The Climate in Emergency

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


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Come On, Baby, Light My….

Obviously, the Wine Country fires are yet another of the many signs of the coming climate Apocalypse, right?

Well, maybe.

I’ll spare you all the suspense and say yes,wildfires probably are increasing due to climate change, but the picture is a little more complicated than it might appear. Let’s explore some of these extra details a bit, shall we?

First of all, a fire season can be “bad” in many different ways, just as a hurricane season can be, and in order to even assess whether fire seasons are getting worse, we need to first decide what kind of “bad” we’re even looking at. For example, a fire season can be bad because:

  • There are a lot of fires
  • A lot of acreage burns
  • The fire season is very long
  • The fires are unusually hot, thus causing more damage per acre burnt
  • Fire behavior is less predictable than normal, making the fire harder and more dangerous to fight
  • More places humans care about burn
  • Fighting fires costs more than usual
  • An unusual number of people die in fires

Obviously, several items on the menu can occur at the same time–a year might see a lot of very large, hot fires that behave unpredictably, kill lots of people, destroy lots of property, and cost a lot of money during a time of year when fire danger is normally low. But it’s also possible to see a huge number of very small fires, a small number of very large fires, or a season that seems bad only because beloved places burn, while fire behavior is otherwise fairly mild.

Also, some of the variables in play are clearly linked to climate, such as the length of the fire season. But other forms of “bad” are partly or wholly caused by other factors, such as where suburban development is occurring, how forests are being managed, and how wildfires are being fought.

As with hurricanes, the challenge is to tease out a consistent, relatively uncluttered dataset so you can compare apples to apples from year to year–for enough years for statistical relevance. Unfortunately, most of the articles don’t address where their information is coming from, even when the site is quite reputable, so it’s hard for a non-expert like me to judge how much we really know and how much is logically sound conjecture.

Wildfire Is Getting Worse Because of Climate Change

A simple online search brings up lots of articles on how climate change is definitely making wildfires worse (meaning “longer and more intense”). There are several mechanisms involved. Most directly, higher average temperatures drive more evaporation, and earlier snowmelt, meaning that fuels are drier for a greater part of the year even if precipitation remains the same. Indeed, fire seasons are usually two months longer now than they were a few decades ago. Longer fire seasons mean more fires and also a greater drain on national firefighting resources.

A hotter climate also increases the chance that firefighters may have to work in dangerously hot weather. Hot weather at night can be especially damaging, because heat injury is cumulative. If the body can’t rest from the heat, then heat stroke becomes more likely.

Changes in precipitation patterns, another aspect of climate change, are also important, and not only because some areas are increasingly vulnerable to drought. Climate change involves a concentration of precipitation, so that a greater proportion of the rain that does fall comes in intense cloudbursts, with longer gaps in between. Even if average precipitation holds steady or goes up, this “never rains but it pours” situation is bad news. The rainstorms trigger lush plant growth, which then dries out in the long periods between rains, increasing fuel loads.

The number of acres burned per year has gone up over the past forty years, although the year-to-year variation is very large as well and tends to complicate the picture.

And of course, changes in land-use patterns play their own roles, since there are more houses being built in wooded areas than there used to be, and those houses burn if the woods do.

Wildfire Might Not Be Getting Worse

I’ve also found a few articles arguing that wildfires aren’t getting worse at all. One article argued that America’s forests are getting too dense because there aren’t enough fires and that Congress should provide immediate relief by encouraging logging. Unfortunately, I have not been able to re-find that article, so I can’t verify either its methods or its politics. The other simply points to the lack of trend and leaves it at that.

In some ways, it’s a pretty solid piece–it even links back to several original research papers, and the website, which belongs to a group of public radio stations has no obvious political agenda. A close reading of the article, and its sources, resolves the apparent contradiction.

The author, Tom Banse, acknowledges that fire seasons have been trending worse in recent decades, as other authors describe, yet he frames his own article as providing “contrast” by discussing three scientific papers that “question that prevailing wisdom” by looking at longer time scales.

Time scale is important. It’s possible to create trends out of nothing, or erase trends that actually exist, simply by looking at data from either a too-short interval or a too-long interval. Reading Mr. Banse’s article, it looks as though such obfuscation may be occurring with respect to wildfire, at least in the Western United States. Reading the papers he cites….

The link to one of those three papers is broken. The other two do say the things that Mr. Banse says they say, but not in any way that contrasts with the narrative of climate-induced fire severity.

One paper (actually a report by the United States Forest Service) concludes that, at least in some parts of California, fires were more frequent before the European-American conquest than they have been in modern times, defined as since 1908. In other words, it does not comment at all on changes in fire frequency over the past forty years–the study did not look at trends at all, at any time scale. Instead, the study’s methods involved dividing the study area up into ecologically defined sub-units and comparing the fire frequency for each unit before conquest to the fire frequency after 1908. Thus, all the fires in all the years since 1908 are subsumed into a single number.

There is nothing wrong with that method, but it was designed to address a very different question than the one Mr. Banse is using it to address. It’s a non-sequitur that happens to include the requisite words that wildfires used to be more frequent.

