The Climate in Emergency

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


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Groundhog’s Day!

The following is a slightly re-edited version of an older, but clearly seasonal post. I’ve always liked this time of year–it feels optimistic, when optimism can be hard to come by.

-C.

This weekend was Groundhog Day, the day when, supposedly, a groundhog in Pennsylvania predicts the weather by seeing or not seeing his shadow. It’s the closest we have to a climate-related holiday.

It’s an odd holiday–never mind how a groundhog could predict the weather, how can one groundhog give a single prediction for the entire country? And why six weeks? We can explore these questions briefly and then I’ll get back to talking about climate.

Groundhog Day itself goes back to Europe, where a group of interrelated traditions had various animals–hedgehogs, bears, badgers, perhaps even snakes–breaking hibernation in February to predict the remaining length of winter. The underlying idea is that clear weather in early February is, counter-intuitively, a sign of a late spring. And that association may well hold, at least in parts of Europe, for all I know.

February 1st or 2nd is also a cross-quarter day, one of the four days per year mid-way between a solstice and an equinox (the solstices and equinoxes are the quarters). The other three are May 1st, August 1st, and November 1st. All four were holidays in at least some of the pre-Christian European religions and all four survive as folk traditions and Christian holidays. All four are also holidays within the modern religion of Wicca. So today or yesterday is not just Groundhog Day but also Candlemas, Brigid, or Imbolg, depending on your persuasion, and all involve the beginning of spring. I have always heard that in European pagan tradition, the seasons begin on the cross-quarters, not the quarters–thus, spring begins not on the Spring Equinox but on the previous cross-quarter, in February. I’ve always wondered if perhaps “six more weeks of winter” is a remnant of cultural indecision as to which calendar was correct–whether spring should begin in February or six weeks later, in March.

In any case, we in America got Groundhog’s Day when German immigrants in Pennsylvania adapted their tradition to the New World–Germans looked to hedgehogs as prognosticators, but hedgehogs don’t live in America (porcupines are entirely unrelated). Groundhogs do. In the late 1800’s, the community of Punxsutawny announced that THEIR groundhog, named Phil, was the one and only official groundhog for everybody, thus utterly divorcing the tradition from any concern with local weather. There are rival Groundhog’s Day ceremonies, but Phil is still the primary one.

Groundhogs (which are the same thing as woodchucks) do sometimes take breaks from hibernation, though they don’t necessarily leave their burrows. There are various theories as to why, but most involve the need to perform various bodily processes that hibernation precludes–including, perhaps, sleep. Hibernation is not the same as sleep, after all. But there is evidence that male groundhogs spend some of their time off in late winter defending their territories and visiting females. They actually mate after hibernation ends for the year, but apparently female groundhogs don’t like strangers. Thus, it is actually appropriate that Phil is male–the groundhogs who come out of their holes in February are.

Anyway, underneath the silliness at Gobbler’s Knob in Punxsutawny, Groundhog’s Day is about a cultural awareness of weather patterns and animal behavior. Certain times of the year are cold and other times are not, dependably. If we pay attention, we can know what to expect and we can organize holidays and cultural observances around that knowing. In this sense, then, Groundhog’s Day is not about weather but about climate. Climate is the roughly stable pattern that makes it possible for ordinary people who don’t have supercomputers or satellites to predict the weather simply by watching the world around them.

We’re losing that, now. It’s fifty degrees outside, where I live. In February. And while warm, springlike weather is pleasant and I intend to go out in it as soon as I’m done writing this, there’s always something unnerving about unseasonable conditions. But the patterns our cultural traditions are build on–climate–are eroding. The world is getting less reliable, less like home.

It’s a little thing, as consequences from climate go, but one likely to have a profound effect on us psychologically. There is still time to do something about it. Get involved politically, support climate-sane candidates.

Now.

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How Do You Know?

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

Old news.

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

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

I thought of an analogy.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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The Lonely Search for Purity

The other day, I threw a stink bomb into the middle of an online forum.

I didn’t exactly mean to do that, I meant to start a conversation, but I knew the conversation might prove contentious. I was OK with that. I did not expect the contention to be as depressing as it was–I had intended to get people talking, but what I got was more evidence that when people talk, no one listens.

