The Climate in Emergency

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


Leave a comment

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 https://xkcd.com/258/

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.

 

 


3 Comments

Ideas Are Bullet-Proof

I’m still thinking about Easter, some way to make a post seasonal without being trite–I’m sure there’s some way in which climate change is bad for Cadbury Creme Eggs, but really? Is that where we want to go with this holiday?

The thing is, Easter (if we ignore, for the moment, its pagan fertility rite dimensions) is the commemoration of the death of a political prisoner at the hands of the State. I’ve always found the thought of Jesus-as-activist much more intriguing than the possibility of His resurrection–which might be because I’m not Christian, but I know dedicated Christians who seem to feel the same way. It’s a fact that being a good person can be dangerous. It’s also true that we keep having good people anyway.

I’ve decided to honor the incontrovertible miracle of bravery in the face of persecution by Googling “climate change martyrs” and seeing where it leads.

“Climate change martyrs” is not, in itself, a great search term. Nothing much relevant comes up, probably because the religious dimension of “martyr” is somewhat at odds with climate science. But climate scientists are being harassed, even threatened. Some may be murdered, if the problem persists. Bravery is required.

The harassment goes back to the mid-1990’s, but has been increasing in recent years. Examples taken from the various articles I read for this piece (and have linked to) include: threats to “see to it” that a scientist would be fired; vague threats on a scientist’s children’s safety; the deposit of a dead rat on a scientist’s doorstep; the display of a noose by an audience member during a public talk by a climate scientist; and multiple, spurious accusations of fraud or other wrongdoing.

That last may seem less frightening than the physical threats, but it’s actually much more sinister. After all, it is illegal to physically attack someone, so the chance of anyone actually making good on a death threat are very low–but it is not illegal to file so many Freedom of Information Act requests or legal challenges over the use of government money that the target cannot conduct research.

Some researchers are becoming afraid to speak out on climate change, sometimes asking that their names not be associated with their work. Others labor on behind locks that have been changed and phone numbers that have been de-listed. This is happening.

Curiously, the problem is largely American. Australian climate scientists have also been harassed, but not been on the scale of what their American counterparts have had to deal with. And while Canada has had a serious problem with high-level climate denial in the past, it never bubbled over into organized harassment of scientists. Britain and continental Europe and Japan have seen little of the problem, although scientists there are very concerned for their American and Australian colleagues. Climate-denial in general is specific to the English-speaking world, at least in part because organized climate denial is propagated largely by American organizations–that speak English. That the United States is at the center of the problem should, perhaps, not be much of a surprise. After all, the United States is key to global climate action–without American leadership, meaningful emissions reduction is unlikely to happen. With American leadership, we have a chance. And since the only way to accomplish meaningful emissions reduction is to stop burning fossil fuel, if I owned a boatload of stock in the fossil fuel industries and had no conscience whatsoever, I’d try to take out American interest in climate. Wouldn’t you? And, clearly, attacking American climate scientists is part of that effort.

The recent rise in harassment dates to almost ten years ago, when two events occurred in quick succession: the release of the 2007 IPCC Report, which seemed on the verge of triggering meaningful climate action in the United States; and the election of a black man as President of the United States. The latter made possible the rise of the Tea Party, a movement that is demonstrably fueled by racist resentment rather than ideological concerns about government and yet is funded by the Koch brothers (plus Rupert Murdock), oilmen who have been accused of personal racism (do an internet search on “are the Kochs racist?”), but quite clearly have a much bigger investment in preventing climate action–they also fund the Heartland Institute, which is a major driver of American climate denial.

That the American version of hostility to climate action is deeply enmeshed with suspicion of government over-reach at the same time that the government is headed by a black man may not be a complete coincidence.

I do not raise the specter of racism simply to discredit climate deniers, but rather to suggest a mechanism whereby American conservative populism may have been hijacked and made to serve an anti-environmentalist agenda.

Some attacks on climate scientists–and by “attacks” I mean everything from threats to legal action to deliberate bureaucratic nonsense–have been perpetrated by individuals, others by organized climate-denier groups. Some of the most frightening, to me, anyway, come from government officials, including Lamar Smith, the Chair of the Science Committee of the US House of Representatives, and (now former) Virginia Attorney General, Ken Cuccinelli.

Scientists themselves are not passive before all of this, and are fighting back, both individually and collectively. The Union of Concerned Scientists particularly is taking action, but needs money, and possibly other support. They need money with which to fight spurious lawsuits and stave off equally spurious bureaucratic demands which, together, might otherwise stop American climate scientists from working. I’m posting a link to their request again, here. Please support them.

Silencing inconvenient people is not an American thing to do–and when it happens anyway, the American thing to do is to stand up and do something about it.

