The Climate in Emergency

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


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The Cost of Fire

So, the national fire Preparedness Level (PL) has gone to 5.

PLs are a way of defining the current draw on wildfire fighting resources. The higher the number, the more resources have been committed and the less-prepared we are for additional fires without additional help. Each region has its own PL, and then the US as a whole has a PL. If the national PL is 1, that means that all fires can be handled locally, without outside assistance. As the PL rises, the response to fire is organized at larger and larger scales, until at PL 5, teams are being called in from all over the country, and sometimes even from other countries, because local and even regional resources have been overwhelmed.

My husband goes west to fight fires at PL 5. We are now on alert. All our plans, from family get-togethers to vet appointments, must now be organized around the possibility that he could get the call. When you watch news coverage of catastrophic fires, remember the news is personal for some people.

This year’s fires are scary. Three firefighter have already died, as have several civilians. July is the first month of California’s fiscal year, and the state has already spent a quarter of its fire budget–and the worst part of its fire season is still months away. Fire seasons are trending worse, now, for all sorts of reasons, climate change among them. Not only are fire seasons longer and more intense, largely because of changes in precipitation patterns, but hotter weather makes fires less predictable and renders firefighters much more vulnerable to heat exhaustion and heat stroke. I’ve described these mechanisms before. They remain important to know about and think about.

But I’m also thinking about politics.

This years’ fires have involved extensive property damage–“1000 homes and businesses,” according to one article, and though it’s hard to tell exactly what that means, clearly communities have been damaged. Recovery from such damage takes a long time and costs a lot of money. Who pays?

I’m having trouble finding descriptions of the long-term effects of community-scale loss to fire, but I have information that offers suggestions. I can look at other kinds of big disasters, such as major floods. I can look at recovery from isolated house fires. I can look at short-term recovery from community-scale fires. Clean-up and rebuilding seem to take two or three years, assuming the survivors can get money to rebuild, assuming that work is not delayed by labor shortages, price hikes, or fraud, and assuming that no new disaster occurs to set the process back. But those are some big assumptions. Some families might not be able to rebuild at all, and might well find themselves knocked down a socioeconomic rung or two permanently. Mental and physical health issues can persist. New construction might simply recreate the vulnerabilities that made the disaster so bad in the first place. The community will likely never recover completely.

So, that means reduced economic activity and increased demand for social services over time, costs that must be largely invisible when we look at the already-large price tags of these fires. Who pays for these costs? Somebody has to.

Firefighting itself is generally covered by the US Forest Service and the BLM, since most wildfires happen on their land. These agencies have an annual firefighting budget based on the average firefighting costs over the past ten years. When that budget is exhausted, as sometimes happens, the extra money is taken from other budgets, usually from money set aside for mitigating fire risk (thinning forests, for example, or doing proscribed burns), so bad fires beget more bad fires. Curiously, wildfires are not legally considered “natural disasters,” meaning FEMA is not involved. Individual survivors must depend on private insurance.

As fires and other disasters become more frequent with climate change, the United States may lose the ability to pay for so many large-scale, multi-year recoveries. That is a huge problem. But it’s not the only problem.

Between the costs survivors must bear directly, state and local taxpayer burdens, and Federal budget problems that result in more fires (with their hidden, long-term costs), the bill for wildfires lands mostly on the people who live in or near the places that burn. We’re talking about public health, economic issues, damaged lives. And a share of that bill can be placed at the feet of climate change–which the Federal government is doing fundamentally nothing about.

What I want to know is why fire-prone states aren’t all electing climate hawks to Congress? Why didn’t all these states go Democrat in the last presidential election? Why isn’t this part of the story part of the public conversation on climate change?

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Independence Day

I’m re-posting this from last year, as it’s still quite timely. -C.

Happy American Independence Day.

