The Climate in Emergency

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


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What Matters

A photo of a casually-dressed young adult or adolescent with long hair kicking straight out at the camera so that much of the image is taken up by the sole of her sneaked foot. Her face looks angry. In the background is a low, peach-colored cement wall and blue sky. She may be on the roof of a city building.

Photo by Luz Fuertes on Unsplash

Why aren’t we out in the streets demanding climate action right now?

Yes, this is the Era of Covid, but there are ways to do masked, socially-distanced public demonstrations.

Yes, the push against racism, and particularly against police brutality, needs a lot of energy and attention right now, but these things need not be either/or. They can be both/and. And, in fact, they must be.

For years I’ve been frustrated by the environmental movement’s collective complicity in the pigeon-holing of our cause. We allow “environment” and “climate change,” and other such labels to be listed on public opinion polls and what-not alongside “the economy” and “public health” and “national security,” as though it were possible to care about one and not the other.

As though it were possible to have a vibrant economy without functional ecosystems from which to derive resources.

As though it were possible to have a healthy populace without clean air, clean water, good food, and natural beauty.

As though it were possible to protect national security as rising seas flood our military bases, heat waves kill our service members, and climate change-fueled droughts and other disasters pump out angry and desperate people looking for somebody to blame.

Why do we position environmental issues as competition against the health and welfare of people’s kids? Of course we’re going to lose. We’ve been losing. A majority of Americans care about environmental issues and want climate action, but it doesn’t happen because there’s always some issue more important on people’s minds.

When are we going to admit that the “more important issue” is also climate change? Public health is climate change, education is climate change, the economy is climate change, criminal justice is climate change, the full realization—at long last!—of the best American ideals is climate change! Without meaningful climate action, we lose all the other fights, too.

Yes, of course, turn up at Black Lives Matter events. If you’re white (as I am), educate yourself, follow instructions, do some soul-searching, and speak up when your friends and family say or do racist crap. There is a moment we need to rise to. Part of that rising does, indeed, require a certain selective focus.

But to say that a focus on racial justice requires not working on climate at all is both morally and factually untrue.

Because there is a climate dimension of racial justice, too.

We know that industrial facilities are disproportionately sited in non-white communities, exposing people of color to a far greater share of toxins. It’s not a big leap to suppose that this hiding of industry away from white communities might be one of the things that keeps our whole unsustainable system profitable.

We know that worldwide, heat waves kill more people in low-income urban communities, and that in the US these communities are overwhelmingly black (other non-white groups are also at substantially elevated risk, but not to the same extent).

We know that rising temperatures are also associated with increased rates of both interpersonal and group violence—and since cops are human, we can assume that will extend to increased rates of police brutality, too.

We know that climate change is raising global food prices through a variety of mechanisms. The US isn’t seeing the change directly yet, but when we do, it will it low-income families hardest, families who are, again, disproportionately not white.

We know that natural disasters–which are increasingly common because of climate change, consistently increase race-related income gaps among survivors. In general, the greatest impacts of disasters consistently fall on the least-privileged, who are least likely to be able to rebuild and least likely to be able to evacuate in the first place

We know that racism has been and is being used as a tool to keep climate deniers in power where they can prevent meaningful climate action.

Now is not the time for environmentalists to sit down, shut up, and wait our turn. To suppose that it is perpetuates the idea that environmental issues are separate from everything else, an idea that guarantees we will lose. No, now is the time to put our expertise and connections and interests in service to the moment. Nothing less will do.

In the wake of Hurricane Katrina, there were white folks who hunted black people through the ruined, lawless streets for sport. Those murders were ignored for years, and some may never be solved. Does anybody think that can’t happen again? The waters are rising. Storms are getting more severe.

Why does climate change matter? Because black lives do.


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Current Events

I had a plan for this week’s post, I really did, but then Siberia had to hit triple digits, and Africa had to have a giant dust storm, and there is really no way I can fail to acknowledge either story.

A photo showing a close-up of an outdoor thermometer with both Celcius and Farenheit scales. The temperature reads about 110 F., or 40 C.

Photo by Jarosław Kwoczała on Unsplash

 Hot Time in the Old Town Tonight

The situation in Siberia is, briefly, that the region has been unusually warm for months, now, producing a string of unusual and worrying events, such as melting permafrost (a tank resting on what used to be stable permafrost tipped over, causing a major diesel spill) and a big jump in wildfire activity. That the small town of Verkhoyansk hit 100.4° F. on Saturday is just the latest of the weird news.

Why?

High north heat-waves are, all by themselves, not that unusual. 100.3° set a record, but 90° is not unheard-of for the region, especially inland–the interior of continents tend to have extreme temperature swings, and when the sun shines 20 hours a day or more in the summer, things can occasionally heat up. Although “Siberia hits 100°!” makes an attention-getting headline, the real story is not one hot day but an entire pattern of unusually warm weather, where heat waves not only get hotter but last longer and come more frequently.

It’s easy–and more or less accurate–to say “it’s because of anthropogenic climate change,” but I like to dig a little deeper, look at how the general trend of a warming planet connects to, say, one hot day in Siberia in June. I should be clear that since I am not a climatologist or a meteorologist, my digging is necessarily provisional. You should definitely read the sources I cite for yourself before you quote me. But I do sometimes notice things. For example, as much as we are told that specific weather events can’t be tied definitively to climate change, I often see what looks, to my layman’s eye, like just such a tie.

There are several reasons why the air might get hot in Siberia, and they can layer on top of each other.

  • The average temperature, the baseline around which weather varies, is slightly but definitely warmer than it used to be.
  • Polar regions are, in general, warming faster than the rest of the planet in a process called “polar amplification.” Basically, a region that’s covered in snow most of the time is going to be cooler than an otherwise similar region that isn’t, because snow reflects light that would otherwise warm the area. So the high north (and Antarctica) is not just gaining a more insulating atmosphere, like the rest of the planet, it’s also losing its reflective snow blanket.
  • This particular spring was very warm, so the snow and ice melted unusually early. Summer got a head start, as it were.
  • A high pressure system parked itself over Siberia and refused to move. Atmospheric systems that don’t move cause problems because their effects tend to be cumulative–a long-lasting heat wave has time to get very severe.

All four happened to occur at the same time this year, producing record-breaking heat. There is definitely an element of chance, there, but of this recipe for a hot day, the first two ingredients are obviously anthropogenic climate change. The fourth ingredient, slower-moving weather systems, appear to be caused by changes in the jet stream which are, in turn, caused by the melting of polar ice–also climate change, in other words. Apparently, experts are debating whether heat waves in the high north are increasing, and whether climate change is the cause. Perhaps I am missing something, here, but I can’t see why there is any debate.

Maybe I’ll have to do a post on that very question.

Dusty-Old Dust-Storm Is A-Gettin Me Down

Meanwhile, a plume of dust is blowing from Africa all the way across the Atlantic, causing serious air pollution in the Caribbean–and it’s

A photo of a dry, gray-brown landscape with mountains. The view appears to extend for many miles, and the camera is evidently high up, either on a high mountain or in an aircraft. The sky is bmostly blue with some high, thin clouds. Except that the air is filled with a thick, brown dust so that everything appears vague and blurry.

Photo by veeterzy on Unsplash

predicted to blow into parts of the mainland United States next weekend. Dust plumes from Africa are not all that unusual (there is even an African dust plume season, and we are in it), but this one is unusually big.

So is this a climate change story?

