The Climate in Emergency

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

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Walking in the Woods

Note: the following is a re-post from an older version of this blog on a different site.

Science is a journey, not a destination. Ecology is a process, not an heirloom. If you don’t understand that, go for a walk on Mount Monadnock with a forester.

Monadnock is the mountain you can see on a clear day from pretty much anywhere in southwestern New Hampshire. It’s a big, solitary dome set in otherwise low, rolling country; if the land were a ship, the mountain would be its mast. The summit is open and rocky, the views are amazing, the trails are mostly fairly easy, and the trailheads are a few hours’ drive from pretty much anywhere. Not surprisingly, Monadnock is the third-most climbed mountain in the world, after Mt. Fuji, in Japan, and Mt Tai, in China.

The forester will probably have some connection to Professor Peter Palmiotto, Director of the Conservation Biology concentration at Antioch University New England. Maybe more to the point, he is also Director and founder of the Monadnock Ecological Research and Education Project, or MERE. If Mount Monadnock is a ship’s mast, MERE is the crow’s nest from which Professor Palmiotto and his students and colleagues are watching climate change.

Monadnock is a good place to watch the process of climate change across time, because of the way mountains alter climate change across space. We are used to climate change across space; Florida does not have the same climate as Maine, nor does it grow the same trees. If the climate of Florida moved to Virginia (as it may well do before the century is out, barring a miracle), the trees of Florida would follow. A complicating factor is the speed of human-caused warming; most tree species will not be able to keep up, so Florida forests will not simply shift north all together. Forest compositions will likely be reshuffled in the coming decades. But if you could keep track of all the trees in the country over a long enough period of time, you could watch the different kinds of trees surging south and then north again over the centuries like the wrack-lines of some giant, green tide.

If you want to keep an eye on the tide without running transects across hundreds of miles of North America, you can see the same shift in climate and trees by climbing a good-sized mountain. Mountains foreshorten forest zones because a few hundred feet of elevation changes climate the same way hundreds of miles of latitude does. Start at the base of Mount Monadnock on a fine day in late fall (after the leaves are off, so you can beat the crowds) and you stand among red oaks, white pines, and hemlocks—pretty typical of the woods in southern New Hampshire. Walk uphill, and you climb into forests of red spruce, a plant you might otherwise have to go to Canada or Maine to find. If you are walking with a forester, you might stop at one of the permanent study plots MERE has established on the mountain so you can see how the trees are doing this year. Growing fast or slow? Living or dying? Sprouting up with happy little red sprucelings, or the first, bold oaks? It’s not so much that red spruces like the cold, but that they dislike the cold less than the oaks do. Without the cold to reserve a space for them, the spruces can’t compete and they’ll give ground, retreating up the mountain–until they run out of mountain. This is important, because as go the spruces of Monadnock, so go the spruces of Maine and Canada, and so go all the animals and other plants that make up the boreal forest. So how are the spruces doing today? The forester doesn’t know. Science is a journey, not a destination.

I have climbed Mount Monadnock, though not with a forester, but today I stayed home and spoke with Professor Palmiotto by telephone. I’ve heard about the issue with the spruces before (I am an unrepentant plant geek), but what I don’t understand is why MERE is also looking for changes in subalpine plant communities on the summit. Generally, yes, a mountain can poke up into the alpine zone just like Monadnock pokes up into the spruce forest. Such a pokey mountain will sport a spot of tundra on its tip. Just as the spruces need the cold to keep the oaks at bay, so do the sedges and little heaths and cushion plants need the cold to keep at bay the spruce. Climate change means the alpine communities, too, will head up-slope until they finally run out of mountain.

But Monadnock is not actually that high. It is not tall enough to have tundra normally, and until 1800 or so, the whole mountain was forested. In that year there was a fire, and twenty years later there was another one. Between them, the two fires denuded the upper cone of the mountain, and without the trees most of the soil washed away. What is climate to the little subalpine plants, since it was fire, not climate, which created the opportunity for them?

