The Climate in Emergency

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


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Come On, Baby, Light My….

Obviously, the Wine Country fires are yet another of the many signs of the coming climate Apocalypse, right?

Well, maybe.

I’ll spare you all the suspense and say yes,wildfires probably are increasing due to climate change, but the picture is a little more complicated than it might appear. Let’s explore some of these extra details a bit, shall we?

First of all, a fire season can be “bad” in many different ways, just as a hurricane season can be, and in order to even assess whether fire seasons are getting worse, we need to first decide what kind of “bad” we’re even looking at. For example, a fire season can be bad because:

  • There are a lot of fires
  • A lot of acreage burns
  • The fire season is very long
  • The fires are unusually hot, thus causing more damage per acre burnt
  • Fire behavior is less predictable than normal, making the fire harder and more dangerous to fight
  • More places humans care about burn
  • Fighting fires costs more than usual
  • An unusual number of people die in fires

Obviously, several items on the menu can occur at the same time–a year might see a lot of very large, hot fires that behave unpredictably, kill lots of people, destroy lots of property, and cost a lot of money during a time of year when fire danger is normally low. But it’s also possible to see a huge number of very small fires, a small number of very large fires, or a season that seems bad only because beloved places burn, while fire behavior is otherwise fairly mild.

Also, some of the variables in play are clearly linked to climate, such as the length of the fire season. But other forms of “bad” are partly or wholly caused by other factors, such as where suburban development is occurring, how forests are being managed, and how wildfires are being fought.

As with hurricanes, the challenge is to tease out a consistent, relatively uncluttered dataset so you can compare apples to apples from year to year–for enough years for statistical relevance. Unfortunately, most of the articles don’t address where their information is coming from, even when the site is quite reputable, so it’s hard for a non-expert like me to judge how much we really know and how much is logically sound conjecture.

Wildfire Is Getting Worse Because of Climate Change

A simple online search brings up lots of articles on how climate change is definitely making wildfires worse (meaning “longer and more intense”). There are several mechanisms involved. Most directly, higher average temperatures drive more evaporation, and earlier snowmelt, meaning that fuels are drier for a greater part of the year even if precipitation remains the same. Indeed, fire seasons are usually two months longer now than they were a few decades ago. Longer fire seasons mean more fires and also a greater drain on national firefighting resources.

A hotter climate also increases the chance that firefighters may have to work in dangerously hot weather. Hot weather at night can be especially damaging, because heat injury is cumulative. If the body can’t rest from the heat, then heat stroke becomes more likely.

Changes in precipitation patterns, another aspect of climate change, are also important, and not only because some areas are increasingly vulnerable to drought. Climate change involves a concentration of precipitation, so that a greater proportion of the rain that does fall comes in intense cloudbursts, with longer gaps in between. Even if average precipitation holds steady or goes up, this “never rains but it pours” situation is bad news. The rainstorms trigger lush plant growth, which then dries out in the long periods between rains, increasing fuel loads.

The number of acres burned per year has gone up over the past forty years, although the year-to-year variation is very large as well and tends to complicate the picture.

And of course, changes in land-use patterns play their own roles, since there are more houses being built in wooded areas than there used to be, and those houses burn if the woods do.

Wildfire Might Not Be Getting Worse

I’ve also found a few articles arguing that wildfires aren’t getting worse at all. One article argued that America’s forests are getting too dense because there aren’t enough fires and that Congress should provide immediate relief by encouraging logging. Unfortunately, I have not been able to re-find that article, so I can’t verify either its methods or its politics. The other simply points to the lack of trend and leaves it at that.

In some ways, it’s a pretty solid piece–it even links back to several original research papers, and the website, which belongs to a group of public radio stations has no obvious political agenda. A close reading of the article, and its sources, resolves the apparent contradiction.

The author, Tom Banse, acknowledges that fire seasons have been trending worse in recent decades, as other authors describe, yet he frames his own article as providing “contrast” by discussing three scientific papers that “question that prevailing wisdom” by looking at longer time scales.

