The Climate in Emergency

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

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Annual Reading of Names

Here is a slightly edited version of a post I’ve used every year at this time for several years running. The link for my original source for the list isn’t working. Here is another.

Hallowe’en is coming up. A rollicking, morbid carnival, a celebration of the mortal flesh through sugar, alcohol, sex, and fake blood (if you don’t believe me about the sex, look at the women’s costumes available in stores), a blurring of identity and the thrill of things that go bump in the night.

I could write about the impact of the holiday on global warming, but that’s been done. I could write a scary story about our possible future, but that’s been done, too.

But, basically, I’m not all that interested in Hallowe’en anymore. I’ve grown out of trick-or-treat and I’m not frightened by blood, fake or otherwise. I’m more interested in the older traditions of taking a day to honor and remember the dead. This is therefore a Day of the Dead post, a Samhain post. I want to mark and honor the dead of climate change–not as a scare tactic or a self-flagellation of guilt, but simply as an act of witness. Because it is the right thing to do.

There are several possible ways to go with this. I could focus on individuals who have died of climate change, but linking global warming to particular deaths is very difficult. The result would also be too similar to my post comparing the mortality rates of climate change and Ebola. Instead, I want to honor whole species that have died. I’ve often thought that reading a list of recently extinct species names, the way the names of individuals lost to some accident or disaster are sometimes read, would be a powerful way to add an ecological dimension to Samhain. I’ve never done it, in part because finding such a list is difficult. Compiling a list of the extinct is hard, since we don’t always know a species exists before it stops existing again, and because it’s hard to be sure a whole species is really gone and not holding on in some remnant population somewhere. What lists exist seldom turn up whole on Internet searches, perhaps because many of the species on the list are plants and animals most people have never heard of.

Still, I intend to observe the Day of the Dead by formally noticing our planetary losses.

Looking for Smoking Guns

Which species, if any, have gone extinct because of climate change is a bit complicated.  I addressed the question in some depth in an earlier post, but it comes down to the difference between ultimate cause and proximate cause; if you fall off a cliff, the ultimate cause of your death is your poor footing, while the proximate cause is your impact with the ground. The problem is that the connection between those two causes is rarely as obvious or straight-forward as in that example.

Climate change as the ultimate cause of extinction might be linked with any number of proximate causes. Some of them are: drought; habitat loss (think polar bears and sea ice); the extinction or relocation of an ecological partner; and new competitors, pests, or diseases that take advantage of warmer weather. Of course, most of these problems can have other ultimate causes as well. Climate change is not likely to be the species’ only major problem–consider the paper birch, which is dying out in parts of New England because of a combination of exotic diseases, climate change, and probably the advanced age of the relevant stands (the species requires bare soil to sprout, such as after a fire or logging, and there happened to be a lot of that in New England decades ago–hence, a lot of aging birches). Against this complex backdrop, it is hard to say for certain which extinctions actually belong at global warming’s door.

Some years ago, scientists announced the extinction of the Seychelles snail, the first species known to go extinct because of climate change. Fortunately, a previously unknown population of the snail turned up recently–it’s not extinct at all (though presumably still in grave danger). Many writers have treated the snail’s resurrection as some kind of embarrassing “oops” for climate scientists, which of course it is not; the species took a huge hit because of global warming, and the fact that it’s still hanging on is great news. Confirming an extinction is very, very hard–a bit like looking for the absence of a needle in a haystack. Mistakes are inevitable, and welcome.

The golden frog and the Monteverde harlequin frog are sometimes cited as victims of climate change as well. The proximate causes of the golden frog’s demise were habitat loss due to drought and also the chytrid fungus, which could be exacerbated by climate change. Chytrid has extinguished or gravely endangered many other amphibians world-wide, so at least some of them might be considered victims of climate change as well–as could various non-amphibians, including some no one knows about yet.

But there is another way to look at all of this.

