The Climate in Emergency

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


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Hot Little Number

A lot of people—perhaps most—are functionally innumerate.

Innumeracy sounds like it ought to be the mathematical equivalent of illiteracy, and it is something like that, and yet it is also different. And yes, this has to do with climate change.

Illiteracy is primarily a problem of knowledge—an illiterate person doesn’t know enough about the written language to understand it. It’s possible to be innumerate in that sense, and that kind of numeracy can lag far behind literacy for some. For example, I am so fully literate that I make my living as a writer and an editor, and yet I don’t actually know how big a million is. I could count to ten thousand, if I wanted to, but I couldn’t count to a million. I don’t know how.

But there is another form of innumeracy that has less to do with knowledge and more to do with the ability to use mathematical logic. For example, if I say “300 people died of food poisoning this year,” that doesn’t tell you anything. Am I talking about an outbreak in a small town, or am I talking about the entire United States? How many people die of food poisoning in a typical year—is 300 more or fewer than usual? Only with context does this number, 300, tell a meaningful story.

Knowing where to look for that context and how to interpret that context is the beginning of statistical literacy, a related but different issue, but if you don’t know some kind of context is necessary, then you might as well not know the number 300, either.

That’s functional innumeracy.

The reason this matters for climate change is that again and again in the course of researching for this blog I find numbers presented to the public without their context, or with inadequate context.

  • Product A. requires more energy to produce than Product B.–does that include manufacture only, or does it also include the energy required for acquiring raw materials?
  • A certain university boasts that it has reduced its carbon emissions by a certain number of tons per year—but what is the new carbon footprint, and is it bigger or smaller than typical for similar schools?
  • Nationally, a certain substance is responsible for a certain number of tons of carbon dioxide equivalent—but is that number big or small compared to the footprint of the country as a whole?

I realize it’s a little difficult to make sense of hypothetical examples, but I’m trying to keep this post quick and to the point, without getting bogged down with real-life detail.

When I see numbers presented without context, I wonder whether the people presenting those numbers don’t realize the context is necessary, or if they simply aren’t as interested in climate action as they appear to be? Indeed, careful attention to which context is missing often reveals something that could be to the advantage of the entity releasing the numbers—but whether the oversight was actually deliberate, I’m not in a position to say.

I can confidently assert, though, that the fact context is not given means that the public doesn’t demand it. And that means there are important questions, questions that could make a great deal of difference to how we attack climate change, that we’re not asking. It also means that we’re leaving ourselves vulnerable to people who sound good but don’t have the facts on their side.

Innumeracy is unlike illiteracy in that the latter can really only be fixed by education. You can’t will yourself to read if you don’t know how. But if you understand numbers in a general way—and most of us do—you can will yourself to think more carefully about them, and on the basis of careful thought you can ask more questions.

Sometimes that’s all that needs to happen, to begin with—ask a couple of good questions.

And then seek answers.


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Climate Change and Food: Fake Meat

A cheeseburger sitting on a wooden surface against a dark blue background. The burger is seen from the side, up-close. It's in-your-face meat. The burger has two patties, lettuce, tomato, onion, and pickle, thin slices of yellow, semi-melted cheese, and a sort-of pinkish sauce. The bun is attractively brown and shiny and has a few white seeds on its surface.

Photo by amirali mirhashemian on Unsplash

Some time ago, I wrote a post on climate change and meat. I did some reading, and learned that, yes, animal-based foods do have categorically larger carbon footprints than plant-based foods. Worse, processing and transportation have very little to do with it–eating local, organic, minimally-processed etc. may be a good idea for many reasons, but climate change is not one of those reasons. The vast majority of the carbon footprint of an edible animal is simply due to the fact that it is an animal.

I couldn’t find a detailed explanation as to why, but a likely explanation has to do with the flow of energy. Simply put, every time energy changes form, a portion of it is lost (as per the Second Law of Thermodynamics) and the higher on the food chain you eat, the more energy has been lost along the way–and the more energy is involved, the more carbon emissions (I’m summarizing the post on meat, here, which I linked to above).

Lamb and beef, in that order, are by far the worst for the climate, at least in part because both are ruminants and therefor have digestive processes that produce huge amounts of methane, a powerful greenhouse gas.

So while I’m not going to say everyone necessarily should become vegan (only the Sith deal in absolutes!), it is clear that meat cannot remain a major staple for large numbers of people.

But many of today’s vegetarians and vegans eat diets that look and taste as much like omnivorism as possible, thanks to the wonders of food science. The prevalence of fake meat and dairy is only likely to grow as the fakes get more and more appealing.

So, what’s the carbon footprint of fake meat?

Carbon Foot-printing Fake Meat

Several dishes of food sit on a wooden table. The dish nearest the camera consists of cubes of tofu in a red sauce garnished with what looks like ground black pepper and chopped green onion. The other dishes are harder to see, but may be a large bowl of white rice, a dish of sauted green beans, and a dish of sliced eggplant in a brown sauce.

Photo by Alana Harris on Unsplash

What I’m calling “fake meat” here includes anything that can stand in for meat on the table but was never part of a living animal. In some cases the phrase is a misnomer. A portobello burger, for example, doesn’t resemble meat and isn’t meant to, it’s just a vegetarian dish that is good in some of the same ways hamburgers are. And ground beef made from cloned cells in a lab (which can be done, it’s just too expensive to market yet) is real meat by any reasonable definition, it just wasn’t taken from a dead animal. But “fake meat” is a reasonable shorthand for the entire dietary genre.

