The Climate in Emergency

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


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Sowing with Salt

A large area of marsh grasses with a creek of open water meandering through it. The bare twigs of a shrub are in the foreground. In the distance is a partially bare forest. The sky has thick clouds but some blue sky visible.

Photo by Michael Denning on Unsplash

There is the story and then there are the facts supporting the story. The story is how you know that climate change is happening here and now and is impacting people like you. The facts are how you know how those impacts happen and what they mean for the future.

We need both.

Saltwater Intrusion

My husband’s best friend is a farmer in Talbot County, Maryland, on the edge of the Tred Avon River. I’ve written about him before (here, for example), but I leave out his name because I haven’t asked his permission to use it. He’d probably say yes if I did ask, I’m not going to reveal anything private or embarrassing about him. The thing is that there’s a marshy tidal gut running through his land, and a row of trees grows along the edge of that gut, but up away from the marsh, where lawn grass grows. You pass these trees on your way in to his house.

Those trees are dying.

They’re not dying all at once, more like one or two at a time, starting with the ones closest to the water. He knows why. It’s the salt from the river, which is quite brackish there. The tides are getting higher. It’s probably getting saltier, too, though I haven’t been able to confirm that. And even though the tides don’t rise high enough to wet the trees (except perhaps in storm floods), the salt is moving underground.

That is salt intrusion. And it’s only good luck that it’s only threatening the trees along the driveway, not our friend’s crops–or his well. Not all farmers in the Chesapeake region are as lucky, and nobody can be lucky forever.

This is what climate change looks like, or one of the things it looks like, anyway. It’s not always sudden catastrophe, an it’s not always far away or in the future. Its effects are usually mixed up with the effects of other issues, such as land use practices, state or national policy, or unrelated geological processes. What’s important to know is that climate change is part of the problem, and stopping climate change must be part of the solution.

Let’s talk about salt. Let’s talk about the rising seas

The Ins and Outs of Sea-level Rise

The short version that lots of people know by now is that as the global climate warms, ice in Greenland and Antarctica melts, adding more water to the ocean and making sea level rise globally. That part is true, but it’s not the whole picture, and it doesn’t explain all the sea level rise we see here in the Mid-Atlantic, including in the Chesapeake Bay region.

How the Water Rises

Melting glaciers put more water into the ocean, but thermal expansion (most things expand as they warm up) means even the water already in the ocean is growing. In fact, thermal expansion is responsible for a greater proportion of sea level rise so far than glacial meltwater is.

A crowd of people, seen from the legs down wading through thigh-deep dirty-looking water, mostly wearing waterproof leg coverings or boots.

Photo by Jonathan Ford on Unsplash

Expansion and melting together raise sea levels globally (by about nine inches since the late 1800s, or almost six inches since 1950), while regional or even local factors either raise sea level even more or counteract the global rising. For example, during the last ice age, the North American continental glacier was so heavy that it pushed the land beneath it down, bulging the land to the south up to compensate. That glacier melted away over ten thousand years ago, but land moves slowly, so the area that was under the ice (the northern half of the US, plus Canada) is still slowly rebounding, while the area just to the south slowly settles. That’s why the New England coast is slower-than-average sea level rise, while the Mid-Atlantic is seeing the sea rise faster.

Other mechanisms influence sea level, too, locally or regionally, including ocean currents, wind patterns, and even gravity; the glaciers on Greenland and Antarctica are so big, their gravity pulls the ocean water closer, raising sea level along their coasts. As those glaciers shrink, their pull weakens, and the water drops slowly away, sloshing backward into other regions–such as mine.

The Delmarva Peninsula has some of the fastest sea level rise in the world–double the global average–because so many different mechanisms come together right here. Many areas also have a lot of local erosion, meaning we lose land to the water even faster. While some might be tempted to say our loss of land is due only to erosion, the fact is sea level rise makes erosion worse.

Why a Few Inches Matter

All these mechanisms of sea level rise together add up to ten inches of rise at Annapolis, Maryland just since 1950, almost double the global average, and the rate is speeding up. I haven’t found figures going back to the 1800s, but based on the global figures the water must be at least 13 inches higher now than it was when a lot of the basic regional infrastructure was planned out.

