The Climate in Emergency

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


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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.


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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.