Climate change itself has a cause, and that cause has other effects. As I explained in another previous post, our burning fossil fuel has destabilized the biosphere as a whole by altering how energy flows through the system. Climate change is one consequence of that destabilization, but systemic biodiversity loss is another. That is, no matter what the proximate cause of an extinction is (whether climate itself is directly involved), the ultimate cause of this entire mass-extinction event is fossil fuel use.

We know what to do about it. You know what to do about it. If you’re an American citizen, VOTING is a major and necessary step. But this is the festival to honor the dead, and we should take a moment to do that–to remember that these are not just numbers, political statements, arguments, but actual animals and plants, whole ways of being, that will never exist again.

I did find a list of historical extinctions. You can look up the whole thing here. It is far from comprehensive, but even so it’s still too long for me to copy over all of it. I’ll just focus on those from the list that have been lost since my birth.

Pinta Island Tortoise

Chelonoidis abingdoni

Last seen, 24 June 2012

Vietnamese Rhinoceros

Rhinoceros sondaicus annamiticus

Last seen, 29 April 2010

Christmas Island Pipistrelle

(a bat)

Pipistrellus murrayi

Last seen, 27 August 2009

Chinese Paddlefish

Psephurus gladius 

Last seen, 8 January 2007

Yangtze River Dolphin

Lipotes vexillifer 

Last seen, before 2006


(a bird in Hawaii)

Melamprosops phaeosoma

Last seen, 28 November 2004

Saint Helena Olive

Nesiota elliptica

Last seen, December 2003

Vine Raiatea Tree Snail

Partula labrusca 

Last seen, 2002

Pyrenean Ibex

Capra pyrenaica pyrenaica 

Last seen, 6 January 2000

Sri Lanka Legume Tree

Crudia zeylanica

Last seen, 1998


(a bird in Hawaii)

Hemignathus lucidus

Last seen, 1998

Western Black Rhinoceros

Diceros bicornis longipes

Last seen, 1997

Aldabra Banded Snail

Rhachistia aldabrae

Last seen, 1997

Zanzibar Leopard

Panthera pardus adersi

Last seen, 1996

Swollen Raiatea Tree Snail

Partula turgida

Last seen, 1 January 1996

Golden Toad

Incilius periglenes

Last seen, 1989

Antitlan Grebe

Podilymbus gigas

Last seen, 1986

Alaotra Grebe

Tachybaptus rufolavatus

Last seen, September 1985

Eungella Gastric-brooding Frog

Rheobatrachus vitellinus

Last seen, March 1985

Kaua’i ‘O’o

(a bird in Hawaii)

Moho braccatus

Last seen, 1985

Christmas Island Shrew

Crocidura trichura

Last seen, 1985

Ua Pou Monarch

(a bird in Polynesia)

Pomarea mira

Last seen, 1985

Amistad Gambusia

(a fish, in Texas, USA)

Gambusia amistadensis

Last seen, 1984

Conondale Gastric-brooding Frog

Rheobatrachus silus

Last seen, November 1983

San Marcos Gambusia

(a fish, in Texas, USA)

Gambusia georgei

Last seen, 1983


(a bird in Hawaii)

Myadestes myadestinus

Last seen, 1983

Guam Flycatcher

(a bird in Guam)

Myiagra freycinet

Last seen, 1983

Aldabra Warbler

Nesillas aldabrana

Last seen, 1983

Galapagos Damselfish

Azurina eupalama

Last seen, 1982

Marianas Mallard

Anas oustaleti

Last seen, September 1981

Southern Day Frog

Taudactylus diurnus

Last seen, 1979

White-eyed River Martin

(a bird in Thailand)

Eurychelidon serintarea

Last seen, 1978

Little Hutia

(a rodent in Honduras)

Mesocapromys minimus

Last seen, 1978

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A Prospect Less Sweet

A friend of mine wants to know whether anyone is doing anything about sugar maples and climate change.

