The Climate in Emergency

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


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Seeing Patterns

Last week, I had the distinct pleasure of a hike on Mount Desert Island with my friend and teacher, Tom Wessels–the same man who lead the hike in the White Mountains described in my post, The Ghost of White Birches. Only, then he was leading an organized group activity associated with the school I’d just graduated. This time, for the first time, we were just friends going hiking together.

Myself, my husband, our elderly but still spry dogs, and him.

Switching contexts can have an unpredictable effect on relationships, and I can be slow on the uptake when the rules change. I had left it to Tom to suggest a hike, rather than saying so myself, because I did not want him to think I was expecting him to work on his day off. But as it happened, I need not have worried. Nothing had really changed between us. And while he had no planned lectures, no educational objectives, and had not previously hiked our whole route (as a professor, he appears to meticulously plan everything), he still kept us appraised of the cultural and natural history around us, knowing and sharing our interest. Tom is not one of those people who wears radically different hats for changing circumstance. He is always and exactly himself.

He told us that part of the trail we followed ran along the bed of the first road on the island. He pointed out a big-toothed aspen so furrowed with age that it looked like an ancient cottonwood, and how two other trees of the same size and species nearby must be much younger, having smoother bark.* He commented that the rhodora was coming into bloom. He answered questions, asked and unasked.

“Sap,” he said, spotting me examining a mass of white stuff at the base of a tree. I had thought it was either sap or bird urine and that either way it indicated some story. “These spruces are not doing well. Fungus comes in, then ants, then woodpeckers. Carpenter ants can’t excavate healthy wood.” The sap had flowed from the work of a pileated woodpecker, going after carpenter ants.

I knew from previous conversations that one of the reasons the spruces are becoming more vulnerable is climate change.

Much of Mount Desert Island is dominated by spruces, a cold-tolerant genus of tree that is rare at this latitude. The island–and the coast of Maine generally–is different because the frigid Humbolt Current bathes the land in cool sea breezes and cold sea fogs. According to rangers at Acadia National Park, which includes much of the island, the Gulf of Maine is now warming faster than almost any other water body in the world. Lobsters are moving north, to the detriment of lobstermen in southern New England. Southern fish species are moving in. In warm years, every puffin chick in the state starves to death, unable to swallow the larger, southern fish their parents bring.

I was right to think the white stuff at the base of the tree held a story.

Tom sees patterns. In a somewhat different and still less-developed way, so do I. A hiker without this kind of knowledge would see a pristine wilderness, protected in perpetuity by the US Park Service. Tom sees spruces not doing well (and paper birches dying off, lobsters moving, puffins starving) and is saddened.

There is a certain comfort to be had by sharing your reality with another. We chat about our home, mine and my husband’s, in Maryland, and how our forested lot prevents our having a garden, or a solar panel, or a wind turbine, but does protect us from the damaging effects of winds. In the ten years I’ve been there, I say, we’ve survived two hurricanes (Sandy and Irene) and a derecho, and the wind mostly flows over the tops of the trees.

“Those will happen more frequently, because of climate change,” comments Tom. We know. My husband talks about the changes he’s seen in Assateague Island in the forty years he’s been watching the place. Casual visitors don’t see that, either, only an unspoiled, wild beach, but we have friends who were married in a house on that beach and the house is not there anymore. The place where it stood is now several yards off shore. Maryland is slowly sinking, a natural subsidence triggered by the retreat of the glaciers tens of thousands of years ago, but sea level rise from climate change is real, too.

Last month, in St. Michaels, a town on the Chesapeake Bay, I saw water quietly lapping over the edge of the town dock, standing a few inches deep on pavement. Nobody else said anything. Nobody acknowledged it was happening, let alone extraordinary. Tidal height can vary. There is the influence of the moon’s phase, of course, since full moons and new moons produce extreme tides, and an onshore wind can pile up water on the coast. If both occur at the same time, tides can become extraordinary quite naturally.

But the town dock would not have been built where it was if flooding were normal at the time of its construction.

Last night I dreamed that nothing I did turned out right, that I was driving down winding country roads, lost, that the roads became dangerously, fantastically steep so I pulled over, only to watch my parked car roll down hill into the back of another. The metaphor of my subconscious is clear; I don’t know what to do about any of these patterns.

My mother and I discuss politics over breakfast. We are both worried about the survival of democracy. I go to bed with a hard knot of anxiety, the same nauseous fear that has plagued me since the election. I attend marches, write political letters, sign petitions, keep this blog, but there is something else that must be done, some stronger, more effective way to fight, but through the fog of anxiety, I don’t see it. Other than to acknowledge the truth, share my reality, I don’t know what to do.

 

  • The rate at which wood grows varies, as many people know, but the bark of each species grows at a nearly constant rate. Thus, an individual growing more slowly than normal for its species will have thicker, more textured bark. With some few exceptions, trunk size plus bark texture gives a better indication of tree age than either does alone.

