The Climate in Emergency

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


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Domocratic Candidates on Climate, Part III

Here we go, continuing my review the field of presidential candidates.

As in years past, I’m only going to write about candidates as regards climate change. It’s not that no other issues are important (though I do consider climate a central issue), it’s that this blog remains neutral on all other issues, so far as is ethically possible. Therefore, support of a candidate for how he or she approaches climate should not be construed as any kind of comment on his or her other positions.

So, let’s start with Democrats. There are 23 of them running.

The Democratic Field (In Part)

With so many Democrats running, I have to take the candidates in groups. Two weeks ago, I posted my first installment of the series, the first group, which included people at the current front of the pack, like Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders. Last week, I posted a second group, including the majority of the female hopefuls, plus Jay Inslee, the self-styled Climate Candidate. It’s time for another installment.

Cory Booker

Cory Booker made a name for himself as the mayor of Newark, New Jersey, and now serves in the US Senate. He concerns himself largely with criminal and economic justice, and the values of love, unity, and civic grace.

He has a lifetimes score with the League of Conservation Voters of 99%; in a legislative career of five years, he has cast only one anti-environment vote. He talks about climate change publicly, and does support the Green New Deal. but the issue is not being covered as a central issue of his campaign. For example, this article in the Washington Post mentions climate briefly in the introduction as among Mr. Booker’s policy interests but does not elaborate, focusing instead on his other issues. Whether the article accurately reflects Mr. Booker’s priorities is not clear. He IS interested in environmental justice, particularly in repairing the EPA and making sure polluters pay for clean ups, but does not mention climate change in that context in the reports that I’ve found.

Mr. Booker seems unlikely to take a leadership role in climate action, since he does not use it a lens through which to discuss the economic and social justice issues that are clearly close to his heart. He would undoubtedly support climate action if someone else takes the lead, however.

Beto O’Rourke

Beto O’Rourke is famous mostly for having come this close to unseating Senator Ted Cruz and for being really cool. He skate-boards, for example. All of which sounds somewhat laughable, but for a Democrat to come close to winning statewide office in Texas is impressive, and “cool” encompasses a lot of intangible skills that are important in a public figure. Think of John F. Kennedy, Barack Obama, Bill Clinton–or Teddy Roosevelt.

Mr. O’Rourke has a lifetime score with the League of Conservation Voters of 95% over a legislative career that goes back to 2013. His score would be higher, but he missed three votes in 2016 that he has stated would have been pro-environment.

Mr. O’Rourke has a mixed record on climate. He acknowledges the reality of climate change, has discussed the need for climate action publicly, and speaks well of the Green New Deal, but in his previous campaign he did not run on the issue, possibly because he depends on voters who depend on the oil industry. He has accepted large campaign contributions from the industry, has supported fracking, and does not appear to favor a shift away from fossil fuels.

He has released a climate plan of his own, and while the plan is not as aggressive as some, it does appear to be serious. He may be moving towards the green side in order to compete with the other Democrats in the field.

Amy Klobuchar

Ms. Klobuchar is a Midwestern Democrat with a reputation for working well with Republicans. Her victories tend to involve “small” issues with an outsized impact, and she is pragmatic and calm under fire. She also acknowledges that she can be difficult to work for, and it’s hard to say how that might translate to the presidency.

Amy Klobuchar’s lifetime score with the League of Conservation Voters is 96%, impressive, given that her legislative career goes back to 2007. If elected President, she promises to get the US back into the Paris Agreement and reinstate various Obama-era climate policies within her first 100 days in office, but she has not endorsed the Green New Deal, however, as she does not think we can meet its goals. She does not seem to be proposing anything new.

Andrew Yang

Mr. Yang is a businessman who has been involved in revitalizing urban centers by supporting economic development and job-related training. He advocates a universal basic income, which he says has the potential to attract attention from people who have otherwise given up on politics as irrelevant to them. He has attracted a significant following online among libertarians, including members of the alt. right–something he’s uncomfortable with and has disavowed. Given that Mr. Yang is not white, his appeal among racists is curious and may not be genuine.