The issue, succinctly, is that sugar maples are a cold-climate species that only grow well in the cooler parts of North America. As climate change shrinks those areas, the range of the maples will shrink, too. That’s a problem most obviously because this is the tree that gives us maple syrup, but it also provides much of the fall color for which New England is famous–and leaf-peeping is a major driver of the tourist economy of the region. And beyond economics, sugar maples (like the also-climate-stressed paper birch) are part of the regional identity of New England (and doubtless of other regions I’m less personally familiar with).

Maple sugar sap production is already starting to drop in some areas, though the economic burden is being countered to some extent by improvements in collection methods. We’re not talking about some vague warning about the future; this is happening now.

So, my friend wants to know, are there any efforts underway to breed climate change-resistant sugar maples, just as there are efforts to breed disease-resistant American chestnut trees?

A good question.

Introducing the Sugar Maple

Let’s start by taking a look at the star of the show, the sugar maple, Acer sacharum, from whose unusually sweet sap maple syrup and maple sugar candies are made. The sap comes from the tree as sweetish water and must be concentrated by boiling (or freezing) in order to produce syrup. Further concentration allows crystallization into candy. The tree itself is large and long-lived, with furrowed bark and distinctive leaves with U-shaped sinuses (if a maple leaf is a hand, the sinuses are the parts between the fingers).

Those who aren’t plant geeks might be surprised to learn that not all maples are sugar maples, and that while some of the others also provide sweet sap, others don’t. The maples are a large group of trees native to North America, Asia, and Europe. In New England there are six native species (sugar, red, silver, mountain, striped, and ash-leafed), and at least two exotic species are also common (Norway and Japanese). The American maples all produce clear, sweet sap, though none as sweet as the sugar maple, but the Norway maple produces white, inedible sap.

The sweet sap runs in the early spring, when the plant mobilizes stores sugars in order to power the growth of leaves. It would be interesting to compare how quickly different species leaf out; is the sugar maple faster (less time fro bud-break to full leaf-out) than other trees because its sap delivers more fuel for growth?). It’s important to recognize that the sugar is food the plant stored for its own use; tapping trees stresses them, and there is a limit to how much sap a tree of a given size can spare. The sap flow itself is triggered and maintained by changes in temperature. If the winter is too warm, or if the spring does not include an extended period when nights are below freezing and days are above, the tree won’t produce. What effect reduced sap flow has on the tree’s own physiology, I haven’t learned–I don’t imagine it’s healthy.

Sugar maples are not only valuable to humans. Across much of Eastern North America, they are one of the two dominant species in older forests (the other being American beech). The trees collect calcium and concentrate it in their leaves, enriching the soil as the leaves fall and decompose, thus feeding other plants. Many animals depend on sugar maples; some are insects that feed on no other species (these insects go on to feed birds), while others are mammals and birds that use maples at certain times of year. Most charmingly, squirrels tap the trees for sugar by biting through the bark. The sap leaks out and evaporates, leaving behind sugar which the squirrels lick. Porcupines eat the leaves and buds in the early spring, when little else is available to them. Sugar maple seeds feed songbirds, squirrels, chipmunks, and mice, while the bark provides emergency food for deer, rabbits, and mice in winter. The list could go on.

Much of the above information comes from the wonderful The Book of Forest and Thicket, by John Eastman. Curiously, the author also states that sugar maple is in a decline across the southern part of its range, in part due to climate change–a striking assertion, given that the book was published in 1992.

Sugar Maples and Climate Change

A few years ago, I wrote an article imagining the climate through the lifetime of my nephew into his old age. Towards the end of the piece, I imagined him taking a vacation in Vermont with his wife and talking to a waitress who complains about the economy because the sugar maples are dying. While researching for the piece I did not find any actual discussion of sugar maples, but I did notice that the range of the sugar maple is essentially bounded by certain USDA zones, and that zones that do not currently support wild sugar maples are predicted to move north into New England by century’s end. I drew the logical conclusion.

I should have known better.