The best of America has always been an ideal to which reality aspires in an irregular and sometimes ambivalent way. Our principle of equality has always been marred by racism, sexism, and various other interrelated isms, and yet the principle itself is valuable as a stated goal—and for much of our history, we have enjoyed a more egalitarian, and more participatory political and legal system than much of the rest of the world. It is not true that anyone can be anything if only they work hard, but hard-working people do have more latitude here than they might, as the flow of economic refuges to our borders attests. We are not the bastion of democracy that we should be, but we are the imperfect bastion that we are.

Anyone who thinks that the United States is the greatest and most perfect country on Earth has not been paying attention. But anyone who cannot tell the difference between the US and a third-world dictatorship hasn’t been paying attention either.

So, with that caveat, I’ll get to my point: the US is not currently independent.

Russia did try to get Donald Trump elected. Whether their involvement was decisive is debatable—it’s possible he would have been elected anyway. That Candidate Trump himself actually cooperated with Russian interference on his behalf has not been proved and might not be true. Yes, his public joking, during the campaign, to the effect that Russian hackers should help him is not, by itself, a smoking gun that he actually expected him to do so, or that any quid pro quo arrangement was made between the American oligarch and any Russian counterpart. That other people connected to the campaign were actively working for, or trying to work with, foreign entities during the campaign is also not proof, nor is the fact that President Trump has some odd financial ties to foreign entities (the extent of which we don’t know because he won’t release his taxes) proof. The whole thing is suspicious as all get-out, but we don’t actually know.

But the fact remains that by attempting to pull out of the Paris Climate Agreement, President Trump is acting in the interests of Russia (and Saudi Arabia) and not those of the United States. Maybe he’s doing it out of the “goodness” of his own heart, a spontaneous volunteerism with no prior planning or thought of reward, but he is acting in the interests of a foreign power.

I’ve argued previously that pulling out of Paris, and otherwise minimizing or reversing American action on climate, is the primary reason for Mr. Trump’s presidency, the true central plank of his personal platform. His rhetoric on the subject of the economy and American security, his dog-whistles to white nationalists, his consistent vocal abuse of women both individually and collectively, all of that can be chalked up to either personal proclivity or empty campaign promise. A wall on the border with Mexico would do nothing whatever to protect his constituents’ job prospects or personal safety, even if Mexico did pay to have it built. Getting out of Paris, though, is the one campaign promise he’s acted on and the only one that will actually help anyone.

It will help the owners of the fossil fuel industry.

I said that part already. What I did not point out before was the way in which acting on behalf of that industry constitutes selling out American interests in favor of those of other countries. It is true that Russia has powerful interests in oil, but so does the United States. While transnational corporations are, in some ways, independent of any country, Exxon, for example does have an American origin and the US still produces substantial amounts of coal, oil, and natural gas. It’s possible to tell this story as one of private, corporate interest, and many of the interested parties are Americans.

But the United States doesn’t need the fossil fuel industry. We have a fairly diversified economy, a highly diversified resource base, and we’re a net exporter of food. There is huge economic opportunity for us in a properly managed transition, and we’ll likely survive, or even come out ahead, as fossil fuel prices drop due to lessened demand. Russia is simply not as well prepared for the shift. Oil is its primary source of national wealth.

While I haven’t looked into what climate change will do for Russia, I don’t imagine that a rapidly warming planet is actually good for that country. And Russia did, in fact, sign the Paris Climate Agreement. But even if they don’t have less to lose that we do to a changing climate, certain elements within Russian society do have more to gain from hanging on to fossil fuel a little longer.

And we do have a lot to lose. Most of our major cities are coastal and thus vulnerable to sea level rise and a possible increase in hurricane activity. Much of our landmass is already capable of experiencing killer heat waves, and thanks to air conditioning, many of our most vulnerable citizens live in places that get dangerously hot (like Arizona and Southern Florida)—a problem that will only get worse. Increased drought and increased flooding will likely interfere with our agriculture. In many areas, our use of irrigation water is already unsustainable. The United States already gets more tornadoes than any other country on Earth, and while there is no way to tell whether climate change is increasing tornadic activity (there’s no reliable baseline data), it is a fair bet that it will. Political and economic instability in other countries caused by climate change represents a major threat to American security.

