The Climate in Emergency

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


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I Can’t Even

There have been a lot of scary news stories of late, things I could talk about relative to climate concerns. In fact I’m feeling rather overwhelmed by this wealth of potential topics. Which do I cover first? How do I not fall into despair? That both my dogs are facing major medical issues right now is not helping.

But, in looking through my files, I found the following poem that seems to offer a small bit of comfort. I figure, maybe I’m not the only one who needs it?

And yes, I happen to be the author, so I can confirm that the reference to a large population was meant to imply all the environmental problems that go with a large and resource-hungry human population, including climate change.

Balance-Day

September 23, and it’s been a day for dirges.

Nuni, my friend’s small white cat, felled by fleas

lies dead beneath a heart-shaped row of stones

while Kendra’s dog plays host to tumors,

and Kofi Annan invokes the specter of a world 9 billion strong

by 2060.

I don’t know what will become of us.

I don’t know what blood

stains the momentum of our innocence.

But

there must be half a dozen PhD’s in this room tonight

and just as many guitars.

These are people who should know better

than to seek comfort in laughter, drink, and song

but these are also people who know we do not know

enough.

Joni Mitchell, Dave Carter, Bob Dylan,

voices thrown in familiar elegy,

the scientists invoke the sacred

the tapping foot becomes the thumping shaman’s drum.

Though rage and grief and fear

may be implicit,

this yellow room is safe tonight.

If the Earth has a temple, we sing its hymns

and offer the ground our local beer libations

with goofy, rag-tag grace.

In this puddle of life and light and laughter

in the exposed and urban night

this open, objective eye offers

the world

its care-worn, fierce

regard.

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When a Felon’s Not Engaged

So, President George H. W. Bush is dead. Not a huge surprise, he was getting up there, and many men pass soon after leaving their partner. The news is predictably filled with glowing memorials and tributes. Just as predictably, my social media is filling up with indignant complaints and reminders of all his faults.

I try to stay away from partizan politics here, as well as all legitimate controversy unrelated to climate change, so I’m going to stay as neutral as possible on Mr. Bush’s legacy. The thing is, his was not a perfect record. He presided over a military that killed civilians. He may have been involved in the Iran-Contra affair as Vice-President, and certainly pardoned people who were convicted for being involved. His impact on civil rights was mixed at best. His neglect of the AIDS epidemic and his hostility to LGBT rights were arguably responsible for many deaths. He did a great deal that was useful and noble as well, and doubtless the

And yet, apparently he had friends all over, including unexpected people, like Bill Clinton and Dana Carvey. Watching George W. Bush fondly pat his father’s casket on his way up to give the eulogy was heartrending.

There are those who see in the senior Mr. Bush an irredeemably reprehensible human being, and in his friends mere apologists and collaborators. There are probably those who see his shortcomings as unimportant, or even as not actually shortcomings, who see him honestly as a human, but great man.

What I see is a man of whom both good and bad things are true.

The reason I bring all this up is that after a year of variously bad climate news and two years of rather frightening climate-related politics, it’s obvious that climate change is not only caused by humans in the generic sense, but also by specific humans–lots of us–making decisions that range from inadequate to bad to criminal. Hurricanes are bigger now, forest fires are worse, heat waves threaten more people, and the richness of our living world is being lost because individual people are doing things that could have been done a different way to better effect.

The impulse is always to either deny the seriousness–or even the existence–of shortcomings, or to demonize the person and deny anything noble or even human about them. That way, either way, lies fascism.

Fascism at best. At worst, that way also lies failure to deal with climate change.

So, let’s get in the habit of recognizing the seriousness of our shortcomings, including those that are truly reprehensible, while also talking to each other like human beings. The climate is not a simple system and neither are any of us.


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Giving Thanks

Here is my Thanksgiving post. I wrote it several years ago, but it’s still timely.

“It’s that time of the year again,” warns a cynical-sounding blogger, “when warmists try to link Thanksgiving and climate change.”

