The Climate in Emergency

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


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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The Difference Between a Liar and a Heretic

A few days ago The College Fix, an online student paper, published a piece entitled “The Pushback Against Attempts Punish ‘Heretical’ Views on Climate Begins in Earnest.” The thrust of the article is that attempts to silence or punish climate deniers violates the principle of free speech. I should say that I have no wish to launch a personal attack on either The College Fix or the author, David Huber. As far as I can tell, they are simply raising an important concern for discussion. I accept the invitation. I’m discussing.

The thing is, neither American law nor American values literally protect all speech. There is libel. There is fraud. There is the bully at the dinner table defending his or her obnoxious drivel with “hey, it’s a free country!” (which is true inasmuch as being obnoxious isn’t illegal, but no law requires inviting the obnoxious to dinner again, either). Free speech exists on two levels, legal and social, but neither level literally protects everything a person could possibly say. Differentiating protected speech from something else requires careful thought. As a general rule, freedom of speech, correctly applied, is the refuge from bullies. Misapplied, it is the refuge of bullies.

The author of the College Fix piece, Dave Huber, is concerned that attempts to prosecute ExxonMobile for its climate denial activities constitutes a violation of the First Amendment. Further, efforts to publicly vilify the company violate fair play. Mr. Huber contends that these efforts constitute a decision to stifle speakers based on which side they occupy in public debate, something that obviously cannot happen in a functional democracy.

The important point is that ExxonMobile is not in trouble for speaking–the company is in trouble for lying, and specifically for lying in such a way as to undermine political support for government regulations that would have protected the public at the expense of ExxonMobile’s business. Arguably, that’s fraud.

There are two other important points, here.

One is the limit of the concept of “opinion.” As a society, we generally share a conviction that everyone has a right to form, express, and share their opinions, and to hold on to those opinions without censure from others. And we do have that right, but not every thought or idea is an opinion in that sense. Opinions are matters of taste or judgment. In my opinion, lemonade is better than coffee. Your opinion may differ, but there is nothing whatever you can do about mine except accept it. I’ve tasted both, and I’d rather have lemonade. I can also have professional opinions, where I render a judgment based on my experience as a writer, and I have opinions on questions that have no secular answer, such as whether heaven exists. But for questions that have answers that are clearly and unambiguously answerable by secular means? They just aren’t matters of opinion. For me to say that, in my opinion, New York City is in New Jersey is balderdash. The word “opinion” is not a license to just say whatever. New York City is not in New Jersey.

And Planet Earth is getting warmer.

The other important point is that debate must be rooted in the truth, so far as the truth is knowable. If we’re going to have a public discussion about what to do about an issue–say, unemployment, crime, pollution, or the fair distribution of marshmallows at a Girl Scout camp-out, we have to base our discussion on the known facts. I can’t insist that there are more Girl Scouts on the trip than there actually are, because that would defeat the whole purpose of the discussion. Introducing error in such a discussion is just as bad as suppressing a particular voice, because either undermines the process of group decision-making. So, while there are circumstances where the law must protect speech regardless of its truthfulness, morally speaking, there is no right to lie publicly.

And ExxonMobile, and climate deniers generally, lie.

There is a neat little rhetorical trick where people defend their actions by speaking to legitimate, but inapplicable, anxieties. For example, there is the classic false populist who orates about the high unemployment rate in order to gin up support for policies that only benefit the rich. There are the privileged who yell “I’m being oppressed!” when anyone tries to even slightly level the playing field. And there are climate deniers who, as a group, lie, bully, even threaten in order to keep the truth about climate change out of the public debate and then become very concerned about freedom of speech when anyone tries to stand up to them.

Essentially, if I can convince you that the best way to avoid being robbed is to give me a hundred dollars, I’m going to get your money because you are very worried about robbery. You’re worried about robbery because, on some level, you know you’re being robbed–by me.

So, let’s go over this; yes dissidents should be allowed to speak freely. Condemning people for their opinions or ideas is contrary to the ideals of a free society. We don’t hunt heretics anymore, or shouldn’t, anyway. But no, ExxonMobile is not a beleaguered dissident and no, climate denial is not simply an example of an unpopular group of ideas.