Clearly, with such a wide variety of possible foods, we’re not after just one carbon footprint. On the other hand, tracking down individual footprints for anything that could possibly be used as a meat substitute would be time consuming and, in some cases, fruitless (I have tried; there is a reason I’m posting one day late this week!).

What we’re really after is a generality; is shifting to fake meat really a good idea for the climate? The short answer is a very cautious yes.

Making the Sausage

Fake meat, by definition, isn’t what it looks like or tastes like, so the trick is to pay attention to what it is, not what it seems to be.

A meatless hot dog made of seitan, for example, has much more in common with a hot dog bun than a hot dog, from either a nutritional or environmental perspective. Seitan is essentially wheat protein. It’s made by rinsing all the starch out of whole wheat dough. Carbon-footprinting a seitan product therefore involves analyzing the emissions involved in wheat production, plus those involved with processing. A meatless hot dog made of soy might have a very different footprint, and lab-grown cells would be different yet again.

One of the most exciting fake meats at the moment is the Impossible Burger, which has been through multiple iterations and is currently made mostly out of soy protein flavored with heme, a molecule found in blood that is partially responsible for the distinctive taste of red meat. It is largely thanks to heme that the Impossible Burger is almost indistinguishable in taste tests from ground beef. Fortunately, heme is not found only in blood. In this case it’s produced by genetically-engineered yeast.

Carbon-footprinting the Sausage

The Impossible Burger has been the subject of formal footprint analysis; its global warming potential (including that involved in processing) is 89% smaller than that of beef. There are a lot of details I have not been able to gather about that analysis (the footprint of beef can vary slightly, depending on how it’s raised and processed and so forth, so did they use average beef, or one particular kind for the comparison?), but I have a hard time imagining that the unknowns could make more than a few percentage points of difference either way.

Some back-of-the-envelope calculations (using figures from this article) therefore suggest that an Impossible Burger patty has a carbon footprint somewhere between that of an equivalent weight of rice and beans and an equivalent weight of egg. From a climate change perspective, it is a vegetable.

Most other processed fake meats are likely in the same range, for the simple reason that they, too, are vegetables, and processing them is unlikely to involve substantially more emissions than processing the Impossible Burger does.

Lab-grown meat could be an exception, simply because it is so different from other products–it deserves its own analysis–but since commercially viable production methods have not yet been developed, it’s too soon to say what the emissions of those methods might be.

Complications

As I wrote in my post on meat, carbon-footprinting animal products may be a little less straight-forward than it seems. For example, milk has a much smaller footprint than beef does, presumably since the footprint of the cow is spread out over her lifetime production of milk, rather than the smaller bulk of her meat alone. So the more meals an animal produces, the smaller her associated per-meal carbon footprint is? If that’s the case, then beef made from a cow previously used for milk should have a smaller per-pound footprint than dairy does, since eating the meat spreads the animal’s emissions out even farther. But is that true, or is there a piece of the puzzle missing?

 

More troubling yet is the issue that cattle and sheep are hardly new, so how can their emissions be causing a new problem? The obvious answer is that there are far more cattle and sheep and other domestic animals than ever before–much of the zoological part of the biosphere is currently either humans or animals being raised to be eaten by humans–but before we created what I like to call the modern massive mountain of moo, there were lots more wild animals. How can domestic animals have more emissions than the wild animals they replaced?

The reality is that climate change is best understood by looking at the biosphere as a whole, not by adding up the carbon footprints of various individual activities. Prior to the Industrial Revolution, the levels of greenhouse gasses in the atmosphere were, roughly speaking, stable, because the energy flow through the biosphere was stable, inputs balanced by outflow, like a savings account kept roughly stable through careful budgeting. Lately, though, we’ve been spending down the account, an activity that produces the short-term illusion of riches but always results in poverty at the end,

There are two forms of spending down the account: we can take energy out of long-term storage, by burning fossil fuels, or we can take energy out of short-term storage through unsustainable use of natural resources, such as excessive logging. Although there are greenhouse gasses, such as CFCs, that are a bit of a different story, the bulk of the problem of climate change is a shift in the energy flow of the biosphere caused by one form or another of spending down the account.

The question is, how can the replacement of wild ruminants by domestic cattle and sheep change the energy budget of the planet? Isn’t a bovine fart a bovine fart whether the bovine in question is a steer or a bison?

I haven’t seen this issue addressed by any other authors, but in some way or other, the way we raise meat animals must either require fossil fuels or it must constitute an unsustainable use of a living system. If meat did neither, it could not alter the energy budget of the biosphere.

A Vision for Moo

There are certainly those who believe we must all go vegan, or at least nearly vegan, for the good of the planet. The statement is controversial, in large part because there are considerations other than climate in play. Eating animals is the subject of legitimate ethical debate, an important consideration, albeit an unrelated one (it is possible for two equally important issues to have no direct bearing on each other). Eating animals is also an intrinsic part of various cultural and economic systems (another important but different issue). And there are environmental issues associated with meat other than climate–for example, grazing animals have been used in ecological restoration (for examples and discussion, please read this book and that book). So how all these various considerations might pull and tug real life into the actual future is far from clear.