Time scale is important. It’s possible to create trends out of nothing, or erase trends that actually exist, simply by looking at data from either a too-short interval or a too-long interval. Reading Mr. Banse’s article, it looks as though such obfuscation may be occurring with respect to wildfire, at least in the Western United States. Reading the papers he cites….

The link to one of those three papers is broken. The other two do say the things that Mr. Banse says they say, but not in any way that contrasts with the narrative of climate-induced fire severity.

One paper (actually a report by the United States Forest Service) concludes that, at least in some parts of California, fires were more frequent before the European-American conquest than they have been in modern times, defined as since 1908. In other words, it does not comment at all on changes in fire frequency over the past forty years–the study did not look at trends at all, at any time scale. Instead, the study’s methods involved dividing the study area up into ecologically defined sub-units and comparing the fire frequency for each unit before conquest to the fire frequency after 1908. Thus, all the fires in all the years since 1908 are subsumed into a single number.

There is nothing wrong with that method, but it was designed to address a very different question than the one Mr. Banse is using it to address. It’s a non-sequitur that happens to include the requisite words that wildfires used to be more frequent.

The other paper demonstrates that prior to conquest, fires were often more intense than conventional wisdom among conservationists maintain. Note that the authors of this paper aren’t talking about modern fire behavior at all. They are comparing their understanding of pre-conquest fire severity with somebody else’s understanding of pre-conquest fire severity.

Mr. Banse does quote one of the paper’s authors as saying that fire severity is less now than what “early settlers were dealing with,” but it’s unclear where this quote comes from–it does not come from the paper, since the language of the quote is not formal. Without the original context, we can’t tell what Dr. DellaSala was really talking about in his quoted remarks, or what information he was basing his remarks on. He does not seem to be arguing against the idea that climate change is causing larger, hotter, or more frequent wildfires, only that, from a strictly ecological perspective, more fire isn’t the disaster people seem to think it is.

A very interesting point–but relative to Mr. Banse, it’s another convenient non-sequitur.

Does Tom Banse have a climate-denier agenda? Maybe. The article is certainly structured as a counterpoint against the use of wildfire as evidence of the reality of climate change. I suspect that in the three years since its publication, it has been linked to by climate deniers more often than by the climate sane. But without more information, I cannot judge Mr. Banse. It’s possible he just felt that a counterpoint to prevailing wisdom seemed more interesting.

What’s Going on with Wildfire?

The actual fire we see is a result of a combination of climate, land management (including fire management), and other factors. The research Mr. Banse references hints at that complexity, though probably not in the way he intended.

While the quoted researchers seem to treat the conditions found by settlers as natural, it is likely that the lands in question were being managed intensively with fire prior to conquest–fire was a common management tool in many areas of North America, though I don’t know the details for the areas in those studies (if we don’t normally think of Native Americans as having their own land management practices, it’s because we’re racist; the idea that any part of the American was untouched by humans prior to white people showing up implicitly assumes that Native Americans aren’t human). After conquest, management with fire stopped, and was, within several decades, replaced by active fire suppression (when I was doing fuels reduction cutting in Arizona, I was told that grazing by cattle dramatically reduced fire frequency well before fire suppression began–close-cropped grass did not carry flame well). Of course there were fewer fires–that was the idea.

Decades of fire suppression increased fuel loads dramatically, thus increasing fire risk. Land managers have in more recent decades responded by conducting controlled burns and by allowing some fires that do not threaten developed areas or infrastructure to burn freely. Between one thing and another, fire frequency and severity have increased again, and would have increased anyway whether climate change intervened or not.

It’s not that I don’t believe climate change is a factor–in fact, I don’t see how climate change could avoid being a factor, given that it directly affects both fuel load and fuel moisture content, as well as making firefighting more dangerous due to the risk of heat stroke, as mentioned. But neither the fact that more acreage is burning, nor the fact that this year’s fires are particularly bad is itself the proverbial smoking gun.