Nice rhetorical trick, isn’t it? Discrediting us by saying that we’ll even link climate change to Thanksgiving? The truth, of course, is that of course anything in human life can be linked to climate change, because everything we experience depends on climate somehow. It’s in the air we breathe, the water we drink, the wind that may be gentle or catastrophic as occasion allows. Climate is already everywhere, and as it changes, so must everything else.

We “warmists” didn’t make that pat up. It’s just physics.

But yes, tis the season to write holiday-themed posts. Most writers seem to cluster around one of two main narratives: Thanksgiving as an opportunity to talk about climate change and agriculture (as in turkeys could get more expensive as feed prices rise because of recurrent drought); and Thanksgiving as an opportunity to talk about communication (as in how to talk with your climate-skeptic relatives). These are excellent points and I’m not going to try to make them all over again.

Instead, I want to talk about gratitude. I want to talk about abundance.

Have you ever thought it strange that we give thanks by eating a lot? If anything, American Thanksgiving sometimes seems more a celebration of greed and gluttony, with a perfunctory discussion of life’s blessings thrown in among the other topics at the table. But gratitude is fundamentally a reaction, not an action–it is very difficult to be grateful without something to be grateful for. At Thanksgiving we revel in abundance in order to remind ourselves of everything we have to be grateful for.

What is abundance? An online dictionary provides the definition “a large amount of something,” but that’s not quite it. “Abundance of dirty dishes” sounds, at best, sarcastic, if not outright ludicrous. And while there might indeed be a large amount of sand in the Sahara, few people would describe it as a land of abundant sand, because, really, who cares how much sand it has?

To really count as abundant, something must be a) what we want, and b) what we aren’t worried of running out of.

The Thanksgiving table qualifies. You can eat as much as you want, no holds barred, and there will be left-overs. The Thanksgiving table is not infinite, it is not literally inexhaustible, but it has an almost magical quality of feeling that way. It is precisely that illusion that allows food to symbolize all the other good things in our lives, everything for which we might be grateful.

Of course, there is no such thing as a truly infinite resource; use enough of anything for long enough and eventually you will run out. Even “renewable” resources are only sustainable if you use them slowly enough that they can replenish themselves. We know from sad experience that it is indeed possible to run completely out of precious things that once seemed all but limitless. Passenger pigeons, for example. And in fact we are running out of pretty much everything we need for life and everything that gives life beauty and meaning. Often, the depletion is hidden by ever more efficient usage that keeps yields high even as the resource itself runs out. Fishing fleets use ever more powerful technology to find and capture every last fish. Ever-deepening wells chase falling water tables. Oil companies prospect in nearly inaccessible areas that would have been too expensive to bother with a generation ago. For the most part, we humans aren’t going without, yet–hunger is usually a distribution problem, not a supply problem; there are more overweight than underweight humans right now. But already the world is warping under the pressure of our need.

Want a visual? Check this out:

See how big we are, relative to the rest of the biosphere? Humans already use more than the entire ecological product of the entire planet. That is possible because we are, in effect, spending planetary capital, reducing Earth’s total richness a little more every year.

I’m not trying to be gloomy for the sake of gloominess, I’m talking about the physics of the environmental crisis, the details of how the planet works. I’ve gone into detail on this before, but the basic idea is that the planet has an energy budget and that when part of the planet (e.g., us) exceeds this budget, the planet as a whole destabilizes. The biosphere actually shrinks and loses energy, diversity, and stability.

We got into this mess by treating the entire planet as the thing a Thanksgiving feast is meant to simulate; literally endless bounty. And because we did that, our descendants will have a smaller, leaner table to set than our ancestors did–and the more we use now, the leaner that future table will get.

Does that mean we shouldn’t celebrate Thanksgiving? Of course not.

Real, literal feasts are never actually about unlimited consumption. They are about abundance–about the way the illusion of inexhaustibility makes us feel. The illusion of physical abundance is a needed reminder of the truth of spiritual abundance–which is the actual point of the holiday, the thing we’re supposed to be celebrating on a certain Thursday in November.

The psychological power of the illusion does not depend on vast resources, something families of limited means understand well. By saving up and looking for deals and cooking skillfully, it is possible to produce a sumptuous feast that feels abundant and actually sticks within a fairly modest budget. The spiritual value is accomplished.