The other paper demonstrates that prior to conquest, fires were often more intense than conventional wisdom among conservationists maintain. Note that the authors of this paper aren’t talking about modern fire behavior at all. They are comparing their understanding of pre-conquest fire severity with somebody else’s understanding of pre-conquest fire severity.

Mr. Banse does quote one of the paper’s authors as saying that fire severity is less now than what “early settlers were dealing with,” but it’s unclear where this quote comes from–it does not come from the paper, since the language of the quote is not formal. Without the original context, we can’t tell what Dr. DellaSala was really talking about in his quoted remarks, or what information he was basing his remarks on. He does not seem to be arguing against the idea that climate change is causing larger, hotter, or more frequent wildfires, only that, from a strictly ecological perspective, more fire isn’t the disaster people seem to think it is.

A very interesting point–but relative to Mr. Banse, it’s another convenient non-sequitur.

Does Tom Banse have a climate-denier agenda? Maybe. The article is certainly structured as a counterpoint against the use of wildfire as evidence of the reality of climate change. I suspect that in the three years since its publication, it has been linked to by climate deniers more often than by the climate sane. But without more information, I cannot judge Mr. Banse. It’s possible he just felt that a counterpoint to prevailing wisdom seemed more interesting.

What’s Going on with Wildfire?

The actual fire we see is a result of a combination of climate, land management (including fire management), and other factors. The research Mr. Banse references hints at that complexity, though probably not in the way he intended.

While the quoted researchers seem to treat the conditions found by settlers as natural, it is likely that the lands in question were being managed intensively with fire prior to conquest–fire was a common management tool in many areas of North America, though I don’t know the details for the areas in those studies (if we don’t normally think of Native Americans as having their own land management practices, it’s because we’re racist; the idea that any part of the American was untouched by humans prior to white people showing up implicitly assumes that Native Americans aren’t human). After conquest, management with fire stopped, and was, within several decades, replaced by active fire suppression (when I was doing fuels reduction cutting in Arizona, I was told that grazing by cattle dramatically reduced fire frequency well before fire suppression began–close-cropped grass did not carry flame well). Of course there were fewer fires–that was the idea.

Decades of fire suppression increased fuel loads dramatically, thus increasing fire risk. Land managers have in more recent decades responded by conducting controlled burns and by allowing some fires that do not threaten developed areas or infrastructure to burn freely. Between one thing and another, fire frequency and severity have increased again, and would have increased anyway whether climate change intervened or not.

It’s not that I don’t believe climate change is a factor–in fact, I don’t see how climate change could avoid being a factor, given that it directly affects both fuel load and fuel moisture content, as well as making firefighting more dangerous due to the risk of heat stroke, as mentioned. But neither the fact that more acreage is burning, nor the fact that this year’s fires are particularly bad is itself the proverbial smoking gun.

What I’d like to see–and I’m sure this exists, I just haven’t seen it this week–is an article, written for a general readership, that presents the changes in fire behavior that result from climate change as separate from those that result from changes in land management and fire management practices. And I mean observed changes, not simply a discussion of what climate change ought to be doing based on our general knowledge of it.

That Mr. Banse may have had an agenda doesn’t make him wrong; that he is wrong makes him wrong. Most people have an agenda of one kind or another, and even those who profess to being utterly objective generally reflect somebody’s viewpoint or priority system (for example, who is paying for their objective scientific research and why?). The point isn’t to avoid those who have agendas, the point is to avoid lies, misleading statements, and agendas that are irrational, dysfunctional, or immoral in some way. Mr. Banse was honest enough to give us the tools to evaluate his talking points–he included links to peer-reviewed scholarship. That’s why we can say that his article was close to meaningless. I find myself wishing that more writers whose agendas I might like better were equally helpful and honest, if only so I could be certain they are right.

So, to summarize: wildfires are burning more acres per year, on average, than they did when I was born, and fire seasons are longer. Fires are also more dangerous to fight because of the increased likelihood of heat waves. Climate change is part of this picture, because it gives us longer summers and longer dry periods between wet periods. But other factors are also changing fire behavior, and at the moment one of the areas that happens to be on fire is beautiful and famous and populated, so we really care about it.

And at 11:31 PM of the day I’m supposed to post this, I can’t tell you what the relationships among all those factors is, or whether anyone knows.

 

(Note; actually, someone might know, and that someone might be me; I’ve written about fire in this blog before, but since I’ve been chasing information online today without much success, I haven’t had the time to reread my own work and hunt down my earlier sources. The result is this article that comments on the need for better science communication as much as on climate change itself)

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Seeing Patterns

Last week, I had the distinct pleasure of a hike on Mount Desert Island with my friend and teacher, Tom Wessels–the same man who lead the hike in the White Mountains described in my post, The Ghost of White Birches. Only, then he was leading an organized group activity associated with the school I’d just graduated. This time, for the first time, we were just friends going hiking together.

Myself, my husband, our elderly but still spry dogs, and him.

Switching contexts can have an unpredictable effect on relationships, and I can be slow on the uptake when the rules change. I had left it to Tom to suggest a hike, rather than saying so myself, because I did not want him to think I was expecting him to work on his day off. But as it happened, I need not have worried. Nothing had really changed between us. And while he had no planned lectures, no educational objectives, and had not previously hiked our whole route (as a professor, he appears to meticulously plan everything), he still kept us appraised of the cultural and natural history around us, knowing and sharing our interest. Tom is not one of those people who wears radically different hats for changing circumstance. He is always and exactly himself.