Professor Palmiotto explains that these plants are vulnerable, not so much to changes in temperature, but to changes in moisture. With hotter summers will come drought, and that may be more of a problem than the warming itself. But the issue of whether the subalpine plants are actually in “their” climate touches a nerve. Apparently, some people are wondering why MERE’s alpine stewards are working so hard to protect plant communities that are in the wrong spot? Why try to restore a mountain that isn’t in its natural state anyway?

This is what I meant when I said ecology is a process, not an heirloom. The beautifully engraved chest of drawers your Great Aunt Jo gave you derives its value from how close it is to its original condition. It’s a piece of history. The glittery unicorn stickers you added when you were ten didn’t help. But Mount Monadnock is less like that chest of drawers and much more like Great Aunt Jo herself–with living beings, the point isn’t to preserve the original condition, the point is to protect and support the processes of their lives.

Plants don’t grow where they are supposed to, they grow where they can. Though taller mountain tops and polar sweeps have the right conditions for tundra plants more consistently than Monadnock does, there is no wrong place to be a plant. As Professor Palmiotto explains, the exposed summit of Monadnock is, at present, a bad place for trees. The little subalpine plants and lichens cope with the wind much better, therefore, it is the right place for them now. If and when trees get a chance to come in, the growing shrubs and saplings will provide shelter for each other and conditions will change. The point is not to prevent change, to turn back the clock to some more pristine era, the point is to support the integrity of the mountain’s own processes as it changes;

“My whole goal is to monitor change over time, educate people about change, and maybe, give the parts of the mountain that can re-vegetate the chance to do so. The trajectory of re-vegetation can probably be predicted, based on our knowledge of succession and species, but we haven’t predicted it yet. But if those plants just get stepped on…they’ll be no opportunity to study succession if everything just gets crushed.”

Getting stepped on is a serious possibility up on the summit. Remember that Monadnock is the second-most climbed mountain in the world. In 2009, the busiest 24 days of the year saw 16,111 visitors; that’s 32,222 feet! That’s a lot of foot-prints, especially for small plants and lichens not adapted to any human foot traffic at all. I ask what Monadnock would it look like now, if hardly anyone had hiked on it since the fires? Would the summit be closer to being reforested?  

“Oh yeah, a lot closer, a lot more forested,” Professor Palmiotto replies immediately. All his other answers have come slowly, careful as the growth of trees. This one tumbles out like water leaps off rock, tinged, suddenly, with something like nostalgia for a forest that does not yet exist and that Professor Palmiotto, being merely human, cannot now hope to live to see.

“The gravely patches and grassy areas would be shrubs and small trees. People would look at the summit and think it was forested; the trees would be tall enough to hide the summit cone, but just not on the bare rocks…like a lot of areas that are sparsely forested, with a lot of bare rock underneath. But the places that could hold seeds, that could support germination, have been stomped on. The trees haven’t had a chance. There are some patches of shrub-land already, you can see in aerial photos. But succession has been thwarted, halted, arrested by human trampling. So I will claim.”

The young forest, that would exist, but for a hundred and ninety years of trampling, blossoms in my mind. I have been to the top of Monadnock, as I’ve said, sheltered from the whipping sky behind big grey blocks of bare stone, crawled carefully along ridges of rock to harvest scraps of candy wrapper from pools of chilly water. I can place myself there with a thought. But now, young shrubs and trees sprout from the grassy hollows in my mind, spill out from sheltered crevices, and gain the height of my head and keep going. Spruce limbs meet and cross like reaching fingers over me and my rock. The stone beneath my fingers, also protected from feet, scales itself with lichen, little discs, green and brown like leather coins. If MERE has stopped the trampling with its education efforts, the clock of succession that was stopped by feet will move forward again. The new forest will come—in about a hundred and eighty years.

In a hundred eighty years, the climate will have changed—how much depends on human choices now, but the climate is still adjusting to the pollution already up there. Some further warming is inevitable. By then, the spruce could be gone from Monadnock, chased upslope by oaks. That the upper few hundred feet of mountain will not grow trees in the coming decades means the spruce will run out of mountain that much sooner.

