The Climate in Emergency

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


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When a Felon’s Not Engaged

So, President George H. W. Bush is dead. Not a huge surprise, he was getting up there, and many men pass soon after leaving their partner. The news is predictably filled with glowing memorials and tributes. Just as predictably, my social media is filling up with indignant complaints and reminders of all his faults.

I try to stay away from partizan politics here, as well as all legitimate controversy unrelated to climate change, so I’m going to stay as neutral as possible on Mr. Bush’s legacy. The thing is, his was not a perfect record. He presided over a military that killed civilians. He may have been involved in the Iran-Contra affair as Vice-President, and certainly pardoned people who were convicted for being involved. His impact on civil rights was mixed at best. His neglect of the AIDS epidemic and his hostility to LGBT rights were arguably responsible for many deaths. He did a great deal that was useful and noble as well, and doubtless the

And yet, apparently he had friends all over, including unexpected people, like Bill Clinton and Dana Carvey. Watching George W. Bush fondly pat his father’s casket on his way up to give the eulogy was heartrending.

There are those who see in the senior Mr. Bush an irredeemably reprehensible human being, and in his friends mere apologists and collaborators. There are probably those who see his shortcomings as unimportant, or even as not actually shortcomings, who see him honestly as a human, but great man.

What I see is a man of whom both good and bad things are true.

The reason I bring all this up is that after a year of variously bad climate news and two years of rather frightening climate-related politics, it’s obvious that climate change is not only caused by humans in the generic sense, but also by specific humans–lots of us–making decisions that range from inadequate to bad to criminal. Hurricanes are bigger now, forest fires are worse, heat waves threaten more people, and the richness of our living world is being lost because individual people are doing things that could have been done a different way to better effect.

The impulse is always to either deny the seriousness–or even the existence–of shortcomings, or to demonize the person and deny anything noble or even human about them. That way, either way, lies fascism.

Fascism at best. At worst, that way also lies failure to deal with climate change.

So, let’s get in the habit of recognizing the seriousness of our shortcomings, including those that are truly reprehensible, while also talking to each other like human beings. The climate is not a simple system and neither are any of us.

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Considering Damages

The fires in California are all over the news these days. The death toll keeps rising as bodies are found–two hundred people are missing, now. Generally speaking, wildfire is a climate change story, but while I want to cover current events, this story is too new, and there isn’t yet anything to say about it that I have not said about other fires before.

But if, as I suspect, the severity of this week’s fires are due in some part to climate change, then that lays the blood of the dead on the hands of climate deniers (not skeptics, there’s a difference), certain industrialists, and certain political leaders who have, decade after decade, refused to act. Same with the death and destruction of recent hurricanes, some of which have been unambiguously linked to climate change.

So, why not sue?

And, indeed, some people are suing, with varying degrees of success.

Suing for Climate

I first heard about a climate change lawsuit through social media some years ago, but since I didn’t hear a peep about the matter by any other means, I wasn’t sure it was real. Turns out, it was not only real, but what appeared on Facebook was the tip of the iceberg. There isn’t just one climate lawsuit, but many, all across the world.

If you’re interested in details, there’s actually an online database where you can look them all up. Click here to check it out.

The US has more of these suits than anywhere else in the world, and it’s somewhat easier to get information on these cases, at least for an American like me. There are two main approaches–suing fossil fuel companies and suing governments.

Suing Companies

Fossil fuel companies are being sued, not just for producing fossil fuels, but also for actively obstructing climate action, as some did by spreading misinformation and fostering public doubt about the reality of climate change.

Curiously, in the coverage I’ve read, such obstruction is generally framed as a failure to warn the public. For example, one article quotes a law professor as follows:

“The industry has profited from the manufacture of fossil fuels but has not had to absorb the economic costs of the consequences,” Koh said. “The industry had the science 30 years ago and knew what was going to happen but made no warning so that preemptive steps could have been taken.