He told us that part of the trail we followed ran along the bed of the first road on the island. He pointed out a big-toothed aspen so furrowed with age that it looked like an ancient cottonwood, and how two other trees of the same size and species nearby must be much younger, having smoother bark.* He commented that the rhodora was coming into bloom. He answered questions, asked and unasked.

“Sap,” he said, spotting me examining a mass of white stuff at the base of a tree. I had thought it was either sap or bird urine and that either way it indicated some story. “These spruces are not doing well. Fungus comes in, then ants, then woodpeckers. Carpenter ants can’t excavate healthy wood.” The sap had flowed from the work of a pileated woodpecker, going after carpenter ants.

I knew from previous conversations that one of the reasons the spruces are becoming more vulnerable is climate change.

Much of Mount Desert Island is dominated by spruces, a cold-tolerant genus of tree that is rare at this latitude. The island–and the coast of Maine generally–is different because the frigid Humbolt Current bathes the land in cool sea breezes and cold sea fogs. According to rangers at Acadia National Park, which includes much of the island, the Gulf of Maine is now warming faster than almost any other water body in the world. Lobsters are moving north, to the detriment of lobstermen in southern New England. Southern fish species are moving in. In warm years, every puffin chick in the state starves to death, unable to swallow the larger, southern fish their parents bring.

I was right to think the white stuff at the base of the tree held a story.

Tom sees patterns. In a somewhat different and still less-developed way, so do I. A hiker without this kind of knowledge would see a pristine wilderness, protected in perpetuity by the US Park Service. Tom sees spruces not doing well (and paper birches dying off, lobsters moving, puffins starving) and is saddened.

There is a certain comfort to be had by sharing your reality with another. We chat about our home, mine and my husband’s, in Maryland, and how our forested lot prevents our having a garden, or a solar panel, or a wind turbine, but does protect us from the damaging effects of winds. In the ten years I’ve been there, I say, we’ve survived two hurricanes (Sandy and Irene) and a derecho, and the wind mostly flows over the tops of the trees.

“Those will happen more frequently, because of climate change,” comments Tom. We know. My husband talks about the changes he’s seen in Assateague Island in the forty years he’s been watching the place. Casual visitors don’t see that, either, only an unspoiled, wild beach, but we have friends who were married in a house on that beach and the house is not there anymore. The place where it stood is now several yards off shore. Maryland is slowly sinking, a natural subsidence triggered by the retreat of the glaciers tens of thousands of years ago, but sea level rise from climate change is real, too.

Last month, in St. Michaels, a town on the Chesapeake Bay, I saw water quietly lapping over the edge of the town dock, standing a few inches deep on pavement. Nobody else said anything. Nobody acknowledged it was happening, let alone extraordinary. Tidal height can vary. There is the influence of the moon’s phase, of course, since full moons and new moons produce extreme tides, and an onshore wind can pile up water on the coast. If both occur at the same time, tides can become extraordinary quite naturally.

But the town dock would not have been built where it was if flooding were normal at the time of its construction.

Last night I dreamed that nothing I did turned out right, that I was driving down winding country roads, lost, that the roads became dangerously, fantastically steep so I pulled over, only to watch my parked car roll down hill into the back of another. The metaphor of my subconscious is clear; I don’t know what to do about any of these patterns.

My mother and I discuss politics over breakfast. We are both worried about the survival of democracy. I go to bed with a hard knot of anxiety, the same nauseous fear that has plagued me since the election. I attend marches, write political letters, sign petitions, keep this blog, but there is something else that must be done, some stronger, more effective way to fight, but through the fog of anxiety, I don’t see it. Other than to acknowledge the truth, share my reality, I don’t know what to do.

 

  • The rate at which wood grows varies, as many people know, but the bark of each species grows at a nearly constant rate. Thus, an individual growing more slowly than normal for its species will have thicker, more textured bark. With some few exceptions, trunk size plus bark texture gives a better indication of tree age than either does alone.

 


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What the Frack?

I heard a few days ago that Pennsylvania had recorded its first earthquakes caused by fracking. I’ve been hearing for a while that fracking causing earthquakes and all sorts of other mean, nasty stuff, but I didn’t know exactly how. I figured this was a good opportunity to read up on the matter and write a neat little science-explainer post.

Except it turns out fracking doesn’t cause most of the earthquakes we’ve been hearing about. Fracking is bad, don’t get me wrong, it’s just that the situation is more complex.

The story in Pennsylvania is that there were a series of very small earthquakes almost a year ago. They were too minor to even notice without the help of instruments and nobody would have cared except that they were centered right next to  fracking operation. So, the authorities investigated and decided that yes, the fracking probably caused the shaking.

No, it didn’t, said the Daily Caller, a website about which I knew nothing and was frankly suspicious. I poked around on the site, and offhand, it looks to be a legitimate newspaper with a conservative, anti-environmental bias, but so far I haven’t seen anything too far off that wasn’t on the opinion page. More to the point, they’re almost right about fracking.