At first, it looks like it should be. Dust plumes capable of crossing the Atlantic depend on dry soil in parts of Africa (to provide the dust), dry air (so that the dust doesn’t wash out of the air), and, of course, strong winds moving in the right direction. An unusual event caused, at least in part, by drought sounds like it ought to be a sign of climate change.

Except that (some, not all) climate modeling predicts that the wind patterns that carry the dust west might change as the climate does, putting less African dust in Caribbean lungs in the future, not more.

Before anyone starts celebrating, though, it turns out that dust plumes interfere with hurricane formation, or at least that they might be interfering–I’m a little unclear as to weather the association has been observed or only predicted–through a variety of mechanisms including cooling the sea (dust blocks sunlight) and creating a strong temperature inversion that keeps storm clouds from building very high. So, interference with the dust plume could be just another way that climate change worsens Atlantic hurricanes.

Now, here is a thought–I remember hearing a…call it a rumor, a bit of tid I can’t at present substantiate, that Atlantic hurricanes were getting more frequent but similar storms in other basins were not, a disparity taken to eliminate global climate change as a possible cause. Now, since then, more information has come in, and the hurricane/climate connection appears much stronger. But if climate change really is reducing the African dust plume and in turn exacerbating the Atlantic hurricane season, that would be a mechanism whereby climate change could influence hurricane behavior in one storm basin more than others….

But in the meantime, what caused this year’s big dust plume? Apparently, western Africa hasn’t been that dry of late.


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The Extent of Good News

A photograph with photelectric solar panels in the foreground and what looks like two cooling towers for a nuclear power plant in the background. White steam issues from the towers. The sky is clear blue.

Photo by Science in HD on Unsplash

Now and then I see something on social media to the effect that some country has become carbon neutral or gotten off fossil fuels, or some other happy, necessary milestone. It’s not generally true, but I wanted to see what is true. We need some good news. We need to hear who is having success and how, and also how those successes reflect on the larger struggle–which is to get our species off of fossil fuels while there is still something left of our future to save.

Electricity Greening

Figuring out whether a country is close to getting off fossil fuel is hard. Economies are complicated, energy comes in lots of different flavors, and coming up with a single overall figure involves a lot of apples-to-oranges comparisons. What we can do is look at different sectors of a country’s energy use one by one. Electricity is an easy one to start with, and in fact it’s usually electricity generation, not energy as a whole, that these memes I see mean.

An Important Caveat

Information about a country’s energy use can be stated in several different ways, not all of which are especially helpful. Let’s look at some hypotheticals:

  • A country boasts of getting 54% of its “energy” from renewables. Great! But since “energy” is sometimes erroneously used as a synonym for electricity, if we can’t tell how the word is being used, we don’t actually know what the boast means.
  • A country boats of getting 40% of its electricity from a big new wind farm. Great! But since wind is not the only form of renewable electricity generation, we still don’t have the whole picture.
  • “Renewables” can include burning wood, which can be carbon neutral or not depending on many factors that one really has to be an expert to assess. And the experts argue.
  • Nuclear power could be counted as a low-carbon energy source, depending on the wording of the statement. Whether it should be is a separate question, one that probably can’t be answered except by experts who, again, argue. So what is the energy status of a country that uses nuclear power?
A photo of cloud-to-ground lightning at night. The picture is longer than it is wide, emphasizing the length of the lightning bolt, which is jagged and bright, with a few thinner bolts branching off the main one and not reaching the ground. Lights on the ground suggest that people live near where the bolt has struck. Light from the bolt illuminates the clouds to some extent in violet and purple. It's lovely and dramatic.

Photo by Mélody P on Unsplash

Perhaps the most important source of unclarity to notice involves statements that include the word “enough.” As in “Country X produced enough electricity to power all its homes last month.” The problem is that when it comes to electricity there is no enough. Strictly speaking, humans don’t need electricity at all–we existed for tens of thousands of years without it. We invented our various demands for electricity, and we can always invent more if we want to. So when Country X brings on more renewable generation capacity, that doesn’t necessarily mean it decreased its non-renewable use by the same amount–it could just be using more electricity.

What we need to know is not how much renewable electricity is being generated, but of the electricity that is generated, what portion is renewable?

I suspect that figure is publicly available in most cases, but it may take some digging and some math to find it. The less-useful figures may be the easier ones to get, either because they look better or because they answer different questions than the one we’re asking.

Meaningful Memes

Most of the countries busy meme-boasting have not actually gotten fossil fuels out of their electric grid entirely, so where are these claims coming from?

While it’s wise to at least consider lying as a possible explanation, the issue is more likely that renewable energy generation varies. A windy month means more wind power. A rainy month means more hydroelectric power. And generation plants can come and go quickly as start-ups start up and then fail. Then, too, the total amount of electricity used can also vary, meaning that the proportion that comes from renewables changes even if renewable capacity doesn’t. So a country can be all-renewable, at least by some definitions, for short periods, even if it hasn’t turned the fossils off yet.

For example, one headline (that probably generated one of the memes I saw) shouts “IN MARCH, PORTUGAL MADE MORE THAN ENOUGH RENEWABLE ENERGY TO POWER THE COUNTRY.” This was March, 2018, by the way.

A close reading of the article shows that while the headline is accurate and is good news, it doesn’t mean the country went off fossil fuel for a month. First, “energy” here does mean only electricity, so Portugal was presumably still using fossil fuels for cars, home heating, industrial applications, and so forth. Second, there were periods during the month when renewable energy dropped and fossil fuel-powered plants had to step in to fill the gap. Since there were also periods when renewables provided more than enough, on average the country met 103.6% of demand for electricity from renewables. And that’s great.

Except were the fossils going only when renewable production flagged, or were they on all the time, just in case? I don’t know, but my guess is the latter. That renewables met more than 100% of demand is itself a clue that Portugal can and does produce more electricity than it uses, and I’m under the impression that power plants take time to turn on and off. A coal-fired plant can’t be switched on at a moment’s notice if demand spikes or the wind drops for a while, it has to be on all the time so its power is available when needed. How much back-up power is available? Where does the excess power go? Were any fossil-fuel plants turned off anywhere because of that remarkable March? We don’t know.

An image of multiple mountain ridges, one behind the other, leading to jagged mountains in the distance. The ridges are forested and misty. Everything shades of blue, black, and silver. Wind turbines stand on some of the ridges.

Photo by claudio pavione on Unsplash

Don’t get me wrong, it’s still good news that Portugal has a lot of renewable capacity, but this sort of thing explains the apparent paradox of a country boasting 100% renewable energy and still not being off fossil fuel. Portugal expects to actually get fossil fuel out of its electrical grid by 2040.

Costa Rica has also had extended periods of 100% renewable power. Denmark has had a few days of meeting demand with wind power alone (what other forms of renewable power it has wasn’t mentioned). Iceland and Norway get “essentially all” of their electricity from hydroelectric and geothermal, though what “essentially” means here is not clear to me. Other countries have renewable-energy bragging rights on other grounds, such as ambitious goals or big jumps in capacity. Some islands have gone all-renewable. All of it is worth celebrating, even if the situation on the ground is slightly different than that implied by the memes.

The Rest of the Story?

There is so much else to talk about on this topic–what individual countries have to rightly boast about, how the transition away from fossil fuels looks for sectors other than electricity, and so on, but all that will have to wait for another post.

Stay tuned.

 


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High Tides Higher

Dorchester County, Maryland, sits on the eastern edge of the Chesapeake Bay. It’s the fourth-largest of the 23 counties in the state. By century’s end, it could drop down to the 14th-largest, thanks to some of the fastest sea-level rise in the world.

