The Climate in Emergency

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


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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 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, and now more recent. developments.

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


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Climate Change and Food: Fake Meat

A cheeseburger sitting on a wooden surface against a dark blue background. The burger is seen from the side, up-close. It's in-your-face meat. The burger has two patties, lettuce, tomato, onion, and pickle, thin slices of yellow, semi-melted cheese, and a sort-of pinkish sauce. The bun is attractively brown and shiny and has a few white seeds on its surface.

Photo by amirali mirhashemian on Unsplash

Some time ago, I wrote a post on climate change and meat. I did some reading, and learned that, yes, animal-based foods do have categorically larger carbon footprints than plant-based foods. Worse, processing and transportation have very little to do with it–eating local, organic, minimally-processed etc. may be a good idea for many reasons, but climate change is not one of those reasons. The vast majority of the carbon footprint of an edible animal is simply due to the fact that it is an animal.

I couldn’t find a detailed explanation as to why, but a likely explanation has to do with the flow of energy. Simply put, every time energy changes form, a portion of it is lost (as per the Second Law of Thermodynamics) and the higher on the food chain you eat, the more energy has been lost along the way–and the more energy is involved, the more carbon emissions (I’m summarizing the post on meat, here, which I linked to above).

Lamb and beef, in that order, are by far the worst for the climate, at least in part because both are ruminants and therefor have digestive processes that produce huge amounts of methane, a powerful greenhouse gas.

So while I’m not going to say everyone necessarily should become vegan (only the Sith deal in absolutes!), it is clear that meat cannot remain a major staple for large numbers of people.

But many of today’s vegetarians and vegans eat diets that look and taste as much like omnivorism as possible, thanks to the wonders of food science. The prevalence of fake meat and dairy is only likely to grow as the fakes get more and more appealing.

So, what’s the carbon footprint of fake meat?

Carbon Foot-printing Fake Meat

Several dishes of food sit on a wooden table. The dish nearest the camera consists of cubes of tofu in a red sauce garnished with what looks like ground black pepper and chopped green onion. The other dishes are harder to see, but may be a large bowl of white rice, a dish of sauted green beans, and a dish of sliced eggplant in a brown sauce.

Photo by Alana Harris on Unsplash

What I’m calling “fake meat” here includes anything that can stand in for meat on the table but was never part of a living animal. In some cases the phrase is a misnomer. A portobello burger, for example, doesn’t resemble meat and isn’t meant to, it’s just a vegetarian dish that is good in some of the same ways hamburgers are. And ground beef made from cloned cells in a lab (which can be done, it’s just too expensive to market yet) is real meat by any reasonable definition, it just wasn’t taken from a dead animal. But “fake meat” is a reasonable shorthand for the entire dietary genre.

Clearly, with such a wide variety of possible foods, we’re not after just one carbon footprint. On the other hand, tracking down individual footprints for anything that could possibly be used as a meat substitute would be time consuming and, in some cases, fruitless (I have tried; there is a reason I’m posting one day late this week!).

What we’re really after is a generality; is shifting to fake meat really a good idea for the climate? The short answer is a very cautious yes.

Making the Sausage

Fake meat, by definition, isn’t what it looks like or tastes like, so the trick is to pay attention to what it is, not what it seems to be.

A meatless hot dog made of seitan, for example, has much more in common with a hot dog bun than a hot dog, from either a nutritional or environmental perspective. Seitan is essentially wheat protein. It’s made by rinsing all the starch out of whole wheat dough. Carbon-footprinting a seitan product therefore involves analyzing the emissions involved in wheat production, plus those involved with processing. A meatless hot dog made of soy might have a very different footprint, and lab-grown cells would be different yet again.

One of the most exciting fake meats at the moment is the Impossible Burger, which has been through multiple iterations and is currently made mostly out of soy protein flavored with heme, a molecule found in blood that is partially responsible for the distinctive taste of red meat. It is largely thanks to heme that the Impossible Burger is almost indistinguishable in taste tests from ground beef. Fortunately, heme is not found only in blood. In this case it’s produced by genetically-engineered yeast.