Fracking can cause earthquakes, but they are typically too small to feel, just as the quakes in Pennsylvania, were. The Daily Caller’s contention that the story is some kind of liberal media conspiracy seems off-base at best. But they are correct in noting that the US Geological Survey (USGS) says that fracking does not cause strong earthquakes.

As the USGS explains, induced earthquakes are caused by the injection of fluid into rock near faults capable of producing earthquakes, but how much fluid and when it is injected both matter a lot.

Fracking (or hydraulic fracturing) means using water and chemicals (mostly acids, lubricants, and poisons–the poisons are used to kill microbes that might otherwise damage the equipment. And yes, you can look up these chemicals) to break up deep rock layers so that oil or natural gas can flow more easily into the well. Once the fracture occurs, it doesn’t have to be done again, not for that well. Extraction commences, and most of the fracking fluid comes back up, along with the oil or gas. Because the injection operation is brief, involves relatively little fluid, and normally occurs in rocks that have already had some of their oil extracted by conventional means (thus freeing up some space) the resulting earthquakes are small.

What causes the big earthquakes is wastewater injection.

When oil or gas are pumped out of the ground, water comes, too. It may be a little water or a lot of water–usually, the proportion of water increases as the well starts to empty out. Wells are often abandoned, not because there isn’t any more hydrocarbon down there, but because there is to much water and separating it out gets too expensive. The water can come from a number of sources. Some of it was pumped into the well as part of the drilling process (either for fracking or for other forms of drilling), and then withdrawn again along with the oil. The water picks up substances from the rock in the process an becomes salty and toxic. Water can also leak into a well when the bore hole passes through an aquifer–though drilling companies try to prevent those leaks because the water causes various expensive complications for them. Sometimes when oil or gas are pumped out of the rock, water from nearby flows in to take up the newly emptied space. But oil and gas pockets generally contain their own water as well, because the organic ooze that became the hydrocarbon and the sediment that surrounded it were wet. Some of that water is salty because it’s seawater. Sometimes it’s fresh. For some reason I find the idea of underground pockets of ancient seawater charming.

But no matter how the water gets in there, it’s not safe to drink when it comes back out. Water is very good at dissolving things, and while it’s underground, it usually picks up several different toxins or radioactive substances. There are various ways to dispose of this stuff (some places spray it on roadways to control ice and dust, a practice of questionable wisdom). Injecting it back underground is not a new idea, and has obvious advantages–if it’s injected into the space that used to contain oil, the water can prevent subsidence. But if the wastewater is injected into rock that hasn’t had anything removed, it can cause earthquakes. Serious ones.

Wastewater disposal involves a lot more fluid than fracking does, and it continues as long as the oil pumping. Its impact on the rock is therefore much greater. And yet, even then, most wastewater injection wells don’t cause earthquakes. For the rock to move, there must be a pre-existing fault capable of causing earthquakes either near the injection site or somewhere the water can flow to from the injection site–sometimes the earthquake is up to ten miles away. So, the take-home message is that injection can’t cause an earthquake in a place where no earthquake could happen otherwise, but it can make those earthquakes much more likely. Like, hundreds of times more likely, as is happening in Oklahoma, and will likely continue happening for years after the injection stops.

The other take-home message is if someone ten miles away agrees to put an injection well on their land, the earthquake might happen under your house.

But there is a connection between fracking and strong induced earthquakes.

Scientists have known for decades that wastewater injection can cause earthquakes under some circumstances. They’ve known that there are some places where these wells just shouldn’t go. But in recent years, the economics of exploiting certain very wet carbon deposits has simply gotten too good to pass up–and fracking and horizontal drilling together have made it so. The result is more injection wells where they’re not supposed to be. So far, Pennsylvania has not had many injection wells, which is part of why it hasn’t had many induced earthquakes, but that could change.

As long as large volumes of wet hydrocarbons are being exploited, there will be large volumes of wastewater to be disposed of, somehow. It may be difficult to restrict disposal wells to those places that are not going to cause earthquakes. And as bad as injection is, all the other forms of disposal seem to be worse.

So it comes down to a societal choice–how much are we willing to pay to have oil and gas? Ad are the people making the decisions really the same people who end up paying the cost?

 


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For a Little Boy

I first posted “A Family Expecting” shortly after the birth of my nephew. I have re-posted it occasionally since then, and rewritten it at least once under a new title. I’m re-posting again now for reasons that should be obvious to friends and family–and I figure now is also a good time to remind people that what we’re doing really matters.  Although this story is a fantasy, it is based on the published results of climate models. Please check out the original for the research links posted at the bottom

Yesterday, my first nephew was born. He is small and wrinkled and has acne on his nose. He has wispy black hair and silvery-blue eyes. He knows the voices of his family and the scents and sounds of the hospital. He does not know about his home, going to school, or getting a job. He doesn’t know about casual friends, mean people, or birthday cake. He doesn’t know what the world will be like for him.

Neither do we, obviously, but if he lives to see his 89th birthday then his life will touch the end of the century, spanning the same period of time across which many climate models dare to predict. He comes from farming people in the Piedmont of the Mid-Atlantic. If he stays here and inherits his parents’ farm, as he might, then his life will also be the life of this landscape. What will he see?

