The Climate in Emergency

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


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A Break for Puffins

“How’ve you been liking the hot weather?”

I turn around and spot the man sitting on the rock at the edge of the parking lot. He works at the restaurant across the way and he comes here to take his smoke breaks. We say hi to each other every time he does. He’s one of those strangers who’s almost a friend.

“I don’t like it, much,” I say, of the weather. I’ve been either under- or over-dressed all day.

“Yeah, it’s funny,” he says, “yesterday it was warm in Bar Harbor, but cold here. Today, it’s hot here, but it’ll be cold in Bar Harbor.”

Bar Harbor, I should add, is not that far away, yet he could be right. I’ve known it to rain in town but stay dry just three miles away.

“You know, I’ve heard the Gulf of Maine is 11 degrees warmer this year than normal?”

“Yeah, I know,” he tells me.

“It’ll be a bad year for puffins,” I add.

“Oh?”

“Yeah, when the warm water comes in, so do warm-water fish, which are a little bigger and rounder. The adult puffins can catch the warm-water fish just fine, but the chicks can’t swallow them. So, in years when warm-water fish species predominate in the Gulf, every puffin chick in Maine starves to death.”

“That’s really sad.”

“Yeah, it is.”

“That’s really sad.” He seems to really feel for these puffin chicks. “But there’s nothing anyone can do about it.”

“Well, stop global warming.”

“Yeah, but we can’t do that,” he protests.

“Yes, we can,” I counter. “Not immediately, because of atmospheric lag, but you know, nothing is so bad that it can’t get worse? By the same token, nothing is so bad that we can’t keep it from getting worse.”

“Yeah. I like puffins. I have paintings of puffins hanging in my bathroom. I tell people, these are real birds. They’re not made-up! I’ve only ever seen a couple of them.”

“I’ve never seen even one,” I admit. “Where did you see them?”

“It was last year. They took us on a cruise—among the islands.”

“Neat.”

“Yeah. You know, I’ve seen another Maine bird? I can’t remember what it’s called, but I can remember the sound it made, at night, in the water….It sounded like a frog, you know—a, a, bullfrog? Where I’m from, we have another frog that makes weird sounds, it’s called something else. It sounded like a frog, but my friend said, no, that’s a bird.”

“Can you imitate the sound?”

“No, but I can hear it in my head. I saw it, and it was a bird. It was dark, and sort of duck-like….”

“A loon?”

“Yes! That’s it! A loon!”

“They winter with us, in Maryland,”I told him. “They’re here in the summer and with us for the winter. They do make lots of sounds.”

“Cool! Well, I gotta go. It’s been nice talking to you.”

“Nice talking to you,” I tell him, and mean it, and I watch him head back into the restaurant through the back door.

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I Have a Dream

Some days ago, I heard someone on NPR (I forget which program) assert that a central weakness of the environmental movement is its lack of tangible vision. Martin Luther King, Jr., this radio person reminded listeners, invited us to imagine, to anticipate, black children and white children joining hands in sister-and brotherhood. The image is specific, personal, and easy to see as real.

In contrast what sort of vision is “take care of the Earth”? What does that even mean? No one, this commentator said, is giving us a goal we can really grasp.

I beg to differ, because here, as tangible as you like, is my dream.

(Before I get into the poetic part, I should say I’m talking about a future in which fossil fuel use has ended, largely through a dramatic reduction in our collective energy use, plus the use of alternative energy sources. The human population has shrunk dramatically through peaceful attrition, allowing widespread reforestation and a reduction of our collective use of all resources. Most of the reduction of consumption involved the wealthiest socioeconomic groups, while the least-wealthy have become less impoverished. Environmental regulations and ethics are robust, and conservation and restoration are prioritized at all levels of both public and private activity. MLK didn’t need to provide such a preface, because everybody in his audience knew what he meant.)

Close your eyes and open them in the future, where we’re all going. I dream of what you experience as you move around.

