The Climate in Emergency

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

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A Christmas Re-Post

Today is Christmas.

Perhaps you don’t celebrate Christmas. Many people don’t–it isn’t my primary winter holiday, either, though I join the celebrations of family and friends. But chances are Christmas is on your mind today, whether you celebrate it personally or not.

There are the TV adds, the holiday specials, the new holiday movies, the incessant Christmas carols in public spaces. For example, I’ve heard “Little Drummer Boy” at least three or four times already without having sought out the song even once and I’m basically a homebody who ignores popular culture whenever possible (except as relates to climate change and a few other political and scientific issues). I am aware that some people harbor a special hatred of that over-played song.

But I kind of like it.

Actually, I really like it. That song has been known to make me cry whenever I really pay attention to the lyrics. Minus the rum-pa-pum-pums  and traditional lyrical line-breaks, here they are:

“Come,” they told me, “a new born King to see. Our finest gifts we bring to lay before the King, so, to honor Him when we come.”
“Little baby, I am a poor boy too. I have no gift to bring that’s fit to give our King. Shall I play for you on my drum?”
Mary nodded. The ox and lamb kept time. I played my drum for Him. I played my best for Him.
Then He smiled at me, me and my drum.

I mean, seriously, picture this. There’s this little boy who has this fantastic experience–mysterious grown-ups appear from some exotic place and tell him of this amazing baby–this King whose birth was announced by angels and by a new, very bright star, the subject of prophesies about the redemption of the whole world. The drummer boy probably doesn’t understand most of it, but he understands this is a Big Deal, and when the grown-ups urge him to come with them to worship and honor the newborn King, he eagerly agrees.

Except what can he give? He has no money, no expensive gifts. He’s poor and he’s just a child–compared to all these Wise Men and other important people, what can he do? He doesn’t know how to do anything except play his drum, and maybe he can’t even do that very well. Poor little drummer boys just don’t get to go visit kings. It isn’t done.

But then the child gets to see the baby, and he sees this King is actually a poor little boy just like him. They aren’t that different. And the baby is looking up at him, expectant. The drummer boy just has to give something. So he does the one thing he can do, knowing it can’t possibly be enough. He plays his drum and he plays it just as well as he can.

And it makes the baby smile.

We’re all like that, in one way or another. Most of us probably feel inadequate most of the time–I certainly do–and, frankly, in the face of global warming, we are each inadequate, at least by any reasonable definition. We don’t have enough money; we don’t have the right skills; we lack the cooperation of friends and family (or the Federal government); or we have other, competing responsibilities; or grave problems of our own to cope with. These are entirely valid excuses, real stumbling blocks, and arrayed against us is the full power and might of some extremely rich people who do not want us to get off fossil fuel at all, ever. We’re running out of time.

And yet, sometimes the universe isn’t reasonable. Sometimes one person can change the world. Sometimes one’s best turns out to be good enough after all.

May it be so for you. Merry Christmas.

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In Darkness

Now, there are even more timely climate-related topics I could write about, but I still see no way to pick one. So my plan is to use my traditional New Years year-in-review post to catch up, and in the meantime I’ll discuss the holidays a bit–Solstice this week, Christmas next week.

The winter solstice is a holiday for various groups of people, but it may be unfamiliar to others. The short explanation is that the winter solstice is the shortest day of the year. The summer solstice is the longest. Note that the winter solstice only falls in December in the northern hemisphere–in the southern hemisphere, December is late spring/early summer, and the month of their summer solstice. The days when day and night are equal are the equinoxes.  When I use the word “solstice” as the name of a holiday, I capitalize it, but not otherwise.

The reason that many different religions have holidays in December is that they either honor the winter solstice or incorporate cultural practices from earlier religions that did. Light and hope are common themes across cultures for this time of year. The usual explanation is that primitive peoples developed these traditions because they worried that the days would just keep getting shorter and then the world would be dark and cold forever. They lit fires and sang songs and so forth in order to magically strengthen the sun or to celebrate it’s “miraculous” return.

That doesn’t make sense.

While humans may once have worried about the sun in that way, they must have figured out otherwise a very long time ago. For one thing, if a people honestly didn’t know the sun was coming back, how would they know what time of year to hold their festival? Or if they believed only magic brought the sun back, why delay magical operations until the time of the solstice? Why not begin as soon as the days started to shrink?

No, they knew. Even thousands of years ago, the predictable transition from shrinking days to growing days was used as a metaphor for things that felt similar but couldn’t be predicted, such as injury, illness, famine, or the evils humans can do to each other–or sometimes triumph over.

That insight was impressed on me one night when I went backpacking alone over the solstice and found the weather much colder than I prepared for. I had planned to celebrate the holiday in solitude in the woods, a rather romantic idea that fell apart when all my water froze and I had to retreat to my sleeping bag shortly after the sun went down so I wouldn’t freeze, too. My bag was plenty warm enough, but since I didn’t know how cold the night would get, I didn’t know that. And if my bag wasn’t warm enough, I knew there wouldn’t be anything I could do about it.

