The Climate in Emergency

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


Leave a comment

Many Waters Cannot Quench

I was going to write something to do with my fortieth birthday, which has just occurred, and offers various possibilities for potentially interesting riffs on life. I had some ideas. But then Hurricane Harvey got in the way, as hurricanes tend to do.

To be clear, I am not personally being impacted by Harvey, I’m in a different part of the country, but I have friends in Texas and I’m thinking of them. And, when any form of weather produces “catastrophic” damage (the term being used by the experts), I really cannot ignore it.

Voices in the Dark

Social media is an odd but effective way to watch an unfolding disaster. Not that it can replace journalism, we do need fact-checking, context, analysis, etc., but the unfiltered voices of the multitudes add an immediacy that the news alone cannot match.

I’m a visual thinker, and when information comes to me in a non-visual format, such as radio or text, I often visualize darkness. Thus, my experience of Superstorm Sandy, aside from its brush through my own neighborhood (racing the storm home in the middle of the night, wind starting to buffet the trailer at three AM on a deserted highway in Delaware) was of voices crying in the dark, on Twitter. The one begging for a generator to keep her ventilator going, somewhere in New York, still haunts me. Did she live the night? I don’t know.

This time the voice in the dark has been a self-appointed citizen journalist, my friend, Bridgette Mongeon. I quote excerpts from her throughout this article with her permission.

Dear friends and family,
Thank you for your prayers during this approaching storm. The rain fall that is expected in Houston and all along the Texas coast is astronomical. I have lived in this home through Ike 2008, Allison in 2001, and our first year we moved in was Alicia 1983. Allison, was a tropical storm that played havoc in our area. Allison was just before 9/11 and was a double whammy on our psyche that I still feel rise up in my belly. Somehow the two are connected and re-stimulating.

I do not know what to expect for my immediate neighborhood. This area has had a tremendous influx of new building and I have no idea what that means for the flow of that much water. I am not evacuating . So many have to evacuate from the south. We have been asked to keep off the roads. I also need to keep an eye on the studio as well as my home…. Harvey is stalling and picking up intensity, which means it could hit land as a cat 4. If people in Houston expected a cat 4 or 5 we all would have been boarding up the windows…. Either way, we are on the east side of the hurricane, which we in the south call, “the dirty side” This, as it sounds, is not favorable…. Prayers go to all the people south of us and along the coast. They are evacuating quite a few people today. Evacuations can often be a challenge and dangerous events because of the amount of people. It is their safety that is priority right now.

Be safe Texans. Thanks for your prayers and well wishes everyone else. I’ll update when and if I can.

August 25, 8:13 AM

Since then, she has been posting regular updates for both local residents (tornado warnings, notices of shelter openings) and people farther afield (a detailed description of drainage patterns in the Greater Houston Area). She still has electricity, internet, and news. Not everybody in her area do, and some evidently have internet but not much else, so she’s acting as an information hub. Even the official journalists are being impaired by the storm–one of her local TV stations has flooded and is off the air. She can hear tornadoes, spun off by the hurricane. She reports that reservoirs upstream are being opened, worsening the flooding, yes, but the alternative is a dam breach, which would be worse. She says she’s ok. Her house is not flooding, though those of some of her neighbors are. She posts cell phone video and drone video from friends showing expanses of fast, brown water.

For my non-Houston friends- to help you understand the devastation:
Houston is huge. The greater metropolitan area is circled by the Grand Parkway – which is 170 miles long. That makes the area of the circle inside the Grand Parkway over 2200 sq. miles.
2200 square miles of densely habited, urban and suburban, areas is flooded.
Imagine if the entire state of Delaware, with twice the population of Manhattan, was under water.
That’s Houston.
It’s still raining.

August 27, 10:42 PM

Reporting from Houston, Tx-The love between neighbors here is stronger than the rain, no matter what race, faith, or political party #Harvey

August 28th, 1:00 PM

A few minutes ago, I learned that of those reservoirs–the ones that began releasing water to avoid an uncontrolled flood–one has been over-topped anyway. The other may soon follow. The Houston area has received over half its typical yearly allotment of rain in the past four days alone.

