The Climate in Emergency

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


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Giving Ground to Climate?

Last week, I attended a presentation on climate change and the Maine coast. In general, it was an excellent presentation, but since I’m going to be somewhat critical of it here, I will not draw attention to the presenter or her employer.

There was some information in the presentation on climate science (which I’ll work into other posts), but most of the emphasis was on communication—the idea being that instead of telling people scary, alarmist stories about climate disasters, it makes more sense to give them tools to help with mitigation and leave it up to them whether to use those tools. No persuasion, in other words, and no education that might hint at persuasion. Apparently people feel more respected and less overwhelmed this way, and some start to believe climate change is real on their own, eventually.

“This is a long game,” said the presenter.

That’s when I started to boil over. I mean, we have no time for long games, for one thing, and the disaster stuff isn’t alarmism, it’s just an alarm. Did you know some researchers are pushing to add an extra class to the hurricane rating system, to account for the stronger storms that seem to be the new normal? It’s alarming. I’m alarmed. Let’s face facts, people.

Of course, there’s the old question—do you want to be right or do you want to be effective? In other words, let go of the need to win the argument, and keep your eye on the prize. There is a lot to be said for gentle non-confrontation, for respect of other people’s sovereignty and dignity…not many people can really hear you if you’re shrieking at them, even if the things you’re shrieking happen to be 100% correct and a perfectly understandable thing to shriek about.

She says her method is getting results, and that’s exactly why I held my piece in the presentation, and why I’m not identifying her or her organization right now. I don’t want to get in her way.

But at the same time, it’s worth considering that climate denial is not a natural phenomenon, not a simple matter of people needing to hear the message in a gentle and accessible way. No, climate denial is deliberately manufactured, which is why is it is virtually non-existent in countries that don’t speak English and therefore don’t get the propaganda. So, clearly the old-style environmentalist messaging works, it did work, and it worked so well that people with a different message started pushing back—quite effectively. The lesson isn’t to abandon persuasion, it’s to get better at it, because we’re not the only persuaders out here.

The other thing I think about is The Letter from Birmingham Jail, in which Dr. King famously calls white liberals out for telling black people to be less assertive in their demands for freedom and justice, as if white people might concede if only black people asked more nicely. That anyone, anywhere, achieves justice by becoming less strident about asking for it is a crock when it comes to racism, and it’s a crock when it comes to climate change, too—which, make no mistake, is also a matter of justice. Climate change is landing on the heads of the poor and the marginalized, not on those who make bank on the industrial processes that put us in this mess.

Climate denial did not become a political force because we were too strident, and it will not go away if we cease being strident. It will simply win.

What we need to do is to become smarter and more strategic in our stridency.

Yes, of course, be respectful. Ordinary people who don’t know whether climate change is real are not the enemy, and should not be treated as such. Offer solutions to problems people have, not the problems they don’t have or don’t think they have. Listen, learn, and acknowledge the importance of the collateral issues, such as race, class, and ethnicity, that can prime a person to reject a message for reasons that seem irrelevant but aren’t. Be accessible. Be empowering. Do everything and anything that experience and social science tell us might work.

But don’t take your eye off the prize.

Don’t cede ground lightly or without paying attention to the strategic value of that ground.

And don’t let your adversaries define the terms of either engagement or retreat.

For example, if you’re speaking to a group that may include climate skeptics, sure, go ahead and use some tact. Put the emphasis on issues you can agree on. Acknowledge their right and ability to make up their own mind. But do not refer to scientific controversy over what is causing climate change, because there is none. You’d just be repeating someone else’s lie. That’s an example of ceding ground without paying attention to its value—you have ceded the truth, and you’ve given your adversary the power to redefine consensus reality as needed. Do not do that.

Likewise, the suggestion that we focus only on offering tools to help with mitigation concerns me because it does nothing whatever for the fight at the ballot box—which is where the end game we’re looking at will play out. We need pro-climate government leadership, or we simply aren’t going to win this thing.

How very convenient.

I’m being strident at the moment. I’m being slightly impolitic, perhaps. But I’m deliberately speaking to the converted right now, and not to anyone else:

Yes, definitely, use whatever gentle message works for your corner of the issue, for your own specific campaign. No one can work on all fronts simultaneously, anyway. But figure out a way to be gentle and tactful without spreading climate-denier propaganda yourself and without abandoning the fight to get the climate-sane leadership we so desperately need.

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Tick, Tick, Tick, Tick, Tick

When I was little, the appearance of a tick itself was reason for alarm.

