The Climate in Emergency

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


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A Break for Puffins

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Yeah, I know,” he tells me.

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

“Oh?”

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

“That’s really sad.”

“Yeah, it is.”

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

“Well, stop global warming.”

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

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

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

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

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

“Neat.”

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

“Can you imitate the sound?”

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

“A loon?”

“Yes! That’s it! A loon!”

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

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

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

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Last

The world’s last male northern white rhinoceros is dead.

His name was Sudan. He liked people, and was liked by them, and spent most of his 45 years in captivity. He was very old, very ill, and, recently, in a lot of pain. He was euthanized yesterday by a team of veterinarians who loved him.

He leaves behind just two other members of his subspecies, both female relatives of his, both unable to reproduce. His death doesn’t actually change the picture for his kind; recovery is not quite impossible–some of his sperm remains in storage, and one of the females, though unable to gestate, can produce eggs, which could be harvested–but it is an extreme long shot, and it was equally a long shot yesterday before he died. The death of the last member of a species or subspecies is a technicality.

The northern white rhino is part of the same species as the southern white rhino, which is not in quite such dire straights, but the distinction between the two matters. The northern white rhino may have been capable of ecological relationships that its southern counterpart can’t replace. Anyway, things are bad for rhinos in general, these days. We can’t take any subspecies’ survival for granted.

Periodically, someone questions whether we really need all these species and subspecies, whether the heroics enacted for the likes of Sudan are really worth the effort. Such questions ignore the fact that we almost certainly don’t know what we’re losing when a species dies. We don’t know how far the web of its relationships in the world went.

Climate change did not kill Sudan, not directly. But species loss is another symptom of the collapse that is causing climate change. As long as our species insists on using more resources than our planet actually has–something that is only possible with the use of fossil fuel–progressive biosphere collapse is inevitable. Climate change did not kill Sudan, but it’s possible that climate sanity could have saved him. What might climate sanity now still save?

Talk about climate change. Talk to your friends, your neighbors, your co-workers, your Congresspeople. Don’t let the issue be ignored.