The Climate in Emergency

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


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Debating Third Parties

Last night was the first presidential debate. I’m not going to go into political commentary here overall, but a few things stand out.

Mr. Trump’s aggression, for example. I’ve watched many debates over the years, and this was the first I’ve ever seen with such unrelenting bullying. Unfortunately, such tactics have a certain amount of political power. More relevant here is what didn’t come up for discussion–climate change. I wasn’t surprised. While the candidates are beginning to treat the issue as politically important, debate moderators, interviewers, and the news media still generally treat the environment as a niche issue. That has to stop, and should have stopped already.

Curiously, the most pro-environment statement the entire night came from Donald Trump, when he denied being a climate denier. Secretary Clinton made a jab at him for claiming that climate change is a plot by the Chinese, and he insisted he never said that. He was lying, he did tweet about China inventing climate change, and while he claims that was a joke, he has a long and consistent history of calling climate change a hoax benefiting the Chinese. What I find interesting that he’s feeling the need to disavow that particular statement. It means we’re making some progress.

If we can just get a climate-sane person into the Oval Office, we might be able to save the world.

At present, that person has to be Mrs. Clinton. No one else is in striking range. I’m sympathetic to the argument that Mrs. Clinton is an insider, that her commitment to the environment (and other issues beyond the scope of this article) is not as radical or as unambiguous as we need, that the political system that she serves and perpetuates is itself our problem. Personally, I like Mrs. Clinton. I usually don’t say this sort of thing here, but I am excited for her presidency. I don’t support her merely by default. But there are those who want more than she can give, and they are not foolish to want that.

The presidential race just isn’t the most effective place to fight for third parties.

Presidential races are, by definition, national. That means that you need a huge amount of money and organizational support just to get noticed, let alone win, and you have to be able to assemble a huge and varied coalition of constituents. While there are occasional exceptions–among which I do count Bernie Sanders–the game belongs to insiders who can cozy up to the elites and appeal to the lowest common denominator of the masses. Great presidents are those who can do so and genuinely serve our country. There have been a few.

But when you’re looking to change a system, you need to look at the part of the system that is ripe for change–the first domino, so to speak. You look for a critical place where a small amount of effort can flip a switch and ultimately cause widespread change. Trying to attack the American political duopoly at the presidency is just the opposite of that strategy, and it doesn’t work. The presidency is where revolutions finish, not where they begin.

Then, too, the American President, by design, has very little independent power. Executive action without Congress is sharply curtailed by law and politically dicey. Let’s say that Jill Stein were elected President; either she would find a way to compromise and work with others just like other politicians do, or she would remain ideologically pure and totally ineffective because Congress would ignore her and the states would fight her executive actions tooth and nail in the courts. How would that help anybody?

You want a revolution? You need to go after Congress and you need to go after state legislatures.

Legislative districts, both State and Federal, are relatively small. Unless a national organization gets involved and starts pouring in money, they can be won relatively cheaply by people who have a good record of community service and little else. A much smaller electorate means much less political inertia and a much greater chance of radical sentiment gaining ground. There is much more political (and demographic) diversity in Congress than among high-level candidates for the Presidency because each Congressional district can reflect the particular politics of its residents, whereas a national campaign inevitably takes a sort of average of the nation. Bernie Sanders is a perfect example of this principle–in his district, an independent Democratic Socialist can have a relatively safe seat. That he even got close to a national nomination is a political miracle.

So, legislatures are easier to get into, and potentially they are the more powerful positions.

The Federal legislature, of course, crafts the laws which the President executes, creates the national budget, and approves, or decides not to approve, many of the President’s decisions. As we have seen, the legislative leadership can effectively block the President from making appointments to the Supreme Court. While Congressmembers must act collectively, an individual can become hugely influential within the group through political skill and seniority, and any seat in either chamber has the potential to rise to prominence that way.

And of course, from Congress, the White House becomes much more accessible.

State legislatures are similar, with the added power that these are the bodies who draw district maps–they gerrymander, for better or worse, and can and do shape national policy indirectly for generations that way. And those constituencies are even smaller, so those seats are even easier to win.