Mr. Trump is willing to risk all that for the sake of short-term economic gain—by people other than us.

I want to make very clear that I do not have anything against Russians as a people. Russia is not, at present, a free democracy, so I don’t hold its people accountable for what their leaders are doing. I also want to make clear that I’m not blaming Russia for America’s troubles. While it does seem clear we are under attack, our vulnerability to such attack is entirely home-grown. I’m only pointing out that our laws and government institutions are currently being used to protect a foreign government’s revenue stream at our expense.

242 years ago today, we told the world we weren’t going to let that happen anymore.


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Think of the Children

Ok, yeah, children separated from their parents with no clear plan to reunite them–I think I can declare that “bad” without violating this blog’s commitment to political neutrality on issues other than climate. Certain things are moral, not political.

And I’m pleased, really heartened, to see the nationwide (if not quite universal) outcry in favor of helping these kids and righting the wrong. I’m joining the effort–I plan to join a protest this coming weekend.

But where is the outcry about climate change?

If you care about kids, especially kids from poor, disenfranchised families, kids who get the short end of a lot of sticks, then you care about climate change. These are the kids likely to be flooded by more extreme weather, laid low by increasing risk of heat stroke, or variously disrupted by the violence and economic hardship likely to become more frequent.

Will all who are now children live painful, difficult lives because of climate change? No, far from it, but some will. Perhaps only a small minority–but only a small minority of children sit today in detention camps of various kinds. It’s still too many.

Look, I’m preaching to the choir right now, and doing so deliberately. I’m not saying “care about climate–think of the children!” because if you’re reading these words, you probably already do care. I’m saying what are we, the people who do care, doing wrong that there is not an uprising in the streets over the most important issue of our age?

Why doesn’t climate change seem real, even to the people who know perfectly well that it is?


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Giving Ground to Climate?

Last week, I attended a presentation on climate change and the Maine coast. In general, it was an excellent presentation, but since I’m going to be somewhat critical of it here, I will not draw attention to the presenter or her employer.

There was some information in the presentation on climate science (which I’ll work into other posts), but most of the emphasis was on communication—the idea being that instead of telling people scary, alarmist stories about climate disasters, it makes more sense to give them tools to help with mitigation and leave it up to them whether to use those tools. No persuasion, in other words, and no education that might hint at persuasion. Apparently people feel more respected and less overwhelmed this way, and some start to believe climate change is real on their own, eventually.

“This is a long game,” said the presenter.

That’s when I started to boil over. I mean, we have no time for long games, for one thing, and the disaster stuff isn’t alarmism, it’s just an alarm. Did you know some researchers are pushing to add an extra class to the hurricane rating system, to account for the stronger storms that seem to be the new normal? It’s alarming. I’m alarmed. Let’s face facts, people.

Of course, there’s the old question—do you want to be right or do you want to be effective? In other words, let go of the need to win the argument, and keep your eye on the prize. There is a lot to be said for gentle non-confrontation, for respect of other people’s sovereignty and dignity…not many people can really hear you if you’re shrieking at them, even if the things you’re shrieking happen to be 100% correct and a perfectly understandable thing to shriek about.

She says her method is getting results, and that’s exactly why I held my piece in the presentation, and why I’m not identifying her or her organization right now. I don’t want to get in her way.

But at the same time, it’s worth considering that climate denial is not a natural phenomenon, not a simple matter of people needing to hear the message in a gentle and accessible way. No, climate denial is deliberately manufactured, which is why is it is virtually non-existent in countries that don’t speak English and therefore don’t get the propaganda. So, clearly the old-style environmentalist messaging works, it did work, and it worked so well that people with a different message started pushing back—quite effectively. The lesson isn’t to abandon persuasion, it’s to get better at it, because we’re not the only persuaders out here.

