The Climate in Emergency

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

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Groundhog Day!

It’s Groundhog Day, the day when, supposedly, a groundhog in Pennsylvania predicts the weather by seeing or not seeing his shadow. It’s the closest we have to a climate-related holiday.

It’s an odd holiday–never mind how a groundhog could predict the weather, how can one groundhog give a single prediction for the entire country? And why six weeks? We can explore these questions briefly and then I’ll get back to talking about climate.

Groundhog Day itself goes back to Europe, where a group of interrelated traditions had various animals–hedgehogs, bears, badgers, perhaps even snakes–breaking hibernation in February to predict the remaining length of winter. The underlying idea is that clear weather in early February is, counter-intuitively, a sign of a late spring. And that association may well hold, at least in parts of Europe, for all I know.

February 1st or 2nd is also a cross-quarter day, one of the four days per year mid-way between a solstice and an equinox (the solstices and equinoxes are the quarters). The other three are May 1st, August 1st, and November 1st. All four were holidays in at least some of the pre-Christian European religions and all four survive as folk traditions and Christian holidays. All four are also holidays within the modern religion of Wicca. So today or yesterday is not just Groundhog Day but also Candlemas, Brigid, or Imbolg, depending on your persuasion, and all involve the beginning of spring. I have always heard that in European pagan tradition, the seasons begin on the cross-quarters, not the quarters–thus, spring begins not on the Spring Equinox but on the previous cross-quarter, in February. I’ve always wondered if perhaps “six more weeks of winter” is a remnant of cultural indecision as to which calendar was correct–whether spring should begin in February or six weeks later, in March.

In any case, we in America got Groundhog’s Day when German immigrants in Pennsylvania adapted their tradition to the New World–Germans looked to hedgehogs as prognosticators, but hedgehogs don’t live in America (porcupines are entirely unrelated). Groundhogs do. In the late 1800’s, the community of Punxsutawny announced that THEIR groundhog, named Phil, was the one and only official groundhog for everybody, thus utterly divorcing the tradition from any concern with local weather. There are rival Groundhog’s Day ceremonies, but Phil is still the primary one.

Groundhogs (which are the same thing as woodchucks) do sometimes take breaks from hibernation, though they don’t necessarily leave their burrows. There are various theories as to why, but most involve the need to perform various bodily processes that hibernation precludes–including, perhaps, sleep. Hibernation is not the same as sleep, after all. But there is evidence that male groundhogs spend some of their time off in late winter defending their territories and visiting females. They actually mate after hibernation ends for the year, but apparently female groundhogs don’t like strangers. Thus, it is actually appropriate that Phil is male–the groundhogs who come out of their holes in February are.

Anyway, underneath the silliness at Gobbler’s Knob in Punxsutawny, Groundhog’s Day is about a cultural awareness of weather patterns and animal behavior. Certain times of the year are cold and other times are not, dependably. If we pay attention, we can know what to expect and we can organize holidays and cultural observances around that knowing. In this sense, then, Groundhog’s Day is not about weather but about climate. Climate is the roughly stable pattern that makes it possible for ordinary people who don’t have supercomputers or satellites to predict the weather simply by watching the world around them.

We’re losing that, now. It’s fifty degrees outside, where I live. In February. And while warm, springlike weather is pleasant and I intend to go out in it as soon as I’m done writing this, there’s always something unnerving about unseasonable conditions. Yes, we’re under the influence of El Niño, a complicating factor. I’ve discussed the relationship of El Niño to global warming before, but that’s not the point here. The point is that the patterns our cultural traditions are build on–climate–are eroding. The world is getting less reliable, less like home.

It’s a little thing, as consequences from climate go, but one likely to have a profound effect on us psychologically. There is still time to do something about it. Get involved politically, support climate-sane candidates.





They Actually Said It!

This past Saturday, Garrison Keilor devoted his News from Lake Woebegone radio monologue to bemoaning this year’s mild winter in Minnesota. I had not been following Minnesota weather this year, but apparently it has not been the deep and bracing freeze its residents have learned to expect–parts of the Eastern seaboard have been colder and gotten more snow. Mr. Keilor says that it is cold, severe winter that gives Minnesotans their regional identity, their chance to feel useful and competent. He is being comical, of course, but the best comedy has a heart of truth and his is very good comedy.

“Please, God,” he says at the end, “give us back our winter. We need it.”

Garrison Keilor is generally liberal but apolitical on air–it’s a big deal when he weighs in on a controversy or does more than poke equal-opportunity fun at public figures. A week or so ago, he made one of his very rare exceptions to point out that no one wants to find themselves at the mercy of an incompetent professional, such as an airline pilot complaining of a hangover or a surgeon who didn’t do well in med school–or a Congressman who doesn’t believe climate change is real.

An equally dramatic, but less fun, they-actually-said-it moment occurred on Thursday, on the PBS Newshour, when Gwen Ifill said the following:

Charles and David Koch may not be running for president, but they are certainly poised to decide who will. The billionaire brothers are raising their collective profile this year as political kingmakers, courting presidential hopefuls and making plans to spend nearly a billion dollars on the 2016 election, outstripping both major political parties.

Notice this: “Charles and David Koch may not be running for president, but they are certainly poised to decide who will.” That is not right. In the United States of America, the presidency should not be decided by a single pair of brothers who just happen to be two of the five richest people in the country. And while PBS has a reputation for a liberal bias, that reputation is largely undeserved. In fact, the PBS Newshour specifically has taken criticism for under-reporting climate issues and some PBS member stations or TV programs benefit financially from the Koch brothers, whose money comes, in large part, from the oil industry. Whether that criticism in turn is deserved is debatable, but clearly the Newshour, at the very least, gives the Kochs their due. For a news anchor on the show to openly admit that the brothers, and not the American electorate may choose our next president is a very big deal.