What I’d like to see–and I’m sure this exists, I just haven’t seen it this week–is an article, written for a general readership, that presents the changes in fire behavior that result from climate change as separate from those that result from changes in land management and fire management practices. And I mean observed changes, not simply a discussion of what climate change ought to be doing based on our general knowledge of it.

That Mr. Banse may have had an agenda doesn’t make him wrong; that he is wrong makes him wrong. Most people have an agenda of one kind or another, and even those who profess to being utterly objective generally reflect somebody’s viewpoint or priority system (for example, who is paying for their objective scientific research and why?). The point isn’t to avoid those who have agendas, the point is to avoid lies, misleading statements, and agendas that are irrational, dysfunctional, or immoral in some way. Mr. Banse was honest enough to give us the tools to evaluate his talking points–he included links to peer-reviewed scholarship. That’s why we can say that his article was close to meaningless. I find myself wishing that more writers whose agendas I might like better were equally helpful and honest, if only so I could be certain they are right.

So, to summarize: wildfires are burning more acres per year, on average, than they did when I was born, and fire seasons are longer. Fires are also more dangerous to fight because of the increased likelihood of heat waves. Climate change is part of this picture, because it gives us longer summers and longer dry periods between wet periods. But other factors are also changing fire behavior, and at the moment one of the areas that happens to be on fire is beautiful and famous and populated, so we really care about it.

And at 11:31 PM of the day I’m supposed to post this, I can’t tell you what the relationships among all those factors is, or whether anyone knows.

 

(Note; actually, someone might know, and that someone might be me; I’ve written about fire in this blog before, but since I’ve been chasing information online today without much success, I haven’t had the time to reread my own work and hunt down my earlier sources. The result is this article that comments on the need for better science communication as much as on climate change itself)

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Just the Facts

I just returned from leading a bus tour through Assateague Island, a barrier island near where I live. It’s far from the first time I’ve given a natural history talk, but I hadn’t done it in awhile, and never before on a tour bus. The difference is that on a bus, the content of my talk has to be synchronized to the changing view outside the bus window. Also, I needed about four hours of content, instead of the twenty minutes to an hour that I’m used to.  I’m tired, but I had fun.

To prepare for the job, I tagged along with another guide (my husband) on a couple of bus tours, and I was struck by how often climate change came up. Of course, Assateague is the perfect place to talk about climate change. As a low-lying island, the place is vulnerable to sea level rise and extreme weather, and the plants are vulnerable to changes in insect survival through the winter. Almost any story or explanation on the island can plausibly include the phrase”because of climate change.” And yet, we live in a day and age when climate change is regularly ignored in public, even when it is entirely obvious. When the subject is raised, it is often done in a strident and political way, for obvious reasons–producing an unfortunate feedback loop, where the climate-denier activities of one political bloc forces climate sanity to align itself with the other political bloc, forcing climate discussions further out of politically neutral spaces, such as bus tours. I was pleasantly surprised to see that there is another way.

It is possible to talk about climate change in a matter-of-fact, apolitical way. The reason why that piece of coastline looks like that is climate change. Boom. Simple. On the bus today, I said “if anybody ever said ‘where’s climate change,’ you can say you’ve seen it.” And a busfull of strangers accepted that.

Just a simple fact of the world we live in.

 


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Ordinary Threats

On the 23rd day of the month of September, in an early year of a decade not too long before our own, the human race suddenly encountered a deadly threat to its very existence. And this terrifying enemy surfaced, as such enemies often do, in the seemingly most innocent and unlikely of places.

Thus begins Little Shop of Horrors, a movie I was completely obsessed with for about five years as a kid. Thus also begins a post I wrote a year ago, in honor of the date and of then-current events. I’m reworking that post now. After all, Mr. Trump has been elected President, is giving all the signals up-and-coming fascist dictators do, has initiated the American pull-out of the Paris Agreement, largely dismantled the EPA, is quietly letting American citizens in Puerto Rico die while he dog-whistles racists over football, and may well start a nuclear war with North Korea any day now (if North Korea doesn’t start one with us, first).