The other thing I think about is The Letter from Birmingham Jail, in which Dr. King famously calls white liberals out for telling black people to be less assertive in their demands for freedom and justice, as if white people might concede if only black people asked more nicely. That anyone, anywhere, achieves justice by becoming less strident about asking for it is a crock when it comes to racism, and it’s a crock when it comes to climate change, too—which, make no mistake, is also a matter of justice. Climate change is landing on the heads of the poor and the marginalized, not on those who make bank on the industrial processes that put us in this mess.

Climate denial did not become a political force because we were too strident, and it will not go away if we cease being strident. It will simply win.

What we need to do is to become smarter and more strategic in our stridency.

Yes, of course, be respectful. Ordinary people who don’t know whether climate change is real are not the enemy, and should not be treated as such. Offer solutions to problems people have, not the problems they don’t have or don’t think they have. Listen, learn, and acknowledge the importance of the collateral issues, such as race, class, and ethnicity, that can prime a person to reject a message for reasons that seem irrelevant but aren’t. Be accessible. Be empowering. Do everything and anything that experience and social science tell us might work.

But don’t take your eye off the prize.

Don’t cede ground lightly or without paying attention to the strategic value of that ground.

And don’t let your adversaries define the terms of either engagement or retreat.

For example, if you’re speaking to a group that may include climate skeptics, sure, go ahead and use some tact. Put the emphasis on issues you can agree on. Acknowledge their right and ability to make up their own mind. But do not refer to scientific controversy over what is causing climate change, because there is none. You’d just be repeating someone else’s lie. That’s an example of ceding ground without paying attention to its value—you have ceded the truth, and you’ve given your adversary the power to redefine consensus reality as needed. Do not do that.

Likewise, the suggestion that we focus only on offering tools to help with mitigation concerns me because it does nothing whatever for the fight at the ballot box—which is where the end game we’re looking at will play out. We need pro-climate government leadership, or we simply aren’t going to win this thing.

How very convenient.

I’m being strident at the moment. I’m being slightly impolitic, perhaps. But I’m deliberately speaking to the converted right now, and not to anyone else:

Yes, definitely, use whatever gentle message works for your corner of the issue, for your own specific campaign. No one can work on all fronts simultaneously, anyway. But figure out a way to be gentle and tactful without spreading climate-denier propaganda yourself and without abandoning the fight to get the climate-sane leadership we so desperately need.


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Looking for–and Not Finding–Marches

If the planned Second Science March occurred, it did so utterly without fanfare.

I ended up not going, for various logistical reasons. I have a few friends who mentioned making the same decision for similar reasons. I don’t know anybody who went. I saw no mention of it on the news. I have just now done an internet search for “science march,” and the top page of results were all either sites planning the march or commenting on last year’s march. ZERO reporting on this year’s march.

Did it occur? Did anybody show up? Like the tree falling unheard in the forest, a march nobody noticed may indeed make a sound, but if nobody notices it might as well be silent because nobody cares.

In the process of looking for marches two weeks ago, I found a number of upcoming events, but I also learned that the organizers of the Second Science March were deliberately down-playing the march itself, and instead putting their focus on activism and advocacy. So, there was a reason why nobody heard about the march in time to make arrangements to go, and nobody reported on the marches when they happened–the organizers wanted it that way. I do not understand this strategy. Why expend money and effort planning a march, but then doom it to fail?

Do these people even want to succeed?

Last year’s Science March was a great deal of fun. I was disappointed not to be able to do it again. I’m also very concerned that climate issues (a subset of the issues addressed by the Science March) are falling out of the media again. For a while, there, news shows were starting to take the issue seriously, since it was obvious–from the marches–that people care. Now? Not so much.

It’s hard to care about something if nobody acts like it matters. It’s hard to know what others care about it if you never hear from them. If climate change does not make the news, the rest of us are left feeling very alone.

