The Climate in Emergency

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


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What Matters

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

Photo by Luz Fuertes on Unsplash

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Why does climate change matter? Because black lives do.


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High Tides Higher

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

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

The What and the How of Local Sea-Level Rise

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

Photo by Nicholas Barbaros on Unsplash

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Human Side of Things

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

Photo by Patrick Hendry on Unsplash

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The future is not going to look like the past.

Looking Ahead

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

The question is, what to do about it?

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

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

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

But we can solve it together.


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Real Plagues

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

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

Locusts

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

Photo by Bradley Feller on Unsplash

What are locusts? Locusts are grasshoppers.

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

Locusts vs. Grasshoppers

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

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

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

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

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

Locusts and Climate Change

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

It turns out, extreme weather does.

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

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

It’s Not So Simple, of Course

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

Locusts vary.

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

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

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

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

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

Today’s Plague

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

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

The Point?

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

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


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Sowing with Salt

A large area of marsh grasses with a creek of open water meandering through it. The bare twigs of a shrub are in the foreground. In the distance is a partially bare forest. The sky has thick clouds but some blue sky visible.

Photo by Michael Denning on Unsplash

There is the story and then there are the facts supporting the story. The story is how you know that climate change is happening here and now and is impacting people like you. The facts are how you know how those impacts happen and what they mean for the future.

We need both.

Saltwater Intrusion

My husband’s best friend is a farmer in Talbot County, Maryland, on the edge of the Tred Avon River. I’ve written about him before (here, for example), but I leave out his name because I haven’t asked his permission to use it. He’d probably say yes if I did ask, I’m not going to reveal anything private or embarrassing about him. The thing is that there’s a marshy tidal gut running through his land, and a row of trees grows along the edge of that gut, but up away from the marsh, where lawn grass grows. You pass these trees on your way in to his house.

Those trees are dying.

They’re not dying all at once, more like one or two at a time, starting with the ones closest to the water. He knows why. It’s the salt from the river, which is quite brackish there. The tides are getting higher. It’s probably getting saltier, too, though I haven’t been able to confirm that. And even though the tides don’t rise high enough to wet the trees (except perhaps in storm floods), the salt is moving underground.

That is salt intrusion. And it’s only good luck that it’s only threatening the trees along the driveway, not our friend’s crops–or his well. Not all farmers in the Chesapeake region are as lucky, and nobody can be lucky forever.

This is what climate change looks like, or one of the things it looks like, anyway. It’s not always sudden catastrophe, an it’s not always far away or in the future. Its effects are usually mixed up with the effects of other issues, such as land use practices, state or national policy, or unrelated geological processes. What’s important to know is that climate change is part of the problem, and stopping climate change must be part of the solution.

Let’s talk about salt. Let’s talk about the rising seas

The Ins and Outs of Sea-level Rise

The short version that lots of people know by now is that as the global climate warms, ice in Greenland and Antarctica melts, adding more water to the ocean and making sea level rise globally. That part is true, but it’s not the whole picture, and it doesn’t explain all the sea level rise we see here in the Mid-Atlantic, including in the Chesapeake Bay region.

How the Water Rises

Melting glaciers put more water into the ocean, but thermal expansion (most things expand as they warm up) means even the water already in the ocean is growing. In fact, thermal expansion is responsible for a greater proportion of sea level rise so far than glacial meltwater is.

A crowd of people, seen from the legs down wading through thigh-deep dirty-looking water, mostly wearing waterproof leg coverings or boots.

Photo by Jonathan Ford on Unsplash

Expansion and melting together raise sea levels globally (by about nine inches since the late 1800s, or almost six inches since 1950), while regional or even local factors either raise sea level even more or counteract the global rising. For example, during the last ice age, the North American continental glacier was so heavy that it pushed the land beneath it down, bulging the land to the south up to compensate. That glacier melted away over ten thousand years ago, but land moves slowly, so the area that was under the ice (the northern half of the US, plus Canada) is still slowly rebounding, while the area just to the south slowly settles. That’s why the New England coast is slower-than-average sea level rise, while the Mid-Atlantic is seeing the sea rise faster.

Other mechanisms influence sea level, too, locally or regionally, including ocean currents, wind patterns, and even gravity; the glaciers on Greenland and Antarctica are so big, their gravity pulls the ocean water closer, raising sea level along their coasts. As those glaciers shrink, their pull weakens, and the water drops slowly away, sloshing backward into other regions–such as mine.

The Delmarva Peninsula has some of the fastest sea level rise in the world–double the global average–because so many different mechanisms come together right here. Many areas also have a lot of local erosion, meaning we lose land to the water even faster. While some might be tempted to say our loss of land is due only to erosion, the fact is sea level rise makes erosion worse.

Why a Few Inches Matter

All these mechanisms of sea level rise together add up to ten inches of rise at Annapolis, Maryland just since 1950, almost double the global average, and the rate is speeding up. I haven’t found figures going back to the 1800s, but based on the global figures the water must be at least 13 inches higher now than it was when a lot of the basic regional infrastructure was planned out.

Ten inches doesn’t sound like a lot–but context matters. Consider that these inches are added on to each coastal flood event, meaning each flood is ten inches higher than it would have been, and that during a flood the difference between being OK and having saltwater in your living room could well be only a matter of inches.

It’s not the average water level that matters so much as where the water is on the highest tides or during storms. When the wind blows onshore and the full moon pulls the tide high, docks go under water. I’ve seen this–it doesn’t have to be a storm, just a blustery day. Saltwater puddles on low-lying roads, pushes up through storm drains…. A road or a yard or a parking lot doesn’t have to be underwater all the time to become unusable, it only has to get wet once too often. There are places in the Mid-Atlantic where that is already starting to happen. There are other places where it is about to happen.

And then there is the salt in the ground and what it does to forests and farm fields.

How Saltwater Intrusion Happens

The picture shows the legs of a person wearing dark pants and brown work shoes with blue laces standing in a large field of bare ground with a little dead plant stubble. In the distance a few trees are visible.

Photo by Kelly Sikkema on Unsplash

There are a couple of different ways salt can intrude where it didn’t used to go.