A vote for a third party or independent presidential candidate is symbolic, but it’s not more than that. Your candidate will not get elected. You may or may not become morally responsible for the election of a climate-denier, but the best that can be said is you’ll do nothing. If you want to do something, look at the presidential candidates who have a real shot of winning and vote for the better one. And, and this part is important, vote for radical candidates for the State and Federal legislatures, or run for those offices yourself (and vote).

That’s how you can change the world.

 

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A Deadly Threat to Our Very Existence

On the 23rd day of the month of September, in an early year of a decade not too long before our own, the human race suddenly encountered a deadly threat to its very existence. And this terrifying enemy surfaced, as such enemies often do, in the seemingly most innocent and unlikely of places.

Thus begins Little Shop of Horrors, a movie I was completely obsessed with for about five years as a kid. No, I’m not sure why. Yes, this does get back around to climate change, I promise.

What I want to talk about is not the 1986 movie but the musical play it was based on. The two share characters, musical numbers, dialogue, and the script writer, Howard Ashman, yet they are fundamentally different works. I’ll get into the how and the why of that difference another time, on another blog, but for now let’s just say that the happy ending of the movie changes things.

The important thing is that the off-Broadway musical, but not the movie, works as a uniquely modern morality play, one with truly planetary implications. Was it intended to be such? Probably not–I’ve just watched an interview with Howard Ashman, included as a special feature on the DVD of the movie, and it seems as though he wrote the play simply as entertainment. Yet, as a fiction writer myself I can say that the creative process is largely sub-conscious and can include significance the writer knows nothing about. The allegory I am about to explicate is therefor quite valid because, even if it was not intended, it works.

A Synopsis

First, a summary of the plot so that we all know what we’re talking about.

The action takes place almost entirely inside a florist shop, inexplicably located in a truly terrible neighborhood. Not surprisingly, it’s in the process of going out of business. The staff consists of the owner, Mr. Mushnik; the floral designer, Audrey; and a shop assistant and plant geek, Seymour. The latter two are clearly in love with each other, though Audrey is dating a sadistic dentist who beats her regularly. Into this mess of woe comes a strange little plant and, surprisingly, its very presence draws in lots of paying customers. Suddenly, business is booming.

The catch, as Seymour discovers, is that the plant is carnivorous and demands human blood. At first, being small, it does well on a few drops at a time from Seymour’s own fingers. As it grows–and begins to talk and sing–it demands more. At first Seymour refuses to commit murder to feed it, but begins to waver when the plant offers him money, fame, and access to beautiful women. When the plant points out that Audrey’s abusive boyfriend actually deserves to die (and he does, the man is awful), Seymour agrees. The following day, the dentist accidentally over-doses on nitrous oxide and Seymour calmly watches him die and then drags the body home for consumption.

With the dentist dead, Seymour has no trouble becoming Audrey’s new boyfriend. Their relationship is actually quite touching and sweet. But Mr. Mushnik saw Seymour cutting up the dentist’s body, and promises to keep quiet about it only if Seymour runs away and leaves the lucrative plant behind. The plant quietly suggests another alternative, which Seymour accepts, and Mr. Mushnik, too, is eaten.

Seymour now has everything he said he wanted, but the guilt is eating him. When a businessman suggests taking cuttings from the plant and selling them worldwide, Seymour rebels. But before he can extricate himself from the situation, the plant tricks Audrey into coming within reach and grabs her. Seymour pulls her out of the plant’s mouth, but for some unexplained reason she dies anyway. Her last request is that Seymour feed her body to the plant, because then by taking care of it, he’ll really be taking care of her, too. He complies, but then, in a rage of guilt and shame, grabs a knife and allows the plant to eat him, intending to cut it up from the inside. The plant then spits out the knife.

Shortly thereafter, the business man returns and begins taking cuttings.

While the play is ostensibly a comedy, and generally received as such by audiences, it is one of the most profoundly and disturbingly tragic stories I have ever encountered.

A Morality Play?

When I was a kid, watching both the movie and, later, the play, I always assumed that the plant was simply a carnivore, no more evil than any of the quite real entities that do specialize in eating human blood, such as certain species of mosquito (which, by the way, kill huge numbers of people through disease transmission). As an adult, I’ve started thinking about the story again and I’ve changed my mind.