Mr. Yang is concerned about climate change and favors a variety of responses, including, somewhat surprisingly, geoengineering. However, there is almost nothing to say about Mr. Yang on climate besides his campaign promises and other statements related to his campaign–and that is concerning. As a businessman, he certainly had the opportunity to get involved in some kind of climate-related project, and he didn’t.

Julián Castro

Julián Castro is a former mayor of San Antonio and former Secretary of Housing and Urban Development. Hillary Clinton seriously considered him as a possible running mate. Given who he is and where he is from, it is not surprising that he’s concerned about immigration policy. He’s also championing universal pre-kindergarden. He has committed to visit all 50 states during the primaries, and has already visited Puerto Rico, something no other Democrat in the field had done at the time.

Mr. Castro has a very clear record of putting the public good over his personal interest on environmental issues. He tells a story about when he was mayor in San Antonio, and quit his job as a lawyer so that he could vote against allowing a client of his (former) firm to build a golf course that could have contaminated the city’s drinking water. He wasn’t independently wealthy and needed that job.

He supports the Green New Deal, has pledged not to take donations from fossil fuel companies, and approaches climate action largely through economic development and the creation of jobs in renewable energy. As mayor, he took a number of pro-climate actions, including directing the city to source 20% of its energy from renewable sources by 2020. He also supported fracking, though.

He does not appear to have discussed possibilities for climate action from the White House in detail, nor has he made the news on the subject recently. He has released a detailed plan for dealing with lead contamination in drinking water, so environmental issues in general seem to be on his mind.

Thoughts

Most likely, Andrew Yang is simply not serious about addressing climate change; if he were, he would have done so before running for office, it’s not as if the issue is new. The others in this group seem either ambivalent on the issue (Beto O’Rourke) or somewhat distracted by other issues, though all of them are eager to be seen as strong on climate. All, with the possible exception of Mr. Yang, seem genuinely interested in making at least some meaningful progress on climate. Again, the worst of the field this year resemble the best of the field a decade ago.

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The Democratic Field Part 2

It’s election season again, and so I am continuing my review the field.

As before, I’m only going to write about candidates as regards climate change. It’s not that no other issues are important (though I do consider climate a central issue), it’s that this blog remains neutral on all other issues, so far as is ethically possible. Therefore, support of a candidate for how he or she approaches climate should not be construed as any kind of comment on his or her other positions.

So, let’s start with Democrats. There are 23 of them running.

The Democratic Field (In Part)

I’m not going to write about all 23 people seeking the Democratic nomination in a single post. You and I both have other things we want to do today, right? Instead, I’m taking this in a few chunks. Last week, I presented Chunk Number One.  Here is Chunk Number Two.

Jay Inslee

Jay Inslee, the current governor of Washington State, has carved out a niche for himself as the climate change candidate. He does care about other issues as well; he supports gun control, is very concerned about the anti-vaccination movement, and wants to expand immigration. However, climate change is his central, most-important cause, and many of his other stances bear on that one. For example, he wants to get rid of the filibuster as a move to make climate action bills easier to pass. Sadly, I have not heard much else about him. He doesn’t make the news very often.

Mr. Inslee has, surprisingly, received some criticism on environmental and environmental justice issues. Not that is record is particularly bad, but he has not been very effective in environmental leadership in his home state, and has been slow to oppose, or actually supportive of, a few industrial projects that environmentalists oppose. He has been slow to the table on environmental justice particularly. He does tend to come around, and appears to be learning from his mistakes, but the fact that he’s following, not leading, is puzzling.

