The Climate in Emergency

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


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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.


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Update on the Candidates

Some months ago, I did a series of posts on the various candidates for present and how each looks from a climate perspective. Since then, the field has changed. Some people have dropped out, others have dropped in, and the Democratic part of the field has focused into a small group of serious possibilities (Biden, Warren, Sanders, and Buttigieg) and a larger group of long-shot hopefuls.

I figure it’s time to update my coverage. Except where noted, I’m drawing information here from the New York Times–their page on the subject is being updated, however, so if you click on it weeks or months hence you won’t find the same information on it that I did.

The Democrats

Of the Democrats running, I have already covered Michael Bennet, Joe Biden, Cory Booker, Pete Buttigieg, Julián Castro, John Delaney, Tulsi Gabbard, Kamala Harris, Amy Klobuchar, Bernie Sanders, Joe Sestak, Tom Steyer, Elizabeth Warren, Marianne Williamson, and Andrew Yang. This blog continues to back Elizabeth Warren as the best candidate for the climate (it remains neutral on other considerations), though the other front-runners would also be quite good.

Of those I covered, several have already dropped out: Bill de Blasio, Kirsten Gillibrand, John Hickenlooper, Jay Inslee, Wayne Messam, Seth Moulton, Beto O’Rourke, Tim Ryan, and Eric Swalwell.

Richard Ojeda jumped in and then out again without my having a chance to write about him at all.

But there are two new Democratic hopefuls I need to cover.

Michael Bloomberg

Michael Bloomberg is a former Republican Mayor of New York, though he’s running for president as a Democrat with the specific, stated goal of defeating Donald Trump. His economic and cultural views suggest those of a centrist Republican–but his focus on gun control and climate change perhaps explain his current party affiliation.

His climate credentials are impressive.

Mr. Bloomberg is a billionaire who has been funneling large amounts of money into various climate-related projects. He has bankrolled the Sierra Club’s Beyond Coal and Beyond Carbon campaigns, organized America’s Pledge, a formal effort by cities, states, and businesses to keep our commitments under Paris, and filled the budget shortfall at the UN left when President Trump pulled funding for most climate work there. And more. He is unquestionably a climate champion.

He is, however, having trouble getting support from activists, in part due to disagreements about strategy, and in part because of concerns over whether a pro-business billionaire is electable this cycle. After all, the Democratic Party is otherwise dominated by a progressive movement suspicious of the super-wealthy. It’s not just a case of people complaining that he’s not perfect enough; the worry is that if Mr. Bloomberg pours his money and attention into a doomed campaign for president, he might have less attention to give to climate–and clearly he does not need to be President of the United States to have an impact. He might better serve his cause by supporting a more viable candidate and making sure Democrats take the Senate.

Whether he progresses as a candidate or not, it is good to know he is out there.

Deval Patrick

Is a former governor of Massachusetts, and is running now on a call for unity, rather than on a particular issue or group of issues. As far as climate goes, he is a bit of a paradox; on the one hand, he has real credibility thanks to his leadership on renewable energy while governor, but on the other hand he is a former oil executive. His environmental work is more recent and can be taken as a better indicator of his current thinking. He has tossed around some interesting ideas, such as building manufacturing ups for solar cells and wind turbines in coal country to replace some of the lost jobs (somebody please do that!), though it’s not clear he knows how a US president might accomplish such a thing.

Ultimately, the paradox of Patric is less a matter of uncertainty about him–he was the driving force behind Massachusetts becoming the most energy-efficient state in the US with the eighth-highest solar capacity (pretty good for a small state with long, cloudy winters)–and more about whether he is electable given such an oily political liability?

The size of the Democratic field is a liability. The more energy the party expends fighting internally, the less will be available for the fights that matter–so is the thinking, anyway. And at this point in the process, additional candidates have to prove not just that they are credible as nominees, but also that they are worth the added complication their presence brings. But unlike most of the field, Deval Patrick is not just advocating for climate action, he has already accomplished it–and unlike Mr. Bloomberg, he has accomplished it as an elected official, and as a chief executive at that.

Mr. Patrick bears watching.

The Republicans

Of the Republicans running, I have already discussed Mr. Trump and Mr. Weld. Mr. Sanford, whom I discussed as well, has dropped out. But now we have another contestant for the Republican nomination in Joe Walsh.