We can do the same thing as a species. We have to find a way to live within our ecological means–the first step is to get off fossil fuel–but we can work with what we have so skillfully that what we have feels like more than enough. By staying within a budget we can stop worrying about running out, and thus achieve a true, if paradoxical, abundance. Then the planet will have a chance to heal. The biosphere will grow again. And it is possible, just possible, that our descendants will live to see a more bountiful feast than we will.

And that will truly be something to be thankful for.


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Considering Damages

The fires in California are all over the news these days. The death toll keeps rising as bodies are found–two hundred people are missing, now. Generally speaking, wildfire is a climate change story, but while I want to cover current events, this story is too new, and there isn’t yet anything to say about it that I have not said about other fires before.

But if, as I suspect, the severity of this week’s fires are due in some part to climate change, then that lays the blood of the dead on the hands of climate deniers (not skeptics, there’s a difference), certain industrialists, and certain political leaders who have, decade after decade, refused to act. Same with the death and destruction of recent hurricanes, some of which have been unambiguously linked to climate change.

So, why not sue?

And, indeed, some people are suing, with varying degrees of success.

Suing for Climate

I first heard about a climate change lawsuit through social media some years ago, but since I didn’t hear a peep about the matter by any other means, I wasn’t sure it was real. Turns out, it was not only real, but what appeared on Facebook was the tip of the iceberg. There isn’t just one climate lawsuit, but many, all across the world.

If you’re interested in details, there’s actually an online database where you can look them all up. Click here to check it out.

The US has more of these suits than anywhere else in the world, and it’s somewhat easier to get information on these cases, at least for an American like me. There are two main approaches–suing fossil fuel companies and suing governments.

Suing Companies

Fossil fuel companies are being sued, not just for producing fossil fuels, but also for actively obstructing climate action, as some did by spreading misinformation and fostering public doubt about the reality of climate change.

Curiously, in the coverage I’ve read, such obstruction is generally framed as a failure to warn the public. For example, one article quotes a law professor as follows:

“The industry has profited from the manufacture of fossil fuels but has not had to absorb the economic costs of the consequences,” Koh said. “The industry had the science 30 years ago and knew what was going to happen but made no warning so that preemptive steps could have been taken.

“The taxpayers have been bearing the cost for what they should have been warned of 30 years ago,” Koh added. “The companies are now being called to account for their conduct and the damages from that conduct.”

It’s important to recognize such framing is itself misleading. Climate change, and the basic mechanics of how it works and why it’s a problem, were public knowledge 30 years go. The reason I know that is I was 11 and I remember being well-informed about it. Anything a geeky but otherwise unremarkable 11-year-old knows about is not being kept secret by Exxon, or anybody else.

The truth is that the public is culpable for climate change, as a decisive majority has spent decades now in active denial of warnings that were readily available for any interested person behind. But whatever innate resistance the citizenry may have had to climate action was actively ginned up by companies who knew better and attempted to protect their business interests at the expense of everybody else.

That’s a more nuanced, but arguably more nefarious offense.

Hopefully, suits based on calling out that nefariousness will work, because suits against energy companies for causing climate change itself are not working well. Several have been dismissed already.

It’s not that anyone has argued in court that climate change isn’t real, isn’t caused by humans, or isn’t important. Instead, these suits are failing because air pollution is already addressed by the Clean Air Act, which (for reasons I don’t personally understand) means that the issue must be handled by Congress and not by the courts. It’s also difficult to pin a particular plaintiff’s woes on an individual company. Some judges have asserted that because the problem is so big that it clearly needs Federal, even international leadership, that local or regional courts have no place in the solution.

Leaving the rest of us stuck when Federal leadership fails.

But the point is that yes, there are cities suing companies over specific climate-related damages.

Suing the Government

The lawsuit I first heard about was probably the Juliana Case, in which a group of 21 children and young adults (it’s sometimes called the “children’s case”) are suing the Federal government for not protecting their right to a livable planet. There are also similar suits against at least nine states, although some of these have been dismissed.