Carbon-footprinting the Sausage

The Impossible Burger has been the subject of formal footprint analysis; its global warming potential (including that involved in processing) is 89% smaller than that of beef. There are a lot of details I have not been able to gather about that analysis (the footprint of beef can vary slightly, depending on how it’s raised and processed and so forth, so did they use average beef, or one particular kind for the comparison?), but I have a hard time imagining that the unknowns could make more than a few percentage points of difference either way.

Some back-of-the-envelope calculations (using figures from this article) therefore suggest that an Impossible Burger patty has a carbon footprint somewhere between that of an equivalent weight of rice and beans and an equivalent weight of egg. From a climate change perspective, it is a vegetable.

Most other processed fake meats are likely in the same range, for the simple reason that they, too, are vegetables, and processing them is unlikely to involve substantially more emissions than processing the Impossible Burger does.

Lab-grown meat could be an exception, simply because it is so different from other products–it deserves its own analysis–but since commercially viable production methods have not yet been developed, it’s too soon to say what the emissions of those methods might be.

Complications

As I wrote in my post on meat, carbon-footprinting animal products may be a little less straight-forward than it seems. For example, milk has a much smaller footprint than beef does, presumably since the footprint of the cow is spread out over her lifetime production of milk, rather than the smaller bulk of her meat alone. So the more meals an animal produces, the smaller her associated per-meal carbon footprint is? If that’s the case, then beef made from a cow previously used for milk should have a smaller per-pound footprint than dairy does, since eating the meat spreads the animal’s emissions out even farther. But is that true, or is there a piece of the puzzle missing?

 

More troubling yet is the issue that cattle and sheep are hardly new, so how can their emissions be causing a new problem? The obvious answer is that there are far more cattle and sheep and other domestic animals than ever before–much of the zoological part of the biosphere is currently either humans or animals being raised to be eaten by humans–but before we created what I like to call the modern massive mountain of moo, there were lots more wild animals. How can domestic animals have more emissions than the wild animals they replaced?

The reality is that climate change is best understood by looking at the biosphere as a whole, not by adding up the carbon footprints of various individual activities. Prior to the Industrial Revolution, the levels of greenhouse gasses in the atmosphere were, roughly speaking, stable, because the energy flow through the biosphere was stable, inputs balanced by outflow, like a savings account kept roughly stable through careful budgeting. Lately, though, we’ve been spending down the account, an activity that produces the short-term illusion of riches but always results in poverty at the end,

There are two forms of spending down the account: we can take energy out of long-term storage, by burning fossil fuels, or we can take energy out of short-term storage through unsustainable use of natural resources, such as excessive logging. Although there are greenhouse gasses, such as CFCs, that are a bit of a different story, the bulk of the problem of climate change is a shift in the energy flow of the biosphere caused by one form or another of spending down the account.

The question is, how can the replacement of wild ruminants by domestic cattle and sheep change the energy budget of the planet? Isn’t a bovine fart a bovine fart whether the bovine in question is a steer or a bison?

I haven’t seen this issue addressed by any other authors, but in some way or other, the way we raise meat animals must either require fossil fuels or it must constitute an unsustainable use of a living system. If meat did neither, it could not alter the energy budget of the biosphere.

A Vision for Moo

There are certainly those who believe we must all go vegan, or at least nearly vegan, for the good of the planet. The statement is controversial, in large part because there are considerations other than climate in play. Eating animals is the subject of legitimate ethical debate, an important consideration, albeit an unrelated one (it is possible for two equally important issues to have no direct bearing on each other). Eating animals is also an intrinsic part of various cultural and economic systems (another important but different issue). And there are environmental issues associated with meat other than climate–for example, grazing animals have been used in ecological restoration (for examples and discussion, please read this book and that book). So how all these various considerations might pull and tug real life into the actual future is far from clear.

But I’m still stuck on how the mountain of moo changes the biosphere.

Meat animals can’t possibly be contributing to climate change simply because they are eaten by humans as opposed to by wolves or carrion beetles. Since we have it on good authority that they are part of the problem, they must be so either because fossil fuel is used on their behalf, or because they are themselves consuming resources at an unsustainable rate.

