The Climate in Emergency

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


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The Music of Broken Records

The image is plain black except for a window in the center which admits white light. A human figure is silhouetted against the window, apparently looking out. The image as a whole appears stark and sad and lonely.

Photo by Sasha Freemind on Unsplash

Today, I’m feeling overwhelmed and anxious, in large part due to the state of the world and my country’s political mess, and I’m therefore feeling a great urge to zone out and do nothing. Particularly, a well-researched science explainer or current-events commentary feels out of reach today, meaning I can either delay writing a climate post or I can write a personal post about the inside of my own head–but looking over the history of this blog, I can see that I’ve done the latter many times. I must be starting to sound like a broken record.

If nothing changes, nothing changes.

So, it’s time to launch a series of posts about changing something. Maybe the series will be useful to others who find themselves playing a single repeating note and are likewise tired of it.

The Anatomy of A Problem

I’m sure reasons for sitting around paralyzed vary, but while my reasons may not be universal, I doubt they’re unique, either. Hence this article–my intention is that people in a similar situation might find something they can use.

So what is my situation?

As far as I can figure, I’m dealing with a mashed up mess of executive function deficit, a deep sense of empathy, and a lot of climate grief and fear and I don’t really deal with very well. But it’s a personal motto of mine that problems have solutions, and if you can identify and understand the problem, you might be able to find a solution.

Executive Function

A cartoonish painting of a man holding his head and grimmacing, possibly out of anxiety. His hair, beard, and shirt are all the same shade of blue and his lips are very red. The paint drips in places, adding to the manic mood of the piece. The painting appears to be an outdoor mural on an otherwise white wall as there are spots of dirt and other blemishes visible.

Photo by Aarón Blanco Tejedor on Unsplash

“Executive function,” as I understand the term, is essentially decision-making ability. Not necessarily big decisions, such as whether to marry a certain person or whether to put one’s house on the market, but the minute-by-minute decisions that make life happen. It’s related to focus, but I can focus just fine–I don’t have the longest attention span in the world, but it’s not the shortest, either. I can spend a couple of hours doing something, if I need or want to. I can even tackle long-term projects, like writing books and earning college degrees.

The problem happens when I have to choose which of several equally-important tasks I’m going to do next. Logically, I know I should just pick one and do it, and then when I’m done pick another, but what I tend to do instead is to panic. Just the thought of choosing one makes me worry about the ones I didn’t choose. If I do start on one of the tasks, intrusive thoughts about how I should have made a different choice become distracting, sometimes to the point that I can’t complete the task. I often dither or seek distraction until the problem resolves itself–either the opportunity to do ANY of the tasks passes, or one of them becomes an emergency in one way or another.

Emergencies are useful. They make choosing simple.

All of this is worse for high-stakes tasks, so you can see how it’s a catastrophic problem for a would-be activist. There are lots of things that can and must be done to combat climate change, but how do I decide which of them to do this afternoon? I generally can’t.

“Executive function deficit” is a real problem for which I have not been tested. I don’t like such tests, and I like dealing with my insurance company to get them paid for even less. But if it looks like a duck and quacks like a duck, then maybe reading up on ducks might be helpful?

Empathy

Two people, one pale-skinned, one dark skinned, stand facing each other and clasping hands. The picture includes only their hands and part of the torso of each, not their faces. Their pose looks mutually supportive in some way; these are people who care for each other. The background is out of focus and hard to make sense of.

Photo by Aarón Blanco Tejedor on Unsplash

Empathy means feeling something because someone else feels it; you see someone get poked with a needle and you flinch. The concept has been adapted by some to cover a form of telepathy (Star Trek fans will remember Deanna Troy), but the paranormal isn’t necessary. In fact, real empaths aren’t necessarily any better than anyone else at knowing what someone else really feels–the empath reacts to their perception of the other person, whether that perception is right or not.

Empathy is something most–or perhaps all–humans have to varying degrees. It is said that psychopaths lack empathy, but I don’t know if that’s really true. Sociopathy is generally described as a less extreme form of psychopathy, and I did know someone diagnosed as a sociopath. He certainly felt less empathy in most situations that most people I know seem to, but he did have some capacity to empathize. In contrast, I seem to empathize more often and more deeply than most. For example, when I hear a crying baby in public, my first reaction is generally to feel sad for the baby, whereas most people seem mostly irritated by the noise.