Ten inches doesn’t sound like a lot–but context matters. Consider that these inches are added on to each coastal flood event, meaning each flood is ten inches higher than it would have been, and that during a flood the difference between being OK and having saltwater in your living room could well be only a matter of inches.

It’s not the average water level that matters so much as where the water is on the highest tides or during storms. When the wind blows onshore and the full moon pulls the tide high, docks go under water. I’ve seen this–it doesn’t have to be a storm, just a blustery day. Saltwater puddles on low-lying roads, pushes up through storm drains…. A road or a yard or a parking lot doesn’t have to be underwater all the time to become unusable, it only has to get wet once too often. There are places in the Mid-Atlantic where that is already starting to happen. There are other places where it is about to happen.

And then there is the salt in the ground and what it does to forests and farm fields.

How Saltwater Intrusion Happens

The picture shows the legs of a person wearing dark pants and brown work shoes with blue laces standing in a large field of bare ground with a little dead plant stubble. In the distance a few trees are visible.

Photo by Kelly Sikkema on Unsplash

There are a couple of different ways salt can intrude where it didn’t used to go.

During coastal flooding events, salt soaks into the ground. The salt persists long after the flood drains away. Eventually rainwater will wash the salt out, but not if the floods come too frequently. After repeated flooding, the ground can actually get saltier than the sea.

Alternatively, salt can come up from beneath. Fresh water floats on top of salt water, so rivers flowing into the sea are sometimes salty near the bottom and fresh at the surface. Similarly, groundwater is often salty near the coast or along the shoreline of an estuary, especially deeper down–a layer of fresh groundwater may lay on top. As the sea rises, not only does saltwater move farther inland along streams and rivers, but it also moves up vertically, an invisible sea level under the water or under ground. That’s how wells can turn salty. It’s also how trees and crops can die of salt even if they haven’t been flooded–the freshwater layer on top of the salt in the ground is shrinking as the salt rises.

A related problem is that as the salty water table rises, drainage in the land above starts to get poor–there’s nowhere for rainwater to go. At that point, if there’s salt in the ground from flooding, it can’t easily be washed away by rain. The moisture stays put into it evaporates, leaving the salt still there.

Drainage ditches often make the problem worse because they make it easier for salty water to flow in on high tides, and from there the salt soaks into the ground.

The sea is not the only source of salt–road salt washing off into rivers is a significant problem in some areas, too–but in coastal areas, especially flat coastal areas like Delmarva, sea level rise is the primary source of the problem.

How Saltwater Hurts

Salt can act directly, almost like a poison, or it can act indirectly–salt chemically strips nitrogen and phosphorus out of the soil, leaving it infertile. And because those nutrients then wash into waterways, it’s possible saltwater intrusion could ultimately increase algal blooms and related problems. Rising salt levels in drinking water not only makes the water itself less drinkable, it also damages pipes–the Flint Michigan water crisis was caused by slightly salty river corroding old pipes, releasing lead.

The issue isn’t black and white. It’s not that one year a crop field is fine, the next year it’s a giant salt shaker. What happens is the salt concentration in the soil slowly starts to rise–it’s often worse in one part of a field than another–and yields start to drop. Some crops have trouble sooner than others; corn, for example, has a very low salt tolerance, while soybeans can handle much more salt. Some less popular crops, such as barley, are even better. Eventually, farmers need to either switch to a crop with a higher salt tolerance or stop planting the effected area. A complication is that it’s not usually possible to know when an area has become too salty without planting it and losing the crop, and expensive kind of test.

Somerset County alone (the only part of Maryland for which I have found figures), about 100 acres of farmland have been lost every year for the past decade.

Farmers do have some options. Some grow switchgrass or saltmarsh hay in salted fields, highly salt-tolerant alternative crops for which there is a small market. Others plant the land in salt-tolerant wildflowers for bees and then go into business selling honey. Or a salted field can be allowed to become marsh and then hunted. Putting conservation easements on land that can no longer be farmed can bring real tax benefits, too. But it’s not a good situation. There are families who have farmed the same land for generations for whom that tradition is simply over now.

Saltwater intrusion doesn’t just hurt farmers. There may be indirect economic effects coming down the road, from widespread loss of farmland, and as coastal forests are lost and aquatic species shift to more salt-tolerant communities, familiar landscapes will become less so. These are real losses. They matter.