This child will go home soon, and become the son of the land. He’ll rest in a cradle on the floor of a barn, his mother rocking him with one bare foot as she directs customers picking up vegetables in June. In two or three years, he’ll carry handfuls of squash guts as gifts for the chickens and a rooster as tall as he is will look him in the eye and decide he’s ok. He’ll listen to his parents worry about droughts. He’ll learn to hope the heavy rains don’t rot the tomatoes and that rising gas prices don’t break the bank. There will likely be more such worries as he gets older. Summers will be hotter. His mother will say it didn’t used to be like this, but grown-ups always say that.

According to the IPCC, by the time he’s a teenager, temperatures in the Mid-Atlantic will average maybe two degrees higher than they did during his mother’s childhood. That does not sound like much, but averages rarely do. One degree can turn a pretty snow into a destructive ice storm.

Warming, in and of itself, will be good for the crops; only a local rise of about five degrees Fahrenheit or more hurts productivity. That’s unlikely to happen here until my nephew is a very old man. But the Great Plains may warm faster, enough to cause a problem; he could study the shifting agricultural economics in college.

Our area could either get wetter or drier. Parts of northern and central Mexico will almost certainly get drier, maybe dramatically so. These areas are dry already, so I imagine a lot more people will start heading north. My nephew will discuss the refugee problem with his friends, lean on his shovel in the morning sun, and wonder if the United States has a responsibility to keep Mexicans from dying when Congress is already deadlocked over how to pay for the flooding in New England. Seems you can’t keep a bridge built in Vermont, anymore. He takes off his sun hat and scratches his thinning hair.

Years pass. My nephew thinks about his upcoming fiftieth birthday, and also about New York City, where three of his grandparents grew up. It’s turning into a ghetto. It’s not under water, exactly, though the highest tides creep slowly across abandoned parking lots in some neighborhoods, spilling over the older seawalls. The problem is this is the second time it’s been stricken by a hurricane, and now no one can get the insurance money to rebuild. The same thing has happened to New Orleans and Miami. Boston may be next. Those who can get out, do. Those who can’t, riot. They have a right to be angry. His daughter is pregnant with his first grandchild. My nephew cannot keep his family safe indefinitely, but he’s glad his parents taught him how to grow food.

More years pass, and my nephew turns sixty-five. He proud of his skill as a farmer, especially with the way the rules keep changing. The farm seems to be in Zone 8, these days. He’s got new crops and new weeds. He has friends in southern Maryland who haven’t had a hard frost in two years. Maybe this year they will; Farmer’s Almanac says it’ll be cold. Last year, he and his wife took a trip through New England and let his kids take care of the harvest for once. They stayed at romantic little bed-and-breakfasts and took long walks in the woods, holding hands. There was white, papery birch-bark on the ground, here and there, the stuff takes a long time to rot, but he knew he’d have to go to Canada if he wanted to see one alive. The American white birches are all dead, killed by a changing climate. It’s sad.

Eventually, my nephew becomes a very old man, a spry but somewhat stooped 89-year-old, mostly bald, with great cottony billows of hair spilling out of his ears, his breathing deep and slow and marred by occasional coughs and rumbles. He has lived long enough to see more change than any prior human generation has, and that’s saying something. A lot of the change is environmental, but not all of it. Major technological shifts have reworked the country yet again, and the entire political and economic center of gravity has pulled away from the coasts. He is aware of this upheaval intellectually, but viscerally he is used to the world he lives in. He lives well. He is loved and he is useful. No dramatic disasters have befallen him–the worst-case scenarios have not played out, but mostly he’s just been lucky. Plenty of disasters have happened to other people. My nephew is sympathetic. He writes his Congress-people and gives generously through his church whenever he can. But a lot of good that could have been done decades ago wasn’t.

I saw my nephew tonight. He’s at home now, wrapped in a blue blanket like an animate dumpling, slowly fretting against the swaddling. His wrists and ankles are as thin as my thumbs. He’s too young for baby fat. He doesn’t know what his future holds. And neither, really, do we.

——————–

I wrote the above fantasy several years ago and many of my predictions have already come true. My little nephew has indeed learned about birthday cake (I hope he does not yet know about mean people) and has carried treats to the chickens, though he prefers the company of the goats and can imitate their voices. More darkly, Manhattan was hit by a major storm-surge (Superstorm Sandy) and Miami Beach now floods regularly due to sea-level rise. I don’t think my nephew knows it, but the years of his  life thus far have seen consecutive global heat records broken, two successive record-breaking tropical cyclones (Haiyan and Patricia), rumors of “jellyfish seas,” a major climate-related refugee crisis, the possible California Megadrought, and dramatic, unprecedented fires in Canada, the United States, and Indonesia. Among other deeply worrying developments.

Come on, people, put your backs into it, whatever we make of the future, my nephew will have to live there.


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One Word: Plastics

The title for this post is, of course, a quote from The Graduate, but  the line of inquiry that got me writing today was actually triggered by a different movie. In It’s a Wonderful Life, one of George Baily’s friends tries to get him to invest in a company than makes plastic from soybeans. This detail is irrelevant to the plot–the important thing for the story is that the suggestion to invest in something functions as more pressure for George to settle down, which is does not want to do. That the “something” is plastics is arbitrary, and I ignored it for all of the 948,000 times I’ve seen the movie.

