The Climate in Emergency

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


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Covering Climate Coverage

CNN recently posted a striking summary of major wildfires and heat waves around the world, including the US, Canada, Sweden, Japan, and Greece. There is also major heat and drought in the British Isles, literally changing the color of these countries as seen from space. This is all not to mention recent, dangerous flooding in the US and Japan.

It’s been a rough July for a lot of people.

The standard line is always that while climate change causes more, and more severe, extreme weather, individual weather events cannot be attributed to climate change. I have reason to believe that’s not always true, as I have detailed several times on this blog. In recent years, though, I’ve become less interested in specific extreme weather events, and more interested in the pattern of extreme weather as a whole–while it certainly seems like our planet is getting more extreme weather than it used to, it’s also possible it’s just making the news more frequently. After all, some extreme weather has always been normal. Humans are notoriously bad at intuiting such things (many people insist we’re in a national crime wave when the opposite is true, for example), that’s why we invented statistics. So, how abnormal is our current spate of abnormal weather?

I’ve asked that question before, but was unable to find an answer.

Now, I have another question; irrespective of whether climate change is behind this particular difficult July, are major news outlets covering this as a climate story?

Reviewing the News

A few weeks ago, Media Matters published a study showing that broadcast media coverage of heat waves at the end of June and the beginning of July rarely mentioned climate change–CBS had the one lone exception for the period–and that the mainstream media generally under-cover climate change.

I’ve just done my own quick study, covering the month of July, and including all weather-related disasters (not just heat waves), and three newspapers, Accuweather, and The Weather Channel, as well as broadcast media sites–and in the case of the latter, in most cases I’m looking at articles posted on their websites, not stories that aired. Prior searches suggest that media outlets may be slightly more willing to cover climate on their websites than on air, so if anything my survey overestimates what was aired.

For each of several mainstream sources where Americans might get climate-related news, I searched online for the name of the organization and “climate change July 2018.” I ignored articles about climate politics and anything posted before July 1st of this year. I looked specifically for articles that discussed current events in weather in the context of climate change.

CNN

CNN post an excellent article putting this summer’s extreme weather in context and including a copy of an important graphic I’ve seen elsewhere explaining how slight changes in average temperatures translate to major increases in extreme heat.

FOX News

Nothing about the weather and climate change, but their site did run an AP story on Pope Francis’ call for climate action. In June there were several other solid AP articles on climate issues.

NBC News/MSNBC

Nothing, although there were a few articles on climate change earlier in the year.

ABC

Nothing from the American Broadcast Company. The Australian Broadcast Company is doing some interesting things, though.

CBS

The website of a local CBS affiliate (CBS8) ran a USA Today story on a recent study linking increasing suicide rates to climate change. The main CBS website ran an AP story on melting glaciers.

PBS

PBS  Newshour summarized the recent heat waves–but didn’t mention flooding–and briefly mentioned that scientists connect the heat to climate change. There was also a story on the social and economic impact of climate change in Afghanistan. These were on-air pieces, not web-only articles. WNET, New York’s PBS station, has produced a series on climate change, airing through July, although none of the topics appear to address the context of current weather.

BBC

BBC’s website has posted several climate-related stories this month, but none directly addressed current extreme weather as an aspect of climate change.

The Weather Channel

You’d think so, but nope. There were some climate-related articles earlier in the year, though.

Accuweather

Nope, not either. There are several stories about climate topics, but none about the context of July’s weather. There is a video about the heat wave listed under the “Climate Change” heading, but it doesn’t mention climate change.

NPR

NPR has a series on climate change that has been airing through July, but does not address the context of July’s weather. Neither do the several other climate-related stories on the site.

The New York Times

The New York Times has published several interesting climate-related articles, but none focus on contextualizing the current weather–at least one article on current natural disasters did briefly acknowledge the role of climate change, though.

The Washington Post

The Washington Post published an editorial calling for workplace protections from heat in light of climate change, though it did not mention current weather events.

USA TODAY

USA TODAY has an excellent article on climate change in Pakistan, and an article about a study showing that humans have definitely made summers hotter. And then there was its aforementioned piece on suicide rates and an article with some very bad climate news. But nothing contextualizing the weather. Their article summarizing recent floods and fires and droughts does not mention climate change.