It’s hard to believe the people who benefit from climate denial are unaware of this.

 

I must apologize for not posting last week. There was a family emergency–now resolved–that made everything difficult.


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Looking for Marches

I admit I got spoiled.

For a while, there, information about political demonstrations simply came to be on Facebook. Friends posted announcements, as did groups I had signed up for. All I had to do was decide which marches I wanted to go on. Last year sometime, the flow of information stopped. I don’t know why it stopped, and I wasn’t clearly aware that it had stopped at the time. It was like the beginning of a drought, when you slowly, belatedly realize that it’s really been a long time now since it rained.

As I’ve mentioned, I was also badly distracted by a protracted family emergency. I had no emotional energy left over for political engagement, however necessary or noble, let alone for research into how to politically engage. So I took much longer to respond to the situation than I might have–and when I did respond I did so slowly, vaguely, without commitment.

I posted comments to various groups–has anyone heard about any marches or rallies coming up for the next few months? No one responded. Months went by. I asked again. I put off checking back on my messages for months. I saw major demonstrations on the news that I had known nothing about.

I have more energy now. I’m sleeping better. I’m more awake. And it suddenly occurred to me this week that  this is not a case of just vaguely not hearing much news lately. Facebook, as we all probably know by now, is not a passive medium, like some online equivalent of a community cork board. Instead, the service actively prioritizes what we see and what we don’t based on an ever-changing and somewhat mysterious algorithm. When I don’t see messages from one or another friend but my husband does see those messages, or the other way around, I know the algorithm is involved. When a message of mine seems to disappear down a dark well, or, alternatively, suddenly gets attention from everybody, I know the algorithm is likely involved. At long last, the conclusion became inescapable:

Facebook’s algorithm must no longer favor the kind of political information I want to see.

The idea feels creepy, Orwellian, controlling. It isn’t, necessarily. It’s possible Facebook is, in fact, trying to impede the flow of propaganda and trollwork and my marches and petitions are collateral damage. It’s also possible that fewer of my friends have been “liking” these posts, perhaps being tired of politics, so the algorithm isn’t showing them as widely. But regardless of why, it’s time to be more proactive.

So, I spent today looking around online and found a number of interesting events–a Science March later this week, a youth-led climate march in June, and another climate rally in September. I posted them here on my page. I also posted several civil-rights-related events, a tax protest, and an anti-gun violence event. While this site is focused on climate change only, I also post information on other issues that may interest visitors. Among other reasons, if I expect devotees of other issues to show up for my favorite cause, I’d better show up for theirs.

There is a danger, here. I was talking to my friend, Zeke, last night, and he expressed concern, not for the first time, with the political and philosophical bubbles we tend to confine ourselves within. He is familiar with the fact that politically conservative hunters do a lot of environmental conservation work, yet are often socially excluded from the politically liberal environmental movement. That’s bad for the planet because it turns potential allies against each other. The only way to build effective coalitions is to form alliances with people we don’t completely agree with. That gets difficult when the people who do agree with each other spend a lot of their time at political rallies shouting about their common passions and their shared antipathy to everything else.

It’s true that I don’t post events for all issues on my site–I wouldn’t post a clearly racist demonstration for example, although some racists may be conservationists. It’s a line that has to be drawn somewhere, clearly, but where?

I’m not sure frankly.

Finding the information wasn’t easy. My second query to Facebook groups yielded surprisingly little. Visits to the websites of the organizations that often sponsor marches yielded nothing, either. The pages were poorly organized and out of date, a hodge-podge of notices and calls-to-action for events and campaigns over the past three years.

Finally I resorted to internet searches for “climate protest 2018” and “climate demonstration 2018.” I tried “climate march” first, but that tended to yield climate-related events in March. But I got enough that I likely have a full picture, at least for Washington DC.