High Tide in Dorchester is a lovely and frightening documentary on the impacts, current and potential, of sea-level rise in this salty, marshy, and deeply historic part of my state. Except where otherwise noted, the information in this post comes from that documentary, which I heartily recommend.

The What and the How of Local Sea-Level Rise

A human, possibly a white man, stands facing away from the camera looking over the water to the horizon. He is wearing a red baseball cap and mostly dark, casual clothing. The water is very calm, barely a ripple, and the sea and sky are both lovely shades of blue and pink. It is apparently either sunset or sunrise. The man stands on what appears to be a wet, concrete platform, possibly a dock or a jetty. The end of the platform is underwater, suggesting sea-level rise.

Photo by Nicholas Barbaros on Unsplash

 Most of us know the sea is rising, and we know the basics of why, but of course there is more to the story than the basics. I’ve discussed some of this in other posts (for example, here and here and here), but Dorchester is a good place to see all of it come together in a worst-case scenario already well underway.

Besides glacial melting and thermal expansion, which are more or less global in their impact, there are several other, more local or regional causes of sea-level change, and by a weird coincidence they all come together in Maryland. These are:

  • A redistribution of water formerly held near the poles by gravitational attraction to the masses of ice on Antarctica and Greenland. As the glaciers lighten, this water sloshes back away from the poles, raising sea levels in other places. Maryland is one of those places.

  • The Gulf Stream runs along the surface of the ocean, like a river in the sea, until it gets near northern Europe. By then it has gotten a lot salter through evaporation, and so it sinks and continues on as a deep-water current, part of a global cycle of moving water. But the fresh water melting off of Greenland’s glaciers is diluting that salty water, making it slower to sink, causing the entire Gulf Stream to back up a bit—and that backed-up water also raises the sea-level in Maryland and parts nearby.

  • At the same time that the water rises, the land in the Mid-Atlantic region is sinking. This one, for once, isn’t caused by humans. Instead, it’s North America slowly readjusting itself to the melting of our glaciers some 12,000 years ago. The weight of the glaciers pushed the northern part of the continent down, creating a bulge just to the south. So with that weight off, northern areas are gradually rebounding (partially offsetting sea-level rise) while we just as gradually subside (adding to sea-level rise).

  • Erosion isn’t sea-level rise, but the faster the sea rises, the more quickly the lands erode.

It all adds up. Near the beginning of the documentary, the host—a white-haired, though still spry, gentleman—stands on what was the baseball diamond where he played as a boy. He’s standing in three feet of water.

Three feet of water on what was dry land within living memory—and the average rise globally is only about eight or nine inches so far.

The speed of sea-level rise is increasing. Global average rise is likely to hit two feet within the next 30 years. Depending on how much greenhouse gas ends up being pumped into the sky, it could top five feet by century’s end. What is that going to mean for Dorchester?

And Dorchester County is so flat that every one foot of vertical rise translates into five horizontal miles of land lost to the sea.

The Human Side of Things

A human (gender is unclear) with long dirty-blond hair is walking a medium-sized dog along a footpath through a vast yellow and gray grassland, possibly a big saltmarsh. The human is wearing a red sweater and long, dark pants and is carring a camera on a shoulder strap. The dog is on a short leash, is all black, and appears to be either a Lab puppy or a Lab/terrier mix. The color palatte of the photo is drab but restful, and the human appears casual and candid, not posed.

Photo by Patrick Hendry on Unsplash

Holland Island was once a well-to-do community, but is now just marsh with scattered dead trees. Its last house washed away in 2010. On Hooper’s Island, graves are falling into the water—the eroding shoreline is scattered with pieces of coffins and human bone. Farm Creek Marsh, as the name implies, was once farmland and still has the visible remnants of a settlement. The families of people who owned businesses there still live nearby. These are radical changes happening quickly enough that worlds change noticeably in a generation—or less.

Islands that once supported thriving communities have been reduced to marsh dotted with ruins and old graves. Towns shrink. Farmland reverts to swamp. Schools open late or close early as high tides creep across roads, obstructing buses. Snowplows are called into service any month of the year to sweep flood debris off low-lying roads.

If you live in Dorchester County, especially if your family if from the area, you already know all of this. You cope with the tidal flooding, the salt-water intrusion, the public events rescheduled in deference to the tide. You, or someone you know, has lost land, lost familiar landmarks, lost property value, lost a community, to the incoming salt water.

You may or may not attribute all of the above to climate change.

Many people living in the area attribute the losses to erosion, which is indeed part of the problem. And it’s true that there would be erosion in at least in parts of Chesapeake Bay even if sea level were stable (I have just confirmed this with my mother, a retired geologist). And while sea-level rise unquestionably makes erosion worse, it’s difficult to say which erosion is climate-related and which is not.

But as the documentary points out, the flooding and the salt-water intrusion (which is basically flooding that comes up inside the soil, rather than flowing along on top of it) are distinct from erosion and are wholly climate-related.

In some contexts, such as the conversion of marsh to open water, it can indeed be difficult to disambiguate erosion from rising seas. Did the water come up, or did the land go away? But where the land has not gone away, where it has just become wetter or saltier or both, that is not erosion.

“Nuisance flooding,” or “sunny day flooding” refers to saltwater flooding not associated with storms—no rain, no storm surge, just water coming up where it shouldn’t. Tides naturally vary, both over the month and over the course of a year. Winds can push water towards or away from shore even in good weather, too, adding a few inches to tidal extremes on occasion. Even were sea level not changing, we might expect to see an abnormally high tide wet a waterfront property now and then.

But, ask yourself, is such flooding getting more common?

When the abnormal high tide that once happened every year or so becomes a monthly or a twice-monthly occurrence, that’s not erosion. Something is changing.

Dorchester County is not the only sea-level rise hot-spot in the region. To a lesser extent, it’s happening all through the Mid-Atlantic. I’ve seen water creeping up into the streets in St. Michaels. I’ve seen fishing piers entirely underwater near Berlin. Nobody builds roads or fishing piers where they’re likely to flood semi-regularly—these structures are older than the current sea level is. Sunny-day flooding is becoming common in parts of Virginia, due to rapid land subsidence caused by unsustainable groundwater removal, plus the regionally-intensified effects of climate change.

There are other regions with their own hot spots. For example, though much of coastal Florida, sea-level rise is complicated by the porous limestone bedrock; build a sea wall to keep the rising tide out, and the water just flows through the bedrock and rises up on the other side to the exact same level as that of the sea. Lots of places have their own issues. Lots of people are facing much faster sea-level rise than the global average.

The future is not going to look like the past.

Looking Ahead

Sea-level rise, and the other symptoms of climate change, are not politics. Politicians may argue and disagree about how to respond to climate change, but the water itself doesn’t care whom you vote for, it just flows across your lawn.

The question is, what to do about it?

The people in Dorchester, and in Delmarva more generally, have a long tradition of connection to place, of attachment to the waters, marshes and forests that make up their home, and to the people, the human communities rooted in these places. These are inter-generational connections, and they don’t just wash away. Nor do they need to.

If emissions can be lowered, sea-level rise can be slowed, perhaps enough to allow the communities of low-lying areas to adapt. Buildings can be raised. Shorelines can be stabilized against erosion. Infrastructure can be moved back away from the water so that marshland can expand inland even as its outer edges are drowned by rising water. We need marshes to protect us from hurricanes and nor’easters and to provide breeding grounds for marine life, including the animals that go into the region’s famous seafood. We have a lot of options.