Trees, in general, have narrower germination niches than growth niches, meaning that mature trees can survive circumstances that would kill seedlings–I learned that in grad school. In practice the narrower germination niche means that species can often be grown as specimen trees in lawns and parks in places where they can’t grow in the wild. Wild trees must start from seed, whereas those growing in lawns were usually sprouted in controlled environments in nurseries, then grown for years before being balled and burlapped for sale. By the time the tree is installed in a lawn, it’s already strong enough to withstand the local conditions.

Sugar maple will grow as a specimen tree well to the south of its current range (there is one in my mother’s back yard), so climate change alone is not likely to kill New England trees–but it could prevent a new generation of maples from establishing. Neither I nor my nephew are likely to see a Vermont without its classic autumnal red and orange, but he could well live to see the last generation of wild Vermont sugar maples sprout. Three hundred years later, those few lonely trees will die of old age without heirs, if things continue as they are now.

Research supports that second, corrected vision as closer to the truth.

In Michigan, where climate change is making the growing season drier, sugar maples are growing much more slowly than they used to. The lead researcher of that study was quoted by NPR as saying that under some climate change scenarios, that region would lose its sugar maples entirely; the new climate won’t kill mature trees, but no new young trees will survive to replace them. In the meantime, trees that don’t grow well don’t produce much sap, either.

A warm spring can cut the season short, and did so in 2012, when much of New England produced dramatically less maple syrup than in previous years because of heat waves in March. Climate change promises more heat waves, and just as trees that don’t grow well don’t produce a lot of sap, it’s hard to imagine that non-productive maple trees are growing much.

A study in Vermont found that climate-related stress has, over the last several decades, been equal in severity to pests and other more well-known problems; the authors note that 50 years from now, half the state’s sugar maples could be experiencing “moderate to severe climate stress.” I’m not sure what that means in practical terms, but some dieback combined with widespread declines in productivity and a general failure to breed (except in isolated refugia with colder climates) would seem to fit the bill.

In general, climate change could lead to widespread habitat loss for sugar maples, especially under the more dire warming scenarios.

Perhaps counter-intuitively, the loss of American sugar maples won’t necessarily translate into a lot of dry pancakes, despite many headlines to the contrary. For one thing, even in New England, a lot of pancakes are already being eaten with artificially-flavored “pancake syrup.” For another, according the the paper linked in the previous paragraph, most sugar maple trees that are large enough to be tapped currently are not, and as long as we avoid the most extreme warming, it should be possible to keep production up–while the number of sugar maples will decline, producers can tap a greater proportion of those that are left.

Of course, neither pancake syrup nor expanded tapping operations will help songbirds, squirrels, or porcupines very much.

Doing Something

My friend’s question is actually two or three questions, and they don’t necessarily have the same answers.

Is anyone developing sugar maples that can survive climate change and save New England’s forests? The most obvious way to answer that question is to look at whether anyone is developing cultivars or hybrids that can tolerate the new climate now moving towards them. But if the goal is indeed to save the maple forests–and that does appear to be my friend’s interest–we must also ask whether any of these cultivars could be released into the wild and whether they would indeed do all of the things we rely on sugar maples for. The possible third question hiding behind the other two is whether trying to propagate such a cultivar on a broad scale is even a good idea.

Breeding Sugar Maples

Is anyone developing a climate-proof sugar maple? The short answer is yes.

These are difficult questions to research because of the way search engines work–the information you get is not necessarily what you want but rather what the search engine’s algorithm thinks you want, and in this case breathless articles about dry pancakes tend to shoulder conservation genetics out of the way. I am therefore unable to say definitively whether there is a program that has as its stated goal rescuing the sugar maple from climate change.

However, there are cultivars that have different habitat requirements than wild sugar maple does: Crescendo, and Green Mountain are each both heat and drought tolerant; Bonfire is heat-tolerant; Legacy is resistant to drought; and Majesty is resistant to frost cracking–since climate change is causing increased frost cracking in paper birch (there are more freeze-thaw cycles in the spring, now), I’m guessing it could be a problem for maples, too. There are probably other cultivars with useful properties offered from other sites. Whether any of these were developed with climate change in mind I’m not sure, but they certainly fit the bill.