“So-and-so found a tick the other day!” Mom would announce. “Be careful!” I think I had one on me–just one–my entire childhood. I’m not sure whether there were really so few ticks, or if we were simply bad at finding them. I do know that when I moved to Maryland, I didn’t have to be good at finding the little parasites. Huge numbers of them found me.

Seriously, go for a walk in my neighborhood in the summer, and you’re likely to pull off ten or twenty just while you’re walking. When you get back to the house, strip off your clothes and find a dozen more. They won’t have had time to embed, yet, so it’s not a big deal. You just get in the habit of routine regular tick checks.

Incidentally, I don’t find the standard advice of long pants and so forth very useful. Sure, fewer ticks will make it to skin that way, but some will, and they’ll be impossible to find without taking your pants off, which the neighbors tend to frown on. So the ticks get more time in which the crawl into someplace inaccessible and bite.

My advice?

  • Wear as little clothing as possible and then investigate every tickle and itch immediately–it might be a tick.
  • Do a thorough tick check and take a shower immediately upon returning home.
  • If you walk through a tick-hatch and get zillions of the tiny things on you, don’t panic. They can’t give you any diseases because they’re babies and don’t have any diseases yet. Remove them as best you can, stick them on a length of tape so they can’t escape and bite you again, then invest in a large supply of anti-itch cream.
  • Don’t bother learning to identify different species of tick. They can all give you SOMETHING, so just avoid getting bitten by any of them, and if you get sick, go see your doctor.
  • Look up the proper way to remove an embedded tick. NEVER put anything on the tick to make it let go, because that makes the tick vomit into you first and then you’ll definitely have whatever it was was carrying.

I’m not a doctor, this is just my personal approach to the problem.

The reason I bring all this up is to make clear I am personally familiar with the density of the tick population in the mid-Atlantic region of the United States, and I am equally aware that New England has fewer of them. Don’t get me wrong, New England does have ticks–Lyme disease is named after a town in Connecticut, after all–but the problem is simply not on the same scale.

That could be changing.

There are reasons other than climate change. Tick population dynamics and the epidemiology of tick-borne illnesses are complex, inter-related topics with a lot of variables. For example, modern land-use practices, which has converted vast areas of the United States into mosaics of tiny forested patches with houses mixed in, favors white-footed mice, which are the primary hosts of deer ticks–which transmit Lyme disease. The mice, after all, can use tiny habitat patches (and houses) just fine, but their predators can’t. No foxes, no bobcats, no black snakes, no owls, etc., all adds up to oodles of mice and oodles of ticks. So, some kinds of ticks would be a bigger problem than they used to be, even without climate change.

But yes, the climate is helping.

The story is a complex one, because not only do factors other than climate influence tick populations, but the response of ticks to climate is not straight-forward. For example, ticks of the same species may become active at different temperatures in different parts of their range. All these different variables working together mean that predictions of what climate change will do to different species of ticks can disagree with each other widely. But some increases in tick-borne illnesses have been traced to climate change–so we don’t know what’s going to happen in the future, but in the present, the ticks are worse in some places already because of climate.

For example, the two species responsible for infecting people I actually know, deer ticks and lone star ticks, are both expanding their range because of climate change. Both can transmit multiple illnesses. Lone stars, named for the white spot on their backs, can give you a (possibly life-long) allergy to red meat. Without giving away any individual’s medical history, I can say I’ve seen this one, it’s quite real. And lone stars are now in all New England states, though they didn’t used to be.

(By the way, the article that I’ve linked to above describes lone stars as “hunting in packs.” I’ve seen the behavior the article is describing, and the phrase is misleading. The ticks aren’t acting cooperatively, like mini-wolves. But, unlike deer ticks, they can and do walk towards potential hosts. In my neighborhood, population densities are often high enough that half a dozen might be near enough to notice the same person, and if you stay still for a few minutes they’ll converge on you. They’re easy to avoid or remove, but it’s creepy to watch.)

And then there’s the winter ticks, which have always been in New England, but warming climates are letting their numbers surge so high that they’re literally bleeding moose calves to death.

All of which is to say that if you head north in the summer, as we do, and you notice more ticks on yourself and your pets than you used to, as we have, it’s not your imagination.


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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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Looking for–and Not Finding–Marches

If the planned Second Science March occurred, it did so utterly without fanfare.

