The Climate in Emergency

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


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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.

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Groundhog’s Day!

The following is a slightly re-edited version of an older, but clearly seasonal post. I’ve always liked this time of year–it feels optimistic, when optimism can be hard to come by.

-C.

This weekend was Groundhog Day, the day when, supposedly, a groundhog in Pennsylvania predicts the weather by seeing or not seeing his shadow. It’s the closest we have to a climate-related holiday.

It’s an odd holiday–never mind how a groundhog could predict the weather, how can one groundhog give a single prediction for the entire country? And why six weeks? We can explore these questions briefly and then I’ll get back to talking about climate.

Groundhog Day itself goes back to Europe, where a group of interrelated traditions had various animals–hedgehogs, bears, badgers, perhaps even snakes–breaking hibernation in February to predict the remaining length of winter. The underlying idea is that clear weather in early February is, counter-intuitively, a sign of a late spring. And that association may well hold, at least in parts of Europe, for all I know.

February 1st or 2nd is also a cross-quarter day, one of the four days per year mid-way between a solstice and an equinox (the solstices and equinoxes are the quarters). The other three are May 1st, August 1st, and November 1st. All four were holidays in at least some of the pre-Christian European religions and all four survive as folk traditions and Christian holidays. All four are also holidays within the modern religion of Wicca. So today or yesterday is not just Groundhog Day but also Candlemas, Brigid, or Imbolg, depending on your persuasion, and all involve the beginning of spring. I have always heard that in European pagan tradition, the seasons begin on the cross-quarters, not the quarters–thus, spring begins not on the Spring Equinox but on the previous cross-quarter, in February. I’ve always wondered if perhaps “six more weeks of winter” is a remnant of cultural indecision as to which calendar was correct–whether spring should begin in February or six weeks later, in March.

In any case, we in America got Groundhog’s Day when German immigrants in Pennsylvania adapted their tradition to the New World–Germans looked to hedgehogs as prognosticators, but hedgehogs don’t live in America (porcupines are entirely unrelated). Groundhogs do. In the late 1800’s, the community of Punxsutawny announced that THEIR groundhog, named Phil, was the one and only official groundhog for everybody, thus utterly divorcing the tradition from any concern with local weather. There are rival Groundhog’s Day ceremonies, but Phil is still the primary one.

Groundhogs (which are the same thing as woodchucks) do sometimes take breaks from hibernation, though they don’t necessarily leave their burrows. There are various theories as to why, but most involve the need to perform various bodily processes that hibernation precludes–including, perhaps, sleep. Hibernation is not the same as sleep, after all. But there is evidence that male groundhogs spend some of their time off in late winter defending their territories and visiting females. They actually mate after hibernation ends for the year, but apparently female groundhogs don’t like strangers. Thus, it is actually appropriate that Phil is male–the groundhogs who come out of their holes in February are.

Anyway, underneath the silliness at Gobbler’s Knob in Punxsutawny, Groundhog’s Day is about a cultural awareness of weather patterns and animal behavior. Certain times of the year are cold and other times are not, dependably. If we pay attention, we can know what to expect and we can organize holidays and cultural observances around that knowing. In this sense, then, Groundhog’s Day is not about weather but about climate. Climate is the roughly stable pattern that makes it possible for ordinary people who don’t have supercomputers or satellites to predict the weather simply by watching the world around them.

We’re losing that, now. It’s fifty degrees outside, where I live. In February. And while warm, springlike weather is pleasant and I intend to go out in it as soon as I’m done writing this, there’s always something unnerving about unseasonable conditions. But the patterns our cultural traditions are build on–climate–are eroding. The world is getting less reliable, less like home.

It’s a little thing, as consequences from climate go, but one likely to have a profound effect on us psychologically. There is still time to do something about it. Get involved politically, support climate-sane candidates.

Now.


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The Carbon Footprint of a Beagle

So, we just got a beagle.

We already had one beagle, but after the death of her co-dog (a Lab/pit mix) last month, she’s been lonely, so we got her a companion. His name is Reilly, and he is sweet and affectionate and already causing trouble in his distinctively charming and beaglish way.

This seems like a good time to cover a topic I’ve been interested in for a while, the relationship between climate change and pets

The Carbon Footprint of Pets

Turns out, there have been serious scientific studies of the carbon footprint of dogs and cats. Results vary, but the general consensus tends to be that pets, collectively, have a large carbon footprint because there are a lot of them and dogs and cats eat mostly meat, which is a carbon-intensive food.

There are a couple of interesting points, here.