 


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Same March, Different Day

I’m sorry I didn’t post last week. I don’t know why I didn’t—it seemed as though I did not have time, but I don’t think that’s exactly true. I didn’t have all that much to do. More likely, the things I was doing took much longer than normal and took more energy than normal because I was anxious about something. What was I anxious about? I’m not sure. It is the nature of my particular version of anxiety to hide its source—but the fact that I just had my third nightmare about Donald Trump trying to kill me is probably relevant.

Seriously, what is with my subconscious? And is anyone else getting this? I hardly ever have nightmares about anything, and I’ve never before had nightmares about any public figure, no matter how much I might have disagreed with what they were doing. I didn’t have bad dreams about Osama bin Ladin, although I’ve heard that pretty much everyone else did. And three times now, my brain has sent me horror shows about this orange businessman.

Anxiety is counterproductive. Makes it hard to focus on anything constructive, including constructive responses to whatever is causing the anxiety in the first place. Is this why the opposition has not yet really gotten its act together? Are we all just insanely frightened by this guy?

In any case, I wanted to talk about the People’s Climate March at the end of April. I attended the one in Washington DC, so two trips to DC in eight days. At least this time I wasn’t cold.

My husband and I and almost forty others took a chartered bus up to the edge of the city, then we all took the Metro in (that’s that subway, for those not in the know). My husband had volunteered to be the bus captain, meaning he had to help shepherd everybody along, and couldn’t go with me to try to find a friend of mine who was also at the march, embedded within a different group.

I was irritated by this limitation, I will admit—I didn’t understand why our group needed a bus captain to begin with, and it was too hot, there weren’t any toilets, and nobody was listening to me. Eventually we met a collaborator in a small park who had brought a fifteen-foot-tall great blue heron puppet for us to carry and I realized two things: first, the puppet explained the need for a bus captain (a core group of us needed to stay together to work the puppet) and, second, that puppet would be visible from anywhere, meaning I could go look for my friend and be somewhat assured of locating my husband again afterwards.

I never did find my friend—I tried calling him by cell phone but we couldn’t hear each other over the crowd noise, and as a needle he happened to be marching in a very big haystack—but I did get to wander through much more of the crowd than I would have otherwise.

The day was sunny and very hot, more typical of late June than April, and the vast, assembling crowd felt rather more like a festival than anything else. A drum beat from somewhere. Bagpipers and other musicians were audible in passing. Families relaxed in the shade of trees near food trucks, and small-time entrepreneurs hawked t-shirts, other memorabilia, and bottled water. Banners and various giant puppets waved in the breeze. Some of the signs I saw were clearly left over from the science march the week before, but most were the standard fair I’d seen at every other climate-related march I’ve been to over the past few years. The water in one of my bottles tasted funny, and when I drank too much from the other I felt nauseous.  How was I going to stay cool? I’m prone to heat exhaustion, so I baled water onto my head from the reflecting pool with my hat.

I knew I was upstream, as it were, of my husband. To find him I had simply to walk in the same direction the march was going, but faster. I hurried along the sidewalk in places, weaved and bobbed through the middle of the crowd in others. I passed marching bands, more giant puppets, men dressed as Uncle Sam on eight-foot stilts. We followed essentially the same route as the climate march had, but in the other direction, beginning near the Capitol Building and ending near the Washington Monument. At one point, I came across a large group of people chanting Shame! Shame! And wagging their fingers in the air. Why? Nobody knew.

“We are shaming that building,” explained one woman, shrugged, and returned to shouting Shame!

“Isn’t that the Trump Hotel?” someone else guessed, and indeed, once we’d come up even with in, we could see that it was.

“I wonder what it’s like to be in that hotel right now?” I asked.

“Probably pretty embarrassing,” suggested someone near me.

I saw anti-fascist groups holding their own rallies in the middle of our march, as I’d seen the previous week, and once again I walked through the middle of opposing chants on the issue of abortion. Then, I’d thought that I was seeing a pro-choice inclusion within our march, attended by a counter-rally. This time I concluded—and I’m guessing this was the truth of the matter before, too—that there was a pro-life rally embedded within us and that when other marchers came near the rally they simply chanted responses, “my body, my choice!”

Eventually, I spotted the giant blue heron and rejoined my husband. I took a turn carrying part of the puppet, but the thing was unwieldy, and the extra effort set my pulse to pounding in my reddened face. I passed the huge bird wing off as soon as I could. Some of the faces in the crowd around me had gone red and blotchy, too. Ambulances weaved through the crowd along cross streets. We checked up on each other and I wondered if I could make it to the end of the route before I got sick. Gradually, more and more people were dropping out, lining the streets under shade trees, cheering and chanting and waving signs at the hardy few who kept walking.