The problem with climate denial is not that 97% of climate scientists disagree; the problem is that climate denial is being propagated by and for bullies. The rest of us have a right to stand up and protect ourselves.


Author David Huber also uses the College Fix article to indulge in a somewhat tangential ad hominim attack on Bill Nye that deserves rebuttal. The substance of the attack is that Nye is an engineer, not a climate scientist, despite calling himself “The Science Guy,” and that such misrepresentation would never be tolerated in a climate denier. The fact of the matter is that having hosted a TV show called “Bill Nye the Science Guy” does not constitute a claim to be a scientist any more than Mr. Wizard ever claimed to actually practice sorcery. Bill Nye is not a scientist, he’s a science communicator. That is, he is not, nor does he claim to be, authoritative. He’s just a messenger. When climate deniers are called out for not being climate scientists, it’s because either they or their supporters have done something to suggest that they are climate scientists. Either that or, yes, somebody is being snarky because they don’t like the message.

There is no double-standard here; messengers are judged by the reliability of their message, not by their own expertise, unless they claim to be experts themselves.

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April First

Today is April Fools’ Day, so perhaps I should have written a joke-post full of climate-denial drivel painted on thick. Unfortunately, the danger of somebody not getting the joke is just too great. Instead, I’m simply going to ask a question; why do we believe some things and not others? What makes a statement sound plausible–to you, say?

Rather than making fun of “gullible fools” as is traditional today, I invite each of you to consider how you yourself might be fooled? Under what circumstances might you be taken in?

Actually, I’ve noticed that a desire to not be taken in may be itself a potential weakness; “this is information they don’t want you to have” and “wake up, sheeple!” are both really common ways to present outlandish ideas.

A stick-figure lectures on conspiracy theories

An excerpt from XKCD

So, how sure are you that climate change isn’t a vast, liberal conspiracy? Or, more precisely, presented with two groups of people each asserting mutually contradictory sets of facts (this is critical–these are not differences of judgment or analysis, which might be fairly called differences of opinion, this is factual disagreement), how do you know which one is wrong? Or do you?

Answer that one and you’ll be better equipped to talk to people who just happen, quite innocently, to be wrong.




Climate Change and Evangelicals

This is the second part of a series on religion and climate change. The first part covered Catholicism. I’m going to cover all of the major–and some of the minor–religions in the United States. Feel free to comment if you know about how these issues play out in other countries.

It may seem strange to non-Christian readers, that I’m doing separate posts on different subtypes of Christianity. It seems strange to me that I have to, but Christians themselves often speak as though the different branches of Christianity were, in fact, separate religions. Notably, I have heard Protestants use constructions like “are you Christian or Catholic?” More important for our purposes, the different branches respond differently to the issue of climate change.

Some Definitions

Talking about Protestant Christianity and climate change is difficult because, in contrast to Catholicism, there is no central authority on doctrine (except the Bible itself which, rightly or wrongly, is obviously subject to multiple interpretations). True, the leadership of an individual denomination can decide on a doctrine and treat it as orthodoxy–Protestant churches are not necessarily democracies on matters of faith. But if somebody disagrees they can go to a different Protestant church, or even found a new one, without dropping out of the larger Protestant continuum.

By “Protestant continuum” I mean the variety of beliefs and practices encompassed by all Protestant churches everywhere. Outsiders tend to treat variations within that cloud as mere details, so, sometimes, do Christians themselves. One of my brothers-in-law was raised Methodist, “saved” in an evangelical denomination (I don’t know which one), attended a Methodist seminary, and now teaches adult Bible study at a church of another denomination (the rest of the family can’t remember which). On Christmas and Easter he returns to his parents’ Methodist church for services. Nobody seems to care, and he is not the only Protestant I have met who shifts denominations so fluidly. While in theory some Protestant churches may indeed have an orthodoxy and by its lights define other Protestant churches as apostate or even just not Christian, in practice individual Protestants have a wide freedom of religious choice. To discover what Protestants do and believe, we must therefor look to polls, not encyclicals.