But if empathy is not a form of telepathy, what is it? I did some reading on the topic in college (I’m not taking time to dig up citations today, however), and it turns out, it works largely by unconscious mimicry. When you see someone smile, the muscles of your face that produce smiles tighten slightly. It is that hint of your own smile that lightens your mood slightly (the old advice “smile, you’ll feel better” mostly works). Your body subtly mimics what you perceive of other bodies, producing hints of the same feelings others seem to have.

The same mechanism also results in unconscious mimicry of body postures, gestures, and mannerisms. When two people are “on the same wavelength” in an in-person conversation, often what has happened is that both are unconsciously imitating each other, producing harmony in their body language and in their moods.

Why is all this relevant?

Because I’ve noticed I tend to take on the priorities of the people around me, and since the people around me are mostly less radical than I want to be, the result is I treat climate change as less important than I know it is. Why do I do this? Could empathy be the answer? Could the mimicry mechanism that drives empathy also have an intellectual component?

Grief and Fear

Climate grief is a real thing. So is climate fear. There is a scale of loss and potential loss going on that simply staggers the mind. My typical response to grief and fear these days is to think of something more pleasant instead, but obviously an activist can’t use that technique very often without a certain loss of effectiveness.

A Plan for a Solution

So, now we know the nature of the stumbling blocks, what do we–or at least I–do about them? When I was an undergrad, I used the structure of academic study to tackle a problem of similar magnitude (“How to live a meaningful life”) to good effect. The key was to break the question up into subquestions, then make myself a reading list and a schedule. The other key was to have other people, notably my professor, expecting to see results.

Tools

I already have some tools to work with, as I’ve discussed in several other posts (please see here and here). I don’t use them as diligently  as I might, but there is no sense in pretending I’m starting from zero here.

The following is a summary of some of the suggestions I’ve posted before for dealing with the mental “stuff” that makes activism difficult.

Honor Personal and Situational Limits

We’re all limited in one way or another. I wish I wasn’t, or that I was less limited, and I waste a lot of emotional energy trying to tackle more than I can do and then castigating myself for it. Why? It makes much more sense to focus on doing what I can do.

As general advice, if you only have ten minutes a day to devote to saving the world, then accept that and make your ten minutes count. Develop a plan you can actually enact.

Don’t Ask Whether You Can Do It–Ask How

I realize this point and the previous one look like contradictions, but I’m actually addressing two different aspects of “can.” There is choosing an achievable goal, and there is choosing a workable method.

Don’t ask whether a goal is achievable–ask whether it is worth achieving, and then find a way to achieve it. If an approach seems impossible, that’s worth acknowledging, but try a different approach.

Remove the Arbitrariness

As I admitted earlier, I struggle with staying on task if other tasks seem just as worthy. One option is to make the choice seem less arbitrary by creating some accountability. For example, I post to this blog on Tuesdays. I’m the one who set that deadline, and I could have set a different one, but it’s not arbitrary anymore because you know I post on Tuesdays and you’re expecting a post today. So I can stay focused on writing this post without being distracted by thoughts of other things I could be doing.

I’ve heard some people get good results by betting money that they’ll get something done. It can also help to deliberately form good habits, a topic I wrote on some time ago

Don’t Dis Despair

A friend of mine insists that despair is a useful state, not to be resisted. I don’t really understand this. I trust him to be wise, however.

I do know that temporarily giving into despair can be useful if only in that it allows a rest from the work of resisting despair. Rage, cry, curl up in a fetal position, and then pick yourself back up and get on with things again. I also know that giving up on one thing can be the first step to trying something else–a different, more workable method, perhaps.

As a related point, it’s OK, even necessary, to feel awful in other ways at times. Weep, worry, get mad…be where you are.

Find Community

It’s very difficult to accomplish anything in isolation. Most of us need social support and affirmation. That includes not just encouragement and reassurance, but also actions that might on the face of it seem critical–calling on each other to do better, letting each other know when we’ve missed something. We need to form friendships in which climate action is a shared and acknowledged priority, even when it means not being polite. We need more parties, too.

Take Local Action

Many of us are in positions where “green” lifestyles aren’t really an option. There isn’t enough local food production, there isn’t energy-efficient mass transit, there isn’t renewable electricity, communities aren’t walkable, there are laws that make “green” lifestyles difficult or impossible. These challenges are places to start, places to get to work.