I made it. Along the edge of the Washington Monument grounds stood long rows of portable toilets under shade trees. There was no definitive end to the march, but as we passed along those rows more and more people dropped out, slipping between the toilets out to the waiting grass, and we followed, crashing out in the shade. Crowds moved across the grounds, continuing the festival, an unstructured, apparently spontaneous rally. A kite flew high, carrying something hundreds of feet into the air—a camera. Eventually, we made our way back to our bus, all of us dazed and quiet from the heat. The driver earned a hefty tip for having fixed the air conditioning while we were gone.

Alright, interesting experience, but what did it mean?

At least 200, 000 people showed up, so I’ve heard. Aerial photographs—from the kite, I assume, as there were no helicopter flyovers, and no visible drones—show a sea of people filling the streets for blocks, our region of blue t-shirts and blue heron puppet right in the middle. It would be tempting to be reassured by such a large outpouring of pro-climate enthusiasm, but as I’ve said, the primary purpose of political demonstrations (aside from networking opportunities and a boost to the marchers’ morale) is to show elected leaders where the political wind is headed—listen to us, or we’ll vote you out! But, in point of fact, the votes have not been forthcoming. Climate denial works better than climate bravery for ambitious politicians, and nobody gets to hear much from the other kind. So, why should anyone listen to us now?

I’m not saying not to march, I’m saying we need to do something in addition to marching, and we need to do it quickly and in a very organized way.

There are also indications of a hidden ugliness to the event. Afterwards, I heard from other activists—people of color—who had been on the march, too, and were harassed repeatedly by both fellow marchers and organizers. One reported seeing an organizer insist that a certain chant stop. Why? The chant was in Spanish. I had seen nothing of the kind, but then, I wouldn’t. I’m white, and one of the most fundamental, and most pernicious, racial privileges is that if you’re white, you don’t see racism. It is therefore incumbent upon white people to seek out the perspectives of non-white people, and to believe them. I had noticed that the crowd was almost entirely white, as are many gatherings of environmentalists, and I had wondered why. Now I know.

People—specifically, white people—we have no time for that kind of garbage. Cut it out. Get it together. Now.

I’ve said that the science march was strikingly different from the series of climate marches I’ve been on, and that this one was largely a return to recent tradition. And that is true, in some ways, but not in others. Yes, there were the familiar chants (“This is what democracy looks like!”), the familiar signs, the same-old goofy, pep-rallyish mood. And yet, something was different.

There was an anger, an aggression, I had not seen before. Some of the signs were very much to the point, the point being that climate change continued means death, destruction, and pain. One showed a cartoon horrorscape of flames and cut stumps and poison smoke with the caption “Baron’s Inheritance.” Towards the end, organizers asked us to sit down, backs toward the White House, for a moment of silence—and then to get up, turn towards the White House, and produce a moment of noise. At that moment of noise, a woman beside me displayed both middle fingers and screamed “F___ YOU, YOU CORPORATE BASTARDS!!!”

I doubt she is alone in her sentiment.

Beneath the festive mood, the silly costumes, the giant puppets, there was an absence of playfulness, a presence of anger and fear. The pep rally didn’t quite work, not for me, anyway, even though that aspect of such proceedings has worked for me in the past, despite my rationalist intentions, despite my worry, even despite my occasional cynicism. It just wasn’t like this, last time I did one of these marches.

Last time, there wasn’t a climate denier in the White House.


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What the Science March Was Like

I went to the March for Science, as promised, on Saturday. My husband went to our local satellite march (he was brainstorming chants for days ahead of time. My favorite of his: Science Yes!/Silence No!), but I felt a need to be in DC. So, I arranged to spend the week with my mother, and she and I bought tickets on a bus chartered by the university in my hometown. We went marching together.

My mother, incidentally, is a scientist, a geologist, specifically. I am trained as an ecologist, though I’m a science writer, rather than a researcher. It was our march.

It was not an ideal day for marching. The rain started just as we got on the bus, and the sky proceeded to variously spit and drizzle throughout the day, while the air temperature held steady around 60° F. Hypothermia weather. Heat travels much faster through water than through air, so wet weather gets dangerous at a much higher temperature than dry weather does. A four hour rally preceded the actual march, which took an additional two hours or so, a long time to stand or walk out in the rain. We kept ourselves as dry as possible and checked in with each other frequently.

I’ve been cold in DC before. At my first climate march, four years ago, the weather was cold and blustery. But that was in February. This time, in April, the grass had greened up, most of the trees had leafed out, the spring color enlivened and relieved by white and pink flowering dogwoods and the blond and white monumental architecture of the city. Tiny, winged elm seeds and fallen, string-like, oak flowers clotted together in the streets, and the slicked and flowing water turned everything silver and vague beneath dark, grey cloud. Sometimes the pavement shone with isolated grains of glitter, presumably shed from someone’s costume or sign. There is a loveliness possible, on a rainy day.