And there are plant breeders working on sugar maple with climate change in mind. The US Forest Service and various state agencies have been working on “improving” the sugar maple–meaning, developing domestic cultivars with commercially desirable traits–since the 1960’s at least. Their primary goal has been to increase sugar content in the sap (they have succeeded), but state agencies in New York are also continuing the research with the aim of storing sugar maple germplasm in case of catastrophic loss due to invasive insects or disease–possibilities they acknowledge are made more pressing by climate change since the trees are stressed and less resilient than they once were. Some of the same researchers are also looking at how climate change is impacting the tapping of sugar maples.

So the research is being done, more or less.

Saving Maple Forests

Curiously, I have not been able to find anyone discussing using sugar maple cultivars on a large scale to save either the American syrup industry or American sugar maple forests–of course, for me not to find something is no proof it doesn’t exist, but the lack of results is interesting. What I’m finding instead are discussions of using improved technology and improved forest management techniques to preserve the industry, possibly coupled with the use of red maple sap as an alternative source of maple sugar. Red maples are much more heat tolerant and is being used for syrup already. The syrup is said to taste a little different, but it’s quite good and suitably maply.

If indeed the climate-change-tolerant cultivars are not part of an organized push to save the forests, why not? I’m just speculating here, but it’s possible the issue is economic; changing management practices and using some red maple syrup are adequate stopgaps for now, and have the advantage of using trees that already exist. People do plant maples, including high-sugar cultivars and hybrids, with an eye towards sugaring, but a young maple won’t be ready to tap for 20 years or more. A major investment in a new cultivar might not be very attractive when there are options with a more immediate return.

Saving Maple Forests?

OK, you mind if I speculate a bit?

I can think of two reasons why mass propagation of the cultivars might not be a good idea. First, unlike the American chestnut, which has bee taken out by disease everywhere, wild-type sugar maple could hang on in parts of its range. That means that if cultivars are naturalized, they could end up competing with the wild type. What if the cultivars win?

A domestic cultivar could have all the marketable advantages of the original, but it’s not the same tree. And depending on what the differences are, the switch, if it happens, could matter a lot, especially given that sugar maple is a dominant species in many areas. Changing it, even slightly, could have vast consequences. For example, according to some remarkable research by Dr. Doug Tallamy, many herbivorous insects are highly specialized–even plants closely related to their host species are inedible to them, such that replacement of natives with exotics causes insect populations to crash–followed by songbirds, who need insects to feed their chicks. Last time we spoke, Dr. Tallamy didn’t yet know whether cultivars are typically also inedible to specialized insect herbivores–but since some cultivars are marketed for superior pest resistance, it is clear palatability for insects suffers sometimes. And wild-type sugar maples, remember, support huge numbers of insects.

Second, if wild-type sugar maple loses its habitat to climate change, so will a lot of the other species that inhabit the same forests. Perhaps a sugar maple cultivar could save some of them, but not all. Many aspects of how the forest functions will change. Arguably, the sugar maple-American beech forests we know will be gone from certain areas, replaced by something else. If the “something else” includes a sugar maple cultivar, I don’t see how that would be a problem (the danger is in the cultivar spreading to places where the wild type persists)–but I don’t see how that’s really a victory, either. At best, it would be a lessened scope of loss.

Realistically, our best hope lies in saving as much of the wild-type sugar maple forest as we can, and that means stopping climate change now.



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On Needing a Village

I had a conversation with a friend yesterday about therapy. He pointed out that–with the exception of a few individual therapists–psychotherapy has been and remains all about the individual or, at most, about couples, families, or small groups. The field doesn’t address whole human communities or the relationships between communities and the land, although that is precisely where much of our sickness and pain live.