I chose as title, a quote from the movie, V for Vendetta. The bad-guy has the hero riddled with bullets, and yet the hero does not fall but ultimately triggers the fall of the corrupt and authoritarian government–because while the hero is not personally immortal, ideas cannot be murdered. I had occasion to remember the quote recently–a friend of mine, a political organizer and activist and a deeply religious man, wrote something on Facebook that, knowing him as I do, reminded me of the ultimate futility of trying to erase ideas by attacking inconvenient people.

I have just asked his permission to share his post with you:

A few minutes before Easter. I love this annual celebration of the underlying reality that empires can’t kill the Spirit, and that a spiritual wholeness is resurrected every time we take loving and wise action in the world around us. I see the life of Jesus as one of the most powerful patterns and examples of radical faithfulness. Miracles continue to happen. Blessed be.


2 Comments

Your Tuesday Update: Prosecute ExxonMobile

As some of you will have heard, Exxon knew that climate change was real and largely caused by fossil fuel use back in the eighties. The company then publicly denied climate change for decades, working through many of the same PR experts who had previously worked for the tobacco industry.

In a way, this should not be news. After all, I knew about climate change in the eighties. And I was a little kid at the time, not one of the leaders of a major corporation. Of course Exxon’s leadership knew.

But for Exxon to use climate research to plot corporate strategy (such as deciding to pursue drilling in the Arctic because the warmer climate would make doing so cheaper) while simultaneously insisting to the public that these same studies were unreliable…it’s just insulting, is what it is.

And, as it turns out, the whole strategy may be illegal under the RICO statutes–the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act, a law originally passed in order to tackle organized crime. The tobacco industry was successfully sued under RICO for exactly the same strategy of willful disinformation–so why not EXXON? The settlement could be big enough to fund some serious climate adaptation and mitigation and could discourage other professional deniers. This could be big.

I don’t suggest specific actions very often, but this seems important; please click here to sign a petition asking President Obama to sue ExxonMobile under RICO for climate denial.


8 Comments

Syria

The Syrian refugee crisis is starting to get scary. I mean, obviously the Syrian refugees themselves have been terrified for a long time, that’s why they have become refugees, but what I mean is that this is not a run-of-the-mill humanitarian disaster. This one has the potential to change the world, but not in a good way. The people are running from violence, primarily, and also poverty. For four years, now, people have been coming out–more than four million already. Mostly they go to neighboring countries, but many–more than three hundred and fifty thousand this year so far alone–make their way into Europe. Some are now being sent on to the United States.

To put this in perspective, Syria’s total population is now less than 24 million people, meaning that about one in every seven people in that country has recently left. Forced migrations on this scale leave scars that last for generations and radically change the cultures that take in the migrants–I’m thinking here of the Irish Potato Famine, which killed a million people and displaced a million, far fewer than in the Syrian crisis, but then Ireland was a much smaller country at the time. The whole world was much smaller. Almost two hundred years later, the Irish Diaspora continues to enrich the rest of the world–and the great-grand children of Irish refugees continue to take their history personally. I do, anyway.

The fact that I’m talking about Syria here suggests that climate change is involved somehow–and indeed it might be. The connection is that from 2006 to 2011, parts of Syria were in a very serious drought. Huge numbers of farmers were forced off their land and into the cities looking for work. The Syrian government severely mishandled the crisis, triggering the present civil war. The drought, of course, is just one more event made more likely by climate change. No less an entity that the US Defense Department warns that climate change is a destabilizing influence, capable of creating exactly the sort of mess currently exploding in the Middle East and into Europe.

The climate-deniers have, of course, cried foul, questioning the science of the drought attribution point by point. It is a mistake to argue science with those whose real objection is cultural or ideological, so I’m not going to offer a detailed rebuttal–but the point is not a direct causal chain, anyway. The point is that large areas of the Middle East and Africa are extremely poor, huge numbers of people living just above the poverty line–if anything goes wrong, they fall off into the abyss. Climate change simply makes it more likely for things to go wrong.

For rich countries, like the United States or most of Europe, a serious natural disaster (and we’re having two at present, the California drought and the related western fires) hurts us but does not destabilize us. We have enough of a safety margin that we can not only continue to take care of our own, we can simultaneously offer aid to other countries and take in refugees.

The reason the Syrian crisis is scary is that its scale hints at the possibility of a world where we will no longer be able to do that, where even if the United States remains comparatively rich, the number of things going wrong will rise so high that we will no longer be able to take our stability as a country for granted. Fourteen years ago today, many Americans made the unsettling discovery that we are not immune from attack. I did not–I never thought that our country was special in that way. It’s true we don’t get attacked very often, but that’s not because we live in a protective bubble. It’s not because we’re immune. But I gotta say, I’ve gotten kind of used to this national stability thing.

For weather to contribute to a civil war is nothing new. Weather and climate have always been one of the drivers of history–as James Burke elegantly demonstrated almost twenty years ago. Where crops fail and where they succeed, where floods and fires occur and where they do not, even something as simple as where the weather is pleasant, all these things have always been one of the several facets of historical events. The only thing that has changed is that weather, that thing that has always shaped events, is becoming ever more chaotic.