I ended up not going, for various logistical reasons. I have a few friends who mentioned making the same decision for similar reasons. I don’t know anybody who went. I saw no mention of it on the news. I have just now done an internet search for “science march,” and the top page of results were all either sites planning the march or commenting on last year’s march. ZERO reporting on this year’s march.

Did it occur? Did anybody show up? Like the tree falling unheard in the forest, a march nobody noticed may indeed make a sound, but if nobody notices it might as well be silent because nobody cares.

In the process of looking for marches two weeks ago, I found a number of upcoming events, but I also learned that the organizers of the Second Science March were deliberately down-playing the march itself, and instead putting their focus on activism and advocacy. So, there was a reason why nobody heard about the march in time to make arrangements to go, and nobody reported on the marches when they happened–the organizers wanted it that way. I do not understand this strategy. Why expend money and effort planning a march, but then doom it to fail?

Do these people even want to succeed?

Last year’s Science March was a great deal of fun. I was disappointed not to be able to do it again. I’m also very concerned that climate issues (a subset of the issues addressed by the Science March) are falling out of the media again. For a while, there, news shows were starting to take the issue seriously, since it was obvious–from the marches–that people care. Now? Not so much.

It’s hard to care about something if nobody acts like it matters. It’s hard to know what others care about it if you never hear from them. If climate change does not make the news, the rest of us are left feeling very alone.

It’s hard to believe the people who benefit from climate denial are unaware of this.

 

I must apologize for not posting last week. There was a family emergency–now resolved–that made everything difficult.


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Looking for Marches

I admit I got spoiled.

For a while, there, information about political demonstrations simply came to be on Facebook. Friends posted announcements, as did groups I had signed up for. All I had to do was decide which marches I wanted to go on. Last year sometime, the flow of information stopped. I don’t know why it stopped, and I wasn’t clearly aware that it had stopped at the time. It was like the beginning of a drought, when you slowly, belatedly realize that it’s really been a long time now since it rained.

As I’ve mentioned, I was also badly distracted by a protracted family emergency. I had no emotional energy left over for political engagement, however necessary or noble, let alone for research into how to politically engage. So I took much longer to respond to the situation than I might have–and when I did respond I did so slowly, vaguely, without commitment.

I posted comments to various groups–has anyone heard about any marches or rallies coming up for the next few months? No one responded. Months went by. I asked again. I put off checking back on my messages for months. I saw major demonstrations on the news that I had known nothing about.

I have more energy now. I’m sleeping better. I’m more awake. And it suddenly occurred to me this week that  this is not a case of just vaguely not hearing much news lately. Facebook, as we all probably know by now, is not a passive medium, like some online equivalent of a community cork board. Instead, the service actively prioritizes what we see and what we don’t based on an ever-changing and somewhat mysterious algorithm. When I don’t see messages from one or another friend but my husband does see those messages, or the other way around, I know the algorithm is involved. When a message of mine seems to disappear down a dark well, or, alternatively, suddenly gets attention from everybody, I know the algorithm is likely involved. At long last, the conclusion became inescapable:

Facebook’s algorithm must no longer favor the kind of political information I want to see.

The idea feels creepy, Orwellian, controlling. It isn’t, necessarily. It’s possible Facebook is, in fact, trying to impede the flow of propaganda and trollwork and my marches and petitions are collateral damage. It’s also possible that fewer of my friends have been “liking” these posts, perhaps being tired of politics, so the algorithm isn’t showing them as widely. But regardless of why, it’s time to be more proactive.

So, I spent today looking around online and found a number of interesting events–a Science March later this week, a youth-led climate march in June, and another climate rally in September. I posted them here on my page. I also posted several civil-rights-related events, a tax protest, and an anti-gun violence event. While this site is focused on climate change only, I also post information on other issues that may interest visitors. Among other reasons, if I expect devotees of other issues to show up for my favorite cause, I’d better show up for theirs.

There is a danger, here. I was talking to my friend, Zeke, last night, and he expressed concern, not for the first time, with the political and philosophical bubbles we tend to confine ourselves within. He is familiar with the fact that politically conservative hunters do a lot of environmental conservation work, yet are often socially excluded from the politically liberal environmental movement. That’s bad for the planet because it turns potential allies against each other. The only way to build effective coalitions is to form alliances with people we don’t completely agree with. That gets difficult when the people who do agree with each other spend a lot of their time at political rallies shouting about their common passions and their shared antipathy to everything else.

It’s true that I don’t post events for all issues on my site–I wouldn’t post a clearly racist demonstration for example, although some racists may be conservationists. It’s a line that has to be drawn somewhere, clearly, but where?