I have serious concerns that when I describe this conversation, readers will get distracted by the details and get angry and again stop listening. I had considered writing this post in a vague way, in order to prevent such distraction, but vague enough to disguise the original issue is too vague to make much sense, so I’m simply going to have to risk it.

OK, here we go. Stay with me, people.

I’m talking about the Women’s March, which lost a lot of support recently when it got out that one of the organizers of the march admires Louis Farrakhan, who is both a noted civil rights leader and a vocal anti-Semite. I threw my stink-bomb by commenting that unless the Women’s March itself is anti-Semetic, this tenuous connection to Farrakhan is irrelevant.

BOOM!

I won’t march with an anti-Semite!

You white women are using this as an excuse to exclude us from OUR march!

What makes you think she is an anti-Semite? Where’s your evidence?

You non-Jews wouldn’t be so calm if this were about misogyny or homophobia!

You’re all being ridiculous! Forgive and forget! We all need to work together!

Do you even know what you’re talking about?

What’s so hard about don’t march with anti-Semites?

Of course, these are not exact quotes, I’m just summarizing the general range of comments on the thread. The important point is that none of these people were listening to each other, and few if any were really listening to me. As far as I could tell, everyone had simply retreated into absolutist positions, responding to what they thought others were saying, if they responded to others at all.

For example, no one on the thread identified themselves as a gentile, so “you non-Jews” was an assumption. And no one engaged with the suggestion, made by at least one commenter, that there might be some underlying racial complexity being overlooked.

Certainly, no one engaged with my original point, which was not that anti-Semitism is benign (it’s not), but rather that accomplishing anything important requires allies, and allies must be chosen (or rejected) intelligently and thoughtfully, not on the basis of knee-jerk reactions and blanket condemnation.

On to Climate

Absolutism–including the search for ideological and moral purity–is a feature (or rather, a bug) of human thought generally, or at least of the parts of humanity that I frequent. I suspect the root cause is our tendency to seek the simple, the complexity of actual reality be damned.

And there is no way to do much good if your starting principle is to ignore reality.

We see the problem in the environmental movement often. Most pervasive, maybe, is the concept of “going green,” where certain products or activities are said to be “green,” and people assume that by doing or buying these things they can save the planet. Reality is more nuanced. The “right thing” is context-dependent. “Green lifestyles” can be pointless or even harmful to the planet, if entered into thoughtlessly.

Then there are the absolutists who, for example, insist that anyone who really cares about climate change must be a vegetarian. While it’s true that meat-heavy diets have much larger carbon footprints, there are people with special circumstances to consider, and there are other people who, yes, really don’t have any excuse, but they eat meat anyway and do good work, and do we really want to reject their efforts out of hand?

Finally, there are the cultural, economic, and racial issues that have a dramatic effect on how and why people do what they do–and yet tend to be ignored by at least some people in the environmental movement. Vilification and alienation result.

If we’re going to win this thing, we need all the help we can get–including the help of people who might be doing things in other contexts that we find deeply wrong wrong. Some of these differences are going to be the kind that dissolve with better communication and more understanding, but some won’t be. Remember, Churchill and Roosevelt worked with Stalin to defeat Hitler. Imagine if they had not?

Listen. Think. Black-and-white thinking is not green.


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New Year’s New Round-Up

A new year begins and, as become semi-traditional for me, I want to do a re-cap of climate-related stories from over the past twelve months. I’m making no attempt at a complete, exhaustive summary, just a fairly casual look back at the-year-that-was.

January

January 2018 offers an interesting example of the importance of framing. One way to tell the story is that global temperature fell slightly due to a La Niña event; the month was cooler than the previous three Januaries, and also cooler than January of 2007. The other way to tell the tale is that four of the five warmest Januaries in 138 years of record-keeping all occurred in a row–and the fifth was only 11 years ago.

Both statements are true, but which sounds more ominous? Actually, the fact that a La Niña year could still crack the top five is pretty ominous, too.

The month also featured various instances of political climate denial (including the State of the Union speech, which I refused to watch and only read about later) and various instances of extreme weather, notably in New Zealand, which had several severe storms and heat waves.