Joe Walsh

Joe Walsh is current;y a conservative radio show host. He was also one of the Tea Party Republicans elected the the US House of Representatives in 2010, but he only served one term. In the past he was a vocal supporter of Donald Trump, but has since not only turned against the president but also expressed regret for some of his own anti-Obama language. His primary motivation for running is to deny Mr. Trump, who he describes as completely unfit for office, a second term, but he also wants to reduce the national debt and restrain executive power. He is a more traditionally Republican Republican than the President is.

Mr. Walsh’s score with the League of Conservation Voters is terrible–4%. In fact, so solid is his anti-environmental voting record that one wonders whether those few pro-environment votes were mistakes. Perhaps he was feeling poorly on those days? Not quite himself? But he has recently gone on record as recognizing that climate change is at least “impacted” by human activities and that the Republican Party needs to acknowledge the problem.

Change of heart? Transient illness? Or is at least a pretense of climate sanity becoming a political necessity for Republicans?

Big Picture

The big picture has not changed much since the last time I wrote on these topics. Donald Trump is still the candidate to beat–who must be beaten if we are to have a chance for the planet–and his most serious opponent will almost certainly be one of the four Democrats currently polling at the head of the pack. It’s possible that one or more of the Republican challengers will run as an independent and that they could complicate the race in interesting ways.

There is an outside possibility that either Mr. Bloomberg or Mr. Patrick could change the picture, if either can gain enough traction.


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Thanksgiving Day

I’m posting my Thanksgiving post a little early thus year, re-edited in places just to keep it fresh.

“It’s that time of the year again,” warns a cynical-sounding blogger, “when warmists try to link Thanksgiving and climate change.”

Nice rhetorical trick, isn’t it? Discrediting us by saying that we’ll even link climate change to Thanksgiving? The truth, of course, is that anything in human life can be linked to climate change, because everything we experience depends on climate somehow. It’s in the air we breathe, the water we drink, the wind that may be gentle or catastrophic as occasion allows….Climate is already everywhere, and as it changes, so must everything else.

We “warmists” didn’t make that part up. It’s just physics.

But yes, ’tis the season to write holiday-themed posts. Most writers seem to cluster around one of two main narratives: Thanksgiving as an opportunity to talk about climate change and agriculture (as in turkeys could get more expensive as feed prices rise because of recurrent drought); and Thanksgiving as an opportunity to talk about climate communication (as in how to talk with your climate-skeptic relatives). These are excellent points and I’m not going to try to make them all over again.

Instead, I want to talk about gratitude. I want to talk about abundance.

The Reason for the Season

I should acknowledge, before we get started, that American Thanksgiving itself has become controversial in certain circles in recent years as recognition spreads that the story of the “first Thanksgiving” is more or less a lie. The idea is that celebrating the Pilgrim’s supposed friendship with the “Indians” is an example of both ignorance and imperialism. I agree–except that’s not what Thanksgiving is about.

Here is a link to the text of the proclamation Abraham Lincoln used to make Thanksgiving an annual national holiday. Before that, presidents had occasionally declared days of thanksgiving, as had various colonist communities and various European communities before them. Days of thanksgiving, like moments of silence in our time, were simply something people had occasionally–the nascent colony that would become Massachusetts had one, but they hardly “owned the brand,” so to speak. Only when Lincoln created an annual Thanksgiving did the United States begin celebrating the holiday in its modern sense. And you’ll notice that Lincoln (actually Secretary Seward, who wrote the text) makes no mention of “Pilgrims and Indians” at all.

My guess is that the “story of the first Thanksgiving” was an attempt to shoehorn a bit of history and patriotism in for the benefit of school children, but it had nothing to do with the creation of the holiday, nor has it ever been a feature of any of the Thanksgiving celebrations I’ve been part of for the almost 40 years of Novembers I can remember.

Thanksgiving is about gratitude, not history (let alone psuedohistory).

The Meaning of the Reason

Have you ever thought it strange that we give thanks by eating a lot? If anything, American Thanksgiving sometimes seems more a celebration of greed and gluttony, with a perfunctory discussion of life’s blessings thrown in among the other topics at the table. But gratitude is fundamentally a reaction, not an action–it is very difficult to be grateful as an act of will. The best we can normally do is remind ourselves of what we have to be grateful for, and surrounding ourselves with an abundance of food is a good way to start.