Demand Political Action

Much of the work that has to be done requires the leadership of elected officials. We need to make such leadership politically expedient. Send emails, make phone calls, turn up at demonstrations, make sure that friends and neighbors know about demonstrations and help them get there. Make it obvious to our leaders that climate is important to the people.

Vote

‘Nuff said?

Be Flexible

We need to hold ourselves and our leaders to a high standard, but we also can’t let rigor become an excuse for inaction. We can’t refuse to take action because the action plan isn’t perfect. We can’t refuse to work with allies because those allies are also our adversaries on other issues. We have to embrace a certain pragmatism. Purity won’t win the war.

A Plan of Action

So, I know certain things already. It’s not enough. My plan is to research climate grief, executive function, and empathy, both through reading and by discussing these issues with my friends, while also using the tools noted above–and then to report back here.

Cupped hands hold brown earth. The background is out of focus but also brown.

Photo by Gabriel Jimenez on Unsplash


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The Carbon Footprint of College?

Image shows a green, leafy college campus, looking down a concrete walkway--a second walkway branches off to the left. In the angle between the two walkways is a group of bike racks on a mulched surface. Otherwise the ground is grassy. There is only one bike in the rack. To the left of the walkway is a lawn, some small trees, and a very long, ivy, covered three-story building. To the right is lawn and a row of trees. The sky is partly cloudy. There are no people visible.

Photo by Ryan Jacobson on Unsplash

Some weeks ago, I wrote a post on the carbon footprint of medicine, but I could not find all the information I wanted. While I found estimates of the total footprint of medicine in various countries and on certain specific aspects of medicine (emergency transport, surgery, pharmaceuticals), there were some big gaps I could not fill. I speculated that since hospitals and residential colleges have certain things in common, it might be interesting and informative to look up the carbon footprint of college campuses.

Well, guess what?

There are lots of articles out there on how colleges are reducing their footprints, but virtually nothing on what those footprints actually are. A typical piece might boast that such-and-such a school has reduced their emissions by 73% since 2010, but without saying 73% of what, and without giving a breakdown of where those savings had been found or what aspects of the school were responsible for those emissions. I doubt the information is being hidden, it’s just that I’m asking questions few other people are asking, and that always makes information hard to find online.

When I can’t find answers to write about, I write about the questions.

Questioning College Emissions

How one asks a question dictates the sort of answer one gets–and what can be done with that information. For example, consider the difference between the following two questions:

  • Which American colleges have reduced their carbon footprint the most in the past ten years?
  • Which American colleges have the lowest carbon footprints currently?

Either list seems like a reasonable answer to a vague question, like “which colleges are greenest?” and yet the two lists are likely to be completely different. And neither one offers any clue as to how small a college footprint could actually get and still offer an excellent education.

So what questions do I want answers for?

The Breakdown

I want to know where the emissions in a given school come from. A pie chart would be nice. Schools could be compared not only by their totals but also by their scores in several subcategories–one school might have very high emissions associated with heating and cooling, for example, while another has a big transportation score. Now since I’ve only ever been a student, not a staff member or an administrator, there are things I don’t know about how schools operate. The following is my current best guess for how the greenhouse gas emissions of a school might be broken down.

On-campus Housing

This category can be further broken down into electricity, fuel use, coolant (from air conditioning and refrigeration), waste disposal, and possibly some other categories. The figure will be zero for non-residential schools, that doesn’t mean non-residential schools are automatically better; if dorm-living has a lower footprint than off-campus living, residential schools might be better for the planet despite having a bigger institutional footprint.

On-campus Food-service

Again, a category that will vary in ways that really must be put in context. For example, my undergraduate school did not have classes. Instead, it had residencies several times per year. During residencies, we all ate in the dining hall, so the school definitely had food service, but only for about 12 weeks per year, and only for about a third of the student body, plus faculty, at any given time. It’s per-student food-service figure must have been extremely low, relative to traditional residential schools, for reasons that had nothing to do with energy efficiency in the kitchen. And, as with housing, a school’s food-service emissions must be compared not just to those of other schools but also to those of students who don’t eat on campus.