And the problem is that as long as we keep pumping greenhouse gasses into the sky, there will be no new normal to adapt to. Stability will not be available.


1 Comment

What Scientists Don’t Know

So, sea level rise has been in the news, recently, in part  because of recent warnings from Dr. James Hansen that we could see as much as ten feet of rise in the coming decades. The story is a little more complicated than that and has caused significant controversy. In the interests of clarity, I’ll summarize what I’ve been able to learn about Dr. Hansen’s announcement and also explore the overall topic of sea level rise.

According to Ars Technica, Dr. Hansen and his colleagues have completed a research project that involved using a computer model to explore how ocean currents would respond to various speeds of sea level rise. They could set the model to “ten feet in fifty years,” and the computer would show them ocean currents for that scenario. The study did not look at how much the sea will actually rise how quickly, only at the consequences of different rise scenarios. Then, the team submitted a paper on their research to a peer-reviewed journal, but the review process can take a long time. The team evidently wanted their results to support meaningful climate action at the Paris conference in December, and worried that the paper might not be published in time. So, they chose a journal that has an unusual public peer-review process, enabling the researchers to speak publicly about their results before the review is complete. As part of getting the word out, they also released a short summary of their research, which included speculation that the sea could in fact rise ten feet in the next several decades–something this particular research project did not address, but Dr. Hansen is entitled to make educated guesses in his area of expertise.

The problem is that the wording of the summary leaves it unclear that he is speculating, and the public media have generally reported that the study actually predicted a rapid ten-foot rise–something that is well beyond scientific consensus at this point. To be clear, that doesn’t mean the rapid rise won’t happen. It probably could, because Dr. Hansen is very much an expert on the subject, and he could turn out to be right. He is not in any way misrepresenting his research, he is just talking about something else besides his research and doing it in a way that leaves the distinction between the two unclear.

Here is an analogy:

Say that an auto-safety researcher conducts a series of crash-tests and concludes that a given model of car has a design flaw such that a particular type of crash is lethal at an unusually low speed. She then calls a press conference, presents her findings, and says “given my results, I am especially concerned about young drivers–the traffic mortality of drivers in the 16-to-21 age group may sky-rocket if the manufacturer does not correct the flaw.” The media then respond by saying that safety test predicts teen driver mortality to sky-rocket, even though that isn’t at all what the test was about.

It is possible that Dr. Hansen created the current media buzz deliberately in order to get attention for his cause–but if he’s being alarmist, it’s only because we are in an emergency that deserves the sounding of alarms. It’s not wrong to shout “FIRE!” if the crowded theater is, in fact on fire.

I expect climate denialists will pounce on this one and paint it as an episode of deliberate dishonesty, but they would probably find a way to do that no matter what Dr. Hansen decided to say.

So, here is the overall situation with sea-level rise as we know it so far:

The world is warming, and has been for some time, now. That’s not a prediction, it’s simply historical fact. It can be difficult to measure the rise in any one location because not only does the sea go up and down, but so does the land. In much of New England, for example, the land is very gradually rising because it is still rebounding from the weight of the glaciers of the last ice-age. That makes it harder to notice sea-level rise on New England coasts. In contrast, my home area, in Maryland, is sinking, making sea-level rise seem faster than it really is. But by comparing multiple sites, measuring from satellites, and other techniques, scientists can work out how fast the seas are actually getting bigger; the water has risen about eight inches since the Industrial Revolution. Most of that rise is due to thermal expansion–warm water takes up more space than cold water. The rest is due to meltwater from glaciers.

Glaciers anywhere in the world, even those that are nowhere near the sea, raise the sea level as they melt because the meltwater eventually flows into the sea. We know how much ice is currently locked up in glaciers, so we know how much the sea could rise if all of it melted. And because all that ice takes a long time to melt, we know that even if the global temperature stabilized tomorrow, the ice would continue to melt and the sea would continue to rise until the world caught up to its new temperature. What we don’t know is how fast the ice will melt or exactly how much melting we have already committed itself to.

Not all ice has an effect on sea level, however. Floating ice–either sea ice, which forms when the ocean surface freezes, or icebergs, which form when chunks of glacier break off and land in the sea, can melt without changing the sea level at all. To demonstrate this, fill a glass with tap-water, drop a few ice cubes in, and carefully mark the water level. Allow the ice cubes to melt, and you’ll see that the water level remains unchanged. This is because when ice melts it shrinks and the volume it displaces when it floats is precisely equal to the volume of water it turns into. The melting of the arctic sea ice is a terrible catastrophe, but it’s irrelevant to sea level rise. The fact that sea ice around Antarctica is growing (remember that warmed-up ice remains ice until it reaches 32 degrees, and Antarctica is very cold) is also irrelevant.