But I’m still stuck on how the mountain of moo changes the biosphere.

Meat animals can’t possibly be contributing to climate change simply because they are eaten by humans as opposed to by wolves or carrion beetles. Since we have it on good authority that they are part of the problem, they must be so either because fossil fuel is used on their behalf, or because they are themselves consuming resources at an unsustainable rate.

Vegetables could also be produced with fossil fuels and at an unsustainable rate, and they eventually would be if humans all went vegan but did not otherwise change our habits.

The solution is therefore to make meat (and everything else) fossil fuel free and sustainable.

Now, there would be much less meat in such a scenario, so diets would have to change, but that would be an effect, not a cause. It’s the energy budget we have to fix first and centrally, otherwise we’re just rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic.

Does that make switching to the Impossible Burger pointless?

Hardly.

We won’t build a new food production system if we continue to demand food that requires the old one. We have to create the tools we’ll need to build the future, and arguably that includes fake meat that meat enthusiasts want to eat. We need to develop the production systems, the distribution systems, and the cultural preferences that the future demands, and we need to do it today.

But let’s not forget that the one thing we really must stop eating is oil.

Image appears to show the instant after a drop has dripped into a liquid; there is a crater in the liquid surface, surrounded by rings of ripples. The liquid is black with a dull, pale sheen. It could be water seen at night, or black ink, or it could possibly be black petroleum.

Photo by Julian Böck on Unsplash


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The Carbon Footprint of College?

Image shows a green, leafy college campus, looking down a concrete walkway--a second walkway branches off to the left. In the angle between the two walkways is a group of bike racks on a mulched surface. Otherwise the ground is grassy. There is only one bike in the rack. To the left of the walkway is a lawn, some small trees, and a very long, ivy, covered three-story building. To the right is lawn and a row of trees. The sky is partly cloudy. There are no people visible.

Photo by Ryan Jacobson on Unsplash

Some weeks ago, I wrote a post on the carbon footprint of medicine, but I could not find all the information I wanted. While I found estimates of the total footprint of medicine in various countries and on certain specific aspects of medicine (emergency transport, surgery, pharmaceuticals), there were some big gaps I could not fill. I speculated that since hospitals and residential colleges have certain things in common, it might be interesting and informative to look up the carbon footprint of college campuses.

Well, guess what?

There are lots of articles out there on how colleges are reducing their footprints, but virtually nothing on what those footprints actually are. A typical piece might boast that such-and-such a school has reduced their emissions by 73% since 2010, but without saying 73% of what, and without giving a breakdown of where those savings had been found or what aspects of the school were responsible for those emissions. I doubt the information is being hidden, it’s just that I’m asking questions few other people are asking, and that always makes information hard to find online.

When I can’t find answers to write about, I write about the questions.

Questioning College Emissions

How one asks a question dictates the sort of answer one gets–and what can be done with that information. For example, consider the difference between the following two questions:

  • Which American colleges have reduced their carbon footprint the most in the past ten years?
  • Which American colleges have the lowest carbon footprints currently?

Either list seems like a reasonable answer to a vague question, like “which colleges are greenest?” and yet the two lists are likely to be completely different. And neither one offers any clue as to how small a college footprint could actually get and still offer an excellent education.

So what questions do I want answers for?

The Breakdown

I want to know where the emissions in a given school come from. A pie chart would be nice. Schools could be compared not only by their totals but also by their scores in several subcategories–one school might have very high emissions associated with heating and cooling, for example, while another has a big transportation score. Now since I’ve only ever been a student, not a staff member or an administrator, there are things I don’t know about how schools operate. The following is my current best guess for how the greenhouse gas emissions of a school might be broken down.

On-campus Housing

This category can be further broken down into electricity, fuel use, coolant (from air conditioning and refrigeration), waste disposal, and possibly some other categories. The figure will be zero for non-residential schools, that doesn’t mean non-residential schools are automatically better; if dorm-living has a lower footprint than off-campus living, residential schools might be better for the planet despite having a bigger institutional footprint.

On-campus Food-service

Again, a category that will vary in ways that really must be put in context. For example, my undergraduate school did not have classes. Instead, it had residencies several times per year. During residencies, we all ate in the dining hall, so the school definitely had food service, but only for about 12 weeks per year, and only for about a third of the student body, plus faculty, at any given time. It’s per-student food-service figure must have been extremely low, relative to traditional residential schools, for reasons that had nothing to do with energy efficiency in the kitchen. And, as with housing, a school’s food-service emissions must be compared not just to those of other schools but also to those of students who don’t eat on campus.

Grounds-keeping

While most emissions categories need to be expressed as per-student figures, with grounds-keeping the important context is probably not the size of the student body but the size of the outdoor portion of the campus. Again, I’m thinking of my undergrad program, which held its residencies on a campus that had been built for a student body much larger than ours. A tricky situation arises for schools that rent space–does maintenance of the grounds go on the school’s tally sheet or not?

Academic Facilities

By “academic facilities” I mean buildings other than dorm rooms and dining halls, the sort of buildings that both residential and non-residential schools have in common and by which they can be directly compared. I am not sure whether sports facilities ought to be included here or not. And do, for example, the pastures of an agricultural college or the forests of a forestry school count as academic facilities or grounds?