Grounds-keeping

While most emissions categories need to be expressed as per-student figures, with grounds-keeping the important context is probably not the size of the student body but the size of the outdoor portion of the campus. Again, I’m thinking of my undergrad program, which held its residencies on a campus that had been built for a student body much larger than ours. A tricky situation arises for schools that rent space–does maintenance of the grounds go on the school’s tally sheet or not?

Academic Facilities

By “academic facilities” I mean buildings other than dorm rooms and dining halls, the sort of buildings that both residential and non-residential schools have in common and by which they can be directly compared. I am not sure whether sports facilities ought to be included here or not. And do, for example, the pastures of an agricultural college or the forests of a forestry school count as academic facilities or grounds?

Classes

Shows a classroom with about ten or twelve adult students sitting in chairs watching a man deliver a PowerPoint lecture. The man, presumably the professor is standing behind a lecturn and is dressed casually. The students are also dressed casually. The professor is on the other side of the room from the camera and is hard to see. The classroom is well-lit and has large windows with curved tops and a ceiling with a large raised area in the middle with what look like noise-dampening panels in it. The room as a whole has a somewhat fancy look.

Photo by NeONBRAND on Unsplash

I have taken college classes that likely had carbon emissions of zero, but I’ve also had classes that involved driving hundreds of miles to field study sites, and the school offered some that required air travel. Courses that involve chemistry experiments or animal care might have significant footprints, too. Some classes use much more electricity than others–should that be counted as part of the footprint of the class, or simply subsumed into “academic facilities”?

Non-academic Travel

“Academic travel” is that undertaken as part of a class, such as driving on a field trip, or when a professor visits a site in order to prepare for an upcoming field trip. Such trips count under “classes.” Non-academic travel is students and professors and other staff going to and from school. It’s a tricky category, because it’s not directly under the control of the school. If a student wants to commute to class from the other side of the country by private jet, there’s not much the school can do about it.

And yet schools can take steps to minimize the necessity of travel, such as by providing on-campus housing. Schools can also make lower-impact forms of travel more practical, such as by installing bike racks and having bikes students may borrow for free, or, for large schools, by creating a local transit system that runs on biodiesel. A school could also have EV charging stations on campus (providing the school has a sustainable source of electricity) or it could produce and sell biodiesel. There are lots of options, and schools should be held accountable for taking those options. Perhaps a school’s non-academic travel figure could be an estimation of the travel emissions of an average student based on survey data and how far from campus students live.

Construction and Renovation

Building stuff has a carbon footprint, particularly if cement is involved. There can be some tricky judgment calls, though, since a college that builds a new LEEDS-certified lecture hall will have more emissions that year than one that doesn’t, even though the hall may be an effective investment in the school’s sustainability long-term. Also, some building materials either release greenhouse gasses over time or absorb them. Finally, building-related emissions have to be seen in context. Some years ago, my grad school put up a bike shelter on campus in order to encourage students to bike rather than drive. The bike shelter sits on a poured concrete pad, and although much of the assembly was manual, heavy machinery was also involved. So that shelter was definitely responsible for some greenhouse gas emissions. However, if it accomplished its mission, it’s also responsible for reducing emissions from the non-academic transportation category, a possibility that must be accounted for when judging its construction.

A fair footprinting method would have to average construction-related emissions over the projected life of the building (demolition-related emissions would also have to be included), and the impact of the building on other aspects of the school’s footprint would also have to be considered somehow.

Legacies and influences

What emissions occur on campus are not the only issue for colleges. A school could score a nice, big zero in all of the above categories, but if it is training students specifically to work in the fossil fuel industry (certain branches of geology, for example, are most applicable to fossil fuel prospecting), then its carbon footprint can’t really be zero. Likewise, a school that has invested its endowment in fossil fuels has a big footprint no matter what else it does. How such indirect emissions might be calculated, I’m not sure, but they would have to be included somehow.

What Are These Questions For?

All of the above categories would, ideally, show where a school might improve. The school itself could use the information in its planning, and outside entities (prospective students, for example) could assess how serious the school really is about climate change.

For example, a school might put up a new bike shelter and put out a press release about how “green” it is. OK, but if the school’s non-academic transport score is actually pretty good already and its academic buildings score is excessive, then the bike shelter begins to look like green-washing.