February

February was again warmer than most Februaries in recorded history, but cooler than several recent Februaries. “Unprecedented” heat waves in the Arctic caused blizzards in Europe while parts of the American East Coast cracked 76° F. (due to atmospheric instability caused by climate change, as we’ve covered here before).

March

Did you know it’s impossible do find news about climate from the month between February and April? “Climate March” means something else to the algorithm….

March was the month my area got hit with four nor’easters in a row, though–and there was almost a fifth. That was pretty weird.

April and May

April was again either notably warm or notably cold, depending on framing. At the end of the month, and continuing into May, was the Bonn Climate Conference for discussing details of how the Paris Climate Agreement will work, as well as an informal discussion of each party’s progress. This meeting is one of two annual international climate conferences. One is for setting overall policy, while this one is for discussing issues and questions that such policy decisions bring up.

I remember being surprised to hear about this conference, as I’d seen no coverage of it until it was actually in progress.

May was also notable for lots of extreme weather events all over the planet, much of it involving flooding. The Ellicott City floods were my local example here–those rains were just the beginning of the worst year for farming for parts of Maryland in living memory.

June

June 2018 tied with 1998 for third-warmest on record–but 1998 was an El Niño year. They’re supposed to be warm, and that year set new records for warmth, including a record for warmest June that was only broken by 2015 and 2016. 2018 was a La Nina year and supposedly cool. Something is wrong when your cool year is as warm as the year that set the record for heat 20 years earlier!

July

Heat waves, floods, and fires (remember the fires?) swept across large portions of the planet this month and no less a source than USA TODAY (hardly considered a radical paper) reported that climate change definitely had a role in the devastation. The story interviewed scientists from Stanford and UCLA. It’s getting real….

August

August saw a flurry of articles, including in the mainstream press, about people everywhere starting to take climate change seriously. The month also saw the publication of a government report about how bad our situation really is, and the zeitgeist appeared to notice the report and, collectively, gasp. Better late than never, perhaps.

September

September, according to a quick internet search, was the month of lots of nation-wide, coordinated demonstrations and actions for our climate! Unfortunately, no one seemed to notice at the time. The events weren’t publicized in any way that got on my radar, which I found disturbing and bizarre. I wrote about the weird silence early in the month, but appear not to have known about events later in the month at all. I did not attend any, nor did I react to them in print.

October

In early October, the IPCC released a report warning that we have only 12 years to avert climate catastrophe, much less than everybody had thought, and again the world went Gasp! I’m surprised to hear we have that long, but I’m pleased to see more people noticing and talking about the problem seriously.

November

This month saw another flurry of articles in mainstream news media about the real and present danger of climate change–a big contrast with earlier in the year, when the name of the month, plus “climate change” yields only reports on temperature records and articles from a few environmentalist blogs. The release of another dire government report, this one on the economic and social impacts of climate change, is no doubt related to the surge in interest.

December

The last month of the year brought another international climate conference and another flurry of climate concern in the mainstream media. I don’t mean to sound trite–the fact that the media seem to have woken up is excellent news, even as other news coming out of these conferences and reports is worse and worse.

I have spent most of this past year in an ongoing slump for various reasons, personal and otherwise, and there hasn’t been much in the way of reason for hope, in my view, in any of these twelve months. But the fact that the story of the year can be told as a tale of dramatically increasing interest in climate change by the news media–a trend I’d thought I’d noticed and I’m glad to see it confirmed–might be the best news of the year.

 


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In Darkness

Now, there are even more timely climate-related topics I could write about, but I still see no way to pick one. So my plan is to use my traditional New Years year-in-review post to catch up, and in the meantime I’ll discuss the holidays a bit–Solstice this week, Christmas next week.

The winter solstice is a holiday for various groups of people, but it may be unfamiliar to others. The short explanation is that the winter solstice is the shortest day of the year. The summer solstice is the longest. Note that the winter solstice only falls in December in the northern hemisphere–in the southern hemisphere, December is late spring/early summer, and the month of their summer solstice. The days when day and night are equal are the equinoxes.  When I use the word “solstice” as the name of a holiday, I capitalize it, but not otherwise.