During coastal flooding events, salt soaks into the ground. The salt persists long after the flood drains away. Eventually rainwater will wash the salt out, but not if the floods come too frequently. After repeated flooding, the ground can actually get saltier than the sea.

Alternatively, salt can come up from beneath. Fresh water floats on top of salt water, so rivers flowing into the sea are sometimes salty near the bottom and fresh at the surface. Similarly, groundwater is often salty near the coast or along the shoreline of an estuary, especially deeper down–a layer of fresh groundwater may lay on top. As the sea rises, not only does saltwater move farther inland along streams and rivers, but it also moves up vertically, an invisible sea level under the water or under ground. That’s how wells can turn salty. It’s also how trees and crops can die of salt even if they haven’t been flooded–the freshwater layer on top of the salt in the ground is shrinking as the salt rises.

A related problem is that as the salty water table rises, drainage in the land above starts to get poor–there’s nowhere for rainwater to go. At that point, if there’s salt in the ground from flooding, it can’t easily be washed away by rain. The moisture stays put into it evaporates, leaving the salt still there.

Drainage ditches often make the problem worse because they make it easier for salty water to flow in on high tides, and from there the salt soaks into the ground.

The sea is not the only source of salt–road salt washing off into rivers is a significant problem in some areas, too–but in coastal areas, especially flat coastal areas like Delmarva, sea level rise is the primary source of the problem.

How Saltwater Hurts

Salt can act directly, almost like a poison, or it can act indirectly–salt chemically strips nitrogen and phosphorus out of the soil, leaving it infertile. And because those nutrients then wash into waterways, it’s possible saltwater intrusion could ultimately increase algal blooms and related problems. Rising salt levels in drinking water not only makes the water itself less drinkable, it also damages pipes–the Flint Michigan water crisis was caused by slightly salty river corroding old pipes, releasing lead.

The issue isn’t black and white. It’s not that one year a crop field is fine, the next year it’s a giant salt shaker. What happens is the salt concentration in the soil slowly starts to rise–it’s often worse in one part of a field than another–and yields start to drop. Some crops have trouble sooner than others; corn, for example, has a very low salt tolerance, while soybeans can handle much more salt. Some less popular crops, such as barley, are even better. Eventually, farmers need to either switch to a crop with a higher salt tolerance or stop planting the effected area. A complication is that it’s not usually possible to know when an area has become too salty without planting it and losing the crop, and expensive kind of test.

Somerset County alone (the only part of Maryland for which I have found figures), about 100 acres of farmland have been lost every year for the past decade.

Farmers do have some options. Some grow switchgrass or saltmarsh hay in salted fields, highly salt-tolerant alternative crops for which there is a small market. Others plant the land in salt-tolerant wildflowers for bees and then go into business selling honey. Or a salted field can be allowed to become marsh and then hunted. Putting conservation easements on land that can no longer be farmed can bring real tax benefits, too. But it’s not a good situation. There are families who have farmed the same land for generations for whom that tradition is simply over now.

Saltwater intrusion doesn’t just hurt farmers. There may be indirect economic effects coming down the road, from widespread loss of farmland, and as coastal forests are lost and aquatic species shift to more salt-tolerant communities, familiar landscapes will become less so. These are real losses. They matter.

Saltwater intrusion isn’t the only problem climate change causes on Delmarva–there’s still extreme weather of various kinds to contend with, for example, but saltwater is our particular problem. We simply have more of it than almost anywhere else.

Context, Story, and Hope

A narrow ditch filled with water that is starting to freeze. The banks of the ditch are covered with short, dense, dead vegetation.

Photo by Annie Spratt on Unsplash

Climate communications experts often explain the failure of the climate action message by saying it’s difficult for people to engage with information that is too negative and too far removed from their lives. Well, increasingly climate change is not far away. It’s trees dying. It’s farm yields dropping. It’s the woods where you went hunting with your dad converting to marshland. It’s my in-laws’ river-front house, where there used to be a wide private beach–I’ve seen the old home movies of young people in old-fashioned bathing suits playing there–and now the lawn ends abruptly in a stone bulkhead. Probably everyone on Delmarva, or at least everyone near even brackish water, has such a story, either their own or one told by a friend or neighbor. I’d like to see more of those stories being told. I’d like to see more people realizing what they’re seeing is climate change.

As far as negativity goes, my feeling is it’s not overly negative to scream “fire!” if your building is, in fact, burning. On the contrary, hope begins with action, and action begins with awareness of why one needs to act.

But if the only thing one hears is a warning scream, it can be difficult to know how to act–it can be hard to even be sure action will do any good.

My feeling is that although sea level rise–and hence saltwater intrusion–is unlikely to go away quickly no matter what we do, there is nothing so bad that it can’t get worse–and that means there is nothing so bad we can’t keep it from getting worse. And there are steps we can take, even as ordinary individuals (I’ve written about some of those steps in previous posts) to make the future better.

Speaking from experience, that hopeless, overwhelmed feeling goes away once we pick a course of action and jump on it.


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The Climate and the Contagion

Four red-brown blobby things with a fringe of short hairs around each one. The background is blue. The image is a photo taken by scanning electron microscope of actual coronavirus particles. It looks similar to images that have appeared on the news lately.

Photo by CDC on Unsplash

The new coronavirus is not caused by climate change.

However, some of the circumstances that set the stage for the emergence of the disease are also part of the climate change puzzle, and infectious disease more generally is part of the package of problems caused or made worse by climate change. There are other ways in which the two stories are linked.

Let us explore those links.

The Climate and Corona

Coronavirus is not actually the name of the disease, though anyone who has watched at least one news broadcast in the past month knows what  disease I mean. There is an excellent summary of the outbreak here, but I’m unclear whether the article is going to be updated–it might look very different by the time you read it, as this story is evolving very quickly.

The new disease has been officially named 2019-nCoV or COVID19, but most people continue to refer to it simply as the coronavirus. I will sometimes do the same.

This comic is mostly people talking. Rather than type several paragraphs of text into this box, I invite you to go to https://www.explainxkcd.com/wiki/index.php/2275:_Coronavirus_Name as there is a transcript and description there, as well as a very humorous discussion about the comic's meaning.