Our bus dropped us off near the Capitol Building, but the rally and the beginning of the march was at the Washington Monument, so we had to walk a good distance just to start. Clumps and clots of people, some carrying signs, moved in the same direction, presumably fellow marchers. One of my favorite things on march days is watching people converge, seeing actual, undeniable evidence that other people–maybe a lot of other people–are showing up.

As we arrived, we could hear the rally already in progress. The grounds were full of streaming lines of people. We went through security (a simple, efficient process, but one that did not occur on prior marches) and joined the crowd, which seemed largely organized around a big stage and a scattering of large video screens and tower speakers hung from cranes.

Unfortunately, I’m somewhat sensitive to sound. I don’t mean my hearing is especially acute, I mean that noise that is too loud drives me nuts. We found that there was no happy medium between being too close to those giant speakers for comfort, and too far away to clearly hear what the people on the stage were saying–which was too bad, because some of them seemed like they would have been interesting. Bill Nye was one of them. I have no idea what he said. Some of the others introduced themselves by saying their names, institutional affiliations, and the proud shout “I am a SCIENTIST!” Everybody cheered. I have no idea what they said, either.  But there were bands playing in between each speech, and the music was good.

Instead of listening to the people I couldn’t hear (I really hope all of that is posted online somewhere so I can watch it), I milled around, trying to spot anyone I might know, looking at signs, and people-watching. A few people wore pussy hats. One person wore a polar bear costume. Two dressed as dinosaurs and fought with each other and inspired frantic barking by various small dogs. At least one person wore a Beaker costume, as in the anxious Muppet who says “meep!” and works as a lab assistant to Dr. Bunsen Honeydew. Beaker showed up on a lot of signs, too. He seemed to be popular, as were t-shirts from my beloved XKCD (the best geeky internet comic, ever).

Organizers had suggested we either wear whatever we normally wear as scientists or dress as our favorite scientist. Accordingly, I saw several Einsteins and Darwins and at least one Bill Nye (other than the real Bill Nye, of course, whom I did not see except on the giant screen). I had been planning on wearing a hat similar to one worn by one of my science heroes, Tom Wessels, and I wished sincerely I had not forgotten it–that hat would have kept the rain off my head.

Finally, we surged out of the rallying grounds and onto the march route…and then we stopped, standing still in the road. After a few minutes, a strange sound issued from up ahead and grew and swelled…people were cheering! The wave of cheering passed over us–we duly cheered as well–and swept on behind us, and no, none of us knew why. We advanced maybe fifteen feet and stopped again. This went on for almost an hour, start and stop and start again, interspersed with cheering, and by the end of that hour we’d traveled only a few hundred feet.

“This is a good sign,” I told the people behind us. “The same thing happened at the climate march in New York, and that march was really big.” They seemed to agree with me, so I said it again to someone else. I meant that maybe there were so many people that we’d clogged up the route. I really hoped that was the case. Another wave of cheering passed over us.

In the middle of a demonstration, you can’t tell how big it is or why anything is happening.

I people-watched some more, and found the Wonder Twins, in full regalia, holding a banner, which I forgot to read because I was busy reading the Twins’ capes–which identified the scientific specialty of each and the fact that one of them was transgender, the other cisgender. The original Wonder Twins did not wear capes and had nothing to do with science that I remember, but I liked the costumes and we chatted for a while.

I read more signs.

SCIENCE HAS NO AGENDA

MARA LAGO WILL BE SO FAR UNDERWATER, YOU WON’T BELIEVE HOW UNDER WATER IT WILL BE

HAD POLIO LATELY? ME NEITHER: THANKS, SCIENCE!

BF IS MY BFF! (BF Skinner reference)

MY MONKEYS CAN WRITE BETTER EXECUTIVE ORDERS! (under copies of two paintings that did appear to have been made by monkeys or apes)

IT’S SO BAD, EVEN THE INTROVERTS ARE HERE. PLEASE DON’T TALK TO ME.

There were a lot of signs in which SCIENCE was an anagram for something, or written out using the Periodic Table or other suitably sciency symbols. There were quotes from Einstein, Thoreau, Emerson, Neil DeGrasse Tyson, and Carl Sagan. There were lots of signs using “trump” as a verb, as in “facts trump opinions.” There were puns on the word “resistance” involving electronics. There was a sign with the words SCIENCE and TRUMP separated by three parallel lines with a slash across them. I asked the man holding it what the symbol meant. “Exact opposite of,” he said. A popular sign read “science is like magic, except real.”

Which is pretty much true. It’s common knowledge that many branches of science grew out of magic–chemistry began as alchemy, and so on. Arguably, it remains magic, it’s just effective magic. I mean, any good wizard claims to have special knowledge and insight into how the world works and to be able to transform the world as a result. Scientists and engineers do just that. It actually is possible to make lead into gold, and gold has been made from bismuth. It is possible to change the entire climate.

