The Climate in Emergency

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


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Catching Up

There’s this thing that happens when I do several weeks of re-posts and excerpts for whatever reason–so many things happen that I could be writing about that it all builds up and then when I come back to writing new posts, I don’t know which topic to pick up. I can’t decide.

So to clear the decks, here’s what we’ve missed.

Severe Weather

January and February brought record-breaking temperatures to parts of South America and Australia (Australia’s heat waves were so bad that infrastructure was damaged and wild fruit bats fell dead out of the trees) as well as floods in some areas and severe droughts in others. The Northern Hemisphere, meanwhile, had bitter cold in some areas and record-breaking warmth in others, due to a destabilized polar vortex, possibly climate change-related–and some areas had massive snowfalls, which is not generally a sign of unusual cold (it doesn’t have to be very cold for snow) but simply a wintery version of a flood.

The American Midwest flooded severely through March, largely as a result of huge snowfalls, causing major damage to stored crops and to farm lands and equipment–much of which isn’t covered by any existing disaster relief program because this particular kind of disaster has never happened before.

Meanwhile, Southern Africa also saw catastrophic flooding in March, the result of a cyclone (the same kind of storm is called a hurricane in the Atlantic) that made landfall just days after unrelated rainstorms caused regional flooding. Cyclone Idai was an odd storm. Though only a Class 2, which seems minor by American or Asian standards, it was the most powerful cyclone ever recorded in the Southern Hemisphere, and it developed mostly between Madagascar and Africa–apparently storms in that area don’t usually become powerful, but this one had an unusually warm pool of water beneath it, a story we should find familiar. The fact that the area between Madagascar and Africa is not large also suggests to me that Idai underwent rapid intensification, another familiar sign of the new normal.

Migrants continue to head north from Honduras, partly because worsening droughts and rising temperatures are destroying their farms back home. Even if the US were better prepared to handle the crisis well, the flood of refugees would be a challenge.

Then there was the night in April when the entire US Eastern Seaboard was under a tornado watch and some tornadoes dropped down–I’m not bothering to link to a source on that one because I spent part of that night huddled in the guest bathroom with my dogs listening to weird noises on the roof. I am my source.

Of course, it’s still difficult to be sure that a rash of weird weather is actually as abnormal as it seems. Ours is a big world, and there’s lots of room for bad luck in it, while good luck occurs in other places–and I still have not found any figures addressing changes in the number of extreme events over time. But not only is extreme weather symptomatic of climate change in general, but many of these events involve types of extreme weather specifically linked to climate change, such as rapidly intensifying tropical cyclones, heat waves, and a destabilized polar vortex.

Climate Protests

I talked about the recent series of climate protests in Europe, mostly led by teens and children, last month. Well, there’s been another one, this time in London, and it was huge, involving the arrest of 1000 protestors (mostly for protesting in places they didn’t have permits for), and organized by a group called Extinction Rebellion that is less than a year old. They are deliberately disruptive, with an aim towards calling attention to the emergency we are in. Greta Thunberg participated, and addressed Parliament (I’m unclear as to whether she literally spoke within the halls of power or if she delivered her speech elsewhere, trusting they would learn of it).

The action was part of a planned world-wide week of protests, but I have been unable to find any confirmation of events outside of London. Either they didn’t happen or they have been hushed up. Somehow. Coverage of the London events have been quite minimal.

Politics

The Green New Deal continues to percolate through the national conversation–there are articles about it published this week, and various alternatives are being proposed and debated. Great!

Meanwhile, approximately 187 people are now running for president, and more may soon declare, and I’m going to have to write about all of them with respect to climate sooner or later.

So, What’s the Story?

Obviously, there is plenty to talk about. And I’m going to talk about a lot of it. You should, too. We need to keep climate change in the public eye.

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The Power of Individual Action?

This past week, I saw an interview with a man who encouraged individual efforts towards personal sustainability, but also asserted that it won’t do anything–but voting will.

I agree about the importance of voting, but why encourage the pointless? And is individual action pointless? I think not.

Here’s why.

First, individual lifestyle choices, like individual votes, add up. If enough people decide to prefer certain business practices over others–less carbon-intensive practices–industry will follow suit. Such principle-driven market choices obviously can’t solve the problem alone (or they would have already), but boycotts have changed history before.

Second, lifestyle choice can become an important point for discussion, both as a way to educate others and as a way to explore what kinds of policy changes might help. If low-carbon transportation is not a practical option in a given area, for example, perhaps sustainable public transit would be an important policy goal?

Third, trying to make one’s own life as sustainable as possible is an important exercise, a way to practice commitment and a way to develop one’s own environmental consciousness.

That has to be worth something.

But yeah, don’t get distracted. VOTE.


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The Lonely Search for Purity

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

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

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

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

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

BOOM!

I won’t march with an anti-Semite!

