The Climate in Emergency

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

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Seeing Patterns

Last week, I had the distinct pleasure of a hike on Mount Desert Island with my friend and teacher, Tom Wessels–the same man who lead the hike in the White Mountains described in my post, The Ghost of White Birches. Only, then he was leading an organized group activity associated with the school I’d just graduated. This time, for the first time, we were just friends going hiking together.

Myself, my husband, our elderly but still spry dogs, and him.

Switching contexts can have an unpredictable effect on relationships, and I can be slow on the uptake when the rules change. I had left it to Tom to suggest a hike, rather than saying so myself, because I did not want him to think I was expecting him to work on his day off. But as it happened, I need not have worried. Nothing had really changed between us. And while he had no planned lectures, no educational objectives, and had not previously hiked our whole route (as a professor, he appears to meticulously plan everything), he still kept us appraised of the cultural and natural history around us, knowing and sharing our interest. Tom is not one of those people who wears radically different hats for changing circumstance. He is always and exactly himself.

He told us that part of the trail we followed ran along the bed of the first road on the island. He pointed out a big-toothed aspen so furrowed with age that it looked like an ancient cottonwood, and how two other trees of the same size and species nearby must be much younger, having smoother bark.* He commented that the rhodora was coming into bloom. He answered questions, asked and unasked.

“Sap,” he said, spotting me examining a mass of white stuff at the base of a tree. I had thought it was either sap or bird urine and that either way it indicated some story. “These spruces are not doing well. Fungus comes in, then ants, then woodpeckers. Carpenter ants can’t excavate healthy wood.” The sap had flowed from the work of a pileated woodpecker, going after carpenter ants.

I knew from previous conversations that one of the reasons the spruces are becoming more vulnerable is climate change.

Much of Mount Desert Island is dominated by spruces, a cold-tolerant genus of tree that is rare at this latitude. The island–and the coast of Maine generally–is different because the frigid Humbolt Current bathes the land in cool sea breezes and cold sea fogs. According to rangers at Acadia National Park, which includes much of the island, the Gulf of Maine is now warming faster than almost any other water body in the world. Lobsters are moving north, to the detriment of lobstermen in southern New England. Southern fish species are moving in. In warm years, every puffin chick in the state starves to death, unable to swallow the larger, southern fish their parents bring.

I was right to think the white stuff at the base of the tree held a story.

Tom sees patterns. In a somewhat different and still less-developed way, so do I. A hiker without this kind of knowledge would see a pristine wilderness, protected in perpetuity by the US Park Service. Tom sees spruces not doing well (and paper birches dying off, lobsters moving, puffins starving) and is saddened.

There is a certain comfort to be had by sharing your reality with another. We chat about our home, mine and my husband’s, in Maryland, and how our forested lot prevents our having a garden, or a solar panel, or a wind turbine, but does protect us from the damaging effects of winds. In the ten years I’ve been there, I say, we’ve survived two hurricanes (Sandy and Irene) and a derecho, and the wind mostly flows over the tops of the trees.

“Those will happen more frequently, because of climate change,” comments Tom. We know. My husband talks about the changes he’s seen in Assateague Island in the forty years he’s been watching the place. Casual visitors don’t see that, either, only an unspoiled, wild beach, but we have friends who were married in a house on that beach and the house is not there anymore. The place where it stood is now several yards off shore. Maryland is slowly sinking, a natural subsidence triggered by the retreat of the glaciers tens of thousands of years ago, but sea level rise from climate change is real, too.

Last month, in St. Michaels, a town on the Chesapeake Bay, I saw water quietly lapping over the edge of the town dock, standing a few inches deep on pavement. Nobody else said anything. Nobody acknowledged it was happening, let alone extraordinary. Tidal height can vary. There is the influence of the moon’s phase, of course, since full moons and new moons produce extreme tides, and an onshore wind can pile up water on the coast. If both occur at the same time, tides can become extraordinary quite naturally.

But the town dock would not have been built where it was if flooding were normal at the time of its construction.