What this march reminded me of were the Druids. I cannot find a really reliable source to cite here, so please don’t take my word for this, but I have read that the Druids and bards together were the educated class of the Celts and performed social roles that we now might identify with clergy, law, art, and science. And they were politically powerful, standing up to fight the Roman Empire. Everyone knows that the Romans tried to eradicate the Christians, but they quite literally slaughtered the Druids, too. Well, maybe the Druids are rising.

Perhaps the people carrying the REVENGE OF THE NERDS signs harbored a similar sentiment.

Other than the mysterious cheering, we were mostly quiet. A group of men beside us discussed possible chants: “If P is low/the null hypothesis has got to go!” which is definitely catchy, but instead of chanting it they began quietly discussing whether they were remembering the principal correctly, given that one of them hates statistics and the other is a physicist with dyscalcula (the math equivalent of dyslexia). I have a similar problem, and the physicist and I commiserated for a while. We never got around to chanting about P values. Around then was when I spotted the glitter floating by on the rainy street.

We still hadn’t gone anywhere. The advantage to not going anywhere was that we were still relatively close to the stage, and we danced to keep warm as long as they kept playing. My mother recognized the groups, though I did not. It was fun.

Finally, we got going, and some chants did start up. “Science, not silence” was popular. My favorite was “don’t pretend that you don’t care/science gave you back your hair!” My other favorite was “What do we want? SCIENCE! When do we want it? AFTER PEER REVIEW!” Which is extra-awesome because I first saw it as a joke on social media captioned “why scientists can’t have protest marches,” or some such. But we can, and we did, and peer review is important, so there.

We continued marching, without incident, back to the Capitol building and our bus home, though we did pass a few counter-demonstrators who seemed to think that we were all atheists (they held signs asking whether we had been brainwashed by professors who denied and mocked God. Of course, I can’t imagine any real science professor even mentioning religion in class, much less mocking it). Other demonstrations seemed to be embedded in ours, like inclusions in some larger mineral mass. We passed socialists handing out leaflets, anti-fascists with their own signs and chants (I suspect most of us agreed with them, but they did seem to be their own group and held their own miniature rally at the end of the march), and an abortion rights contingent, complete with their own counter-demonstration of pro-life people. I’ve never seen anything like that before, this symbiosis of highly disparate groups within the same overall system. My mother and I stopped, once, so she could buy lunch from a food cart, and once again so she could buy a dry sweatshirt to wear on the bus. Did I mention it was raining?

I was struck, all but literally, by how different this march felt from every other political protest or demonstration I have attended. There was no sage smoke. There was very little drumming, and no one costumed as Uncle Sam or Big Daddy Oil, or other such motifs. At all of the others I kept seeing the same signs and hearing the same chants, from march to march, regardless of what the specific event was supposed to be about. At the pipeline rallies, a large number of participants carried signs that had nothing to do with the land use issues and Native American rights placed front-and-center by organizers. No, it seemed to be just the usual suspects in for a generalized pro-environment event. But at the science march, it was all science.

A few “I’m with her” signs with pictures of the planet on them could have been previously used at other events, but mostly it was incredibly focused. Even the typical chants were missing. We knew them–someone started up with “show me what a scientist looks like/this is what a scientist looks like,” a clear riff on a recurring chant about democracy, but even that died out pretty quickly. It was just a different type of crowd.

When we, the marchers, spoke to each other, we tended not to make statements. Instead, we asked questions, mostly about what each others’ signs and shirts said or meant. “What kind of scientist are you?” was frequent. The kind who asks questions, apparently.

This march even felt different.

In every other demonstration or protest I’ve been on, there has been a definite pep-rally vibe. Someone starts chanting “the PEOPLE, UNITED, will NEVER be defeated!” and you feel all optimistic, like yeah, power to the people! And only later, afterwards, do you remember that if the people were actually united around progressive politics, we wouldn’t have elected Donald Trump, and anyway, united people are defeated routinely by folks with money and guns. We come back, but we do get defeated. The pep rallies help, of course, for a while.

This time, I felt no such surge of optimism–but no pessimism, either. We didn’t need to boost ourselves up. Our message wasn’t “we’re going to WIN,” but simply “we are here.” And, even more simply, “the world is what it is.” After all, we’re scientists. As many of the signs pointed out, facts don’t care whether you believe in them or not.

Whether we win or not, global warming is real. Whether scientists get the funding they need to watch it or not, anthropogenic climate change will continue to happen until we collectively stop making it happen. The world needs scientists, and individual scientists, of course, are part of the needing world. But the truth of that need exists whether the rest of the world recognizes it or not. There is a certain serenity in that.

