Then she pitched her voice down as far as it would go and waved her arms around pompously. “When I was your age, it snowed on Christmas! And the snow would stay on the ground for weeks! There were no hailstorms or hurricanes and it was never too hot and if it was we just turned on the air-conditioner!”

“Ok, but it did used to be colder.”

“Da-ad!”

“I’m headed off to class,” Ale announced. “Don’t forget to feed our daughter lunch.”

“I wouldn’t!” He feigned hurt. “I get too hungry to skip meals.” His self-deprecation made her laugh, that lovely russet laughter. When she tried to walk away he grabbed her arm and held her, his gaze dark and urgent. “I love you,” he told her, just in case. He always said that before they parted, even if she’d only be gone a few hours.

“I know,” she said him, and kissed his mouth. Her fingertips lingered just under his jaw for a moment and then she was gone. He glanced at his daughter, wondering if she were old enough yet to find parental displays of affection embarrassing. She looked up at him.

“Ok, Dad, what’s actually wrong?”

He sighed. She was as direct as her mother. He wasn’t sure he could explain this to a child, or that he even wanted to try, but he didn’t want her to think him unwilling to answer questions, either.

“When I was your age,” he began, and stopped. Hadn’t she just said that’s how old men talked? But he was not going to let himself be cowed by a nine-year-old. “When I was your age, tablet computers, autonomous drones, and a lot of the other technology we take for granted was science fiction. Now, I’ve just read online, on my tablet, that my friend, Diana Cartwright—do you remember her?—has launched three hundred drones to help her collect climatological data. It’s like I’m living inside one of those movies I used to watch. And whenever I have that thought about living in a movie, I remember being a little boy and then a young man, with all the expectations I had for the future.

“But those movies never covered climate change. The one thing we actually knew about the future–and we ignored it. Intellectually, of course, I knew that the way we lived was unsustainable and would have to change somehow, but emotionally I believed the movies. I don’t mean jet-packs. I mean that I expected the life I knew to basically continue. And when those expectations didn’t pan out, I felt like I had lost something. Sometimes I still feel that way. Does that make sense?”

He was unprepared for Jordyn’s aggrieved shock.

He had told her before, briefly, about how the old civilization finally collapsed and about his other family, the wife and children who had died. He knew she had probably guessed that those losses still haunted him. But he had not stopped to consider how these pieces of knowledge would fit together inside the child’s mind. He had a blind spot where others’ perception of him was concerned and he realized too late how Jordyn would feel seeing him grieve a world and a family that hadn’t included her.

“But Daddy,” she exclaimed, “I’m here!”

I am the worst parent in the world, he thought. How was he to explain that yes, he wished he had never been widowed and he was grateful every minute of his life for his new wife and child? Just like he was overjoyed that the age of fossil fuel had ended at last, even though it had taken a stupid and preventable catastrophe to accomplish the change, and he missed air conditioners, passenger airplanes, and his motorcycle? None of it made any more sense than his fantasy of using a jet-pack.

Andy Cote had written and published three books and co-authored 47 papers and two monographs. He made most of his living by talking to people, either in class or in public lecture halls. And yet at that moment he had no words at all to comfort his daughter. He opened his arms to her instead and she climbed into his lap, which she was really too big to do anymore, and he held her tightly as though someone or something might try to steal her away.

And he sang, just like he had sung over her cradle when she was a baby, a James Taylor song about a young cowboy.

He had meant the old song simply as a lullaby, a way to evoke a point in their relationship when fatherhood was simpler and love more obviously expressed. But as he sang, a new meaning welled up in the words and he realized he wasn’t singing about a fantasy figure alone on the range–Andy was singing about himself. Like the cowboy, he had no real companions outside of work and he, too, had organized his career around travel. He had a solitary streak and a wanderlust no love could root out and over which he had no control. He taught classes in the winter and spring, but with the next academic season he would be off again, walking across the country, meeting with colleagues, teaching where he could, and exploring the world. His next departure was only weeks away.

