The Climate in Emergency

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


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Giving Ground to Climate?

Last week, I attended a presentation on climate change and the Maine coast. In general, it was an excellent presentation, but since I’m going to be somewhat critical of it here, I will not draw attention to the presenter or her employer.

There was some information in the presentation on climate science (which I’ll work into other posts), but most of the emphasis was on communication—the idea being that instead of telling people scary, alarmist stories about climate disasters, it makes more sense to give them tools to help with mitigation and leave it up to them whether to use those tools. No persuasion, in other words, and no education that might hint at persuasion. Apparently people feel more respected and less overwhelmed this way, and some start to believe climate change is real on their own, eventually.

“This is a long game,” said the presenter.

That’s when I started to boil over. I mean, we have no time for long games, for one thing, and the disaster stuff isn’t alarmism, it’s just an alarm. Did you know some researchers are pushing to add an extra class to the hurricane rating system, to account for the stronger storms that seem to be the new normal? It’s alarming. I’m alarmed. Let’s face facts, people.

Of course, there’s the old question—do you want to be right or do you want to be effective? In other words, let go of the need to win the argument, and keep your eye on the prize. There is a lot to be said for gentle non-confrontation, for respect of other people’s sovereignty and dignity…not many people can really hear you if you’re shrieking at them, even if the things you’re shrieking happen to be 100% correct and a perfectly understandable thing to shriek about.

She says her method is getting results, and that’s exactly why I held my piece in the presentation, and why I’m not identifying her or her organization right now. I don’t want to get in her way.

But at the same time, it’s worth considering that climate denial is not a natural phenomenon, not a simple matter of people needing to hear the message in a gentle and accessible way. No, climate denial is deliberately manufactured, which is why is it is virtually non-existent in countries that don’t speak English and therefore don’t get the propaganda. So, clearly the old-style environmentalist messaging works, it did work, and it worked so well that people with a different message started pushing back—quite effectively. The lesson isn’t to abandon persuasion, it’s to get better at it, because we’re not the only persuaders out here.

The other thing I think about is The Letter from Birmingham Jail, in which Dr. King famously calls white liberals out for telling black people to be less assertive in their demands for freedom and justice, as if white people might concede if only black people asked more nicely. That anyone, anywhere, achieves justice by becoming less strident about asking for it is a crock when it comes to racism, and it’s a crock when it comes to climate change, too—which, make no mistake, is also a matter of justice. Climate change is landing on the heads of the poor and the marginalized, not on those who make bank on the industrial processes that put us in this mess.

Climate denial did not become a political force because we were too strident, and it will not go away if we cease being strident. It will simply win.

What we need to do is to become smarter and more strategic in our stridency.

Yes, of course, be respectful. Ordinary people who don’t know whether climate change is real are not the enemy, and should not be treated as such. Offer solutions to problems people have, not the problems they don’t have or don’t think they have. Listen, learn, and acknowledge the importance of the collateral issues, such as race, class, and ethnicity, that can prime a person to reject a message for reasons that seem irrelevant but aren’t. Be accessible. Be empowering. Do everything and anything that experience and social science tell us might work.

But don’t take your eye off the prize.

Don’t cede ground lightly or without paying attention to the strategic value of that ground.

And don’t let your adversaries define the terms of either engagement or retreat.

For example, if you’re speaking to a group that may include climate skeptics, sure, go ahead and use some tact. Put the emphasis on issues you can agree on. Acknowledge their right and ability to make up their own mind. But do not refer to scientific controversy over what is causing climate change, because there is none. You’d just be repeating someone else’s lie. That’s an example of ceding ground without paying attention to its value—you have ceded the truth, and you’ve given your adversary the power to redefine consensus reality as needed. Do not do that.

Likewise, the suggestion that we focus only on offering tools to help with mitigation concerns me because it does nothing whatever for the fight at the ballot box—which is where the end game we’re looking at will play out. We need pro-climate government leadership, or we simply aren’t going to win this thing.

How very convenient.

I’m being strident at the moment. I’m being slightly impolitic, perhaps. But I’m deliberately speaking to the converted right now, and not to anyone else:

Yes, definitely, use whatever gentle message works for your corner of the issue, for your own specific campaign. No one can work on all fronts simultaneously, anyway. But figure out a way to be gentle and tactful without spreading climate-denier propaganda yourself and without abandoning the fight to get the climate-sane leadership we so desperately need.