It is an empirical fact that over a century of psychotherapy and many decades of psychologically-inspired self-help groups and books have not saved our world from teetering on the brink. Collectively, we make very, very bad choices. Individually, far too many of us are deeply lonely and battling despair.

Something important has been left out.

There is, indeed, a movement within psychology to take the mental and emotional dimensions of ecological issues seriously: ecopsychology. I have discussed before the mental health implications of climate change, and there are psychologists looking to use their expertise to help society make more sustainable decisions, both individually and collectively. But all this remains a minor voice in the field.

What occurred to me yesterday is that the problem may be less philosophical than practical. Society may be sick, but society can’t sit down on a therapist’s couch. Even couples therapy is difficult to arrange–for both partners to simultaneously agree to counseling requires a minor miracle. More often than not, it is a single person sitting on the couch seeking guidance from the therapist, so is it any wonder that therapists focus on treatments that can be given to one patient at a time? And part of that focus means defining problems in terms that allow individual solutions. An understanding of the role of context, of the community dimension of mental health, of the importance of the relationships between people and the land, all of that becomes collateral damage to the unavoidable limitations of the therapeutic relationship.

I’m speculating, of course. I further speculate that the focus on the individual by therapists may be one of the factors that has been eroding community over the decades, teaching us all to believe that the individual, and only the individual matters.


We need each other to be happy–and others need us.

Societal problems and the actions of others can impair our mental health and our ability to function.

Where we live–whether our surroundings are beautiful, ecologically intact, and deeply familiar–matters to our mental health. Where we live matters.

Even saying those words feels transgressive because therapists, self-help groups, self-help books, and inspirational internet memes all declare the exact opposite. The zeitgeist and the experts seem to agree that each of us can control nothing besides ourselves and therefore must learn to depend on nothing but ourselves to be happy.

I agree about the impossibility of control–actually, I can’t control myself, either. Willpower is effective only over a very narrow slice of human experience and behavior. But the fact of the matter is we need lots of things we can’t guarantee ourselves. We need food and water, yet some of us can’t get either and so die. We likewise require intact bodies, yet injury and illness can’t always be avoided. Is it too far-fetched that we might also need love, community, and an intact home to survive?

The appalling truth is that all of us are two things most of us don’t want to be; vulnerable and morally obligated.

Perhaps I’m digressing a bit.The point is that an expanded understanding of our mental and emotional needs is important, both from the perspective of supporting mental health for its own sake, and from the perspective of understanding how to solve the various environmental crises we face, most critically, climate change.

But how is that to happen, given that it’s still almost impossible to get more than a few people on a therapist’s couch at once?

The therapist must come out of the office. What we need are communities organized around supporting both individual and collective mental health. Healing and happiness needs to be part of how we live.

All of which stands parallel to another principle–that it’s all very well and good for an individual to make more sustainable lifestyle choices, but ultimate success depends on society-wide change made possible by environmentalism at the ballot box.

The bottom line may be that we need to become a society that takes care of ourselves, each other, and the planet–which reminds me of something a different wise friend once said:

It’s not enough to try to conserve the environment; we have to conserve the human community that conserves the environment.

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A week or so ago, we visited the St. Michaels area in Maryland. And the corn was bad.

I mean the corn in the fields,not all of which had been harvested yet. Have you seen corn growing? Are you familiar with it? When corn plants are stressed, the leaves, which usually have wavy edges and an arched, downward-pointing shape, instead become straight and point upward, like green swords. I’ve seen them like that often, but it’s usually temporary; eventually, rains come, and the plants relax. What I saw last week was different. The corn plants had  stayed stressed right through to the end of their season, and the stood, dry and ready for harvest, leaves still pointing at the sky, the stems abnormally thin. The harvest was starting to come in, and we heard that in some places, the yield was a third of normal.

Watching Drought

I see drought in Maryland often–usually mild, sometimes moderate, but it is often. And it’s part of climate change.