Classes

Shows a classroom with about ten or twelve adult students sitting in chairs watching a man deliver a PowerPoint lecture. The man, presumably the professor is standing behind a lecturn and is dressed casually. The students are also dressed casually. The professor is on the other side of the room from the camera and is hard to see. The classroom is well-lit and has large windows with curved tops and a ceiling with a large raised area in the middle with what look like noise-dampening panels in it. The room as a whole has a somewhat fancy look.

Photo by NeONBRAND on Unsplash

I have taken college classes that likely had carbon emissions of zero, but I’ve also had classes that involved driving hundreds of miles to field study sites, and the school offered some that required air travel. Courses that involve chemistry experiments or animal care might have significant footprints, too. Some classes use much more electricity than others–should that be counted as part of the footprint of the class, or simply subsumed into “academic facilities”?

Non-academic Travel

“Academic travel” is that undertaken as part of a class, such as driving on a field trip, or when a professor visits a site in order to prepare for an upcoming field trip. Such trips count under “classes.” Non-academic travel is students and professors and other staff going to and from school. It’s a tricky category, because it’s not directly under the control of the school. If a student wants to commute to class from the other side of the country by private jet, there’s not much the school can do about it.

And yet schools can take steps to minimize the necessity of travel, such as by providing on-campus housing. Schools can also make lower-impact forms of travel more practical, such as by installing bike racks and having bikes students may borrow for free, or, for large schools, by creating a local transit system that runs on biodiesel. A school could also have EV charging stations on campus (providing the school has a sustainable source of electricity) or it could produce and sell biodiesel. There are lots of options, and schools should be held accountable for taking those options. Perhaps a school’s non-academic travel figure could be an estimation of the travel emissions of an average student based on survey data and how far from campus students live.

Construction and Renovation

Building stuff has a carbon footprint, particularly if cement is involved. There can be some tricky judgment calls, though, since a college that builds a new LEEDS-certified lecture hall will have more emissions that year than one that doesn’t, even though the hall may be an effective investment in the school’s sustainability long-term. Also, some building materials either release greenhouse gasses over time or absorb them. Finally, building-related emissions have to be seen in context. Some years ago, my grad school put up a bike shelter on campus in order to encourage students to bike rather than drive. The bike shelter sits on a poured concrete pad, and although much of the assembly was manual, heavy machinery was also involved. So that shelter was definitely responsible for some greenhouse gas emissions. However, if it accomplished its mission, it’s also responsible for reducing emissions from the non-academic transportation category, a possibility that must be accounted for when judging its construction.

A fair footprinting method would have to average construction-related emissions over the projected life of the building (demolition-related emissions would also have to be included), and the impact of the building on other aspects of the school’s footprint would also have to be considered somehow.

Legacies and influences

What emissions occur on campus are not the only issue for colleges. A school could score a nice, big zero in all of the above categories, but if it is training students specifically to work in the fossil fuel industry (certain branches of geology, for example, are most applicable to fossil fuel prospecting), then its carbon footprint can’t really be zero. Likewise, a school that has invested its endowment in fossil fuels has a big footprint no matter what else it does. How such indirect emissions might be calculated, I’m not sure, but they would have to be included somehow.

What Are These Questions For?

All of the above categories would, ideally, show where a school might improve. The school itself could use the information in its planning, and outside entities (prospective students, for example) could assess how serious the school really is about climate change.

For example, a school might put up a new bike shelter and put out a press release about how “green” it is. OK, but if the school’s non-academic transport score is actually pretty good already and its academic buildings score is excessive, then the bike shelter begins to look like green-washing.

Of course, to make such an assessment, we’d have to know what all these scores should be. At the very least, we need to be able to compare the scores of each school to some kind of relevant average.

Defining such averages, never mind collecting enough data to calculate them, would be difficult.

A Modest Proposal

It’s not that nobody is comparing colleges based on environmental considerations. A search for “the greenest colleges” actually yields a lot of information, including carefully-compiled rankings. But if listings of carbon footprints broken down by category exist, I haven’t found them, yet.

Considering the matter carefully, I begin to suspect they don’t exist. There are too many places in the above list where a simple question (“What is a given school’s greenhouse gas emissions for academic buildings?”) shatters into dozens of sub-questions about definitions and methods and fairness. And to be truly useful, the assessment I’m envisioning would have to be done for a fair portion of all the schools in the US (or whatever country one was curious about), and then all those data would have to be compiled into several different categories so schools could be compared fairly.

That’s not a blog post. That’s not even a master’s thesis (calculating the footprint of a single school and making recommendations would be a master’s thesis). It’s a PhD dissertation.

A white mug full of coffee sits in the foreground on a plain wooden table lit by defuse sunlight. At least two wooden chairs are next to the table, but they are out of focus. At the far end of the table is a very out-of-focus object that might be a person sitting at the table facing the camera. The rest of the room is too out-of-focus to make out. On the cop, in small, black print, is written the word "begin."

Photo by Danielle MacInnes on Unsplash

And it’s quite likely no one’s gotten around to doing it yet.

Fortunately, there are people out there looking for dissertation topics, so if you’re one of them, or if you know someone who is, may I humbly suggest this one? Send me the results when you’re done.