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Tick, Tick, Tick, Tick, Tick

When I was little, the appearance of a tick itself was reason for alarm.

“So-and-so found a tick the other day!” Mom would announce. “Be careful!” I think I had one on me–just one–my entire childhood. I’m not sure whether there were really so few ticks, or if we were simply bad at finding them. I do know that when I moved to Maryland, I didn’t have to be good at finding the little parasites. Huge numbers of them found me.

Seriously, go for a walk in my neighborhood in the summer, and you’re likely to pull off ten or twenty just while you’re walking. When you get back to the house, strip off your clothes and find a dozen more. They won’t have had time to embed, yet, so it’s not a big deal. You just get in the habit of routine regular tick checks.

Incidentally, I don’t find the standard advice of long pants and so forth very useful. Sure, fewer ticks will make it to skin that way, but some will, and they’ll be impossible to find without taking your pants off, which the neighbors tend to frown on. So the ticks get more time in which the crawl into someplace inaccessible and bite.

My advice?

  • Wear as little clothing as possible and then investigate every tickle and itch immediately–it might be a tick.
  • Do a thorough tick check and take a shower immediately upon returning home.
  • If you walk through a tick-hatch and get zillions of the tiny things on you, don’t panic. They can’t give you any diseases because they’re babies and don’t have any diseases yet. Remove them as best you can, stick them on a length of tape so they can’t escape and bite you again, then invest in a large supply of anti-itch cream.
  • Don’t bother learning to identify different species of tick. They can all give you SOMETHING, so just avoid getting bitten by any of them, and if you get sick, go see your doctor.
  • Look up the proper way to remove an embedded tick. NEVER put anything on the tick to make it let go, because that makes the tick vomit into you first and then you’ll definitely have whatever it was was carrying.

I’m not a doctor, this is just my personal approach to the problem.

The reason I bring all this up is to make clear I am personally familiar with the density of the tick population in the mid-Atlantic region of the United States, and I am equally aware that New England has fewer of them. Don’t get me wrong, New England does have ticks–Lyme disease is named after a town in Connecticut, after all–but the problem is simply not on the same scale.

That could be changing.

There are reasons other than climate change. Tick population dynamics and the epidemiology of tick-borne illnesses are complex, inter-related topics with a lot of variables. For example, modern land-use practices, which has converted vast areas of the United States into mosaics of tiny forested patches with houses mixed in, favors white-footed mice, which are the primary hosts of deer ticks–which transmit Lyme disease. The mice, after all, can use tiny habitat patches (and houses) just fine, but their predators can’t. No foxes, no bobcats, no black snakes, no owls, etc., all adds up to oodles of mice and oodles of ticks. So, some kinds of ticks would be a bigger problem than they used to be, even without climate change.

But yes, the climate is helping.

The story is a complex one, because not only do factors other than climate influence tick populations, but the response of ticks to climate is not straight-forward. For example, ticks of the same species may become active at different temperatures in different parts of their range. All these different variables working together mean that predictions of what climate change will do to different species of ticks can disagree with each other widely. But some increases in tick-borne illnesses have been traced to climate change–so we don’t know what’s going to happen in the future, but in the present, the ticks are worse in some places already because of climate.

For example, the two species responsible for infecting people I actually know, deer ticks and lone star ticks, are both expanding their range because of climate change. Both can transmit multiple illnesses. Lone stars, named for the white spot on their backs, can give you a (possibly life-long) allergy to red meat. Without giving away any individual’s medical history, I can say I’ve seen this one, it’s quite real. And lone stars are now in all New England states, though they didn’t used to be.

(By the way, the article that I’ve linked to above describes lone stars as “hunting in packs.” I’ve seen the behavior the article is describing, and the phrase is misleading. The ticks aren’t acting cooperatively, like mini-wolves. But, unlike deer ticks, they can and do walk towards potential hosts. In my neighborhood, population densities are often high enough that half a dozen might be near enough to notice the same person, and if you stay still for a few minutes they’ll converge on you. They’re easy to avoid or remove, but it’s creepy to watch.)

