The Climate in Emergency

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


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Ordinary Threats

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. Thus also begins a post I wrote a year ago, in honor of the date and of then-current events. I’m reworking that post now. After all, Mr. Trump has been elected President, is giving all the signals up-and-coming fascist dictators do, has initiated the American pull-out of the Paris Agreement, largely dismantled the EPA, is quietly letting American citizens in Puerto Rico die while he dog-whistles racists over football, and may well start a nuclear war with North Korea any day now (if North Korea doesn’t start one with us, first).

Our very existence indeed seems under deadly threat.

As the subject of my post, I took, not the movie, Little Shop of Horrors, but the play it was based on. The critical difference between the two is that the latter does not have a happy ending. The carnivorous plant wins. It is a much darker–and more interesting–story.

In brief, the story is as follows:

A flower shop on Skid Row (a strange idea in itself) is about to go out of business, when the shop assistant, Seymour, puts a strange plant in the window, to draw in customers. And it works! Inexplicably, customers start pouring in! But then the plant wilts, and the owner orders Seymour to fix the plant Or Else. Seymour discovers that the plant perks up only when fed human blood. Of course, he pays up–his coworkers are the closest thing Seymour has to a family and the store is his only means of livelihood. The plant grows, business flourishes, and Seymour must give more and more blood. The plant gains the power of speech and tells Seymour to deliver an entire human. The man refuses. The plant temps him with money, respect, access to beautiful women. The man wavers. The plant points out that the woman Seymour loves is dating an abusive jackass who deserves to die. Sold.

Seymour gets the girl (who had always loved him, it turns out), money, fame, the whole nine yards, but then the owner of the shop discovers the murder and blackmails Seymour. Soon, the boss, too, is eaten.

Seymour now has everything, but the guilt is eating him and he tries to rebel. The plant attacks Seymour’s beloved, who then dies, asking Seymour to feed her to the plant because then at least they can be together. He complies, but then flies into a rage, tries to kill the plant, fails, climbs into its mouth intending to kill it from the inside, and dies. Shortly thereafter, a businessman arrives to take cuttings, intending to propagate the plant worldwide.

When I was a kid, I saw the plant as no more evil than a mosquito (a potentially lethal blood sucker). I see the story now as a morality play and a true and disturbing tragedy.

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 inextricably related to the very things that make him great. The scary thing is that Seymour is great only in that he is ordinary. He’s normal. A bit geeky and skittish, but basically one of us. It’s hard not to like him. And who among us would not behave as he does? A little blood to save our livelihood? Sure. From there, Seymour gradually crosses one red line after another, taking the least bad option at each turn while the options steadily get worse and the stakes grow ever higher–at what point can any of us honestly say we would have done anything differently?

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!

Although there’s no evidence the people who wrote Little Shop of Horrors intended to create anything other than a goofy spoof of a grade B horror movie, it works very well as a metaphor for exactly the process that is threatening the world. After all, how could the fossil fuel industry create climate change, if not with our money? And yet we keep feeding them, sometimes in order to obtain luxury and power, but more often because how else are we supposed to get to work?
This week’s nuclear threat is a somewhat different animal. It is less obvious that we, the people, are directly complicit, for one thing, and it’s far from certain that a nuclear exchange in this case is a threat to the world as a whole–North Korea is not the USSR. The more realistic fear is regional destruction on an unprecedented scale. The United States can win a war against North Korea, provided China does not intervene, but with what stains on its soul? My president is casually threatening a level of violence that could kill close to 26 million people, most of them utterly innocent and powerless in this situation. Not global destruction, but bad enough.
But I’m a child of the eighties. You say “nuclear,” and I think Mutually Assured Destruction. I think nuclear winter. I think the end of the world.
I think I’ve got a couple of books I really want to publish before I die.
I don’t know what actually should be done about North Korea. Such things are outside of my field of expertise and beyond the scope of this blog. I do know what should be done about climate change, but I do not know what I can do, personally, to make it happen, beyond what I have been doing, which is not much and isn’t working. Somehow, we’re collectively feeding the plant. We’re feeding it through our elections, our purchases, and by our prioritization of other issues for reasons that anybody would understand. How do you ? How do you stop being an ordinary person?
A nuclear bomb can destroy a city. But so can climate change–we’ve seen it happen. We’ve seen worse. There are people in Puerto Rico who will go to sleep tonight in houses that have no running water, no electricity, and no roof.
How do you stop being ordinary?

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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How Do You Solve a Problem Like Maria?

As I write this, it seems likely that Dominica has been destroyed, given that the island has been raked by a Category 5 hurricane–that’s Maria, in case anyone has lost track. The storm will hit Puerto Rico and St. Croix, but where it will go next is unclear. A strike to the mainland US cannot be ruled out, possibly at Cape Hatteras and maybe again at Cape Cod, but at least it will not recapitulate Irma or Harvey.

