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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Climate Change and Cancer

Cancer has been on my mind rather more than I’d like, so this week it occurred to me to check out the links between climate change and cancer. I figured there probably would be some. Horsemen of the Apocalypse tend to roam in packs.

It didn’t take me long online to find out that yes, there are links. There’s even a whole chapter on the subject in a report published by the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences. Except where otherwise noted, this information in this article comes from that chapter.

Climate Change and Cancers

“Cancer” is not a single disease but rather a whole category of diseases. All cancers have some things in common, but causes and effective treatments both vary. It’s even possible to have two different cancers at the same time, in which case the two need to be treated separately, because what works for one won’t necessarily work for the other. So it’s not good enough to ask whether climate change causes or exacerbates “cancer.” We have to look at which (if any) cancers are involved.

We also have to be clear about what we mean by “involved.” I have not found anyone claiming that being too hot, too dry, too wet, or too wind-blown can actually cause any cancer (though these cause plenty of other health problems!), but there are indeed cancers that would be more rare if we weren’t heating the planet.

Some skin cancers are caused by exposure to UV light, and the thinning of the ozone layer caused more exposure. The main ozone-depleting gasses are also greenhouse gasses. Had those gasses not been released, there would be less climate change and less skin cancer. Higher temperatures also tempt people to expose more skin to damaging UV rays.

The other big climate-related cancer is lung cancer, which can be caused by air pollution. Many common air pollutants are also greenhouse gasses. Wood smoke, as in what comes off of all these wildfires we have these days, may also cause lung cancer.

So, it’s official; more climate change means more lung cancer and skin cancer.

A less direct source of risk is that climate change can make it easier for people to contact certain pollutants. For example, floods caused by the more extreme weather we’re getting often sweep up some very serious pollutants. Exposure to floodwater, or drinking water or soil contaminated by floodwater, could therefore involve exposure to various carcinogens. Higher temperatures make some pollutants more volatile, driving them out of soil or water and into the air. When the pollutants in question are carcinogens, that translates into more cancer, or more cancer risk in places that used to be relatively healthy.

Complicating Factors

You knew there would be complicating factors, didn’t you? One source of complication is that there’s a lot we don’t know about what causes various cancers or how the causal connection works. There are a lot of pollutants that might be carcinogenic, but we don’t know, or we know they cause cancer, but not how dosage relates to risk. Will one swim in contaminated flood water do it? We don’t know.

Another major source of complication is that a lot of the processes being advanced to lessen anthropogenic climate change could also carry increased risk of cancer. Nuclear power is one obvious example. Less obvious is that cadmium is used in the manufacture of solar cells, and cadmium is a known carcinogen. Hydrogen fuel cells could pose a problem if the cells leak, since hydrogen is an ozone-thinning gas and thus an indirect skin cancer risk. Even biodiesel could be a threat, since the chemical profile of its exhaust is different than from petrodiesel, and we really don’t know what breathing in that exhaust might do.

It’s not that we’re damned if we do, damned if we don’t–it’s that the picture is complex and we don’t understand it very well, yet.

What we do know is that using less energy from any source is the best bet for reducing anthropogenic climate change without causing secondary problems. But we knew that already. And using less energy isn’t a popular option.

Specific Pros vs. Vague Cons

While cancer is probably not the worst thing that anthropogenic climate change is doing, it’s definitely on the menu. If you have been touched by cancer in some way, you know how awful the malady is. It’s like a war zone breaks out inside your family and no one else can see or hear the bombs going off, the infrastructure breaking. We know, now, that the further anthropogenic climate change goes without somebody doing something about it, the more cancer there will be.

The problem is that not only don’t we know who is going to get cancer, we also have no way of knowing which cancers are climate-change related. That’s what increased risk means. We might know how many more cancer diagnoses there are, but we won’t know which of those people would have gotten cancer anyway. It’s hard to get emotionally involved with a statistic. You can always convince yourself that it applies to somebody else.

Contrast that with the concrete, obvious benefits of using fossil fuel–if you drive to the store for a loaf of bread, you know perfectly well who got that loaf of bread. If you own a petrochemical company, you know perfectly well who made a very comfortable living. You don’t know who got cancer from that same tank of burnt gas.

The same problem occurs with any cost/benefit analysis of fossil fuel use. If we’re going to get ahead of this thing, we’re going to have to make those unpredictable cancer cases seem just as real as that loaf of bread, that comfortable living.