Thin Coverage

Basically, unless you’re watching CNN (and this is assuming that CNN broadcast something similar to its article–it might not have), you will have missed the big story about climate this July so far, unless you connect the dots yourself, or go beyond the mainstream media. PBS and the New York Times each acknowledged the connection between current disaster and climate change, but both mentions were easy to miss. PBS used language distancing itself even then, quoting unnamed scientists, rather than simply reporting the scientific fact (if they treated meteorology that way, they’d say “scientists claim that much of the Earth was unusually got this week.”)

The big question–whether the extreme weather this July has been unusual, or just run-of-the-mill for a variable planet–was nowhere addressed. Nowhere.

I’m struck by a couple of things. First, PBS and NPR are not outliers on this particular question. Neither is Fox News. Though these organizations may have real editorial differences, neither lived up to stereotype this time. The reluctance to cover climate seems simply to be general.

Second, and perhaps more important, many of these organizations DID cover other climate-related stories well this month–but only in ways that framed the problem as something that happens in another place or another time or another context. Nobody addressed what should be the obvious question; is what’s happening this week, to me (or any of their target audience) part of the climate change story?

Is it any wonder the climate sanity movement has stalled when no one acknowledges that the problem is personal?

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A Fiction Interlude

Here is another excerpt from a novel I’m working on. It’s set in the future, so you may notice some oddities, such as the narrator not being sure the readers know what dimes are, but it can basically stand on its own.-C.

As I’ve said, the main building sat—or, I suppose, still sits—on a bit of a hill, so that while the main entrance is at ground level, the back door of the same floor opened onto a second-story balcony. This same geography required that what was basement on one side of the building was a ground floor, complete with windows, on the other. The underground portion of the basement was divided into a utility room, a laundry room, and the school’s large root cellar. You need a large root cellar to feed two hundred-some people through a Vermont winter. The front portion, with the windows, was a long, narrow space that serves both as student lounge and library.

There is no librarian, or, rather, the school’s librarian (her name was Adrianne) had no desk or station within the library. To check out a book, you wrote your name and the book’s name down on a clipboard by the door, and if the book wasn’t back by the time she re-shelved on Sunday, she’d charge you. Everything else about the library was on the honor system. You could eat lunch in there while reading, and some people did.

Besides books and the student computers and printers, that long, low, cool room contained chairs and sofas and a pool table with an optional table tennis top, and plenty of ash trays and fire safety notices, because the staff had long ago seen the futility of trying to prevent students from smoking pot in there. Two large jugs of water stood always full, so that if you brought your own mug you needn’t fear going thirsty while you did your homework, but all other refreshments were strictly bring-your-own. Sometime in my first year I had picked up the habit of reading or writing or daydreaming in the chair second-closest to the door, and by the time the beginning of my second fall trimester rolled around, I thought of that chair and the space immediately around it as my office.

Which is all a way of leading up to the fact that in mid-September, who should step into my “office,” but Saul.

I hadn’t seen him in the better part of a year. I jumped up from my chair, and he saw me and gave me a smile of surprised pleasure. Of course, he hadn’t known that corner of the library had become my primary haunt. He gathered me into one of his wonderful hugs and I had the irrational sense of being glad to be home—as though I, and not Saul, had returned from somewhere.

“I didn’t know you were back,” I told him, when we disengaged. We each sat down, he flopping into the chair by the door with the relief of the exhausted. The day was dangerously hot out, the dim library a cool refuge, and I took the liberty of lifting his mug from his hand and filling it with water.

“Thank you,” he said, and took a long drink. “I only just got here.”

“Didn’t you get back earlier last year?”

“Yeah. Last year some things fell through so I just came back early.” He took another long drink and leaned back against the wall behind his chair. “Jeez, it did not used to get so hot in New England.”

He was still in his traveling clothes, a light-weight kilt and a short-sleeved, collared cotton shirt that would have been stylish had it not been sweat-stained. He had the top of the shirt unbuttoned, and I could see a little gold medallion, smaller than a dime, if you’ve ever seen a dime, hanging from a thin, gold chain amid the black curls of his chest hair. I found out later that the medallion bore the image of a butterfly, and that he never took it off, though he never wore it outside his shirt where people could see it, either. He took off his hat and sighed the sigh of the overheated.

“They say it’s an advantage in the winter, though,” I offered.