Of course, to make such an assessment, we’d have to know what all these scores should be. At the very least, we need to be able to compare the scores of each school to some kind of relevant average.

Defining such averages, never mind collecting enough data to calculate them, would be difficult.

A Modest Proposal

It’s not that nobody is comparing colleges based on environmental considerations. A search for “the greenest colleges” actually yields a lot of information, including carefully-compiled rankings. But if listings of carbon footprints broken down by category exist, I haven’t found them, yet.

Considering the matter carefully, I begin to suspect they don’t exist. There are too many places in the above list where a simple question (“What is a given school’s greenhouse gas emissions for academic buildings?”) shatters into dozens of sub-questions about definitions and methods and fairness. And to be truly useful, the assessment I’m envisioning would have to be done for a fair portion of all the schools in the US (or whatever country one was curious about), and then all those data would have to be compiled into several different categories so schools could be compared fairly.

That’s not a blog post. That’s not even a master’s thesis (calculating the footprint of a single school and making recommendations would be a master’s thesis). It’s a PhD dissertation.

A white mug full of coffee sits in the foreground on a plain wooden table lit by defuse sunlight. At least two wooden chairs are next to the table, but they are out of focus. At the far end of the table is a very out-of-focus object that might be a person sitting at the table facing the camera. The rest of the room is too out-of-focus to make out. On the cop, in small, black print, is written the word "begin."

Photo by Danielle MacInnes on Unsplash

And it’s quite likely no one’s gotten around to doing it yet.

Fortunately, there are people out there looking for dissertation topics, so if you’re one of them, or if you know someone who is, may I humbly suggest this one? Send me the results when you’re done.


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The Fog of…Fog

Looking down a quiet, narrow paved road with no sidewalks in a fog-filled forest. The trees are leafless, except for a few small evergreens on the edge of the shot. The fog is very thick and the whole image is dim and mysterious.

Photo by Annie Spratt on Unsplash

I’m not feeling well. I’m on the mend from a stomach bug last week and still tire easily, so the intricate science-explainer I’m looking forward to writing will have to wait another week. But that’s how I’m doing–how’s my little corner of the Earth doing this week?

Well, it’s not on fire, so that’s good, but winter seems to have taken a break–we’ve had days of borderline T-shirt weather recently. I know that climate and weather are different, and cold weather in my neighborhood doesn’t mean climate change has taken a breather, but I still would prefer it. I still find warm winter days discouraging. I also can’t quite shake the feeling that if I complain about the unseasonable weather enough, climate change will hear me somehow and go away.

We do what we can to maintain our sense of normality in times when normal is rare and crumbling.

I took my dogs on a walk in the late afternoon. It was cold enough out to require a jacket, at least, and the rain had stopped, or maybe paused. A thick fog had settled in, putting halos around the headlights of the cars of people returning from work–rush-hour, of sorts, on our quiet street. We live among woodlot and farm field, among deer and turkeys who never let us see them (some of the neighbors doubtless hunt), and among vultures who come here to roost, rustling huge wings with a sound like shuffling paper as they get ready for sleep. The world goes silver and quiet on wet winter days around here, the fog against the muted colors of field and forest.

I heard the honking of geese and looked up. I couldn’t see them at first, but then they went right overhead, flying low, but almost hidden in the fog anyway, as if they’d been partially erased. The movement of their wings wasn’t visible in the blurry gloom, so they scooted across the sky with no obvious means of propulsion, like Star Trek shuttlecraft.

This is the world we live in. Won’t somebody make sure we get to keep it?


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Dead Biome Walking?

A photo of a man apparently reading a newspaper that is on fire. The man is dressed in dark, simple clothing and is seated on a stool with his legs crossed. The background is plain, gray, and somewhat dark and dingy looking. The view of the man is from the front and he is holding the paper at an angle that obscures his face and upper body. The newsprint is too small for the viewer to read it and its content does not appear to be important for the image.

Photo by Elijah O’Donnell on Unsplash

So, about those Australian fires….

It’s high time I wrote a post about them, as the disaster constitutes one of the most dramatic climate-related catastrophes today, and it’s likely to keep getting worse for a while, yet. While some people have complained that climate change didn’t start the fires, that’s a bit like saying that jumping off a sky-scraper wouldn’t kill you–technically true, but more deeply false (with the sky-scraper, it’s the sudden stop at the end that gets you). Climate change helped create the circumstance where hitherto-unheard-of fires are possible.