Vegetables could also be produced with fossil fuels and at an unsustainable rate, and they eventually would be if humans all went vegan but did not otherwise change our habits.

The solution is therefore to make meat (and everything else) fossil fuel free and sustainable.

Now, there would be much less meat in such a scenario, so diets would have to change, but that would be an effect, not a cause. It’s the energy budget we have to fix first and centrally, otherwise we’re just rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic.

Does that make switching to the Impossible Burger pointless?

Hardly.

We won’t build a new food production system if we continue to demand food that requires the old one. We have to create the tools we’ll need to build the future, and arguably that includes fake meat that meat enthusiasts want to eat. We need to develop the production systems, the distribution systems, and the cultural preferences that the future demands, and we need to do it today.

But let’s not forget that the one thing we really must stop eating is oil.

Image appears to show the instant after a drop has dripped into a liquid; there is a crater in the liquid surface, surrounded by rings of ripples. The liquid is black with a dull, pale sheen. It could be water seen at night, or black ink, or it could possibly be black petroleum.

Photo by Julian Böck on Unsplash


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Dead Biome Walking?

A photo of a man apparently reading a newspaper that is on fire. The man is dressed in dark, simple clothing and is seated on a stool with his legs crossed. The background is plain, gray, and somewhat dark and dingy looking. The view of the man is from the front and he is holding the paper at an angle that obscures his face and upper body. The newsprint is too small for the viewer to read it and its content does not appear to be important for the image.

Photo by Elijah O’Donnell on Unsplash

So, about those Australian fires….

It’s high time I wrote a post about them, as the disaster constitutes one of the most dramatic climate-related catastrophes today, and it’s likely to keep getting worse for a while, yet. While some people have complained that climate change didn’t start the fires, that’s a bit like saying that jumping off a sky-scraper wouldn’t kill you–technically true, but more deeply false (with the sky-scraper, it’s the sudden stop at the end that gets you). Climate change helped create the circumstance where hitherto-unheard-of fires are possible.

I’ve written before about the links between climate change and fire with respect to California. The situation in Australia is broadly similar.

I’m not going to rewrite those articles  with an Australian focus–other people are covering the topic already. What I want to know is how bad are these fires, other than “really bad”? How big are they, really? It’s easy enough to look up the numbers of acres burned, number of people killed, and so forth, but it’s hard to really put that information in context. How much of Australia burns in a typical year? How well will Australia be able to recover, ecologically or economically? Is anything being lost that can’t be regained?

Putting the Australian Fires in Context

There are several questions I want answers to:

  • How much of Australia is burning or has burned?
  • How much damage has been done to the specific biomes involved?
  • How do the 2019/2020 fires compare to historical fires in Australia, both in extent and in intensity?
  • In what ways besides climate change have human activities made the fires worse?
  • How well can Australia recover, either ecologically or economically?
  • Will Australia have more fires like this in the future?
  • Could other countries see similar disasters in the near future?

Some of those questions are easy to find answers for, others would require a major research project if they could be answered at all. For now, let’s just explore some of these issues.

How Bad Are the Fires?

Several questions involve the severity of the current disaster. As I said, it’s easy to look up the acreage burned, and it is just as easy to look up maps that show the extent of the fires relative to Australia’s land mass overall. These are pretty arresting images, but they don’t tell the whole story.

The issue is that the part of Australia that is not on fire is mostly uninhabited–both flammable vegetation and humans cluster in the well-watered coastal regions. If we could calculate the proportion of Australia’s inhabited area that has burned over the past year, the resulting fraction would be even more arresting and give outsiders a much more accurate picture of what Australians are going through right now.

Unfortunately, I have not been able to find a figure for the size of Australia’s inhabited area. In fairness, it is difficult to define such an area, because there is no black-and-white distinction between “inhabited” and “uninhabited.” Rather, the population just gets thinner and thinner.

A steep slope with long, dry grass in the foreground and a forest of tall, dead conifer trees in the background. In the very far distance, mountains and a hazy blue sky are visible.