“The taxpayers have been bearing the cost for what they should have been warned of 30 years ago,” Koh added. “The companies are now being called to account for their conduct and the damages from that conduct.”

It’s important to recognize such framing is itself misleading. Climate change, and the basic mechanics of how it works and why it’s a problem, were public knowledge 30 years go. The reason I know that is I was 11 and I remember being well-informed about it. Anything a geeky but otherwise unremarkable 11-year-old knows about is not being kept secret by Exxon, or anybody else.

The truth is that the public is culpable for climate change, as a decisive majority has spent decades now in active denial of warnings that were readily available for any interested person behind. But whatever innate resistance the citizenry may have had to climate action was actively ginned up by companies who knew better and attempted to protect their business interests at the expense of everybody else.

That’s a more nuanced, but arguably more nefarious offense.

Hopefully, suits based on calling out that nefariousness will work, because suits against energy companies for causing climate change itself are not working well. Several have been dismissed already.

It’s not that anyone has argued in court that climate change isn’t real, isn’t caused by humans, or isn’t important. Instead, these suits are failing because air pollution is already addressed by the Clean Air Act, which (for reasons I don’t personally understand) means that the issue must be handled by Congress and not by the courts. It’s also difficult to pin a particular plaintiff’s woes on an individual company. Some judges have asserted that because the problem is so big that it clearly needs Federal, even international leadership, that local or regional courts have no place in the solution.

Leaving the rest of us stuck when Federal leadership fails.

But the point is that yes, there are cities suing companies over specific climate-related damages.

Suing the Government

The lawsuit I first heard about was probably the Juliana Case, in which a group of 21 children and young adults (it’s sometimes called the “children’s case”) are suing the Federal government for not protecting their right to a livable planet. There are also similar suits against at least nine states, although some of these have been dismissed.

The Federal government has been trying very hard to get the Juliana Case dismissed before it is even heard. So far, no such attempt has been successful. The process has stretched on for some three years, now. The fact that it is still going is good news, but it’s far from clear whether the young people will win, or even if they will ever get to trial.

Winning Suits for Climate

So far, I’m not sure if any of these cases have actually won in court, at least not in the US. I haven’t heard of any. What happens if and when they do?

If the Juliana Case wins, the courts could order the Federal government to cut emissions. The situation could be analogous to school integration, which also proceeded, at times, on point of court order.

If the suits against companies win, plaintiffs could get money to use for climate change adaptation (such as cities building sea walls). Perhaps more importantly, the financial losses–and threats of financial losses–could force energy companies to get serious about transitioning to climate-sane energy sources.

The problem has been that there really aren’t any immediate negative consequences for anyone who chooses to put their narrow self-interest first. Environmentalism has lacked teeth. If the electorate refuses to hold anyone accountable for destroying our planet around us, it’s possible the courts can do something.

Course, that depends on who the judges are.


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Waking up

Here is an edited re-post of an article from two years ago, just after President Trump’s election. Regardless of the outcome tonight, it’s worth remembering that day.

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When I was small, I sat with my parents one night listening to election returns on the radio. My parents had told me whom they voted for (they both voted the same) and that they very much disliked the opposing ticket. They probably told me why as well, but I didn’t understand. As I watched them listen to the radio that night, I saw their faces frown. And frown and frown some more.

“What happens if he gets elected?” I asked.

“Remember that movie we saw last week?” my Dad asked, referring to a film about failed terrorists who were carried away kicking and screaming by the police. “Well, if he gets elected, that will happen to us.”

Let me explain that my parents were not terrorists. I believe my father was afraid of some serious injustice on the part of the government, though why he thought it a good idea to share those fears with a four-year-old I do not know. It doesn’t matter.

What does matter is what went through my mind when the candidate in question was elected.

“Oh no!” I thought to myself, worry rising quickly to panic. But as soon as I realized what my Dad’s words really meant–the end of life as I knew it–a kind of switch flipped in my mind and I calmed right down. I didn’t put the matter into words, but if I had, it would have been something like “well, that’s so awful it can’t possibly happen, therefore I don’t need to worry about it.”