And so he sang in lullaby and in warning. He would leave again, and someday he would die. And the world would continue to change—the greenhouse gas emissions already up in the sky had not yet finished their work. It still snowed sometimes, where he lived in Pennsylvania, and sometimes it snowed a lot. It didn’t have to be very cold for snow, after all. But there might come a day when even that respite from the heat would be lost to them. He’d given his life, his intellect, his labor, and his heart to learn how to repair the world, but he understood it might not have been enough.

In his singing and his embrace were the only legacy, the only love, he could be sure of leaving his daughter; his acknowledgement of the truth of her world.


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Clear and Present Heat

At least eight people are dead, countless others injured, victims of a preventable disaster that has been exacerbated by politics.

I’m not talking about another shooting.

I’m talking about the heat wave in the American Southwest. Temperatures have reached above 120 degrees, F. Step outdoors into something like that, and you could develop heat stroke in a couple of minutes just by standing around. Heat stroke, remember, is a life-threatening condition in which the body’s cooling system fails and the organs literally begin to cook. These aren’t just unusual conditions for the United States, which is not, after all, tropical, this heat wave would be significant anywhere in the world.

The detail that really jumped out at me was the plane that couldn’t land in Phoenix because the pilot was afraid the hot runway would explode the tires. It’s not that hot weather has never impacted aviation before, but it’s hardly common practice in the US.

Is this global warming? Wrong question, of course, but yes. As I’ve discussed before, even a small increase in average global temperature yields a dramatic increase in the frequency of extreme heat waves, because of a simple quirk in the way the frequency of anything works—extreme events are typically rare, and the most extreme events are exceedingly rare. A rising average temperature makes triple-digit temps slightly closer to normal and therefore a lot less rare.

And we’ve known about global warming long enough now that if the world had acted quickly and decisively back then, our average temperature might not be so high now. This heat wave might still have happened, but it would be less likely. Those eight people might still be alive today.

Lest my comparison to a mass shooting seem exploitive, let me remind you that more people die in the US every year from heat than from all other natural disasters combined and that thousands more die from medical conditions likely exacerbated by heat. The affected are disproportionately the very young, the very old, the ill, the disabled, and the poor. In other words, the vulnerable among us are dying at a shocking and tragic rate from causes that American energy policy is unquestionably making worse—and making worse knowingly.

This is a human rights violation.

The irony in all of this is that the American Southwest would not have so many people in it today were it not for air conditioners. Seriously, with the invention of air conditioners, huge numbers of people, especially the elderly, migrated to the warmer tier of this country, a redistribution of voters that was pivotal in the election of Ronald Regan (who then took the solar panels off of the White House and famously tried to claim that trees cause pollution). Air conditioners have a terrible environmental impact, and not just through their electoral influence. They use vast amounts of electricity (often generated by burning fossil fuel) and leak powerful synthetic greenhouse gasses as well. And many of the people who moved south because of air conditioners are elderly or ill, and thus at higher risk for heat-related injury. And cities build with air conditioners in mind, such as Phoenix, Arizona, often lack other proven heat-reducing technologies, such as public green spaces and cooling architecture.

I’m not trying to blame the victim here on an individual level; I’m saying that heat waves and their associated deaths do not just happen. They aren’t uncontrollable, random events. There is a degree of randomness, yes, and no one can control the weather, exactly, but we’re looking at the results of energy policy, community planning, even architecture, all developed and carried out as if global warming did not exist when we know perfectly well that it does.

Vote for environmentalists. Seriously. Let’s do this.


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Climate Fiction–and Truth

The following is a mini-fiction piece submitted to my contest. I only got two entries, so I’m declaring them both winners. Here is the first.

-C.