The storm is heading back out to sea, where it will strengthen, before making landfall a second time, probably in Louisiana. But it’s also possible it could hit Houston twice.

An Unprecedented Storm

As is often true of big disasters, this one owes itself to multiple factors. One, obviously, is the storm itself is unusual. Not only did Harvey grow very quickly into a very powerful storm (Category 4), it then stalled right over Houston for several days, dropping all of its water in the same place, rather than over an extended track, as most storms do. This is not the first time a storm has done such a thing, but the amount of rain is literally without historical precedent. The National Weather Service frankly admitted it has no idea what the impacts are going to be and has even had to create new colors for its weather maps in order to represent the scale of this storm. This returning to sea for more energy thing is also highly unusual.

The other part of the problem–and here I’m drawing on information from Bridgette–is that Houston is prone to flooding anyway. The soil is clay-based and does not drain well, and a development boom has dramatically worsened matters by paving over a lot of ground. There is no way for most of that water to go anywhere, except by flowing down streets and through buildings. Flooding is common in parts of the city even in ordinary rainstorms. For an extraordinary rainstorm to occur here cannot help but have catastrophic results.

What the long-term results will be are not clear, yet. An online search for “economic impact of Harvey” yields varied results–that recovery will take years, that it will be quick, that economic impacts will be large and widespread, that they will be minimal. No one really knows. The storm isn’t even over.

But two facts are worth noting.

One is that Bridgette is right; Houston, with the assistance of the rest of the nation (and even other countries–reportedly, Mexico is mobilizing to help, as it did following Katrina) is stronger than Harvey, and will survive. One of the advantages of being a very rich nation is that we can sustain billions of dollars of damage and simply pay for it. There may be bureaucratic or political hang-ups, we don’t know yet, and the physical acts of clean-up and rebuilding will take time, but we can do this.

The other thing to keep in mind, though, is that we’re not just looking at paying for clean-up and repair. Houston is the fifth-largest economy in the US, and it’s taking the better part of a week off. Zero output. None. Bad news. Houston is also the home of much of American oil refining. Right now, some refineries are closed because workers can’t drive in to work, there is no damage (or hadn’t been, as of yesterday evening) but that could change. There are other Houston-based businesses taking a hit, too, such as Sysco, the company that produces supplies for virtually every restaurant you’ve ever set foot in (seriously, look at restaurant water pitchers–they’re all exactly the same because they come from the same place). The United States as a whole is not in danger, we will get through this, but Harvey is not a local problem. It’s national, possibly global.

The one thing the flooding in Houston is not is the fault of local officials for not evacuating everybody. Bridgette, again:

We have learned from the many storms that there is a way to evacuate. The process is that the lower lying areas or those that are first in harm’s way must be the priority. If everyone from Houston got on the freeways and evacuated, then those in real trouble could not get out. An example was the horrific Hurrican Rita evacuation in 2005. Rita was just weeks after Katrina. And Rita was going to be stronger than Katrina. We were all a little shell shocked down here. During Hurricane Rita, people panicked and according to Wiki “An estimated 2.5 – 3.7 million people fled before Rita’s landfall, making it one of the largest evacuations in United States’ history.”

I was here. I stayed. Here is what happened. It was wall to wall cars. No one could move. It was hot, and gas ran out in the cars on the road. No one could get gas in to help the stranded. I fielded phone calls from friends who were caught in traffic for hours. Many finally turned around, but that was impossible because the city then opened the southbound to go north. It was excruciatingly hot and dangerous. I see the reports say that 90-118 people died even before the storm. A bus of elderly started on fire, and all were killed. These same roads and feeder roads that people traveled on are now under water in this storm. Evacuation of so many people is impossible. And, remember no one could understand how the other factors would play in this storm [unprecedented rain, recent development boom]. The weather men do an excellent job of predicting, but they can’t be sure. People prepared the best they could. Some did bug out.

I’m proud of how those in authority handled and are handling things, and I’m here. I can tell you now, after living through Allison, Houston has a long row to hoe, and at this writing, until mean big brother Harvey decides to quit picking on us and go away, we won’t know how bad things will be. We will recover because Houston is stronger than Harvey, but one thing is sure, in my book, this is no one’s fault.