The Federal government has been trying very hard to get the Juliana Case dismissed before it is even heard. So far, no such attempt has been successful. The process has stretched on for some three years, now. The fact that it is still going is good news, but it’s far from clear whether the young people will win, or even if they will ever get to trial.

Winning Suits for Climate

So far, I’m not sure if any of these cases have actually won in court, at least not in the US. I haven’t heard of any. What happens if and when they do?

If the Juliana Case wins, the courts could order the Federal government to cut emissions. The situation could be analogous to school integration, which also proceeded, at times, on point of court order.

If the suits against companies win, plaintiffs could get money to use for climate change adaptation (such as cities building sea walls). Perhaps more importantly, the financial losses–and threats of financial losses–could force energy companies to get serious about transitioning to climate-sane energy sources.

The problem has been that there really aren’t any immediate negative consequences for anyone who chooses to put their narrow self-interest first. Environmentalism has lacked teeth. If the electorate refuses to hold anyone accountable for destroying our planet around us, it’s possible the courts can do something.

Course, that depends on who the judges are.


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Waking up

Here is an edited re-post of an article from two years ago, just after President Trump’s election. Regardless of the outcome tonight, it’s worth remembering that day.

……………………………………………………………………………………………………….

When I was small, I sat with my parents one night listening to election returns on the radio. My parents had told me whom they voted for (they both voted the same) and that they very much disliked the opposing ticket. They probably told me why as well, but I didn’t understand. As I watched them listen to the radio that night, I saw their faces frown. And frown and frown some more.

“What happens if he gets elected?” I asked.

“Remember that movie we saw last week?” my Dad asked, referring to a film about failed terrorists who were carried away kicking and screaming by the police. “Well, if he gets elected, that will happen to us.”

Let me explain that my parents were not terrorists. I believe my father was afraid of some serious injustice on the part of the government, though why he thought it a good idea to share those fears with a four-year-old I do not know. It doesn’t matter.

What does matter is what went through my mind when the candidate in question was elected.

“Oh no!” I thought to myself, worry rising quickly to panic. But as soon as I realized what my Dad’s words really meant–the end of life as I knew it–a kind of switch flipped in my mind and I calmed right down. I didn’t put the matter into words, but if I had, it would have been something like “well, that’s so awful it can’t possibly happen, therefore I don’t need to worry about it.”

I was, as I said, very small, but my impulse was a broadly human one. The temptation is going to be very strong to tell ourselves Donald Trump’s election can’t be ‘game over’ for the climate, that’s too horrible, so I’m not going to worry about it, much.

Well, it can and it might be–but at the same time we don’t have anything to lose by fighting like hell on this one, and we might just pull a miracle out after all. The question I want to address with this post is therefore ‘what does fighting consist of? What can we do now?’

We can think clearly about our objectives. We can examine our options.

We can work to shield and support people made vulnerable by either Mr. Trump himself or his supporters–members of racial and religious minorities, refugees, LGBT folks, many women. We can work together to block Mr. Trump’s more disastrous appointments, orders, and other actions (and make no mistake, he has promised several disasters). We can play defense as hard and fast as we can. We can make progress where possible.

And we can be kind to each other.

This is not currently a nation of kindness, of communication. Many, perhaps most, Trump supporters feel disenfranchised, unheard, and denigrated, that’s why they voted for Mr. Trump. The Trumpers, in turn, many of them, are not being kind. They are not listening.

Lest I be accused of justifying hatred, let me point out that the fear and rage that feeds the Trump movement is misdirected and dysfunctional, and nobody who finds themselves on the wrong end of it owes anything to their abusers. Yes, abusers. But just because you’re paranoid doesn’t mean someone’s not out to get you. The mostly rural people who swept Mr. Trump into office are absolutely right to feel ill-used, because Mr. Trump and his ilk are ill-using them. And that is not fair and it is not right. I’ve written about this before, in the context of climate deniers and climate skeptics. Same problem. The point is this country is hurting every which way right now, and some people are hurting others in their pain. Collectively, we need to stop doing that. Unless you are currently fighting to be heard yourself, it’s time to really listen. And everyone needs to be kind.

