The Climate in Emergency

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


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Boring Disasters

I am not, at present, bored, but if I were it would be understandable. I am sleepy (I got up too early this morning and have not been able to nap), I have a long and mostly uninspiring to-do list, and at present I have no human company to entertain me. Nothing much is going on today. Everything seems normal, albeit in a bland way.

And yet I’m sure I could find a dozen examples of climate disaster in the news, were I simply to use a search engine. Fires, floods, and famine, violence and disease, all of it. Species grind towards extinction. Things look dire–if one happens to look. Today, evidence of the spectacle all seems to lie elsewhere. Lucky me.

Some people may be under the mistaken impression that climate change is coming–or the even more mistaken impression that it isn’t. After all, the world does not yet look like a disaster movie, only parts of it do–and partial disasters have always occurred, that’s the inspiration for the movies.

But climate change is here, and this is what planet-wide disaster looks like. Floods, fires, famines, violence, disease, extinctions, AND ordinary afternoons where nothing much seems to be happening.

That’s worth remembering.

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The Cost of Fire

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

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

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

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

But I’m also thinking about politics.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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Covering Climate Coverage

CNN recently posted a striking summary of major wildfires and heat waves around the world, including the US, Canada, Sweden, Japan, and Greece. There is also major heat and drought in the British Isles, literally changing the color of these countries as seen from space. This is all not to mention recent, dangerous flooding in the US and Japan.

It’s been a rough July for a lot of people.

The standard line is always that while climate change causes more, and more severe, extreme weather, individual weather events cannot be attributed to climate change. I have reason to believe that’s not always true, as I have detailed several times on this blog. In recent years, though, I’ve become less interested in specific extreme weather events, and more interested in the pattern of extreme weather as a whole–while it certainly seems like our planet is getting more extreme weather than it used to, it’s also possible it’s just making the news more frequently. After all, some extreme weather has always been normal. Humans are notoriously bad at intuiting such things (many people insist we’re in a national crime wave when the opposite is true, for example), that’s why we invented statistics. So, how abnormal is our current spate of abnormal weather?

I’ve asked that question before, but was unable to find an answer.

Now, I have another question; irrespective of whether climate change is behind this particular difficult July, are major news outlets covering this as a climate story?

Reviewing the News

A few weeks ago, Media Matters published a study showing that broadcast media coverage of heat waves at the end of June and the beginning of July rarely mentioned climate change–CBS had the one lone exception for the period–and that the mainstream media generally under-cover climate change.

I’ve just done my own quick study, covering the month of July, and including all weather-related disasters (not just heat waves), and three newspapers, Accuweather, and The Weather Channel, as well as broadcast media sites–and in the case of the latter, in most cases I’m looking at articles posted on their websites, not stories that aired. Prior searches suggest that media outlets may be slightly more willing to cover climate on their websites than on air, so if anything my survey overestimates what was aired.

For each of several mainstream sources where Americans might get climate-related news, I searched online for the name of the organization and “climate change July 2018.” I ignored articles about climate politics and anything posted before July 1st of this year. I looked specifically for articles that discussed current events in weather in the context of climate change.

CNN

CNN post an excellent article putting this summer’s extreme weather in context and including a copy of an important graphic I’ve seen elsewhere explaining how slight changes in average temperatures translate to major increases in extreme heat.

FOX News

Nothing about the weather and climate change, but their site did run an AP story on Pope Francis’ call for climate action. In June there were several other solid AP articles on climate issues.

NBC News/MSNBC

Nothing, although there were a few articles on climate change earlier in the year.

ABC

Nothing from the American Broadcast Company. The Australian Broadcast Company is doing some interesting things, though.

CBS

The website of a local CBS affiliate (CBS8) ran a USA Today story on a recent study linking increasing suicide rates to climate change. The main CBS website ran an AP story on melting glaciers.

PBS

PBS  Newshour summarized the recent heat waves–but didn’t mention flooding–and briefly mentioned that scientists connect the heat to climate change. There was also a story on the social and economic impact of climate change in Afghanistan. These were on-air pieces, not web-only articles. WNET, New York’s PBS station, has produced a series on climate change, airing through July, although none of the topics appear to address the context of current weather.

BBC

BBC’s website has posted several climate-related stories this month, but none directly addressed current extreme weather as an aspect of climate change.