His climate plan, though, does have a few interesting features. For example, the plan devotes a lot of attention to immigration and to foreign policy, on the understanding that climate change will increase the flow of refugees and put more countries at risk for destabilization. And the climate plan has a sister-plan focused on economics that includes a “green G.I. Bill” aimed at helping fossil-fuel industry workers transition to other industries. Mr. Inslee is using climate as an organizing principle to approach foreign policy, economic policy, and economic justice (and, I’m guessing, other issues). It’s a smart, deeply reality-based approach–whatever his shortcomings, Mr. Inslee is paying attention. His interest in climate is no mere political window-dressing, but the real deal.

Significantly, Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez has endorsed Mr. Inslee’s plan among all those as yet proposed by presidential hopefuls.

Tulsi Gabbard

Tulsi Gabbard is a current House of Representatives member from Hawaii, the first Hindu Congressmember, and a military veteran–she also grew up as an avid surfer. According to her own campaign materials, concern for the environment is what got her into politics to begin with. Her lifetime score with the League of Conservation Voters is an impressive 96%.

She has not endorsed the Green New Deal, saying it is too vague (although the GND is not a policy proposal but rather a proposed commitment to develop policy. It’s supposed to be vague), and has not–as far as I can gather–released her own climate plan yet. She does talk about the importance of climate action often. She has also proposed an ambitious House bill aimed at reducing emissions from both transportation and electricity generation.

She is definitely on the right side of the issue, but it’s not clear how she would use the office of the presidency to help.

Kirsten Gillibrand

Kirsten Gillibrand, a lawyer by training, is the current Senator from New York, having succeeded Hillary Clinton. She has drawn some fire among Democrats for socially conservative positions she has held in the past–and has since repudiated. She has made a name for herself largely as an advocate of women’s empowerment and by speaking against public figures accused of sexual harassment. Her lifetime score with the League of Conservation Voters is 95%–and her score for 2018 is 100%.

Ms. Gillibrand has backed the Green New Deal, saying the country needs a “moon shot” on the issue “as a measure of our innovation and effectiveness.” She is calling for some form of carbon pricing program (she has not yet proposed details), saying that “if you’re a polluter, fair enough, but you’re going to have to pay a lot more,” to cover the public costs of such pollution.

An online search shows that she speaks publicly about climate change often, but she has not yet released her own plan. It is not clear whether she has developed any ideas about how she might use the office of the presidency to lead on the issue.

Kamala Harris

Kamala Harris is a current senator from California, and is a former State Attorney General. Her multi-ethnic background means she has scored multiple “firsts;” her state’s first black AG, first Asian-American AG, and first female AG are all her. She has not yet become strongly associated with any particular issue (indeed, she regards her lack of a unifying political theme as an advantage), but her lifetime score with the League of Conservation Voters is actually 100%. Pretty impressive!

Although, since she’s been a legislator for less than two years, her scorecard is based on comparatively few votes thus far.

She has signed on to the Green New Deal and is considered a reliable ally on environmental issues, including climate change, but has not yet positioned herself as a leader on the subject. An online search shows she speaks publicly about climate, but does not seem focused on the issue at all.

Some Thoughts

So far, in the course of reading up on the candidates, it looks as though we may have passed an important political watershed among Democrats; candidates may no longer ignore climate, and the weakest in this year’s crop resemble the climate hawks of, say, 2008. If that’s the score, then we’re in a good position, since even an opportunistic climate wishy-washer could be persuaded to take meaningful climate action by an engaged, vocal electorate.

Personally, I’d prefer a real climate go-getter, someone who recognizes the gravity of the situation and treats it like an emergency, but it may be that the choice of best option will hinge on other criteria. After all, anyone who isn’t actually invested in some form of climate denial can be pushed into signing bills and even a couple of executive orders–if there are bills to sign.

The real champion must prove themselves capable of defeating the climate denial movement, working across the aisle, and engaging culturally conservative voters in Middle America, otherwise he or she is unlikely to win the general election and will be incapable of accomplishing anything once in office.

If such a champion arises but has less than stellar climate credentials, I’ll be OK with that. Let the President bring the nation together–let Ms. Ocasio-Cortez and others light the fire that keeps the unified nation going in the right direction.