A Cassandra Tale, by Kass Sheedy

In the not too distant future, in a land very close by, live a young woman named Ilsa and her mother, Aingeal, in the top of a tall tower. Ilsa remembers that when she was a little girl many people came to Aingeal to seek her counsel. It had been a long time since anyone had come. The tower had one window out of which Ilsa could not look. One day, overcome by curiosity, Ilsa pried open the window and looked out while her mother was sleeping. She saw a desolate land of water and marshes. It is not how she remembered the world. Where were the green fields filled with people? Where was the town with its lights, cars, trucks, and seaport? Where was the world? Ilsa asked the only person available – Aingeal who became very sad and replied that she would answer the next day. At dawn Ilsa woke her mother and demanded the answer. Aingeal began to both weep and speak. She said:

“Many years ago the people who came to me were asking about the future. I told them that the world was changing and that they would not like it. I told them they had to change their lives or the world would become as you see now. They didn’t believe me. They called me crazy. Eventually, they sealed our home and would not let me speak to them. They didn’t want to hear. They went about their business. And now – they are gone, along with the lights, the cars, and the seaport, all of it –gone. And we remain, living on the food I had stored years ago.”

“Mother, do you weep for the world we lost?”

“Yes, but I weep more because being right can be a terrible thing.”

 


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Recent Flooding

I spotted a Facebook meme this morning that listed a rather startling number of places having unusual floods over just the past two weeks:

  • France
  • Germany
  • Taiwan
  • Texas
  • Beijing
  • Russia
  • Mexico City
  • Romania
  • Pakistan
  • Australia
  • Ukraine
  • Belgium

The point, of course, was that to have so many floods in such a short period of time is a clear sign of global warming. On one level, that’s clearly true; part of what climate change means is that floods are worse now. But reality is more complex than any meme–for example, increased flooding can be caused by changes in land management as well as by changes in the weather. So, since I’d rather pass around detailed and verified facts than a meme that simply sounds plausible, let’s look into this, shall we?

Europe

As one might guess, all the floods in Europe are actually one flood; France, Germany, Belgium, Romania, and the Ukraine–plus Poland, the Netherlands, and Austria–have all been drenched by a series of slow-moving storms trapped above the continent by an omega block. An omega block is essentially a tight curve in atmospheric currents that keeps a weather system from moving for the duration. Exactly how, or even whether, the omega block might be connected to the greenhouse effect is not clear, but a warmer atmosphere holds more moisture and therefore can drop more rain from any given storm.

And there could be a link with the omega block. There was one with the polar vortex, after all.

In any case, is whether this weather is unusual. If Paris flooded every other week, this latest flood would be no big deal, except for the people who happened to be in the middle of it. I have not been able to find a detailed analysis of how often this type of flooding has occurred historically. What I have found is consistent with this event being a real story, if perhaps not as bizarre as it seems, at least in France.

Since record-keeping began in 1873, there have four severe floods in Paris, of which this latest is the mildest. In 1910, the Seine River crested 8.62 above normal (28′ 3″) and set the record. In 1955, the river crested at 7.1 meters (23′ 3″) and at 6.18 meters (20′ 3″). This year’s flood crested at “only” 6.1 meters (20 feet even). But, and this is a critical but, this year’s storms did drop more rain on France than any recorded storm has before.

While this flood didn’t break the Paris record, we can compare the number of record-breaking rainfall events from 1980 to 2010 with the norm over the previous 80 years–and the number is up by 12% world-wide. In Europe, it’s up 31%.

Pakistan

I actually haven’t found any reports of flooding in Pakistan over the last few weeks–though it’s possible that all the attention on Paris have messed with the search engine’s algorithms, that happens sometimes. Either way, apparently Pakistan flooded in April, though, so the country need not feel left out.

Russia

I have seen various articles referring to recent floods in eastern Russia, but I have not found any further information–except that Russia apparently also flooded in April.

China

Again, I have not been able to find any information, aside from the fact that serious flooding around Beijing has occurred recently. I am guessing that flooding in Taiwan was connected, however.

Mexico City

I have not found confirmation of flooding in Mexico over the past few weeks.

Texas

Parts of Texas and Oklahoma have definitely flooded. Again. There doesn’t seem to be an exotic reason, just garden-variety rain in abundance. Texas has flooded several times in recent years.

A Lot of Water

Sometimes I spend several hours researching a subject and find some great material. This was not one of those times. Basically, to recap, sometimes it rains a lot, and it’s happening more often because of climate change. Also, Facebook memes are not entirely reliable, but we need to do something about climate change anyway.