Photo by Meritt Thomas on Unsplash (stock photo, not necessarily recent or Australian)

At the moment, the best I can do is eyeball a comparison between a map of Australia’s population distribution and the various maps of the fires (here’s one; an image of the cumulative light of a month of fires)

Those well-watered coastal areas are also ecologically distinct from the arid interior. A map of Australia’s major biomes (a biome is an ecologically defined region) shows that the region where many of the fires have been clustered are also within a relatively small biome, the Temperate Broadleaf and Mixed Forest. Another cluster of fires overlaps with much of an even smaller biome, the Tropical and Subtropical Moist Broadleaf Forests. As you’ll see if you click on the links, I have not actually found a map that shows biomes and fires, I’m doing more eyeball comparisons. To my eyeball, it looks like a significant chunk of both biomes must have gone up in smoke this year.

Wildfire is usually not the disaster it appears to be, since the burned-over areas are re-colonized with vegetation and animals from unburned areas–and while the burn zone is recovering, it provides habitat to various species that specialize in the different stages of recovery. However, if an entire biome were to burn completely, recovery would not be possible because the organisms able to live in that biome would all be dead–and most of them would be extinct, since it is unusual for a species to occupy multiple, radically different habitats. Real wildfires seldom burn completely (there are usually un-burned pockets, and the less-intense fires spare the roots of plants, burrowing animals, and even some trees) but disaster need not be complete to be decisive–and Australia has already suffered widespread deforestation and habitat fragmentation. There’s not a lot left to burn.

Could we be witnessing the loss of two biomes right now?

Are the Fires a Cause or an Effect?

A forest of black tree trunks on blackened ground. Smoke drifts eerily through the forest, partially obscuring the orange flames coming up from the ground.

Photo by Joanne Francis on Unsplash (A stock photo, not necessarily depicting a recent Australian fire)

Can Australia recover? I have found several articles on economic and cultural recovery, and while everyone seems to acknowledge that recovery will be difficult, no one seems to doubt it will happen. There is some worry that there may indeed be permanent ecological change.

What I wonder is whether the permanent change has already happened. In other words, is fire (exacerbated by climate change) the agent of an ecological shift, or merely a symptom of a shift that has already occurred?

To choose an example of what I mean that is closer to my home, the Southwest of the United States is famous for its deserts, but actually much of the region is dry forest dominated by several species of pines. There are those who think much of that forest will be lost with climate change–and in fact, some parts of it have been lost already. One might be tempted to think the loss will be gradual, since climate change, while very fast, is gradual (that is, it is more like a gradient than a step), but that’s unlikely.

Living systems, whether individual organisms or whole ecosystems, resist change the same way a spinning top is harder to push over than it looks like it should be. Dying people can sometimes hold their own far into grave illnesses, looking and sounding almost normal until very close to the end. Unfortunately, I’ve seen this recently, as those who know me are aware. Dying forests work much the same way, the trees hanging on in the face of heat and drought that isn’t really drought but rather a new regional normal. Then there is a fire or an infestation of bark beetles or both. The beetles are not new, but in the past the trees could fight the beetles off with sticky sap. In a bad drought, the trees can’t make enough sap. There are more beetles, too, after warm winters. I’ve seen this–almost twenty years ago, I watched almost every pinyon pine in one forested area die from beetles in just a few months. That year I saw pictures of places where similar beetles had killed whole hillsides of ponderosa pines, turning them a pretty red-brown that looked like autumn. Sooner or later, those dead and dying forests will burn. When they do, I doubt trees will grow in their place.

The climate that made the forests possible will have moved.

There are thus at least two scenarios by which Australia’s forests might be permanently changing as we speak. One is that so much of the already-fragmented forests are burning that there won’t be enough left for effective recovery. Species could be extinguished through habitat loss, or through the loss of ecological partners, or simply by too many individuals, plant or animal, burning to death. Relict populations might be too small and too scattered to be self-sustaining. I don’t actually know, there is a lot of information I don’t have, but it seems at least possible that fires exacerbated by climate change are radically altering the ecological map of a country.

But the other scenario is that the alteration has already happened, that these forests were dead ecosystems walking even before the fires started, that the climate has changed and the fires are simply a form of belated adjustment to a new normal that began years ago.