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Dead Biome Walking?

A photo of a man apparently reading a newspaper that is on fire. The man is dressed in dark, simple clothing and is seated on a stool with his legs crossed. The background is plain, gray, and somewhat dark and dingy looking. The view of the man is from the front and he is holding the paper at an angle that obscures his face and upper body. The newsprint is too small for the viewer to read it and its content does not appear to be important for the image.

Photo by Elijah O’Donnell on Unsplash

So, about those Australian fires….

It’s high time I wrote a post about them, as the disaster constitutes one of the most dramatic climate-related catastrophes today, and it’s likely to keep getting worse for a while, yet. While some people have complained that climate change didn’t start the fires, that’s a bit like saying that jumping off a sky-scraper wouldn’t kill you–technically true, but more deeply false (with the sky-scraper, it’s the sudden stop at the end that gets you). Climate change helped create the circumstance where hitherto-unheard-of fires are possible.

I’ve written before about the links between climate change and fire with respect to California. The situation in Australia is broadly similar.

I’m not going to rewrite those articles  with an Australian focus–other people are covering the topic already. What I want to know is how bad are these fires, other than “really bad”? How big are they, really? It’s easy enough to look up the numbers of acres burned, number of people killed, and so forth, but it’s hard to really put that information in context. How much of Australia burns in a typical year? How well will Australia be able to recover, ecologically or economically? Is anything being lost that can’t be regained?

Putting the Australian Fires in Context

There are several questions I want answers to:

  • How much of Australia is burning or has burned?
  • How much damage has been done to the specific biomes involved?
  • How do the 2019/2020 fires compare to historical fires in Australia, both in extent and in intensity?
  • In what ways besides climate change have human activities made the fires worse?
  • How well can Australia recover, either ecologically or economically?
  • Will Australia have more fires like this in the future?
  • Could other countries see similar disasters in the near future?

Some of those questions are easy to find answers for, others would require a major research project if they could be answered at all. For now, let’s just explore some of these issues.

How Bad Are the Fires?

Several questions involve the severity of the current disaster. As I said, it’s easy to look up the acreage burned, and it is just as easy to look up maps that show the extent of the fires relative to Australia’s land mass overall. These are pretty arresting images, but they don’t tell the whole story.

The issue is that the part of Australia that is not on fire is mostly uninhabited–both flammable vegetation and humans cluster in the well-watered coastal regions. If we could calculate the proportion of Australia’s inhabited area that has burned over the past year, the resulting fraction would be even more arresting and give outsiders a much more accurate picture of what Australians are going through right now.

Unfortunately, I have not been able to find a figure for the size of Australia’s inhabited area. In fairness, it is difficult to define such an area, because there is no black-and-white distinction between “inhabited” and “uninhabited.” Rather, the population just gets thinner and thinner.

A steep slope with long, dry grass in the foreground and a forest of tall, dead conifer trees in the background. In the very far distance, mountains and a hazy blue sky are visible.

Photo by Meritt Thomas on Unsplash (stock photo, not necessarily recent or Australian)

At the moment, the best I can do is eyeball a comparison between a map of Australia’s population distribution and the various maps of the fires (here’s one; an image of the cumulative light of a month of fires)

Those well-watered coastal areas are also ecologically distinct from the arid interior. A map of Australia’s major biomes (a biome is an ecologically defined region) shows that the region where many of the fires have been clustered are also within a relatively small biome, the Temperate Broadleaf and Mixed Forest. Another cluster of fires overlaps with much of an even smaller biome, the Tropical and Subtropical Moist Broadleaf Forests. As you’ll see if you click on the links, I have not actually found a map that shows biomes and fires, I’m doing more eyeball comparisons. To my eyeball, it looks like a significant chunk of both biomes must have gone up in smoke this year.

Wildfire is usually not the disaster it appears to be, since the burned-over areas are re-colonized with vegetation and animals from unburned areas–and while the burn zone is recovering, it provides habitat to various species that specialize in the different stages of recovery. However, if an entire biome were to burn completely, recovery would not be possible because the organisms able to live in that biome would all be dead–and most of them would be extinct, since it is unusual for a species to occupy multiple, radically different habitats. Real wildfires seldom burn completely (there are usually un-burned pockets, and the less-intense fires spare the roots of plants, burrowing animals, and even some trees) but disaster need not be complete to be decisive–and Australia has already suffered widespread deforestation and habitat fragmentation. There’s not a lot left to burn.

Could we be witnessing the loss of two biomes right now?

Are the Fires a Cause or an Effect?

A forest of black tree trunks on blackened ground. Smoke drifts eerily through the forest, partially obscuring the orange flames coming up from the ground.

Photo by Joanne Francis on Unsplash (A stock photo, not necessarily depicting a recent Australian fire)

Can Australia recover? I have found several articles on economic and cultural recovery, and while everyone seems to acknowledge that recovery will be difficult, no one seems to doubt it will happen. There is some worry that there may indeed be permanent ecological change.

What I wonder is whether the permanent change has already happened. In other words, is fire (exacerbated by climate change) the agent of an ecological shift, or merely a symptom of a shift that has already occurred?