“If you like ice storms, sure,” he replied, and lifted his head to look at me. “Cold. We could deal with the cold. We knew how. What we have now are rapid freeze/thaw cycles all winter long. That’s why we’ve lost the paper birches and, ironically, why we’re losing some of the southern orchard species, too. How many years is it we haven’t had a decent peach? God. God damn those idiots all to hell. This is a different world, now, and a poorer one. They could have prevented this, but they didn’t.”

“I know you’re right,” I told him, “but the climate doesn’t seem that different to me. I mean, I’m young, but I’m not that young. I remember Before.”

“Oh, it’s different, trust me. Even in the…how old are you?”

“Nineteen.”

“In the past nineteen years, there have been a lot of changes. But people don’t notice, or they don’t notice that they notice. There’s a hot day, but people don’t put it in context because they don’t expect there to be a context. Actually, I think that’s part of the reason to tell stories.”

“Oh?”

“Yeah. A narrative frame allows people to put what they experience in context, tells them what is significant and how, what to pay attention to, what to remember. We are living the story of global warming. And you and I know how to follow the plot.”

“So, that’s storytelling as reminder, again,” I ventured, thinking back to our conversation about what seanachis do. “The story affirms what is significant, tells people that certain experiences are real and worth caring about?” I was thinking of all the Yom Kippurs I hadn’t even noticed over the years, because Alicia didn’t think they were worth noticing. Hearing a maggid or two preach in the market some year would have helped, but of course there were none.

Saul looked at me, thoughtfully, and declared that I had a point.


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Let’s Get Personal

The news is full of record-breaking heat-waves, torrential rains, mandatory evacuations because of wildfire, and the remnants of Hurricane Beryl just hit Dominica–which wouldn’t be so bad, since the storm had weakened considerably, except a lot of people there are still living in houses without real roofs since Hurricane Maria last year. All pretty normal, these days. But instead of the usual big-picture posts I usually make on these subjects (such as this one and this one and this one), I’d like to talk for a bit about someone I actually know.

I haven’t asked his permission to write about this, so I’ll keep his identity strictly under wraps–but he’s a real person, not  composite or a hypothetical character.

He’s a farmer. He has a very large farm which he typically puts into corn and soybeans, and then a cover crop in the winter. The corn and soybeans mostly become animal feed. He participates in a number of conservation programs, though he does not use organic methods. He usually makes a pretty good living for himself.

This year will likely be an exception.

In the spring, he got his corn planted, but then it all washed away in a series of torrential rains. So, he re-planted his corn, and started planting his soybeans. Then a serious drought developed and his crops are dying all over again. And, because of a technicality, much of what he has lost is not going to be eligible for crop insurance. Planting costs money and takes time (a lot of time–it’s a big farm), but he can’t not plant, despite expecting a total loss now on all his crops, because otherwise he won’t be eligible for the cover crop program. So he expects to lose money this year, and there’s not a whole lot he can do about it.

Since he normally makes a good living, one bad year is not going to break him. He’ll be ok. But the situation is a giant headache, and of course there is always the risk that multiple forms of bad luck could happen at once. He’s vulnerable right now, and that sort of vulnerability is never fun.

The spring floods were pretty definitely climate change-related, but otherwise I have no idea if this year has been a statistical anomaly relative to the historical average for his region. And I don’t intend to try to figure that out because it’s not my point.

My point is that, regardless of cause, this is what the economic repercussions of frequent extreme weather looks like–one problem following on another before you’ve quite caught up. And climate change does mean that years like this can be expected to happen more frequently. How many bust years can one farmer handle in a row? I don’t know.

One farmer having a bad year is a problem for his (or her) family and friends, but neither floods nor droughts happen to just one person at a time. Whole regions of increased crop failure stresses the crop insurance system and the food distribution system. In this case, we might see the price of chicken go up, since the birds have less available feed this year. The United States is wealthy enough that we can absorb the economic cost collectively, and those of us who are not friends with farmers will likely not notice the difference, but the cost is still real.

Given enough such costs, often enough, our absorptive capacity will eventually be compromised.

This is climate change.

 


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Independence Day

I’m re-posting this from last year, as it’s still quite timely. -C.

Happy American Independence Day.

The best of America has always been an ideal to which reality aspires in an irregular and sometimes ambivalent way. Our principle of equality has always been marred by racism, sexism, and various other interrelated isms, and yet the principle itself is valuable as a stated goal—and for much of our history, we have enjoyed a more egalitarian, and more participatory political and legal system than much of the rest of the world. It is not true that anyone can be anything if only they work hard, but hard-working people do have more latitude here than they might, as the flow of economic refuges to our borders attests. We are not the bastion of democracy that we should be, but we are the imperfect bastion that we are.