The polls I have found divide Protestants into three groups: mainline, evangelical, and black. To be clear, “black Protestants,” in this usage, does not mean Protestant who happen to be black. In fact, all three groups have at least some black members and all three have at least some white members. But, in the United States, at least, the traditionally black churches comprise a distinct body of both doctrine and practice. We’ll start, today, with the evangelical branch.

Evangelical by Any Other Name

Evangelical Christianity is not a denomination or even a distinct group of denominations–although some denominations are generally considered evangelical. More properly, the evangelicals comprise a movement, and, like all movements, its boundaries are somewhat fuzzy. Generally, evangelicals can be said to share a few key doctrines, such as conversionism or Biblicalism, but not everybody who has those beliefs calls themselves evangelicals. It is difficult to even say for sure how many American evangelicals there are, although a third of the total population is a reasonable guess.

The terms evangelical, born-again, and fundamentalist are all used interchangeably by many outsiders. Indeed, the word fundamentalist is used by some writers, such as Karen Armstrong, to refer to common elements among religious movements of multiple religions, including Islam, Judaism, and Buddhism. By this definition, evangelical Christians are often fundamentalists because they take the Bible literally. These terms are not interchangeable for believers themselves, however; the term fundamentalist originated in an American Christian movement of the late 19th and early 20th centuries and the term evangelical originated in a separate religious movement that arose in the Midwest in opposition to fundamentalism during World War II.

What the Polls Say

Among self-described white evangelicals, 64% are “somewhat” or “very” unconcerned about climate change, more than any other American religious grouping (Hispanic Catholics are most concerned). 77% attribute recent natural disasters to the “End Times,” while only 49% attribute such disasters to climate change (obviously, some attribute disasters to both causes). Only 31% say humans are causing climate change, a dramatically lower percentage than for all other groups polled.

While some obviously accept climate change and care about it, the evangelical voice is largely one of climate denial or climate skepticism (yes, there is a difference) and the voice of American climate denial is largely an evangelical Christian voice.

There is serious political importance to evangelical belief because they vote in large numbers and they care about the beliefs of the people they vote for. That is, while climate change and evolution are political non-issues for many other Americans, both are important indicators for evangelicals; many simply will not vote for anyone who believes in either. Evangelicals are hardly unusual among Americans for doubting evolution or climate change, but because they vote on these issues and most other people vote, their vote matters more. White evangelicals were the largest voting bloc in many districts at the recent midterm elections and they overwhelmingly voted for Republicans. They are why the Republicans took the Senate.

Notice the implication here; if non-evangelicals tend not to care whether candidates accept global warming, that means that many people who do believe in climate change are voting for candidates who don’t. This is why the United States has a persistent climate denial Congress and why the long-hoped-for climate agreement to be finalized in Paris will not include a new, legally binding treaty. When Americans who do accept climate change do not vote about climate, or do not vote at all, the entire world sees its options narrow.

Why So Many Evangelicals Doubt Climate Science

There are important doctrinal reasons why evangelical Christians have trouble accepting the idea of human-caused environmental disaster. If God is omnipotent, then how could humans mess up Creation? Even the suggestion that we might seems sacrilegious to some. In this view, if the climate is changing than God must be changing it and He must have a good reason to do so. Further, if after the Resurrection the saved will live forever with Jesus Christ on a new and much-improved Earth where there is no suffering, then it doesn’t much matter what happens to this Earth. It’s temporary. Some evangelicals also believe that God gave the Earth to humans to use however they want–this being one interpretation of the concept of “dominion over the Earth.”

The problem is that other Christian groups share the same doctrinal underpinnings and yet have much higher rates of climate change acceptance. While evangelical climate skeptics and deniers may indeed list the above reasons for their doubt, something else is clearly going on.

The “something else” is culture and politics.

Basically, environmentalism and especially climate sanity have become identified in the popular American imagination with liberal politics and liberal values. Evangelicals are generally culturally conservative, so they are automatically suspicious of anything liberals espouse. It is simply not possible for everyone to become an expert in everything, so we all have to trust others to tell us what is right to some extent–everybody, liberals included, is inclined to believe the things that people they trust tell them. We also disbelieve people we dislike or distrust.