Last night I dreamed that nothing I did turned out right, that I was driving down winding country roads, lost, that the roads became dangerously, fantastically steep so I pulled over, only to watch my parked car roll down hill into the back of another. The metaphor of my subconscious is clear; I don’t know what to do about any of these patterns.

My mother and I discuss politics over breakfast. We are both worried about the survival of democracy. I go to bed with a hard knot of anxiety, the same nauseous fear that has plagued me since the election. I attend marches, write political letters, sign petitions, keep this blog, but there is something else that must be done, some stronger, more effective way to fight, but through the fog of anxiety, I don’t see it. Other than to acknowledge the truth, share my reality, I don’t know what to do.


  • The rate at which wood grows varies, as many people know, but the bark of each species grows at a nearly constant rate. Thus, an individual growing more slowly than normal for its species will have thicker, more textured bark. With some few exceptions, trunk size plus bark texture gives a better indication of tree age than either does alone.


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The Environmental Protection Agency

This week I set out to write an article about what the EPA (Environmental Protection Agency) does. As often happens, I had discovered that I knew much less than I thought I should about an important topic, and set out to fix the problem and share the results with you.

Once I started looking online, though, I very quickly found out that there are LOTS of articles on what the EPA does, not least being the one on the EPA’s own website. Would mine be superfluous? Not necessarily. The EPA site did not answer a lot of my questions, being quite general in tone. The Wikipedia article has a lot more detail, but Wikipedia is not a reputable source in a scholarly sense. The summary on Scientific American redirects to  website called, and while it seems to be well-written, the name is hardly reassuring. I wasn’t really sure where to go to get information without simply repeating EPA’s own content.

So I did as I often do, when I hit an impasse; I called my mother.

My mother, Kass Sheedy, happens to be a former contractor with extensive experience working with the EPA. She headed the clean-up of a lot of Federal Superfund sites, including several Cold War era Air Force bases. She spoke to EPA personnel often for many years.

So, here is what she said. I’ve written this article so as to largely avoid repeating information easily found on the EPA’s site. I recommend reading that, also.

What the EPA Does

Congress passes environmental laws, such as the Clean Water Act. These laws are typically short and simple, essentially stating objectives, such as “the air shall be clean.” You can look up the actual text of the Clean Water Act and other legislation online fairly easily. The EPA then implements those laws.

Implementation begins with writing regulations and guidance. Regulations define, for example what “clean” means with respect to water, listing maximum allowable levels of various contaminants, and list necessary permits for various regulated activities relating to the law. Guidance documents specify how to apply to those permits, what documents need to be sent in, what kind of monitoring needs to be done. These regulations and guidance documents are subject to a lengthy review process, including public comment periods.

These documents are written at EPA Headquarters, but enforcement is handled by nine regional offices.

If you are cleaning up a Superfund site, or if you are a polluter in need of regulation, it is your responsibility to contact the EPA’s regional office. A project officer will then act as your liaison, answering questions, touring your site, and so forth. If you fail to contact the EPA–if, for example, your pipeline leaks and you fail to report it and initiate a clean up, or if you fail to apply for a necessary permit in the first place, the EPA can come looking for you. It has enforcement officers who are full-fledged police, able to enforce any Federal law, environmental or otherwise. EPA personnel can inspect sites, ask to see necessary documentation, conduct investigations, and patrol for evidence of possible violations. Since some environmental lapses count as felonies, other law enforcement agencies could also get involved in the case.

In practice, because the EPA is chronically under-funded, it relies on tips from the public, especially from citizen watchdog groups, to identify most violations. The EPA also has national enforcement initiatives, which bring added resources to bear on a particular type of problem for  period of three years.

If someone is found to be in violation, the regional office will issue a consent decree, which is a document stating the nature of the problem, any necessary corrective action, and a timeline for that action. Failure to meet that timeline could result in fines or jail time, depending on the nature of the problem.

What the EPA Doesn’t Do

In theory, the EPA is responsible for implementing and enforcing US Federal environmental law, as well as for conducting related scientific research and helping to educate the public about environmental matters. In practice, there are many activities that fall under the above categories where the EPA isn’t in charge.