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

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

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

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

Do you even know what you’re talking about?

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

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

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

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

On to Climate

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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The Cost of Fire

So, the national fire Preparedness Level (PL) has gone to 5.

PLs are a way of defining the current draw on wildfire fighting resources. The higher the number, the more resources have been committed and the less-prepared we are for additional fires without additional help. Each region has its own PL, and then the US as a whole has a PL. If the national PL is 1, that means that all fires can be handled locally, without outside assistance. As the PL rises, the response to fire is organized at larger and larger scales, until at PL 5, teams are being called in from all over the country, and sometimes even from other countries, because local and even regional resources have been overwhelmed.

My husband goes west to fight fires at PL 5. We are now on alert. All our plans, from family get-togethers to vet appointments, must now be organized around the possibility that he could get the call. When you watch news coverage of catastrophic fires, remember the news is personal for some people.

This year’s fires are scary. Three firefighter have already died, as have several civilians. July is the first month of California’s fiscal year, and the state has already spent a quarter of its fire budget–and the worst part of its fire season is still months away. Fire seasons are trending worse, now, for all sorts of reasons, climate change among them. Not only are fire seasons longer and more intense, largely because of changes in precipitation patterns, but hotter weather makes fires less predictable and renders firefighters much more vulnerable to heat exhaustion and heat stroke. I’ve described these mechanisms before. They remain important to know about and think about.

But I’m also thinking about politics.

This years’ fires have involved extensive property damage–“1000 homes and businesses,” according to one article, and though it’s hard to tell exactly what that means, clearly communities have been damaged. Recovery from such damage takes a long time and costs a lot of money. Who pays?

I’m having trouble finding descriptions of the long-term effects of community-scale loss to fire, but I have information that offers suggestions. I can look at other kinds of big disasters, such as major floods. I can look at recovery from isolated house fires. I can look at short-term recovery from community-scale fires. Clean-up and rebuilding seem to take two or three years, assuming the survivors can get money to rebuild, assuming that work is not delayed by labor shortages, price hikes, or fraud, and assuming that no new disaster occurs to set the process back. But those are some big assumptions. Some families might not be able to rebuild at all, and might well find themselves knocked down a socioeconomic rung or two permanently. Mental and physical health issues can persist. New construction might simply recreate the vulnerabilities that made the disaster so bad in the first place. The community will likely never recover completely.

So, that means reduced economic activity and increased demand for social services over time, costs that must be largely invisible when we look at the already-large price tags of these fires. Who pays for these costs? Somebody has to.

Firefighting itself is generally covered by the US Forest Service and the BLM, since most wildfires happen on their land. These agencies have an annual firefighting budget based on the average firefighting costs over the past ten years. When that budget is exhausted, as sometimes happens, the extra money is taken from other budgets, usually from money set aside for mitigating fire risk (thinning forests, for example, or doing proscribed burns), so bad fires beget more bad fires. Curiously, wildfires are not legally considered “natural disasters,” meaning FEMA is not involved. Individual survivors must depend on private insurance.

As fires and other disasters become more frequent with climate change, the United States may lose the ability to pay for so many large-scale, multi-year recoveries. That is a huge problem. But it’s not the only problem.

Between the costs survivors must bear directly, state and local taxpayer burdens, and Federal budget problems that result in more fires (with their hidden, long-term costs), the bill for wildfires lands mostly on the people who live in or near the places that burn. We’re talking about public health, economic issues, damaged lives. And a share of that bill can be placed at the feet of climate change–which the Federal government is doing fundamentally nothing about.

What I want to know is why fire-prone states aren’t all electing climate hawks to Congress? Why didn’t all these states go Democrat in the last presidential election? Why isn’t this part of the story part of the public conversation on climate change?


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To the Point

My time has been highly limited this week so far because I had medical appointments two days in a row–nothing serious, don’t worry, I just needed new glasses and also had some questions for my MD. Just somehow the two appointments ended up being back-to-back, so now I’m behind on everything. Rather than skip this week’s climate post or try to squeeze it into Wednesday, I’m going to just take a few minutes right now to say….

Where are the climate protests? I have a friend who intentionally got himself arrested the other day protesting the healthcare bill, which is absolutely admirable, and it one of many worthy issues that deserve phone calls and emails to elected representatives. But it made me realize that I haven’t seen hide nor hair of the climate movement lately.

Either there are actions going on that aren’t well-organized enough for me to hear of them and don’t make the news, or nobody’s doing anything, and I don’t know which one is worse. So, I say again, climate change is the central issue, both because it can hurt us on a scale like almost nothing else and because the fossil fuel industry is currently the primary driver of most of our other political woes. Follow the money; no matter where you start, you’ll end up in oil.

So. There are heat waves and droughts and famines and fires afoot right now. Let’s get climate change back in the news.


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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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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.