I’m not sure frankly.

Finding the information wasn’t easy. My second query to Facebook groups yielded surprisingly little. Visits to the websites of the organizations that often sponsor marches yielded nothing, either. The pages were poorly organized and out of date, a hodge-podge of notices and calls-to-action for events and campaigns over the past three years.

Finally I resorted to internet searches for “climate protest 2018” and “climate demonstration 2018.” I tried “climate march” first, but that tended to yield climate-related events in March. But I got enough that I likely have a full picture, at least for Washington DC.

The way I see it, it’s time to revert to a variation of old-fashioned social networking–I look up the information I want and then share it–individually, by email, PM, or tagging people–with people I think may be interested. Other people do the same. Pass it on.

 


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For Our Lives

Many years ago, I was on a crew doing fuels reduction cutting in the urban-wilderness interface. In plain English, that means there were about ten of us who would go to neighborhoods that butted up against forests, and we’d thin out the trees using chainsaws and also cut away dead branches near the ground. This was in Arizona, in an area that was once grassy, with few, well-spaced trees, but over-grazing and then fire suppression allowed trees to grow more densely than they had previously. As a result, that part of Arizona, which used to have frequent, low-intensity grass fires, now has rare but very dangerous and damaging forest fires. The idea is that by thinning out the trees and then doing controlled burns, the more dangerous fires can be prevented. It seems to work, and of course they prioritize tracts of land near houses and such.

Anyway, one of the men on my crew–I forget his name, now–was beautiful. I don’t mean I was especially attracted to him (though I can see how others might be), I mean that he looked good in a way more common among women, although he was not at all feminine in affect. He had a very thin build and long, thick, black hair. And one day he returned to headquarters with a story.

He had been busy cutting, when a woman came out of her nearby house, saw him, and shouted “GIRL POWER!!!”

Obviously, from a distance, and while wearing several layers of protective equipment, he had looked to her like a woman running a chainsaw. She was delighted and impressed. Of course, there WERE several women running chainsaws in the vicinity, but none were in her field of vision, only him.

Unable to have a real conversation under the circumstances, the man simply pumped his fist. Yes, girl power, women on chainsaws! Yee-haw!

“I didn’t want to disagree,” he later explained.

Watching teenagers taking to the streets for gun control, I have a very similar reaction. As with that man busy running a noisy and dangerous chainsaw, I find my response largely limited by circumstance to a binary choice between approval and disapproval. And I don’t want to disagree–schools should be safe places, and young people should be supported in political involvement. And yet these people are missing something.

As I’ve covered elsewhere in this blog, climate change is a greater threat to these kids’ future than school shootings are, and the fossil fuel industry is a greater threat to American democracy than the gun lobby is, so why aren’t we taking to the streets to do something about it? Why is the youth movement rising in one place but not the other?

Both could happen at once, of course, it’s just that they aren’t, and the more I see the power of the gun safety movement, the more mystified I am that environmentalists seem to be twiddling their thumbs. Massive protest can still accomplish something, so what is the hold-up? I am, in fact, beginning to wonder if social media is being used deliberately to interfere with action on climate change.

Of course, it may just be that climate change, with its complex patterns of varying risk, just doesn’t seem as real, as important, as a spray of bullets.

Fortunately, the party of the NRA happens to also be the party of climate deniers, so if the March for Our Lives sweeps gun advocates out of office, they could switch the balance of power on climate, too. Unfortunately, that’s not a forgone conclusion.

As I’ve explained here before, a majority of Americans understand climate change is real and want something done about it, but few consider silence on the issue a deal-breaker for  candidate. But for the minority of climate skeptics and deniers, climate action is a deal-breaker.  The political calculus is clear; ignore climate change, take a stand on a couple of other liberal issues, and win. That is why we’ve been treading water on the issue for a generation while the world begins to burn.

Getting committed climate deniers out of office is not necessarily the same thing as getting climate activists in. We need candidates who are committed to climate action for its own sake, not for political reasons. How do we find them, especially given that they might not campaign on the issue?

Perhaps getting behind the rising young people is one half of a winning strategy for climate–and the other half is getting behind candidates of color. White Americans lag behind other groups in taking climate seriously, so, statistically speaking, black and brown lawmakers are more likely to be climate sane than white lawmakers who campaign on similar platforms. And there are all sorts of reasons to support candidates of color anyway.

If environmentalists will not take to the streets, perhaps we can make some progress by getting behind those who will.

 


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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.