Until this year, when I saw it for the 948,001st time, and thought–wait, soy-based plastic? In the 1930’s? (the movie was actually made somewhat later, but the scene is set before World War II) If they had soy-based plastic then, why do we still bother with petro-plastics now? Why are bioplastics always talked about as if they were new, when we’ve obviously had them for at least ninety years?

The short answer is that “plastic” is not one material but several, and the types of bioplastics that existed ninety years ago were not very useful. They’re not the plastic we’re looking for.

Let me elaborate.

A Primer on Plastics

“Plastic,” originally an adjective meaning “flexible,” has come to refer to a any of a large group of organic polymers (“organic,” in this case, means including the element, carbon). A polymer is a a very large molecule made by stringing together lots of smaller molecules, or monomers. Not all polymers are plastics–DNA, for example, is a polymer made out of protein.

Depending on the polymer, how it is processed, and what additives it contains, a plastic might be clear or opaque, strong or weak, flexible or brittle, cheap or expensive, toxic or non-toxic, biodegradable or not biodegradable.Thermoplastics are made of chain-like polymers and melt and flow when heated–that makes them relatively easy to recycle. Thermo-set plastics are made of web-like polymers and do not melt. They are very difficult to recycle.

Plastics can be synthesized from various feed stocks, including petroleum, natural gas, sugar, and plant-derived oils. Some plastics can be made from either petroleum (or natural gas) or recently-living plant-matter–and the result is chemically identical either way. That is, being made from petroleum doesn’t make a plastic automatically bad, and being made from recently-living plant doesn’t, all by itself, make a plastic good.

Some plastics can only be made from a fossil fuel, but do have bioplastic analogues. But since the analogue is chemically distinct, it won’t necessarily have the same performance characteristics and might be both more expensive to the consumer and less useful.

The long and the short of all of this is that “plastics” is a very broad category and you really have to know which plastic you are talking about before you can say much of anything about it.

The Problem with Green Plastics

Because different plastics have different properties and different advantages and disadvantages, looking for an “eco-friendly” plastic is a good way to get confused or even scammed. Apples get compared to oranges through marketing, and the point of the whole exercise can get lost in the shuffle, unless you remember to think of plastics as a whole group of materials.

Ideally, for each petroplastic on the market today, we want a bioplastic equivalent that does the same job at a competitive price and then biodegrades when we don’t need it anymore.

And indeed, as noted, some petroplastics do have bioplastic equivalents, some of which are even chemically identical. Use of bioplastics would at least get us away from fossil-fuel feed stocks, a definite good thing, even if everything else remained the same. Remember, it is demand for fossil fuels, including demand by the plastics industry, that drives fracking, oil spills, and pipelines being put in where they should not go.

But bioplastics are still synthetic polymers, which means hardly anything can eat them.  They can stick around in the environment forever, clogging up animal digestive tracks and otherwise causing havoc, just like petroplastics can. And some plastics of either origin can shed their component monomers, many of which are toxins.

There are biodegradable bioplastics and there are also biodegradable petroplastics. In theory, either would be a good thing–even if the product were still made from petroleum, reducing the amount of plastic floating around in our oceans forever would be an improvement.

The problem is that true biodegradable plastic–as in, you could throw it on the ground and it will become soil in a reasonable amount of time–is rather hard to find. What you get instead is various versions of disintegration, referred by a  collection of terms that are precisely defined by industry leaders.

Degradable means the plastic breaks up into lots of little, hard-to-see pieces that you can ignore if you want to. The term does not say anything about what happens to those little bits–they could just go on being plastic, which is very bad, because eventually they end up in the oceans where they get mixed up with the plankton that forms the basis of oceanic food webs. Already a really scary proportion of ocean life have tiny bits of plastic in their bodies. Remember that, next time you eat ocean-caught fish.

The first plastics marketed as “biodegradable” in fact did exactly that–broke up into tiny pieces of permanent plastic. These days industry standards require stricter labeling, but fancy terms such as photodegradable and oxydegradable still just refer to how any why plastic breaks down into bits–they promise nothing as far as avoiding the Tiny Plastic Apocalypse.

If you want something that actually breaks down because microorganisms digest it, you’re looking for biodegradable plastic. And it does exist, but that term promises nothing about how healthy the resulting soil is–you need compostable plastic if you want soil that, say, does not kill plants.

And even compostable plastic might not break down unless it is processed in a large-scale, municipal composting facility which, by the way, hardly any municipalities actually have. Your back-yard compost pile might not work, and throwing the stuff in the ocean (which is what will happen to virtually all plastic eventually anyway, even if it gets delayed in a landfill for a few thousand years first) definitely won’t work. You’ll get tiny bits of plastic again.

Even under ideal circumstances, I’m not sure that compostable plastic actually avoids the tiny-bits-of-plastic scenario. The standard tests involve sieving the composted product to make sure all the pieces are small, testing for the presence of heavy metals, and trying to grow plants in it–but they don’t test for the chemical signature of the synthetic polymer itself. Some plastic could get through.

Some people argue that biodegradable/compostable plastic is actually a bad idea. It’s not going to get a chance to compost, and a lot of it probably gets dumped in with plastic recycling by mistake, where it can contaminate whole batches. Some compostable plastics are recyclable in theory, but virtually no facilities are equipped to handle it.