First, these studies may be studies of the carbon footprint of pet food, not pets. One research team is quoted as having looked at dog food only, based on the assumption that other aspects of dog care have minimal impact. Their assumption may be correct, but personally I’d like to see a study that examined all aspects of dog (and cat) care so we could check the accuracy of that assumption. I’m also amused by their conclusion, that big dogs have a larger carbon footprint than small dogs, since big dogs eat more. Personally, I’m not sure why anyone would assume the non-food aspects of dog care have minimal impact (a complicated question involving lots of data most of us don’t have) but then perform and publish a formal study on whether big dogs eat more than small dogs do.

Second, sorting out the carbon footprint of food may be trickier than it appears. For example, pet food is often made, in part, from meat by-products, which humans can’t eat. By-products are essentially waste for which a market has been created, stuff that would not exist if the primary product (muscle meat for human consumption) were not being produced. So is it really fair to assign the carbon footprint of the meat by-product to the dog who eats it rather than to the human whose demand for steaks created that steer in the first place?

The carbon footprint of food can vary a lot, as we know from studies of human diets. For example, beef and lamb are much more carbon-intensive than chicken. I’d like to see a detailed break-down of several different kinds of pet food and the different aspects of their production.

To Pet or Not to Pet

What does the question “what is the carbon footprint of a pet?” really mean? We could ask about the carbon footprint of Reilly and what we, his guardians, can do to make him a “greener” dog. Alternatively, we could be asking about our own carbon footprint and whether not having Reilly would make my husband and I “greener” people.

And since Reilly’s personal impact on the climate would presumably be about the same no matter who had him, the latter question really boils down to the draconian “should Reilly be alive?”

In a similar spirit we might debate, or refuse to debate, the lives of human children. Indeed, since humans have huge carbon footprints, especially in the so-called “developed” world, some list “having a child” as the worst thing a person can do to the planet, even worse than airplane travel, car travel, or eating meat.

My husband and I don’t have children, and environmental impact is part of the reason, but phrasing the decision as a measurable reduction of our carbon footprint as a couple seems very wrong.

What if the child in question were the next generation’s Rachel Carson?

The very idea of reducing a child to a carbon footprint is offensive. Reducing Reilly in such a way is less so, but still pretty bad.

But Haven’t There Always Been Dogs?

There is an argument to be made for having fewer dogs and cats in total. Their collective environmental impact is not negligible, and most humans could get along without them quite well (I said most, not all). But if all dogs and cats suddenly vanished, would the carbon footprint of humanity really shrink? Or would some other use be found for meat by-products?

Perhaps more to the point, would climate change really slow?

This whole line of questioning reminds me of cows. There is an argument to be made for having fewer head of cattle, too, after all, since their environmental impact is quite large, and we can eat other things. But when I brought up such an argument a while back, a friend of mine posed an interesting question; haven’t there always been cows?

And yes, cows are not new. I’m fairly sure there are a lot more now than there used to be, but surely before the modern mountain of moo there were other ungulates, bison and caribou, antelopes and takhi and quagga, to take up the slack.

Ok, those last two aren’t exactly ruminants, but you get the point. The only way large herds of cattle could actually change the climate would be if the total number of ruminants, domestic or otherwise, had grown–and how would such increased stock find enough to eat if something else hadn’t changed?

The same question applies to dogs and cats. If these animals have not simply replaced their wild counterparts but actually exist now in excess of the total historical animal mass, where did the excess food come from and why isn’t it accounted for in the historical carbon balance, where the carbon each animal releases came ultimately from plants and returned to plants again for no net change?

Some other source of energy must be fueling the swelling populations, something from outside the old balance–fossil, presumably, in one way or another. In other words, if the total population of dogs (or cattle or humans) has grown too large for the planet, it is a symptom, not a cause, of our problem.

As useful as carbon footprint calculation can be, it’s possible to get lost in the weeds here and miss the larger picture, which is that the climate is changing because the concentration of greenhouse gasses is rising, period.

Reilly can’t introduce additional carbon to the system. He just can’t. If he is alive because of such an introduction, his death at some shelter would not begin to solve the problem.

Take Home Messages

Yes, certainly it makes sense to feed pets the most climate-friendly diet possible. And people who are bound and determined to buy a pet from a breeder might seriously consider a little vegetarian, like a rabbit, instead of a big carnivore, like a retriever–shift the market in a more climate-friendly direction.

But you are not going to fight climate change by not getting that beagle from the shelter.

Let’s keep our collective eye on the ball, the ball being to get off fossil fuel completely as soon as possible. Only then can we fix the problem that causes all the other problems.