But to save communities in sea-level rise hot-spots will require partnerships between these communities and the wider world. Climate change is a problem no one can solve alone.

But we can solve it together.


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A Climate for Reading: Overstory, by Richard Powers

The cover illustration of the novel being reviewed. The title and the author's name appear in simple, white lettering in the middle. Other words, in this image too small to be legible, appear near the bottom in white in a cursive-like font. The image behind the words is a painting of a redwood grove with a glimpse of blue sky behind the trees. Two people and horses, so smal as to be difficult to make out, stand on the ground near the base of a fallen tree, giving a sense of scale to the huge trees. The image is distorted in an interesting way; it is repeated four times in different sizes and orientations. The largest version occupies the entire rectangle of the cover, but it is largely obscured by the second, which is upside-down. It is largely obscured by the third, which is rightside-up, and the most clearly-visible version of the image, but it has a fourth, tiny, upside-down version in it's middle--this smallest picture contains the words "a novel" in cursive in white. Each version of the image is circular, except that if the biggest is a circle its edges are well beyond the edges of the book, and the second-largest is big enough that its sides aren't included. All the circles share the same center, so that the images of trees form rings--possibly meant to evoke the annual rings of trees. However, they also look a bit like spreading ripples of water, since water can reflect images. The central circle looks very much like a drop of water, because drops can function as lenses and turn images upside-down. The dominant colors of the whole cover are red-brown, yellow-brown, green, and blue. It is pretty, it is restful, it is intriguing, and it's hard to tell what's going on. I didn’t start reading Overstory in order to learn about, or even think about, dealing with climate change. In fact, had I done so, I would have been disappointed, as the novel doesn’t offer any obvious solutions or clear solace. A reader could even be forgiven for thinking it’s not about climate change at all–it’s about trees, forests, and people.

Of course, the story of trees, forests, and people is the story of climate change.

Fortunately, I read the book for an entirely different reason; my husband gave it to me as a present, and I’d seen the author interviewed and he seemed interesting, so of course I took a look.

Oh, wow.

DeScription

I’m reluctant to describe the book too clearly, as I read it without much of a preview (I didn’t even read the blurb on the back) and discovering the story as I read was a real pleasure. However, even I seldom buy a book without knowing what it’s about. So, if you want to do as I did, click on the link above, buy a copy, and don’t finish reading this post.

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And here you are. You couldn’t not find out, could you? I can’t say as I blame you. The only reason I went in to the story without looking was that I got the book as a present and therefore didn’t need to figure out whether I wanted to buy it.

It’s not exactly that I’m going to give away “spoilers” in the normal sense. For one thing, as soon as the reader realizes that the book is set in the real world and concerns all life on Earth, it’s obvious what’s going to happen by the end of the book–what’s going to happen is what has happened. The tale doesn’t and cannot provide any ultimate resolution–which is the other reason why there can’t be any spoilers about the ending. There isn’t an ending.

And yet I could not help hoping, as I read, that something would be resolved, something would be fixed, that the cavalry would ride in somehow and save the day. And when I was done reading I could not help feeling that something had been resolved, or at least addressed, that although I still can’t figure out how the author managed it, this story of stories came to a conclusion. It feels complete.

The book starts out by presenting seven fort stories about people who all have some kind of significant interaction with trees, but no apparent connection with each other. Then five of the seven merge as one character from each becomes a protagonist in a sprawling tale about radical environmental activism in the 1980’s, while characters from the other two stories continue their own apparently unrelated lives. Then the five separate out again, new connections and relevancies occur, some involving those other two, and finally the book ends…however it does.

The book simply does not have the sort of plot, rising action, climax, falling action, that we learned stories are supposed to have back in junior high school. Instead of an arc, its stricture forms a tree, a tree with two lianas clinging to it, a tree bearing seeds.

It’s incredibly dense with detail, and as far as I can tell the detail is real. The author has a long list of recommended books, many of which I also received as gifts from my husband and happened to read first, plus I’m interested in these subjects, so I’m in a position to say nothing here except the details of the characters–and possibly one of the “seeds” at the end–is made up. Trees really do talk to each other. Ponderosa pines really do smell like that. Forests are really communities that likely do have their own intelligence, like giant, slow minds. Gingko trees really do lose their leaves all at once.

As for the scene where activists, having locked themselves together inside a corporate building only to have liquid mace dripped into their eyes by the police? Yes, something very much like that happened. Years ago, I spoke to someone who knew the women it happened to.

Implications

Human preoccupations have a way of convincing us that they are of supreme importance–that they are in fact the only thing of importance. Even as I write these words, there are people battling police in the streets in major cities, people who have seen their friends, lovers, parents, children killed for their color by people who by and large get to be treated like good-guys afterwards, and darned if I’m not thinking about how to get my aerobic exercise in for the day. We blind ourselves to each other.

How much more to we blind ourselves to the living world around us?

The brilliance of Overstory is that it escapes preoccupation. In its very refusal to have a narrative arc and an ending, its refusal to limit itself to the rules by which virtually all human discourse plays, is its refusal to look away, or to help its readers look away, from the existence of the more-than-human.

It is an escape hatch from solipsism, a call to unsuicide.

 


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Choosing the Future

A photo of what looks like the marqee of an old movie theater. On top, where the name of the theater would be is the word "World." Where the names of the movies would usually be is only the sentence "The world is temporarily closed."

Photo by Edwin Hooper on Unsplash

 Throughout the enforced quiet and solitude of the COVID-19 pandemic, the planet has gotten something of a break. Greenhouse gas emissions have dropped, smog has cleared, and animals have felt free to reclaim places they normally cannot go. Of course, the news is not as good as it may appear; as I’ve discussed before, polluting industries are likely to make up for lost time later, and meanwhile the public health crisis provides convenient cover for the erosion of many important environmental protections.

For a disease to force an end to pollution, it would have to be much more severe than COVID-19 is likely to be.

But what COVID019 cannot force, we can freely choose. We’ve breathed cleaner air, seen clearer water, known a greater intimacy with wild animals and, in many cases, with each other. Do we want to go back? Or do we want to go forward?

Forward!

OK, but how? Clearly we can’t stay in lockdown forever—some of us never locked down in the first place, either by choice or through economic necessity or civic duty. Others are being driven into poverty at this moment, struggling to survive with little or no income and no reduction of rent and other demands. We might be able to stick with it long enough to beat COVID, but it’s not a permanent solution.

So what we need to figure out is exactly which aspects of lockdown are good, environmentally speaking, and of these which can we maintain long-term without too much trouble.

I had wanted to do this article as a research piece, but the information I would need is not easily available and I already have one master’s degree and don’t need another. So instead this will be a post more about asking questions than about answering them.

A photo of a jet plane high in the sky--it looks very small--drawing a white jet-trail diagonally across a black background.

Photo by Joel & Jasmin Førestbird on Unsplash

 First Question….

Exactly how does the lockdown yield environmental benefits? What aren’t we doing now, and which gives us our best bang for our buck? It’s a good and important question. If you find and answer, please let me know. My guess involves the following:

  • We’re not flying. We’re not flying much, anyway. Air-travel continues, but at a much-reduced rate.

  • We’re not driving. Again, we haven’t stopped driving entirely, but as most of us aren’t working, taking our kids to school, or going much of anywhere fun, there is much less traffic. So I have heard, anyway. Our local roads actually look pretty normal on the rare occasions I go out.