Saltwater intrusion isn’t the only problem climate change causes on Delmarva–there’s still extreme weather of various kinds to contend with, for example, but saltwater is our particular problem. We simply have more of it than almost anywhere else.

Context, Story, and Hope

A narrow ditch filled with water that is starting to freeze. The banks of the ditch are covered with short, dense, dead vegetation.

Photo by Annie Spratt on Unsplash

Climate communications experts often explain the failure of the climate action message by saying it’s difficult for people to engage with information that is too negative and too far removed from their lives. Well, increasingly climate change is not far away. It’s trees dying. It’s farm yields dropping. It’s the woods where you went hunting with your dad converting to marshland. It’s my in-laws’ river-front house, where there used to be a wide private beach–I’ve seen the old home movies of young people in old-fashioned bathing suits playing there–and now the lawn ends abruptly in a stone bulkhead. Probably everyone on Delmarva, or at least everyone near even brackish water, has such a story, either their own or one told by a friend or neighbor. I’d like to see more of those stories being told. I’d like to see more people realizing what they’re seeing is climate change.

As far as negativity goes, my feeling is it’s not overly negative to scream “fire!” if your building is, in fact, burning. On the contrary, hope begins with action, and action begins with awareness of why one needs to act.

But if the only thing one hears is a warning scream, it can be difficult to know how to act–it can be hard to even be sure action will do any good.

My feeling is that although sea level rise–and hence saltwater intrusion–is unlikely to go away quickly no matter what we do, there is nothing so bad that it can’t get worse–and that means there is nothing so bad we can’t keep it from getting worse. And there are steps we can take, even as ordinary individuals (I’ve written about some of those steps in previous posts) to make the future better.

Speaking from experience, that hopeless, overwhelmed feeling goes away once we pick a course of action and jump on it.


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Rise Up for Earth Day!

A person-height view of a large crowd of densely-packed people in what looks like a large city--there are very tall buildings in the background. Many of the people are waving signs, though most can't be seen clearly. In the foreground is a young white man with a beard smiling at the camera and holding a large sign made to resemble the small signs businesses hang on their doors to indicate they are closed. It reads "Sorry, we're closed due to climate crisis."

Photo by Katie Rodriguez on Unsplash

Are you participating?

I refer to this year’s online Earth Day rally (it’s being billed as a strike, but clearly it’s a rally). You can get more information and RSVP here.

So, What’s the Deal?

The event is called Earth Day Live, and it’s three days of online programming, including workshops, presentations, question-and-answer sessions, and so forth, live-streamed or through Zoom, or otherwise digital and socially distanced. Here is the website, complete with a FAQ section. We’re talking the 22nd, 23rd, and 24th, all day each day. You can dip in and out as you please, participate in as much or as little as you like.

Why Is It Happening?

Originally, these three days were planned as a massive “climate strike,” but the plans had to be changed because of COVID-19. Partly the shift was logistical–in-person gatherings needed to be shifted to digital events–but it looks like the tone and focus has also shifted, in recognition of the changing needs of participants; the emphasis seems to be very much on self-and-community care during this time of crisis and also taking advantage of this unprecedented opportunity to transform ourselves in one way or another.

We know that things won’t be the same after COVID-19, but we don’t yet know how they will be. We get to find out. We get to decide.

I don’t know exactly what the organizers mean by “strike.” Were they planning to ask participants to sit at home for three days? Ironically, we are on a climate strike of sorts now, and probably a much more profound strike that we would have allowed ourselves otherwise. Were participants to refuse to go to work? Refuse to go to school? Refuse to cooperate in our own extinction by fossil fuel? Because that’s what a strike is.

More likely, this was to have been a demonstration or a rally. I’ve written of the distinction before–rallies are how groups motivate themselves, building up enthusiasm and group-fellow-feeling to strengthen themselves for a cause, whereas demonstrations are designed to display a group’s commitment and resolve to decision-makers. Demonstrations tend to function as rallies, but not all rallies are demonstrations. If ten thousand people gather together to celebrate their love for the planet and no one else finds out about the event, it doesn’t demonstrate much.

If a tree falls in the forest and no one hears, does it make a difference?