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Reading of Names

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

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

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

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

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

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

Looking for Smoking Guns

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Pinta Island Tortoise

Chelonoidis abingdoni

Last seen, 24 June 2012

Vietnamese Rhinoceros

Rhinoceros sondaicus annamiticus

Last seen, 29 April 2010

Christmas Island Pipistrelle

(a bat)

Pipistrellus murrayi

Last seen, 27 August 2009

Chinese Paddlefish

Psephurus gladius 

Last seen, 8 January 2007

Yangtze River Dolphin

Lipotes vexillifer 

Last seen, before 2006

Po’o-uli

(a bird in Hawaii)

Melamprosops phaeosoma

Last seen, 28 November 2004

Saint Helena Olive

Nesiota elliptica

Last seen, December 2003

Vine Raiatea Tree Snail

Partula labrusca 

Last seen, 2002

Pyrenean Ibex

Capra pyrenaica pyrenaica 

Last seen, 6 January 2000

Sri Lanka Legume Tree

Crudia zeylanica

Last seen, 1998

Nukupuu

(a bird in Hawaii)

Hemignathus lucidus

Last seen, 1998

Western Black Rhinoceros

Diceros bicornis longipes

Last seen, 1997

Aldabra Banded Snail

Rhachistia aldabrae

Last seen, 1997

Zanzibar Leopard

Panthera pardus adersi

Last seen, 1996

Swollen Raiatea Tree Snail

Partula turgida

Last seen, 1 January 1996

Golden Toad

Incilius periglenes

Last seen, 1989

Antitlan Grebe

Podilymbus gigas

Last seen, 1986

Alaotra Grebe

Tachybaptus rufolavatus

Last seen, September 1985

Eungella Gastric-brooding Frog

Rheobatrachus vitellinus

Last seen, March 1985

Kaua’i ‘O’o

(a bird in Hawaii)

Moho braccatus

Last seen, 1985

Christmas Island Shrew

Crocidura trichura

Last seen, 1985

Ua Pou Monarch

(a bird in Polynesia)

Pomarea mira

Last seen, 1985

Amistad Gambusia

(a fish, in Texas, USA)

Gambusia amistadensis

Last seen, 1984

Conondale Gastric-brooding Frog

Rheobatrachus silus

Last seen, November 1983

San Marcos Gambusia

(a fish, in Texas, USA)

Gambusia georgei

Last seen, 1983

Kama’o

(a bird in Hawaii)

Myadestes myadestinus

Last seen, 1983

Guam Flycatcher

(a bird in Guam)

Myiagra freycinet

Last seen, 1983

Aldabra Warbler

Nesillas aldabrana

Last seen, 1983

Galapagos Damselfish

Azurina eupalama

Last seen, 1982

Marianas Mallard

Anas oustaleti

Last seen, September 1981

Southern Day Frog

Taudactylus diurnus

Last seen, 1979

White-eyed River Martin

(a bird in Thailand)

Eurychelidon serintarea

Last seen, 1978

Little Hutia

(a rodent in Honduras)

Mesocapromys minimus

Last seen, 1978


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Falling

I was going to write about solar ovens in Africa this week, but I’m still waiting for an interviewee to get back to me. So instead I’m going to talk about… leaves.

Here in Maryland, the forests still look surprisingly green. Now that we’ve had a few cold nights, some of the trees are “trying to turn,” as my husband puts it, but it doesn’t really look like fall, yet. The Weather Channel confirms that the delayed color is both regional and weather-related. That is, it’s not just my autumn that has been delayed, and the delay in foliage is, indeed, because of the extended warm weather.

But I’ve noticed that the leaves are falling.

They’re not falling heavily, yet, though at this point in the year they wouldn’t be. It’s just a few dead leaves accumulating on the sides of the roads and the edges of the sidewalk. But the funny thing is, the fallen leaves are mostly green. The trees they are falling from are also mostly green, but it is a strange green, an altered hue. I wonder–have the leaves changed after all?

“Brown-down,” the technical term for it, is a multifaceted process initiated when shortening day-length triggers the growth of the “abscission layer,” a corky section in the leaf petiole (its stem) that interferes with the flow of water and nutrients. Eventually, the cork gets thick enough to cut off the leaf entirely so it dies, and the petiole breaks neatly at the abscission layer. The leaf falls off. But before all that happens, before the cut-off is complete, the leaf continues to function. But chlorophyll breaks down as it’s used. It has to be continually replaced. With the leaf partly cut off, the chlorophyll can’t be replaced. The green fades from the leaf, revealing yellow and sometimes red pigments. Eventually, those pigments, too, break down, and the color fades.

Temperature changes help determine the speed and intensity of the color changes, even though the growth of the abscission layer itself is governed by day length.

Does this sound familiar?

Years ago, I wrote a post about spring, and how different aspects of spring (leaf-out, hatching of caterpillars, arrival of migratory songbirds) are cued by different factors. As climate change speeds up some of those factors but not others, the entire progression of spring gets out of sync. I’m wondering if the same thing is happening with fall.

If leaf-fall is triggered by day length, and the color change is triggered by temperature, then as climate change shifts the seasonal cooling later and later–and the timing of shortening days can’t change–it stands to reason autumn should get out of wack. Specifically, the leaves will fall more or less on time, but there will be little to no fall color.