The Weather Channel

You’d think so, but nope. There were some climate-related articles earlier in the year, though.

Accuweather

Nope, not either. There are several stories about climate topics, but none about the context of July’s weather. There is a video about the heat wave listed under the “Climate Change” heading, but it doesn’t mention climate change.

NPR

NPR has a series on climate change that has been airing through July, but does not address the context of July’s weather. Neither do the several other climate-related stories on the site.

The New York Times

The New York Times has published several interesting climate-related articles, but none focus on contextualizing the current weather–at least one article on current natural disasters did briefly acknowledge the role of climate change, though.

The Washington Post

The Washington Post published an editorial calling for workplace protections from heat in light of climate change, though it did not mention current weather events.

USA TODAY

USA TODAY has an excellent article on climate change in Pakistan, and an article about a study showing that humans have definitely made summers hotter. And then there was its aforementioned piece on suicide rates and an article with some very bad climate news. But nothing contextualizing the weather. Their article summarizing recent floods and fires and droughts does not mention climate change.

Thin Coverage

Basically, unless you’re watching CNN (and this is assuming that CNN broadcast something similar to its article–it might not have), you will have missed the big story about climate this July so far, unless you connect the dots yourself, or go beyond the mainstream media. PBS and the New York Times each acknowledged the connection between current disaster and climate change, but both mentions were easy to miss. PBS used language distancing itself even then, quoting unnamed scientists, rather than simply reporting the scientific fact (if they treated meteorology that way, they’d say “scientists claim that much of the Earth was unusually got this week.”)

The big question–whether the extreme weather this July has been unusual, or just run-of-the-mill for a variable planet–was nowhere addressed. Nowhere.

I’m struck by a couple of things. First, PBS and NPR are not outliers on this particular question. Neither is Fox News. Though these organizations may have real editorial differences, neither lived up to stereotype this time. The reluctance to cover climate seems simply to be general.

Second, and perhaps more important, many of these organizations DID cover other climate-related stories well this month–but only in ways that framed the problem as something that happens in another place or another time or another context. Nobody addressed what should be the obvious question; is what’s happening this week, to me (or any of their target audience) part of the climate change story?

Is it any wonder the climate sanity movement has stalled when no one acknowledges that the problem is personal?


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Let’s Get Personal

The news is full of record-breaking heat-waves, torrential rains, mandatory evacuations because of wildfire, and the remnants of Hurricane Beryl just hit Dominica–which wouldn’t be so bad, since the storm had weakened considerably, except a lot of people there are still living in houses without real roofs since Hurricane Maria last year. All pretty normal, these days. But instead of the usual big-picture posts I usually make on these subjects (such as this one and this one and this one), I’d like to talk for a bit about someone I actually know.

I haven’t asked his permission to write about this, so I’ll keep his identity strictly under wraps–but he’s a real person, not  composite or a hypothetical character.

He’s a farmer. He has a very large farm which he typically puts into corn and soybeans, and then a cover crop in the winter. The corn and soybeans mostly become animal feed. He participates in a number of conservation programs, though he does not use organic methods. He usually makes a pretty good living for himself.

This year will likely be an exception.

In the spring, he got his corn planted, but then it all washed away in a series of torrential rains. So, he re-planted his corn, and started planting his soybeans. Then a serious drought developed and his crops are dying all over again. And, because of a technicality, much of what he has lost is not going to be eligible for crop insurance. Planting costs money and takes time (a lot of time–it’s a big farm), but he can’t not plant, despite expecting a total loss now on all his crops, because otherwise he won’t be eligible for the cover crop program. So he expects to lose money this year, and there’s not a whole lot he can do about it.

Since he normally makes a good living, one bad year is not going to break him. He’ll be ok. But the situation is a giant headache, and of course there is always the risk that multiple forms of bad luck could happen at once. He’s vulnerable right now, and that sort of vulnerability is never fun.

The spring floods were pretty definitely climate change-related, but otherwise I have no idea if this year has been a statistical anomaly relative to the historical average for his region. And I don’t intend to try to figure that out because it’s not my point.

My point is that, regardless of cause, this is what the economic repercussions of frequent extreme weather looks like–one problem following on another before you’ve quite caught up. And climate change does mean that years like this can be expected to happen more frequently. How many bust years can one farmer handle in a row? I don’t know.