What is abundance? An online dictionary provides the definition “a large amount of something,” but that’s not quite it. “Abundance of dirty dishes” sounds, at best, sarcastic, if not outright ludicrous. And while there might indeed be a large amount of sand in the Sahara, few people would describe it as abundant sand, because, really, who cares how much sand it has?

To really count as abundant, something must be a) what we want, and b) what we aren’t worried of running out of.

The Thanksgiving table qualifies. You can eat as much as you want, no holds barred, and there will be left-overs. The Thanksgiving table is not infinite, it is not literally inexhaustible, but it has an almost magical quality of feeling that way. It is precisely that illusion that allows the food to symbolize all the other good things in our lives, everything for which we might be grateful.

The Limitations of the Season

Of course, there is no such thing as a truly infinite resource; use enough of anything for long enough and eventually you will run out. Even “renewable” resources are only sustainable if you use them slowly enough that they can replenish themselves. We know from sad experience that it is indeed possible to run completely out of precious things that once seemed all but limitless–passenger pigeons, for example. And in fact we are running out of pretty much everything we need for life and everything that gives life beauty and meaning.

For many of us, “running out” is a pretty abstract notion. Hunger and poverty certainly exist, but they are a distribution problem, for the most part, not a supply problem; there are more overweight than underweight humans right now. Ever more efficient resource extraction is, for the time being, largely masking the growing depth of the crisis–but make no mistake, the crisis is upon us. It’s not a problem of the future but of the here and now.

Is consumption really the best way to celebrate anything right now?

Thanksgiving Yet to Come

Thanksgiving depends on the illusion of an infinite table, an inexhaustible shared resource. We got into our current environmental mess by collectively acting as though the world were an inexhaustible resource for real. Quite obviously, we have to stop such irrational and selfish behavior right away.

Does that mean we need to stop celebrating Thanksgiving?

No.

First of all, a literal abundance of food had never been the point of the holiday; it’s not just an occasion of gluttony, the groaning table is supposed to be a metaphor for spiritual abundance. Eating a lot is a means, not an end. Second, because abundance is a feeling, not an amount, it’s possible to create that feeling of abundance on a sharply limited budget–as anyone knows who’s ever had to host Thanksgiving dinner without a lot of money.

Thanksgiving Day can be not just a reminder of all the natural richness we’re in the process of losing, but also an example of how we might regain some of that richness for our children and children’s children–and do it without feeling deprived ourselves.

Thanksgiving on a budget works as long as it’s possible for all the guests to enjoy the meal without worrying that they won’t get enough–skilled hosts accomplish it by paying close attention to what the guests really need while also staying strictly within their own limitations. They do it by putting what they have to the best possible use and by not wasting anything–including not wasting resources on things that don’t really add much to the celebration. We can do the same thing as a species.

We have to find a way to live within our ecological means–the first step is to get off fossil fuel–but we can work with what we have so skillfully that what we have feels like more than enough. By staying within a budget we can stop worrying about running out, and thus achieve a true, if paradoxical, abundance. Then the planet will have a chance to heal. The biosphere will grow again. And it is possible, just possible, that our descendants will live to see a more bountiful feast than we will.

And that will truly be something to be thankful for.


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If I Had a Dollar For….

October was, in many ways, a bad month for climate news, with much of California being on fire. Again. But here at Climate in Emergency, there was a small note of encouragement–November was the second-busiest this blog has ever had, and the third month running that broke 300 visitors.

300 visitors might not seem very much, in the grand scheme of things (actually, “views” are always somewhat higher and have been close to 400 for each of the past three months), but it means I’m averaging over ten visitors per day–or more than 70 visitors per post.

“If I had a dollar for….” is a tried-and-true way of expressing the scale of something. If I had a dollar for every gray hair I’ve gotten in recent years, I’d be rich–but if I had a dollar instead for every hair that isn’t gray yet, I’d be even richer. If I had a dollar for every visit to my blog, I could make a student loan payment. You know how it goes.

Except nobody is going to pay me for having gray hair. So let’s talk about funding, just for a minute.

Always Free, But….