 

 

 


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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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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.


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New Year, New Normal

It’s cold.

What I mean is that the weather is colder than its been recently in the part of the world where I happen to be. The simple answer to those who insist the world can’t be warming while they personally shiver is that climate change involves increased extremes, including the occasional extreme cold snap. But it’s also possible for one area to have record-breaking cold even as the world on average is unusually warm, as has happened in recent years. And it’s possible for conditions to seem unusually cold even while still above the 20th century average, because we’ve grown used to warmer conditions still.

I haven’t checked to see which of these concepts applied to New Years’ Day in Eastern Maryland, 2018.

What I know is that I turned up on Assateague Island for the annual New Years’ Day Beachwalk, which my husband usually leads, and conditions were brilliant, bright, and beautiful. Clear, blue sky, a stiff breeze whipping the waves to photogenic whitecaps, and a windchill of seven degrees.

I want to emphasize that this event is not supposed to be masochistic. It’s not like the Polar Bear Plunge, in nearby Ocean City, where people actually jump in the water on the first of January, no, it’s an educational walk where you get to stroll along with a naturalist, learning about the island’s history, its sand, and its sea shells. Some years over three hundred people show up.

This year, we had 34 people, almost half of them organizers, volunteers, and hangers-on. My husband did his best, under the circumstances, but there was no shelter from the wind anywhere, and people were having trouble concentrating because it was just too cold. He cut the walk in half and brought everyone back to the starting point early for hot chocolate. Then he and I went home and had Chinese take-out.

Everything everybody says about cold snaps in a warming world is true–climate change involves extremes in all directions, it can be cold here but warm elsewhere, and these temps only seem as cold as they do because everything has been so warm of late.

But what happens when we get used to warm weather?

It’s not like I’ve never experienced single-digit temps before–I used to live in New Hampshire, where I regularly biked to and from school in the winter. Cold was normal, and seldom bothered me. I dressed for the cold as a matter of routine. But now…do I need a hat, or is a hood good enough? How thick do my socks need to be? How many layers do I need? I can’t quite remember. I’m out of practice. Give me another week or two of this and it will all come back to me, but Monday morning I wasn’t there yet.

Whether a given temperature is historically normal or globally notable is less important for most people than whether it’s been typical lately. A surprising cold snap in Maryland might involve temperatures that are perfectly normal for Vermont or New Hampshire, but that doesn’t mean the Marylanders have adequate coats, hats, and gloves, nor do they necessarily have lifestyles and habits that make sense in such temperatures. Where a New Englander might have recreational activities that require cold temps (like ice fishing), on the Lower Eastern Shore, this kind of weather disrupts everybody’s plans. Sometimes the surprising cold is dangerous.

The way changing climate works, cold weather doesn’t go away, it just gets less likely. While I haven’t seen any figures on the matter, I’m wondering if rising average temperatures are resulting in more disruption–and more danger–when cold snaps do occur.


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Priorities

Hi, everybody.

I’m feeling under the weather this week, which is why I didn’t post yesterday and why today’s post is going to be short. But lately I’ve been seeing a lot of evidence of a lot of people working very hard towards a lot of goals–to get ready for the holidays, to rid this country of rapists in high places, to figure out whether the President of the United States colluded with the President of the Soviet Union. I just watched The Imitation Game, which is all about the struggle to break the Enigma cipher during World War II.

Many of these goals are entirely noble. I’m not trying to say otherwise. What I’m trying to say is that we know what working to make something happen looks like. What I see directed towards climate change is, for the most part, not that.

Why not? We know why some people aren’t really into the struggle–some folks have a vested interest in preventing meaningful climate action. The rest of us? Why are we collectively treating the major issue of our time like a sideline?

I know why I’m not as active as I want to be. What about you? And you? And you over there? And what can we do, not only to get over our own issues, but to support each other in doing the same?

Let’s figure this out.


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A Family Expecting

I first posted “A Family Expecting” shortly after the birth of my nephew, several years ago. I have re-posted it occasionally since then, and rewritten it at least once under a new title. I’m re-posting again now for two reasons; one, today has been two busy to write, two, the piece is still a good way to remind people that what we’re doing really matters.  Although this story is a fantasy, it is based on the published results of climate models. Please check out the original for the research links posted at the bottom

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

——————–

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

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