What does matter is how much ice is floating in the sea, so if a glacier starts calving off icebergs faster (as many glaciers are), that raises the sea-level, even if those floating icebergs don’t melt. Also, much of the ice surrounding Antarctica is actually sitting on the sea-bed. That is, the glaciers rest on solid rock, and that rock is below sea level. If those glaciers thin to the point that they begin to float, then not only does the water that melted off them raise the sea, so does the fact that they are floating. One of the scary things about the science here is that it’s not always obvious from the surface which ice has begun to float–there are tests scientists can do, but those tests sometimes give surprisingly bad news.

We’ve had a lot of bad news from glaciers recently, some of which have moved very quickly, broken apart, or melted away quite unexpectedly because of reactions below the surface that scientists did not anticipate. We’ve never seen the world warm this quickly before, so we don’t know what ice does in situations like this. That is one reason why Dr. Hansen could be right–although the speeded-up melting he warns about has not happened yet, and nothing we know about ice suggests it is going to happen, there is a lot we still don’t know about ice.

Dr. Hansen is guessing that what we don’t know will hurt us.


1 Comment

A Letter from the Pope

So, the Pope has come out with an encyclical on climate change.

On the face of it, this should not be a particularly large story. For one thing, Pope Francis hasn’t said anything about climate change that has not been said, at length, before—even by other religious leaders. When I wrote, earlier this year, on climate change and religion, all of the religious groups I covered had pro-environment messages on their websites, with the exception of some Evangelical Christian groups—and even they include some voices for climate sanity.

In any case, because 1) the Catholic Church is no longer in any sense anti-scientific (the Church actually sponsors a great deal of serious research and has for a long time—Galileo’s arrest is rather old news) and 2) scientists repeatedly assure us that climate change is really bad for humans, especially the poor, Catholics really should not need their Pope to tell them that the climate is a moral issue of special concern for Christians.

And yet, American politicians and business leaders have felt compelled to speak out against pontiff, so there must be something very important about his reiteration of the obvious.

What seems to have changed is that Pope Francis is obviously serious. I am not sure that all the previous pro-environment statements by Christian leaders have been—doubtless some are quite genuine, but if every church whose leadership claims to be “green” on its website actually prioritized the environment, the heavily religious United States of America would not have elected so many climate-denier Congresspeople. But the Pope clearly intends to make this a central part of his teaching—to make it something neither his followers nor anyone else can ignore.

Francis is a very popular Pope, even among people who are otherwise hostile to Catholicism—but he is still Catholic. He has not so much changed Church doctrine as brought a more compassionate attitude to it. His refusal to judge gay people, for example, is simply a more humble, Christlike way to treat people he still probably believes to be sinners. But no matter what you or I think of his Church, Pope Francis has something that is otherwise in short supply in our world; moral authority.

At least in the US, we have vocal subcultures who talk publicly about what they think is right and what is wrong, but these words seldom make it into mainstream public discourse except as political noise. When Americans feel guilty (for environmental transgressions, for racial wrongs, etc.), it is considered perfectly acceptable to attack others for making us feel that way. It doesn’t occur to many of us to simply mend our ways.

Jeb Bush, a Catholic, on hearing that the Pope was about to comment on climate change, said “I think religion ought to be about making us better as people and less about things that end up getting into the political realm.”

We can assume the Presidential hopeful did not mean to admit that being a better person has nothing to do with politics, but that may well be what he believes. Certainly, the idea that anyone might be bound to follow a moral code in all areas of their lives is not popular right now.

If it sounds as if I’m talking about a violation of the separation of church and state, I am not. Neither Pope Francis, nor the 17th Karmapa Lama, nor any other religious leader who has called for climate action has worldly authority over US policy. What they can do, what they have done, is to say, unambiguously, that doing something about climate change is right. That is what I’m talking about when I say moral authority.

The Pope has said that wonton environmental destruction is a sin. That means you can’t do it and call yourself a good Catholic at the same time. You just can’t. Maybe climate action is inconvenient. Maybe it’s uncomfortable. Maybe it requires giving up something you’d rather keep (like, for example, funding for your Presidential campaign). But none of that matters within a Christian context because moral good always trumps worldly value.

And there are a lot of Catholics, so even if other religious leaders weren’t joining the Pope on this one, the encyclical is politically very relevant.

That’s assuming, of course, that actual Catholics pay attention to it–and many of them already ignore the Vatican on other issues, notably birth control. The Heartland Institute, for one, has been doing what it can to ensure that the Pope is ignored. But at least some Catholic archdiocese are responding to the encyclical already. More will likely follow. Hispanic Catholics is the US already take climate change quite seriously, and will likely give the movement much-needed momentum.

Meanwhile, there are other reasons, besides climate denial, that some Catholics might resist the Pope’s message; in speaking out on climate only months before the critical climate conference in France, Pope Francis does appear to be trying to influence the UN. And while Catholics as a group might be happy to accept climate change as real and important, the rest of the UN’s apparently very liberal agenda is more of a sticking point.