Is that what we’re seeing?

I’m engaging in speculation, here, but it seems plausible. The ecological cost of climate change, and ultimately most important (that includes human ecology, FYI), but there’s a psychological cost, too. Personally, I find the weirdness of this non-fall very disturbing.


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Independence Day

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

Happy American Independence Day.

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

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

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

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

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

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

It will help the owners of the fossil fuel industry.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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Tick, Tick, Tick, Tick, Tick

When I was little, the appearance of a tick itself was reason for alarm.

“So-and-so found a tick the other day!” Mom would announce. “Be careful!” I think I had one on me–just one–my entire childhood. I’m not sure whether there were really so few ticks, or if we were simply bad at finding them. I do know that when I moved to Maryland, I didn’t have to be good at finding the little parasites. Huge numbers of them found me.

Seriously, go for a walk in my neighborhood in the summer, and you’re likely to pull off ten or twenty just while you’re walking. When you get back to the house, strip off your clothes and find a dozen more. They won’t have had time to embed, yet, so it’s not a big deal. You just get in the habit of routine regular tick checks.

Incidentally, I don’t find the standard advice of long pants and so forth very useful. Sure, fewer ticks will make it to skin that way, but some will, and they’ll be impossible to find without taking your pants off, which the neighbors tend to frown on. So the ticks get more time in which the crawl into someplace inaccessible and bite.

My advice?

  • Wear as little clothing as possible and then investigate every tickle and itch immediately–it might be a tick.
  • Do a thorough tick check and take a shower immediately upon returning home.
  • If you walk through a tick-hatch and get zillions of the tiny things on you, don’t panic. They can’t give you any diseases because they’re babies and don’t have any diseases yet. Remove them as best you can, stick them on a length of tape so they can’t escape and bite you again, then invest in a large supply of anti-itch cream.
  • Don’t bother learning to identify different species of tick. They can all give you SOMETHING, so just avoid getting bitten by any of them, and if you get sick, go see your doctor.
  • Look up the proper way to remove an embedded tick. NEVER put anything on the tick to make it let go, because that makes the tick vomit into you first and then you’ll definitely have whatever it was was carrying.

I’m not a doctor, this is just my personal approach to the problem.

The reason I bring all this up is to make clear I am personally familiar with the density of the tick population in the mid-Atlantic region of the United States, and I am equally aware that New England has fewer of them. Don’t get me wrong, New England does have ticks–Lyme disease is named after a town in Connecticut, after all–but the problem is simply not on the same scale.

That could be changing.

There are reasons other than climate change. Tick population dynamics and the epidemiology of tick-borne illnesses are complex, inter-related topics with a lot of variables. For example, modern land-use practices, which has converted vast areas of the United States into mosaics of tiny forested patches with houses mixed in, favors white-footed mice, which are the primary hosts of deer ticks–which transmit Lyme disease. The mice, after all, can use tiny habitat patches (and houses) just fine, but their predators can’t. No foxes, no bobcats, no black snakes, no owls, etc., all adds up to oodles of mice and oodles of ticks. So, some kinds of ticks would be a bigger problem than they used to be, even without climate change.

But yes, the climate is helping.

The story is a complex one, because not only do factors other than climate influence tick populations, but the response of ticks to climate is not straight-forward. For example, ticks of the same species may become active at different temperatures in different parts of their range. All these different variables working together mean that predictions of what climate change will do to different species of ticks can disagree with each other widely. But some increases in tick-borne illnesses have been traced to climate change–so we don’t know what’s going to happen in the future, but in the present, the ticks are worse in some places already because of climate.

For example, the two species responsible for infecting people I actually know, deer ticks and lone star ticks, are both expanding their range because of climate change. Both can transmit multiple illnesses. Lone stars, named for the white spot on their backs, can give you a (possibly life-long) allergy to red meat. Without giving away any individual’s medical history, I can say I’ve seen this one, it’s quite real. And lone stars are now in all New England states, though they didn’t used to be.

(By the way, the article that I’ve linked to above describes lone stars as “hunting in packs.” I’ve seen the behavior the article is describing, and the phrase is misleading. The ticks aren’t acting cooperatively, like mini-wolves. But, unlike deer ticks, they can and do walk towards potential hosts. In my neighborhood, population densities are often high enough that half a dozen might be near enough to notice the same person, and if you stay still for a few minutes they’ll converge on you. They’re easy to avoid or remove, but it’s creepy to watch.)

And then there’s the winter ticks, which have always been in New England, but warming climates are letting their numbers surge so high that they’re literally bleeding moose calves to death.

All of which is to say that if you head north in the summer, as we do, and you notice more ticks on yourself and your pets than you used to, as we have, it’s not your imagination.