I need to acknowledge that I’m not confining myself strictly to climate, though that remains my focus  overall. It is Mr. Trump’s promise to undo President Obama’s climate legacy that motivates me to write this post and do this research. But Donald Trump’s other transgressions are too serious and too frightening not to acknowledge. He is not a normal statesman and the opposition to him is not normal party politics. Even many within his own party are deeply frightened and offended by him. If you lean Republican, let me assure you that the political neutrality neutrality of this blog on issues other than climate remains intact. If you are a Trump supporter, let me say I will not attack you personally on this site and that I firmly believe Mr. Trump is not going to look out for your interests, either.

In subsequent posts I’ll get into detail and provide resources, links, to-do lists, especially for blocking, protecting, playing defense to win. Now, as my very wise husband just said, it is time for sleeping. And then tomorrow it will be time to wake up.


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Reading of Names

I’m re-posting this one from last year (n the yer before), with minor edits. I have not found any new species to add to the list, though unfortunately that doesn’t mean there aren’t more that belong on it. There is a leak in the world and life is running out of it…

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

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

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

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

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

Looking for Smoking Guns

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Pinta Island Tortoise

Chelonoidis abingdoni

Last seen, 24 June 2012

Vietnamese Rhinoceros

Rhinoceros sondaicus annamiticus

Last seen, 29 April 2010

Christmas Island Pipistrelle

(a bat)

Pipistrellus murrayi

Last seen, 27 August 2009

Chinese Paddlefish

Psephurus gladius 

Last seen, 8 January 2007

Yangtze River Dolphin

Lipotes vexillifer 

Last seen, before 2006

Po’o-uli

(a bird in Hawaii)

Melamprosops phaeosoma

Last seen, 28 November 2004

Saint Helena Olive

Nesiota elliptica

Last seen, December 2003

Vine Raiatea Tree Snail

Partula labrusca 

Last seen, 2002

Pyrenean Ibex

Capra pyrenaica pyrenaica 

Last seen, 6 January 2000

Sri Lanka Legume Tree

Crudia zeylanica

Last seen, 1998

Nukupuu

(a bird in Hawaii)

Hemignathus lucidus

Last seen, 1998

Western Black Rhinoceros

Diceros bicornis longipes

Last seen, 1997

Aldabra Banded Snail

Rhachistia aldabrae

Last seen, 1997

Zanzibar Leopard

Panthera pardus adersi

Last seen, 1996

Swollen Raiatea Tree Snail

Partula turgida

Last seen, 1 January 1996

Golden Toad

Incilius periglenes

Last seen, 1989

Antitlan Grebe

Podilymbus gigas

Last seen, 1986

Alaotra Grebe

Tachybaptus rufolavatus

Last seen, September 1985

Eungella Gastric-brooding Frog

Rheobatrachus vitellinus

Last seen, March 1985

Kaua’i ‘O’o

(a bird in Hawaii)

Moho braccatus

Last seen, 1985

Christmas Island Shrew

Crocidura trichura

Last seen, 1985

Ua Pou Monarch

(a bird in Polynesia)

Pomarea mira

Last seen, 1985

Amistad Gambusia

(a fish, in Texas, USA)

Gambusia amistadensis

Last seen, 1984

Conondale Gastric-brooding Frog

Rheobatrachus silus

Last seen, November 1983

San Marcos Gambusia

(a fish, in Texas, USA)

Gambusia georgei

Last seen, 1983

Kama’o

(a bird in Hawaii)

Myadestes myadestinus

Last seen, 1983

Guam Flycatcher

(a bird in Guam)

Myiagra freycinet

Last seen, 1983

Aldabra Warbler

Nesillas aldabrana

Last seen, 1983

Galapagos Damselfish

Azurina eupalama

Last seen, 1982

Marianas Mallard

Anas oustaleti

Last seen, September 1981

Southern Day Frog

Taudactylus diurnus

Last seen, 1979

White-eyed River Martin

(a bird in Thailand)

Eurychelidon serintarea

Last seen, 1978

Little Hutia

(a rodent in Honduras)

Mesocapromys minimus

Last seen, 1978