From XKCD, by Randall Monroe, https://xkcd.com/2275/

I’ve seen posts on social media to the effect that coronavirus has killed very few people in comparison to, say, poverty, and the only reason it’s been getting so much attention is that it can kill rich people. Such criticism is fair in a general way, but it misses a crucial point; coronavirus has killed very few people yet, but if infection gets close to universal (and it could), the death toll will be in the millions, and most of those lost will be among society’s most vulnerable–the poor, the elderly, and the already ill.

The faultlines of vulnerability  and bias in our society are going to be very much on display.

Causative Links

While COVID19 itself appears not to be caused by climate change (the virus appears to have jumped into our species from animals held at an open-air market), other, equally dangerous, diseases do have a strong link, or could have one.

First, there are diseases, such as malaria, that are spread by animals that require warm temperatures. A warming Earth means those diseases can spread farther and have longer seasons. There is also some evidence that influenza, which normally prefers cold weather, may (counter-intuitively) become more of a problem as the climate warms. There are also long-frozen viruses coming out of permafrost that could conceivably start finding hosts. And as animals change their ranges in response to the changing climate, some could come into contact with humans who haven’t before, potentially giving us diseases we don’t have immunity to.

New diseases don’t usually kick off made-for -Hollywood disasters, and coronavirus is unlikely to do so. What it is likely to do is cause a lot of pain and suffering world-wide and be a major and expensive pain in the neck for possibly every country on the planet. And since climate change is likely to increase the frequency of new diseases, we’re seeing a preview of the future, unless we do something to change our trajectory.

Interactions

One major way that humans pick up new disease from animals is by moving into wild places humans don’t normally go–a situation that’s becoming ever more common as humanity continues to press outward, logging, poaching, and developing previously wild lands. Once a disease makes a jump into our species, the chance of it spreading worldwide quickly is very high, thanks to frequent intercontinental air travel. If humanity used less in the way of resources–as we will have to, without fossil fuel–there would be less logging, less poaching, and less air travel. There would also be less risk of global pandemic.

There is a wonderful book called Spillover, by David Quammen, that explores these and other ideas and presents a thorough introduction to how diseases spread into our species. I recommend reading it in light of current events.

Complications

Coronavirus (and the policies designed to stop it) are causing a measurable reduction in greenhouse gas emissions–when economies slow, so do emission rates. It is tempting to secretly cheer for the disease. I don’t think such cheering is as immoral as it sounds, since cheering alone can’t have any effect on the progress of the disease, but coronavirus is not any kind of solution. First, the change is temporary, and China, for one, has a habit of increasing economic output after a slow-down to make up for lost. Second, the immediate crisis of the disease is likely to distract from efforts to curb emissions, even though climate change ultimately stands to kill more people.

Take-aways?

The new coronavirus could present us with an opportunity to see what it looks like when the world takes a crisis seriously and responds together–and we could take that example and apply its lessons to climate change knowing that public health, like everything else, is going to get harder to look after the worse we allow climate change to get.

Or, we could use the threat of coronavirus as an excuse to put climate even more firmly on the back burner and then simply get used to another level of disaster and suffering, recommitting ourselves to complacency.

We have a choice to make.


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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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Are Koalas Extinct?

A close-up of a koala whose facial expression appears vaguely amused yet accusatory. The koala, like all koalas, has gray fur, a round, teddy-bear-like head, and a large but flat black nose.

Photo by Laura Barry on Unsplash

A few weeks ago, scary links spread across social media to the effect that koalas are “functionally extinct” as a result of the recent catastrophic fires in Australia. Of course, reality is often more nuanced than Facebook posts, and “functionally extinct” is a technical phrase that doesn’t necessarily mean what it seems to.

So are koalas really just about extinct now?

The short answer is no, they’re not, although the species may indeed be in bad shape and climate change is largely to blame.

Koalas and Functional Extinction

The scary social media posts either referred to, or actually linked to an article in Forbes that quoted the Australian Koala Foundation as saying the species may be “functionally extinct,” and that 1000 koalas may have died in the fires and that 80% of the animal’s habitat may be gone. Since its initial publication, the article has been edited to sound less alarming and to reflect the fact that some experts think the situation with koalas might not be as bad. Several other publications have also issued articles on the subject (such as this, in the New York Times) that attempt to walk back the panic a bit and provide some additional context.

But what does “functional extinction” mean, and is it really correct to calm down about koalas?

What Does “Functional Extinction” Mean?

The original Forbes article defines “functional extinction” as meaning a population no longer plays a role in its ecosystem and is no longer viable. These are actually two, ecological irrelevancy and non-viability, very different situations, and while they can obviously occur together, they can also occur separately–and neither means that the species is “basically gone,” as in a hopeless situation or a foregone conclusion.

Functional Extinction

Properly speaking, “functional extinction” refers only to the first problem described in the Forbes article; that a species can no longer participate ecologically. In fact, a species can be functionally extinct even when its population is still big enough that its existence is not seriously threatened–instead, functional extinction means that other species in the same ecosystem react as though it is already gone and they die out.

A large, round seed or nut sitting in the top of a glass containter that has a round body and a long, thin neck. The container is partly filled with water and sits on a whitish table top. The seed has sprouted, and has a long, thin root reaching into the water and a few small green leaves coming out the top. It is difficult to be sure, but it looks as though it could be the seed of a chestnut tree.

Photo by Daniel Hjalmarsson on Unsplash

A good example of functional extinction is the American chestnut*, which is by no means extinct, but which was devastated by an accidentally introduced disease some decades ago. Some trees proved resistant, and the root systems of young trees often survived and still send up shoots that sometimes manage to produce a few nuts before succumbing to the disease again. There are also well-organized efforts underway to breed blight-resistant American chestnuts, and I have in fact seen a blight-resistant seedling (it was given as a retirement gift to a noted naturalist at a party I attended). The species is likely to survive–but anything dependent on American chestnut forests is likely already gone.

Insects and birds and bears and whoever else once ate parts or products of this species must now do without.

So not only does “functionally extinct” not mean “almost extinct,” the concept is important precisely because it applies to species that may still be relatively abundant–and yet its decline is causing other extinctions around it.

