The Climate in Emergency

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


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A Break for Puffins

“How’ve you been liking the hot weather?”

I turn around and spot the man sitting on the rock at the edge of the parking lot. He works at the restaurant across the way and he comes here to take his smoke breaks. We say hi to each other every time he does. He’s one of those strangers who’s almost a friend.

“I don’t like it, much,” I say, of the weather. I’ve been either under- or over-dressed all day.

“Yeah, it’s funny,” he says, “yesterday it was warm in Bar Harbor, but cold here. Today, it’s hot here, but it’ll be cold in Bar Harbor.”

Bar Harbor, I should add, is not that far away, yet he could be right. I’ve known it to rain in town but stay dry just three miles away.

“You know, I’ve heard the Gulf of Maine is 11 degrees warmer this year than normal?”

“Yeah, I know,” he tells me.

“It’ll be a bad year for puffins,” I add.

“Oh?”

“Yeah, when the warm water comes in, so do warm-water fish, which are a little bigger and rounder. The adult puffins can catch the warm-water fish just fine, but the chicks can’t swallow them. So, in years when warm-water fish species predominate in the Gulf, every puffin chick in Maine starves to death.”

“That’s really sad.”

“Yeah, it is.”

“That’s really sad.” He seems to really feel for these puffin chicks. “But there’s nothing anyone can do about it.”

“Well, stop global warming.”

“Yeah, but we can’t do that,” he protests.

“Yes, we can,” I counter. “Not immediately, because of atmospheric lag, but you know, nothing is so bad that it can’t get worse? By the same token, nothing is so bad that we can’t keep it from getting worse.”

“Yeah. I like puffins. I have paintings of puffins hanging in my bathroom. I tell people, these are real birds. They’re not made-up! I’ve only ever seen a couple of them.”

“I’ve never seen even one,” I admit. “Where did you see them?”

“It was last year. They took us on a cruise—among the islands.”

“Neat.”

“Yeah. You know, I’ve seen another Maine bird? I can’t remember what it’s called, but I can remember the sound it made, at night, in the water….It sounded like a frog, you know—a, a, bullfrog? Where I’m from, we have another frog that makes weird sounds, it’s called something else. It sounded like a frog, but my friend said, no, that’s a bird.”

“Can you imitate the sound?”

“No, but I can hear it in my head. I saw it, and it was a bird. It was dark, and sort of duck-like….”

“A loon?”

“Yes! That’s it! A loon!”

“They winter with us, in Maryland,”I told him. “They’re here in the summer and with us for the winter. They do make lots of sounds.”

“Cool! Well, I gotta go. It’s been nice talking to you.”

“Nice talking to you,” I tell him, and mean it, and I watch him head back into the restaurant through the back door.

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I Have a Dream

Some days ago, I heard someone on NPR (I forget which program) assert that a central weakness of the environmental movement is its lack of tangible vision. Martin Luther King, Jr., this radio person reminded listeners, invited us to imagine, to anticipate, black children and white children joining hands in sister-and brotherhood. The image is specific, personal, and easy to see as real.

In contrast what sort of vision is “take care of the Earth”? What does that even mean? No one, this commentator said, is giving us a goal we can really grasp.

I beg to differ, because here, as tangible as you like, is my dream.

(Before I get into the poetic part, I should say I’m talking about a future in which fossil fuel use has ended, largely through a dramatic reduction in our collective energy use, plus the use of alternative energy sources. The human population has shrunk dramatically through peaceful attrition, allowing widespread reforestation and a reduction of our collective use of all resources. Most of the reduction of consumption involved the wealthiest socioeconomic groups, while the least-wealthy have become less impoverished. Environmental regulations and ethics are robust, and conservation and restoration are prioritized at all levels of both public and private activity. MLK didn’t need to provide such a preface, because everybody in his audience knew what he meant.)

Close your eyes and open them in the future, where we’re all going. I dream of what you experience as you move around.

The climate of your childhood is with you still, and you will keep that familiar climate as you grow old. If it snowed on Christmas when you were little, it will snow on Christmas again. If you chased lightening bugs through the cool of a summer evening, the Junes of your great-grandchildren will have that same purple, shining cool.

When the weather grows extreme—and it will, on occasion—you may rest assured that things will return to normal afterward. If a city has stood on a seaside plain for a thousand years, you may expect it to stand for a thousand more. If a farm has belonged to your family for seven generations, know that rising seas will not sow your fields with salt, nor will warming skies bake your soils dry. The same carefully husbanded heirlooms will grow for your progeny for seven generations more.

The air smells good—everywhere. The water tastes clean in all places. All rivers and ponds and beaches in the world are safe for swimming, and if you fish, you may eat what you catch without fear.

And you will catch fish, you will fish and hunt and gather fruit and honey, if you please, for the table of the Earth will groan with permanent Thanksgiving, its bounty not literally infinite but so long as you receive with gratitude, humility, and care, it might as well be. You will have enough. All of you will.

Some of you may be poor, but your poverty will be a paucity of luxuries, not a lack of necessities. You will never worry about access to food or water or medicine. The halls of justice and of government will never be closed to you and the gates of academe will never be barred. No matter your color or your ancestry, your creed or ability, your risk of cancer or poisoning or want will never be greater than for your wealthier fellows, and that risk will be low and getting lower all the time.