But Professor Palmiotto does not say this. It’s true I did not ask, and he does not have much time today for chit-chat, but what comes across is not dread of the future but curiosity about it. MERE is too young a project to have much in the way of results yet. Let the rest of us issue warnings, there is certainly plenty to warn about; global climate change is real, and we are in trouble. But science never arrives; it never runs out of questions. Take a walk with a forester, and your companion will listen more often than speak, watch more often than perform. If we and the forests are all moving, at least someone is up in the crow’s nest watching where we go.


Single Issue Voter

As the Republican National Convention proceeds, I’m not hearing anyone talk about climate change. Meanwhile, this summer the nation has already coped with violent storms (including tornadoes in Maine yesterday), multi-day killer heat waves  giving us yet another record-breaking June, droughts, and frightening floods. All part of the new and progressively destabilizing normal.

This blog is neutral on all issues other than climate change, but I do personally care about other issues. I am aware than my readers also care about other issues, some of which are life-and-death matters in various ways. But climate change is different. On every other topic, mistakes now mostly hurt the people of now. Correct the problem, and the damage will ease and then heal. Climate change, in contrast, will cast a shadow lasting for many generations. Some of the damage will simply not be reversible.

I suspect most regular readers of this blog are politically liberal, but I hope I have some conservative followers as well. To you I say please notice what the Republicans are ignoring. Vote Democrat or vote third-party this time—push your political leaders into taking climate seriously or else. National security, public health, the economy, all those other issues ultimately depend on our successful handling of this one.

We (meaning climate-sane people) must take both the White House and the Capitol Building this cycle. If we don’t, climate-denier leaders will undo whatever good we have managed to win so far. We’ll have to start over in four years or eight years. We’re running out of time.

Conservation used to be a Republican value. It could be again. Why allow all climate-sane solutions to be Democrat ideas?

Come on. We need you.

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Who Picks Up the Tab?

Some time ago, my mother and I were talking about whether to get behind a certain environmental organization, and she said “they seem to be heavily committed to carbons fees and I don’t know very much about that.”

I decided I needed a refresher on the concept, too, so here are the results of my inquiries.

Carbon fees are one version of a whole family of ideas called carbon pricing, which is itself part of a much larger effort to make the environment economically visible.

It’s important to understand here that “the economy” as described by traditional economics, is really just a model for how energy, material goods, and value move through society. It isn’t the only possible model, and it isn’t even a very good model because it leaves a lot of important things out.

Remember Ralph Nader? I saw him speak once and he had a great line; “privatizing the profits and publicizing the costs.” He wasn’t talking about climate change specifically but about pollution in general—how when a company creates pollution in the course of doing business, we consider that the money the raise belongs to them but the pollution—and its associated costs–doesn’t. This little economic slight-of-hand happens because our economic model ignores the existence of that which cannot be bought and sold. Natural resources that have not yet been extracted, natural processes, “the environment” generally, is thus invisible to economics, even though these are the ultimate source of all wealth. And, in the eyes of many, the priceless is simply valueless.

Hence the push to put a price on the priceless.

Carbon pricing aims to create a situation where everyone, from consumers to corporations to nations, will actively pursue climate sanity because it is the economically sensible thing to do. There are two main versions.

Carbon fees, or carbon taxes, put a price on carbon emissions. The idea is that since we have to pay money in order to emit, we’ll figure out how not to emit so we can save money. There are different types of carbon fee systems that vary in terms of who pays the fee, where the money goes, and how the price changes over time.

One version, carbon-fee-and-dividend, assesses the fee at the point where the fossil fuel enters the economy—at the mine, well, or port—and then distributes the fee to the public. Under this system, energy companies that use fossil fuel will pass the cost of the fees on to consumers, but since consumers will be receiving dividend payments, the increased costs won’t matter. Functionally, the cost of fossil fuel use will remain the same. But since alternative energy providers will not be paying the fee, their services will be effectively cheaper, giving them an advantage in the market place.