One farmer having a bad year is a problem for his (or her) family and friends, but neither floods nor droughts happen to just one person at a time. Whole regions of increased crop failure stresses the crop insurance system and the food distribution system. In this case, we might see the price of chicken go up, since the birds have less available feed this year. The United States is wealthy enough that we can absorb the economic cost collectively, and those of us who are not friends with farmers will likely not notice the difference, but the cost is still real.

Given enough such costs, often enough, our absorptive capacity will eventually be compromised.

This is climate change.

 


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Think of the Children

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

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

But where is the outcry about climate change?

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

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

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

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


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Ellicott City

Ellicott City, Maryland flooded again, about a week and a half ago (May 27th). We are not talking about a little water in the parking lots, here—for those who haven’t seen the coverage, the streets became rapids. I’ve seen video of cars flowing along in the water, their windshield wipers beating back and forth forlornly. I keep thinking about the people in those cars. The first floors of the buildings are completely gutted. At least one man has died.

The river crested at a record 23.6 feet after rising almost 18 feet in just two hours.

What makes the flood especially upsetting for locals is that a similarly catastrophic flood all but destroyed the town only two years ago. The community was just getting itself together again, and now they have to start over again.

Since 1768, Ellicott City has flooded 15 times. Not all of the floods have been catastrophic, but the town does get wet often. It’s not just bad luck; Ellicott is an old mill town, so of course it sits in a place with plenty of water power. Three streams converge here and flow into the Patapsco River, bringing all the runoff from a large, bowl-shaped valley straight through town.

But while Ellicott City has always been flood-prone, but they haven’t always been the same kind of flood. Traditionally, the problem was the rise of the Patapsco, meaning that the floodwater would rise up into the community. Now, the smaller streams also jump their banks, which is why recent floods have roared down through the town, turning the streets into rapids.

What’s different?

Development over recent decades has increased the area of impermeable surface in the watershed dramatically, making flooding much more likely. Also, of course, there’s climate change.

As readers may know, climate change in general increases the chance of extreme weather. Rain storms are both less frequent and more intense, so that areas with no net change in rainfall get both more droughts and more floods. And in the Northeast of the United States, or, by some measures, the whole eastern part of the country, rain intensity is increasing faster than anywhere else in the country. So, yes, repeat catastrophes such as Ellicott City has suffered are part of the new normal.

(Note that we’re talking about likelihood, not possibility: for the same location to get two 1000-year floods back-to-back, as Ellicott City has, wouldn’t have been impossible under the old climate regime, because “1000-year flood” doesn’t mean once per 1000 years, but rather a one-in-1000 chance of occurrence in any year. It’s unlikely, but entirely possible, to have several in a row. The issue is whether these really were 1000-year floods; climate change and development together may have changed the odds.)

In fact, recent flooding in Maryland (an identical weather pattern developed over Frederick two weeks earlier) may have a more direct connection to warming temperatures, although this information comes from an article arguing almost the opposite point. Apparently, we have been “stuck in a late July weather pattern, one in which the jet stream has built a ridge of high pressure over the Mid-Atlantic.” But because this was May and early June, the ocean waters are still cool. The combination sends unusually wet weather into Maryland. So, while the author was quite correct in describing all of this as a local weather event, something that could occur by bad luck regardless of climate change, it is a weather event caused by the atmosphere behaving as though July had come two months early—hotter, in other words.

Yes, weather is weather and climate is climate, and it’s worth bearing the difference in mind, but when unseasonably warm weather causes record-breaking storms, it seems disingenuous to say global warming is not at fault.

But disaster is never just about climate. Ellicott City is far from being the only flood-prone area in Maryland, but most flood zones aren’t aren’t also the busy centers of quaint historic districts. So putting a city in harm’s way, and then exacerbating the harm through risky development, is definitely part of the picture.

The other major issue is that Ellicott City has been studying its flood risk and fielding proposals for mitigation since the 1970’s. Not much has been done. One proposal offered after a flood in 2011 was actually rejected by town leaders as too expensive. They changed their mind after the 2016 flood, but the work hadn’t been completed yet before the place flooded again. This historical failure to act is having serious political consequences, now.

“Natural disasters” are always the result of a combination of extreme weather (or extreme geology) and human responses to those events. The scale of the tragedy is always either compounded or mitigated by the economic wherewithal of the affected people and by political decisions about acceptable risk, acceptable loss, and how much money certain people’s lives and livelihoods are worth.

