The Climate in Emergency

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


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The Lonely Search for Purity

The other day, I threw a stink bomb into the middle of an online forum.

I didn’t exactly mean to do that, I meant to start a conversation, but I knew the conversation might prove contentious. I was OK with that. I did not expect the contention to be as depressing as it was–I had intended to get people talking, but what I got was more evidence that when people talk, no one listens.

I have serious concerns that when I describe this conversation, readers will get distracted by the details and get angry and again stop listening. I had considered writing this post in a vague way, in order to prevent such distraction, but vague enough to disguise the original issue is too vague to make much sense, so I’m simply going to have to risk it.

OK, here we go. Stay with me, people.

I’m talking about the Women’s March, which lost a lot of support recently when it got out that one of the organizers of the march admires Louis Farrakhan, who is both a noted civil rights leader and a vocal anti-Semite. I threw my stink-bomb by commenting that unless the Women’s March itself is anti-Semetic, this tenuous connection to Farrakhan is irrelevant.

BOOM!

I won’t march with an anti-Semite!

You white women are using this as an excuse to exclude us from OUR march!

What makes you think she is an anti-Semite? Where’s your evidence?

You non-Jews wouldn’t be so calm if this were about misogyny or homophobia!

You’re all being ridiculous! Forgive and forget! We all need to work together!

Do you even know what you’re talking about?

What’s so hard about don’t march with anti-Semites?

Of course, these are not exact quotes, I’m just summarizing the general range of comments on the thread. The important point is that none of these people were listening to each other, and few if any were really listening to me. As far as I could tell, everyone had simply retreated into absolutist positions, responding to what they thought others were saying, if they responded to others at all.

For example, no one on the thread identified themselves as a gentile, so “you non-Jews” was an assumption. And no one engaged with the suggestion, made by at least one commenter, that there might be some underlying racial complexity being overlooked.

Certainly, no one engaged with my original point, which was not that anti-Semitism is benign (it’s not), but rather that accomplishing anything important requires allies, and allies must be chosen (or rejected) intelligently and thoughtfully, not on the basis of knee-jerk reactions and blanket condemnation.

On to Climate

Absolutism–including the search for ideological and moral purity–is a feature (or rather, a bug) of human thought generally, or at least of the parts of humanity that I frequent. I suspect the root cause is our tendency to seek the simple, the complexity of actual reality be damned.

And there is no way to do much good if your starting principle is to ignore reality.

We see the problem in the environmental movement often. Most pervasive, maybe, is the concept of “going green,” where certain products or activities are said to be “green,” and people assume that by doing or buying these things they can save the planet. Reality is more nuanced. The “right thing” is context-dependent. “Green lifestyles” can be pointless or even harmful to the planet, if entered into thoughtlessly.

Then there are the absolutists who, for example, insist that anyone who really cares about climate change must be a vegetarian. While it’s true that meat-heavy diets have much larger carbon footprints, there are people with special circumstances to consider, and there are other people who, yes, really don’t have any excuse, but they eat meat anyway and do good work, and do we really want to reject their efforts out of hand?

Finally, there are the cultural, economic, and racial issues that have a dramatic effect on how and why people do what they do–and yet tend to be ignored by at least some people in the environmental movement. Vilification and alienation result.

If we’re going to win this thing, we need all the help we can get–including the help of people who might be doing things we consider wrong in other contexts. Some of these differences are going to be the kind that dissolve with better communication and more understanding, but some won’t be. Remember, Churchill and Roosevelt worked with Stalin to defeat Hitler. Imagine if they had not?

Listen. Think. Black-and-white thinking is not green.

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What Walls Between Us

So, about this wall.

In case you don’t know (I do have overseas readers, and I assume American politics are not front and center of your daily lives), the United States currently lacks a functional Federal government. For reasons beyond me, if one Federal budget expires before the next one is approved, the US government suddenly becomes unable to spend any money. Most of its functions shut down, those few workers considered absolutely necessary work without pay, and chaos gradually descends on the country until Congress and the President quit playing chicken and pass a new budget.

Seriously, I don’t understand–why doesn’t Congress pass a new law saying that if the new budget is not approved on time, the old one stays in force until replaced? It’s not like government shut-downs save anybody any money. Nobody really wins, except (maybe) at chicken.

Anyway.

The issue this time is the wall that Mr. Trump promised his followers and now can’t admit was only a rhetorical device. Democrats–and some Republicans–do not want to approve money for the wall, arguing that it will do nothing to stop illegal immigration (most of what Mr. Trump says about border security is factually incorrect) and that the money is better spent on other issues.

While I’m personally concerned about many aspects of the situation, the one I’m most qualified to talk about is the one I see getting little attention in the news.