Koalas themselves are not currently listed as “endangered,” or even “threatened,” only “vulnerable,” and although that assessment was conducted in 2014 and may now be outdated, it’s also possible it’s still accurate–the current status of koalas is apparently a matter of debate, since they are difficult to accurately count in the wild. But that doesn’t mean the species isn’t functionally extinct, nor does it mean that Australia is not in the process of losing something important.

What depends on koalas?

Population Viability

A large flock of small, dark birds flies against a blue sky. The birds are mostly in the bottom third of the image, clustered around a bright spot that might be the sun, so the blue is visually dominant. The birds are hard to see, being very small, but an expert birder would be able to tell they are not passenger pigeons; they may be rock pigeons, the familar bird of cities.

Photo by Rowan Heuvel on Unsplash

“Population” doesn’t necessarily mean “species.” Most species consist of multiple populations that interbreed with each other to greater or lesser degrees, and one population can become non-viable or even extinct and leave the rest of the species doing just fine–or, a species can go extinct one population at a time, or all at once if one population is all there is.

The study of population dynamics is a whole branch of conservation science and I’m not going to get into most of it here (I don’t know most of it!). The relevant point is you can have a species that still has living members but is almost certainly going to go extinct. In fact, the species could actually still look quite large and yet be non-viable. For example, passenger pigeons could only breed in very large colonies. The phrase “hunted to extinction” evokes images of heartless gun-toters searching out every last member of a dying species, but that’s not what happened to the pigeons. Instead, they were so ridiculously abundant that no one saw any reason not to harvest them freely, and then they were slightly less abundant, and then all of a sudden there just weren’t any more–because the still-huge flocks had dropped below the threshold necessary for the birds to breed. Another, perhaps more common, scenario is that habitat loss fragments a species into lots of little, genetically isolated populations, each of which is too small to sustain itself. The species might have tens of thousands of members, but if they are scattered across hundreds of tiny refuges able to breed only with their cousins, the situation is dire.

They are like a person falling from the top of a sky-scraper. In one sense, they are fine until they hit the ground, but in another sense they are obviously not.

Extinction can take a long time, especially in species where individuals are long-lived, and a few individuals can persist, unable to breed at replacement, for decades or more, and yet their loss is more or less assured. The concept of the non-viable population is another important one for conservationists to pay attention to, for it, too, points to a type of catastrophe-in-progress.

An yet “non-viable” doesn’t mean “doomed” or “hopeless.” Species have been pulled back from the brink before. Sometimes the falling man is rescued.

Are Koalas Functionally Extinct or Non-viable?

A koala clinging to a tree with a baby koala sitting in her lap. The mother is curled up so her face is hidden, but the baby is looking towards the viewer. Both have mostly gray fur and large, round ears. The baby is a miniature of the mother.

Photo by David Clode on Unsplash

Are koalas functionally extinct? The Australian Koala Foundation says that they are, but it’s important to recognize that the group made the announcement in a press release (calling for political action to protect the species) back in May. So no, the fires probably haven’t pushed koalas to the brink–they were there already. As to what the fire has done to them, we really don’t know. It’s too soon for anyone to have done a real assessment.

The leader of the Foundation, Deborah Tabart, appears to conflate functional extinction with non-viability, but from her statements quoted in the New York Times (the same article I linked to earlier) it is clear she considers both to be true.

Both the Forbes article and the piece in the NYT make clear that some experts disagree with the Foundation’s assessment, apparently due to a perceived lack of data on the subject. I’m not in a position to weigh in either way–though I will say that “hey, there MIGHT be more koalas than you think, they’re hard to count!” is not really a comforting argument.

In any case, the Foundation has put the results of their assessment online for public review. Here is the link.

The real reason (again, based on the NYT piece) that Ms. Tabart’s assertions are controversial is not that she might be wrong but that she might be misunderstood, that people might think the koalas’ case is hopeless and stop fighting for them. Public perception is an important issue, but if koalas ARE either functionally extinct or non-viable as a species, then we do need to know so we can do something about it.

Koalas and Climate Change

That koalas are in trouble is not in any serious doubt, despite their not being officially listed as endangered. There are several reasons. First, millions were shot for their fur in the few decades before and after 1900. More recently, habitat loss has become the critical factor as more and more of Australia’s native eucalypt forests are cleared. More than 80% of their original habitat has been lost. And deforestation not only limits the total amount of space where the animals can live (and hence limits the total number who can live), but also fragments the survivors into increasingly isolated small populations. Living near human development also leaves the animals vulnerable to being hit by cars or attacked by dogs.

But koalas are also considered one of the world’s ten species most vulnerable to climate change; not only are they very specialized animals (specialists categorically handle environmental disruption badly), but Australia’s climate is among the fastest-changing in the world.

The clearest danger is from heatwaves and drought. One area lost a quarter of its koalas in one heatwave in 2009 alone. Drought and heat together stress the trees and reduces the moisture content of their leaves; koalas not only depend on eucalypt leaves for food, but also for moisture (though the animals will drink if water is available). Heat-induced water stress is the primary factor that will shrink koalas’ range in the coming decades. Some conservationists are arranging supplemental drinking stations for koalas and other wildlife, and the animals do use the stations, but it isn’t known yet whether the extra water will help with survival.

But then there is fire. Fire can kill koalas directly, and the animals can also starve to death in the time it takes a burned-over forest to green up again. Eucalypt forests do burn sometimes, and koalas evolved with fire, but several things are different now. First, the badly-fragmented nature of koala habitat means that now if an area loses its koalas due to fire, koalas from other places can’t come in and repopulate the forest as it grows back. But the other new thing is climate change; by allowing much larger, more devastating fires, it has increased the scale of destruction to where a single fire event could become an existential threat to an entire species–this year alone, Australia’s north coast has lost a third of its koala habitat. That’s not the only region that has burned, either. Where will the animals who survived those fires go? What will they eat until the forest grows back?

About Those Scary Posts….

It’s easy to get panicked seeing those social media posts, which seem to imply that this year’s fires have burned up so many koalas and so much of their habitat so as to suddenly doom them. The truth, as always in more nuanced, and panic does not help. But while a careful reading of the situation is always helpful, it is not necessarily very encouraging in this case.