 

 


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The Democratic Field, Part 1

It’s election season again, and as one of the few Americans not running for president this cycle, I figure it’s time I review the field.

As before, I’m only going to write about candidates as regards climate change. It’s not that no other issues are important (though I do consider climate a central issue), it’s that this blog remains neutral on all other issues, so far as is ethically possible. Therefore, support of a candidate for how he or she approaches climate should not be construed as any kind of comment on his or her other positions.

So, let’s start with Democrats. There are 23 of them running.

The Democratic Field (In Part)

I’m not going to write about all 23 people seeking the Democratic nomination in a single post. You and I both have other things we want to do today, right? Instead, I’m taking this in a few chunks. Here is Chunk Number One.

Joe Biden

Joe Biden is a former vice president of the United States, and the subject of a huge number of fond and funny internet memes featuring his friendship with President Barack Obama. He has run for president twice before, and could have been a favorite to win last cycle except for the tragic death of his son, Beau Biden, from brain cancer. Grieving, the elder Biden did not run. He is now trying one last time–at 76 years old he is among the oldest of the field, but also the best-recognized and most obviously experienced.

Joe Biden’s reputation on climate is definitely mixed. His candidacy this year has appeared timid with respect to climate–advocating only a return to some of President Obama’s policies, nothing new, and nothing really aggressive. He rarely tweets about the issue at all, though he does tweet fairly often about the economy, and may be trying not to alienate coal country. On the other hand, he has just released a climate plan that, while not as aggressive as it could be, does seem to be a real stab at the problem. He has pledged not to accept campaign donations from fossil fuel companies or donations. He was also the first senator to introduce climate-related legislation, way back in 1986, and tried repeatedly (and unsuccessfully) to champion the issue in the Senate several times over his long career.

His lifetime score with the League of Conservation Voters (which reflects his legislative career but not his terms as Vice President) is 83%. That’s respectable but not impressive. His pro-environment votes outnumbered his anti-environment votes in every year, but in some years one vote in three was anti-environment, including some in the specific areas of climate change, clean energy, and dirty energy.

It appears as though Mr. Biden takes climate seriously, but it is not his highest priority. The good news is that he is willing to become more assertive on the subject when pushed by political pressure from the left.

Bernie Sanders

Bernie Sanders, the Independent senator of Vermont, is once again running for President as a Democrat. He has a great deal of support, but is no longer alone in his stridency–in part due to his influence, a whole crop of energized, progressive Democrats have sprung up.

Bernie Sanders’ rating with the League of Conservation Voters is an impressive 92%, and it would have been 96% had it not been for 2016, when he inexplicably took 16 anti-environment votes to only one pro-environment vote. In all other years, the pros far outweigh the antis, and in 28 years, there were only ten in which he did not score 100%.

So what happened in 2016? I’m not sure. Personally, I wonder if I’m looking at a typo; maybe the LCV mistakenly coded missed votes (he’s not coded as having missed any votes, which is odd, given that he was campaigning that year) as anti votes?

In any case, Mr. Sanders describes climate change as an “existential threat” and supports the Green New Deal, according to his website. He has also pledged not to accept fossil fuel-industry money. An internet search returns multiple articles about different public events where he spoke on the issue as well, so climate does seem to be on his mind often.

Elizabeth Warren

Elizabeth Warren is a politically progressive senator with a history of championing consumer financial protection, income inequality, and related financial issues, though she favors a fairer form of capitalism, not any form of socialism. She has been characterized as a “fighter,” and has a long history of vocal advocacy on her favored subjects dating back before her legislative career.

Her lifetime score with the League of Conservation Voters is a remarkable 99%–she had one anti-environment vote back in 2014–though her legislative career has been much shorter (so far) than that of either Mr. Sanders or Mr. Biden. A quick internet search shows she has been talking climate often and for a long time. She has pledged not to accept fossil fuel-industry money. She supports the Green New Deal, but has recently released a climate change plan of her own.