The climate of your childhood is with you still, and you will keep that familiar climate as you grow old. If it snowed on Christmas when you were little, it will snow on Christmas again. If you chased lightening bugs through the cool of a summer evening, the Junes of your great-grandchildren will have that same purple, shining cool.

When the weather grows extreme—and it will, on occasion—you may rest assured that things will return to normal afterward. If a city has stood on a seaside plain for a thousand years, you may expect it to stand for a thousand more. If a farm has belonged to your family for seven generations, know that rising seas will not sow your fields with salt, nor will warming skies bake your soils dry. The same carefully husbanded heirlooms will grow for your progeny for seven generations more.

The air smells good—everywhere. The water tastes clean in all places. All rivers and ponds and beaches in the world are safe for swimming, and if you fish, you may eat what you catch without fear.

And you will catch fish, you will fish and hunt and gather fruit and honey, if you please, for the table of the Earth will groan with permanent Thanksgiving, its bounty not literally infinite but so long as you receive with gratitude, humility, and care, it might as well be. You will have enough. All of you will.

Some of you may be poor, but your poverty will be a paucity of luxuries, not a lack of necessities. You will never worry about access to food or water or medicine. The halls of justice and of government will never be closed to you and the gates of academe will never be barred. No matter your color or your ancestry, your creed or ability, your risk of cancer or poisoning or want will never be greater than for your wealthier fellows, and that risk will be low and getting lower all the time.

Wealthy or poor, young or old, you will not have to travel long distances or endure expense and hardship in order to experience beautiful places and the company of fantastic, wild animals, for all places are beautiful and all lands and waters are rich with wildness. Should you want to travel, you will need no permit to seek the solitude of pathless places, for the forests and the prairies and the deserts will gape huge with possibility, and all places, both distant and urban, will be quiet enough to reveal the singing of a multitude of birds. The only sounds humans add to the landscape will be those that can improve on silence, and we will improve on silence often with our music and our words.

You might choose not to travel far, for transportation will never be both cheap and fast again—though either alone remains a possibility. What that limitation means for you is that the friends of your childhood will be the village of your parenting and the tribe of your old age. And yet no parochialism will limit you, no minority identity will isolate you, for you will reach across distances with radio, with microwave transmission, and with the internet. This world of yours is primitive in the best way, but in no other way could it be called so. Your technology keeps your future on its toes.

In this world of slow, deliberate movement, of precious, careful cargo, the products of your hands will be art, and the tools of your trade will be art, and the objects of your daily life will also be art, and nothing you make or buy or sell will be made to be thrown away. Your hands will be powerful and your mind strong, for should a tyrant arise among you the scope of the king’s jurisdiction or the industry boss’s beat will never reach farther or faster than your capacity to organize. You and your colleagues and neighbors shall have the world, for to the mighty you will be the world, no outsources will be economic, no offshoring will be available, and you will negotiate and win.

You will set your table with local fare in season, but neither will you fear the fortunes of the weather, for if the crops fail, or if the harvest already home is lost, help will come with the speed of clean electricity, the power of biodiesel, the focused intelligence of the latest, most complex computers possible. Your doctors will work wonders with medicines as yet undiscovered and surgical techniques as yet unsuspected. New organs will grow in nutrient baths, bones will be printed to order, new nerves will knit together across old scars and the lame will walk and the halt shall dance.

For the losses imposed by limitation shall be only that which you are happy to lose anyway, the ugly, the cheap, the slapdash. What is important to you to keep, you will keep and improve upon a thousand times. And in the opening created by that limitation shall grow the unlimited, and in the space after the ending of the un-checked, you shall have the endless. You gave given up the dross and slag and kept the treasure. Because you have let go your grasping after chaff, the good wheat is yours, forever.

There is no wound that cannot eventually heal. There is no moment that is not better than more dire moments as an opportunity to turn the world around.

I have a dream today.


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The Things That Work

Well, Hawaii is exploding, the Southeast is flooding, parts of the Northeast may have been hit by tornadoes, there was softball-size hail breaking windshields somewhere or other, and I can’t get a decent internet connection today so I can’t research and write to you about any of it.