I was, as I said, very small, but my impulse was a broadly human one. The temptation is going to be very strong to tell ourselves Donald Trump’s election can’t be ‘game over’ for the climate, that’s too horrible, so I’m not going to worry about it, much.

Well, it can and it might be–but at the same time we don’t have anything to lose by fighting like hell on this one, and we might just pull a miracle out after all. The question I want to address with this post is therefore ‘what does fighting consist of? What can we do now?’

We can think clearly about our objectives. We can examine our options.

We can work to shield and support people made vulnerable by either Mr. Trump himself or his supporters–members of racial and religious minorities, refugees, LGBT folks, many women. We can work together to block Mr. Trump’s more disastrous appointments, orders, and other actions (and make no mistake, he has promised several disasters). We can play defense as hard and fast as we can. We can make progress where possible.

And we can be kind to each other.

This is not currently a nation of kindness, of communication. Many, perhaps most, Trump supporters feel disenfranchised, unheard, and denigrated, that’s why they voted for Mr. Trump. The Trumpers, in turn, many of them, are not being kind. They are not listening.

Lest I be accused of justifying hatred, let me point out that the fear and rage that feeds the Trump movement is misdirected and dysfunctional, and nobody who finds themselves on the wrong end of it owes anything to their abusers. Yes, abusers. But just because you’re paranoid doesn’t mean someone’s not out to get you. The mostly rural people who swept Mr. Trump into office are absolutely right to feel ill-used, because Mr. Trump and his ilk are ill-using them. And that is not fair and it is not right. I’ve written about this before, in the context of climate deniers and climate skeptics. Same problem. The point is this country is hurting every which way right now, and some people are hurting others in their pain. Collectively, we need to stop doing that. Unless you are currently fighting to be heard yourself, it’s time to really listen. And everyone needs to be kind.

I need to acknowledge that I’m not confining myself strictly to climate, though that remains my focus  overall. It is Mr. Trump’s promise to undo President Obama’s climate legacy that motivates me to write this post and do this research. But Donald Trump’s other transgressions are too serious and too frightening not to acknowledge. He is not a normal statesman and the opposition to him is not normal party politics. Even many within his own party are deeply frightened and offended by him. If you lean Republican, let me assure you that the political neutrality neutrality of this blog on issues other than climate remains intact. If you are a Trump supporter, let me say I will not attack you personally on this site and that I firmly believe Mr. Trump is not going to look out for your interests, either.

In subsequent posts I’ll get into detail and provide resources, links, to-do lists, especially for blocking, protecting, playing defense to win. Now, as my very wise husband just said, it is time for sleeping. And then tomorrow it will be time to wake up.


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Falling

I was going to write about solar ovens in Africa this week, but I’m still waiting for an interviewee to get back to me. So instead I’m going to talk about… leaves.

Here in Maryland, the forests still look surprisingly green. Now that we’ve had a few cold nights, some of the trees are “trying to turn,” as my husband puts it, but it doesn’t really look like fall, yet. The Weather Channel confirms that the delayed color is both regional and weather-related. That is, it’s not just my autumn that has been delayed, and the delay in foliage is, indeed, because of the extended warm weather.

But I’ve noticed that the leaves are falling.

They’re not falling heavily, yet, though at this point in the year they wouldn’t be. It’s just a few dead leaves accumulating on the sides of the roads and the edges of the sidewalk. But the funny thing is, the fallen leaves are mostly green. The trees they are falling from are also mostly green, but it is a strange green, an altered hue. I wonder–have the leaves changed after all?