And now, climate change itself is a result of decisions, both large and small, about who or what we are going to treat as important.


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Childhood

Here I am, visiting my mother, who still lives in the house we moved to when I was two, spending time with my sister’s kids, and I am about to go watch A Wrinkle in Time, a movie made from the first real chapter book I ever read entirely by myself. I was nine years old. I have not stopped reading since.

It’s easy to think about children and climate change and be terrified. I don’t know what my sister’s kids are going to have to deal with, but it’s likely to include a lot of things that aren’t good. But at the moment I’d rather approach the subject from the angle of memory. It’s my own childhood I’m thinking of today.

I was born in 1977, meaning that my first winter included the famous Blizzard of ’78. Later, when I noticed winters getting less snowy, my parents pointed out that I’d been biased by an unusually snowy first experience. They may have been right. Climate change does not necessarily mean less snow–often, it means more of the white stuff, actually, as long as winter temps stay below the freezing point. Climate change brings floods, and some floods happen to be white and fluffy, is all. But yes, I was thinking about the issue. I knew.

I remember the moment I learned about climate change. I don’t know why I remember–I learned about a lot of things as a child, without remembering the actual lesson, but that one stuck out. My Dad and I were standing outside, on the edge of our parking lot, near where the grass began and the yard went back and back. Being a scholarly sort, my Dad was always reading things and passing on the ideas that interested him. A group of scientists had made a chicken embryo grow teeth by turning on the latent dinosaur DNA still in the bird genome. Bird feathers contain no blue pigment; feathers that appear blue have microscopic structures that bend light. Ginkgos are the only trees that make sperm that swim. And, on that one day, he said the planet is getting warmer because of pollution, and in about ten years, the difference is going to start getting noticeable. If it gets warm enough, the ice at the poles will melt and the sea level will rise. If ALL of it melted,our house would be under water and we’d have to come visit it in a boat, with SCUBA gear. He seemed to like that idea, visiting the house in a boat. I guess the vividness of the example appealed to him as a writer.

I understood the boat thing would not likely happen–melting would take time, more time than individual human beings have. But I also understood that the world that I knew would change and that I would watch some of the changes. “When I grow up,” I remember thinking, “I’m going to move to the North Pole, so I can still have winter.”

I was six, I think. Somewhere in there. That would make it around 1984.

Growing up, I noticed that winter seemed to be getting warmer, a kind of “bottoming out,” where fall and spring would seem normal, but the cold stretch in the middle wasn’t reliable anymore. I have no idea if that was even a real local pattern, not my imagination, and it probably wasn’t related to climate change because signal can’t be separated from noise with as few data as my experience gave me. But I thought I was seeing it, and it scared me. I interpreted the heat waves of 1998 as climate change, too, but there I’m on somewhat firmer ground, as that was a particularly fierce El Niño, and no one yet knows the connection between El Niños and climate change. There could be a connection. But while I wasn’t really able to see the signs myself, the global climate was changing.

The last May whose temperature fell below the 20th-century average occurred before I was born, but I lived through the last time we had any month below average–it was a February, and I was seven. I don’t expect to ever have another. The sea level rose globally, a subtle thing, but enough to make a difference in coastal floods–it adds up to just over two and a half inches since my birth. Precipitation in the Northeast, my region, has increased by 8% since 1991, relative to the first half of the 20th century, though it’s hard to say how much of that is climate change-related. I wonder how much that has to do with the local increase in mold and mildew. When I was a kid, summers were humid, yes, but in the last ten years or so, my mother has had to use a dehumidifier, not simply for personal comfort, but to prevent the walls from molding. That was never necessary before.

Personal observation is suspect, relative to trends–that why we invented statistics, because human beings naturally look for trends, but most of the ones we find unaided are imaginary. I know climate change is happening, not because I’ve seen it, but because researchers whose methods I trust, and to some extent understand, have measured it. But I’ve lived it. I’m forty years old. Climatologists look for changes over large blocks of time, and the minimum-sized block is 30 years. That I live in a different climate than I did that day my Dad and I spoke can now be confirmed by science.

I’m also old enough that my generation is fast becoming another generation that didn’t do anything about climate change. The future is becoming the past. It’s time to treat this as the emergency it is and act with the urgency of a person whose hair is on fire.