First, the EPA often acts in partnership with state, local, or non-government groups of various kinds, and it offers grants for various kinds of scientific research and pro-environment work. All of this is explained clearly on their website, and seems fairly straight-forward. Simple case of getting more bang for the limited buck through cooperation.

Where it gets complicated is that there are various other agencies and entities with environmental responsibility, and who does what turns out to be hard to predict or explain.

Begin with the fact that Indian* lands are not under the EPA’s jurisdiction at all, but instead have their own environmental regulations and their own enforcement authorities. These may invite the EPA in to help, if they want additional expertise. Or, a problem may come under joint jurisdiction–an oil spill half on and half off a reservation, for example–and require one of several types of cooperative agreement.

Second, states are free to pass their own environmental legislation, enacted by their own state-level agencies, and there are several different ways the two bodies of regulations can interact.

States may not maintain less-stringent environmental regulations that the Federal government does. Or, rather, they can, but it won’t make any difference because entities doing business in the state must still follow the Federal regulations. The state may not prevent the EPA from maintaining its standard.

States are, however, quite free to maintain an equal or higher standard. California often does, for example. When such disparities occur, the state law doesn’t automatically eclipse the Federal; the EPA could continue enforcing its own regulations alongside the state, meaning that everyone would have to apply for two sets of permits and fill out two sets of documentation. More often, the EPA will either delegate authority to the state–although there are some authorities the EPA is not allowed to delegate–or the Federal and state authorities will sign some form of cooperative agreement, sharing responsibility.

Local authorities can also have environmental regulations, to some extent, again requiring cooperative agreements or delegation.

It is important to recognize that the EPA never gives up authority on environmental issues, only delegates it or shares it, and always retains the right to take it back when necessary–unless it didn’t have the authority to begin with.

The EPA is not the only Federal entity in charge of aspects of environmental protection. Its website lists the Department of Energy, which is in charge of radioactive waste, as an example of one of the others. There are others. In some cases, these assignments may also be the result of delegation. Generally, responsibility rests where it does because that is where the enabling legislation put it. “Enabling legislation” being the initial law, passed by Congress, which the regulations and guidance enacts. There appears to be no simple way to guess which Federal entity is going to be responsible for what without looking up the relevant law.

Or just ask the EPA. They do answer public questions. Contact them through their website.

Why the EPA Is not a Problem

In practice, environmental regulations can be complicated. It doesn’t help that in this realm of human endeavor, enabling legislation, required permits, review processes, legal agreements, and organizations all tend to be referred to by acronym. My mother, when she is talking shop, sometimes comes up with sentences in which every noun is an acronym. I have some sympathy with the phrase “regulatory burden,” and I can well imagine that self-regulation would be simpler and easier.

But by and large, self-regulation doesn’t happen. Assertions to the contrary should be seen for the con-jobs they are.

There are exceptions. I have a friend who found himself in the bizarre position of having to fight the Endangered Species Act as a conservation scientist. The way the law was being enacted actually encouraged ranchers to kill endangered animals that they otherwise would have happily coexisted with. But the anecdote differs from self-regulation scenarios in one important way; the Endangered Species Act was not a response to the activity of those ranchers, whereas we have pollution controls because people polluted.

Seem in terms of narrow self-interest, fossil fuel companies want to pollute. So do several other kinds of companies. Pollution is an intrinsic part of the activity that earns them money, and anything that reduces pollution also reduces profit. There are ways to soften the blow, but the conflict is real; the good of the many is at odds with the needs of the few in these cases. The “burden” of regulation is not incidental to environmental protection, it is fundamental to it, which is why environmental legislation exists in the first place–to protect the public against those who have an interest in harming us, and to do it in a fair and measured way.

If these people were going to regulate themselves, they would have done it a long time ago, and we would not be in this mess that we are now. When industry groups and their allies ask for relief from regulation, be very clear; what they want is the freedom to damage your world so they can make a buck.

Don’t let anyone tell you different.




  • “Indian” meaning Native American, a much more straight-forward term, but not only does the Federal government often seem to prefer “Indian,” but so do many of the Indians themselves, hence, the American Indian Museum in Washington.