  • We’re not buying stuff we don’t need. Stores are closed, we’re encouraged to stay out of them, and most of us don’t have much money anyway, so we’re mostly only buying essentials. Cutting back on inessentials reduces demand, which slows production, which reduces industrial emissions. So I gather, anyway.

I have not heard any reports of lockdown closing factories directly (the cutting of supply despite continued demand) except in meat processing—sadly, I have heard nothing to suggest that the meat industry has reduced its production of animals to adjust to the closing of some meat-packing plants. Animals who reach their slaughter size without a facility ready to slaughter them are killed to make room for new animals coming in, the meat and their deaths wasted. Aside from the ethical dimensions of that situation, the meat that isn’t being eaten has the same large carbon footprint as the meat that is.

Second Question

Let’s try an equation:

A – B = C

A is the emission reduction achieved by reducing a given activity (such as driving) to lockdown levels, B is the heartache and difficulty caused by the reduction, and C is the advisability of continuing the reduction after lockdown ends.

For any given activity, what are the values of A, B, and C?

Because as much as some of us like to instinctively just do without stuff for the good of the planet, there is nothing inherently helpful in asceticism, and too much denial is bad for the movement and, arguably, bad for the soul. We have to figure out what’s worth giving up and what isn’t.

We can approximate these figures by looking at carbon footprint estimates—something with a big footprint is likely to have a big value for A—but we can’t be sure. For example, we know flying has a large footprint, but a slight reduction in the number of flights combined with a drastic reduction in number of passengers (meaning planes flying almost empty) could actually lead to a higher per-passenger footprint for air travel.

Third Question

How much of the heartache we’re dealing with has less to do with what we’ve given up and more to do with how we’ve given it up—suddenly, with little time to prepare, either as individuals or as a society? And to what extent are some aspects of lockdown making others harder than they otherwise would be?

For example, mass transit has been limited or reduced in many areas, meaning that while we’re not on the road as much, when we are on the road we’re in individual vehicles, blunting the benefits of traveling less. Similarly, the community spirit many people have discovered is limited by the demands of social distancing. If we stayed home together and could actually be together that would be better yet for our communities, wouldn’t it?

As a related issue, the fact that we’re all staying home and apart because of a pandemic means that we don’t just stay home when it’s boring or inconvenient, we also stay home when it’s dangerous or otherwise awful. Domestic violence seems to be up. Child abuse could be, too. Masks make communication harder for people with hearing problems or auditory processing problems, and life shouldn’t be harder for them. Single parents trying to work from home find themselves also responsible for their kids’ academics.

In suggesting that some aspects of lockdown should continue, I don’t mean they should continue like this. I mean that some of us are noticing advantages, and we have the opportunity to find ways to keep some of those advantages without so much of the difficulty.

We can achieve it through creative problem-solving and a willingness to try new ways of accomplishing what we need to. For example, while some work really shouldn’t be done from home except as an awkward stop-gap, maybe we can use the tools we’ve learned to cut back on commuting and business travel?

Forward?

Two people standing on a city street with vehicles and a few people in the background. The people in the foreground are standing at a microphone. One of them, a man with very long, thin dreds, is playing a guitar. The other, a woman with short, white hair, is dressed in a white jacket and a gray scarf. They are both singing. These are not my neighbors, this is a stock photo, but my neighbors too were a couple with a microphone and a guitar.

Photo by Thomas Le on Unsplash

 What lockdown is giving us is a chance to examine our lives both individually and collectively, a chance to stop business as usual and make some decisions about what we want to do next. Yes, of course, where lockdown is causing problems for you I wish you godspeed in getting rid of those problems—personally, I don’t think it has to be as difficult as it is. Our society could do a better job at taking care of our people than we do. But those of you who are really OK, or those of you who are OK with some aspects of this new normal, even if not with others, now you know something important. You know that your “OK” is more flexible than you thought it was.

The future isn’t going to look like the past. Climate change assures us of this– “unsustainable” means can’t be sustained, after all. We have a choice. We can either allow increasing severe weather, more fires and pandemics and plagues of all sorts to change our lives for us, or we can come together and decide what we want to change.

Achieving sustainability will require giving things up, but they don’t have to be the important things—and what we get in exchange could be sweet and heart-warming and lovely.

Look, I don’t have any illusions that COVID-19 is going to automatically trigger any kind of new, eco-conscious lifestyle, not any more than it will fix and other of the societal ills it has made so glaringly obvious in the past few months. In fact, economies are already opening back up, some parts of the world are returning to normal, or trying to, and skies are doubtless starting to re-darken with smog.

But they don’t have to. If you like clear skies and clean waters and sharing driveway concerts with your neighbors, and you don’t want to lose these things again you don’t have to,


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But It’s May!

A satellite image of a tropical cyclone making lanfall on a large gray-brown landmass. This is not Tropical Storm Arthur specifically.

Photo by NASA on Unsplash

So, there’s a tropical storm out in the Atlantic.

Or, at least there was one recently; the storm named Arthur (not to be confused with other storms named Arthur in recent years). Although Arthur itself was not especially destructive and never achieved hurricane status, it’s remarkable in that hurricane season won’t actually start for another week and a half. It’s May, a time of year when the Atlantic Ocean is supposedly too cold still to feed this kind of storm.

So, this here is a slam-dunk bit of evidence of climate change, right?

Well, it is and it isn’t.

Trying to Reason with Hurricane Season

(Yes, I titled this section with the name of a Jimmy Buffet song. You can go hear the song here)

Six years ago, I wrote a post on hurricanes and climate change that did a good job of explaining certain basics. Otherwise unattributed quotes come from that post.

Defining Terms

“Hurricane” technically refers to only one subset of a whole category of storms that share the same structure.

Tropical cyclone” is the generic term that covers tropical storms, hurricanes, typhoons, and cyclones. All these storms have a distinct eye and draw their energy from the evaporation of water, rather than from temperature differences between adjacent air masses as extra-tropical cyclones do.

“Tropical storm” refers to a tropical cyclone with sustained winds of anywhere from 39 MPH to 74 MPH. Once a storm intensifies to 75 MPH or beyond, it is called a typhoon in the Northwest Pacific, a cyclone in the South Pacific or the Indian Ocean, and a hurricane everywhere else. I have not found any explanation for this diversity of names for the same kind of storm. Perhaps it is a relic from a time before we knew they were all the same.

So what we normally call the hurricane season should be called the tropical cyclone season–after all, Arthur wasn’t a hurricane, but its formation outside of the season still attracts attention.

Each storm basin has its own season. In the North Atlantic, the season officially runs from June 1st to November 30th, but tropical cyclones outside of those dates in other parts of the world aren’t necessarily remarkable.

Introducing Arthur

A person with long hair and a striped black-and-white shirt stands facing away from the camera and looking at dramatic, dark, roiling stormclouds. In the distance is an odd, pinkish area that might be a curtain of rain.

Photo by Shashank Sahay on Unsplash

On May 16th, 2020, a large, multi-day rainstorm in the Florida Strait was recognized as a tropical depression, meaning it had an eye and drew its energy  from the evaporation of water. It was thus the first tropical cyclone of the 2020 North Atlantic season. A few hours later, its sustained winds topped 39 MPH, making it a tropical storm. It was given the name Arthur–every tropical storm found in the North Atlantic gets a name from an alphabetized list of alternating male and female names, so the first storm of this year would have been named Arthur no matter when it occurred. Each list gets re-used every six years (indeed, I remember being rained on by the last Arthur), although the names of particularly notable storms are retired. There will never be another Katrina, for example.