I would not say compostable plastics are bad–rather, I’d say this is another example of why we should not try to simplify our choices into blanket pronouncements: PLASTIC=BAD, COMPOSTABLE=GOOD, etc. There are some circumstances under which a compostable plastic might be the better option. Other times, it might not be.

At this time, the most effective thing we can do is probably to minimize the use of all plastics, while continuing to call for compostable bioplastic options for those times we’re unwilling to do without. Half of the oil used in plastics production actually goes into energy generation, not feed stock. If we can shift the industry over to renewable energy, we can substantially shrink the carbon footprint of plastics.

Bioplastics, Past, Present, and Future

The first plastics–cellophane and rayon–were bioplastics. They still have a place in the market, but the market has grown to include many needs that these products can’t meet. Newer, petroleum-based plastics can and do. Much of the early promise of bioplastics never panned out–Its a Wonderful Life is fiction. Henry Ford’s famous attempt to make a plastic car using soybeans actually involved soy fibers in a phenolic resin. Phenolic resin is Bakalite, a petroplastic.

Over the years, hardly anybody has ever been able to make bioplastics work as a business model except, again, in niches. Modern environmental awareness might expand some of those niches, and ongoing technological development might give us new bioplastics that function better as competitive analogues to some of the petroplastics. Various authors have analyzed the probable economic effects of a shift to bioplastics–production would likely shift to the Midwest, for better access to raw materials, for example.

Sooner or later, we’re going to have to get off fossil fuels entirely. When that happens, bioplastics will be all we have–and we have the technical know-how to make the conversion already. It may be comforting to know that the future need not leave us without plastics, since they are very useful materials for some things–medical equipment, for example. The downside is that we will still be faced with the problem of plastic waste–barring a radical change in technology, it seems likely that even the most compostable bioplastics will still require specialized circumstances to break down. The key will be to keep plastic use to a minimum and to diligently recycle or compost all used plastic items.

The important thing to remember is that, however ubiquitous plastics are now, they didn’t exist much more than a hundred years ago, and most are more recent than that. Most uses of plastics today are simply unecessary.

 

 

 


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Honor Roll

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

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

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

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

There are several possible ways to go with this. I could focus on individuals who have died of climate change, but linking global warming to particular deaths is very difficult. The result would also be too similar to my recent 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–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 Deadly Threat to Our Very Existence

On the 23rd day of the month of September, in an early year of a decade not too long before our own, the human race suddenly encountered a deadly threat to its very existence. And this terrifying enemy surfaced, as such enemies often do, in the seemingly most innocent and unlikely of places.

Thus begins Little Shop of Horrors, a movie I was completely obsessed with for about five years as a kid. No, I’m not sure why. Yes, this does get back around to climate change, I promise.

What I want to talk about is not the 1986 movie but the musical play it was based on. The two share characters, musical numbers, dialogue, and the script writer, Howard Ashman, yet they are fundamentally different works. I’ll get into the how and the why of that difference another time, on another blog, but for now let’s just say that the happy ending of the movie changes things.

The important thing is that the off-Broadway musical, but not the movie, works as a uniquely modern morality play, one with truly planetary implications. Was it intended to be such? Probably not–I’ve just watched an interview with Howard Ashman, included as a special feature on the DVD of the movie, and it seems as though he wrote the play simply as entertainment. Yet, as a fiction writer myself I can say that the creative process is largely sub-conscious and can include significance the writer knows nothing about. The allegory I am about to explicate is therefor quite valid because, even if it was not intended, it works.

A Synopsis

First, a summary of the plot so that we all know what we’re talking about.

The action takes place almost entirely inside a florist shop, inexplicably located in a truly terrible neighborhood. Not surprisingly, it’s in the process of going out of business. The staff consists of the owner, Mr. Mushnik; the floral designer, Audrey; and a shop assistant and plant geek, Seymour. The latter two are clearly in love with each other, though Audrey is dating a sadistic dentist who beats her regularly. Into this mess of woe comes a strange little plant and, surprisingly, its very presence draws in lots of paying customers. Suddenly, business is booming.

The catch, as Seymour discovers, is that the plant is carnivorous and demands human blood. At first, being small, it does well on a few drops at a time from Seymour’s own fingers. As it grows–and begins to talk and sing–it demands more. At first Seymour refuses to commit murder to feed it, but begins to waver when the plant offers him money, fame, and access to beautiful women. When the plant points out that Audrey’s abusive boyfriend actually deserves to die (and he does, the man is awful), Seymour agrees. The following day, the dentist accidentally over-doses on nitrous oxide and Seymour calmly watches him die and then drags the body home for consumption.

With the dentist dead, Seymour has no trouble becoming Audrey’s new boyfriend. Their relationship is actually quite touching and sweet. But Mr. Mushnik saw Seymour cutting up the dentist’s body, and promises to keep quiet about it only if Seymour runs away and leaves the lucrative plant behind. The plant quietly suggests another alternative, which Seymour accepts, and Mr. Mushnik, too, is eaten.