It was nice to rally with the scientists, to see signs and hear chants that you actually need to think, to know something, or to ask questions to understand, to be in among the crowd that has never been the in-crowd, and know that today, this is our place, 40,000 of us strong. Today, we are the cool kids.

But it wasn’t a pep rally. It didn’t need to be. It was just rockin’ with the Druids in the rain.

 


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On Friday

I don’t go to church often. I’m not Christian, for one thing. But I happen to have married a Christian, so I attend services with him on holidays, and while there I listen to the pastor and open myself to whatever realizations may come.

This Easter, as per tradition, we went to church. And as per tradition, I mostly felt awkwardly out of place, but curious about the whole process–until the pastor said something striking.

Look, it’s almost 11 PM here, I’m visiting my family, and I’m delighted to be exhausted by having played with my small relatives most of the day. I’m not going to write a big, long extensive article today. But it’s Easter season, the world keeps spinning, and there are things that need to be said. So I’ll make this brief.

The pastor said “On Friday, there were people who thought the story was over.”

She meant that on the day that Jesus died, the people who killed him and the people who wanted him killed thought that they had won and the Jesus movement was over. After all, its leader was unequivocally dead. But then, on Sunday morning, Jesus rose from the dead. The story was not over, not at all. Whether you or I believe this story to be true is beside my point. My point is that whether Jesus rose from the dead or not, causes sometimes do.

A lot of things have been seeming over to me recently. It’s done, that’s it, we lost. They won. But that’s what they said about Jesus on Friday. And they were wrong–sometimes, they are wrong.

Sometimes, no matter how bad things seem, something you don’t know about yet is about to change.

 


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Ninety-Seven Percent Pure

When I was kid, a popular soap brand advertised itself with a slogan similar to the title of this post. I’ve just done an internet search on the subject, and learned that the brand was Ivory, the claimed percentage was 99.44%, and there are multiple stories on where the number comes from. In most versions, the figure comes from a chemical analysis of the product’s ingredients and the .66% remainder is not necessarily an “impurity” in the negative sense (rat droppings, for example), but simply material that does not, strictly speaking, count as soap–fragrance, perhaps.

Anyway, it was an iconic, and, I’m sure, very successful ad campaign, but whenever I saw it I was always distracted by the thought of that .66%. Did I really want to wash with a bar that contained .66% impurities? Why are they boasting about a product that isn’t really completely pure?

Whatever. I have no actual opinion on the brand. It was just an ad campaign.

The point is that the scientific consensus is commonly presented as being even less pure than Ivory Soap: 97% of climate scientists reportedly agree that global warming is caused by humans. Obviously, I need no persuading that anthropogenic climate change is real, but the figure bothers me. It leaves itself too open to well-placed questions–above all, scientists don’t vote on the truth by majority rule, so why is the percent who agree even relevant?

So, let’s take a little time and look at this: where does 97% come from, why isn’t it 100%, and who are those 3% who disagree?

Before we go further, though, I want to point out that, contrary to the posts of certain trolls, climate dissidents do not live in fear of bullying by the establishment majority. I’m sure those people aren’t popular at departmental parties, but it is the scientists who do support the consensus who see their work maligned and ignored, who are personally harassed, and who occasionally receive death threats. Researchers who want the easy way out get out of this field, not into it.

So.

Um, 97% of What?

The figure, 97%, comes from several suitably scientific analyses of science. That is, it’s not a result of a public opinion survey, but rather a series of literature reviews and reviews of reviews conducted by climate scientists themselves. These reviews, conducted over a period of years, present various figures, but most place scientific agreement at somewhere between 90 and 100%. The figures vary because the methods vary–and this is important, because while different questions can yield the same answer, the answers mean different things.

Percent of Papers?

The public statements generally refer to the number of scientists who agree, but in many of these reviews, it wasn’t the scientists who were questioned–it was their papers. The distinction is important for two reasons. Most obviously, the same scientist can write multiple papers. The fact that most papers agree with a certain proposition tells us very little about how many humans agree. It’s simply a separate question.

A more subtle point is that while the number of scientists who agree on something is arguably irrelevant, the number of studies that agree matters very much. Science works on the principle of repeated observation. If I claim that an opossum has gotten into my basement, you might well ask whether anyone else who has gone down there has seen it. We’re not going to vote on the existence of the opossum–it’s either down there or it isn’t, whether the majority agrees or not–but we both know a single observation could be wrong. The light’s bad down there, after all. Maybe I just saw my cat, or some old stuffed animal. But if most people who check my basement also see an opossum (or opossum scat, or opossum hair, or other sign), that is harder to dismiss.

97% of visits to our planet’s basement have involved sightings of the global warming opossum.

Percent of Experts?