This year’s Arthur moved north as its winds intensified to around 50 mph. It did not make landfall but brushed the Outer Banks before heading further out to sea and then, oddly, turning south towards Bermuda. On May 19th, the storm’s designation was changed to “post-tropical cyclone,” as it was no longer gaining strength from evaporating water. However, a storm does not need to be tropical or dangerous, and Arthur’s story is not necessarily over yet, as of this writing.

Unseasonable Storms

Arthur is not the first North Atlantic tropical cyclone to occur in May. In fact, tropical cyclones can form in the Atlantic any month of the year–and have. Hurricane season is not a law of physics but rather a rule of them; meteorologists, government officials, tourist agents, and anyone else who needs to think about the likelihood of hurricanes know it’s best to keep an eye out from June through the end of November. The occasional unseasonal storm doesn’t change the pattern, especially since out-of-season storms are usually weak and rarely make landfall.

But this is the sixth year in a row that the first named storm has occurred before June 1st.

2016 was particularly odd, as it ha two pre-season named storms, the first an actual January hurricane. But over the past 17 years, nine have had at least one pre-season North Atlantic tropical cyclone.

We’re at the point where meteorologists are starting to talk seriously about extending the season, though the change hasn’t been formally proposed, yet. The arguments for and against are interesting in several different ways.

The argument for is fairly clear; if tropical cyclones often form in May, then shouldn’t the season start in May?

The arguments against are several:

  • We don’t know yet that May storms are actually typical. We could have a few unusual years in a row by chance, in which case we could A close-up of lots of people wading through calf-deep water. Only their legs are visible. They're wearing brightly-colored waterproof leg coverings.next have a decade or so of late first storms. In that case, an earlier start to the official season will be both silly and confusing.
  • It’s possible that May storms are typical, and have always been typical, we just didn’t notice most of them until we started tracking storms using satellites. The early storms we see these days tend to be weak and of short duration, and they don’t often make landfall, meaning that there could have been lots of similar May and even April storms in the past that nobody knew about.  The point of having a hurricane season has never been to include all months when tropical cyclones can happen–nobody is proposing extending the season to include January and December. The point is to include the months when these storms are likely to become problems. Maybe May storms aren’t usually problems.
  • If we changed the hurricane season, someone might think climate change is real.

More on that last point shortly.

Climate Politics?

In an article about Tropical Storm Arthur and other early storms, the Florida Sun Sentinel recently quoted a meteorologist as saying he could understand not wanting to change the season “because you’d suddenly get all these existential political arguments about oh they’re just doing that because of climate change or something.”

A Closer Look at Cons

At first glance, that quote about not changing hurricane season dates really does sound climate-denial-ish, and in fact I don’t know that it isn’t meant that way. I can believe there are those who don’t want to change the season because they don’t want to appear to believe in climate change. But I don’t know that this meteorologist meant it that way–and that’s why I’m not including his name here. You can find his name in two seconds by clicking on the link to the article, but it’s possible the article takes his words out of context.

Climate change is real, but it’s difficult to demonstrate that fact using hurricane data alone.

Tropical cyclone records are being studied, but the problem is the data are “noisy.” That is, there are so many variations that are not related to the greenhouse effect that it’s hard to spot the variations that are….Some of the noise in tropical cyclone data is the natural variability in storminess from year to year. Normally scientists can tune out such noise by looking at a large enough dataset. The basic procedure is to let random variations cancel themselves out–years with a lot of hurricanes are balanced by years with very few, if you look at enough years. What variation doesn’t get cancelled out is actually the climate changing.

But with tropical cyclones that standard procedure doesn’t work very well because there are problems with the data:

  • We don’t have good records of tropical cyclones before the Industrial Revolution. Scientists only started realizing that some large storms are spirals around 1820. Modern weather forecasting based on networks of weather stations didn’t begin until the 1860’s and most of the technology used to monitor hurricanes was only invented in the 20th century.  It’s hard to do a before-and-after comparison if you have no “before” shot.
  • The United States has been conducting aerial reconnaissance on hurricanes for decades, but since similar flights into typhoons have stopped, the data on storms in different parts of the world are not directly comparable.  That makes it hard to really get a global picture.
  • A lot of research on tropical cyclones is done by satellite, especially in the Pacific, but satellites are a relatively new technology so, again, we don’t have a good picture of how storms change over time.
  • Which information we get about which storm is a little random. For example, getting a measurement of a storm’s highest winds at landfall depends on getting the right instrumentation into the right part of the storm at the right time. For obvious reasons, that doesn’t always happen.
  • The conventions on how researchers analyze data and how they make estimates can change, subtly but definitely changing the numbers they record.

Scientists can and do work around these limitations, but they can’t make the limitations vanish.

And while it seems like a no-brainer that a warmer world will have more tropical cyclones, hot water is not the only requirement for storm formation; certain atmospheric conditions are also necessary, and some models show the frequency of these conditions–and thus the frequency of tropical cyclones–holding steady or even decreasing.

So while climate change is real, it’s far from clear that increased pre-season storm activity is related–or even happening at all. Whatever’s happening with early tropical storms might have nothing to do with climate change and much more to do with figuring out which rules-of-thumb are useful for disaster preparedness. And it’s easy to imagine even scientists who fully support climate action being irritated by having their work misinterpreted by climate activists.

But….

A photo of a hurricane taken from low Earth orbit, probably from the International Space Station. The image looks as though it were upside-down, because the Earth occupies the upper part of the image while the blackness of space is visible at the bottom. Most of the image is dominated by the Earth, and the storm covers all of the visible part of the Earth, a large enough view that the curve of the Earth is noticeable. The eye is very large and well-defined. The storm must be enormous and very powerful. This is not Tropical Storm Arthur, either, it's just an impressive picture of a tropical cyclone.

Photo by NASA on Unsplash

But regardless of what that one un-named meteorologist meant when quoted by the Sun-Sentinel, some of the articles I’ve been finding on early tropical cyclones seem a bit disingenuous, being focused on the idea that the links between climate change and tropical cyclones is unclear and anyway these storms are usually quite weak and barely tropical in structure at all.

“Weak” and “barely tropical” don’t actually mean much, for one thing.

Weak, in a tropical cyclone, generally means it doesn’t have very high maximum sustained wind speeds. Arthur’s winds, for example, never exceeded 74 MPH, so it never counted as a hurricane. But wind speed is not as important as we might assume; most of the death and destruction in these storms is caused by flooding, not by wind. So the fact that pre-season storms rarely develop windspeeds over 74 MPH doesn’t tell us much. I want to know how big they are, how much rain they carry, and how slowly they move–all information not provided by most reports. Even tropical characteristics are not necessary for a storm to be dangerous. Nor’easters, which are non-tropical cyclones, can be as destructive as hurricanes because they can cause as much flooding, and their more moderate winds can cover a very large area. So I don’t know what “barely tropical” means, but it’s not comforting.

Finally, the connection between tropical cyclones and climate change is no longer as mysterious as it seemed when I wrote my posts on the subject back in 2014. Yes, the data of the past are still noisy, but new research methods are starting to give us a much clearer picture, and the picture isn’t pretty. No, we still don’t know whether early-season storms are, in general, a sign of climate change, Arthur particularly developed in unusually warm water. That is, the storm didn’t occur in typical-May conditions that we just didn’t know could produce tropical cyclones, nor was it the result of unusual atmospheric conditions that might have occurred irrespective of water temperatures. We had a tropical storm in May because ocean temperatures more closely resembled those of June.