Basically, voices are being raised to the effect that Democrats ought to compromise and fund the wall in order to get the government back on–the assumption being that while there is strong evidence that the wall would be a pointless waste of money, the wall itself would only be useless. And that’s not true.

Long border walls are environmental disasters.

What’s Wrong with a Wall?

A continuous wall along the US/Mexico border would cause a whole series of environmental problems. Here is a brief review of a few of them.

Construction

Building a long wall would be an enormous construction project, especially in remote areas that lack roads, storage facilities, and other necessary infrastructure, all of which will have to be built. That’s a lot of disruption in the wilderness–cutting of plants, compaction of soils, increased erosion, dead wildlife–which will be all the worse because the Department of Homeland Security is exempt from environmental laws. That means if the wall is routed through the last breeding ground of some endangered species, so what.

Carbon

Exactly what the carbon footprint of Trump’s wall might be depends on the final design and it’s actual length (there is a lot of wall on the border already), but it’s sure to be huge. That’s because the wall would likely be made out of either concrete and steel or steel alone, and both are very carbon-intensive materials. I’ve seen estimates as high as 7.6 million metric tons of CO2.

And that’s not counting the carbon cost of construction, or of changes in infrastructure necessitated by the presence of the wall, like re-routing traffic.

That’s a big climate impact, for a wall that won’t even accomplish its intended purpose.

Location

The wall is scheduled to go through multiple wildlife sanctuaries, environmentally sensitive areas, a famous butterfly sanctuary, and other places that shouldn’t be destroyed. And destroyed they would be–remember, we’re not just talking about the wall itself, but also the construction zone around it, a literal swath of death.

While construction zones do generally re-wild afterwards, there are places that are unusually sensitive or unusually important that either require special damage mitigation or shouldn’t be constructed in at all. The wall will not respect such places. It will simply follow the border.

Flooding

Border walls, and even fences, cause flooding. We know that because there is a lot of border wall up already, and it has caused floods. Even if the wall has an open design that allows water to pass, floating debris will soon clog up the openings and block water.

Divisions

Walls are very bad for wildlife. Not only do walls cause problems for individual animals, who may have food on one side of the wall and water on the other, for example, but walls divide breeding populations. Not only might a small population go extinct because of inbreeding, but if it does, the area can’t be re-colonized if the remaining populations are on the other side of the wall.

There is a whole area of ecology concerned with the size, shape, and location of animal habitat, and the message is clear; two small places (with a wall between) simply aren’t as good as the one big place was before the division happens. When boundaries go up, the number of species goes down.

There are 93 endangered species threatened by the planned border wall. There may be others that are doing fine now, but will be endangered by the wall.

Extinction can take a long time, sometimes decades. While some might hope Trump’s wall will be taken down again fairly soon, before it can do much damage, walls can divide wildlife even after they no longer exist.

During the Cold War, the border between East Germany and West Germany was heavily fortified, and animals avoided the border–not only could they not cross it, but the border must have been very noisy and frightening. That wall doesn’t exist anymore. The border doesn’t exist anymore, hasn’t for thirty years.

But at least one species of deer still acts as though it’s there.

Roe deer learn ranging patterns from their mothers and only rarely depart from traditional patterns as adults. They evidently don’t question why the traditions are what they are, they just do as they’ve been taught, and they teach their young to do the same. So even though no roe deer is left alive who actually saw or heard the fortification, the deer keep acting as though the boundary is still real. If that division damaged the deer in any way, the damage is still being done.

Sometimes when you cut something, you can’t put it back together.

The Wall and the Climate

It’s also worth noting that while the wall itself would cause environmental disaster, it is also ostensibly intended to solve a problem caused by environmental disaster.

Today’s immigrant crisis is new, not because more people are coming north (actually, fewer people are), but because these aren’t young men seeking better-paying jobs. These are families with children trying to stay alive. Many of them are not even illegal immigrants–they’re asylum seekers. They’re running from various forms of crisis, from the personal (domestic abuse) to the societal (gang violence), but a major part of the problem is agricultural and economic collapse caused by drought and other extreme weather in Honduras and its neighbors.

What’s causing the bad weather? Climate change, of course.

No one willing to take their children  from Honduras to the United States on foot is going to be stopped by a wall. The level of desperation implied by such an act cannot be underestimated. Probably, nothing can stop them, not unless the United States becomes not worth living in, either. Until and unless that happens, there will be more of them. And more. If we were in their shoes, we’d do anything to survive, too.

If this country is serious about not being over-run by climate migrants, we have only three options:

  1. Prepare ourselves to accept large numbers of migrants without disruption
  2. Help Honduras (and any other country in trouble) so that it can keep its own people healthy and safe
  3. Stop anthropogenic climate change.

President Trump  wants $5 billion for the wall. How far would that money go towards programs to shift our country off of fossil fuel?

Call your Congresspeople.


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The Carbon Footprint of a Beagle

So, we just got a beagle.