Our very existence indeed seems under deadly threat.

As the subject of my post, I took, not the movie, Little Shop of Horrors, but the play it was based on. The critical difference between the two is that the latter does not have a happy ending. The carnivorous plant wins. It is a much darker–and more interesting–story.

In brief, the story is as follows:

A flower shop on Skid Row (a strange idea in itself) is about to go out of business, when the shop assistant, Seymour, puts a strange plant in the window, to draw in customers. And it works! Inexplicably, customers start pouring in! But then the plant wilts, and the owner orders Seymour to fix the plant Or Else. Seymour discovers that the plant perks up only when fed human blood. Of course, he pays up–his coworkers are the closest thing Seymour has to a family and the store is his only means of livelihood. The plant grows, business flourishes, and Seymour must give more and more blood. The plant gains the power of speech and tells Seymour to deliver an entire human. The man refuses. The plant temps him with money, respect, access to beautiful women. The man wavers. The plant points out that the woman Seymour loves is dating an abusive jackass who deserves to die. Sold.

Seymour gets the girl (who had always loved him, it turns out), money, fame, the whole nine yards, but then the owner of the shop discovers the murder and blackmails Seymour. Soon, the boss, too, is eaten.

Seymour now has everything, but the guilt is eating him and he tries to rebel. The plant attacks Seymour’s beloved, who then dies, asking Seymour to feed her to the plant because then at least they can be together. He complies, but then flies into a rage, tries to kill the plant, fails, climbs into its mouth intending to kill it from the inside, and dies. Shortly thereafter, a businessman arrives to take cuttings, intending to propagate the plant worldwide.

When I was a kid, I saw the plant as no more evil than a mosquito (a potentially lethal blood sucker). I see the story now as a morality play and a true and disturbing tragedy.

In a classic tragedy, the hero loses, not because he (rarely she) is overwhelmed by superior forces or bad luck, but because he is destroyed from within by his own shortcomings–which are inextricably related to the very things that make him great. The scary thing is that Seymour is great only in that he is ordinary. He’s normal. A bit geeky and skittish, but basically one of us. It’s hard not to like him. And who among us would not behave as he does? A little blood to save our livelihood? Sure. From there, Seymour gradually crosses one red line after another, taking the least bad option at each turn while the options steadily get worse and the stakes grow ever higher–at what point can any of us honestly say we would have done anything differently?

The final song of the play states the moral of the story:

They may offer you fortune and fame,
Love and money and instant acclaim.
But whatever they offer you,
Don’t feed the plants!

Although there’s no evidence the people who wrote Little Shop of Horrors intended to create anything other than a goofy spoof of a grade B horror movie, it works very well as a metaphor for exactly the process that is threatening the world. After all, how could the fossil fuel industry create climate change, if not with our money? And yet we keep feeding them, sometimes in order to obtain luxury and power, but more often because how else are we supposed to get to work?
This week’s nuclear threat is a somewhat different animal. It is less obvious that we, the people, are directly complicit, for one thing, and it’s far from certain that a nuclear exchange in this case is a threat to the world as a whole–North Korea is not the USSR. The more realistic fear is regional destruction on an unprecedented scale. The United States can win a war against North Korea, provided China does not intervene, but with what stains on its soul? My president is casually threatening a level of violence that could kill close to 26 million people, most of them utterly innocent and powerless in this situation. Not global destruction, but bad enough.
But I’m a child of the eighties. You say “nuclear,” and I think Mutually Assured Destruction. I think nuclear winter. I think the end of the world.
I think I’ve got a couple of books I really want to publish before I die.
I don’t know what actually should be done about North Korea. Such things are outside of my field of expertise and beyond the scope of this blog. I do know what should be done about climate change, but I do not know what I can do, personally, to make it happen, beyond what I have been doing, which is not much and isn’t working. Somehow, we’re collectively feeding the plant. We’re feeding it through our elections, our purchases, and by our prioritization of other issues for reasons that anybody would understand. How do you ? How do you stop being an ordinary person?
A nuclear bomb can destroy a city. But so can climate change–we’ve seen it happen. We’ve seen worse. There are people in Puerto Rico who will go to sleep tonight in houses that have no running water, no electricity, and no roof.
How do you stop being ordinary?