August 29, 1:00 AM [emphasis mine]

So far, the confirmed death toll from Harvey is just 14 people. If Rita is any indication as to what a full evacuation would have looked like, and given that the roads where those traffic jams occurred have flooded, the decision not to evacuate any but those at highest risk may have saved thousands of lives.

Climate Change

A storm like Harvey could have happened before anthropogenic climate change. We have no record of such a thing, but perhaps one occurred before or record began. But there are several factors which make a Harvey-type storm more likely than before we monkeyed with the climate.

First, the Gulf of Mexico is warmer now, which makes deep pools of very warm water in the Gulf much more likely. When a hurricane moves across such  pool, it can intensify suddenly–which is exactly what Harvey did. It’s also what both Katrina and Rita did, as each grew dramatically in much the same way.

Second, the air is warmer now, and warmer air carries more moisture, which means more rain. In hurricanes, it’s the wind that gets the press–we rate hurricane intensity by wind speed–but it’s the water that causes the damage. Many storms, notably Irene, a few years ago, cause their most severe damage after being downgraded out of hurricane status, simply by raining a lot. Harvey is another in this pattern.

Third, the reason Harvey parked itself right over Houston for so long is that it was trapped between two high pressure zones. This scenario ought to sound familiar, because persistent high pressure zones have been involved in almost every severe weather story I’ve covered for years, now. Droughts, heat waves, snow storms, extra-tropical rainstorms, and hurricanes have all made the transition from bad weather to unprecedented disaster, in part, because they stayed in the same place longer than normal–because of persistent blocking highs. And while it hasn’t been confirmed yet, the changes in the jet stream that create persistent blocking highs (and misplaced polar vortexes and weird, hurricane-like winter storms) may be being caused by melting of the sea ice in the arctic.

One final thing to consider; yes, we are stronger than Harvey. We were stronger than Katrina, Irene, and Sandy. We were stronger than the California superdrought that drained a state’s reservoirs, the atmospheric river storms that filled those reservoirs up again and nearly breached the Oroville dam, the heat waves that grounded airplanes in Phoenix two years running, shockingly intense wildfires, and the floods in Baton Rouge that acted like a hurricane but weren’t. But how much longer are we going to keep our strength up as these things become more likely and occur more often?

Can’t we just bite the bullet and stop warming the atmosphere?

Advertisements


2 Comments

Tilting Windmills

My friend says she’s sometimes not sure activism is worth it anymore, because the world is about to end. I don’t share that problem. My problem is I don’t know how to choose among the many possible forms of activism, when I believe they might all be fruitless anyway. Six of one one, half a dozen of doing not much. Also, sometimes I get so anxious I can’t do anything at all.

A few days ago, my friend posted to Facebook, attempting to start an “informal dialogue” about how to cope with climate change psychologically. How to deal with the often paralyzing and exhausting fear that awareness brings, especially when the surrounding society offers so often the tempting narcotic of pretending it’s not happening, or is happening only in a distant and mild way. As if we had fifty or a hundred years to sort all this out. As if climate change weren’t especially important. It’s lonely, as she said.

I thought I can help! I have a blog about this very thing! But, when I looked, I saw no entries that really suggested a solution. And when I searched online, while I found confirmation that the discipline of psychology is, indeed, tackling the issue, I saw nothing of particular immediate benefit to me.

Enter the Man of La Mancha

Coincidentally, into my doom and gloom, came an email from another friend about something totally different. Among other topics, he referred to some of his own environmental work as “tilting at windmills.” Of course, that’s a reference to Don Quixote, the classic figure of fiction who deluded himself into believing he was a heroic knight and who attacked windmills, believing them to be fairy-tale giants. My friend is doing nothing in any way similar–the giants he is attacking are all very real–but he has a self-deprecating sense of humor.

But what occurred to me when I read his email was the following:

Alternative Energy Revolution

From: https://xkcd.com/556/

 

If you can’t see the comic I’ve pasted for whatever reason, it starts out with a picturesque landscape of modern wind turbines silhouetted against a peach-colored background. In subsequent panels, two people (rendered as stick figures, this is XKCD, by Randall Monroe, and he mostly does stick figures) admit that the turbines look disturbingly like the tripodal monsters from certain sci-fi stories–and the turbines promptly grow legs and become exactly such monsters, ravaging the landscape. Their huge legs pound the ground with calamitous thunder. The terrified humans despair–but a voice calls “stand aside!” and there, on a hill, lance at the ready, stands DON QUIXOTE!