Time for Hope?

As I said, I don’t know that the situation is as dire as it seems–it may not be. Real-life worst-case scenarios are rare.

Perhaps more to the point, even if the worst case is upon us, things are never so bad that they can’t get even worse, and that also means things are never so bad that we can’t avoid them getting worse.

Even if part of Australia’s forest is now doomed, it’s likely part of it still retains a climate conducive to forests. If conservationists scramble, and if they get the public and private help they need, it may be possible to create relicts that are large enough and interconnected enough to be self-sustaining.

And perhaps more to the point, if we all do something about climate change, maybe it won’t get much worse.

No situation is ever so bad that there is no reason to help.

 


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The Weary World Rejoices?

A lit candle in the darkness. Only the flame and the tip of the candle are visible, everything else is darkness. The candle appears to be a beeswax taper, from its color and shape. The flame is very long and thin.

Photo by Marc Ignacio on Unsplash

 I have just come back from a Christmas Eve service—one of only two church services I attend in most years, though this year I have unfortunately had two funerals to attend also. I find these things interesting, and occasionally inspiring.

This time the preacher focused on the song, “O Holy Night,” and even read what he said was a direct translation from the original French. Later, a flutist performed it with piano accompaniment. It’s an extraordinary song, musically, containing as it does the single most beautiful note of any song anywhere (not that all singers hit it!). The lyrics have never moved me, but they and the music together do an interesting job of evoking an entire world, human and otherwise, straining and yearning towards the divine Answer.

What was the question?

It is not the place of this blog to comment on the content of any religion. We can say that whatever the question was, it was answered.

What question is the whole world asking now?

We know what question the world is asking, and we know that the answer must include a spiritual (if not necessarily religious) component. Something must transform us from a species who collectively does not care about our planet or our future into a species that does care and can act mightily on that caring. We know the solution, in a general way, and we know we can develop the specifics if we only apply ourselves. A critical mass of us must simply become willing to enact that solution.

Sounds impossible? Yeah, sometimes it does to me, too. But we know big things can sometimes change overnight. We know change can begin with one person.

The foreground is dominated by a soap bubble that is in the process of freezing; part of its surface is clear and slightly reflective, while the rest is smooth, white ice crystals. The bubble rests on branches of what might be asparagus fern. The background is out of focus and is blue and pink, possibly a snowy landscape at sunset.

Photo by Aaron Burden on Unsplash

What if that one person is you?


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Little Drummer Kids

This has become a traditional post of mine–I do some version of it sometime in December about every year. Reading over this version from some years ago, I am struck by how timely it is.

I know it’s not Christmas yet, and that a lot of us don’t even celebrate Christmas…I guess this is more of a Winter Solstice post, though we’re not quite there yet, either.

The thing is, this has been a hard season for those of us who care about the climate. It’s hard to keep hoping, and it’s hard to keep believing that anything any of us do will really help. I’ve been drawing a lot of comfort lately from Solstice imagery, from the idea that when the world looks darkest is sometimes literally the moment when light and life return.

I’ve also been drawing comfort from The Little Drummer Boy.

Yes, I’m aware that some people harbor a special hatred of this over-played song, but I kind of like it.

Actually, I really like it. That song has been known to make me cry whenever I really pay attention to the lyrics. Minus the rum-pa-pum-pums  and traditional lyrical line-breaks, here they are:

“Come,” they told me, “a new born King to see. Our finest gifts we bring to lay before the King, so, to honor Him when we come.”
“Little baby, I am a poor boy too. I have no gift to bring that’s fit to give our King. Shall I play for you on my drum?”
Mary nodded. The ox and lamb kept time. I played my drum for Him. I played my best for Him.
Then He smiled at me, me and my drum.

I mean, seriously, picture this. There’s this little boy who has this fantastic experience–mysterious grown-ups appear from some exotic place and tell him of this amazing baby–this King whose birth was announced by angels and by a new, very bright star, the subject of prophesies about the redemption of the whole world. The drummer boy probably doesn’t understand most of it, but he understands this is a Big Deal, and when the grown-ups urge him to come with them to worship and honor the newborn King, he eagerly agrees.