“Brown-down,” the technical term for it, is a multifaceted process initiated when shortening day-length triggers the growth of the “abscission layer,” a corky section in the leaf petiole (its stem) that interferes with the flow of water and nutrients. Eventually, the cork gets thick enough to cut off the leaf entirely so it dies, and the petiole breaks neatly at the abscission layer. The leaf falls off. But before all that happens, before the cut-off is complete, the leaf continues to function. But chlorophyll breaks down as it’s used. It has to be continually replaced. With the leaf partly cut off, the chlorophyll can’t be replaced. The green fades from the leaf, revealing yellow and sometimes red pigments. Eventually, those pigments, too, break down, and the color fades.

Temperature changes help determine the speed and intensity of the color changes, even though the growth of the abscission layer itself is governed by day length.

Does this sound familiar?

Years ago, I wrote a post about spring, and how different aspects of spring (leaf-out, hatching of caterpillars, arrival of migratory songbirds) are cued by different factors. As climate change speeds up some of those factors but not others, the entire progression of spring gets out of sync. I’m wondering if the same thing is happening with fall.

If leaf-fall is triggered by day length, and the color change is triggered by temperature, then as climate change shifts the seasonal cooling later and later–and the timing of shortening days can’t change–it stands to reason autumn should get out of wack. Specifically, the leaves will fall more or less on time, but there will be little to no fall color.

Is that what we’re seeing?

I’m engaging in speculation, here, but it seems plausible. The ecological cost of climate change, and ultimately most important (that includes human ecology, FYI), but there’s a psychological cost, too. Personally, I find the weirdness of this non-fall very disturbing.


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Update on Hurricanes

Some years ago, I wrote that although global warming seems like it should make hurricanes worse, we can’t really say that it has. Until just a few decades ago, if a hurricane happened not to pass over human observers or equipment, we might not know it existed. It’s not that we have no data before that, it’s just not a complete picture. How can we compare “before” and “after” when we don’t have a full “before”? There are other complications, too.

Of course, as I pointed out, all that applies only if “worse” is taken to mean more frequent or with higher wind-speeds. Since the most dangerous part of a hurricane is always its storm-surge, which is unambiguously worsened by sea-level rise, another answer to the question is that yes, global warming does make hurricanes worse and is going to keep doing so as long as the seas keep rising.

In any case, I didn’t expect any of that to change any time soon–but it might have just done so.

The problem of inadequate “before” data is still there, but a team from Stony Brook University has just modeled Hurricane Florence as it would have been without anthropogenic climate change–essentially, they used the models used to forecast hurricane behavior, but altered the model so as to simulate an un-warmed world. Because the same computer system was used to forecast both the real-world hurricane and the counterfactual one, the reliability of the system can be checked simply by comparing the real-world forecast with the actual behavior of Hurricane Florence–the forecast was pretty good, as it turned out.

So, all of you who were under Hurricane Florence? It’s official. Those of you who saw the heaviest rainfall–you saw 50% more of it because of climate change. And if you live on the coast, the storm was about 50 miles wider when it made landfall than it would have been, so at least some of you were hit by a storm surge that would otherwise have passed you by.

Now, when I say “it’s official,” I don’t actually know whether there is any controversy around this approach. I don’t have an inside view of either climatology or meteorology, though I do have friends I may be able to ask. So we may have to wait a while to see how this is received, but so far it seems legit to me.

While we’re discussing new hurricane research, it seems there are two more variables to how “bad” a hurricane can be, and climate change looks to be making them both worse.

One is the speed at which storms travel. The slower a hurricane is moving, the longer it takes to pass over your house and the more hurricane you get. That was part of the problem with Harvey, which simply stayed put over Houston and rained for way too long. A study just published in the journal, Nature suggests that storms are, on average, getting slower, apparently because climate change is causing weakening of the air currents that move hurricanes along.

The other variable is how fast storms intensify. We’re used to tropical systems strengthening gradually over a period of days, so that if a tropical storm (wind speed no greater than 74 mph) is pointed at you and about a day away, you can go ahead and prepare for a tropical storm, or possibly a category 1 hurricane. But occasionally a storm will undergo “rapid intensification” and you can go to bed prepared for that tropical storm and wake up to find a cat 4 bearing down on you. Scary, no?