It sounds as though the new version of the Earth Day Strike is definitely a rally and may also be a demonstration. I hope it’s a demonstration. I want it to be a demonstration.

Why It Matters

There are a couple different reasons to attend a rally. You might feel better, more energized and engaged, about an issue you care about. You might learn interesting and important things from presenters or from other participants. And you might do some important networking–there was a really neat study some years ago, I wish I could find the link, in which researchers indeed found a connection between rally attendance and later political success of the same cause (and yes, the researchers successfully controlled for all other factors).

I’m not sure what networking opportunities will exist with this “strike,” but some events may allow for participants to interact with each other.

But then there is the value of a demonstration. Demonstrations show others we are serious–they shows others who share our concerns that they are not alone, and they shows news media leaders that climate is an important story to cover. Demonstrations show politicians that they need to pay attention to climate change and will be rewarded in the voting booth if they do, and demonstrations show those developing solutions that they’ll get the support they need to go live with their work.

Demonstration is the simplest, easiest way to indicate we must be taken seriously by others.

I don’t know to what degree this “strike” will be a demonstration–I’m not sure whether anyone is going to keep track of attendance numbers–but I suggest we all try showing up and demonstrating anyway.

How to Demonstrate Online

A large group of people walk in a sunny street by a large building. A young white woman, or possibly teenage girl, stands above the crowd, though it's not clear what she's standing on. She's next to a big metal pole. She's dressed casually in black and holds a cardboard sign reading "we are the change."

Photo by Lewis Parsons on Unsplash

I don’t know whether the Earth Day Strike is designed to be a demonstration or not–its effectiveness as a demonstration will depend on whether the number of participants can be counted and publicized. We can’t be counted unless we contact organizers somehow.

So, how do we contact the organizers?

On the website is an RSVP option. I suspect organizers are keeping track of how many people RSVP and will use that to estimate the size of the crowd.

So, go ahead, RSVP. And attend at least one online event this week, preferably one that requires signing in so that organizers again have something they can count. Also, post something to your social media, either the banners and such the organizers offer on the website or something you write yourself so that other people in your network can know what you’re up to.

Let’s show the world we care.


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Feedback, Please

Hi, all,

Don’t worry, I do plan on writing a “real” post also, but right now I have a question for you.

The thing is, I can’t tell whether the visitation records I get for this blog actually include all my readers. I suspect it doesn’t, since some posts are listed as having zero views and I happen to know my mother reads every one (hi, Mom!). So who else isn’t being counted?

So please, you who are reading this post, leave a comment. Just say hi. I want to see how many of you there are.

It’s important, and not just for my own ego–I’m working on setting up partnerships with other organizations, and if I’ve got a large readership I make a more appealing partner.

Thanks!

-C.


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A Carbon Emission Walks Into a Bar….

Today includes the International Moment of Laughter, according to my calendar. It doesn’t say when the Moment is supposed to be, so we’ll just have to be more or less giggly all day, won’t we?

A brownish-skinned woman with long, blonde hair is wearing a white fedora and a sleaveless black dress and laughing or giggling. She appears relaxed, unselfconscious, and spontaneous.

Photo by Vanessa Serpas on Unsplash

 Laughing at Climate Change?

There are those who blame our lack of progress on the issue on the negativity of activists, educators, and scientists. Apparently, one should never yell “FIRE!” in a burning building, as it will not impel the people to escape or to call the Fire Department. One should instead call, in a polite, upbeat way, “It’s pleasantly cool outside right now!”

As should be evident, I reject that premise, but I also believe in the value of humor.

As I’ve discussed before, climate denial is largely the deliberate creation of certain financially-motivated elites who have played on pre-existing cultural faultlines for their own gain. We’re not dealing with some intrinsic psychological phenomenon here, nor does the fault lie with overly negative activists. Rather, we are contending with a powerful and deliberate countervailing force.

But it’s also true that to counter that force, as we must, we need to avail ourselves of whatever tools psychology can give us, and if positive, solution-oriented messaging will help our cause, then so be it. And if goofing around will keep our own spirits up, then let’s get goofy.