Why not? Well, my home connection is slow right now and wind and rain prevented my heading into town. Nothing dramatic, merely annoying.

I doubt Hawaiian volcanism has anything to do with climate change, but as to the rest of it, if you’re under any of this craziness, ask yourself when was the last time it rained that wasn’t a flood or a tornado or something of the kind? When I was a kid, we used to have normal rains sometimes. Really, we did.

But, like I said, I can’t research anything at the moment. So instead I’m going to tell you about raking.

At the campground where we’re volunteering, most people who need to go from one end of the campground to another drive. In fairness, it’s a pretty big campground, so walking it can take a while. Also, staff often have things to carry, such as ladders, trash bins, or firewood, that would be difficult or impossible to carry by hand. But mostly I think the driving happens because it’s just what you do. It’s a collective habit.

It’s not my habit, but then again I make a point of doing things my way, and I can do that because I am a volunteer. I have more leeway than some.

But today some of us were raking out sites and I tried to talk the others into walking it, in order to avoid using the gas.

There was reluctance. The main concern was what if some of us were needed elsewhere quickly? I suggested biking. That wouldn’t be good enough in some circumstances, but no one of us was on call for anything more serious than possibly having to go to the office and talk with some volunteers. But you can’t bike with a rake. Ok, well the people who aren’t on call can walk and carry the rakes for the people who are on call, who will ride bicycles. In the end, we just walked it and did our raking and everything was fine.

And this is the way it works.

You might have a goal that seems unpleasant or impossible—get to work without driving, cut your electricity bill in half, quit eating beef (a major greenhouse gas emitter), switch to eating all-local food. Whatever it is, it sounds good, but if only you could, right?

Ok, break down the objections. Why can’t this work? What is the hold-up? Be specific.

Now, address each concern. Maybe you work too far away, maybe you heat with electricity and its cold out, maybe you really like beef, whatever it is. The thing about problems is they have solutions. Assume there is a solution and find it or create it. Brain-storm, plot, plan, network, follow up on leads, find the solution. And then you can accomplish your goal.

Do all problems really have viable solutions? Probably not, but you’ll be surprised by how many do if you just make up your mind to look. The key is don’t just say “that’s impossible/unpleasant/impractical” and leave it there.

The same process, of breaking down reluctance into a series of discrete problems, then looking for solutions, can work on a community-wide scale, too. Want a bike trail? A farmer’s market? Curbside recycling? A safe place for kids to play? Figure out why you can’t do it, and then figure out how you can.

Might work on the national scale, too.


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Looking for–and Not Finding–Marches

If the planned Second Science March occurred, it did so utterly without fanfare.

I ended up not going, for various logistical reasons. I have a few friends who mentioned making the same decision for similar reasons. I don’t know anybody who went. I saw no mention of it on the news. I have just now done an internet search for “science march,” and the top page of results were all either sites planning the march or commenting on last year’s march. ZERO reporting on this year’s march.

Did it occur? Did anybody show up? Like the tree falling unheard in the forest, a march nobody noticed may indeed make a sound, but if nobody notices it might as well be silent because nobody cares.

In the process of looking for marches two weeks ago, I found a number of upcoming events, but I also learned that the organizers of the Second Science March were deliberately down-playing the march itself, and instead putting their focus on activism and advocacy. So, there was a reason why nobody heard about the march in time to make arrangements to go, and nobody reported on the marches when they happened–the organizers wanted it that way. I do not understand this strategy. Why expend money and effort planning a march, but then doom it to fail?

Do these people even want to succeed?

Last year’s Science March was a great deal of fun. I was disappointed not to be able to do it again. I’m also very concerned that climate issues (a subset of the issues addressed by the Science March) are falling out of the media again. For a while, there, news shows were starting to take the issue seriously, since it was obvious–from the marches–that people care. Now? Not so much.

It’s hard to care about something if nobody acts like it matters. It’s hard to know what others care about it if you never hear from them. If climate change does not make the news, the rest of us are left feeling very alone.

It’s hard to believe the people who benefit from climate denial are unaware of this.