To choose an example of what I mean that is closer to my home, the Southwest of the United States is famous for its deserts, but actually much of the region is dry forest dominated by several species of pines. There are those who think much of that forest will be lost with climate change–and in fact, some parts of it have been lost already. One might be tempted to think the loss will be gradual, since climate change, while very fast, is gradual (that is, it is more like a gradient than a step), but that’s unlikely.

Living systems, whether individual organisms or whole ecosystems, resist change the same way a spinning top is harder to push over than it looks like it should be. Dying people can sometimes hold their own far into grave illnesses, looking and sounding almost normal until very close to the end. Unfortunately, I’ve seen this recently, as those who know me are aware. Dying forests work much the same way, the trees hanging on in the face of heat and drought that isn’t really drought but rather a new regional normal. Then there is a fire or an infestation of bark beetles or both. The beetles are not new, but in the past the trees could fight the beetles off with sticky sap. In a bad drought, the trees can’t make enough sap. There are more beetles, too, after warm winters. I’ve seen this–almost twenty years ago, I watched almost every pinyon pine in one forested area die from beetles in just a few months. That year I saw pictures of places where similar beetles had killed whole hillsides of ponderosa pines, turning them a pretty red-brown that looked like autumn. Sooner or later, those dead and dying forests will burn. When they do, I doubt trees will grow in their place.

The climate that made the forests possible will have moved.

There are thus at least two scenarios by which Australia’s forests might be permanently changing as we speak. One is that so much of the already-fragmented forests are burning that there won’t be enough left for effective recovery. Species could be extinguished through habitat loss, or through the loss of ecological partners, or simply by too many individuals, plant or animal, burning to death. Relict populations might be too small and too scattered to be self-sustaining. I don’t actually know, there is a lot of information I don’t have, but it seems at least possible that fires exacerbated by climate change are radically altering the ecological map of a country.

But the other scenario is that the alteration has already happened, that these forests were dead ecosystems walking even before the fires started, that the climate has changed and the fires are simply a form of belated adjustment to a new normal that began years ago.

Time for Hope?

As I said, I don’t know that the situation is as dire as it seems–it may not be. Real-life worst-case scenarios are rare.

Perhaps more to the point, even if the worst case is upon us, things are never so bad that they can’t get even worse, and that also means things are never so bad that we can’t avoid them getting worse.

Even if part of Australia’s forest is now doomed, it’s likely part of it still retains a climate conducive to forests. If conservationists scramble, and if they get the public and private help they need, it may be possible to create relicts that are large enough and interconnected enough to be self-sustaining.

And perhaps more to the point, if we all do something about climate change, maybe it won’t get much worse.

No situation is ever so bad that there is no reason to help.

 


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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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Novel Excerpt 2

I’d like to write an article on the children’s climate strike, but such a topic will take time to do well–and today is my wedding anniversary. So I’m giving you another excerpt from the essay at the back of my next novel, since that is already written. I’ll cover the children later this week if I have time, or next week.

In the meantime, you enjoy the following, while I enjoy dinner with my husband.

Essay Excerpt 2: Predicting the Future of the Climate

Readers familiar with New England may notice that the weather in this book seems odd. It is hot in May, the people are preoccupied with the possibility of flooding, and there are a lot of storms. The characters think it all normal. Am I, the writer, trying to depict climate change? Yes and no.

Yes, I had climate on my mind when I wrote this book. The New England climate in the story is not the one that exists today, and I wanted readers to notice. Fiction in the present Age of Rapid Climate Change needs to acknowledge climate as a function of time as well as space: no writer would give Seattle the same climate as Miami, so why depict the past or future with the same climate as the present?

Climate is the set of patterns that weather makes over time, and this story takes place over less than a year: not enough time for any patterns to become clear. That the characters think hot weather in May is normal—not the hot weather itself—suggests the climate has changed, and even that is a poor indicator. Humans are notoriously bad at identifying trends based on personal experience; that is one reason why record keeping and statistics were invented.

It is just as well that the story does not give the reader a good view of the climate. Constructing a scientifically plausible fictional climate—which I would sorely like to have done—is fiendishly difficult if not ultimately impossible. The problem is that climate cannot be predicted by ballpark estimations and back-of-the-envelope calculations. One of the curious traits of complex systems is that no detail can be guaranteed to be too small to matter. The phrase “butterfly effect” describes how the flap of an insect’s wings could cause a hurricane on the other side of the planet. In a picturesque way, the phrase describes a problem that cropped up with the earliest weather simulations: two simulations with nearly identical starting numbers often yielded radically different results (Curtin & Allen 2018). Attempting to simulate a climate without the aid of a supercomputer and a lot of data is, at best, an exercise in fantasy.

If the story were set in a version of the future that climatologists consider likely, my job would be rather more straightforward: just look up the climate projections that have already been done and attempt to synthesize. I did just that for a piece I published online several years ago. But the abrupt, near-term end of fossil-fuel use in my novel has not been subject to much in the way of simulation because no one thinks it likely.

Since I could neither invent nor look up a scientifically plausible climate to use as setting for the story—and since the plot does not allow for depicting the climate directly anyway—I simply wrote any scenes involving weather with three adjectives in mind: “warmer”, “wetter”, and “more extreme”. These are consistent with contemporary predictions for the region over the next century (see e.g. van Oldenborgh et al. 2013), as well as loosely plausible for the various scenarios implied by my story.