The plant is just too clearly in control, and too clearly getting a kick out of its power, not to be held responsible for Seymour’s growing depravity. First the man sacrifices himself in a small way, then he kills for love and anger, then he kills for personal gain. Then he feeds the woman he loves to the plant, and then finally kills himself. The plant isn’t really after blood, is it? It’s after Seymour’s soul. And it wins.

In a classic tragedy, the hero loses, not because he (rarely she) is overwhelmed by superior forces or bad luck, but because he is destroyed from within by his own shortcomings, which are equal to, and tied up in, the very things that make him great. Seymour is very much a hero in this sense, except that it is his ordinariness that is both his appeal and his downfall. Who among us would not do as he does, were we in his shoes? Who wouldn’t spare a little blood to save our livelihood? And, having accepted the cognitive dissonance involved in nursing a little blood sucker, killing for love isn’t such a big step. Letting Mr. Mushnik go isn’t too big of a step beyond that. Faced with unbearable loss and guilt, of course he makes a last, desperate attempt to fix his wrongs, and thereby serves the plant’s interest yet again, destroying himself and leaving it free to propagate. To identify with Seymour is to admit that we, too, could be culpable in the end of the world.

Maybe we already are.

Don’t Feed the Plants

The final song of the play states the moral of the story:

They may offer you fortune and fame,
Love and money and instant acclaim.
But whatever they offer you,
Don’t feed the plants!

Silly, isn’t it? After all, carnivorous plants aren’t really a threat, are they?
The villain of the play may be fictional, but the human vulnerabilities it preys on are not. The reality is that we humans sweet-talk each other for blood regularly, with consequences just as stark and tragic as in this parable about a plant. It is that vulnerability that is the real subject of the final song’s warning.
But “plant” has a second meaning, as in “factory.” Is it too much of a stretch to interpret the warning quite specifically in terms of corporate industry? Global warming itself was not much on the public radar in 1982, when the play opened (though it was well-known by people who followed such things), but plenty of other environmental and social problems stemming from factories were in full view. Of course, those social and environmental ills are intimately connected to climate change, too–the same “plants” are responsible.
For us, as for Seymour, it has been a question of weighing costs in choices that seem like no choice. Of course he gave the plant his blood–what else was he going to do? His livelihood, and the good will of the only people in the world who even pretended to care about him, depended on it. It’s not like many of us have a real choice about fossil fuel, either. How else are we going to get to work? The availability of that energy has saved countless lives. But the price gets bigger over time. Are you willing to give up the life of one sadistic dentist? How about the boss you never cared for anyway? Or the health and safety of people you don’t even know–like, for example, the people of the Mikisew Cree and Athabasca Chipewyan First Nations, who have insanely high rates of cancer because of contamination from nearby tar sands development. Or the people of the Gulf Coast, where the oil industry (and other factors) is gradually destroying the wetlands on which both hurricane safety and the region’s fishing industry depend. Or the people of Oklahoma, who are coping with three hundred times the region’s natural rate of earthquake occurrence, thanks to the underground disposal of waste products from oil production.  Or the ongoing fight by the Standing Rock Sioux to protect their drinking water and sacred sites from a planned oil pipeline. Or the half of all North American birds that could be under threat from climate change by the end of this century. And on and on.
The question is, when do you stop paying the price? And what do you do when the choice you have is no choice, and ant rebellion could result in your feeding your beloved into that green maw-and blaming yourself?

Look, it’s a horrible story, and it’s all too true. So, if singing about a carnivorous vegetable helps you keep your spirits up, then go for it. Pick up a light-hearted metaphor and use that for your motivation. Get silly with it. Use comedy and camp and music. Next time Trump-the-Climate-Denier promises to make America great again by putting President Obama’s climate legacy on the chopping block, imagine him all green and viney. And don’t go leaping into his jaws with a knife, either (I’ll let you work out that metaphor yourself) because we know that doesn’t work. If we fight it we’ve still got a chance

Come on, look up the music on YouTube or something and sing it with me:

Hold your hat and hang on to your soul.
Something’s coming to eat the world whole.
If we fight it we’ve still got a chance.
But whatever they offer you,
Though they’re slopping the trough for you,
Please, whatever they offer you,
Don’t feed the plants!