I’ve written before about the links between climate change and fire with respect to California. The situation in Australia is broadly similar.

I’m not going to rewrite those articles  with an Australian focus–other people are covering the topic already. What I want to know is how bad are these fires, other than “really bad”? How big are they, really? It’s easy enough to look up the numbers of acres burned, number of people killed, and so forth, but it’s hard to really put that information in context. How much of Australia burns in a typical year? How well will Australia be able to recover, ecologically or economically? Is anything being lost that can’t be regained?

Putting the Australian Fires in Context

There are several questions I want answers to:

  • How much of Australia is burning or has burned?
  • How much damage has been done to the specific biomes involved?
  • How do the 2019/2020 fires compare to historical fires in Australia, both in extent and in intensity?
  • In what ways besides climate change have human activities made the fires worse?
  • How well can Australia recover, either ecologically or economically?
  • Will Australia have more fires like this in the future?
  • Could other countries see similar disasters in the near future?

Some of those questions are easy to find answers for, others would require a major research project if they could be answered at all. For now, let’s just explore some of these issues.

How Bad Are the Fires?

Several questions involve the severity of the current disaster. As I said, it’s easy to look up the acreage burned, and it is just as easy to look up maps that show the extent of the fires relative to Australia’s land mass overall. These are pretty arresting images, but they don’t tell the whole story.

The issue is that the part of Australia that is not on fire is mostly uninhabited–both flammable vegetation and humans cluster in the well-watered coastal regions. If we could calculate the proportion of Australia’s inhabited area that has burned over the past year, the resulting fraction would be even more arresting and give outsiders a much more accurate picture of what Australians are going through right now.

Unfortunately, I have not been able to find a figure for the size of Australia’s inhabited area. In fairness, it is difficult to define such an area, because there is no black-and-white distinction between “inhabited” and “uninhabited.” Rather, the population just gets thinner and thinner.

A steep slope with long, dry grass in the foreground and a forest of tall, dead conifer trees in the background. In the very far distance, mountains and a hazy blue sky are visible.

Photo by Meritt Thomas on Unsplash (stock photo, not necessarily recent or Australian)

At the moment, the best I can do is eyeball a comparison between a map of Australia’s population distribution and the various maps of the fires (here’s one; an image of the cumulative light of a month of fires)

Those well-watered coastal areas are also ecologically distinct from the arid interior. A map of Australia’s major biomes (a biome is an ecologically defined region) shows that the region where many of the fires have been clustered are also within a relatively small biome, the Temperate Broadleaf and Mixed Forest. Another cluster of fires overlaps with much of an even smaller biome, the Tropical and Subtropical Moist Broadleaf Forests. As you’ll see if you click on the links, I have not actually found a map that shows biomes and fires, I’m doing more eyeball comparisons. To my eyeball, it looks like a significant chunk of both biomes must have gone up in smoke this year.

Wildfire is usually not the disaster it appears to be, since the burned-over areas are re-colonized with vegetation and animals from unburned areas–and while the burn zone is recovering, it provides habitat to various species that specialize in the different stages of recovery. However, if an entire biome were to burn completely, recovery would not be possible because the organisms able to live in that biome would all be dead–and most of them would be extinct, since it is unusual for a species to occupy multiple, radically different habitats. Real wildfires seldom burn completely (there are usually un-burned pockets, and the less-intense fires spare the roots of plants, burrowing animals, and even some trees) but disaster need not be complete to be decisive–and Australia has already suffered widespread deforestation and habitat fragmentation. There’s not a lot left to burn.

Could we be witnessing the loss of two biomes right now?

Are the Fires a Cause or an Effect?

A forest of black tree trunks on blackened ground. Smoke drifts eerily through the forest, partially obscuring the orange flames coming up from the ground.

Photo by Joanne Francis on Unsplash (A stock photo, not necessarily depicting a recent Australian fire)

Can Australia recover? I have found several articles on economic and cultural recovery, and while everyone seems to acknowledge that recovery will be difficult, no one seems to doubt it will happen. There is some worry that there may indeed be permanent ecological change.

What I wonder is whether the permanent change has already happened. In other words, is fire (exacerbated by climate change) the agent of an ecological shift, or merely a symptom of a shift that has already occurred?