Ms. Warren’s plan includes Federal money for technological research, as well as various initiatives designed to encourage a market shift towards renewables while creating good-paying jobs. Her plan is distinctive for its inclusion of a “Green Martial Plan” designed to give aid to countries hit hard by climate change–a focus in keeping with her long-term concern with economic fairness. It’s worth noting, too, that since climate change is becoming a major driver of refugee crises and political instability, something like the Green Martial Plan may be a necessary part of American national security going forward.

Pete Buttigieg

Pete Buttigieg stands out most obviously for several factors only marginally related to his potential as president: he’s very young (37!); married to a man; charmingly cool; and blessed with a memorably odd last name. More importantly, he is also a military veteran, mayor of South Bend, Indiana (political experience on a small scale is still political experience), and vocally Christian. He champions getting rid of the Electoral College, but has other issues, including climate change–which he sees as particularly important for people of his own generation and younger who will have to live with the consequences of their elders’ choices.

Since he has no legislative experience, Mr. Buttigieg has no voting record, and thus no score card with the League of Conservation Voters. But he does have a history of engaging with environmental issues.

As Mayor, Mr. Buttigieg has pushed back against President Trump’s anti-environment policies, including archiving a copy of the old EPA website (from before climate change was stripped from it) on his town’s website. He supports the Paris Agreement, joined other mayors and attorneys general in signing a declaration opposing the rollback of clean car rules, and has worked to make sure a local Superfund site in his area has been properly cleaned up. He has also pledged not to take fossil fuel industry money.

As far as I’ve been able to gather, Mr. Buttigieg has not yet released a fully fleshed-out plan to fight climate change, but has voiced support for several climate-related policies, including retrofitting homes for energy efficiency, government support of home solar generation, a carbon tax, and carbon capture and storage. He has received some criticism on the grounds that the last two are also supported by the fossil fuel industry itself, since these measures could allow the industry to continue business-as-usual (though it’s worth saying that last time I looked at the issue, the industry seemed not to like carbon fees, while environmentalists liked them. I’m not sure where this contradiction comes from).

Pete Buttigieg has his heart in the right place, and may be an excellent environmentalist mayor, but it is not yet clear whether he’s ready to operate on the national scale using the very different tools of the American Presidency.

Stay Tuned….

So, that’s four down–only 19 to go!

 

 

 


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The Fog of…Fog

The other day, I went on a walk with my friend and teacher, Tom Wessels, whose name has appeared many times in this blog because he is an actual expert whose authority I can legitimately cite, and because he so consistently tells me things worth citing.

This walk was no exception.

We chatted about all sorts of things, scientific and otherwise, and generally had a good time. Other than the walk itself—we were trying to get to a particular place and explore it—we had no agenda. I’m not going to tell you all about that conversation, though much of it would interest you. I am going to tell you what he said about climate change.

Question: What Is About to Change?

In the course of our walk I asked “What is likely to change here [on Mount Dessert Island] over the next few decades, other than trees getting bigger and so forth?”

He’d already told me about the impending loss of paper birch, so he mentioned that again only in passing. He also discussed the problems of spruces, another previously discussed topic, elaborating this time that the island isn’t about to lose its spruces, but their life expectancy is being cut from 400 years to less than 100, for reasons he does not entirely understand, but climate change is likely involved as contributing stress, since they are cold-climate trees. Something is causing them to rot.

Then he told me something I did not know at all, but should have: that Mount Dessert Island is on track to lose its fogs. Not all its foggy days, perhaps, but many of them. The island will no longer be characterized by frequent fogs.

I should have known it because I knew both pieces of information that he cited as evidence. I knew that we get so much fog here because the Gulf of Maine is very cold, and I also knew that the Gulf of Maine is getting rapidly warmer. Therefore….