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Same March, Different Day

I’m sorry I didn’t post last week. I don’t know why I didn’t—it seemed as though I did not have time, but I don’t think that’s exactly true. I didn’t have all that much to do. More likely, the things I was doing took much longer than normal and took more energy than normal because I was anxious about something. What was I anxious about? I’m not sure. It is the nature of my particular version of anxiety to hide its source—but the fact that I just had my third nightmare about Donald Trump trying to kill me is probably relevant.

Seriously, what is with my subconscious? And is anyone else getting this? I hardly ever have nightmares about anything, and I’ve never before had nightmares about any public figure, no matter how much I might have disagreed with what they were doing. I didn’t have bad dreams about Osama bin Ladin, although I’ve heard that pretty much everyone else did. And three times now, my brain has sent me horror shows about this orange businessman.

Anxiety is counterproductive. Makes it hard to focus on anything constructive, including constructive responses to whatever is causing the anxiety in the first place. Is this why the opposition has not yet really gotten its act together? Are we all just insanely frightened by this guy?

In any case, I wanted to talk about the People’s Climate March at the end of April. I attended the one in Washington DC, so two trips to DC in eight days. At least this time I wasn’t cold.

My husband and I and almost forty others took a chartered bus up to the edge of the city, then we all took the Metro in (that’s that subway, for those not in the know). My husband had volunteered to be the bus captain, meaning he had to help shepherd everybody along, and couldn’t go with me to try to find a friend of mine who was also at the march, embedded within a different group.

I was irritated by this limitation, I will admit—I didn’t understand why our group needed a bus captain to begin with, and it was too hot, there weren’t any toilets, and nobody was listening to me. Eventually we met a collaborator in a small park who had brought a fifteen-foot-tall great blue heron puppet for us to carry and I realized two things: first, the puppet explained the need for a bus captain (a core group of us needed to stay together to work the puppet) and, second, that puppet would be visible from anywhere, meaning I could go look for my friend and be somewhat assured of locating my husband again afterwards.

I never did find my friend—I tried calling him by cell phone but we couldn’t hear each other over the crowd noise, and as a needle he happened to be marching in a very big haystack—but I did get to wander through much more of the crowd than I would have otherwise.

The day was sunny and very hot, more typical of late June than April, and the vast, assembling crowd felt rather more like a festival than anything else. A drum beat from somewhere. Bagpipers and other musicians were audible in passing. Families relaxed in the shade of trees near food trucks, and small-time entrepreneurs hawked t-shirts, other memorabilia, and bottled water. Banners and various giant puppets waved in the breeze. Some of the signs I saw were clearly left over from the science march the week before, but most were the standard fair I’d seen at every other climate-related march I’ve been to over the past few years. The water in one of my bottles tasted funny, and when I drank too much from the other I felt nauseous.  How was I going to stay cool? I’m prone to heat exhaustion, so I baled water onto my head from the reflecting pool with my hat.

I knew I was upstream, as it were, of my husband. To find him I had simply to walk in the same direction the march was going, but faster. I hurried along the sidewalk in places, weaved and bobbed through the middle of the crowd in others. I passed marching bands, more giant puppets, men dressed as Uncle Sam on eight-foot stilts. We followed essentially the same route as the climate march had, but in the other direction, beginning near the Capitol Building and ending near the Washington Monument. At one point, I came across a large group of people chanting Shame! Shame! And wagging their fingers in the air. Why? Nobody knew.

“We are shaming that building,” explained one woman, shrugged, and returned to shouting Shame!

“Isn’t that the Trump Hotel?” someone else guessed, and indeed, once we’d come up even with in, we could see that it was.

“I wonder what it’s like to be in that hotel right now?” I asked.

“Probably pretty embarrassing,” suggested someone near me.

I saw anti-fascist groups holding their own rallies in the middle of our march, as I’d seen the previous week, and once again I walked through the middle of opposing chants on the issue of abortion. Then, I’d thought that I was seeing a pro-choice inclusion within our march, attended by a counter-rally. This time I concluded—and I’m guessing this was the truth of the matter before, too—that there was a pro-life rally embedded within us and that when other marchers came near the rally they simply chanted responses, “my body, my choice!”