We already had one beagle, but after the death of her co-dog (a Lab/pit mix) last month, she’s been lonely, so we got her a companion. His name is Reilly, and he is sweet and affectionate and already causing trouble in his distinctively charming and beaglish way.

This seems like a good time to cover a topic I’ve been interested in for a while, the relationship between climate change and pets

The Carbon Footprint of Pets

Turns out, there have been serious scientific studies of the carbon footprint of dogs and cats. Results vary, but the general consensus tends to be that pets, collectively, have a large carbon footprint because there are a lot of them and dogs and cats eat mostly meat, which is a carbon-intensive food.

There are a couple of interesting points, here.

First, these studies may be studies of the carbon footprint of pet food, not pets. One research team is quoted as having looked at dog food only, based on the assumption that other aspects of dog care have minimal impact. Their assumption may be correct, but personally I’d like to see a study that examined all aspects of dog (and cat) care so we could check the accuracy of that assumption. I’m also amused by their conclusion, that big dogs have a larger carbon footprint than small dogs, since big dogs eat more. Personally, I’m not sure why anyone would assume the non-food aspects of dog care have minimal impact (a complicated question involving lots of data most of us don’t have) but then perform and publish a formal study on whether big dogs eat more than small dogs do.

Second, sorting out the carbon footprint of food may be trickier than it appears. For example, pet food is often made, in part, from meat by-products, which humans can’t eat. By-products are essentially waste for which a market has been created, stuff that would not exist if the primary product (muscle meat for human consumption) were not being produced. So is it really fair to assign the carbon footprint of the meat by-product to the dog who eats it rather than to the human whose demand for steaks created that steer in the first place?

The carbon footprint of food can vary a lot, as we know from studies of human diets. For example, beef and lamb are much more carbon-intensive than chicken. I’d like to see a detailed break-down of several different kinds of pet food and the different aspects of their production.

To Pet or Not to Pet

What does the question “what is the carbon footprint of a pet?” really mean? We could ask about the carbon footprint of Reilly and what we, his guardians, can do to make him a “greener” dog. Alternatively, we could be asking about our own carbon footprint and whether not having Reilly would make my husband and I “greener” people.

And since Reilly’s personal impact on the climate would presumably be about the same no matter who had him, the latter question really boils down to the draconian “should Reilly be alive?”

In a similar spirit we might debate, or refuse to debate, the lives of human children. Indeed, since humans have huge carbon footprints, especially in the so-called “developed” world, some list “having a child” as the worst thing a person can do to the planet, even worse than airplane travel, car travel, or eating meat.

My husband and I don’t have children, and environmental impact is part of the reason, but phrasing the decision as a measurable reduction of our carbon footprint as a couple seems very wrong.

What if the child in question were the next generation’s Rachel Carson?

The very idea of reducing a child to a carbon footprint is offensive. Reducing Reilly in such a way is less so, but still pretty bad.

But Haven’t There Always Been Dogs?

There is an argument to be made for having fewer dogs and cats in total. Their collective environmental impact is not negligible, and most humans could get along without them quite well (I said most, not all). But if all dogs and cats suddenly vanished, would the carbon footprint of humanity really shrink? Or would some other use be found for meat by-products?

Perhaps more to the point, would climate change really slow?

This whole line of questioning reminds me of cows. There is an argument to be made for having fewer head of cattle, too, after all, since their environmental impact is quite large, and we can eat other things. But when I brought up such an argument a while back, a friend of mine posed an interesting question; haven’t there always been cows?

And yes, cows are not new. I’m fairly sure there are a lot more now than there used to be, but surely before the modern mountain of moo there were other ungulates, bison and caribou, antelopes and takhi and quagga, to take up the slack.

Ok, those last two aren’t exactly ruminants, but you get the point. The only way large herds of cattle could actually change the climate would be if the total number of ruminants, domestic or otherwise, had grown–and how would such increased stock find enough to eat if something else hadn’t changed?

The same question applies to dogs and cats. If these animals have not simply replaced their wild counterparts but actually exist now in excess of the total historical animal mass, where did the excess food come from and why isn’t it accounted for in the historical carbon balance, where the carbon each animal releases came ultimately from plants and returned to plants again for no net change?

Some other source of energy must be fueling the swelling populations, something from outside the old balance–fossil, presumably, in one way or another. In other words, if the total population of dogs (or cattle or humans) has grown too large for the planet, it is a symptom, not a cause, of our problem.

As useful as carbon footprint calculation can be, it’s possible to get lost in the weeds here and miss the larger picture, which is that the climate is changing because the concentration of greenhouse gasses is rising, period.

Reilly can’t introduce additional carbon to the system. He just can’t. If he is alive because of such an introduction, his death at some shelter would not begin to solve the problem.