The Case for Laughter

Seriousness and humorlessness are not the same thing. In fact, such serious topics as cancer and crucifixion have seen their treatments in comedy (for the latter, see the final scene of Monty Python’s Life of Brian). And while some jokes are clearly inappropriate when issues are real and raw, others help the raw places heal, or at least let us know where to put the Band-Aide. There’s even an article out there using scientific research to explain exactly how to use humor specifically for climate communication. Climate humor is A Thing.

(Just while we’re on the subject, though; humor can be used to say anything, including things that should not be said–mean jokes are still mean)

Ha-Ha

I wanted to have a whole, long list of climate change jokes, but it turns out I can’t think of any. Neither can anyone else, apparently, because when I looked up “climate change jokes” online I found three different sites purporting to contain said jokes, but the best they could do between them was “why does the climate need privacy? Because it’s changing.”

Really. That was the best one.

The poster for the movie, "Erik the Viking." The background is a yellow sunset into the sea with a Viking ship in the distance. The movie title is in big, blocky lettering that looks like chunks of stone. Four men with various facial expressions cluster at the bottom of the image, presumably main characters. In small letters at the bottom is a quote from a reviewer: "Invigorating, upside-down Python sensibility!" But the kind of jokes you can put on a bullet-point list aren’t usually that funny anyway. They are, at best, abbreviated notes for lines that might be funny if told with the right delivery, by the right person, or on the right day. If you want to laugh at climate change, or at least at the people who deny the existence of climate change, you really ought to see “Erik the Viking,” a wonderful movie occupying the penumbra of Monte Python (most of the Pythons are in it). There’s an island in the movie whose people love to sing but literally can’t (their attempts consist of atonally shouting “tee tee tah” in unison) and which is cursed to sink into the sea if blood is ever spilled there. Of course, blood is soon spilled, and the island begins to sink, but the locals won’t believe it. Erik and his ship-mates run around trying to convince them of the obvious to no avail. The Council takes a vote on the matter and concludes that the island is definitely not sinking. By this point Eric and the others have left and there’s barely enough land for the town council to sit on. The water’s rising fast.

“Uh, what shall we do while the island is not sinking?” someone asks.

“I know, let’s SING!” someone else suggests. And so the Hy-Brazilians sit around calmly shouting “tee! tee! tah! tah!” while they all disappear under the waves.

And then there’s XKCD.

It's a multi-panel internet comic that's really text-heavy. Here is a website that includes a transcript of the comic: https://www.explainxkcd.com/wiki/index.php/1321:_Cold

From XKCD 1321 “Cold”
http://xkcd.com/1321/

The “mouse-over text” reads “‘You see the same pattern all over. Take Detroit–‘ ‘Hold on. How do you know all these statistics offhand?’ ‘Oh, um, no idea. I definitely spend my evenings hanging out with friends, and not curating a REALLY NEAT database of temperature statistics. Because, pshh, who would want to do that, right? Also snowfall records.'”

The future doesn’t belong to one-liners, it belongs to sketch comedy, long-form comedic monologues, and internet comics.


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A Climate for Reading: Emotional Resiliency in the Era of Climate Change

Long-time readers will remember that I not-infrequently post essays about my own mental state, or the mental-health dimensions of the climate crisis more generally. The bottom line is that it’s difficult to take effective action when one is anxious or depressed, but climate change itself exacerbates mental health issues. There’s a vicious cycle at play, here.

So, I’ve started looking for solutions in books, and here I am, ready to cautiously recommend the first title.

The cover image of the book, Emotional Resiliency." It is a mix of dark blue and light blue with some irregular yellow and orange spots--possibly a satellite view of deep water, shallow water, and islands. The title, author's name, and related information are in the lower right-hand quadrant of the image. Emotional Resiliency in the Era of Climate Change:

A Clinician’s Guide

Leslie Davenport

2017 Jessica Kingsley Publishers

Emotional Resiliency is a slim, easy-to-read book filled with lots of practical tips and some interesting information. It’s written for professional therapists as a guide for working with clients, but because the author expects those therapists to also work on developing their own emotional resiliency, it works as a self-help guide too, in a pinch.

Each chapter covers an aspect of the psychological dimension of climate change, such as denial, grief, or the trauma around disasters, and then presents a worksheet designed to foster introspection and growth. The latter half of the book is devoted to presenting 12 practices, mental and emotional exercises designed to help patients–or the therapist reading the book–to grow. The recommendation is to do each one regularly for a whole month.