 

I must apologize for not posting last week. There was a family emergency–now resolved–that made everything difficult.


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Looking for Marches

I admit I got spoiled.

For a while, there, information about political demonstrations simply came to be on Facebook. Friends posted announcements, as did groups I had signed up for. All I had to do was decide which marches I wanted to go on. Last year sometime, the flow of information stopped. I don’t know why it stopped, and I wasn’t clearly aware that it had stopped at the time. It was like the beginning of a drought, when you slowly, belatedly realize that it’s really been a long time now since it rained.

As I’ve mentioned, I was also badly distracted by a protracted family emergency. I had no emotional energy left over for political engagement, however necessary or noble, let alone for research into how to politically engage. So I took much longer to respond to the situation than I might have–and when I did respond I did so slowly, vaguely, without commitment.

I posted comments to various groups–has anyone heard about any marches or rallies coming up for the next few months? No one responded. Months went by. I asked again. I put off checking back on my messages for months. I saw major demonstrations on the news that I had known nothing about.

I have more energy now. I’m sleeping better. I’m more awake. And it suddenly occurred to me this week that  this is not a case of just vaguely not hearing much news lately. Facebook, as we all probably know by now, is not a passive medium, like some online equivalent of a community cork board. Instead, the service actively prioritizes what we see and what we don’t based on an ever-changing and somewhat mysterious algorithm. When I don’t see messages from one or another friend but my husband does see those messages, or the other way around, I know the algorithm is involved. When a message of mine seems to disappear down a dark well, or, alternatively, suddenly gets attention from everybody, I know the algorithm is likely involved. At long last, the conclusion became inescapable:

Facebook’s algorithm must no longer favor the kind of political information I want to see.

The idea feels creepy, Orwellian, controlling. It isn’t, necessarily. It’s possible Facebook is, in fact, trying to impede the flow of propaganda and trollwork and my marches and petitions are collateral damage. It’s also possible that fewer of my friends have been “liking” these posts, perhaps being tired of politics, so the algorithm isn’t showing them as widely. But regardless of why, it’s time to be more proactive.

So, I spent today looking around online and found a number of interesting events–a Science March later this week, a youth-led climate march in June, and another climate rally in September. I posted them here on my page. I also posted several civil-rights-related events, a tax protest, and an anti-gun violence event. While this site is focused on climate change only, I also post information on other issues that may interest visitors. Among other reasons, if I expect devotees of other issues to show up for my favorite cause, I’d better show up for theirs.

There is a danger, here. I was talking to my friend, Zeke, last night, and he expressed concern, not for the first time, with the political and philosophical bubbles we tend to confine ourselves within. He is familiar with the fact that politically conservative hunters do a lot of environmental conservation work, yet are often socially excluded from the politically liberal environmental movement. That’s bad for the planet because it turns potential allies against each other. The only way to build effective coalitions is to form alliances with people we don’t completely agree with. That gets difficult when the people who do agree with each other spend a lot of their time at political rallies shouting about their common passions and their shared antipathy to everything else.

It’s true that I don’t post events for all issues on my site–I wouldn’t post a clearly racist demonstration for example, although some racists may be conservationists. It’s a line that has to be drawn somewhere, clearly, but where?

I’m not sure frankly.

Finding the information wasn’t easy. My second query to Facebook groups yielded surprisingly little. Visits to the websites of the organizations that often sponsor marches yielded nothing, either. The pages were poorly organized and out of date, a hodge-podge of notices and calls-to-action for events and campaigns over the past three years.

Finally I resorted to internet searches for “climate protest 2018” and “climate demonstration 2018.” I tried “climate march” first, but that tended to yield climate-related events in March. But I got enough that I likely have a full picture, at least for Washington DC.

The way I see it, it’s time to revert to a variation of old-fashioned social networking–I look up the information I want and then share it–individually, by email, PM, or tagging people–with people I think may be interested. Other people do the same. Pass it on.

 


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How Quickly Can We Cool?

I could write about lots of horrible things going on in the news this week. Unfortunately, I suspect there will be plenty of horrible news item to write about next week. This week I want to write about global cooling instead.