Take Home Messages

Yes, certainly it makes sense to feed pets the most climate-friendly diet possible. And people who are bound and determined to buy a pet from a breeder might seriously consider a little vegetarian, like a rabbit, instead of a big carnivore, like a retriever–shift the market in a more climate-friendly direction.

But you are not going to fight climate change by not getting that beagle from the shelter.

Let’s keep our collective eye on the ball, the ball being to get off fossil fuel completely as soon as possible. Only then can we fix the problem that causes all the other problems.


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New Year’s New Round-Up

A new year begins and, as become semi-traditional for me, I want to do a re-cap of climate-related stories from over the past twelve months. I’m making no attempt at a complete, exhaustive summary, just a fairly casual look back at the-year-that-was.

January

January 2018 offers an interesting example of the importance of framing. One way to tell the story is that global temperature fell slightly due to a La Niña event; the month was cooler than the previous three Januaries, and also cooler than January of 2007. The other way to tell the tale is that four of the five warmest Januaries in 138 years of record-keeping all occurred in a row–and the fifth was only 11 years ago.

Both statements are true, but which sounds more ominous? Actually, the fact that a La Niña year could still crack the top five is pretty ominous, too.

The month also featured various instances of political climate denial (including the State of the Union speech, which I refused to watch and only read about later) and various instances of extreme weather, notably in New Zealand, which had several severe storms and heat waves.

February

February was again warmer than most Februaries in recorded history, but cooler than several recent Februaries. “Unprecedented” heat waves in the Arctic caused blizzards in Europe while parts of the American East Coast cracked 76° F. (due to atmospheric instability caused by climate change, as we’ve covered here before).

March

Did you know it’s impossible do find news about climate from the month between February and April? “Climate March” means something else to the algorithm….

March was the month my area got hit with four nor’easters in a row, though–and there was almost a fifth. That was pretty weird.

April and May

April was again either notably warm or notably cold, depending on framing. At the end of the month, and continuing into May, was the Bonn Climate Conference for discussing details of how the Paris Climate Agreement will work, as well as an informal discussion of each party’s progress. This meeting is one of two annual international climate conferences. One is for setting overall policy, while this one is for discussing issues and questions that such policy decisions bring up.

I remember being surprised to hear about this conference, as I’d seen no coverage of it until it was actually in progress.

May was also notable for lots of extreme weather events all over the planet, much of it involving flooding. The Ellicott City floods were my local example here–those rains were just the beginning of the worst year for farming for parts of Maryland in living memory.

June

June 2018 tied with 1998 for third-warmest on record–but 1998 was an El Niño year. They’re supposed to be warm, and that year set new records for warmth, including a record for warmest June that was only broken by 2015 and 2016. 2018 was a La Nina year and supposedly cool. Something is wrong when your cool year is as warm as the year that set the record for heat 20 years earlier!

July

Heat waves, floods, and fires (remember the fires?) swept across large portions of the planet this month and no less a source than USA TODAY (hardly considered a radical paper) reported that climate change definitely had a role in the devastation. The story interviewed scientists from Stanford and UCLA. It’s getting real….

August

August saw a flurry of articles, including in the mainstream press, about people everywhere starting to take climate change seriously. The month also saw the publication of a government report about how bad our situation really is, and the zeitgeist appeared to notice the report and, collectively, gasp. Better late than never, perhaps.

September

September, according to a quick internet search, was the month of lots of nation-wide, coordinated demonstrations and actions for our climate! Unfortunately, no one seemed to notice at the time. The events weren’t publicized in any way that got on my radar, which I found disturbing and bizarre. I wrote about the weird silence early in the month, but appear not to have known about events later in the month at all. I did not attend any, nor did I react to them in print.

October

In early October, the IPCC released a report warning that we have only 12 years to avert climate catastrophe, much less than everybody had thought, and again the world went Gasp! I’m surprised to hear we have that long, but I’m pleased to see more people noticing and talking about the problem seriously.

November

This month saw another flurry of articles in mainstream news media about the real and present danger of climate change–a big contrast with earlier in the year, when the name of the month, plus “climate change” yields only reports on temperature records and articles from a few environmentalist blogs. The release of another dire government report, this one on the economic and social impacts of climate change, is no doubt related to the surge in interest.

December

The last month of the year brought another international climate conference and another flurry of climate concern in the mainstream media. I don’t mean to sound trite–the fact that the media seem to have woken up is excellent news, even as other news coming out of these conferences and reports is worse and worse.

I have spent most of this past year in an ongoing slump for various reasons, personal and otherwise, and there hasn’t been much in the way of reason for hope, in my view, in any of these twelve months. But the fact that the story of the year can be told as a tale of dramatically increasing interest in climate change by the news media–a trend I’d thought I’d noticed and I’m glad to see it confirmed–might be the best news of the year.