Do we really want to give these people legitimacy by working with them? some Catholic writers are asking. Environmental activists often support abortion, divorce, and same-sex marriage!

Yeah, well, frankly, a lot of environmental activists are probably asking the same kinds of questions right now. Many may actually be battling the Church on other fronts even as they welcome the encyclical. The movement desperately needs socially conservative leadership so that socially conservative voters stop picking climate-denier candidates as proxies in the culture wars. And anyway, if we all agree to work together on this one issue for now, maybe they’ll be a later in which we can discuss other issues.

There won’t, otherwise.


3 Comments

And in Comes O’Malley

Martin O’Malley has just thrown his hat in the Presidential ring, a move that surprises no one who has been watching his career. His presence also makes the race a bit more homey for me, since he has just completed two terms as Maryland’s governor and that is my state. Unfortunately, he’s a relative unknown outside the state, and the buzz so far is that he’s not going much of anywhere this time around. A recent cartoon depicted the “O’Malley Bandwagon,” being drawn by a rocking-horse. But he’s young enough that he could easily try again, perhaps with a cabinet-level position in the meantime to round out his resume.

But how is he on climate change? What would it be like if he did win?

Martin O’Malley is like the other two Democratic hopefuls in that we don’t have to rely on his campaign promises to guess how he’d do on climate as President–he has already shown his colors as Governor of Maryland. And his colors are surprisingly green. He has been called a climate hawk, and his interest in the environment isn’t just political. It’s entirely genuine. He’s taken some heat from climate deniers of late, who pounced on his assertion that climate change is a “business opportunity,” as if he were some kind of opportunist. Of course, that isn’t what he meant–he meant that actually doing something about climate change is not only the the right thing, but also the profitable thing. And he’s exactly right–there’s nothing fiscally responsible about environmental disaster.

Under Mr. O’Malley’s leadership, Maryland really stood out on climate and related issues. He has set goals of reducing the state’s greenhouse gas emissions (from 2006 levels) by 25% by the year 2020 and by 80% by 2050. He brought the state into the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative (RGGI), a functional carbon pricing program that raises money for energy-efficiency programs that can lower residents’ utility bills. He released the Maryland Climate Action Plan, in 2008, championed the Greenhouse Gas Emissions Reduction Act of 2009, and started Maryland’s Zero Emissions Vehicle Program and got the Maryland Offshore Wind Energy Act passed, both in 2013.

Then there’s the goal of diverting 65% of our waste from landfills by recycling and composting, in order to reduce methane emissions. There’s the tree-planting program designed to deepen carbon sinks. There’s the expansion of rail lines in Baltimore and in Maryland’s D.C. (reduces car traffic and related emissions). Public buildings follow highest International Energy Conservation Code from the International Code Council. Residents who cut peak-time electricity usage get discounts on their bills. Mr. O’Malley held ClimateStat meetings every quarter, where he was genuinely enthusiastic about the proper presentation of data.

Has all of this worked?

So far, yes. Maryland’s greenhouse gas emissions have gone down, and although much of the decrease was actually due to the Great Recession and other such factors, the state has done somewhat better than the country as a whole–even as its population grows faster than average.

How many of these programs will hold in the face of our new, pro-business, Republican governor, Larry Hogan, is anybody’s guess, but Mr. O’Malley could have taken steps to try to slow reversal of his policies; what many environmentalists see as his one major failing, his issuing of strict guidelines for fracking (as opposed to not considering fracking at all), can be seen as an attempt to make it harder for Governor Hogan to write his own, loose guidelines (in fact, Maryland remains under a moratorium on fracking, which Mr. Hogan agreed to not veto).

Mr. O’Malley does have a somewhat deserved reputation for verbal awkwardness (he’s a bit of a geek, though he also plays in an Irish rock band called O’Malley’s March) but he can talk the talk on climate change, too. He brought up climate change in his very first Presidential campaign speech and features the issue prominently on his website. He has publicly acknowledged that Maryland is feeling the effects of climate change already. He has unequivocally opposed the Keystone XL Pipeline, in part on climate grounds. Of national energy policy, he has said “An all-of-the-above strategy did not land a man on the moon. This is a systems engineering challenge, as was landing a man on the moon,” and that reducing greenhouse emissions should be the explicit goal of American energy policy.

Mr. O’Malley is the real deal on climate, and he is a careful, strategic politician. Whether he manages to be a serious contender for the White House this time around or not, he will be one in the future. Speaking strictly as the author of a single-issue blog on climate change, I am very much ok with that.

 

 

 

 


Leave a comment

“What Are You Obedient to?”

This is going to get to global warming at some people. Please bear with me.

My sister once asked me what I am obedient to. Her question needs to be understood in context, because “obedience” has something of a negative connotation for many people. I’m not fond of the word myself, because it makes me think of having to do what somewhat else tells me to, even though I don’t want to.