Several of the studies did survey individuals, but varied in how they defined the pool of respondents. On one end of the continuum were surveys limited to those who regularly publish peer-reviewed papers on climate. On the other were surveys open to people who work in any science at any educational level. A field tech in geology is a scientist, but does not necessarily know any more about climate than anyone else. Not surprisingly, the percent of respondents who agree with the consensus is higher if the survey is limited to people with the most relevant expertise.

Agree With What? And What is Agreement?

The wording of the surveys varied a lot. Some asked if the respondent believed at least some climate change is caused by humans, others if most is caused by humans. Clearly, for some people, the answers to these questions could be different.

A related issue is that many climatology papers do not state whether anthropogenic climate change is real. An even larger number do not make such a statement in their abstracts. Some studies have counted these as denying climate change, others have simply excluded them from analysis. Arguably, most of these should be counted as supportive of the reality of climate change, since the reason they don’t address the question is that the authors regarded the answer as accepted and obvious. Chemistry papers don’t take the time to note that water is wet, after all. Physicists don’t bother to express a professional opinion on whether gravity is real.

In case it’s not obvious, all of the above came from the two sites I linked to above. Both are worth a read.

So, Who Are the 3%?

I originally set out to write a piece about that three percent–who are they, why do they believe what they do, and are they genuine examples of free disagreement, or are they paid shills?

Unfortunately, I haven’t found an answer, yet. It may be that no one knows the answer–if quantifying the consensus was complicated, qualifying the dissent must be more so. How do you define your sample without including at least some people who aren’t legitimate scientists, and without excluding at least some people who are legitimate but maybe don’t act that way anymore because they disagree with the current consensus and go rogue?

How do you get someone to respond to your survey if doing so could expose them as a paid shill?

I suspect that at least some dissenters are exactly that–paid shills. Others are likely artifacts of the analysis. That is, dissenters who don’t really exist, but only seem to because of how a survey was worded or how papers were coded for analysis. Some may well be both real and genuine. But how many fall into each group and who they are and why they believe thus may be one of those questions science has trouble answering.

 


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Going to Carolina in My Mind

Yesterday my area had lovely spring weather, including temps of nearly 80 degrees–not really normal for this time of year, the old normal, that is. My husband commented that we’re becoming the Carolinas, which in terms of climate is more or less true, from what we’ve read.

So, what are we doing about it?

I attended a political meeting over the weekend. The meeting was largely introductory–the group is still quite new, and while there is a lot of great energy, it hasn’t really had a chance to do anything yet. We can optimistically assume this will change, and that we are part of a groundswell of progressive activism that will sweep the current mess away and replace it with something better. A small minority of the group is committed to climate sanity, and we could really do something.

And yet I’ve seen groups with similar promise in the past fizzle. I’ve seen proud declarations come to nothing, climate deniers winning time and again, at the ballot box and elsewhere, despite whatever optimistic chants at rallies.

Do not get me wrong, I don’t mean to discourage anybody. That little group has as good a chance as any to make a difference, and I intend to help it along, if I can. There is no reason to get discouraged. It’s just that I’m discouraged anyway right now.

In fact, sitting in that meeting, my discouraged awareness so got the best of me that I quietly had an anxiety attack. I have not had the energy to do much with this blog this week–I normally post on Tuesday and just couldn’t. If you’ll excuse the personal admission, I’m just feeling so overwhelmed.

That’s just me. I’ll feel better eventually, and even if I don’t, I’ll keep going. Because whether a fight is winnable isn’t an important question. The important question is whether a fight is worth fighting (and whether your current tactic gives you the best available chance) and this one is worth it.

So, as James Taylor sings (in a very different context), “you must forgive me if I’m up and gone to Carolina in my mind.” If I’m distracted, in other words. I guess I’m gone to Carolina right now.

Next week, I’ll go to DC, and then to DC again.

We’re talking about the March for Science, on the 22nd, and the newest People’s Climate Change March, on the 29th. There are satellite marches for each in many areas, so if you can’t get to DC you should still be able to attend somewhere–but if you can get to DC, do so. The more people march together in one place, the bigger the event each will be and the louder and clearer a message we will send. We need to make the evening news, and then some. We need to show that we must be taken seriously.

Bring friends. Bring neighbors. Spread the word. The bigger the march, the louder the voice. Make it your personal responsibility to make sure everyone you know knows about these events and has the means to participate.

Give me a reason to hope.


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Dam Problems

So, California is at serious risk of flooding.

As readers may be aware, the Oroville Dam’s emergency spillway came very near to failing a few days ago, triggering massive evacuations for people who live downstream. The situation has been stabilized, and people may now return home, but more storms are due in tomorrow, and so everything is very precarious.

Before I get to my point (climate change), I offer a brief synopsis of the situation and of the dam.