Except what can he give? He has no money, no expensive gifts. He’s poor and he’s just a child–compared to all these Wise Men and other important people, what can he do? He doesn’t know how to do anything except play his drum and maybe he can’t even do that very well, yet. Poor little drummer boys just don’t get to go visit kings. It isn’t done.

But then the child gets to see the baby, and he sees this King is actually a poor little boy just like him. They aren’t that different. And the baby is looking up at him, expectant. The drummer boy just has to give something. So he does the one thing he can do, knowing it can’t possibly be enough. He plays his drum and he plays it just as well as he can.

And it makes the baby smile.

We’re all like that, in one way or another. Most of us probably feel inadequate most of the time–I certainly do–and, frankly, in the face of global warming, we are each inadequate, at least by any reasonable definition. We don’t have enough money; we don’t have the right skills; we don’t have the cooperation of friends and family (or Congress); or we have other, competing responsibilities; or grave problems of our own to cope with. These are entirely valid excuses, real stumbling blocks, and arrayed against us is the full power and might of some extremely rich people who do not want us to get off fossil fuel at all, ever. We’re running out of time.

And yet, sometimes the universe isn’t reasonable. Sometimes one person can change the world. Sometimes one’s best turns out to be good enough after all.

May it be so for you.


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Are Koalas Extinct?

A close-up of a koala whose facial expression appears vaguely amused yet accusatory. The koala, like all koalas, has gray fur, a round, teddy-bear-like head, and a large but flat black nose.

Photo by Laura Barry on Unsplash

A few weeks ago, scary links spread across social media to the effect that koalas are “functionally extinct” as a result of the recent catastrophic fires in Australia. Of course, reality is often more nuanced than Facebook posts, and “functionally extinct” is a technical phrase that doesn’t necessarily mean what it seems to.

So are koalas really just about extinct now?

The short answer is no, they’re not, although the species may indeed be in bad shape and climate change is largely to blame.

Koalas and Functional Extinction

The scary social media posts either referred to, or actually linked to an article in Forbes that quoted the Australian Koala Foundation as saying the species may be “functionally extinct,” and that 1000 koalas may have died in the fires and that 80% of the animal’s habitat may be gone. Since its initial publication, the article has been edited to sound less alarming and to reflect the fact that some experts think the situation with koalas might not be as bad. Several other publications have also issued articles on the subject (such as this, in the New York Times) that attempt to walk back the panic a bit and provide some additional context.

But what does “functional extinction” mean, and is it really correct to calm down about koalas?

What Does “Functional Extinction” Mean?

The original Forbes article defines “functional extinction” as meaning a population no longer plays a role in its ecosystem and is no longer viable. These are actually two, ecological irrelevancy and non-viability, very different situations, and while they can obviously occur together, they can also occur separately–and neither means that the species is “basically gone,” as in a hopeless situation or a foregone conclusion.

Functional Extinction

Properly speaking, “functional extinction” refers only to the first problem described in the Forbes article; that a species can no longer participate ecologically. In fact, a species can be functionally extinct even when its population is still big enough that its existence is not seriously threatened–instead, functional extinction means that other species in the same ecosystem react as though it is already gone and they die out.

A large, round seed or nut sitting in the top of a glass containter that has a round body and a long, thin neck. The container is partly filled with water and sits on a whitish table top. The seed has sprouted, and has a long, thin root reaching into the water and a few small green leaves coming out the top. It is difficult to be sure, but it looks as though it could be the seed of a chestnut tree.

Photo by Daniel Hjalmarsson on Unsplash

A good example of functional extinction is the American chestnut*, which is by no means extinct, but which was devastated by an accidentally introduced disease some decades ago. Some trees proved resistant, and the root systems of young trees often survived and still send up shoots that sometimes manage to produce a few nuts before succumbing to the disease again. There are also well-organized efforts underway to breed blight-resistant American chestnuts, and I have in fact seen a blight-resistant seedling (it was given as a retirement gift to a noted naturalist at a party I attended). The species is likely to survive–but anything dependent on American chestnut forests is likely already gone.