Anyone who thinks that the United States is the greatest and most perfect country on Earth has not been paying attention. But anyone who cannot tell the difference between the US and a third-world dictatorship hasn’t been paying attention either.

So, with that caveat, I’ll get to my point: the US is not currently independent.

Russia did try to get Donald Trump elected. Whether their involvement was decisive is debatable—it’s possible he would have been elected anyway. That Candidate Trump himself actually cooperated with Russian interference on his behalf has not been proved and might not be true. Yes, his public joking, during the campaign, to the effect that Russian hackers should help him is not, by itself, a smoking gun that he actually expected him to do so, or that any quid pro quo arrangement was made between the American oligarch and any Russian counterpart. That other people connected to the campaign were actively working for, or trying to work with, foreign entities during the campaign is also not proof, nor is the fact that President Trump has some odd financial ties to foreign entities (the extent of which we don’t know because he won’t release his taxes) proof. The whole thing is suspicious as all get-out, but we don’t actually know.

But the fact remains that by attempting to pull out of the Paris Climate Agreement, President Trump is acting in the interests of Russia (and Saudi Arabia) and not those of the United States. Maybe he’s doing it out of the “goodness” of his own heart, a spontaneous volunteerism with no prior planning or thought of reward, but he is acting in the interests of a foreign power.

I’ve argued previously that pulling out of Paris, and otherwise minimizing or reversing American action on climate, is the primary reason for Mr. Trump’s presidency, the true central plank of his personal platform. His rhetoric on the subject of the economy and American security, his dog-whistles to white nationalists, his consistent vocal abuse of women both individually and collectively, all of that can be chalked up to either personal proclivity or empty campaign promise. A wall on the border with Mexico would do nothing whatever to protect his constituents’ job prospects or personal safety, even if Mexico did pay to have it built. Getting out of Paris, though, is the one campaign promise he’s acted on and the only one that will actually help anyone.

It will help the owners of the fossil fuel industry.

I said that part already. What I did not point out before was the way in which acting on behalf of that industry constitutes selling out American interests in favor of those of other countries. It is true that Russia has powerful interests in oil, but so does the United States. While transnational corporations are, in some ways, independent of any country, Exxon, for example does have an American origin and the US still produces substantial amounts of coal, oil, and natural gas. It’s possible to tell this story as one of private, corporate interest, and many of the interested parties are Americans.

But the United States doesn’t need the fossil fuel industry. We have a fairly diversified economy, a highly diversified resource base, and we’re a net exporter of food. There is huge economic opportunity for us in a properly managed transition, and we’ll likely survive, or even come out ahead, as fossil fuel prices drop due to lessened demand. Russia is simply not as well prepared for the shift. Oil is its primary source of national wealth.

While I haven’t looked into what climate change will do for Russia, I don’t imagine that a rapidly warming planet is actually good for that country. And Russia did, in fact, sign the Paris Climate Agreement. But even if they don’t have less to lose that we do to a changing climate, certain elements within Russian society do have more to gain from hanging on to fossil fuel a little longer.

And we do have a lot to lose. Most of our major cities are coastal and thus vulnerable to sea level rise and a possible increase in hurricane activity. Much of our landmass is already capable of experiencing killer heat waves, and thanks to air conditioning, many of our most vulnerable citizens live in places that get dangerously hot (like Arizona and Southern Florida)—a problem that will only get worse. Increased drought and increased flooding will likely interfere with our agriculture. In many areas, our use of irrigation water is already unsustainable. The United States already gets more tornadoes than any other country on Earth, and while there is no way to tell whether climate change is increasing tornadic activity (there’s no reliable baseline data), it is a fair bet that it will. Political and economic instability in other countries caused by climate change represents a major threat to American security.

Mr. Trump is willing to risk all that for the sake of short-term economic gain—by people other than us.

I want to make very clear that I do not have anything against Russians as a people. Russia is not, at present, a free democracy, so I don’t hold its people accountable for what their leaders are doing. I also want to make clear that I’m not blaming Russia for America’s troubles. While it does seem clear we are under attack, our vulnerability to such attack is entirely home-grown. I’m only pointing out that our laws and government institutions are currently being used to protect a foreign government’s revenue stream at our expense.

242 years ago today, we told the world we weren’t going to let that happen anymore.