The resiliency in the title is an important concept. The objective of the book is not simply to help people feel better but to help people remain mentally functional in the face of the various kinds of stress that climate change presents–that way, we don’t take refuge in denial, or get overwhelmed and just down, or any of the other things stressed-out people do other than take care of the problem at hand (achieving climate sanity and coping with climate disasters).

The assumption here is that stress will keep coming, and it may at times be severe, but we have the power to strengthen ourselves against it so we can be part of the solution.

I have not yet put the recommended exercises into practice, so I cannot vouch for them; they do look worth trying.

My reactions to the rest of the book are mixed.

The author has a pervasive problem with clinging to a highly simplified, feel-good narrative where personal growth (assisted, perhaps, by a skilled clinician) appears to be the only thing a person needs to effectively tackle the climate crisis. While I definitely see the need for focus, it’s possible to focus on a topic without denying the existence of other topics.

The fact of the matter is that some people’s efforts towards climate action are complicated by poverty, by ongoing abuse and injustice, or by physical or other disability. Can people who are poor, oppressed, or disabled still become effective climate activists? Yes–many have, but only by negotiating layers of additional obstacles.

I wish this book included information on how to deal with those obstacles.

The author not only fails to even acknowledge the existence of problems such as poverty or disability (which cause their own stresses that a therapist could indeed address), she also fails to acknowledge that climate denial isn’t an exclusively psychological problem. I can see an argument for a book like this not getting too deep into politics, but the fact that climate denial is being deliberately propagated and is not an inevitable outgrowth of human psychology is important to acknowledge  particularly for a psychologist.

Further, the phenomenon of climate denial exists in a political, cultural, and economic context and is by now firmly wrapped up in issues of personal and community identity. A therapist who fails to recognize the reality of that context–and where the client fits in to it–is not going to be able to serve many clients well.

The third permutation of the book’s weakness may be harder for some readers to identify because it is pervasive throughout our entire culture.

I’m talking about frequent references to tribal culture that are little more than vague platitudes or bits of supposedly indigenous wisdom passed along by white people. She never mentions tribal peoples in any context other than as sources of mystical wisdom, and certainly never acknowledges any Native person by name or references any issue that Native people deal with in the here and now.

It’s racism. It’s also a serious problem for the author of this book to seem unaware that her readers might have Native people as clients or as colleagues or collaborators–any of whom might have trauma histories, perspectives, or resources related to their being Native and related to climate change

But all that being said, Emotional Resilience defines important conceptual territory–the idea of developing resilience, as opposed to simply coping with grief or fear, of building capacity like a muscle, is an important one. I found some of the information important food for thought.

And personally I find the reminder to attend to grief quite timely.

So for all the complaints that I have, I’m glad I’ve got the book. I intend to try out the exercises. And even the effort of sorting out which of her ideas are useful and which might not be–and what might be useful despite being couched in questionable ways–is itself a useful exercise.

On balance I recommend the book.

(Just remember the name of the author; the phrase “emotional resiliency” or “emotional resilience” occurs in the title of multiple books.)


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While COVID Rages….

Tall, puffy clouds against a dark blue sky. Sunlight from behind the clouds makes their edges very bright, although centers of the clouds are dark. The picture shows the literal meaning of the expression that dark clouds have silver linings.

Photo by Simone Viani on Unsplash

So, what exactly is the COVID-19 pandemic doing to the fight against climate change?

I’m hardly the only one asking, and this isn’t the first time I’ve asked–I’ve addressed the outbreak on this blog here and here and here. But as the pandemic proceeds, the conversation evolves. I see fewer posts on social media extolling the environmental benefits of an economic down-turn. While carbon emissions and other environmental problems are in fact lessening, they are caused by a situation that is obviously temporary. The real question is how will we be different when the pandemic passes? Will we collectively be better or worse?

Silver Linings, the Cases for and Against

I keep thinking, if we can shut down the economy and radically up-end our lives for a pandemic, surely we can do the same for climate change? There is no excuse, now, we’ve seen what fast action looks like, the bluff has been called. Quite true. But does that mean we’re going to collectively wake up, or are we seeing one more nail in our self-built coffin?