Hold your hat and hang on to your soul.
Something’s coming to eat the world whole.
If we fight it we’ve still got a chance.
But whatever they offer you,
Though they’re slopping the trough for you,
Please, whatever they offer you,
Don’t feed the plants!


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How Do You Solve a Problem Like Maria?

As I write this, it seems likely that Dominica has been destroyed, given that the island has been raked by a Category 5 hurricane–that’s Maria, in case anyone has lost track. The storm will hit Puerto Rico and St. Croix, but where it will go next is unclear. A strike to the mainland US cannot be ruled out, possibly at Cape Hatteras and maybe again at Cape Cod, but at least it will not recapitulate Irma or Harvey.

I’m underneath a hurricane right now myself (Jose), though only the edge, so conditions here are not bad. The weather is blustery, with occasional rain. The main part of the storm is out in the Atlantic, and it seems likely to sty Although I wouldn’t want to have to go out in it, but we’re pretty safe right here, at the moment. The important thing to notice is that we’ve had three major hurricanes in the Atlantic that made landfall within just over thirty days.

This is turning out to be one of the years when climate change is more obvious.

I want to emphasize, though, that weather is still variable, and that if next year we have hardly any Atlantic hurricanes, climate change will still be just as real. If we don’t want deniers using random cold snaps to fuel their arguments, we should refrain from equivalent lapses of logic. The problem of Maria and her colleagues is not that they prove climate change (they may, but so do lots of other factors) but that they illustrate it.

This is what is coming. This is what normal is going to look like.

I know I keep saying this, but it keeps being true, and honestly it just seems silly to write aout anything else as yet another Cat 5 hurricane bears down.


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Tilting Windmills

My friend says she’s sometimes not sure activism is worth it anymore, because the world is about to end. I don’t share that problem. My problem is I don’t know how to choose among the many possible forms of activism, when I believe they might all be fruitless anyway. Six of one one, half a dozen of doing not much. Also, sometimes I get so anxious I can’t do anything at all.

A few days ago, my friend posted to Facebook, attempting to start an “informal dialogue” about how to cope with climate change psychologically. How to deal with the often paralyzing and exhausting fear that awareness brings, especially when the surrounding society offers so often the tempting narcotic of pretending it’s not happening, or is happening only in a distant and mild way. As if we had fifty or a hundred years to sort all this out. As if climate change weren’t especially important. It’s lonely, as she said.

I thought I can help! I have a blog about this very thing! But, when I looked, I saw no entries that really suggested a solution. And when I searched online, while I found confirmation that the discipline of psychology is, indeed, tackling the issue, I saw nothing of particular immediate benefit to me.

Enter the Man of La Mancha

Coincidentally, into my doom and gloom, came an email from another friend about something totally different. Among other topics, he referred to some of his own environmental work as “tilting at windmills.” Of course, that’s a reference to Don Quixote, the classic figure of fiction who deluded himself into believing he was a heroic knight and who attacked windmills, believing them to be fairy-tale giants. My friend is doing nothing in any way similar–the giants he is attacking are all very real–but he has a self-deprecating sense of humor.