This blog will always be free to read, but it’s not free to write. It costs me time that I could otherwise dedicate to paid work. How much time varies, but the posts that depend on a lot of research run me about six to ten hours. I also have plans to expand this project that I literally can’t afford to put into practice because they would require too much time.

I’ve had a “donate” button on my blog for a long time, but until recently readership was too low for me to expect much of anything from that button. That’s changing. It’s getting to the point where even a small donation from every reader would add up to enough to make a difference for me–and for this blog.

And maybe for the planet.

The Vision

The vision is for this website to become a major platform for climate-related news and information. This blog will continue, with its mix of news, science, commentary, and personal musings, but you’ll also be able to come here for a curated list of links to climate-related news and articles on other sites and information on calls for political action and activism. You’ll be able to see who is doing what in this important fight, and who needs your help.

To make all that happen, I’ll need to budget about 16-20 hours per week, mostly for research. That’s about twice the time I can afford to donate, so I’m looking at raising about $150 per week to cover the difference.

The Numbers

WordPress tells me I’m getting just over 70 visitors per week. It’s hard to know what that actually means; I might have 70 people who read every post, or 60 of those visitors might be electronic passers-by who don’t come back. Or something in the middle. I also have 81 followers, but I am unclear as to how many of them are active readers or whether their reading is recorded in the site visitation stats.

But clearly I have at least a few dozen regular readers, and I could have over a hundred, plus some number of curious people who just drop in occasionally. I want to see those numbers increase, and I’m taking steps in that direction. The point is that if you’re reading these words, you’re part of a small but growing crowd. If you find the work I do valuable and would like to buy me a coffee now and then (I don’t actually drink coffee, but you get the point), you’re not alone.

If everybody who’d like to kick in for the occasional coffee clicks on that donate button, this blog will grow right before your eyes.

What’s at Stake

President Trump just initiated the process of taking the United States out of the Paris Climate Agreement. It’s a process that takes a certain amount of time and can be cancelled at any point–specifically, if Mr. Trump is re-elected, we’ll be out of Paris. If someone else is elected instead, the new president can put us back in.

Whether the world can fight climate change effectively without the help of the US is doubtful.

Between now and the election, American voters will see a vast amount of propaganda, much of it on social media, much of it subtle, to the effect that voting Democrat is pointless or evil, that the problems we face can best be solved with more anti-environmentalist nationalism, and that climate change is either a hoax or irrelevant. Those will be lies bought and paid for by moneyed interests, mostly people with huge fossil fuel investments. We have to combat those lies. We have to get the truth out and keep it out in front of voters’ eyes all the time.

The truth is that no matter what other issues matter to you, climate change will make them worse. The truth is that unless the United States has a climate-friendly President AND Congress, this coming cycle we will likely lose this thing. The truth is that if everyone in the United States who believes climate is important votes like it next year, we will have a chance.

People are dying. They die in wildfires and hurricanes.  They die in wars over dwindling resources. They die in boats or refugee caravans trying to escape farms that won’t produce anymore or crime and chaos made worse by climate-related woes. We have to fight back.

And the way I can fight back is by writing. But I can’t do it alone.


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A Prospect Less Sweet

A friend of mine wants to know whether anyone is doing anything about sugar maples and climate change.

The issue, succinctly, is that sugar maples are a cold-climate species that only grow well in the cooler parts of North America. As climate change shrinks those areas, the range of the maples will shrink, too. That’s a problem most obviously because this is the tree that gives us maple syrup, but it also provides much of the fall color for which New England is famous–and leaf-peeping is a major driver of the tourist economy of the region. And beyond economics, sugar maples (like the also-climate-stressed paper birch) are part of the regional identity of New England (and doubtless of other regions I’m less personally familiar with).

Maple sugar sap production is already starting to drop in some areas, though the economic burden is being countered to some extent by improvements in collection methods. We’re not talking about some vague warning about the future; this is happening now.

So, my friend wants to know, are there any efforts underway to breed climate change-resistant sugar maples, just as there are efforts to breed disease-resistant American chestnut trees?

A good question.