The Problem with the Loss of Fog

I like fog. It’s spooky and mysterious and lovely. I don’t want there to be less of it around here. But aesthetics are not the primary reason why the loss of fog would be a problem, and I didn’t need Tom to tell me what the real problem was—or, rather, I didn’t need him to tell me just then. I already knew about the ecological importance of fog around here, and I knew because he told me the better part of a decade ago.

The thing is, Mt. Dessert Island owes much of its identity to fog. A large number of natural history questions around here can be answered the same way; “because it’s so foggy.”

Most dramatically, frequent fogs allow the lichens on trees to grow much faster than they otherwise would—lichens can only grow when they’re wet, and those on bark, as opposed to soil, dry out quickly. Fog keeps them wet. And so here lichen growth is responsible for 40% of the forest’s overall nutrient balance. Less fog = less lichen = an impoverished forest.

Northern white cedar, one of the lovelier trees on the island, is also here because of fog. It requires calcium-rich soil, which our mostly granite bedrock would normally preclude, but fog motes each contain a speck of dust, and a cloud of fog contains a lot of motes and therefore a lot of dust. All that dust enriches the soil with calcium. Northern white cedar is, in fact, especially good at catching fog. I asked Tom if the cedars would be hurt by the loss of fog, and he said they might well be.

He said the fog problem will be apparent within the next fifty years, which is not a lot of time as such things go.

The Problem with Foggy Losses

As I said, I had overlooked the possibility that fog frequency could be altered as part of climate change. I’m not sure why. I’ve never before heard anyone else raise the issue, but I don’t know why I didn’t draw the conclusion myself.

What I’m wondering now is what else does climate change hold in store that nobody is talking about and that I don’t guess?

Even worse, is fog frequency already changing—without anyone talking about it?

I didn’t ask Tom. I could, but he doesn’t actually know everything, and it’s possible no one has yet crunched the relevant numbers. He is familiar with the island and its fogginess, but human beings are notoriously bad at assessing these types of trends, that’s why we invented statistics. It’s just not the sort of change we can reliably eyeball.

He said the change would be apparent within fifty years, but what does “apparent” mean? Is that when fog lessens enough to make a difference, or is that when the forests’ response to the loss becomes evident to casual human observation? If the latter, the fog might already be changing—both lichens and northern white cedars grow very slowly. Were their growth to slow even more, the difference would take a long time to add up.

How long? I don’t know. Maybe close to fifty years?

Question: What’s Changing Now?

One of the more disconcerting discoveries I made when I became an adult was that there were important topics where I was dangerously ignorant but had thought myself well-educated. I had heard simplified descriptions created for teens or as public talking points, and they had given me a clear picture of the situation with no apparent holes or gaps. So I had thought there were no gaps. I thought I knew all I needed to.

There were holes and gaps, of course, I had just been unintentionally misled by the skill with which the introductory talking points were constructed.

Simplified explanations are not bad. If well-constructed, they cover most of the important points of the subject in question while being accessible enough to reach beginners whose attention may be elsewhere. The important thing is to recognize them as simplifications. As I wrote last week, much of what most of us know about climate change is correct, but it’s simplified.

There are important things happening that we don’t always see.


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Cold

I’ve been cold all week. In fact, I’ve been cold and dirty, because I’ve been wearing all the warm clothes I have constantly and can’t bear to take them off long enough to wash them. I plan to buy a set of long underwear tomorrow and then do the laundry.

Of course–and I’m paraphrasing Stephen Colbert, here–me being cold doesn’t invalidate climate change any more than me being well-fed invalidates world hunger. It’s hard to even be sure this isn’t a normal, or even an abnormally warm, spring in coastal Maine, as I wrote last week.

But I talked to my friend (and go-to authority on most subjects), Tom Wessels, and he said this area IS running about a week late, and was running at least two weeks late back in April. Further, he says that late springs are the new normal around here, not in spite of climate change, but because of it.

A Cold Kind of Warming

Most of us are probably familiar by now with the idea that global warming is a trend and that individual cold snaps can still happen. Further, “climate change” is a more accurate name for the phenomenon, because warming isn’t the only thing happening. Some areas get wetter, others drier, and perhaps some areas get colder, although the global average temperature is still going up.