But what occurred to me when I read his email was the following:

Alternative Energy Revolution

From: https://xkcd.com/556/

 

If you can’t see the comic I’ve pasted for whatever reason, it starts out with a picturesque landscape of modern wind turbines silhouetted against a peach-colored background. In subsequent panels, two people (rendered as stick figures, this is XKCD, by Randall Monroe, and he mostly does stick figures) admit that the turbines look disturbingly like the tripodal monsters from certain sci-fi stories–and the turbines promptly grow legs and become exactly such monsters, ravaging the landscape. Their huge legs pound the ground with calamitous thunder. The terrified humans despair–but a voice calls “stand aside!” and there, on a hill, lance at the ready, stands DON QUIXOTE!

The “mouseover text” is “The moment their arms spun freely in our air, they were doomed–for Man has earned his right to hold this planet against all comers, by virtue of occasionally producing someone totally batshit insane.”

When my friend mentioned “tilting and windmills” I also thought of Quixote’s story from the character’s own perspective. To others, he seems simply to be having a mental health problem–and that is part of the truth, as the book makes clear. But the deeper, more complicated part is that Quixote is attempting to live by the rules of a vanished, and perhaps always fictional world, a world characterized by honor, nobility, and bravery such as most people now ignore. He is not so much fighting against windmills as fighting for the proposition that there is something worth fighting for, that a man on a horse and with a sense of honor can make a difference in the world.

In the actual book, that fight is a losing proposition. Quixote’s attempts to be a hero all backfire, he helps nobody, and ultimately he regains his sanity and disavows all interest in the romantic stories that used to fascinate him. It is Randall Monroe’s contention, however, that crazy Don Quixote is still out there somehow, and that there will come a time in which we need him.

When we need precisely someone who is crazy enough to believe that he or she can make a difference, despite all evidence to the contrary.

Is the real question, then, how do we maintain ourselves as the right sort of “batshit insane”?

Some Provisional Answers

I’m hardly an expert on how to solve the world’s problems. There are days I can barely manage to clean the cat box. I’d be much more comfortable if I could have Googled up some DIY tips on how to fight the good fight, recommended by a successful activist with a background in psychology besides. But that didn’t happen. So, instead I’m presenting a couple of ideas of my own. After all, I’m going to be forty next week. I figure that after forty years (less one week) on this planet, I’ve learned a few things worth sharing.

1. You Can Only Do What You Can Do

A primary struggle for me is finding myself mysteriously unable to do things. I mean I intend to do it, I plan to do it, I mean to do it, and I don’t. “It” could be anything from losing weight to cleaning the toilet, but the most relevant example is the expansion of this site that I began soon after the election and have not yet completed. Why not?

I’ve tried on a lot of explanations, mostly revolving around quirks of my brain that really do make a lot of things harder for me, but none of those explanations suggested a solution. I suspect I’ve simply been engaging in my own version of what my mother does–calling herself lazy when she finds she can’t work more than anyone humanly could (she’s retired now, but still busy with four grandkids and a big house and yard, plus volunteer commitments). Both of us are under the persistent delusion that we have super-powers, and we set goals and priorities for ourselves accordingly.

I mean, here I am, working as a free-lance writer to pay the bills, plus maintaining three unpaid blogs and writing multiple novels all at once, and I’m down on myself for not also building this site into a major online resource for activists?

Maybe if I sat down and made an honest assessment of what I can do, and then re-prioritized, I’d be more successful at meeting my goals.

I’m not just talking about time management, here. I’m talking about energy. I’m talking about money. I’m talking about resilience in the face of stress. I’m talking about physical and mental health. I’m talking about ability, which, yes, does vary. All of this varies, from person to person and from day to day, often for reasons we do not and cannot know. To some extent we may be able to change our reality–I may be able to do things tomorrow that I can’t do today–but we can’t just wish it away.

If you only have ten minutes a day to devote to saving the world, then accept that and make your ten minutes count. Develop a plan you can actually enact.

2.Don’t Ask Whether You Can Do It–Ask How

I realize this point and the previous one look like contradictions, but I’m actually addressing two different aspects of “can.” There is choosing an achievable goal, and there is choosing a workable method.