The “mouseover text” is “The moment their arms spun freely in our air, they were doomed–for Man has earned his right to hold this planet against all comers, by virtue of occasionally producing someone totally batshit insane.”

When my friend mentioned “tilting and windmills” I also thought of Quixote’s story from the character’s own perspective. To others, he seems simply to be having a mental health problem–and that is part of the truth, as the book makes clear. But the deeper, more complicated part is that Quixote is attempting to live by the rules of a vanished, and perhaps always fictional world, a world characterized by honor, nobility, and bravery such as most people now ignore. He is not so much fighting against windmills as fighting for the proposition that there is something worth fighting for, that a man on a horse and with a sense of honor can make a difference in the world.

In the actual book, that fight is a losing proposition. Quixote’s attempts to be a hero all backfire, he helps nobody, and ultimately he regains his sanity and disavows all interest in the romantic stories that used to fascinate him. It is Randall Monroe’s contention, however, that crazy Don Quixote is still out there somehow, and that there will come a time in which we need him.

When we need precisely someone who is crazy enough to believe that he or she can make a difference, despite all evidence to the contrary.

Is the real question, then, how do we maintain ourselves as the right sort of “batshit insane”?

Some Provisional Answers

I’m hardly an expert on how to solve the world’s problems. There are days I can barely manage to clean the cat box. I’d be much more comfortable if I could have Googled up some DIY tips on how to fight the good fight, recommended by a successful activist with a background in psychology besides. But that didn’t happen. So, instead I’m presenting a couple of ideas of my own. After all, I’m going to be forty next week. I figure that after forty years (less one week) on this planet, I’ve learned a few things worth sharing.

1. You Can Only Do What You Can Do

A primary struggle for me is finding myself mysteriously unable to do things. I mean I intend to do it, I plan to do it, I mean to do it, and I don’t. “It” could be anything from losing weight to cleaning the toilet, but the most relevant example is the expansion of this site that I began soon after the election and have not yet completed. Why not?

I’ve tried on a lot of explanations, mostly revolving around quirks of my brain that really do make a lot of things harder for me, but none of those explanations suggested a solution. I suspect I’ve simply been engaging in my own version of what my mother does–calling herself lazy when she finds she can’t work more than anyone humanly could (she’s retired now, but still busy with four grandkids and a big house and yard, plus volunteer commitments). Both of us are under the persistent delusion that we have super-powers, and we set goals and priorities for ourselves accordingly.

I mean, here I am, working as a free-lance writer to pay the bills, plus maintaining three unpaid blogs and writing multiple novels all at once, and I’m down on myself for not also building this site into a major online resource for activists?

Maybe if I sat down and made an honest assessment of what I can do, and then re-prioritized, I’d be more successful at meeting my goals.

I’m not just talking about time management, here. I’m talking about energy. I’m talking about money. I’m talking about resilience in the face of stress. I’m talking about physical and mental health. I’m talking about ability, which, yes, does vary. All of this varies, from person to person and from day to day, often for reasons we do not and cannot know. To some extent we may be able to change our reality–I may be able to do things tomorrow that I can’t do today–but we can’t just wish it away.

If you only have ten minutes a day to devote to saving the world, then accept that and make your ten minutes count. Develop a plan you can actually enact.

2.Don’t Ask Whether You Can Do It–Ask How

I realize this point and the previous one look like contradictions, but I’m actually addressing two different aspects of “can.” There is choosing an achievable goal, and there is choosing a workable method.

For many years I confused the two. When I despaired of achieving something and people told me to believe in myself, I thought they meant I should make like the Little Engine That Could and motivate myself to the top. And that just made me feel worse, because while strong motivation can indeed unlock hither-to un-guessed-at possibility, I knew that real limitations exist also. Sometimes, even the Little Engine can’t.