Introducing the Sugar Maple

Let’s start by taking a look at the star of the show, the sugar maple, Acer sacharum, from whose unusually sweet sap maple syrup and maple sugar candies are made. The sap comes from the tree as sweetish water and must be concentrated by boiling (or freezing) in order to produce syrup. Further concentration allows crystallization into candy. The tree itself is large and long-lived, with furrowed bark and distinctive leaves with U-shaped sinuses (if a maple leaf is a hand, the sinuses are the parts between the fingers).

Those who aren’t plant geeks might be surprised to learn that not all maples are sugar maples, and that while some of the others also provide sweet sap, others don’t. The maples are a large group of trees native to North America, Asia, and Europe. In New England there are six native species (sugar, red, silver, mountain, striped, and ash-leafed), and at least two exotic species are also common (Norway and Japanese). The American maples all produce clear, sweet sap, though none as sweet as the sugar maple, but the Norway maple produces white, inedible sap.

The sweet sap runs in the early spring, when the plant mobilizes stores sugars in order to power the growth of leaves. It would be interesting to compare how quickly different species leaf out; is the sugar maple faster (less time fro bud-break to full leaf-out) than other trees because its sap delivers more fuel for growth?). It’s important to recognize that the sugar is food the plant stored for its own use; tapping trees stresses them, and there is a limit to how much sap a tree of a given size can spare. The sap flow itself is triggered and maintained by changes in temperature. If the winter is too warm, or if the spring does not include an extended period when nights are below freezing and days are above, the tree won’t produce. What effect reduced sap flow has on the tree’s own physiology, I haven’t learned–I don’t imagine it’s healthy.

Sugar maples are not only valuable to humans. Across much of Eastern North America, they are one of the two dominant species in older forests (the other being American beech). The trees collect calcium and concentrate it in their leaves, enriching the soil as the leaves fall and decompose, thus feeding other plants. Many animals depend on sugar maples; some are insects that feed on no other species (these insects go on to feed birds), while others are mammals and birds that use maples at certain times of year. Most charmingly, squirrels tap the trees for sugar by biting through the bark. The sap leaks out and evaporates, leaving behind sugar which the squirrels lick. Porcupines eat the leaves and buds in the early spring, when little else is available to them. Sugar maple seeds feed songbirds, squirrels, chipmunks, and mice, while the bark provides emergency food for deer, rabbits, and mice in winter. The list could go on.

Much of the above information comes from the wonderful The Book of Forest and Thicket, by John Eastman. Curiously, the author also states that sugar maple is in a decline across the southern part of its range, in part due to climate change–a striking assertion, given that the book was published in 1992.

Sugar Maples and Climate Change

A few years ago, I wrote an article imagining the climate through the lifetime of my nephew into his old age. Towards the end of the piece, I imagined him taking a vacation in Vermont with his wife and talking to a waitress who complains about the economy because the sugar maples are dying. While researching for the piece I did not find any actual discussion of sugar maples, but I did notice that the range of the sugar maple is essentially bounded by certain USDA zones, and that zones that do not currently support wild sugar maples are predicted to move north into New England by century’s end. I drew the logical conclusion.

I should have known better.

Trees, in general, have narrower germination niches than growth niches, meaning that mature trees can survive circumstances that would kill seedlings–I learned that in grad school. In practice the narrower germination niche means that species can often be grown as specimen trees in lawns and parks in places where they can’t grow in the wild. Wild trees must start from seed, whereas those growing in lawns were usually sprouted in controlled environments in nurseries, then grown for years before being balled and burlapped for sale. By the time the tree is installed in a lawn, it’s already strong enough to withstand the local conditions.

Sugar maple will grow as a specimen tree well to the south of its current range (there is one in my mother’s back yard), so climate change alone is not likely to kill New England trees–but it could prevent a new generation of maples from establishing. Neither I nor my nephew are likely to see a Vermont without its classic autumnal red and orange, but he could well live to see the last generation of wild Vermont sugar maples sprout. Three hundred years later, those few lonely trees will die of old age without heirs, if things continue as they are now.

Research supports that second, corrected vision as closer to the truth.

In Michigan, where climate change is making the growing season drier, sugar maples are growing much more slowly than they used to. The lead researcher of that study was quoted by NPR as saying that under some climate change scenarios, that region would lose its sugar maples entirely; the new climate won’t kill mature trees, but no new young trees will survive to replace them. In the meantime, trees that don’t grow well don’t produce much sap, either.