For many years I confused the two. When I despaired of achieving something and people told me to believe in myself, I thought they meant I should make like the Little Engine That Could and motivate myself to the top. And that just made me feel worse, because while strong motivation can indeed unlock hither-to un-guessed-at possibility, I knew that real limitations exist also. Sometimes, even the Little Engine can’t.

Maybe that’s what they did mean–the idea that attitude is everything is a very common fallacy, and it results in people not only feeling terrible for not being good enough, but also torturing themselves with the thought that somehow they must not have wanted it badly enough.

But eventually somebody nudged me into realizing that there is a better way to think about goals; don’t ask whether the goal is attainable, assume that it is–then ask what method is workable.

Maybe the Little Engine can take a different way up the mountain.

There is no logical reason whatever to waste time and energy wondering whether we can still prevent climate change disaster. We know that this goal is worth everything we can throw at it, and that if we are to succeed, we must throw everything at it. We will get up that hill or we will die trying, because the alternative is to die without trying and that is worse.

The real question is how are we going to try getting up that hill?

3. Just Pick Something

Ok, but how are we going to attack that hill? Let’s be honest; there are days when each of us thinks we may be facing a no-win scenario, here. And when you believe that you’ll fail no matter what you do, how do you pick a thing to try to do anyway?

I have lots of experience with this conundrum, because I have a really hard time making seemingly arbitrary choices. There are days I do no housework at all because I can’t decide whether to clean the kitchen or the bathroom first. Based on my extensive experience, I can offer two suggestions:

  1. Pick something. If it doesn’t matter which you pick, then you can’t pick wrong.
  2. Once you pick, do something to make it seem less arbitrary, like investing money in your choice, or commiting to a friend you’ll stick with it.

4. The World Usually Doesn’t End

This one’s pretty simple. Yes, it seems plausible that everything we hold dear is about to be destroyed, especially this week, as the leaders of two nuclear-armed nations engage in what might even charitably be termed a pissing contest. But the end of everything has seemed plausible before and the world didn’t end. It usually doesn’t.

5. Don’t Dis Despair

Another friend of mine insists that despair is a useful state, not to be resisted. I don’t really understand this. I trust him to be wise, however.

I do know that temporarily giving into despair can be useful if only in that it allows a rest from the work of resisting despair. Rage, cry, curl up in a fetal position, and then pick yourself back up and get on with things again. I also know that giving up on one thing can be the first step to trying something else–a different, more workable method, perhaps.

How to…?

So, how to keep it together in the face of climate change, or at least fall apart in a useful way? I’m not entirely sure. I haven’t found anyone who can tell me. But at least part of the solution, in my experience, involves the following:

  1. Honor your own situational and personal limits
  2. Choose ambitious, pie-in-the-sky goals and practical means of reaching those goals
  3. If no course of action looks better than any other, choose randomly
  4. No matter how bad things look, remember the world usually doesn’t end
  5. And if you do get caught up in despair, give in to it occasionally–you might find something useful down there in that pit.

That’s what I’ve got. Let’s see how it works.


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Independence

Happy American Independence Day.

The best of America has always been an ideal to which reality aspires in an irregular and sometimes ambivalent way. Our principle of equality has always been marred by racism, sexism, and various other interrelated isms, and yet the principle itself is valuable as a stated goal—and for much of our history, we have enjoyed a more egalitarian, and more participatory political and legal system than much of the rest of the world. It is not true that anyone can be anything if only they work hard, but hard-working people do have more latitude here than they might, as the flow of economic refuges to our borders attests. We are not the bastion of democracy that we should be, but we are the imperfect bastion that we are.

Anyone who thinks that the United States is the greatest and most perfect country on Earth has not been paying attention. But anyone who cannot tell the difference between the US and a third-world dictatorship hasn’t been paying attention either.

So, with that caveat, I’ll get to my point: the US is not currently independent.