It’s not that climate change is making Maryland drier overall; in fact, Maryland’s annual precipitation is increasing slightly. But the increase is coming in the winter and the spring. Summer and Fall have about the same precipitation that they always have, but higher air temperatures have increased evaporation and transportation, leaving the soil drier during the growing season. And of course, as in other areas, more of the precipitation we do get is in large storms, leaving longer, drier, periods of no rain in between.

But, as I said, I’ve never seen the corn look so bad–which is why it surprised me to see that the area is not under a severe drought.

Current Conditions

I took a look at the US Drought Monitor, a website that doesn’t archive its pages, meaning that the link won’t show the same information next week. My area is not listed as in drought at all; that’s correct, though we are borderline. It’s raining now, and we were starting to need it badly. About half the rest of the state is listed as “abnormally dry,” which, according to the key at the bottom of the page, is enough to stunt crops and increase fire danger. And the area immediately around the Chesapeake Bay, which includes St. Michaels, is in “moderate drought,” which is enough to reduce grain yields–and, curiously, honey production.

However, the actual conditions on the ground seem rather worse than that. Eyeballing drought severity is a pretty unreliable activity at best, but the Drought Monitor site does include a note that it “focuses on broad-scale conditions. Local conditions may vary.” Just as a picture made of pixels obscures detail smaller than a pixel, the scale Drought Monitor uses must reduce areas below a certain size to a kind of average. There may be patches of severe drought that are smaller than that.

Conditions Elsewhere

In California, electricity is being shut off during periods of high fire danger because of the possibility of sparks from electrical cables causing wildfires. That certainly sounds dramatic, as though California’s drought must have entered new, unprecedented territory–but California’s famous megadrought is over. The US Drought Monitor shows only a few areas of “abnormally dry” on the edges of the state. But parts of California are fire-prone even when conditions are normal, and while this has been a very quiet year for fire (my husband is a fire fighter and keeps me informed) the terrible consequences of sparking power lines last year may have inspired an abundance of caution.

Conditions Vary

The reason I’ve brought all this up is to highlight the difficulty of assessing climate stories. Based on widely-available information, there is no extreme-weather emergency in Maryland at present, but since we know actual farmers, we know one is, indeed, in progress–and that there was one last year as well. Conversely, the stories about the electricity shut-offs in California suggest an unprecedented degree of fire risk, yet at least some evidence suggests that what we’re seeing is an unprecedented (but possibly quite correct) responses to typical fire risk. But what truth would someone on the ground reveal?

Climate change is real, and it is serious, and it is an emergency. And its symptoms can easily be different, or much worse, than the stories we hear on the news suggest.


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Responding to Greta

Greta Thunberg can’t save the world. She doesn’t claim that she can. In fact, the whole of what she is doing is to beg other people to act. She is telling the truth, and doing so with an unapologetic stridency that resonates–and many others are joining her, giving the issue the importance readers of this blog know it deserves.

If her actions carry a hint of hope, if we see in her some suggestion that perhaps we might still pull this thing out of our hat, it’s because the climate strike movement is new, and anything new is good.

But calling for change alone can’t save the world; the powerful still have the option to ignore the call. And frankly, many of them still are.

Last week, I posted a list of things you can do–it’s not my first such list, and I’m not the only one drafting such lists. Lists are good. But mine and those I have read have all so far missed an important distinction, an important way to be relevant to the specific challenge we find ourselves facing today, the challenge posed by tens of thousands of young people marching in the streets.

The thing is, Greta Thunberg can’t save the world, and those of us who rely on her to do so, responding to her with admiration only and not action, betray her as surely do the haters.

She can’t save the world, but we can.

The Powerful and the Powerless

In the realm of climate response, a continuum exists between the powerful and the powerless. It’s true that no one is so powerful as to be able to end anthropogenic climate change by an unaided act of will, and no one with the mental capacity to understand the problem to even the simplest degree is entirely without resources–and yet it’s also true that we’re not all alike. We’re not equals.