But my sister did not ask me whom I am obedient to, but what. She wanted to know what principle I placed higher than my own druthers and impulses–we’d been arguing, and she was having a hard time understanding where I was coming from. It was a good question, though not one I had a ready answer for. I told her I would obey science, although I could not explain how that had anything to do with our discussion of the moment and we let the matter drop.

I’ve thought of that unresolved conversation, off and on, over the years since, and I think I can explain myself better now.

There are several ways to understand the idea that drove my sister’s question in the first place. The simplest to explain starts with an informal Zen Buddhist retreat I stumbled into, more or less by accident, as a teenager. The lay practitioner leading the retreat told a story about passing a deli on her morning jogging route and seeing a sign: FRESH WARM COOKIES. And oh, how she wanted those cookies. But stopping for cookies would completely derail her exercise routine. She realized that stopping for cookies would be giving over her power to that enticing sign. She asked herself “who is the master? Me, or those cookies?” Later, while we were sitting in meditation, if somebody scratched an itch she would say, loudly, “who is the master, you or the itch?”

So, that’s the simplest way to understand what I’m talking about–there is me and there are my various itches. “What am I obedient to?” is another way of asking what is more important that my itches? Or am I only obedient to my itches?

I don’t mean to draw a clear dichotomy between reason and impulse. While there do seem to be multiple brain processes in play–the ancient intuition that each of us is actually multiple, sometimes conflicting selves is at least partially correct, reason cannot actually function alone. People who, through brain damage, lose the capacity to have emotions also lose the ability to make decisions, even decisions that seem emotionally neutral, such as whether to use the blue pen or the black one. And a huge part of our every-day activities are more or less on automatic pilot, directed by impulses outside of conscious control or even, sometimes, awareness. We call these habits and get irritated when we can’t break bad ones, but if we had no automatic pilot and had to think over every little thing we’d never get anything done. I only mean that, by whatever mechanism, there is what we do and feel and think because it’s easy or pleasant, and there are other things.What calls a person to the other things is not necessarily reason–it could be emotional devotion to a person or a cause, some overriding craving (FRESH WARM COOKIES), or literal obedience to a person or a set of rules.

My sister wanted to know what my thing was. I said science.

So, how does science differ from reason, which is the answer my sister would have given? At the time I could not say and the distinction I was making puzzled me. The solution to the puzzle lay in a tomato.

I’m serious, I had an argument the other day with someone over tomatoes. It was one of those tiffs that erupts without warning, where an apparently innocent comment triggers an underlying fault-line between the continental plates of two personalities. I asserted that birds are dinosaurs and he said that was as ridiculous as saying tomatoes are fruit. I pointed out that botanically tomatoes are fruit, something he knows perfectly well, and he proceeded to get really seriously offended by the idea that botanical concepts might have any place anywhere besides the narrow confines of botany. He wanted to stick to “normal ideas that actually relate to how people live.”

Now, I could argue the point about birds, but I won’t because it is both irrelevant and legitimately controversial, but tomatoes are fruit. A fruit is a particular type of botanical structure, the plant equivalent of an egg, and tomatoes fit the definition unambiguously. It may seem strange to think of tomatoes that way, but if you compare a tomato to a watermelon and to a stalk of celery by any standard other than what to put in minestrone soup, the tomato groups more naturally with the watermelon. If you want to grow them, if you want to understand what they mean to the plants that make them, if you want to figure out when they are ready to eat, watermelons are a better guide to tomatoes than celery is–you don’t have to wait for celery to get ripe.

Most of us are most familiar with tomatoes as a taste, we’re not used to thinking of fruits as savory. It’s a bit mind-bending to consider that not only are tomatoes actually fruits, but so are beans, squash, and ears of corn. But here’s the thing–that mind-bending sensation? It’s a good thing. Because there’s more to this world than how to make minestrone. And taking botany seriously is one way to find that out.

In the sense my sister intended, obedience means conceding one has lost an argument even if one really didn’t want to lose. Obedience in this case has an almost physical force. Last night, I walked into a door frame by accident, instead of into the bathroom as intended, because it was dark and I was disoriented. It hurt. I really would have preferred to walk into the bathroom rather than, nose first, into the door fram, but I was obedient to the reality of physical objects and so the collision occurred. In a similar way, even if I wanted to insist that tomatoes are not fruit, I would collide with the inevitable fact of their anatomical resemblance to watermelons, because I am obedient to science. And whatever necessary rearrangement of my opinions of the world would follow from there.

I do not mean I am obedient to scientists or to a list of “truths” that scientists currently espouse. Science is not a collection of truths, but rather a process and a certain type of reasoning. This is why science is reliable even though what scientists say changes over time–it is the way scientific understanding changes, and not the thing that is changing, that constitutes science.