Maybe that’s what they did mean–the idea that attitude is everything is a very common fallacy, and it results in people not only feeling terrible for not being good enough, but also torturing themselves with the thought that somehow they must not have wanted it badly enough.

But eventually somebody nudged me into realizing that there is a better way to think about goals; don’t ask whether the goal is attainable, assume that it is–then ask what method is workable.

Maybe the Little Engine can take a different way up the mountain.

There is no logical reason whatever to waste time and energy wondering whether we can still prevent climate change disaster. We know that this goal is worth everything we can throw at it, and that if we are to succeed, we must throw everything at it. We will get up that hill or we will die trying, because the alternative is to die without trying and that is worse.

The real question is how are we going to try getting up that hill?

3. Just Pick Something

Ok, but how are we going to attack that hill? Let’s be honest; there are days when each of us thinks we may be facing a no-win scenario, here. And when you believe that you’ll fail no matter what you do, how do you pick a thing to try to do anyway?

I have lots of experience with this conundrum, because I have a really hard time making seemingly arbitrary choices. There are days I do no housework at all because I can’t decide whether to clean the kitchen or the bathroom first. Based on my extensive experience, I can offer two suggestions:

  1. Pick something. If it doesn’t matter which you pick, then you can’t pick wrong.
  2. Once you pick, do something to make it seem less arbitrary, like investing money in your choice, or commiting to a friend you’ll stick with it.

4. The World Usually Doesn’t End

This one’s pretty simple. Yes, it seems plausible that everything we hold dear is about to be destroyed, especially this week, as the leaders of two nuclear-armed nations engage in what might even charitably be termed a pissing contest. But the end of everything has seemed plausible before and the world didn’t end. It usually doesn’t.

5. Don’t Dis Despair

Another friend of mine insists that despair is a useful state, not to be resisted. I don’t really understand this. I trust him to be wise, however.

I do know that temporarily giving into despair can be useful if only in that it allows a rest from the work of resisting despair. Rage, cry, curl up in a fetal position, and then pick yourself back up and get on with things again. I also know that giving up on one thing can be the first step to trying something else–a different, more workable method, perhaps.

How to…?

So, how to keep it together in the face of climate change, or at least fall apart in a useful way? I’m not entirely sure. I haven’t found anyone who can tell me. But at least part of the solution, in my experience, involves the following:

  1. Honor your own situational and personal limits
  2. Choose ambitious, pie-in-the-sky goals and practical means of reaching those goals
  3. If no course of action looks better than any other, choose randomly
  4. No matter how bad things look, remember the world usually doesn’t end
  5. And if you do get caught up in despair, give in to it occasionally–you might find something useful down there in that pit.

That’s what I’ve got. Let’s see how it works.


Leave a comment

Confession

I have a confession to make; I don’t feel like writing today. I don’t mean I’m not in the mood or that I don’t want to, I mean that I’ve spent most of the past hour staring at my computer screen while drawing a complete and utter blank, nothing at all in my mind except for some bleak pop song that’s been on infinite repeat inside my skull all evening for no good reason.

My husband is away on a wildfire, so I am NOT going to write another post about how dangerous climate change is for forests and wildlands fire fighters. Not until he is safely back home. Yes, I m superstitious.

I wanted to write about upcoming climate protests, except I can’t find any. Or, I haven’t found any yet, anyway.

I found something interesting on the radio today, to the effect that the cutting of an old-growth forest in Poland, which has been on the news and in social media of late, has a climate change connection, that the cutting is designed to contain and counteract a beetle infestation caused by climate change (I have seen what are probably similar beetle problems in the US, where too-warm winters allow beetle populations to get unusually large and/or summer droughts keep the trees from making enough sap to defend themselves). So this is not humans intruding on a pristine forest, this is humans trying to repair damage other humans did. Also, this is not a forest that has never been logged before, it has in fact been manged by foresters able to plan cuts that leave the forest’s primeval character intact. I don’t know if this alternate version of the story is true, and I did not think to write down the name of the NPR story in question, but the contrary-ness of it appeals to me.

My dog is barking. She wants me to do something. Probably she wants me to make my husband, whom she misses, reappear. She’s making my ears hurt.

Look, this blog post is unlikely to win the Pulitzer Prize, but I wanted to at least check in with you.