Wealthy or poor, young or old, you will not have to travel long distances or endure expense and hardship in order to experience beautiful places and the company of fantastic, wild animals, for all places are beautiful and all lands and waters are rich with wildness. Should you want to travel, you will need no permit to seek the solitude of pathless places, for the forests and the prairies and the deserts will gape huge with possibility, and all places, both distant and urban, will be quiet enough to reveal the singing of a multitude of birds. The only sounds humans add to the landscape will be those that can improve on silence, and we will improve on silence often with our music and our words.

You might choose not to travel far, for transportation will never be both cheap and fast again—though either alone remains a possibility. What that limitation means for you is that the friends of your childhood will be the village of your parenting and the tribe of your old age. And yet no parochialism will limit you, no minority identity will isolate you, for you will reach across distances with radio, with microwave transmission, and with the internet. This world of yours is primitive in the best way, but in no other way could it be called so. Your technology keeps your future on its toes.

In this world of slow, deliberate movement, of precious, careful cargo, the products of your hands will be art, and the tools of your trade will be art, and the objects of your daily life will also be art, and nothing you make or buy or sell will be made to be thrown away. Your hands will be powerful and your mind strong, for should a tyrant arise among you the scope of the king’s jurisdiction or the industry boss’s beat will never reach farther or faster than your capacity to organize. You and your colleagues and neighbors shall have the world, for to the mighty you will be the world, no outsources will be economic, no offshoring will be available, and you will negotiate and win.

You will set your table with local fare in season, but neither will you fear the fortunes of the weather, for if the crops fail, or if the harvest already home is lost, help will come with the speed of clean electricity, the power of biodiesel, the focused intelligence of the latest, most complex computers possible. Your doctors will work wonders with medicines as yet undiscovered and surgical techniques as yet unsuspected. New organs will grow in nutrient baths, bones will be printed to order, new nerves will knit together across old scars and the lame will walk and the halt shall dance.

For the losses imposed by limitation shall be only that which you are happy to lose anyway, the ugly, the cheap, the slapdash. What is important to you to keep, you will keep and improve upon a thousand times. And in the opening created by that limitation shall grow the unlimited, and in the space after the ending of the un-checked, you shall have the endless. You gave given up the dross and slag and kept the treasure. Because you have let go your grasping after chaff, the good wheat is yours, forever.

There is no wound that cannot eventually heal. There is no moment that is not better than more dire moments as an opportunity to turn the world around.

I have a dream today.


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The Things That Work

Well, Hawaii is exploding, the Southeast is flooding, parts of the Northeast may have been hit by tornadoes, there was softball-size hail breaking windshields somewhere or other, and I can’t get a decent internet connection today so I can’t research and write to you about any of it.

Why not? Well, my home connection is slow right now and wind and rain prevented my heading into town. Nothing dramatic, merely annoying.

I doubt Hawaiian volcanism has anything to do with climate change, but as to the rest of it, if you’re under any of this craziness, ask yourself when was the last time it rained that wasn’t a flood or a tornado or something of the kind? When I was a kid, we used to have normal rains sometimes. Really, we did.

But, like I said, I can’t research anything at the moment. So instead I’m going to tell you about raking.

At the campground where we’re volunteering, most people who need to go from one end of the campground to another drive. In fairness, it’s a pretty big campground, so walking it can take a while. Also, staff often have things to carry, such as ladders, trash bins, or firewood, that would be difficult or impossible to carry by hand. But mostly I think the driving happens because it’s just what you do. It’s a collective habit.

It’s not my habit, but then again I make a point of doing things my way, and I can do that because I am a volunteer. I have more leeway than some.

But today some of us were raking out sites and I tried to talk the others into walking it, in order to avoid using the gas.

There was reluctance. The main concern was what if some of us were needed elsewhere quickly? I suggested biking. That wouldn’t be good enough in some circumstances, but no one of us was on call for anything more serious than possibly having to go to the office and talk with some volunteers. But you can’t bike with a rake. Ok, well the people who aren’t on call can walk and carry the rakes for the people who are on call, who will ride bicycles. In the end, we just walked it and did our raking and everything was fine.

And this is the way it works.

You might have a goal that seems unpleasant or impossible—get to work without driving, cut your electricity bill in half, quit eating beef (a major greenhouse gas emitter), switch to eating all-local food. Whatever it is, it sounds good, but if only you could, right?

Ok, break down the objections. Why can’t this work? What is the hold-up? Be specific.

Now, address each concern. Maybe you work too far away, maybe you heat with electricity and its cold out, maybe you really like beef, whatever it is. The thing about problems is they have solutions. Assume there is a solution and find it or create it. Brain-storm, plot, plan, network, follow up on leads, find the solution. And then you can accomplish your goal.

Do all problems really have viable solutions? Probably not, but you’ll be surprised by how many do if you just make up your mind to look. The key is don’t just say “that’s impossible/unpleasant/impractical” and leave it there.

The same process, of breaking down reluctance into a series of discrete problems, then looking for solutions, can work on a community-wide scale, too. Want a bike trail? A farmer’s market? Curbside recycling? A safe place for kids to play? Figure out why you can’t do it, and then figure out how you can.

Might work on the national scale, too.