Koalas are not doomed, and it is far from clear how bad their situation is, but it is clear it’s dire, not least because the threats to the species are complex and can’t be solved with a single stroke of a pen (as might be possible if hunting were still the primary threat).. We’re talking climate change, land use policy, economic development, human lifestyle issues, all of which depends on the principled cooperation of many, many people for any hope of progress. And if koalas are in danger, than so is everything else that depends on the same habitat and anything that depends on koalas.

And as of today, Australia continues to burn.

 

*The chestnut example and several other un-cited portions of this post are based on material I learned in grad school.


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Annual Reading of Names

Here is a slightly edited version of a post I’ve used every year at this time for several years running. The link for my original source for the list isn’t working. Here is another.

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

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

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

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

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

Looking for Smoking Guns

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Pinta Island Tortoise

Chelonoidis abingdoni

Last seen, 24 June 2012

Vietnamese Rhinoceros

Rhinoceros sondaicus annamiticus

Last seen, 29 April 2010

Christmas Island Pipistrelle

(a bat)

Pipistrellus murrayi

Last seen, 27 August 2009

Chinese Paddlefish

Psephurus gladius 

Last seen, 8 January 2007

Yangtze River Dolphin

Lipotes vexillifer 

Last seen, before 2006

Po’o-uli

(a bird in Hawaii)

Melamprosops phaeosoma

Last seen, 28 November 2004

Saint Helena Olive

Nesiota elliptica

Last seen, December 2003

Vine Raiatea Tree Snail

Partula labrusca 

Last seen, 2002

Pyrenean Ibex

Capra pyrenaica pyrenaica 

Last seen, 6 January 2000

Sri Lanka Legume Tree

Crudia zeylanica

Last seen, 1998

Nukupuu

(a bird in Hawaii)

Hemignathus lucidus

Last seen, 1998

Western Black Rhinoceros

Diceros bicornis longipes

Last seen, 1997

Aldabra Banded Snail

Rhachistia aldabrae

Last seen, 1997

Zanzibar Leopard

Panthera pardus adersi

Last seen, 1996

Swollen Raiatea Tree Snail

Partula turgida

Last seen, 1 January 1996

Golden Toad

Incilius periglenes

Last seen, 1989

Antitlan Grebe

Podilymbus gigas

Last seen, 1986

Alaotra Grebe

Tachybaptus rufolavatus

Last seen, September 1985

Eungella Gastric-brooding Frog

Rheobatrachus vitellinus

Last seen, March 1985

Kaua’i ‘O’o

(a bird in Hawaii)

Moho braccatus

Last seen, 1985

Christmas Island Shrew

Crocidura trichura

Last seen, 1985

Ua Pou Monarch

(a bird in Polynesia)

Pomarea mira

Last seen, 1985

Amistad Gambusia

(a fish, in Texas, USA)

Gambusia amistadensis

Last seen, 1984

Conondale Gastric-brooding Frog

Rheobatrachus silus

Last seen, November 1983

San Marcos Gambusia

(a fish, in Texas, USA)

Gambusia georgei

Last seen, 1983

Kama’o

(a bird in Hawaii)

Myadestes myadestinus

Last seen, 1983

Guam Flycatcher

(a bird in Guam)

Myiagra freycinet

Last seen, 1983

Aldabra Warbler

Nesillas aldabrana

Last seen, 1983

Galapagos Damselfish

Azurina eupalama

Last seen, 1982

Marianas Mallard

Anas oustaleti

Last seen, September 1981

Southern Day Frog

Taudactylus diurnus

Last seen, 1979

White-eyed River Martin

(a bird in Thailand)

Eurychelidon serintarea

Last seen, 1978

Little Hutia

(a rodent in Honduras)

Mesocapromys minimus

Last seen, 1978


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A Prospect Less Sweet

A friend of mine wants to know whether anyone is doing anything about sugar maples and climate change.

The issue, succinctly, is that sugar maples are a cold-climate species that only grow well in the cooler parts of North America. As climate change shrinks those areas, the range of the maples will shrink, too. That’s a problem most obviously because this is the tree that gives us maple syrup, but it also provides much of the fall color for which New England is famous–and leaf-peeping is a major driver of the tourist economy of the region. And beyond economics, sugar maples (like the also-climate-stressed paper birch) are part of the regional identity of New England (and doubtless of other regions I’m less personally familiar with).

Maple sugar sap production is already starting to drop in some areas, though the economic burden is being countered to some extent by improvements in collection methods. We’re not talking about some vague warning about the future; this is happening now.

So, my friend wants to know, are there any efforts underway to breed climate change-resistant sugar maples, just as there are efforts to breed disease-resistant American chestnut trees?

A good question.

Introducing the Sugar Maple

Let’s start by taking a look at the star of the show, the sugar maple, Acer sacharum, from whose unusually sweet sap maple syrup and maple sugar candies are made. The sap comes from the tree as sweetish water and must be concentrated by boiling (or freezing) in order to produce syrup. Further concentration allows crystallization into candy. The tree itself is large and long-lived, with furrowed bark and distinctive leaves with U-shaped sinuses (if a maple leaf is a hand, the sinuses are the parts between the fingers).

Those who aren’t plant geeks might be surprised to learn that not all maples are sugar maples, and that while some of the others also provide sweet sap, others don’t. The maples are a large group of trees native to North America, Asia, and Europe. In New England there are six native species (sugar, red, silver, mountain, striped, and ash-leafed), and at least two exotic species are also common (Norway and Japanese). The American maples all produce clear, sweet sap, though none as sweet as the sugar maple, but the Norway maple produces white, inedible sap.

The sweet sap runs in the early spring, when the plant mobilizes stores sugars in order to power the growth of leaves. It would be interesting to compare how quickly different species leaf out; is the sugar maple faster (less time fro bud-break to full leaf-out) than other trees because its sap delivers more fuel for growth?). It’s important to recognize that the sugar is food the plant stored for its own use; tapping trees stresses them, and there is a limit to how much sap a tree of a given size can spare. The sap flow itself is triggered and maintained by changes in temperature. If the winter is too warm, or if the spring does not include an extended period when nights are below freezing and days are above, the tree won’t produce. What effect reduced sap flow has on the tree’s own physiology, I haven’t learned–I don’t imagine it’s healthy.