There are a couple of obvious potential pitfalls.

I do not know whether the system includes greenhouse gas emitters other than energy companies—cement is a huge source of greenhouse gas, as is refrigeration, agriculture, and, to a lesser extent, other industries. Agriculture particularly would be very difficult to assess fees for. Also, the system does not directly mandate emissions reductions, so it’s hard to say how far the economic nudge would really go.

But carbon-fee-and-dividend is simple to implement, can use the established tax system instead of requiring a new infrastructure, and has been used to good effect in Sweden already.

Cap-and-trade, or ETS, is the other main carbon pricing tool. Here, there is a legally enforceable cap on how much participants can emit—structured as a limited number of permits per participant. Those who need more than that number can buy them from those who use less than that number of permits.

Versions of cap-and-trade vary in how the permits are given out, who is participating, what the cap is, and how the cap changes over time. The system has the advantage of providing extra funding to those who reduce their emissions, and cap-and-trade has been used to good effect, both to fight climate change and to fight acid rain. The system can be difficult to set up and monitor, though.

Both types of carbon pricing can even be used together.

But if carbon pricing is such a good idea, why isn’t it being used on a national or international scale to fight climate change?

I got online and searched for “why is a carbon tax bad” and “why is cap-and-trade bad.” And, wouldn’t you know it, most of the hits on the first page were from energy companies or the Heartland Institute, which is funded largely by energy companies. The bulk of the remainder were from newspapers apparently reporting on the controversy. One pro-climate article explained that carbon pricing alone wouldn’t solve the problem, but the author did not object to carbon pricing being one of the options tried. Another pro-climate article ended up being a formal refutation of criticism of carbon feeds—in order words, actually pro-carbon pricing.

No major, credible environmental organization seems to have come out against carbon pricing—and some have come out very much for it. If you have vague, negative associations with carbon pricing, chances seem good that you have been exposed to propaganda paid for by the fossil fuel industry.

The fact of the matter is any effective form of climate action, including, quite definitely, carbon pricing (either form) is going to require that fossil fuel companies eventually find a different line of work or go out of business.

They don’t want to do that.

But the important thing to understand is that carbon pricing does not create a cost that doesn’t otherwise exist. Instead, these schemes make existing costs visible to the economy so we can think clearly about who should bear the costs and how. The other important thing to think about is that maintaining the economic status quo is not an option. Climate change itself will eventually dramatically alter our way of life if we don’t alter ourselves first. The wealthy will likely continue to be able to insulate themselves from those changes for a long time, while the poor and disenfranchised have begun bearing the costs of climate destabilization already.

In other words, somebody is going to pay either way.


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No, this isn’t turning into a literary blog–I’m having internet connectivity problems, which makes research-heavy posts difficult. The following is a poem I wrote some years ago, inspired by two courses I took my first year of grad school.  -C.


I’ve been thinking about landscapes
acres of grasslands and wetlands and hills.
We’re 12,000 years out from a glacier.
New Hampshire is anthropogenic wilderness twice removed.
You can’t stick ten pounds of biodiversity in a one-pound can;
America’s best idea will never declare independence
from the tyranny of space.

I’ve been thinking about landscapes
the ticky-tacky smallness of pleasant neighbors
rolling Chemlawned private Roman floors
postage stamps of hardwood mulched prestige
and the ecology of fences, falcons, and modern, sleepy streets;
the piece of resistance is the sharded, mirrored aggregate flecks
of principled personal choice.

I’ve been thinking about landscapes
mostly the kind that live between the ears
and grow out, contagious, sticky, creeping out upon
the bleeding battleground of myth.
This isn’t the first time the world has turned
upon a quarter.
Become a well-placed immovable object
and your heart, the philosopher’s stone
will roll and gather moss, emerald and jade
to lay upon the doorstep
of the infinite kingdom of Heaven.