The way I see it, it’s time to revert to a variation of old-fashioned social networking–I look up the information I want and then share it–individually, by email, PM, or tagging people–with people I think may be interested. Other people do the same. Pass it on.

 


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For Our Lives

Many years ago, I was on a crew doing fuels reduction cutting in the urban-wilderness interface. In plain English, that means there were about ten of us who would go to neighborhoods that butted up against forests, and we’d thin out the trees using chainsaws and also cut away dead branches near the ground. This was in Arizona, in an area that was once grassy, with few, well-spaced trees, but over-grazing and then fire suppression allowed trees to grow more densely than they had previously. As a result, that part of Arizona, which used to have frequent, low-intensity grass fires, now has rare but very dangerous and damaging forest fires. The idea is that by thinning out the trees and then doing controlled burns, the more dangerous fires can be prevented. It seems to work, and of course they prioritize tracts of land near houses and such.

Anyway, one of the men on my crew–I forget his name, now–was beautiful. I don’t mean I was especially attracted to him (though I can see how others might be), I mean that he looked good in a way more common among women, although he was not at all feminine in affect. He had a very thin build and long, thick, black hair. And one day he returned to headquarters with a story.

He had been busy cutting, when a woman came out of her nearby house, saw him, and shouted “GIRL POWER!!!”

Obviously, from a distance, and while wearing several layers of protective equipment, he had looked to her like a woman running a chainsaw. She was delighted and impressed. Of course, there WERE several women running chainsaws in the vicinity, but none were in her field of vision, only him.

Unable to have a real conversation under the circumstances, the man simply pumped his fist. Yes, girl power, women on chainsaws! Yee-haw!

“I didn’t want to disagree,” he later explained.

Watching teenagers taking to the streets for gun control, I have a very similar reaction. As with that man busy running a noisy and dangerous chainsaw, I find my response largely limited by circumstance to a binary choice between approval and disapproval. And I don’t want to disagree–schools should be safe places, and young people should be supported in political involvement. And yet these people are missing something.

As I’ve covered elsewhere in this blog, climate change is a greater threat to these kids’ future than school shootings are, and the fossil fuel industry is a greater threat to American democracy than the gun lobby is, so why aren’t we taking to the streets to do something about it? Why is the youth movement rising in one place but not the other?

Both could happen at once, of course, it’s just that they aren’t, and the more I see the power of the gun safety movement, the more mystified I am that environmentalists seem to be twiddling their thumbs. Massive protest can still accomplish something, so what is the hold-up? I am, in fact, beginning to wonder if social media is being used deliberately to interfere with action on climate change.

Of course, it may just be that climate change, with its complex patterns of varying risk, just doesn’t seem as real, as important, as a spray of bullets.

Fortunately, the party of the NRA happens to also be the party of climate deniers, so if the March for Our Lives sweeps gun advocates out of office, they could switch the balance of power on climate, too. Unfortunately, that’s not a forgone conclusion.

As I’ve explained here before, a majority of Americans understand climate change is real and want something done about it, but few consider silence on the issue a deal-breaker for  candidate. But for the minority of climate skeptics and deniers, climate action is a deal-breaker.  The political calculus is clear; ignore climate change, take a stand on a couple of other liberal issues, and win. That is why we’ve been treading water on the issue for a generation while the world begins to burn.

Getting committed climate deniers out of office is not necessarily the same thing as getting climate activists in. We need candidates who are committed to climate action for its own sake, not for political reasons. How do we find them, especially given that they might not campaign on the issue?

Perhaps getting behind the rising young people is one half of a winning strategy for climate–and the other half is getting behind candidates of color. White Americans lag behind other groups in taking climate seriously, so, statistically speaking, black and brown lawmakers are more likely to be climate sane than white lawmakers who campaign on similar platforms. And there are all sorts of reasons to support candidates of color anyway.

If environmentalists will not take to the streets, perhaps we can make some progress by getting behind those who will.