It behooves us to think carefully, to not jump to conclusions, to not assume that a storm in May is a sign of the Apocalypse. But it also behooves us not to ignore the fact that climate change is making the ocean warmer–and it seems that whenever an unusual tropical cyclone occurs, unusual water is below it.

 


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A Climate for Reading: A Field Guide to Climate Anxiety

The cover image of the book being reviewed. The background color is yellow, and there is no illustration, only text. In the middle is a very large, red exclamation point with a small, red image of the Earth as the dot at the bottom of the exclamation point. The words "a field guide to" are written in all caps on the left side of the exclamation point, written vertically to be read bottom to top. On the right side, written to be read top to bottom, are the words "climate anxiety." Below, in smaller, black, capital letters is the secondary title, "How to keep your cool on a warming planet" and below that, in similar bed red lettering is the author's name with a red asterisk on either side. The rest of the image is just plain yellow.I sometimes use the blog to talk about the issues and moods and emotional challenges that now and again interfere with my good intentions as a climate activist. I write those posts because on those days I lack the energy to write of much else, but I also write them because I don’t believe I’m alone in having them, and I don’t want you to feel alone, either.

Then, some months ago, I set out to learn how to better deal with myself and to that end purchased two books on climate anxiety. To share what I learned with you, I posted my review of one of those books, Emotional Resiliency in the Era of Climate Change, shortly thereafter. Now it’s the turn of the second book.

A Field Guide to Climate Anxiety: How to Keep Your Cool on a Warming Planet, by Sarah Jaquette Ray.

I had wanted very much to like this book, as it seemed to promise something I need, or at least needed at the time. And in fact it lacks the specific shortcomings I flagged for Emotional Resiliency, which is targeted towards a readership of specialists and suffers from a combination of naivete and subtle racism. In contrast, Sarah Jaquette Ray speaks to a more general readership (mostly younger adults, but close enough) and seems much more “woke.” Unfortunately, her presentation doesn’t quite work for me.

Maybe it will work for someone else.

Description and Synopsis

This Field Guide is not actually a field guide, not in the common sense of the world. Perhaps a book aimed at identifying various forms of climate anxiety-induced problem using their “field marks” would be interesting and valuable—you could look up your particular version of ineffectiveness and learn its name, its psychological cause, and what to do about it. But this isn’t that book. In direct contradiction to the author’s stated intention (on page 14), it’s not about identifying anything and can’t be used to look anything up. Instead, it’s an extended essay on emotional resiliency for climate activists, and it’s full of friendly advice.

To be clear, an extended essay full of advice is a fine thing for a book to be, it just needs a different title.

The target reader is a Millennial, or possibly one of the even younger people just now entering, or about to enter, adulthood. These are the people the author calls “the climate generation,” since they grew up hearing news of environmental destruction in a way earlier generations did not (though that’s not quite true: Gen X grew up with environmental doom as well, we just also grew up expecting to die in a nuclear war). The driving impetus of the book was the author’s realization that many of her students were literally incapable of imagining a world they wanted to live in. They had grown up so inundated with disaster warnings that they could think in no other terms. It’s hard to keep fighting if you don’t know what you’re fighting for.

The aim of the book is to teach young people how to think positively so as to become effective climate activists for the long term. There are sections on self-care, on effective communication, and on building coalitions with people who disagree on important things. Each chapter has a distinct focus, and each ends with a short, bulleted list summarizing action tips readers can take to feel and do better in ways that count.

But….

While the book has no clearly-definable errors in either approach or execution, I personally found little of value in it. I did not warm to it at any point.

For example, a recurring theme was that of keeping the focus on the positive, both as a matter of personal mental health and as a means of more effectively engaging others. Pay attention to success stories. Remember to enjoy the world while fighting for it. Imagine, and yearn towards, a sustainable future, rather than only fearing and trying to avoid its opposite. All good advice. In fact, my awareness of these principles is why I wrote a whole novel set in a post-fossil-fuel future painted in believable but glowing colors. As I said in my introduction, we already know life could end up being awful; we need to know that it could also end up being wonderful. If we believe the future could be good, we may become more assertive about going out to meet it.

So why is it that when Ray says the same thing I grow restive, even rebellious? Something about her tone strikes me as polyanna-sh, even compromising.

Perhaps it’s that she persistently put too much emphasis on avoiding the negative (despite her plea, early in the book, to accept pain and discomfort as part of life) and not enough on discerning what makes something “negative” in an unhelpful sense, as opposed to simply difficult yet important.

Perhaps it’s that she commits two rhetorical faults that most people seem to find no fault with but that persistently drive me to distraction.

First, she ignores the existence of the anti-environmental movement. As I’ve discussed before, climate denial as such is the deliberate creation of people who either know climate change is real or who simply do not care whether it is or not—they want to prevent climate action that could hurt their personal interests. That doesn’t mean there has been no genuine skepticism, no un-forced errors in science education or environmental education, no serious cultural divides with good people and valid concerns on all sides; all of the above is quite real and quite important. But to pretend that poor communication is all we’re dealing with is as foolish as handing someone a towel when they’re still in the shower.

The second problem is related to the first, and it is the habit, by Ray and others, of treating existing levels of public environmental interest as good news all by itself. Yes, a majority of Americans believe climate change is real and want climate action. Yes, there are lots of heartening anecdotes of good work being done. But all that was true four years ago, too, when this nation elected Donald Trump, a man who had made getting out of the Paris Climate Accords a campaign promise. It’s not that the existing environmental movement means nothing; clearly we’re in better shape than we would be if it did not exist. It’s that the movement isn’t getting traction where it counts—something is greasing the road. If you try something and don’t succeed, the fact that you’re still trying the same thing is not, all by itself, good news.

Tell me your plan for turning the shower off, and then I’ll feel good about your supply of towels. Until then, your cheerful plan to keep handing towels to somebody still being showered on has rather a disheartening effect.

Finally, there is one piece of advice the author offers that I consider plain wrong—although it’s almost right. This is where she tells readers to let go of the need for measurable results, to believe that anything they do, no matter how small or seemingly irrelevant, matters. No, it doesn’t. Some acts, like rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic, don’t matter. Some acts are well-intentioned but counter-productive, even destructive. Measuring results is a good way to check your methods, to see if you are doing what you need to be doing.

Now, it’s true that not all results can be measured, and not all forms of service are clearly definable. Rearranging the deck chairs on a doomed ship is pointless, but playing Nearer my God to Thee on that same doomed deck is not. I have a friend whose says his service to the world consists principally of going for walks by himself. I believe him, and I am grateful to him for that service. But even though I can’t personally judge what might help save the world, it doesn’t follow that anything and everything does.

The author is trying to make a true and subtle point, here; she doesn’t quite make it.

To Recommend or Not to Recommend

I can’t recommend A Field Guide to Climate Anxiety to anyone with my taste in books. Its presentation is not effective for me, and much of its advice is stuff I already know. However, not everyone has my taste in books, and not everyone should.

If the source of your paralyzing anxiety is indeed too much doom and gloom, if you’re seriously considering suicide to save the planet from yourself, or if you don’t understand how serious dedication to the planet wouldn’t lead to suicide, you need to read this book. It offers a needed corrective, a reminder to move—quickly!–in a different, more joyful, and more life-affirming direction.

I just wish it also offered practical tips on coping with the grief, anger, and fear the author herself says not to avoid.