I’m working on a book set after the end of the age of fossil fuel, which means I need to understand how the climate responds to a falling carbon dioxide level. Obviously, average temperatures would fall, but how quickly? Warming has a lag time of several decades, because it takes time for heat to build up. Logically, cooling should be much faster. In bed, add an extra blanket and you won’t warm up for a few minutes, but kick your blankets off and you’ll cool down right away. But faster and instant are not the same thing, so how long would global cooling take? Since I need to read up on the issue anyway, I figured I’d share my results with you.

My fictional scenario is that a pandemic triggers the end of civilization, the total end of fossil fuel use, and a 90% reduction of the human population. It’s a complex and complicated scenario, because while most carbon dioxide emissions end, some types of methane emissions, such as leaking well-heads or outgassing landfills, would continue or even increase–and methane is a more powerful greenhouse gas than CO2 is. Would a net increase or decrease in climate-forcing power result? A smaller human population would allow widespread reforestation, but the warming that has already occurred would continue to cause forest dieback in some areas. Would there be a net increase or decrease in forest biomass?

Also, the planet would continue adjusting to the greenhouse gas and the heat that is already present. If greenhouse gas levels stabilized where they are now, temperatures would continue to rise for several decades. And even if the planetary temperature stabilized where it is now anyway, glaciers and permafrost would continue to melt. Melting permafrost, remember, releases methane, so the greenhouse gas concentration might continue to rise. Potential feedback loops abound.

I would love to stick all these variables into some giant computer and run a full simulation, but I don’t have that option. The best I can reasonably hope for is a definitive answer to just one question; assuming the greenhouse gas levels do fall, how long until temperatures start falling also?

Unfortunately, since the chance of my scenario occurring any time soon is very small, nobody seems to be studying what a falling greenhouse gas level would look like.

Fortunately, a version of my scenario did happen about five hundred years ago, when diseases killed off 90% of the population of the Americas, allowing widespread reforestation and causing the second, deeper phase of the Little Ice Age. So, how fast did that happen?

According to one estimate, the reforestation of the Americas could have removed anywhere from two to 17 billion tons of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. That’s somewhere between 10 and 50% of the CO2 reduction recorded in ice core samples from Antarctica, so something else was going on also. There are various possibilities. But carbon dioxide levels do tend to track known European and Asian pandemics, which also allowed reforestation. The first, less severe phase of the Little Ice Age, may have been, in part, related to reforestation after the Black Death.

So, let’s look at the timeline–since researchers at Stanford University must think the timing of the second phase of the cold period is consistent with it being influenced by the American reforestation. Does the timeline suggest a lag exists?

The second phase of the Little Ice Age began around 1600 and lasted until around 1800. The drop in carbon dioxide, as recorded by Antarctic ice cores, that includes the result of American reforestation began in 1525 and lasted until the 1600s. The first smallpox pandemic in what is now Mexico began in 1519. I can’t confirm that was the first of the American contact pandemics, but Europeans handn’t set foot on the mainland much before that, so it must be close to the beginning.

So,

1519: people in the Americas start dying of exotic diseases to which they have no natural immunity.

1525: global carbon dioxide levels dropped by six to 10 parts per million and stayed that way for over 75 years.

1600: temperatures drop globally, though the drop may be most severe in the northern hemisphere and stays that way for two hundred years.

There is a lot about the Little Ice Age that is debatable–why is started, why it stopped, how severe it was, all of that. That significant reforestation could follow the beginning of the pandemic by only six years itself seems questionable. However, regardless of why the carbon dioxide drop occurred, it was followed by a drop in temperature 75 years later. Carbon dioxide levels rose again shortly thereafter. Temperatures rose again about 100 years after carbon dioxide levels–that delay on warming is consistent with the principle of atmospheric lag.

Richard Nevle and his colleagues at Stanford believe that a 75 year delay in cooling is not too much for a causal relationship to exist. So there is a significant lag on cooling also.