Seymour now has everything he said he wanted, but the guilt is eating him. When a businessman suggests taking cuttings from the plant and selling them worldwide, Seymour rebels. But before he can extricate himself from the situation, the plant tricks Audrey into coming within reach and grabs her. Seymour pulls her out of the plant’s mouth, but for some unexplained reason she dies anyway. Her last request is that Seymour feed her body to the plant, because then by taking care of it, he’ll really be taking care of her, too. He complies, but then, in a rage of guilt and shame, grabs a knife and allows the plant to eat him, intending to cut it up from the inside. The plant then spits out the knife.

Shortly thereafter, the business man returns and begins taking cuttings.

While the play is ostensibly a comedy, and generally received as such by audiences, it is one of the most profoundly and disturbingly tragic stories I have ever encountered.

A Morality Play?

When I was a kid, watching both the movie and, later, the play, I always assumed that the plant was simply a carnivore, no more evil than any of the quite real entities that do specialize in eating human blood, such as certain species of mosquito (which, by the way, kill huge numbers of people through disease transmission). As an adult, I’ve started thinking about the story again and I’ve changed my mind.

The plant is just too clearly in control, and too clearly getting a kick out of its power, not to be held responsible for Seymour’s growing depravity. First the man sacrifices himself in a small way, then he kills for love and anger, then he kills for personal gain. Then he feeds the woman he loves to the plant, and then finally kills himself. The plant isn’t really after blood, is it? It’s after Seymour’s soul. And it wins.

In a classic tragedy, the hero loses, not because he (rarely she) is overwhelmed by superior forces or bad luck, but because he is destroyed from within by his own shortcomings, which are equal to, and tied up in, the very things that make him great. Seymour is very much a hero in this sense, except that it is his ordinariness that is both his appeal and his downfall. Who among us would not do as he does, were we in his shoes? Who wouldn’t spare a little blood to save our livelihood? And, having accepted the cognitive dissonance involved in nursing a little blood sucker, killing for love isn’t such a big step. Letting Mr. Mushnik go isn’t too big of a step beyond that. Faced with unbearable loss and guilt, of course he makes a last, desperate attempt to fix his wrongs, and thereby serves the plant’s interest yet again, destroying himself and leaving it free to propagate. To identify with Seymour is to admit that we, too, could be culpable in the end of the world.

Maybe we already are.

Don’t Feed the Plants

The final song of the play states the moral of the story:

They may offer you fortune and fame,
Love and money and instant acclaim.
But whatever they offer you,
Don’t feed the plants!

Silly, isn’t it? After all, carnivorous plants aren’t really a threat, are they?
The villain of the play may be fictional, but the human vulnerabilities it preys on are not. The reality is that we humans sweet-talk each other for blood regularly, with consequences just as stark and tragic as in this parable about a plant. It is that vulnerability that is the real subject of the final song’s warning.
But “plant” has a second meaning, as in “factory.” Is it too much of a stretch to interpret the warning quite specifically in terms of corporate industry? Global warming itself was not much on the public radar in 1982, when the play opened (though it was well-known by people who followed such things), but plenty of other environmental and social problems stemming from factories were in full view. Of course, those social and environmental ills are intimately connected to climate change, too–the same “plants” are responsible.
For us, as for Seymour, it has been a question of weighing costs in choices that seem like no choice. Of course he gave the plant his blood–what else was he going to do? His livelihood, and the good will of the only people in the world who even pretended to care about him, depended on it. It’s not like many of us have a real choice about fossil fuel, either. How else are we going to get to work? The availability of that energy has saved countless lives. But the price gets bigger over time. Are you willing to give up the life of one sadistic dentist? How about the boss you never cared for anyway? Or the health and safety of people you don’t even know–like, for example, the people of the Mikisew Cree and Athabasca Chipewyan First Nations, who have insanely high rates of cancer because of contamination from nearby tar sands development. Or the people of the Gulf Coast, where the oil industry (and other factors) is gradually destroying the wetlands on which both hurricane safety and the region’s fishing industry depend. Or the people of Oklahoma, who are coping with three hundred times the region’s natural rate of earthquake occurrence, thanks to the underground disposal of waste products from oil production.  Or the ongoing fight by the Standing Rock Sioux to protect their drinking water and sacred sites from a planned oil pipeline. Or the half of all North American birds that could be under threat from climate change by the end of this century. And on and on.
The question is, when do you stop paying the price? And what do you do when the choice you have is no choice, and ant rebellion could result in your feeding your beloved into that green maw-and blaming yourself?

Look, it’s a horrible story, and it’s all too true. So, if singing about a carnivorous vegetable helps you keep your spirits up, then go for it. Pick up a light-hearted metaphor and use that for your motivation. Get silly with it. Use comedy and camp and music. Next time Trump-the-Climate-Denier promises to make America great again by putting President Obama’s climate legacy on the chopping block, imagine him all green and viney. And don’t go leaping into his jaws with a knife, either (I’ll let you work out that metaphor yourself) because we know that doesn’t work. If we fight it we’ve still got a chance

Come on, look up the music on YouTube or something and sing it with me:

Hold your hat and hang on to your soul.
Something’s coming to eat the world whole.
If we fight it we’ve still got a chance.
But whatever they offer you,
Though they’re slopping the trough for you,
Please, whatever they offer you,
Don’t feed the plants!