Science can’t tell us what the climate for the setting of the book should be, but it can shed light on what Andy thinks it is doing—an important part of his emotional landscape, given who he is. Remember that the field of climatology in his time is very limited. Most of what he understands about the climate is what he remembers from Before.

The reader might think that, since fossil fuel use has stopped, levels of greenhouse gases and average temperatures should both fall—but what might seem obvious is not necessarily true.

As of 2010, combustion of fossil fuels was responsible for about two-thirds of total greenhouse-gas emissions by weight. There are other sources of carbon dioxide however, and there are other greenhouse gasses: notably methane (a much more powerful greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide), but also nitrous oxide and two related groups of gases, the chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) and hydrofluorocarbons (HCFs) (Edenhofer et al. 2014). In my scenario, carbon emissions from fossil-fuel use are over and have been for twenty years. That does not mean, however, that other kinds of emissions, such as methane from landfills or melting permafrost, stop – at least, not instantly. For reasons I will go into later, some could increase.

To understand the total concentration of each gas in the atmosphere—and how it is likely to change over time—it is not enough to know emission rates. One must also look at rate of loss, which will be different for each gas. Picture running a bathtub with the drain open; whether the tub fills or empties depends on inflow versus outflow.

For most greenhouse gasses, loss (“outflow”) is primarily by chemical degradation occurring at a more or less set rate per gas (Ehhalt 2001). Carbon dioxide is a little more complicated, because it does not degrade this way. Rather, it is absorbed through a number of processes, each with its own rate and capacity.

The fastest way for carbon dioxide to leave the atmosphere is absorption by the oceans’ surface waters. A large amount can be absorbed in just a few decades. Unfortunately, water can only absorb so much, and the oceans’ surface waters have already absorbed a lot; that is why they are becoming increasingly acidic. Of course, a lot more water lies beneath the surface, but the ocean mixing required for it to absorb carbon dioxide does not happen on a human timescale.

After ocean surface waters reach capacity, the next fastest way out of the atmosphere is the chemical weathering of rock, but that, too, does not play out on a human timescale. A big carbon dioxide spike takes tens or even hundreds of thousands of years to flatten out (Ciais et al. 2013).

Scientific articles on potential recovery from climate change tend not to mention absorption of carbon by organisms, even though it is organisms that sequestered the carbon in fossil fuels in the first place. I would guess this is because the sequestration processincluding the accretion of new oil, gas, and coal depositsis so very, very slow.

Andy confidently asserts that carbon dioxide levels are falling—quickly enough that he expects to be able to study the ecological results of the change himself. He is very excited. Presuming he is right, that could be taken to mean that ocean surface waters have not, in fact, reached capacity; but another possibility presents itself.

While the formation of fossil-fuel deposits takes place on a geological timescale, living plants are a different matter. They, too, sequester quantities of carbon, and many of them, including large trees, can grow relatively quickly. Individual plants are not considered carbon sinks because, when the plant dies, all that carbon is released again; but entire plant communities can, indeed, be carbon sinks. Where one tree in a forest dies, another can grow and take up the carbon in turn. Indeed, deforestation is considered an important source of carbon dioxide emissions—so, logically, the growth of large, new forests should have the opposite effect.

I have never heard reforestation suggested as a way for carbon dioxide levels to drop, but perhaps that is because relevant discussions typically assume that the human population is going to stabilize—not fall. With so many people and associated agriculture and infrastructure in the way, there is not much room for new forests to grow. But Andy has experienced a radical reduction in the population—the reader learns that, at least in the US, the population is about one tenth of what it had been; the rest of the world is presumably similar. Per capita resource use also appears to have fallen. That leaves a lot of room for new trees.

Could continental-scale reforestation cool the climate? There may be precedent.

When Europeans first came to the Americas, they brought along diseases to which the Americans1 had no immunity. This was not germ warfare (that came later), but the result was dramatic, continent-wide population loss and widespread societal collapse (Wessels 1997). Forests grew in places that had previously been cleared. The idea that North America was a pristine wilderness prior to European conquest is partly due to the overgrown, depopulated mess that colonial explorers found in the wake of the terrible pandemics (Wessels 1997).

The post-contact pandemics are history’s closest analogue to the present story. Contagious disease really did cause the end of a world. It also caused a large-scale reforestation event coincident with changes in atmospheric carbon-dioxide levels and a global drop in temperatures (Dull et al. 2010), the second, more severe, phase of the so-called Little Ice Age. The first phase may be partially attributable to the Black Death in Europe, another pandemic that triggered large-scale reforestation (Hoof et al. 2006).

The timing of events does not support either pandemic as the sole cause of cooling. Other explanations and possible contributing factors have been advanced, and it is far from clear what role—if any—each played. Nevertheless, respected experts have taken seriously the idea that continental-scale reforestation could be enough to cool the planet, suggesting that global reforestation now could change the climate.

Of course, carbon sequestration by reforestation only works if the forests that once existed can grow back. History offers examples of cleared forests that did not return, despite apparent opportunity, for reasons like soil loss (Curtin & Allen 2018), and forests all over the world are starting to die from climate change itself, or from stresses made worse by climate change. Some forests—notably in the tropics—already have become net producers of carbon dioxide, and many more across the world may follow suit as climate change worsens and dieback exceeds growth (Allen 2009). Dying forests could even release enough carbon dioxide to speed climate change and kill even more forest, but whether we have reached that nightmare bifurcation point, or might reach it soon, is unclear.