Russia did try to get Donald Trump elected. Whether their involvement was decisive is debatable—it’s possible he would have been elected anyway. That Candidate Trump himself actually cooperated with Russian interference on his behalf has not been proved and might not be true. Yes, his public joking, during the campaign, to the effect that Russian hackers should help him is not, by itself, a smoking gun that he actually expected him to do so, or that any quid pro quo arrangement was made between the American oligarch and any Russian counterpart. That other people connected to the campaign were actively working for, or trying to work with, foreign entities during the campaign is also not proof, nor is the fact that President Trump has some odd financial ties to foreign entities (the extent of which we don’t know because he won’t release his taxes) proof. The whole thing is suspicious as all get-out, but we don’t actually know.

But the fact remains that by attempting to pull out of the Paris Climate Agreement, President Trump is acting in the interests of Russia (and Saudi Arabia) and not those of the United States. Maybe he’s doing it out of the “goodness” of his own heart, a spontaneous volunteerism with no prior planning or thought of reward, but he is acting in the interests of a foreign power.

I’ve argued previously that pulling out of Paris, and otherwise minimizing or reversing American action on climate, is the primary reason for Mr. Trump’s presidency, the true central plank of his personal platform. His rhetoric on the subject of the economy and American security, his dog-whistles to white nationalists, his consistent vocal abuse of women both individually and collectively, all of that can be chalked up to either personal proclivity or empty campaign promise. A wall on the border with Mexico would do nothing whatever to protect his constituents’ job prospects or personal safety, even if Mexico did pay to have it built. Getting out of Paris, though, is the one campaign promise he’s acted on and the only one that will actually help anyone.

It will help the owners of the fossil fuel industry.

I said that part already. What I did not point out before was the way in which acting on behalf of that industry constitutes selling out American interests in favor of those of other countries. It is true that Russia has powerful interests in oil, but so does the United States. While transnational corporations are, in some ways, independent of any country, Exxon, for example does have an American origin and the US still produces substantial amounts of coal, oil, and natural gas. It’s possible to tell this story as one of private, corporate interest, and many of the interested parties are Americans.

But the United States doesn’t need the fossil fuel industry. We have a fairly diversified economy, a highly diversified resource base, and we’re a net exporter of food. There is huge economic opportunity for us in a properly managed transition, and we’ll likely survive, or even come out ahead, as fossil fuel prices drop due to lessened demand. Russia is simply not as well prepared for the shift. Oil is its primary source of national wealth.

While I haven’t looked into what climate change will do for Russia, I don’t imagine that a rapidly warming planet is actually good for that country. And Russia did, in fact, sign the Paris Climate Agreement. But even if they don’t have less to lose that we do to a changing climate, certain elements within Russian society do have more to gain from hanging on to fossil fuel a little longer.

And we do have a lot to lose. Most of our major cities are coastal and thus vulnerable to sea level rise and a possible increase in hurricane activity. Much of our landmass is already capable of experiencing killer heat waves, and thanks to air conditioning, many of our most vulnerable citizens live in places that get dangerously hot (like Arizona and Southern Florida)—a problem that will only get worse. Increased drought and increased flooding will likely interfere with our agriculture. In many areas, our use of irrigation water is already unsustainable. The United States already gets more tornadoes than any other country on Earth, and while there is no way to tell whether climate change is increasing tornadic activity (there’s no reliable baseline data), it is a fair bet that it will. Political and economic instability in other countries caused by climate change represents a major threat to American security.

Mr. Trump is willing to risk all that for the sake of short-term economic gain—by people other than us.

I want to make very clear that I do not have anything against Russians as a people. Russia is not, at present, a free democracy, so I don’t hold its people accountable for what their leaders are doing. I also want to make clear that I’m not blaming Russia for America’s troubles. While it does seem clear we are under attack, our vulnerability to such attack is entirely home-grown. I’m only pointing out that our laws and government institutions are currently being used to protect a foreign government’s revenue stream at our expense.

241 years ago today, we told the world we weren’t going to let that happen anymore.


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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.