Eventually, I spotted the giant blue heron and rejoined my husband. I took a turn carrying part of the puppet, but the thing was unwieldy, and the extra effort set my pulse to pounding in my reddened face. I passed the huge bird wing off as soon as I could. Some of the faces in the crowd around me had gone red and blotchy, too. Ambulances weaved through the crowd along cross streets. We checked up on each other and I wondered if I could make it to the end of the route before I got sick. Gradually, more and more people were dropping out, lining the streets under shade trees, cheering and chanting and waving signs at the hardy few who kept walking.

I made it. Along the edge of the Washington Monument grounds stood long rows of portable toilets under shade trees. There was no definitive end to the march, but as we passed along those rows more and more people dropped out, slipping between the toilets out to the waiting grass, and we followed, crashing out in the shade. Crowds moved across the grounds, continuing the festival, an unstructured, apparently spontaneous rally. A kite flew high, carrying something hundreds of feet into the air—a camera. Eventually, we made our way back to our bus, all of us dazed and quiet from the heat. The driver earned a hefty tip for having fixed the air conditioning while we were gone.

Alright, interesting experience, but what did it mean?

At least 200, 000 people showed up, so I’ve heard. Aerial photographs—from the kite, I assume, as there were no helicopter flyovers, and no visible drones—show a sea of people filling the streets for blocks, our region of blue t-shirts and blue heron puppet right in the middle. It would be tempting to be reassured by such a large outpouring of pro-climate enthusiasm, but as I’ve said, the primary purpose of political demonstrations (aside from networking opportunities and a boost to the marchers’ morale) is to show elected leaders where the political wind is headed—listen to us, or we’ll vote you out! But, in point of fact, the votes have not been forthcoming. Climate denial works better than climate bravery for ambitious politicians, and nobody gets to hear much from the other kind. So, why should anyone listen to us now?

I’m not saying not to march, I’m saying we need to do something in addition to marching, and we need to do it quickly and in a very organized way.

There are also indications of a hidden ugliness to the event. Afterwards, I heard from other activists—people of color—who had been on the march, too, and were harassed repeatedly by both fellow marchers and organizers. One reported seeing an organizer insist that a certain chant stop. Why? The chant was in Spanish. I had seen nothing of the kind, but then, I wouldn’t. I’m white, and one of the most fundamental, and most pernicious, racial privileges is that if you’re white, you don’t see racism. It is therefore incumbent upon white people to seek out the perspectives of non-white people, and to believe them. I had noticed that the crowd was almost entirely white, as are many gatherings of environmentalists, and I had wondered why. Now I know.

People—specifically, white people—we have no time for that kind of garbage. Cut it out. Get it together. Now.

I’ve said that the science march was strikingly different from the series of climate marches I’ve been on, and that this one was largely a return to recent tradition. And that is true, in some ways, but not in others. Yes, there were the familiar chants (“This is what democracy looks like!”), the familiar signs, the same-old goofy, pep-rallyish mood. And yet, something was different.

There was an anger, an aggression, I had not seen before. Some of the signs were very much to the point, the point being that climate change continued means death, destruction, and pain. One showed a cartoon horrorscape of flames and cut stumps and poison smoke with the caption “Baron’s Inheritance.” Towards the end, organizers asked us to sit down, backs toward the White House, for a moment of silence—and then to get up, turn towards the White House, and produce a moment of noise. At that moment of noise, a woman beside me displayed both middle fingers and screamed “F___ YOU, YOU CORPORATE BASTARDS!!!”

I doubt she is alone in her sentiment.

Beneath the festive mood, the silly costumes, the giant puppets, there was an absence of playfulness, a presence of anger and fear. The pep rally didn’t quite work, not for me, anyway, even though that aspect of such proceedings has worked for me in the past, despite my rationalist intentions, despite my worry, even despite my occasional cynicism. It just wasn’t like this, last time I did one of these marches.

Last time, there wasn’t a climate denier in the White House.