So, in Andy’s time, the global greenhouse effect may or may not be weakening, depending on various interacting factorssome of which I have mentioned and some not. Several of the relevant questions might well be answerable by anyone with the appropriate mathematical skill and enough data. Others are only answerable with a supercomputer. Still others might not be answerable at all.

Even assuming that the greenhouse effect is weakening in Andy’s time, whether the planet is cooling yet is another question. If greenhouse gas levels simply stabilize, warming will continue for several decades, perhaps 30 to 50 years (Mann & Kump 2015), because the climate needs time to adjust to a stronger greenhouse effect. If the greenhouse gas levels then drop, cooling will occur—but I have not been able to learn how quickly that cooling happens. Logic suggests that if the greenhouse effect weakens before the temperature stabilizes, cooling will begin sooner than it otherwise would, but I have not found confirmation of that principle, either.

But even the onset of cooling will not necessarily undo the damage done by rapid warming. In fact, Earth may continue to deteriorate for some time. Biodiversity loss, like climate change, has a time lag. Evidence from Europe suggests that extirpations peak at least a hundred years after major habitat loss, a delay referred to technically as extinction debt (Curtin and Allen 2018). Ice, likewise, requires time to melt, as anyone knows who has ever enjoyed a drink with ice on a hot day. Big chunks of ice take longer than small ones, and so the massive glaciers of Greenland and Antarctica could go on melting for a very long time before the “melting debt” already accumulated is paid. Undoing such damage might not be possible on any time-scalewhen complex systems change, the change is often permanent.

But the irreversibility of change is not the same thing as hopelessness. The sooner the greenhouse effect weakens, the less debt will accumulate and the sooner the new anti-entropic phase can begin. We cannot go back, but we can go on.

So here is Andy, twenty years after the collapse of the world he once knew, in a climate that seems vaguely consistent with the predictions he remembers, but it’s hard to be sure. He knows that soon the world must diverge from prediction, if it hasn’t diverged already. Perhaps the planet will cool, wildlife habitat will expand dramatically, and he will live to see the beginnings of regrowth. Then all Andy’s losses, all the personal tragedy and tumult he has been through, will mean something: the unavoidable side effects of repairing the world that he loves. Alternatively, forest die-back, or some other destructive feedback loop, could render rapid climate change self-perpetuating. The sacrifice of nine-tenths of humanity might yet prove to be too little, too late.

Andy is aware of these possible alternatives, but in the year in which we meet him, he does not yet know which scenario is playing out.

References

Allen C.D. 2009. Climate-induced forest dieback: an escalating global phenomenon? Unasylva 60: 231—232, 43—49.

Curtin C.G., T. F. H. Allen. 2018. Complex ecology: foundational perspectives on dynamic approaches to ecology and conservation. Cambridge University Press, New York, NY.

Dull R.A., R. J. Nevle, W. I. Woods, et al. 2010. The Columbian encounter and the Little Ice Age: abrupt land use change, fire, and greenhouse forcing. Annals of the Association of American Geographers 100: 4, 755—771.

Edenhofer O., R. Pichs-Madruga, Y. Sokona, et al. 2014. Technical summary. Pages 33—108 in Edenhofer O., R. Pichs-Madruga, Y. Sokona, et al, editors. Climate change 2014: mitigation of climate change. Contribution of Working Group III to the Fifth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. Cambridge University Press, New York.

Ehhalt, D., M. Prather, F. Dentener, et al. 2001. Atmospheric chemistry and greenhouse gasses. Pages 241-280 in Houghton J.T., Y. Ding., D. J. Griggs, et al, editors. Climate change 2001: the scientific basis. Contribution of Working Group I to the Third Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. Cambridge University Press, New York.

van Hoof T.B., F. P. M. Bunnik, J. G. M. Waucomont et al. 2006. Forest re-growth on medieval farmland after the Black Death pandemic: implications for atmospheric CO2 levels. Palaeogeography, Palaeoclimatology, Palaeoecology 237: 2—4, 396—409.

van Oldenborgh G. J., M. Collins, J. Arblaster, et al, editors. 2013. IPCC, 2013: Annex I: Atlas of global and regional climate projections. Pages 1313—1390 in Stocker T. F., D. Qin, G.-K. Plattner, et al, editors. Climate change 2013: the physical science basis. Contribution of Working Group I to the Fifth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. Cambridge University Press, New York, New York.

Mann M. E., L. R. Kump. 2015. Dire predictions: understanding climate change. 2nd American Edition. D. K. Publishing. New York, New York.

Ciais P., C. Sabine, G. Bala. et al. 2013. Carbon and other biogeochemical cycles. Pages 465-544 in Stocker T. F., D. Qin, G. -K, Plattner, et al, editors. Climate change 2013: the physical science basis. Contribution of Working Group I to the Fifth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (465-544). Cambridge University Press, New York.

Wessels T. 1997. Reading the forested landscape: a natural history of New England. Countryman Press, Woodstock, Vermont.

Wessels T. 2006. The myth of progress: towards a sustainable future. University of Vermont Press, Lebanon, New Hampshire.