Insects and birds and bears and whoever else once ate parts or products of this species must now do without.

So not only does “functionally extinct” not mean “almost extinct,” the concept is important precisely because it applies to species that may still be relatively abundant–and yet its decline is causing other extinctions around it.

Koalas themselves are not currently listed as “endangered,” or even “threatened,” only “vulnerable,” and although that assessment was conducted in 2014 and may now be outdated, it’s also possible it’s still accurate–the current status of koalas is apparently a matter of debate, since they are difficult to accurately count in the wild. But that doesn’t mean the species isn’t functionally extinct, nor does it mean that Australia is not in the process of losing something important.

What depends on koalas?

Population Viability

A large flock of small, dark birds flies against a blue sky. The birds are mostly in the bottom third of the image, clustered around a bright spot that might be the sun, so the blue is visually dominant. The birds are hard to see, being very small, but an expert birder would be able to tell they are not passenger pigeons; they may be rock pigeons, the familar bird of cities.

Photo by Rowan Heuvel on Unsplash

“Population” doesn’t necessarily mean “species.” Most species consist of multiple populations that interbreed with each other to greater or lesser degrees, and one population can become non-viable or even extinct and leave the rest of the species doing just fine–or, a species can go extinct one population at a time, or all at once if one population is all there is.

The study of population dynamics is a whole branch of conservation science and I’m not going to get into most of it here (I don’t know most of it!). The relevant point is you can have a species that still has living members but is almost certainly going to go extinct. In fact, the species could actually still look quite large and yet be non-viable. For example, passenger pigeons could only breed in very large colonies. The phrase “hunted to extinction” evokes images of heartless gun-toters searching out every last member of a dying species, but that’s not what happened to the pigeons. Instead, they were so ridiculously abundant that no one saw any reason not to harvest them freely, and then they were slightly less abundant, and then all of a sudden there just weren’t any more–because the still-huge flocks had dropped below the threshold necessary for the birds to breed. Another, perhaps more common, scenario is that habitat loss fragments a species into lots of little, genetically isolated populations, each of which is too small to sustain itself. The species might have tens of thousands of members, but if they are scattered across hundreds of tiny refuges able to breed only with their cousins, the situation is dire.

They are like a person falling from the top of a sky-scraper. In one sense, they are fine until they hit the ground, but in another sense they are obviously not.

Extinction can take a long time, especially in species where individuals are long-lived, and a few individuals can persist, unable to breed at replacement, for decades or more, and yet their loss is more or less assured. The concept of the non-viable population is another important one for conservationists to pay attention to, for it, too, points to a type of catastrophe-in-progress.

An yet “non-viable” doesn’t mean “doomed” or “hopeless.” Species have been pulled back from the brink before. Sometimes the falling man is rescued.

Are Koalas Functionally Extinct or Non-viable?

A koala clinging to a tree with a baby koala sitting in her lap. The mother is curled up so her face is hidden, but the baby is looking towards the viewer. Both have mostly gray fur and large, round ears. The baby is a miniature of the mother.

Photo by David Clode on Unsplash

Are koalas functionally extinct? The Australian Koala Foundation says that they are, but it’s important to recognize that the group made the announcement in a press release (calling for political action to protect the species) back in May. So no, the fires probably haven’t pushed koalas to the brink–they were there already. As to what the fire has done to them, we really don’t know. It’s too soon for anyone to have done a real assessment.

The leader of the Foundation, Deborah Tabart, appears to conflate functional extinction with non-viability, but from her statements quoted in the New York Times (the same article I linked to earlier) it is clear she considers both to be true.

Both the Forbes article and the piece in the NYT make clear that some experts disagree with the Foundation’s assessment, apparently due to a perceived lack of data on the subject. I’m not in a position to weigh in either way–though I will say that “hey, there MIGHT be more koalas than you think, they’re hard to count!” is not really a comforting argument.

In any case, the Foundation has put the results of their assessment online for public review. Here is the link.