And while nobody is actually sure yet how rapid intensification works, it does seem to be happening more and more often. A recent computer simulation shows that climate change does indeed result in more of the most severe hurricanes (categories 4 and 5) and does so specifically by making rapid intensification more frequent.

So, there you have it, folks. While I’m sure more research needs to be done (doesn’t it always?) and the picture will get clearer and more sure as we learn more, climate change is making hurricanes worse. That means worse in the future and it means worse already.

So when I say we all need to vote for climate-sane candidates willing to re-instate Paris? This is why.


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What the Weatherman Said

I don’t have a lot of time to write tonight, but the thing I want to say will not take long.

Yesterday,Dan Satterfield, our local TV weatherman on WBOC, said something that caught my attention. I have not been able to find the clip online, so I’m quoting him from memory:

In all my years covering the weather, I have never seen this many extreme rain events in one year before. It’s world-wide. It’s because of the warm oceans.

He didn’t say “climate change” but it’s clearly implied–whether he intended to imply it or not. In his professional judgment, this year has been highly atypical worldwide, and it has been that way because of warm oceans worldwide. Could these warm oceans be the result of some short-term cycle? I don’t know, maybe. But such cycles interact with climate change, both exist–and you’d think if Mr. Satterfield had a ready explanation through some cool meteorological phenomenon he would have said so. He clearly gets too much of a kick out of talking weather not to.

This was the statement of a man who is puzzled and disturbed.

Honestly, we don’t hear climate change acknowledged, even obliquely, often enough in the public media. It’s all around us and every day, but no one talks about it. Perhaps more importantly, remember how I was complaining that I couldn’t find any information on how unusual the current level of unusual weather might be?

Well, sounds like somebody knows.


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How Does This Read?

I have spent the last few days reworking a series of short essays intended as a kind of post-script to a novel I have just about completed. The following is one of those essays. I have covered much of the same ground in this blog before, though with a slightly different focus, but I want to try out this piece and see how it reads. Feel free to comment with any feedback.

The Post-Petroleum World

Ecological Memory depicts a world of both ox-carts and robotic exoskeletons. Some readers might ask why. Yes, this is a world without fossil fuel, but it’s clearly a technologically advanced society, so why are they stuck using ox-carts? Why not use renewable energy?

The short answer is that they can and do, but if they used enough renewable energy to fully replace fossil fuels, they’d just wreck the world again. Where energy comes from is less important than how much is used.

We’re used to telling the story of technological progress in terms of innovation; cars are more advanced than ox-carts, so they go faster. But the other side of the same story is energy. A car than ran on just a few bales of hay couldn’t go much faster than an ox, no matter how advanced it was. Greater technology has allowed us to use more and more energy and that, not innovation alone, gives us our unprecedented power.

Fossil fuel made possible our energy increases. Fossil fuel use has also caused climate change and ocean acidification, and it indirectly causes several other ills, such as biodiversity loss. The mechanisms involved should be roughly familiar to most readers. The surprise is that drawing the same amount of energy from some other source would likely cause similar problems. Only the mechanisms would be different. To understand why, we need to take a dive into complex systems science.

“Complex,” here, has a specific, technical meaning. A system is complex if it has certain properties, such as self-organization and “nestedness,” meaning a system can have smaller complex systems inside it. I am a complex system and so are you. So are cells, ecosystems, and biospheres, among other examples. Whole books have been written on these systems, and those books are worth a read, but the important thing to know is that systems science is all about the flow of energy.