In our modern situation, carbon re-sequestration is unlikely to be rapid–even in the best case scenario, reforestation cannot absorb more than a fraction of what burning fossil fuel released. The rest must be accomplished by peat accumulation and slow absorption by ocean water. And whatever drop in carbon levels occurs, whenever it occurs, a human lifetime could pass before the temperature follows.

We’ve got to get started.

 


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For Our Lives

Many years ago, I was on a crew doing fuels reduction cutting in the urban-wilderness interface. In plain English, that means there were about ten of us who would go to neighborhoods that butted up against forests, and we’d thin out the trees using chainsaws and also cut away dead branches near the ground. This was in Arizona, in an area that was once grassy, with few, well-spaced trees, but over-grazing and then fire suppression allowed trees to grow more densely than they had previously. As a result, that part of Arizona, which used to have frequent, low-intensity grass fires, now has rare but very dangerous and damaging forest fires. The idea is that by thinning out the trees and then doing controlled burns, the more dangerous fires can be prevented. It seems to work, and of course they prioritize tracts of land near houses and such.

Anyway, one of the men on my crew–I forget his name, now–was beautiful. I don’t mean I was especially attracted to him (though I can see how others might be), I mean that he looked good in a way more common among women, although he was not at all feminine in affect. He had a very thin build and long, thick, black hair. And one day he returned to headquarters with a story.

He had been busy cutting, when a woman came out of her nearby house, saw him, and shouted “GIRL POWER!!!”

Obviously, from a distance, and while wearing several layers of protective equipment, he had looked to her like a woman running a chainsaw. She was delighted and impressed. Of course, there WERE several women running chainsaws in the vicinity, but none were in her field of vision, only him.

Unable to have a real conversation under the circumstances, the man simply pumped his fist. Yes, girl power, women on chainsaws! Yee-haw!

“I didn’t want to disagree,” he later explained.

Watching teenagers taking to the streets for gun control, I have a very similar reaction. As with that man busy running a noisy and dangerous chainsaw, I find my response largely limited by circumstance to a binary choice between approval and disapproval. And I don’t want to disagree–schools should be safe places, and young people should be supported in political involvement. And yet these people are missing something.

As I’ve covered elsewhere in this blog, climate change is a greater threat to these kids’ future than school shootings are, and the fossil fuel industry is a greater threat to American democracy than the gun lobby is, so why aren’t we taking to the streets to do something about it? Why is the youth movement rising in one place but not the other?

Both could happen at once, of course, it’s just that they aren’t, and the more I see the power of the gun safety movement, the more mystified I am that environmentalists seem to be twiddling their thumbs. Massive protest can still accomplish something, so what is the hold-up? I am, in fact, beginning to wonder if social media is being used deliberately to interfere with action on climate change.

Of course, it may just be that climate change, with its complex patterns of varying risk, just doesn’t seem as real, as important, as a spray of bullets.

Fortunately, the party of the NRA happens to also be the party of climate deniers, so if the March for Our Lives sweeps gun advocates out of office, they could switch the balance of power on climate, too. Unfortunately, that’s not a forgone conclusion.

As I’ve explained here before, a majority of Americans understand climate change is real and want something done about it, but few consider silence on the issue a deal-breaker for  candidate. But for the minority of climate skeptics and deniers, climate action is a deal-breaker.  The political calculus is clear; ignore climate change, take a stand on a couple of other liberal issues, and win. That is why we’ve been treading water on the issue for a generation while the world begins to burn.

Getting committed climate deniers out of office is not necessarily the same thing as getting climate activists in. We need candidates who are committed to climate action for its own sake, not for political reasons. How do we find them, especially given that they might not campaign on the issue?

Perhaps getting behind the rising young people is one half of a winning strategy for climate–and the other half is getting behind candidates of color. White Americans lag behind other groups in taking climate seriously, so, statistically speaking, black and brown lawmakers are more likely to be climate sane than white lawmakers who campaign on similar platforms. And there are all sorts of reasons to support candidates of color anyway.

If environmentalists will not take to the streets, perhaps we can make some progress by getting behind those who will.