Just another day living with the new normal.


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Trumped Up Differences

This blog is politically neutral on all issues except climate change. Because Donald Trump, the presumptive Republican nominee for President, is on record as a climate denier and his Democratic opponents both have good records on climate–for that reason and that reason alone, this blog will endorse the Democratic nominee. I, personally, have opinions on other issues, but this blog does not.

I will need to touch on some other issues here, however.

I am very concerned by the insistence of many progressives that there is no substantive difference between Mr. Trump and Secretary Clinton. I fear that such an assumption could result in a Republican victory, should Mrs. Clinton become the nominee, as she is expected to do. At the same time, I am sympathetic to that stand because I said the same think about George W. Bush and Al Gore in 2000.

I was a Ralph Nader supporter.

Now, to be clear, Ralph Nader did not cost Al Gore the election. Even if every single Nader supporter would otherwise have voted for Mr. Gore (which is not true), the claim that Mr. Gore was somehow owed those votes, that either major party ought to be left free to claim all votes on its side of the aisle by default, should be deeply troubling to anyone who cares about political diversity, competition, or free speech.  So, I still believe in the validity of third-party and independent candidacies.

I do not believe, as I once did, that there was no substantive difference between then-Governor Bush and Vice President Gore. That was a mix of logical fallacy and political naivete on my part that I now regret and I see the same fallacy in play today.

Ignore the fact, for the moment, that Mrs. Clinton is an establishment candidate while Mr. Trump is a rather vocal outsider–that right there is a huge difference between the two, but let’s focus on the fact that the two belong, to one degree or another, to the moneyed class. They are both privileged insiders in a way most Americans, especially most people of color, simply are not. Yes, it’s true that both probably agree on many issues, just as Mr. Bush and Mr. Gore probably agreed on many issues. There are people for whom the occupant of the White House seldom makes any immediate difference because their troubles fall into that category of troubles that almost anyone capable of reaching the White House in the first place must agree not to try to solve.

But to assume therefore that the occupant of the White House doesn’t make any difference to anybody is a logical fallacy, and the very same one I fell into sixteen years ago.

While campaigning for Mr. Nader, I uncritically absorbed and then repeated a series of talking points that consisted largely of rumors to the effect that both major party candidates were morally slimy.  For example, I heard and repeated that Mr. Gore had supported the financial rights of pharmaceutical companies at the expense of AIDS victims in Africa and that his campaign had accepted large donations from exactly the same corporate interests that were supporting Mr. Bush. But even if those rumors were true, the existence of slime on both parties did not prove that both were slimy in the same ways or that the differing patterns of slime balanced each other out. For example, Mr. Bush was pro-life, while Mr. Gore was pro-choice.  Had the election come out differently, the political landscape on that issue might be very different today.

Of more immediate relevance to this blog, Mr. Gore has always been a vocal climate hawk. While Mr. Bush was not a climate denier and paid somewhat more lip-service to the issue than many other politicians of the time, throughout his presidency he effectively and persistently undermined any progress on the issue. Had that election turned out differently, the US would not have pulled out of Kyoto and might have become a global leader on climate action twelve years earlier. Those are twelve years the world will not get back.

Donald Trump is running as an outright climate denier who has made an explicit campaign promise to pull out of the Paris agreement.

So, let’s say that Mrs. Clinton is as slimy as they come. Let’s say she’s an unrepentant criminal who cares for nothing but power and will happily serve her corporate masters if elected–I don’t personally believe it, but let’s just say all the bile launched in her direction over the years is deserved. She does have a good record with the League of Conservation Voters and she has vowed to protect and continue President Obama’s climate protection policies.

So, if you don’t like Hillary Clinton, don’t vote for her. Vote for Bernie Sanders, if you still have a primary to look forward to, and if Mrs. Clinton does win the nomination, vote for Jill Stein or some other alternative. But just don’t pretend there is no difference between Mrs. Clinton and Mr. Trump.

The difference between the two of them could well be the future of the entire planet.