Complex systems can fight entropy and win. Entropy, readers may remember, is the tendency for everything to gradually run down as energy dissipates. Complex systems also lose energy to dissipation, but they don’t run down because they can actively draw more energy in from outside. If a system is drawing in more energy than it loses, it is anti-entropic. Think of a baby, eating and eating, and turning all those calories to growth and development, or a young forest, rapidly increasing in both biomass and biodiversity. Eventually, the system reaches a point of equilibrium where energy inputs equal losses, and growth stops. That’s maturity. From the standpoint of systems science, individual humans remain mature very briefly. Almost as soon as we reach full size, our metabolisms slow and we start losing energy, what’s called the entropic phase. More colloquially, it’s called aging. If something speeds up the entropy, or causes entropy before maturity, that’s illness or injury. A system that stays entropic long enough will cease being complex. That’s death.

All complex systems go through these phases, though not all automatically become entropic at a certain age. Forests, for example, don’t get old. They can become entropic, though. A forest on fire is entropic, for example. If the fire isn’t too severe, the forest will survive and become anti-entropic again for a while as it re-grows. As Andy explains in the story, size, complexity, and stability increase and decrease together. Adults aren’t just bigger than babies, they are also smarter and more resistant to disease. And there’s a reason we sometimes call the latter part of our entropic phase the second childhood.

All this energy has to come from somewhere, and complex systems often draw energy from the larger systems they are nested within. My cells draw energy from me. I draw energy from my society (mostly by working for a living), and my society draws energy from the biosphere. The catch is that if the smaller system draws too much energy, it will force the larger system into the entropic phase.

Think about why cancer kills if it isn’t successfully treated. Think about a forest being logged at an unsustainable rate. Think about the rapid burning of fossil fuel.

The biosphere, too, is a complex system, and it, too, had an anti-entropic phase when it was actively growing and becoming more complex and more stable—we know it was growing because the carbon dioxide concentration in the air was falling. Remember that plants store solar energy in carbon compounds built out of carbon dioxide and water. Free, breathable oxygen is the byproduct. Those carbon compounds then become the biomas and energy source of the entire living world. As the biosphere grew, the supply of carbon in the atmosphere shrank. The carbon dioxide/oxygen ratio eventually stabilized as the biosphere entered maturity. In recent decades, the carbon concentration has been rising again as the Earth entered an entropic phase.

Let me repeat that; the biosphere is currently entropic because of us.

The loss of stability and complexity and size always go with the loss of mass and energy as a complex system starts to die. Erratic weather, a changing climate, and widespread biodiversity loss are simply what these familiar symptoms look like on a large scale.

That burning fossil fuel should trigger an entropic phase isn’t surprising, given that the whole point of fossil fuel use is to access a lot of energy. The biosphere provides us with an annual energy budget of less than the total solar energy we receive, solar energy that builds plant tissue, drives winds, and moves waters. Were we to stay within that energy budget, living on sustainable forestry and agriculture, plus wind, water, and solar, most of the power we take for granted today would simply be out of our reach. Fossil fuel makes it all possible, and does so by giving us energy at a higher rate than what the biosphere actually receives. Biospheric entropy is the inevitable result.

To be clear, if we stop using so much energy, the biosphere will re-enter an anti-entropic phase and recover, though it will take a very long time for full recovery, possibly millions of years. There is hope, though time is getting short.

Giving up fossil fuel entirely is probably a necessary step towards sustainability. What’s the alternative, some complicated global carbon rationing system? Who could administer such a thing? But the end of the Age of Oil alone will not protect us. Should we ever find and use an alternative energy source to again draw more energy from the biosphere than the biosphere actually has to spare, we’ll be back in the same entropic muddle we’re in now. It would be like replacing a cancerous tumor with a six-mile-long tape-worm. The patient would still die, the only difference would be the mechanism.

Energy is energy. Using too much has consequences.

We will return to an energy budget similar to what the world had prior to the Industrial Revolution. One way or another, we will have to. And that change will impose real limitations on what we can do and how we can do it.

But an energy budget is not a time machine. We will not lose the scientific and cultural advances we have made, nor will we cease advancing. We won’t return to pre-Industrial Revolution life. We will build something new. What that something might be, I can’t say. Exoskeletons and oxcarts are simply part of my guess as to one possibility.