That Solstice, I knew the sun would come up the next morning, but I wasn’t sure I’d see it.

And none of us really knows. My dog, CurlyQ, won’t see the sun come up Solstice morning this year–she died a week ago tonight. Day length varies. Life involves both sickness and health, both beginnings and ends, and for the most part we don’t know when or if one might turn into the other. The return of the sun carries hope for the good news we can’t predict.

What does all this have to do with climate?

I don’t know if this human endeavor is going to work out. Frankly, I think we may simply have dropped the ball as a species, and if hope still exists it is only hope–it’s a long time before we’ll get good news, if we ever do. The night of anthropogenic climate change grows long.

Religion–and the less traditional spiritual traditions–have always been, at bottom, about answering a single question; given what we know about how the world works, what do our lives mean? All the holidays of all the cultures in the world are neither more nor less than reminders of many generations’ answers to those questions.

In the face of climate change, do we need a new holiday? Or simply a new face to our old holidays, like Solstice?

What does it mean that the world we are a part of is being killed and too many people don’t care? What does that mean about our lives? How do we survive the long night?




I Can’t Even

There have been a lot of scary news stories of late, things I could talk about relative to climate concerns. In fact I’m feeling rather overwhelmed by this wealth of potential topics. Which do I cover first? How do I not fall into despair? That both my dogs are facing major medical issues right now is not helping.

But, in looking through my files, I found the following poem that seems to offer a small bit of comfort. I figure, maybe I’m not the only one who needs it?

And yes, I happen to be the author, so I can confirm that the reference to a large population was meant to imply all the environmental problems that go with a large and resource-hungry human population, including climate change.


September 23, and it’s been a day for dirges.

Nuni, my friend’s small white cat, felled by fleas

lies dead beneath a heart-shaped row of stones

while Kendra’s dog plays host to tumors,

and Kofi Annan invokes the specter of a world 9 billion strong

by 2060.

I don’t know what will become of us.

I don’t know what blood

stains the momentum of our innocence.


there must be half a dozen PhD’s in this room tonight

and just as many guitars.

These are people who should know better

than to seek comfort in laughter, drink, and song

but these are also people who know we do not know


Joni Mitchell, Dave Carter, Bob Dylan,

voices thrown in familiar elegy,

the scientists invoke the sacred

the tapping foot becomes the thumping shaman’s drum.

Though rage and grief and fear

may be implicit,

this yellow room is safe tonight.

If the Earth has a temple, we sing its hymns

and offer the ground our local beer libations

with goofy, rag-tag grace.

In this puddle of life and light and laughter

in the exposed and urban night

this open, objective eye offers

the world

its care-worn, fierce


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When a Felon’s Not Engaged

So, President George H. W. Bush is dead. Not a huge surprise, he was getting up there, and many men pass soon after losing their partner. The news is predictably filled with glowing memorials and tributes. Just as predictably, my social media is filling up with indignant complaints and reminders of all his faults.

I try to stay away from partizan politics here, as well as all legitimate controversy unrelated to climate change, so I’m going to stay as neutral as possible on Mr. Bush’s legacy. The thing is, his was not a perfect record. He presided over a military that killed civilians. He may have been involved in the Iran-Contra affair as Vice-President, and certainly pardoned people who were convicted for being involved. His impact on civil rights was mixed at best. His neglect of the AIDS epidemic and his hostility to LGBT rights were arguably responsible for many deaths.

And yet, apparently he had friends all over, including unexpected people, like Bill Clinton and Dana Carvey. Watching George W. Bush fondly pat his father’s casket on his way up to give the eulogy was heartrending.

There are those who see in the senior Mr. Bush an irredeemably reprehensible human being and in his friends mere apologists and collaborators. There are probably those who see his shortcomings as unimportant, or even as not actually shortcomings, who see him honestly as a human, but great, man.

What I see is a man of whom both good and bad things are true.

The reason I bring all this up is that after a year of variously bad climate news and two years of rather frightening climate-related politics, it’s obvious that climate change is not only caused by humans in the generic sense, but also by specific humans–lots of us–making decisions that range from inadequate to bad to criminal. Hurricanes are bigger now, forest fires are worse, heat waves threaten more people, and the richness of our living world is being lost because individual people are doing things that could have been done a different way to better effect.

There is blame, specific, pointed blame, to go around. The question is how we respond to that fact? The impulse is always to either deny the seriousness–or even the existence–of shortcomings, or to demonize the person and deny anything noble or even human about them. In either direction lies fascism.

Fascism at best. At worst, that way also lies failure to deal with climate change.

So, let’s get in the habit of recognizing the seriousness of our shortcomings, including those that are truly reprehensible, while also talking to each other like human beings. The climate is not a simple system and neither are any of us.