The Case for Optimism

There are writers who see cause for optimism in our current situation.

It’s true that we will need to rebuild society when the pandemic is over–what’s happening now is doing damage, like a cast that protects a healing bone but also forces muscles to atrophy–and there is no reason we have to rebuild things exactly as they used to be. We can use the opportunity to change. And there is reason to think that our collective experience now is making us better suited to make the right choices for climate in the near future.

Many of the mistakes we’ve made that are making the current outbreak worse (poor political leadership, distrust of science, poor assessment of risk) are also making the climate crisis worse–while the successes we’re seeing exercise skills that climate action needs also (cooperation, altruism, a focus on necessities rather than luxuries). It’s possible we will learn from our mistakes and our successes and apply the results to climate.

Big changes tend to happen suddenly, not gradually–it’s in the nature of complex systems, such as societies, to maintain the status quo against huge amounts of pressure and then to flip like a switch when a critical point is reached. Such critical points cannot be predicted from prior conditions alone. If the climate cause has seemed hopeless, it may be only that we can’t see the coming changes from our current vantage point; the shift we need may be right ahead.

Maybe the shift is going to be triggered by a novel coronavirus?

The Case for Pessimism

On the other hand, the American response to COVID-19 has been, by and large, terrible. Major population centers are starting to see their medical infrastructures over-run by the new disease, largely because of inadequate prior planning at the Federal level, and some states still have essentially no response policy. There are many individuals who don’t believe any emergency measures are called for and are resisting the measures now in place. People are dying who didn’t have to.

The fact that all this woe is caused by the same sort of political and psychological woes that have delayed climate action is no proof that such woes are going to evaporate any time soon. As some writers have pointed out, large-scale disaster is hard to deal with, and it’s likely to stay that way.

Indeed, environmental issues, including climate change, are usually seen as secondary, even by many environmentalists, fights that can and should be suspected in the face of real emergencies. And the pandemic has already derailed the process of climate-related diplomacy, since traveling and meeting together is not an option right now (why delegates can’t teleconference I don’t understand). The EPA has suspended enforcement of environmental regulations during the outbreak.

While You Were Busy….

A photo of a tornado in the distance above a flat, grassy prairie with fences but no buildings. The counds are mostly black but it appears to be daytime. The tornado is thin and vertical, not bending.

Photo by Nikolas Noonan on Unsplash

In the meantime, what is happening with climate change while the rest of us have our attention focused elsewhere?  Here’s a quick sampling:

  • The Trump administration is rolling back Obama-era auto-pollution rules.
  • The Great Barrier Reef suffered widespread bleaching this summer (remember, it’s in the southern hemisphere, where it is autumn right now). Coral organisms derive both their color and their food from symbiotic algae. Exposure to too much warm water for too long cause them to lose their algae and turn white–bleached coral is not dead, but it will die if it bleaches too severely or too often. This summer’s bleaching event is part of an ongoing trend of increasing bleaching that could soon become an annual occurrence.
  • 150 people have died in in Brazil in record-breaking severe weather events since New Years alone. While people die in floods in Brazil every year, this is excessive, and attributed to climate change by many experts.
  • An internet search on “tornadoes 2020” yields multiple stories from this past week about tornadoes in Georgia, Mississippi, Arkansas, and Alabama. While March tornadoes are not unprecedented, they are unusual; the normal peak for these storms is April and May. The Gulf of Mexico is currently about three degrees above normal, one of those small numbers that actually refers to a huge increase in the amount of energy in the water–and unusually warm water in the Gulf is associated with more severe storms, including tornadoes. If the anomaly persists into hurricane season, it could make Gulf hurricanes more severe as well. And the warmer the planet gets, the more likely warm pools of water in the Gulf become.
  • Florida is experiencing a record-breaking hot, dry spring, creating serious wildfire danger. Spring is usually Florida’s driest season, but this year is far beyond the usual.
  • A huge wildfire in China’s Sichuan Provence has just killed 19 people. 1,200 people have been evacuated and thousands of firefighters and rescue workers have pulled in to the region. I have not been able to find out whether large fires are common in Sichuan, but fires are more common in many parts of the world with climate change.

And on and on.