The reason that many different religions have holidays in December is that they either honor the winter solstice or incorporate cultural practices from earlier religions that did. Light and hope are common themes across cultures for this time of year. The usual explanation is that primitive peoples developed these traditions because they worried that the days would just keep getting shorter and then the world would be dark and cold forever. They lit fires and sang songs and so forth in order to magically strengthen the sun or to celebrate it’s “miraculous” return.

That doesn’t make sense.

While humans may once have worried about the sun in that way, they must have figured out otherwise a very long time ago. For one thing, if a people honestly didn’t know the sun was coming back, how would they know what time of year to hold their festival? Or if they believed only magic brought the sun back, why delay magical operations until the time of the solstice? Why not begin as soon as the days started to shrink?

No, they knew. Even thousands of years ago, the predictable transition from shrinking days to growing days was used as a metaphor for things that felt similar but couldn’t be predicted, such as injury, illness, famine, or the evils humans can do to each other–or sometimes triumph over.

That insight was impressed on me one night when I went backpacking alone over the solstice and found the weather much colder than I prepared for. I had planned to celebrate the holiday in solitude in the woods, a rather romantic idea that fell apart when all my water froze and I had to retreat to my sleeping bag shortly after the sun went down so I wouldn’t freeze, too. My bag was plenty warm enough, but since I didn’t know how cold the night would get, I didn’t know that. And if my bag wasn’t warm enough, I knew there wouldn’t be anything I could do about it.

That Solstice, I knew the sun would come up the next morning, but I wasn’t sure I’d see it.

And none of us really knows. My dog, CurlyQ, won’t see the sun come up Solstice morning this year–she died a week ago tonight. Day length varies. Life involves both sickness and health, both beginnings and ends, and for the most part we don’t know when or if one might turn into the other. The return of the sun carries hope for the good news we can’t predict.

What does all this have to do with climate?

I don’t know if this human endeavor is going to work out. Frankly, I think we may simply have dropped the ball as a species, and if hope still exists it is only hope–it’s a long time before we’ll get good news, if we ever do. The night of anthropogenic climate change grows long.

Religion–and the less traditional spiritual traditions–have always been, at bottom, about answering a single question; given what we know about how the world works, what do our lives mean? All the holidays of all the cultures in the world are neither more nor less than reminders of many generations’ answers to those questions.

In the face of climate change, do we need a new holiday? Or simply a new face to our old holidays, like Solstice?

What does it mean that the world we are a part of is being killed and too many people don’t care? What does that mean about our lives? How do we survive the long night?

 

 


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I Can’t Even

There have been a lot of scary news stories of late, things I could talk about relative to climate concerns. In fact I’m feeling rather overwhelmed by this wealth of potential topics. Which do I cover first? How do I not fall into despair? That both my dogs are facing major medical issues right now is not helping.

But, in looking through my files, I found the following poem that seems to offer a small bit of comfort. I figure, maybe I’m not the only one who needs it?

And yes, I happen to be the author, so I can confirm that the reference to a large population was meant to imply all the environmental problems that go with a large and resource-hungry human population, including climate change.

Balance-Day

September 23, and it’s been a day for dirges.

Nuni, my friend’s small white cat, felled by fleas

lies dead beneath a heart-shaped row of stones

while Kendra’s dog plays host to tumors,

and Kofi Annan invokes the specter of a world 9 billion strong

by 2060.

I don’t know what will become of us.

I don’t know what blood

stains the momentum of our innocence.

But

there must be half a dozen PhD’s in this room tonight

and just as many guitars.

These are people who should know better

than to seek comfort in laughter, drink, and song

but these are also people who know we do not know

enough.

Joni Mitchell, Dave Carter, Bob Dylan,

voices thrown in familiar elegy,

the scientists invoke the sacred

the tapping foot becomes the thumping shaman’s drum.

Though rage and grief and fear

may be implicit,

this yellow room is safe tonight.

If the Earth has a temple, we sing its hymns

and offer the ground our local beer libations

with goofy, rag-tag grace.

In this puddle of life and light and laughter

in the exposed and urban night

this open, objective eye offers

the world

its care-worn, fierce

regard.


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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 losing 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.

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.

There is blame, specific, pointed blame, to go around. The question is how we respond to that fact? 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. In either direction 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.