Part of the problem with the climate discussion in the United States is that this distrust-by-proxy is mutual. For every conservative who complains about Al Gore and the socially licentious, politically imperious liberal agenda, there is a liberal complaining about those racist, sexist red-necks who listen to Rush Limbaugh. Underneath the reflexive mud-slinging, both groups harbor–and sometimes share–entirely valid concerns about how the country is being run and how its culture is changing, neither group is willing to listen to the other. Climate change, as an issue, is a casualty of this breakdown in communications. It is not the only one–there are important concerns that liberals overlook, too.

Why Some Evangelicals Are Climate Activists

I am not myself evangelical (nor even Christian), but I have had many friends over the years who are. One of them was, at the time, the state ecologist of Delaware and he took climate change more seriously than the vast majority of my liberal friends (he accepted evolution as well, having heard of a pastor who claimed that the “days” in Genesis could have each encompassed millions of years). He took a lot of flak from his colleagues for being Christian and told me that he knew of Christians in the sciences who hide their religious identity for fear of professional discrimination and harassment.

He isn’t alone. Evangelical Christianity does not get much respect from the American mainstream. They are often wrongly assumed to be stupid or anti-intellectual because so many of them take the Bible literally. Evangelical environmentalists consequently often feel uncomfortable at best among liberal environmentalists and environmental scientists. They don’t feel welcome, and sometimes aren’t welcome. Many must also cope, simultaneously, with having their faith and their values questioned by other evangelicals, who suspect them of being turncoats.

Nevertheless, evangelical environmentalists do exist. Not only do they accept the science on the matter and feel concern for the same reasons other people do, but some see environmentalism as an important embodiment of their faith. The evangelical environmentalist groups I have encountered recently mostly describe responding to climate change as an extension of their Christian duty to other people, but I have, in the past, also heard environmental responsibility framed as another meaning of human dominion over the Earth. The idea is that God gave the Earth to humans to shepherd and take care of, not simply to use. A related concept is that God made the world, so for humans to wantonly damage it is disrespectful of God.

The Bottom Line

The bottom line is that American evangelical Christianity has a huge effect on environmental policy, both for good and for ill. Alongside evangelical climate skeptics–who are factually wrong on that one point but have much to say on other issues–there are scientists and activists who approach environmentalism as part of a sacred trust. Recently, self-described evangelicals have spoken up in support of the EPA’s new rules regulating carbon emissions, pressed Congress for legislative action on climate, and even encouraged President Obama to speak with the Pope on climate change.

We need these people.




Deniers and Skeptics

I do not want to be misunderstood when I write about climate deniers.

Specifically, I don’t want anyone to think I’m disparaging people for questioning climate change. Unfortunately, climate change is quite real, but doubting that doesn’t make a person stupid or bad. With the exception of climate scientists themselves, all of us have exercise some degree of trust that what we’re hearing about the climate is the truth. There is just too much science out there for anyone to have the time to verify all of it personally. And some people, for whatever reason, do not trust the experts on this one. There is no shame in not trusting the experts–experts are sometimes wrong. And while I am satisfied that climate change is not a mistake or a conspiracy (I’ve explained why here), people who don’t buy my explanations might well have some good reason for their distrust.

I want to tell a little story about intelligent distrust.

Many years ago, I began making friends with a man of my acquaintance. He worked at a store I frequented, and we would chat companionably whenever we happened to meet. One day–I forget now why the subject came up–he asserted that the United States government is actively attempting to exterminate black people. This man himself is black and I am not, a fact which may have lent an unfortunate (and unintended) political weight to my incredulity. I refused to believe that the U.S. is currently engaged in ethnocide and he never spoke to me in friendship again.

The reason for my disbelief is simple and, I still say, sound; state-sponsored extermination is more efficient.