And then there’s the winter ticks, which have always been in New England, but warming climates are letting their numbers surge so high that they’re literally bleeding moose calves to death.

All of which is to say that if you head north in the summer, as we do, and you notice more ticks on yourself and your pets than you used to, as we have, it’s not your imagination.


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Ellicott City

Ellicott City, Maryland flooded again, about a week and a half ago (May 27th). We are not talking about a little water in the parking lots, here—for those who haven’t seen the coverage, the streets became rapids. I’ve seen video of cars flowing along in the water, their windshield wipers beating back and forth forlornly. I keep thinking about the people in those cars. The first floors of the buildings are completely gutted. At least one man has died.

The river crested at a record 23.6 feet after rising almost 18 feet in just two hours.

What makes the flood especially upsetting for locals is that a similarly catastrophic flood all but destroyed the town only two years ago. The community was just getting itself together again, and now they have to start over again.

Since 1768, Ellicott City has flooded 15 times. Not all of the floods have been catastrophic, but the town does get wet often. It’s not just bad luck; Ellicott is an old mill town, so of course it sits in a place with plenty of water power. Three streams converge here and flow into the Patapsco River, bringing all the runoff from a large, bowl-shaped valley straight through town.

But while Ellicott City has always been flood-prone, but they haven’t always been the same kind of flood. Traditionally, the problem was the rise of the Patapsco, meaning that the floodwater would rise up into the community. Now, the smaller streams also jump their banks, which is why recent floods have roared down through the town, turning the streets into rapids.

What’s different?

Development over recent decades has increased the area of impermeable surface in the watershed dramatically, making flooding much more likely. Also, of course, there’s climate change.

As readers may know, climate change in general increases the chance of extreme weather. Rain storms are both less frequent and more intense, so that areas with no net change in rainfall get both more droughts and more floods. And in the Northeast of the United States, or, by some measures, the whole eastern part of the country, rain intensity is increasing faster than anywhere else in the country. So, yes, repeat catastrophes such as Ellicott City has suffered are part of the new normal.

(Note that we’re talking about likelihood, not possibility: for the same location to get two 1000-year floods back-to-back, as Ellicott City has, wouldn’t have been impossible under the old climate regime, because “1000-year flood” doesn’t mean once per 1000 years, but rather a one-in-1000 chance of occurrence in any year. It’s unlikely, but entirely possible, to have several in a row. The issue is whether these really were 1000-year floods; climate change and development together may have changed the odds.)

In fact, recent flooding in Maryland (an identical weather pattern developed over Frederick two weeks earlier) may have a more direct connection to warming temperatures, although this information comes from an article arguing almost the opposite point. Apparently, we have been “stuck in a late July weather pattern, one in which the jet stream has built a ridge of high pressure over the Mid-Atlantic.” But because this was May and early June, the ocean waters are still cool. The combination sends unusually wet weather into Maryland. So, while the author was quite correct in describing all of this as a local weather event, something that could occur by bad luck regardless of climate change, it is a weather event caused by the atmosphere behaving as though July had come two months early—hotter, in other words.

Yes, weather is weather and climate is climate, and it’s worth bearing the difference in mind, but when unseasonably warm weather causes record-breaking storms, it seems disingenuous to say global warming is not at fault.

But disaster is never just about climate. Ellicott City is far from being the only flood-prone area in Maryland, but most flood zones aren’t aren’t also the busy centers of quaint historic districts. So putting a city in harm’s way, and then exacerbating the harm through risky development, is definitely part of the picture.

The other major issue is that Ellicott City has been studying its flood risk and fielding proposals for mitigation since the 1970’s. Not much has been done. One proposal offered after a flood in 2011 was actually rejected by town leaders as too expensive. They changed their mind after the 2016 flood, but the work hadn’t been completed yet before the place flooded again. This historical failure to act is having serious political consequences, now.

“Natural disasters” are always the result of a combination of extreme weather (or extreme geology) and human responses to those events. The scale of the tragedy is always either compounded or mitigated by the economic wherewithal of the affected people and by political decisions about acceptable risk, acceptable loss, and how much money certain people’s lives and livelihoods are worth.

And now, climate change itself is a result of decisions, both large and small, about who or what we are going to treat as important.