Sugar maples are not only valuable to humans. Across much of Eastern North America, they are one of the two dominant species in older forests (the other being American beech). The trees collect calcium and concentrate it in their leaves, enriching the soil as the leaves fall and decompose, thus feeding other plants. Many animals depend on sugar maples; some are insects that feed on no other species (these insects go on to feed birds), while others are mammals and birds that use maples at certain times of year. Most charmingly, squirrels tap the trees for sugar by biting through the bark. The sap leaks out and evaporates, leaving behind sugar which the squirrels lick. Porcupines eat the leaves and buds in the early spring, when little else is available to them. Sugar maple seeds feed songbirds, squirrels, chipmunks, and mice, while the bark provides emergency food for deer, rabbits, and mice in winter. The list could go on.

Much of the above information comes from the wonderful The Book of Forest and Thicket, by John Eastman. Curiously, the author also states that sugar maple is in a decline across the southern part of its range, in part due to climate change–a striking assertion, given that the book was published in 1992.

Sugar Maples and Climate Change

A few years ago, I wrote an article imagining the climate through the lifetime of my nephew into his old age. Towards the end of the piece, I imagined him taking a vacation in Vermont with his wife and talking to a waitress who complains about the economy because the sugar maples are dying. While researching for the piece I did not find any actual discussion of sugar maples, but I did notice that the range of the sugar maple is essentially bounded by certain USDA zones, and that zones that do not currently support wild sugar maples are predicted to move north into New England by century’s end. I drew the logical conclusion.

I should have known better.

Trees, in general, have narrower germination niches than growth niches, meaning that mature trees can survive circumstances that would kill seedlings–I learned that in grad school. In practice the narrower germination niche means that species can often be grown as specimen trees in lawns and parks in places where they can’t grow in the wild. Wild trees must start from seed, whereas those growing in lawns were usually sprouted in controlled environments in nurseries, then grown for years before being balled and burlapped for sale. By the time the tree is installed in a lawn, it’s already strong enough to withstand the local conditions.

Sugar maple will grow as a specimen tree well to the south of its current range (there is one in my mother’s back yard), so climate change alone is not likely to kill New England trees–but it could prevent a new generation of maples from establishing. Neither I nor my nephew are likely to see a Vermont without its classic autumnal red and orange, but he could well live to see the last generation of wild Vermont sugar maples sprout. Three hundred years later, those few lonely trees will die of old age without heirs, if things continue as they are now.

Research supports that second, corrected vision as closer to the truth.

In Michigan, where climate change is making the growing season drier, sugar maples are growing much more slowly than they used to. The lead researcher of that study was quoted by NPR as saying that under some climate change scenarios, that region would lose its sugar maples entirely; the new climate won’t kill mature trees, but no new young trees will survive to replace them. In the meantime, trees that don’t grow well don’t produce much sap, either.

A warm spring can cut the season short, and did so in 2012, when much of New England produced dramatically less maple syrup than in previous years because of heat waves in March. Climate change promises more heat waves, and just as trees that don’t grow well don’t produce a lot of sap, it’s hard to imagine that non-productive maple trees are growing much.

A study in Vermont found that climate-related stress has, over the last several decades, been equal in severity to pests and other more well-known problems; the authors note that 50 years from now, half the state’s sugar maples could be experiencing “moderate to severe climate stress.” I’m not sure what that means in practical terms, but some dieback combined with widespread declines in productivity and a general failure to breed (except in isolated refugia with colder climates) would seem to fit the bill.

In general, climate change could lead to widespread habitat loss for sugar maples, especially under the more dire warming scenarios.

Perhaps counter-intuitively, the loss of American sugar maples won’t necessarily translate into a lot of dry pancakes, despite many headlines to the contrary. For one thing, even in New England, a lot of pancakes are already being eaten with artificially-flavored “pancake syrup.” For another, according the the paper linked in the previous paragraph, most sugar maple trees that are large enough to be tapped currently are not, and as long as we avoid the most extreme warming, it should be possible to keep production up–while the number of sugar maples will decline, producers can tap a greater proportion of those that are left.

Of course, neither pancake syrup nor expanded tapping operations will help songbirds, squirrels, or porcupines very much.

Doing Something

My friend’s question is actually two or three questions, and they don’t necessarily have the same answers.

Is anyone developing sugar maples that can survive climate change and save New England’s forests? The most obvious way to answer that question is to look at whether anyone is developing cultivars or hybrids that can tolerate the new climate now moving towards them. But if the goal is indeed to save the maple forests–and that does appear to be my friend’s interest–we must also ask whether any of these cultivars could be released into the wild and whether they would indeed do all of the things we rely on sugar maples for. The possible third question hiding behind the other two is whether trying to propagate such a cultivar on a broad scale is even a good idea.

Breeding Sugar Maples

Is anyone developing a climate-proof sugar maple? The short answer is yes.

These are difficult questions to research because of the way search engines work–the information you get is not necessarily what you want but rather what the search engine’s algorithm thinks you want, and in this case breathless articles about dry pancakes tend to shoulder conservation genetics out of the way. I am therefore unable to say definitively whether there is a program that has as its stated goal rescuing the sugar maple from climate change.

However, there are cultivars that have different habitat requirements than wild sugar maple does: Crescendo, and Green Mountain are each both heat and drought tolerant; Bonfire is heat-tolerant; Legacy is resistant to drought; and Majesty is resistant to frost cracking–since climate change is causing increased frost cracking in paper birch (there are more freeze-thaw cycles in the spring, now), I’m guessing it could be a problem for maples, too. There are probably other cultivars with useful properties offered from other sites. Whether any of these were developed with climate change in mind I’m not sure, but they certainly fit the bill.

And there are plant breeders working on sugar maple with climate change in mind. The US Forest Service and various state agencies have been working on “improving” the sugar maple–meaning, developing domestic cultivars with commercially desirable traits–since the 1960’s at least. Their primary goal has been to increase sugar content in the sap (they have succeeded), but state agencies in New York are also continuing the research with the aim of storing sugar maple germplasm in case of catastrophic loss due to invasive insects or disease–possibilities they acknowledge are made more pressing by climate change since the trees are stressed and less resilient than they once were. Some of the same researchers are also looking at how climate change is impacting the tapping of sugar maples.