And the heart of the matter, the core of the process, is not just reason, but the insistence that a line of reasoning always begin with observable phenomena that anyone can go check out for themselves. I can say I know a thing to be true if I have observed it myself, if I have reliable documentation that someone else observed it, or if I can construct a logical argument that connects my idea to something I, or someone else observed. If I can’t do that, then I simply don’t know yet. Here is a joke:

Two scientists are driving together to a conference along an isolated, rural road, when their way is impeded by a large flock of sheep. The sheep, collectively, take a very long time to cross the road. While they are waiting, one scientist says to the other “those sheep have been sheared recently.” “Well, at least on this side they have,” concedes the other.

This principled insistence on ignorance is at odds with how most of us usually think–we normally blythely assume that whatever seems like it ought to be true automatically is. Nobody shears a whole flock of sheep on just one side only, chewing gum takes seven years to digest, if you sneeze with your eyes open your eyeballs will pop out, and there is no way human activity could change the climate.

See? I told you I’d get there.

Most people, I’d guess, have heard by now that the vast majority of scientists insist that climate change is real, being caused by humans, and a serious problem. Whether they believe it is another question. Curiously, more education about the facts of the issue does not sway many of the people who disbelieve–it may actually strengthen their denial. Science literacy isn’t the problem. The problem may be, at least in part, that these people are obedient to something other than science.

I mean no disrespect in saying that. The thing that wins the argument for these people may well be something noble or even quite rational, since there are forms of reason that do not begin with empirical evidence. Indeed, there are important questions for which science is no good whatever. You cannot, for example, scientifically verify whether my husband is really as loveable as I say he is–by its nature, that question is not amenable to objective research.

I’m not even convinced that everyone should be obedient to science, even on those questions where science can confidently speak. Certainly, I will not waste time spewing facts act figures at someone who places more stock in some other way of demonstrating an idea. It’s true that at least part of the reason why I am obedient to science is that, from early childhood to graduate school, the people who have taught me about science have always been people I’ve liked and trusted. If that were not true, I might well look at the matter very differently. As per climate change, we have no time to waste on secular evangelism, and if arguing for climate action through religious, cultural, emotional, or economic channels  works, then so be it.

But I’m also going to keep talking about the science, for those who want to listen, because I like science. Frankly, I recommend it. I know of no better way to escape bias and preconceived ideas (which all of us have) than to say “I will construct my understanding of the world from lines of reasoning that begin in the observable world as it actually is, not as I think it should be, even if that reasoning takes me someplace surprising.”


1 Comment

Feeling Overwhelmed?

Earlier this week I opened up my Facebook account only to see that the western black rhino is now extinct. Below that was somebody’s post about their (yes, very cute) cats, several posts about various people’s dietary struggles, a post about melting permafrost releasing a “carbon bomb” of methane, another one about oceanic currently slowing down because of melting ice, and then some more cat memes.

What the hell, people.

I quote the novelist, Ursula K. LeGuin, speaking here in the voice of the Archmage, Sparrowhawk:

There is a weakening of power. There is a want of resolution. There is a dimming of the sun. I feel, my lords—I feel as if we who sit here talking, were all wounded mortally, and while we talk and talk our blood runs softly from our veins.

I don’t mean to be overly dramatic, but that does seem to be where we are at. Like the Archmage, I would be “up and doing,” but like him it is far from clear to me what to do. There is a sadness and a great fear…and with no clear direction to turn to address the problem, there are bills to pay and emails to answer and cute internet cat videos to watch.

No, as far as I know, the extinction of the western black rhino is not directly related to climate change, but there is a strong connection between global warming and species extinction in general, as I have discussed before. The planet as a whole is wounded by our unsustainable behavior and climate change is one major symptom of that wound. Biodiversity loss is another. The seriousness of the situation is overwhelming and yet most people, most of the time, seem utterly ignorant of it.

“Seem” is the operative word. I do not mean to speculate about what’s actually on other people’s minds. I’ve been known to share cat videos myself.

I can’t help but assume that my emotional reaction is not unique. I think a lot of people are feeling overwhelmed these days. So while yes, I do mean to sound a clarion (get moving!) I also recognize that confusion, despair, and the logistics of day to day life are all legitimate distractions.

So, how do we get un-distracted?

How do we face reality without getting overwhelmed? How do we keep the heat on politically? How do we plot effective strategies by which we can make our caring mean something?

Because the people who stand to gain from furthering climate change, the fossil fuel industry leaders, are not flailing about, feeling overwhelmed. They are raising money and drafting their strategies as we speak. And if they win the next national election, they will win the whole game.


1 Comment

Climate Change and Jewish People

This is the final installment in my series on climate and religion (except for a concluding post I’ll do at some point). I have already written about Catholicism, mainline, evangelical, and African-American Protestant Christianity, Islam, Buddhism, and Neopaganism. There are, of course, other religions out there, but as far as I know, these are the ones that have the loudest voices in American culture. There is no particular reason that I’m doing Judaism last. As always, I’m not a religious expert, only an interested writer who does her own research and shares what she learns.