But all that is still an oversimplification.

Coastal Maine is not a local spot of paradoxical cooling, nor is this year anomalously chilly. Talking to locals, I learn that winter weather came late, and never got very cold, often warming up enough to rain. Then the rain and slush would freeze, adding another layer of ice to sheets already slick, thick, and vast. It’s just that the spring got a late start. In fact, since we seem to be catching up to normal, spring must be proceeding a little faster than it used to. I don’t know whether this later, faster spring is really a facet of climate change as Tom says–I trust his expertise, but I don’t know whether he really knows or is simply making an educated guess. But it’s certainly possible.

Because this is a big planet with a complex climate, and any simple explanation is likely to be more or less wrong. The world is getting warmer, but that doesn’t tell us what’s happening with storm tracks and front movements and different facets of the system that can vary with respect to each other, decoupling phenomena we thought were inextricably linked.

It’s not that nobody knows what’s going on, it’s that what’s going on is subtle, intricate, and pervasive.

The Moral of the Story?

While most of us have to simplify things to wrap our heads around them, such simplifications introduce error and make some things that are actually true, like coastal Maine’s new spring, seem bizarre and counter-intuitive. The moral of the story, if there is one, is not to put too much faith in the fables we tell ourselves to get through the day.

There are people who spend their entire lives studying climate change for a reason–it’s a difficult puzzle that takes a lot of work. When they tell us what they know, based on those hours and years spent tackling a puzzle most of us don’t have time for, we should believe them.


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Moving Landmarks

I have spent the past weekend traveling—a few days in southern New Hampshire, and now in coastal Maine. I have been experiencing weather and, by extension, climate not normally my own.

Of New Hampshire….

The Ashuelot River looked like an overfilled bathtub. The swimming beach at the nearby Swanzey Lake (which is more properly a pond) looked as though the tide had come in. Puddles escaped out of ditches and inched across trails. Everywhere throughout that part of New Hampshire was water, water, and more water. I used to live thereabouts, which is how I recognized the water level as unusual, but I have seen the rivers high before. The odd thing is that when the Ashuelot runs high, it usually turns a chocolate-milk color with eroded sediment. Most rivers, in my experience, do.

This time the river ran dark, its standard low-water color.

The paradoxical color told me that the high water wasn’t the result of rapid storm runnoff but of the slow, even seepage of the water-table, the low-water pattern of movement transposed to a much wetter version of the landscape.

Indeed, friends reported that it had started raining back in November and more or less never stopped, although the air was dry during our visit. One said she’d heard that although the rain has been deeply and dramatically unusual, the water-table is actually normal, now. So many years of drought had actually dried out the land so much that it took a six-month-long flood to make up the difference.

But if the water table is normal, is the high river and everything else likewise? Was the Keene area as I knew it always warped by drought?

Of Maine….

Here on the coast, now, the story is cold. The neighbor who brought his child to see our dogs told us he couldn’t work this spring—he digs clams, and otherwise harvests the sea—because until recently the harbors were frozen. This was the first week of the season temperatures rose above sixty degrees. Everybody’s talking about the cold, late spring.

My question is—is the spring really cold and late? Or is it a version of normal we haven’t seen in a while?

Of Normality….

I don’t know whether the wet and dry of New Hampshire or the cold and warm of Maine are especially symptomatic of climate change, but this uncertainty regarding normality certainly is.

Emotionally speaking, we recognize climate change is a sickening, frightening abnormality. The heat wave in January, the drought that eats whole reservoirs, the hurricane making landfall where no hurricane should be. But to recognize the abnormal, one must have a feel for the normal, and “normal” has been a moving target for decades, now.

It’s not unusual for winters warmer than the historical average to feel cold and long and hard because recent winters have all been warmer yet.

When your landmarks are moving, how can you be sure where you are?