So the research is being done, more or less.

Saving Maple Forests

Curiously, I have not been able to find anyone discussing using sugar maple cultivars on a large scale to save either the American syrup industry or American sugar maple forests–of course, for me not to find something is no proof it doesn’t exist, but the lack of results is interesting. What I’m finding instead are discussions of using improved technology and improved forest management techniques to preserve the industry, possibly coupled with the use of red maple sap as an alternative source of maple sugar. Red maples are much more heat tolerant and is being used for syrup already. The syrup is said to taste a little different, but it’s quite good and suitably maply.

If indeed the climate-change-tolerant cultivars are not part of an organized push to save the forests, why not? I’m just speculating here, but it’s possible the issue is economic; changing management practices and using some red maple syrup are adequate stopgaps for now, and have the advantage of using trees that already exist. People do plant maples, including high-sugar cultivars and hybrids, with an eye towards sugaring, but a young maple won’t be ready to tap for 20 years or more. A major investment in a new cultivar might not be very attractive when there are options with a more immediate return.

Saving Maple Forests?

OK, you mind if I speculate a bit?

I can think of two reasons why mass propagation of the cultivars might not be a good idea. First, unlike the American chestnut, which has bee taken out by disease everywhere, wild-type sugar maple could hang on in parts of its range. That means that if cultivars are naturalized, they could end up competing with the wild type. What if the cultivars win?

A domestic cultivar could have all the marketable advantages of the original, but it’s not the same tree. And depending on what the differences are, the switch, if it happens, could matter a lot, especially given that sugar maple is a dominant species in many areas. Changing it, even slightly, could have vast consequences. For example, according to some remarkable research by Dr. Doug Tallamy, many herbivorous insects are highly specialized–even plants closely related to their host species are inedible to them, such that replacement of natives with exotics causes insect populations to crash–followed by songbirds, who need insects to feed their chicks. Last time we spoke, Dr. Tallamy didn’t yet know whether cultivars are typically also inedible to specialized insect herbivores–but since some cultivars are marketed for superior pest resistance, it is clear palatability for insects suffers sometimes. And wild-type sugar maples, remember, support huge numbers of insects.

Second, if wild-type sugar maple loses its habitat to climate change, so will a lot of the other species that inhabit the same forests. Perhaps a sugar maple cultivar could save some of them, but not all. Many aspects of how the forest functions will change. Arguably, the sugar maple-American beech forests we know will be gone from certain areas, replaced by something else. If the “something else” includes a sugar maple cultivar, I don’t see how that would be a problem (the danger is in the cultivar spreading to places where the wild type persists)–but I don’t see how that’s really a victory, either. At best, it would be a lessened scope of loss.

Realistically, our best hope lies in saving as much of the wild-type sugar maple forest as we can, and that means stopping climate change now.

 

 


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World on Fire

The Amazon is burning.

Social media appeared to suddenly take note of the fact last week, followed by mainstream news coverage a few days later. Personally, I found the whole thing too depressing and frightening for words, which is why I resolved not to read up on the subject until I was in a position to do a full investigation of the subject, including reading up on steps I could take to do something about it. Writing this post has become the occasion of my reading.

At least part of the reason for my panic is that I’ve read this story before–a novel I picked up some years ago covered the future of climate change in frighteningly plausible detail and included scenes in which the entire Amazon burned. As in, the rainforest there simply went out of existence, taking human lives, human cultures, endemic species, and a major carbon sink with it. Could something like that happen for real? Maybe: I’ve written before of how a positive feedback loop could make deforestation suddenly become self-sustaining; And Brazil’s president, Jair Bolsonaro, is building a reputation for himself as a rabid anti-environmentalist. Is the nightmare actually happening as we speak? Maybe.

But maybe not. And while something is clearly going very wrong in Brazil, knee-jerk panic is unlikely to do anything to help. We need to educate ourselves.

Clearing the Smoke to See the Fire

Let’s start by looking at what the news media are saying about the fires, what the current story actually is. Then, let’s look at some varying voices of commentary. Finally, let’s take a quick look at the complex background against which this fiery drama is playing out.

Just the Facts

There is an excellent article on Al Jazeera’s website summarizing the story. Let me summarize their summary, supplemented by other sources as noted.

Fires are normal in the Amazon at this time of year, although most of them are set deliberately by humans to clear land for crops and pasturage. Not all the fires are in the forest; farmers often burn agricultural stubble after harvest. Even the forest fires are not necessarily instances of large-scale deforestation; slash-and-burn agriculture is a very old technique in which a small area is cut and burned and then farmed for several years until the soil becomes nutrient-poor. Then the people start over with a new plot and the old one regrows. Whether slash-and-burn is a problem, ecologically, depends on other factors, and fire can also be used to clear large areas of land permanently. Deforestation in the Amazon is not new, either, unfortunately.

The unusual thing this year has been the extent of the burning which has been much higher than in years past since June at least. This, coupled with the anti-environment, pro-business leaning of Brazil’s president, has led to wide-spread worry that we could indeed be looking at catastrophe.

Many people are now raising their voices against the fires internationally, including celebrities and European leaders. President Bolsonaro has seemed slow to respond to the fires and has recently rejected international aid, citing his concern for his country’s sovereignty.

Some of the Facts May or May Not Be Wrong

I found an article in Forbs, that made some interesting counterclaims about these fires.

  • The images of fire being shared by celebrities and on social media are mostly not pictures of the current fires in the Amazon.
  • The Amazon rain forest is not a major source of the planet’s oxygen and while it is a carbon sink, so are the agricultural lands that are replacing it.
  • Most of the fires are not burning rain forest but rather brush and scrub.
  • Deforestation in the Amazon is currently declining and most of the remaining forest is protected.
  • The current mainstream coverage of the fires ignores political, economic, and cultural realities on the ground. Much of the international pressure is actually counterproductive because it ignores that reality.