Definitions

Judaism is different that any other religion I’ve covered in that the word “Jewish” refers to both an ethnicity and a religion. The Jewish religion is the religion of the Jewish people, but not all Jewish people are religious.

It is relatively easy to define ethnic Jewishness; the child of a Jew is also a Jew (technically, Judaism is transmitted from mother to child, but I do not know whether Jewish communities actually exclude people whose fathers only were Jewish). Conversion to Judaism is possible but not encouraged and one cannot simply become Jewish on one’s own personal say-so. A Jew can’t cease being Jewish, either, at least not completely, meaning it is at least possible to be a Jewish Christian–though whether anyone identifies as such I do not know. There are about 6.6 million Jews in the United States, which is 2% of the total American population.

How many of these actually practice the religion of their forefathers is harder to say, since of course there is a wide range. For example, is someone who does not follow any aspect of Jewish religious law but who sometimes attends services on the High Holidays and special occasions, religious?

There are four main Jewish denominations–Orthodox, Conservative, Reform, and Reconstructionist, with Orthodox communities being the most conservative and Reconstructionist being the least. The most Orthodox, the Hasidic Jews, are essentially separatist and follow a very strict and traditional interpretation of Jewish religious law. The more religiously liberal groups also tend to be more culturally liberal–there is therefore a lot of political and cultural variation among American Jews.

All that being said, because American Jewry is so small, many writers, including me, speak of it as a single group wherever possible.

Judaism and Climate Change

What Jews think about climate change is not something one can simply look up–there is no central authority on correct belief, as there is in Catholic Christianity–the Jewish religion has always focused more on correct behavior than on correct thought. Judaism does have a concept of heresy, but has never had any authoritative body able to define which ideas are heretical and which are not. Instead, there is a generally recognized consensus of basic principles that practicing Jews must uphold. Sometimes two sects regard each other as heretical.  This isn’t a process that can issue clear policy statements on the latest controversies.

As with almost every other major religious group, American Jewish leaders have publicly stated their dedication to climate sanity, complete with theological underpinnings and emission-reductions targets. As of 2012, the only house of worship in America with the LEEDS Platinum certification is a Jewish synagogue. As with Christianity, Judaism includes a concept of religiously grounded stewardship of the Earth. Proper care of the land is also seen as intimately connected to moral rectitude; at several points, the Jewish Bible gives immoral or sinful human behavior as the direct cause of environmental disasters, as though the land were a mirror of the collective human soul. That environmental destruction might itself be a sin is therefore not that far a leap. And there is a religious mandate to “heal” the world–a concept that is not necessarily environmental but can be interpreted that way.

And yet, “the environment” is not a top concern of many American Jewish voters, according to a 2014 survey (climate change as such was not listed as an option). Curiously, the environment did come in as more important than Israel, stereotypes notwithstanding, but the two issues ranked sixth and eighth respectively. The top priorities were the economy and health care. In polls, their level of climate concern is similar to that of Americans as a whole.

It doesn’t look like there is an organized climate-denial movement within the Jewish community yet, though that could change–Orthodox Jews tend to be culturally conservative and therefore often gravitate to the same media outlets that Christian climate deniers favor–Fox News is popular, and many at least have their doubts that climate change is real.  Conservative Jewish groups also sometimes shy away from dealing with climate change because they see such issues as too secular. Environmental outreach among these communities usually works better if focused on less politically fraught issues, such as water conservation, especially if framed in specifically religious terms.

Reform and Reconstructionist Jews, on the other hand, tend to be politically and socially liberal and quite open to science–and they are often politically and socially very engaged. Many Jewish organizations are therefore working in favor of climate sanity, in one way or another, but many are silent or in active support of the KXL pipeline or fracking. It’s not, apparently, that these groups are anti-climate stance per se, but rather they prefer to support other issues, like American energy independence (not like getting off fossil fuel isn’t a better way to secure energy independence, but not everyone seems to realize that). Climate change just isn’t necessarily on everyone’s radar, although there are community leaders working hard to get it there.The picture I’m getting so far is that the Jewish community is not fully engaged yet on climate change, and that different subsets of it could well engage in different directions, depending on who does more outreach more successfully.

All of which might sound like much ado about only 2% of the population, but American Jewry has more political influence than its size alone would suggest–it’s hardly the puppet-master of anti-Semitic fantasy, but many Jewish people are politically active and many provide strong financial support to candidates. The Jewish population is also concentrated in just a few states, so while Jews are a minority everywhere, they are a sizable minority in some states–enough to be an important part of a successful candidate’s coalition. The Jewish vote could decide a close race in New York, Massachusetts, Maryland, Connecticut, California, or Florida. Some of these states have decided the Presidency in the past.

The Jewish vote leans overwhelmingly Democrat, and has, with some variation, for decades. There are now signs that Jewish support of the Democrats may be starting to wane, at least slightly. Since, at present, climate-sane government policy depends upon the election of Democrats, what Jewish people think of climate change has world-wide implications.