To choose an example of what I mean that is closer to my home, the Southwest of the United States is famous for its deserts, but actually much of the region is dry forest dominated by several species of pines. There are those who think much of that forest will be lost with climate change–and in fact, some parts of it have been lost already. One might be tempted to think the loss will be gradual, since climate change, while very fast, is gradual (that is, it is more like a gradient than a step), but that’s unlikely.

Living systems, whether individual organisms or whole ecosystems, resist change the same way a spinning top is harder to push over than it looks like it should be. Dying people can sometimes hold their own far into grave illnesses, looking and sounding almost normal until very close to the end. Unfortunately, I’ve seen this recently, as those who know me are aware. Dying forests work much the same way, the trees hanging on in the face of heat and drought that isn’t really drought but rather a new regional normal. Then there is a fire or an infestation of bark beetles or both. The beetles are not new, but in the past the trees could fight the beetles off with sticky sap. In a bad drought, the trees can’t make enough sap. There are more beetles, too, after warm winters. I’ve seen this–almost twenty years ago, I watched almost every pinyon pine in one forested area die from beetles in just a few months. That year I saw pictures of places where similar beetles had killed whole hillsides of ponderosa pines, turning them a pretty red-brown that looked like autumn. Sooner or later, those dead and dying forests will burn. When they do, I doubt trees will grow in their place.

The climate that made the forests possible will have moved.

There are thus at least two scenarios by which Australia’s forests might be permanently changing as we speak. One is that so much of the already-fragmented forests are burning that there won’t be enough left for effective recovery. Species could be extinguished through habitat loss, or through the loss of ecological partners, or simply by too many individuals, plant or animal, burning to death. Relict populations might be too small and too scattered to be self-sustaining. I don’t actually know, there is a lot of information I don’t have, but it seems at least possible that fires exacerbated by climate change are radically altering the ecological map of a country.

But the other scenario is that the alteration has already happened, that these forests were dead ecosystems walking even before the fires started, that the climate has changed and the fires are simply a form of belated adjustment to a new normal that began years ago.

Time for Hope?

As I said, I don’t know that the situation is as dire as it seems–it may not be. Real-life worst-case scenarios are rare.

Perhaps more to the point, even if the worst case is upon us, things are never so bad that they can’t get even worse, and that also means things are never so bad that we can’t avoid them getting worse.

Even if part of Australia’s forest is now doomed, it’s likely part of it still retains a climate conducive to forests. If conservationists scramble, and if they get the public and private help they need, it may be possible to create relicts that are large enough and interconnected enough to be self-sustaining.

And perhaps more to the point, if we all do something about climate change, maybe it won’t get much worse.

No situation is ever so bad that there is no reason to help.

 


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New Years

I usually post a year-end review of climate stories about now, but it seems it’s already been done, and done well, by others. Please check out these articles by:

So, let’s turn this blog’s New Year’s tradition on it’s head.

Next Year in Climate Change

We know about last year–what we don’t know about is this coming year. What might happen? What goals can we set? What plans can we make?

I’ve noticed that many people have a great deal of difficulty personalizing climate-related goals. It’s easy to say “we need to be carbon neutral by 2050 (or 2040 or 2030),” but who exactly is “we”? And if “we” turns out to be no particular person, some vague, unenforceable collective, then who is going to do anything about climate change?

The fact of the matter is, only a goal that starts with “I” can be accomplished except by happy accident.

So in the interests of having a productive new year for everything that matters, here are a couple of possible goals for the new year, by way of example.

  • I will give time and money every month to political candidates committed to climate action.
  • I will spend one day per week standing on a street corner with a sign reading “climate action now.”
  • I will identify a specific change that needs to be made by a specific company or government organization and I will publicly demand that change be made.
  • I will reduce my own carbon footprint by at least 10%.
  • I will talk to at least one stranger about climate issues every week.
  • I will brainstorm with others how we can make our community more  sustainable this year.

These are not necessarily my goals for the year–I’m still working out my plans. But notice how each one begins with “I will,” and that each is unambiguous. If I made any of these my goals, and didn’t do it by the end of the year, I’d know. That’s in sharp contrast to something vague, like “I will fight for climate action,” which could mean anything or nothing.

So, what does your upcoming year look like?