And the thing is, different strategies apply to different points along the spectrum.

No matter how much or how little power you have, you can make a difference, but not if you deny the reality of your position. If you put all your energy into changing the things you have direct control over, and all you have control over is what brand of toilet paper you buy, then you won’t get very far. It’s not that personal lifestyle changes don’t make a difference, they do, but they depend on the coordinated action of many people, and rarely succeed unless some other strategy is also being carried out. If personal lifestyle change is all you can do, go ahead and do it, but you also need to join Greta in the streets calling for change. On the other hand, if you happen to be the head of a multinational company or the prime minister of a whole country, joining the marching strikers is silly at best–you’re demonstrating against yourself, you know that, don’t you?

In either case, to act as though your power were something it isn’t is to refuse to act.

The Power of Direct Action

“Direct action” has a specific meaning in activist circles, but I mean something slightly different here. I am referring to actions that you can take on your own authority, actions that definitively reduce emissions all by themselves. For example, if you are the sole owner of a car company, you can decide to produce only fuel-efficient vehicles.

Everybody has some power of direct action. Greta Thunberg, for example, has decided not to eat meat. You can lead a kid to a hamburger, but you can’t make her eat it. Meat, especially beef, does have a large carbon footprint, so in and of itself, hers is a step in the right direction. But we all know it’s not a very big step, that’s why she’s striking–to make sure the bigger steps get taken by the people in a position to take them.

It is, as I said, a continuum, not a binary distinction between the powerful and the powerless, but it’s still important to recognize that not all steps are equal. When drafting a list of the “50 simple things you can do to save the Earth,” there is one very important thing to know; who are you?

Are you a 16-year-old kid? Are you a working stiff struggling to make rent? Do you own a house and a car and take regular transcontinental trips? Are you a business leader? A US Senator? The President of the United States? The more power of direct action you have, the more of your time and energy must be taken up by taking climate-friendly actions.

It’s possible you have more power than you think you do. It’s easy to fall into the habit of doing things as they’ve always been done, without realizing they could be done differently. Ask yourself the following:

  • Do I ever make purchasing decisions for anything larger than my household?
  • Do I ever make investment decisions for more than a trivial amount of money?
  • Do I ever create plans that a team of people will follow?
  • Do I ever design, or help design, policies at my place of business?
  • Do I ever design, or help design, policies for a government agency, whether local, state-level, or national?
  • Do I ever decide, or help decide, how anything will be built?
  • Do I have the authority to decide how policies will be enacted?
  • Do I ever decide, or help decide, what someone else will be taught or notified about?

A yes to any of these questions indicates a place where you may be making climate decisions for more than your own personal lifestyle–a place where pleas to save the planet might actually be addressed to you.

You can make a climate action plan for your team, your organization, your event, your town, your state, your nation. Then enact the plan.


The Art of Influence

Most people, even if they can take some direct action, are going to be frustrated by the limits to their power. To one degree or another, part of your effectiveness is likely to depend on convincing someone to act. You can begin by turning up at rallies and demonstrations, and of course voting (and donating time and money to campaigns and registration drives). But the next step is to target specific people whose actions you want to change.

Who has the power to take what direct actions? What can you do to influence those actions?

The flipside of asking what unacknowledged power you might have is asking who else around you might have the power to change something. Once you have identified someone who can make a change, you can go about providing the necessary combination of pressure and support to make that change happen.

Here we have traditional political activism–marches, emails, petitions, coupled with lawsuits, whistle-blowing, boycotts, and civil disobedience. If you have the talent for organizing, you can get involved with strategy, or you can find existing campaigns to join. It’s not that activism is less powerful than direct action, it’s just that it is a different kind of power and requires a different strategy.

One or the Other

Greta Thunberg is saying some important stuff. Each of us has a fundamental choice in how to respond: we can join her in calling the powerful to act, or we can admit to being the powerful and respond to her call with action.

Do neither, and you are part of the problem. Don’t feel guilty; fix it!