I’m underneath a hurricane right now myself (Jose), though only the edge, so conditions here are not bad. The weather is blustery, with occasional rain. The main part of the storm is out in the Atlantic, and it seems likely to sty Although I wouldn’t want to have to go out in it, but we’re pretty safe right here, at the moment. The important thing to notice is that we’ve had three major hurricanes in the Atlantic that made landfall within just over thirty days.

This is turning out to be one of the years when climate change is more obvious.

I want to emphasize, though, that weather is still variable, and that if next year we have hardly any Atlantic hurricanes, climate change will still be just as real. If we don’t want deniers using random cold snaps to fuel their arguments, we should refrain from equivalent lapses of logic. The problem of Maria and her colleagues is not that they prove climate change (they may, but so do lots of other factors) but that they illustrate it.

This is what is coming. This is what normal is going to look like.

I know I keep saying this, but it keeps being true, and honestly it just seems silly to write aout anything else as yet another Cat 5 hurricane bears down.


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Catastrophe?

In case anyone hasn’t noticed, there’s a real possibility that we could lose another city to a monster hurricane next week.

(Yes, we haven’t lost Houston permanently, just like we didn’t lose New Orleans permanently after Katrina. I don’t mean to imply otherwise, only that we’re looking at very big-deal phenomena, here)

Hurricane Irma is, as I write, the most powerful storm ever recorded in the Atlantic (Pacific storms have been stronger) and it’s pointed, more or less, at Florida. It will certainly wreak havoc in the Caribbean, although which islands will be most strongly affected is still unclear. The various computer models all agree that it will head more or less arrow-straight for the Straits of Florida, when it will abruptly turn some species of north. Why will it turn? I haven’t found an explanation. It’s tempting to say that the power of the wishes and prayers of the people of Houston are having an impact, but if wishes and prayers worked like that, Houston wouldn’t have flooded to begin with. Probably there is an entirely prosaic explanation the TV weather people aren’t bothering to talk about. The important part is where will Irma go after it turns? It could enter the Gulf. It could buzz-saw up the East Coast (and hit me, not incidentally).

Or, Irma could send a 20-foot storm surge across Miami, a city of almost six million people less than seven feet above sea level–one that’s already starting to flood regularly on the highest tides.

I want to be very clear–I’m not saying that Irma will destroy Miami, since the meteorologists aren’t saying that yet, and they know better than I do. I’m also not saying that Miami, which might well escape, is somehow more important than Antigua and Puerto Rico and parts of Cuba, and the other places that almost certainly won’t escape. This is going to be very, very bad somewhere, regardless of where that somewhere turns out to be. What I am saying is that this is how national-scale climate disasters are going to happen, maybe this year, maybe in the future.

If Miami floods catastrophically next week (or if New Orleans floods again, which is also possible), the United States will be dealing with three such floods simultaneously (the third is Baton Rouge, which flooded due to a rather bizarre weather pattern last year and has still not fully recovered), two of them in major cities–and the hurricane season still has two months to run. A third major hit this year is not out of the question (say, New York? or Boston? or Washington DC?). I don’t mean to make like Chicken Little–just because catastrophe sounds plausible does not mean it’s going to happen–and the United States, as a nation, is very rich and can probably absorb all these costs. State and local officials will likely do excellent jobs to protect life and limb in the teeth of yet another storm, and together we will get through this. But you can see how the costs of multiple disasters can pile up. And then pile up again.

Climate change makes disasters more likely.  This summer may be showing us what the future looks like.

But is that the same as saying that the frequency of disaster has actually increased, yet. The way the laws of chance work, a clump of bad luck doesn’t necessarily mean anything. You can get heads three times in a row–the unusual run is just balanced out by more tails, if you flip your coin enough times. Humans are notoriously bad at telling the difference between a clump of luck and actual meaningful pattern, which is why we invented statistics. Personally, I’m guessing that we are in the midst of meaningful change, but as I’ve written before, I haven’t been able to find real figures on whether our rate of extreme weather events is changing. I am fairly confident that such figures exist, and I wish they were easier to find.

Even without figures on whether extremes as a group are occurring more often, we can look at certain types of extremes. Hurricanes, for example, have been studied extensively but with difficulty, because of problems in the historical data. Whether hurricanes are getting more frequent is therefor hard to say, though the proportion of hurricanes that grow to category 4 or 5, or that reach higher latitudes, does seem to be increasing, and storm surges are definitely getting worse because of sea level rise.

But say there’s a category of disaster that could be being increased by climate change but isn’t, yet. So? What we know is that climate change is real and that it makes catastrophe more likely. Must we wait until all types of catastrophe are obviously worse before we act?