The Dam Situation

The Oroville Dam* blocks the Feather River, a tributary of the Sacramento River, and thus creates Oroville Lake, near Oroville, California. The dam was first proposed in 1951 and was finally completed in 1968 (and dedicated by then-governor, Ronald Reagan).  It is the tallest dam in the United States. Its primary purpose purpose is flood control, though it also collects water for both municipal use and for irrigating the San Joaquin Valley, and generates hydroelectric power.

Under normal circumstances, water released by the dam flows out through pipes at its base, to rejoin the Feather River. During floods, a spillway off to the right of the dam (that is the dam’s right, river-right) can be opened. Since the spillway gate is high up, close to the level of the top of the dam, water must flow from the gate down a long, concrete-lined path, to get back to the Feather River. So far so good. But on February 7th, a week ago today, the rushing water eroded a hole in the floor of the spillway. The concern was that if the hole grew large enough, it could undermine the spillway gate and cause it to fail–so the gate was partially closed. And the water started to rise.

Fortunately, there was a plan B in place. The earthen embankment to the right of the spillway is topped by a secondary dam that is lower than the primary dam. If the spillway system fails, water will spill over this secondary dam–called the emergency spillway–instead of over-topping the main dam (and possibly damaging it). On February 11th, for the first time in the facility’s history, water did flow over the emergency spillway–and began eroding the embankment.

Had the erosion gone on long enough, it would have undercut the secondary dam, washing it away, and sending a giant wall of water down over the homes of almost 190,000 people. Hence the evacuations.

Officials were able to drop the lake level enough to stop the flow over the emergency spillway and to make emergency repairs, but California’s rainy season still has at least two more months to run. A catastrophic failure at Oroville is still not out of the question.

Dam Climate Change

The Oroville Dam, like much of the rest of California’s water infrastructure, suffers from several problems.

American infrastructure generally is in poor shape, largely because it is politically much easier to fund new construction than to fund repair (I wonder, too, whether changes in the tax structure have starved public works–much of our infrastructure dates back to a time when America was much more civics-minded than it is today). So many dams are past due for maintenance. Oroville specifically might have gotten a concrete lining for its emergency spillway–as was suggested and rejected in 2005–had more funding been available. In that case, erosion would not have been a threat.

But Oroville was also designed for much smaller flood volumes than are now considered likely. Part of that is simply that the modeling is more accurate now, but part of it is that floods are bigger. There is more impermeable surface, preventing water from seeping into the ground before it reaches a river, and there are more extreme weather events, thanks to climate change. Droughts, like the one California just came out of, are deeper and longer, while rainy periods are wetter than ever before, too. The state is currently having its wettest year on record–2017 has topped the region’s typical annual rainfall already. The system just wasn’t designed for this.

Scientific American (as seems to be its usual) cautions that it’s too soon to tell whether there’s any link between Oroville’s dam problem and climate change, but acknowledges that problems like this will occur more frequently because of climate change. However, a study published six years ago explains that storms associated with “atmospheric rivers” do hit California more intensely in certain climate change scenarios–specifically, while average atmospheric river (AR) activity stays the same, the extremes become more so, with more storms, more intense storms, and warmer storms in some years. The recent storms have been AR storms, and at least some have been notably warm. That seems like a pretty clear link to me.

Variation in precipitation is not the only factor, either.

Snowmelt in California’s mountains has been getting earlier and earlier since the 1940’s. Regional, and possibly natural patterns are involved, and back in 1994, when this paper was published, researchers weren’t sure anthropogenic climate change was a factor. But that was 23 years ago. I bet they’re sure, now, I just haven’t tracked down a more recent paper on the subject, yet. Earlier snowmelt and warmer winters (in which more moisture falls as rain rather than snow) together mean that more water runs off the land without having time to soak into the ground–or be used by agriculture. That means both more trouble with flooding and with California’s aging dams and more serious droughts, potentially in the same year.

In fact, parts of California (though not Oroville or, as far as I can tell, the watershed that feeds Oroville Lake) are still in a drought, according to the US Drought Monitor (unfortunately, you won’t be able to find this week’s report is you visit the monitor after it next updates).

What does all of this mean for Californians? It means they need us to stop causing climate change, obviously. But the state will also need to make decisions about its infrastructure, its water-use plans, and its development patterns that are more in keeping with the climate change we’ve already locked in–and those decisions depend on accurate and up-to-date data and analysis.

Next time anyone asks you if it’s really important for state and Federal governments to have access to accurate climate science, you can talk about the thousands of people who might drown this winter if the Oroville dam fails after all.

We already know that the evacuation clogged the highways. Had the spillway failed, some people could have been overtaken by water in their cars.

*Yes, I linked to Wikipedia, even though I generally consider it an unreliable source. In this case, the details of the Wikipedia article are consistent with, and largely seconded by, what I’ve read elsewhere, but I’d have to cite a half-dozen other articles at once if I wanted to avoid Wikipedia in this case.-C.