A warm spring can cut the season short, and did so in 2012, when much of New England produced dramatically less maple syrup than in previous years because of heat waves in March. Climate change promises more heat waves, and just as trees that don’t grow well don’t produce a lot of sap, it’s hard to imagine that non-productive maple trees are growing much.

A study in Vermont found that climate-related stress has, over the last several decades, been equal in severity to pests and other more well-known problems; the authors note that 50 years from now, half the state’s sugar maples could be experiencing “moderate to severe climate stress.” I’m not sure what that means in practical terms, but some dieback combined with widespread declines in productivity and a general failure to breed (except in isolated refugia with colder climates) would seem to fit the bill.

In general, climate change could lead to widespread habitat loss for sugar maples, especially under the more dire warming scenarios.

Perhaps counter-intuitively, the loss of American sugar maples won’t necessarily translate into a lot of dry pancakes, despite many headlines to the contrary. For one thing, even in New England, a lot of pancakes are already being eaten with artificially-flavored “pancake syrup.” For another, according the the paper linked in the previous paragraph, most sugar maple trees that are large enough to be tapped currently are not, and as long as we avoid the most extreme warming, it should be possible to keep production up–while the number of sugar maples will decline, producers can tap a greater proportion of those that are left.

Of course, neither pancake syrup nor expanded tapping operations will help songbirds, squirrels, or porcupines very much.

Doing Something

My friend’s question is actually two or three questions, and they don’t necessarily have the same answers.

Is anyone developing sugar maples that can survive climate change and save New England’s forests? The most obvious way to answer that question is to look at whether anyone is developing cultivars or hybrids that can tolerate the new climate now moving towards them. But if the goal is indeed to save the maple forests–and that does appear to be my friend’s interest–we must also ask whether any of these cultivars could be released into the wild and whether they would indeed do all of the things we rely on sugar maples for. The possible third question hiding behind the other two is whether trying to propagate such a cultivar on a broad scale is even a good idea.

Breeding Sugar Maples

Is anyone developing a climate-proof sugar maple? The short answer is yes.

These are difficult questions to research because of the way search engines work–the information you get is not necessarily what you want but rather what the search engine’s algorithm thinks you want, and in this case breathless articles about dry pancakes tend to shoulder conservation genetics out of the way. I am therefore unable to say definitively whether there is a program that has as its stated goal rescuing the sugar maple from climate change.

However, there are cultivars that have different habitat requirements than wild sugar maple does: Crescendo, and Green Mountain are each both heat and drought tolerant; Bonfire is heat-tolerant; Legacy is resistant to drought; and Majesty is resistant to frost cracking–since climate change is causing increased frost cracking in paper birch (there are more freeze-thaw cycles in the spring, now), I’m guessing it could be a problem for maples, too. There are probably other cultivars with useful properties offered from other sites. Whether any of these were developed with climate change in mind I’m not sure, but they certainly fit the bill.

And there are plant breeders working on sugar maple with climate change in mind. The US Forest Service and various state agencies have been working on “improving” the sugar maple–meaning, developing domestic cultivars with commercially desirable traits–since the 1960’s at least. Their primary goal has been to increase sugar content in the sap (they have succeeded), but state agencies in New York are also continuing the research with the aim of storing sugar maple germplasm in case of catastrophic loss due to invasive insects or disease–possibilities they acknowledge are made more pressing by climate change since the trees are stressed and less resilient than they once were. Some of the same researchers are also looking at how climate change is impacting the tapping of sugar maples.

So the research is being done, more or less.

Saving Maple Forests

Curiously, I have not been able to find anyone discussing using sugar maple cultivars on a large scale to save either the American syrup industry or American sugar maple forests–of course, for me not to find something is no proof it doesn’t exist, but the lack of results is interesting. What I’m finding instead are discussions of using improved technology and improved forest management techniques to preserve the industry, possibly coupled with the use of red maple sap as an alternative source of maple sugar. Red maples are much more heat tolerant and is being used for syrup already. The syrup is said to taste a little different, but it’s quite good and suitably maply.