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Real Plagues

No, not COVID-19 this time–I’ll write about it again next week. This time I want to talk about locusts. I’ve been hearing news reports of locust swarms in Africa for some weeks, but the reports are perfunctory, without detail or context. Here in America those insect-caused disasters seem very far away. Locusts themselves seem somewhat mythical, familiar from Bible stories but not otherwise, and I’m guessing a lot of people have no clear idea of what locusts are (cicadas are sometimes called locusts, but they’re not even closely related).

And yet locusts are important to understand, especially because they are yet one more facet of climate change.

Locusts

A close-up shot of a pink, yellow, and black grasshopper. While I do not know whether this grasshopper is a locust, but some locust species do have similar colors. The backgound is green, blue, and out of focus, just a vague blur.

Photo by Bradley Feller on Unsplash

What are locusts? Locusts are grasshoppers.

All locusts are grasshoppers, but not all grasshoppers are locusts. In fact, it could be argued that not all locusts are locusts.

Locusts vs. Grasshoppers

Grasshoppers are generally solitary herbivores. Adults can fly, and males sing just as crickets do (though not, in my experience, as musically). Unlike, say, butterflies, grasshoppers don’t have three distinct life stages, larva, pupa, and adult. Instead, the young (called nymphs) look almost like small, wingless adults. They become gradually more adult-like as they grow, until the final molt gives them functional wings and the power to breed. There are grasshopper species all over the world.

Some grasshopper species have an option for a second lifestyle–not that the shift appears to be under conscious control. When conditions become crowded, they change, adopting behavior patterns that make their large populations an asset rather than a liability. They start crowding together voluntarily, moving as a swarm, often covering huge distances. They eat more, and as adults they lay more eggs. They can also change physically, to the point that they were initially thought to be separate species from their solitary counterparts. They are still herbivorous, but the problem is they eat everything edible and then move on to eat everything edible somewhere else. These alternative grasshoppers are locusts.

Whether the word “locust” properly applies to only the gregarious, migratory version or to any individual of a species capable of making the shift is unclear to me. I’ll use it the first way, since it makes sentences such as the following easier to construct: many species of grasshopper in many different (generally arid) parts of the world (including North America, though our species is now extinct) can become locusts.

The distinction between locust-forming and non-locust-forming grasshoppers is not clear-cut. While some grasshoppers can undergo extreme physical and behavioral changes, while others change behaviorally but not physically, or have less-extreme behavioral changes, but are still called locusts. There are also grasshopper species that form loose swarms under some circumstances but do not migrate and are not called locusts.

The point is that some grasshoppers have a kind of biochemical switch that causes them to become living natural disasters to a greater or lesser degree.

Locusts and Climate Change

The particular biochemical switch that makes the right sort of grasshopper become a locust involves the neurotransmitter, serotonin, and it is flipped by repeated physical contact. Essentially, when some grasshopper species crowd together so tightly that they regularly bump into each other, they become locusts–the switch can take as little as a few hours. So, what (other than experimental scientists) crowds grasshoppers together?

It turns out, extreme weather does.

A very wet period allows the grasshoppers to reproduce very fast, but when the wet period is followed by drought, the grasshoppers must crowd together around the shrinking sources of food and water. Grasshoppers in such a situation might well die in huge numbers when the food runs out–worse, since they would all lay eggs in the same place, their young would face extreme competition for food, and the drier areas abandoned during the drought would be left grasshopperless for who knows how long. The locust response allows the insects to escape the trap. As locusts, they can take maximum advantage of limited food while scattering eggs over a very wide area.

So a rapid alternation between unusually wet conditions and unusually dry conditions makes a locust swarm. And we know that such alternation between extremes is precisely what we can expect from climate change.

It’s Not So Simple, of Course

The picture I’ve painted so far implies that locusts are more or less part of the same story wherever and whenever the occur, a simple phenomenon. Of course, simple explanations of living things are almost always wrong–at best, such simple ideas serve as an accessible introduction, a place to start learning, but the danger is always that they will mislead.

Locusts vary.

They vary not only in their degree of locust-hood, as already noted, but also in their behavior and dietary needs. And factors other than rainfall variations have an impact on both whether grasshoppers transform and how they behave after they do, at least for some species. In one Mongolian species, for example, protein-deficient grass, often caused by over-grazing by domestic animals, plays a role in triggering locust outbreaks. How this mechanism relates to the rainfall variation/over-crowding trigger I have not learned, but land management practices could be a factor for other locust species, too. In fact, some species, notably one in Senegal, were not known to locust (yes, I just coined a new verb!) at all until recent decades, but now do so regularly. Presumably, they could locust the whole time, but just did it so rarely that nobody noticed, which is still a radical shift in a species’ behavior. The change is thought to be related to shifts in land management practices.

Whatever the trigger is, because locus swarms can travel so widely, they become a regional issue even if the conditions that triggered the swarm are localized.

Another variable piece of the puzzle is that humans are not passive before locust swarms. Because swarms can cause regional crop failures and therefore deep economic problems and even mass starvation, locusts are treated as dangerous pests when they enter agricultural areas, and are often met with aggressive, well-organized pesticide use. The impacts of these poisons on creatures other than locusts aren’t clear and could be significant, but a more immediate point is that the severity of locust outbreaks doesn’t just depend on whether weather and other factors trigger the locust response, but also on whether the humans in the region have the political and economic wherewithal to beat the swarms back. War, poverty, and other disasters make locust plagues more likely because they impair the human ability to fight back.

I suspect that locust swarms, like wildfires, have results that can be judged “good” by humans who like to judge things, and that these outbreaks are one of the “pieces” Aldo Leopold referred to when he famously said “the first rule of intelligent tinkering is to keep all the pieces.” But exactly what locusts do ecologically, other than starve humans, is not yet clear to me, and I’m not sure whether it’s clear to anyone.

So while my brief introduction to locusts appears accurate as far as it goes and will hopefully serve as a beginning point for learning, I hope the reader remembers there is a lot more to the topic.

Today’s Plague

The locust outbreak currently in the news is devastating East Africa. It is the second (and much worse) wave of the worst such event in 70 years. It’s not just one swarm but many, with new swarms forming and moving out across the continent regularly. At the same time, both travel restrictions related to COVID-19 and, in some parts of the region, civil war, are making rapid, coordinated response with pesticides difficult to impossible. And many people in the region are already struggling and can’t afford to lose their crops right now. The insects are eating everything.

It’s immediate cause appears to be the two cyclones that hit the East African coast in 2018 and 2018, followed by more unusually heavy rains in March of this year, all producing a massive grasshopper population boom–no drought seems to be involved, but the cyclones do have a climate change link. Cyclones, which are the same thing as hurricanes, the name simply varies from one region to another, are rare along Africa’s east coast, but they (and other massive rainstorms) become more common there during the Indian Ocean diapole, a short-term climate variation somewhat similar to the El Niño/La Niña cycle, and which is also responsible for terrible droughts in Australia. And the Indian Ocean diapole is being made much more frequent and more intense by climate change.

The Point?

The point is not “everything’s awful, everybody panic!” Everything is not awful, and panic seldom helps. The point is that what we do locally matters regionally, even globally. Climate action, or even more careful land management (which is often part of climate action), over here translates directly into fewer people dying in disasters over there. We have the ability to make a real difference for each other, for better or worse. We get to choose.

Also, when a lot of people on the other side of the planet are having a huge problem, it’s important to try to understand what they’re going through. That’s just part of being human.


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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.