The real reason (again, based on the NYT piece) that Ms. Tabart’s assertions are controversial is not that she might be wrong but that she might be misunderstood, that people might think the koalas’ case is hopeless and stop fighting for them. Public perception is an important issue, but if koalas ARE either functionally extinct or non-viable as a species, then we do need to know so we can do something about it.

Koalas and Climate Change

That koalas are in trouble is not in any serious doubt, despite their not being officially listed as endangered. There are several reasons. First, millions were shot for their fur in the few decades before and after 1900. More recently, habitat loss has become the critical factor as more and more of Australia’s native eucalypt forests are cleared. More than 80% of their original habitat has been lost. And deforestation not only limits the total amount of space where the animals can live (and hence limits the total number who can live), but also fragments the survivors into increasingly isolated small populations. Living near human development also leaves the animals vulnerable to being hit by cars or attacked by dogs.

But koalas are also considered one of the world’s ten species most vulnerable to climate change; not only are they very specialized animals (specialists categorically handle environmental disruption badly), but Australia’s climate is among the fastest-changing in the world.

The clearest danger is from heatwaves and drought. One area lost a quarter of its koalas in one heatwave in 2009 alone. Drought and heat together stress the trees and reduces the moisture content of their leaves; koalas not only depend on eucalypt leaves for food, but also for moisture (though the animals will drink if water is available). Heat-induced water stress is the primary factor that will shrink koalas’ range in the coming decades. Some conservationists are arranging supplemental drinking stations for koalas and other wildlife, and the animals do use the stations, but it isn’t known yet whether the extra water will help with survival.

But then there is fire. Fire can kill koalas directly, and the animals can also starve to death in the time it takes a burned-over forest to green up again. Eucalypt forests do burn sometimes, and koalas evolved with fire, but several things are different now. First, the badly-fragmented nature of koala habitat means that now if an area loses its koalas due to fire, koalas from other places can’t come in and repopulate the forest as it grows back. But the other new thing is climate change; by allowing much larger, more devastating fires, it has increased the scale of destruction to where a single fire event could become an existential threat to an entire species–this year alone, Australia’s north coast has lost a third of its koala habitat. That’s not the only region that has burned, either. Where will the animals who survived those fires go? What will they eat until the forest grows back?

About Those Scary Posts….

It’s easy to get panicked seeing those social media posts, which seem to imply that this year’s fires have burned up so many koalas and so much of their habitat so as to suddenly doom them. The truth, as always in more nuanced, and panic does not help. But while a careful reading of the situation is always helpful, it is not necessarily very encouraging in this case.

Koalas are not doomed, and it is far from clear how bad their situation is, but it is clear it’s dire, not least because the threats to the species are complex and can’t be solved with a single stroke of a pen (as might be possible if hunting were still the primary threat).. We’re talking climate change, land use policy, economic development, human lifestyle issues, all of which depends on the principled cooperation of many, many people for any hope of progress. And if koalas are in danger, than so is everything else that depends on the same habitat and anything that depends on koalas.

And as of today, Australia continues to burn.

 

*The chestnut example and several other un-cited portions of this post are based on material I learned in grad school.


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You Deserve Nothing

Confrontational title, yes?

I’m not being mean-spirited, but I’m not just trying to get your attention, either. I actually mean it. Let me explain.

Over my lifetime, I have watched the American environmental movement basically tread water. There have been a few gains, a few losses, a few bright spots of optimism, and much wringing of hands–but basically the national conversation sounds about the same as it did when I was a kid and first getting interested in these issues. Why aren’t we getting anywhere?

Because we have enemies. Climate denial isn’t a passive cultural apathy, it is an active movement being deliberately pushed by moneyed interests, as I’ve discussed before. There is an organized strategy involved, one with long-term goals and incredible reach.

Quite simply, we’re being outplayed.

As the campaign season heats up, I occasionally hear discussion of climate change, but I’ve heard no hint of large, organized strategy. Instead it sounds as though, once again, many people can’t quite believe that such a deserving cause as theirs could lose.

Well guess what?

I’m being a little vague here because I don’t want to get too far afield of this blog’s central focus. The point is that we can indeed lose. Deserving to win does not make winning more likely.

This cycle, forget about what your cause deserves. Fight to win.