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The Story of Global Cooling

I’ve been hearing climate deniers talking about a global cooling scare in the nineteen seventies for a while now, and I finally got curious about where this narrative had come from–I didn’t think it had been made up whole cloth, but I hadn’t heard word one about it from any credible source, either. You’d think that if climate scientists had thought an ice age was imminent as recently as the seventies, at least some of the scientists I know would mention it occasionally?

So, I looked into it. And I found not one but two explanations.

In one story, Peter Gwynne, a science writer for Newsweek, wrote a short article on an idea some scientists were kicking around at the time–that a thirty-year cooling trend might continue and develop into a real ice age. The article was published on April 28, 1975, and attracted enough attention that other publications picked up the story with their own articles. Books and TV shows followed.

Scientific American, my source for this particular story, explains that the cooling trend is

now believed to be a consequence of soot and aerosols that offered a partial shield to the earth as well as the gradual retreat of an abnormally warm interlude.

And that

there also was a small but growing counter-theory that carbon dioxide and other pollutants accompanying the Industrial Age were creating a warming belt in the atmosphere, and by about 1980 it was clear that the earth’s average temperature was headed upward.

Scientific American acknowledges that the global cooling thing has no legitimate place in the climate discussion today, and reports that Mr. Gwynne himself is somewhat embarrassed by the anti-scientific uses to which his writing is being put. He does stand by what he wrote, given the limits of available knowledge at the time.

Ok, but there are a couple of problems with that story, starting with the fact that the greenhouse effect was not a “small but growing counter-theory” in the 1970’s–the effect of carbon dioxide on the climate has been known since 1859. The first calculations of the human role in climate change were made in 1896.

And it’s not like global warming was some far-out thing nobody was paying attention to back in the 1970’s, either. No less a person than the fiction writer, Ursula K. LeGuin had started making oblique references to climate change as early as 1969 (her novel, The Left Hand of Darkness, includes a flawless description of the natural greenhouse effect, as well as a reference to an alien planet that is hot because “an exploitive civilization wrecked its natural balances, burned up the forests for kindling, as it were.” Several of her later books also refer to the Earth itself getting warmer, too). Perhaps more starkly, the 1970’s were when Exxon was busy figuring out what it was going to do about global warming, of which its internal documents prove it was well aware.

Beyond all that, there wasn’t a 30-year cooling trend, except perhaps in a mathematical sense. According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), the period from the mid-1940’s to the mid-1970’s was cooler than previous years had been, but there was a lot of minor temperature fluctuation, not a consistent cooling. A cool period of relative stability is not the same thing as an oncoming ice age.

So, I did some more poking and found the second story.

Apparently, in the 1970’s, the greenhouse effect was well-known, but the cooling effect of sulfate emissions (“aerosols”) had just been discovered and it wasn’t clear yet which would prove dominant. A few climate scientists thought the aerosols might win out–between 1965 and 1979, 10% of the scientific papers on the subject predicted cooling, but 28% could make no prediction and 62% predicted warming. In other words, the coming ice age was a legitimate scientific idea for a while, but only a small minority of studies ever supported it.

I’m not actually sure, based on what I’ve read, whether anybody ever proved that sulfate emissions couldn’t have counteracted carbon emissions under some scenarios that were plausible back then. As history has actually played out, sulfate emissions have been dramatically reduced (they also cause acid rain), while carbon emissions have continued to climb. Aerosols still complicate climate predictions, but no one thinks they’re going to cause an ice age anymore.

There’s no cooling trend mentioned in there.

The way I see these two stories blending, I suspect that what really happened was that the end of the warming trend of the first third of the 20th century was taken (maybe correctly) as evidence of the cooling power of aerosols. Some climate scientists thought the aerosols could go on to trigger a cooling trend, but most did not. Peter Gwynne, being a writer who cared about science and about getting his writing published, chose to focus on the minority opinion, since that seemed more sensational at the time. He has admitted that the story “pushed the envelope a little bit,” in deference to Newsweek’s penchant for what Scientific American called an “over-ventilated style.”

The ventilation would have seemed harmless at the time, if the article was fundamentally accurate, as I’m willing to buy that it was. Nobody can represent the entire breadth of the scientific conversation on any one topic in just nine paragraphs. You have to choose which of all possible stories you’re going to tell, in order to tell any story at all.