If indeed the climate-change-tolerant cultivars are not part of an organized push to save the forests, why not? I’m just speculating here, but it’s possible the issue is economic; changing management practices and using some red maple syrup are adequate stopgaps for now, and have the advantage of using trees that already exist. People do plant maples, including high-sugar cultivars and hybrids, with an eye towards sugaring, but a young maple won’t be ready to tap for 20 years or more. A major investment in a new cultivar might not be very attractive when there are options with a more immediate return.

Saving Maple Forests?

OK, you mind if I speculate a bit?

I can think of two reasons why mass propagation of the cultivars might not be a good idea. First, unlike the American chestnut, which has bee taken out by disease everywhere, wild-type sugar maple could hang on in parts of its range. That means that if cultivars are naturalized, they could end up competing with the wild type. What if the cultivars win?

A domestic cultivar could have all the marketable advantages of the original, but it’s not the same tree. And depending on what the differences are, the switch, if it happens, could matter a lot, especially given that sugar maple is a dominant species in many areas. Changing it, even slightly, could have vast consequences. For example, according to some remarkable research by Dr. Doug Tallamy, many herbivorous insects are highly specialized–even plants closely related to their host species are inedible to them, such that replacement of natives with exotics causes insect populations to crash–followed by songbirds, who need insects to feed their chicks. Last time we spoke, Dr. Tallamy didn’t yet know whether cultivars are typically also inedible to specialized insect herbivores–but since some cultivars are marketed for superior pest resistance, it is clear palatability for insects suffers sometimes. And wild-type sugar maples, remember, support huge numbers of insects.

Second, if wild-type sugar maple loses its habitat to climate change, so will a lot of the other species that inhabit the same forests. Perhaps a sugar maple cultivar could save some of them, but not all. Many aspects of how the forest functions will change. Arguably, the sugar maple-American beech forests we know will be gone from certain areas, replaced by something else. If the “something else” includes a sugar maple cultivar, I don’t see how that would be a problem (the danger is in the cultivar spreading to places where the wild type persists)–but I don’t see how that’s really a victory, either. At best, it would be a lessened scope of loss.

Realistically, our best hope lies in saving as much of the wild-type sugar maple forest as we can, and that means stopping climate change now.

 

 


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How Do You Know?

We’re in the deep freeze, thanks to a destabilized polar vortex, and predictably, certain people are publicly complaining that the cold disproves climate change, not realizing that this weather pattern is, in fact, a symptom of change.

Old news.

In the meantime, I’ve been thinking about uncertainty, and how climate deniers sometimes use the fact that climatologists don’t know everything to argue that they don’t know anything.

Actually, it’s a fair question. While no one could fairly expect any expert to literally know everything in their field, how can climatologists be so sure of some things and so unsure of others? When a climate denier makes a wild claim (for example, that climate change on Earth can’t be due to carbon dioxide emissions because other planets are warming, too–which, by the way, they mostly aren’t), how can the rest of us be sure it is wild?

I thought of an analogy.

Imagine someone says to you “I just saw someone walk by the window, but I can’t be sure who it is.”

So, you start asking questions–what gender, what age, what clothing–and the person isn’t sure. “I think it was a man, but I’m not sure. Dark hair, blue clothing? I really didn’t get a good look.”

You then ask “OK, what about skin color? Was the skin purple?”

Even though your informant knows very little, the question is ridiculous, because humans can’t have purple skin. Three nipples, sometimes. Four kidneys, occasionally. But not purple skin, and we’re all familiar enough with our own species that we never ask if barely-glimpsed people have purple skin.

Knowledge comes in different levels–for any topic, some types of information are superficial, while others are fundamental. If you know those fundamentals, and a claim violates those fundamentals (as any suggestion that rising carbon dioxide levels aren’t causing warming does) then you don’t need to do any research on the specifics to know the claim is false.

Now, most of us don’t know the fundamentals about climate–it’s not difficult to study up, but not everybody has the energy or the time. If that’s your position, then you can’t identify wild claims as balderdash on your own–but you can trust that the genuine experts are not being arbitrary when they call foul.

This trust is important. I do not mean thoughtless trust, I mean informed trust, based on a carefully-developed capacity to identify which people have the fundamental knowledge and the understanding that such knowledge isn’t universal. There are things we really do need experts for–like performing surgery, flying airplanes, and sorting out real science from hooey.

Such trust makes us smarter, not dumber, because it means we don’t have to make sense of the world alone.