And yet, racism does kill, and some of that racism is institutional. At the time of that conversation, I did not fully appreciate the degree to which American black people really do have to swim upstream just to live. I doubt I fully appreciate it now. Racism has a curiously unidirectional function, like one of those plant stems with tiny, backward-facing barbs; run your hand along it in one direction, and the plant feels nearly smooth. Stroke in the other direction and it slices your hand. When a black man says the U.S. government is engaged in ethnocide, he might be wrong, but his fear on the subject is important to listen to.

The author, Barbara Kingsolver, describes climate change as one facet of a culture war in America between rural people and the urban wealthy. She discusses this conflict in her novel, Flight Behavior, and in many interviews associated with that book. She herself comes from rural people, and says that many of those who doubt climate change do so because most liberal environmentalists are urban. And while climate scientists are not actually trying to pull one over on hard-working people, some urban elites really are.

As Ms. Kingsolver has said, environmentalists do not seem to be getting results from talking to America’s climate skeptics. Perhaps it is time to try listening instead.

I use the term “climate skeptic” here deliberately. It seems a much more accurate and honest term for the majority of people who think global warming isn’t happening. Climate change denial is something else.

A true climate change denier is someone who has some sort of investment–emotional, political, or financial–in convincing other people to disbelieve in climate change.  Tellingly, much of what they say is factually wrong in ways that could not be innocent mistakes. That is, these people are lying, which means that they intend to deceive. Either they know the world really is warming (because of human activity), or they don’t care one way or the other.

Normally, I’d describe for you who these people are and how I know they are doing what I say they are doing, but that is a topic for another post–you can get most of that information by clicking on the links in the above paragraph anyway.

My point here is this; climate deniers are making money from what they are doing. People with money are somewhat insulated from the effects of climate change–they can rebuild after violent weather and they can absorb rising costs of food. In the long term, nobody benefits from climate change, but in the short-term some wealthy people do benefit from climate denial. But most of the skeptics are not rich. They don’t benefit from denial and they aren’t insulated from its costs. In fact, since so many climate skeptics are farmers and therefor vulnerable to extreme weather, they are really among the first people to be hurt by climate change.

So, let’s make this clear: rural, working-class people have a hunch that they are being cheated and so when climate deniers tell them global warming is a hoax, they believe it. They then vote for candidates who run on pro-business tickets, ostensibly in order to free hard-working people from the fetters of regulation based on a “hoax.” What actually happens is that those elected officials then block action on climate change, which makes money for climate deniers and causes economic ruin for most climate skeptics. Who, as it happens, are quite right to suspect they are being cheated.

I have just completely re-written this post. I did it because, on re-reading the post this morning, I realized my first attempt was less coherent, easier to misinterpret, than I wanted. I had written it quickly, without much editorial care, because I was running about six hours behind schedule and was exhausted besides. I have little available time this week and I have not been sleeping well, because I am spending time with my sister’s family, helping out with the kids.

Yesterday, during the hours I might otherwise have been writing this post, I was playing with my nephew. He had decided that there were alligators (tiny, invisible ones) living in a pile of raked Fall leaves and that we had to make clothing for them. Later, he decided that some of the alligators had died and so we had to make more of them using a mysterious (and invisible) object called a “soom.” He is three. It is he about whom I wrote A Family Expecting, in which I used the arc of his life expectancy as a way to put climate change predictions in context. It’s a curious coincidence that both the predictions the climate models give us and the life expectancy of an American male of his birth-year stretch about eighty years. In the post, I guessed about his future:

This child will go home soon and become the son of the land. He’ll rest in a cradle on the floor of a barn, his mother rocking him with one bare foot as she directs customers picking up vegetables in June. In two or three years, he’ll carry handfuls of squash guts as gifts for the chickens, and a rooster as tall as he is will look him in the eye and decide he’s ok. He’ll listen to his parents worry about droughts. He’ll learn to hope the heavy rains don’t rot the tomatoes, and that rising gas prices don’t break the bank. There will likely be more such worries as he gets older. Summers will be hotter. His mother will say it didn’t used to be like this, but grown-ups always say that.

I continued on from there, on to the end of our current century.

But it’s been three years since I wrote that paragraph. Yesterday, he and I walked out to the chickens together so he could offer them gifts of food. He’s already taller than the rooster. We are running out of time to make the future better for him.