That deniers have since pounced on his article for political and anti-scientific purposes is not Mr. Gwynne’s doing. Being co-opted is a risk all published writers run–it’s the Scylla to the charybdis of being utterly ignored.

Curiously, the one detail I thought would enter the discussion apparently didn’t, except as a note of context written long after the fact by one or another of my sources–astronomically speaking, we’re supposed to be in an ice age already.

The primary factor that dictated the glacial/interglacial cycle through recent geological history was the Milankovitch Cycle, an interaction between three separate variations in Earth’s orbit that together dramatically how much solar radiation we get at different times of the year. We’re at a point in the cycle where we should be heading into a new ice age, but aren’t because our carbon dioxide levels are too high.

The connection between that cycle and climate was confirmed in 1976, so it may be another thread of the “global cooling” story that none of my sources happened to tease out–but if not, there may have been good reason to ignore it.

The onset of ice ages is very slow. I have to cite one of my grad school classes here (Tom Wessels was the teacher–I’ve cited him as a source here before) as I haven’t been able to lay my hands on an appropriate link, but ice ages melt quickly (as in many hundreds of years) and grow slowly (as in many thousands of years). In fact, the warmest point of our current interglacial (before now, anyway) was thousands of years ago. No, the cooling was never enough to initiate continental glaciation on North America or Asia, but cooling was in progress.There is an excellent illustration of this cooling, and how long and consistent it was, here (yes, that is a web comic, but this one’s not a joke).

Sliding towards an ice age doesn’t look like anything special, it turns out. More or less, it looks like all of human history.

 


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The Climate of Congress 2: The US House of Representatives

The conventional wisdom this year is that the US House of Representatives is unassailably Republican because there are too few Republican seats with a reasonable likelihood of flipping. That sounds like bad news for us because, while this blog is strictly non-partisan, Republicans collectively have built a very bad record on climate in recent years.

But not all Republicans are climate-hostile. In fact, there are Republican members of the House Climate Solutions Caucus. So, even if the House stays in Republican hands, if enough of those Republicans are willing to cross the aisle to support the planet, we should be in good shape.

So, how likely is a climate-sane House of Representatives? What districts need support?

Currently, there are 248 Republican Representatives and 192 Democrats (one seat is vacant, or at least was as of June). According to the Cook Report, 56 are competitive, meaning vulnerable to being flipped. 45 of these are currently Republican, 11 currently Democrat. So, the Democrats are likely to pick up seats, maybe a lot of seats, but are unlikely to gain the majority. Of those 45 competitive Republican seats, almost half are considered “leaning” towards or “likely” to stay Republican. A modestly optimistic scenario is therefore that the Democrats see a net gain of 24 seats. Still not a majority.

But if all House Democrats are climate-sane, the Democrats do gain those 24 seats, and the Republican majority after November includes at least 23 climate-sane people, we will be able to pass real climate legislation at last.

Now, of those 45 competitive Republican seats, just 13 are currently held by avowed climate deniers who are running for re-election (several races have no incumbent this year). Nine of the seats have no incumbent. That leaves 22 Republicans running for re-election who are either climate sane or have not seen fit to announce publicly that they’re not (which probably means they’re convertible). Following so far?

Of the 13 races with denier incumbents, one is actually leaning Democrat. Four more are considered toss-ups, by the Cook Report, and four lean Republican. That means it’s not out of the question that seven climate deniers could lose their seats to Democrats this year.

If the Democrats pick up 24 seats including those of the seven vulnerable deniers and the nine with no incumbent, then only eight other House Republicans have to be climate-sane for the planet to win.

Are they?

Seven Republicans who hold non-competitive seats are members of the House Climate Solutions Caucus. Surely there is one more in there somewhere?

So, make sure to vote in November. If your Representative is currently a Republican running for re-election, be sure to vote Democrat. And if that incumbent Rep is a climate denier, do whatever you can to flip that seat.

The seven vulnerable climate deniers are:

Jeff Denham, CA-10

Scott Tipton, CO-03

Scott Garrett, MN-03

Mike Coffman, CO-06

David Young, IA-03

Bruce Poliquin, ME-02

Frank Guinta, NH-01

Rod Blum, IA-01

Much depends on these people getting their pink slips from the American People in November.