Now, I question the veracity of parts of this article. Notably, while mature rain forest does use most of the oxygen it produces, it’s a mistake to use that factoid to downplay the planetary importance of the forest. And while cattle pasture and soy farms do hold carbon and produce oxygen, there is no way they can hold as much carbon as forest does because they have much less biomass. Biomass is made out of carbon compounds, remember. It’s also worth noting that cattle release much of the carbon they consume as methane rather than as carbon dioxide–and methane is a more powerful greenhouse gas.

However, the part about political and economic reality rings true. While I know very little about Brazil specifically, environmental conservation has a long history of foundering through willful ignorance of actual people. These fires are being set by people, and the people have reasons for setting the fires. They either need what the fires can give them, or think they do. While the fires themselves are unquestionably a problem, charging in (metaphorically or literally) without regard to the needs that drive the fires will be ineffective at best.

So while I do not regard the Forbs article as a reliable source of information, it raises some interesting points that certainly bear further research–and the call to avoid knee-jerk, under-informed reactions is almost certainly spot-on.

More than the Facts

I’m not going to present myself as an expert, here. I have a good deal of knowledge of conservation issues generally, and some aspects of the current crisis have been familiar to me for a while, but other things I’m just reading about today. Doubtless there are things, even important things, that I’ve just missed so far. What I’m trying to do is get the information I do have into a manageable, accessible form so that I and my readers can do something productive instead of running around wringing our hands in a panic.

There are a couple of pieces here that deserve careful attention.

Politics

What we’re looking at is the latest iteration of a complex, long-term political problem. Mr. Bolsonaro, remember, was elected. A large part of the issue is something that crops up in virtually all international discussions of climate change: fairness.

Europe and the United States and certain other countries have grown rich and powerful largely by two mechanisms: liquidating our own environmental capital and exploiting the resources of other countries through a combination of force and unbalanced trade. When we rely on historically poorer countries, like Brazil, to leave their wildlands intact as a means of buffering the planet against our excesses, resentment and suspicion are predictable. Arguably, we’re just trying to exploit their resources again, though this time it’s intact forest we want to take–Brazilian nationalism is not necessarily a matter of paranoia or jingoistic pride but is, rather, an understandable reaction to actual foreign bullying.

Doubtless the situation is complicated by moneyed interests and internal cultural disputes. It’s not that Brazil should get a free pass to do whatever its people want in the name of understandable anger–legitimate grievance is doubtless not the only factor in play, nor is there any guarantee that legitimate grievance automatically leads to legitimate response. The rise to power of the Nazis, fueled as it was, in part, by a truly tragic economic crisis, provides a dramatic example of the principle.

But the international response could easily prove counterproductive if it is not lead by people with a deep understanding of what’s actually happening in Brazil.

The People and the Peoples of Brazil

Massive protests against the fires are underway worldwide–but also within Brazil. So while some Brazilians may feel pushed around by foreigners, others are doing their own pushing to protect what they see as their heritage–and demanding help and support from outside. Many of these protestors are indigenous, and indigenous communities are being hit hard by both smoke and the loss of forests and crops to fire. Bolsonaro’s policies generally have been bad for them.

A reasonable question, when we talk about what the people of Brazil want, is who are the people of Brazil? Which viewpoint should outsiders regard as legitimate? It’s an age-old question, one that applies equally well to many other countries.

Are These Wildfires?

If these are wildfires, than how can the government be blamed for them? If these are intentional burns, then how and why are the fires damaging private property? Are the fires legal or illegal–and, if legal, are the laws supporting them just? I’m seeing a variety of answers to these questions. I suspect the real answers depend on which individual fire you’re talking about and when you are talking–a deliberately-set fire can escape to burn out of control.

I have no answers, yet, but it’s worth noting that tackling these questions could be the only way to make sense of the disagreements among editorial slants we see regarding the fires.

What Can We Do?

We may or may not currently be facing catastrophic nightmare–but at the very least, this year represents a surge in the ongoing crisis of deforestation in the Amazon. Something needs to be done.

We can start by saying what not to do.

  • Nothing. Do not do nothing.
  • Panic and make assumptions. Riding in, guns blazing, without a full understanding of the situation, is likely to make a bad situation worse.
  • Demand complete perfection immediately. I’ve seen some people claim that the whole world needs to go vegan because meat production for export is a major driver of deforestation in the Amazon. Probably some are calling for an end to capitalism as well. It’s not that such ideas are bad–they’re not. But these to-do list items are not likely to be accomplished this week, and meanwhile the Amazon is burning.

So, what should we do?

The Guardian (a British publication that does good work) recommends political action in favor of forest protection, financial support of non-profits active in the region, and boycott of products that are derived unsustainably from the Amazon, such as Brazilian beef. It sounds like good advice, but it’s a little vague. Let me elaborate.

Political Pressure

Bolsonaro is showing signs of responding to international pressure, even as such pressure also sometimes seems counterproductive. The solution is to identify the political leaders who seems to be getting results and support them both politically and, if possible, financially. Call your representatives and ask them to block trade deals with countries that are environmentally destructive–and to offer support to those that protect their forests. Might be a good idea to show appreciation for leaders of other countries who seem to be getting results, too. Notice that all this is bigger than Brazil.

Above all, focus your support on political leaders who are doing the well-informed, nuanced work the situation needs.

I suspect the most immediate solutions will be political and are, in fact, underway and in need of support. The other two options are more long-term.

Non-Profits?

The Guardian recommends supporting the following groups (though this is clearly not meant to be an exhaustive list):

I plan to focus on groups that specifically champion the rights of people who live in the forest; protect the people who protect the land. Respond to the S.O.S. messages that have been sent.

Consumer Activism

Yes, cutting back on meat consumption, especially beef consumption, is a good idea, since the global meat industry relies heavily on both pasture and feed production in areas that used to be rain forest. Boycott unsustainably-produced products generally. But don’t stop there. Brazil and other heavily-forest countries do need to make a living somehow, and if cutting down the forests is the only way to do it, then the result is predictable and possibly unavoidable.

Both as a consumer and as a voting citizen, support sustainable economic activity by countries whose forests we want to preserve.

The Guardian recommends The Rainforest Alliance as a source of information on what to buy and what to avoid.