So, what are Mr. Koch and Mr. Koch planning on doing with the $889 million they hope to put into the 2016 election?

According to,

[The Kochs’ political action network] aims to advance a conservative platform that prioritizes austerity, deregulation, and privatization while opposing efforts to address climate change. Of Freedom Partners, the tax-exempt business lobby that sits at the center of the Koch-backed political operation, the Post‘s Matea Gold writes: “the group’s ultimate goal is to make free-market ideals central in American society.”

Austerity, deregulation, and privatization together generally mean the principle that the government should neither limit the activities of those who make money nor engage in social programs and public services that might require the collecting of taxes for funding. The Kochs want a clean field in which to make money.

That may sound unfairly cynical–certainly free-market ideals are often presented in vaguely populist terms of freedom and fairness for everyone. But even if the brothers are not acting out of pure self-interest, their political agenda serves their personal interests very well. It’s also worth noting that although the Koch brothers and their immediate allies are hardly alone in pouring private money into politics–liberal shadowy donors exist as well–the Kochs operate on a completely different scale. Between their own money and the donations they receive, no other individual in the country can command the kind of cash either of them do.

These men have a long and established history of supporting–arguably, creating–climate denial, through both electoral politics and the support of denial-focused organizations. While the brothers probably donate much of their personal wealth to their causes, they also raise money from other donors. In either case, the donations are typically anonymous. Where the money goes is also hard to trace, but much of it goes into creating climate doubt. It is not difficult to see why, given that the family fortune comes from the oil industry. Interestingly, they own a chunk of Canada the size of Delaware that sits right on top of huge tar sands deposits–the same oil that would flow if the Keystone XL pipeline ever gets finished.

So let’s state this plain; Charles and David Koch want to buy the 2016 Presidential and Congressional elections in order to prevent anyone doing anything about climate change. And they are already raising the money and choosing their candidates.

If they succeed, their climate-denier president will be able to roll back all the executive actions President Obama has taken. That means ignoring international agreements and tying the hands of the EPA. We will not only not move forward, we will move backwards. We’ll be locked into leading the world on warping the climate until at least 2020–a critical timeline, since we know the world has to transition away from fossil fuel beginning now in order to have any chance of staying under 2 C°. This election is make-or-break time, for all of us.

So, how likely are these people to succeed? Likely enough that I’m worried. And likely enough that the brothers themselves are betting millions of dollars on the project. But it’s not quite a sure thing. Almost half of Americans polled say that climate change is a major threat to the country, and while that number is much lower than it should be, it is politically  significant. Some two-thirds of the country actually support the EPA’s regulation of carbon and many are willing to pay extra to reduce emissions. If those people who believe the problem is real voted for candidates who also take climate change seriously, then we will get the presidency and possibly a majority of at least one house in Congress.

So, the climate deniers are already raising money and organizing. Are we?

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Vote Here Part 2

With the general election just a week away, it’s time to make good on my promise to write about lesser-known elected offices that may (or may not) nonetheless have a bearing on global warming.

In the first How to Vote post, I demonstrated how to research candidates’ stances on climate issues, using a few of the bigger races in my state (Maryland) as examples. I’m not going to repeat the process for the other races (except privately for my own edification). Just to recap:

  • Incumbents for offices with national significance (e.g., Congresspeople) are rated by the League of Conservation Voters according to their voting records on environmental issues.
  • Challengers who have previously served in public office have service records, but these might require some digging to find. It’s important to understand local environmental issues, otherwise it might not be clear which is really the record of climate sanity. Be prepared to sort through political spin.
  • In the absence of relevant records, look at the candidate’s own advertizing to determine whose vote he or she is trying to get. Campaigns are famous for what Mary Poppins called “pie-crust promises–easily made, easily broken,” but if the candidate isn’t even trying for environmentalist votes, he or she is unlikely to fight hard for climate.

In this post I’m going to go through the offices being contested in my district and explain what each of them do; some voters (in the past, me included) ignore some local races to the point of not finding out what the positions involve. Not all of these bear on climate change, but some do–and all are opportunities for candidates to develop name recognition so they can run for something else, later. My ballot might or might not have all the same offices on it as yours, but this should help.

I’m looking at races for the following positions:

  • Governor/Lt. Governor
  • Attorney General
  • Representative in Congress
  • State Senator
  • House of Delegates
  • Comptroller
  • Judge, Court of Special Appeals at Large
  • County Commissioner
  • State’s Attorney
  • Clerk of the Circuit Court
  • Sheriff
  • Register of Wills
  • Judge of the Orphans’ Court

Governor/Lt. Governor

This is, of course, two separate positions; in Maryland, the two run on a combined ticket, as the US President and Vice President do. This is not the case for all states. Delaware, for example, elects its Lieutenant Governor separately. Some states actually have no Lt. Governor at all.

The position of Governor is, more or less, similar for all the States and familiar to most people, but Lt. Governor varies a lot between states and even from one administration to the next. In some states, including Maryland, the Lt. Governor is a purely ceremonial post, unless and until the Governor is temporarily or permanently unavailable. In others, the job includes substantial legislative duties. Sometimes the Governor can delegate duties to the Lt. Governor and these might be minimal or major, depending on the Governor’s personal judgment.

In other words, the office of the Lt. Governor might be at most a springboard to possible higher office, or a position with direct bearing on policy, depending on the state in question.

Attorney General and State’s Attorney

These two are not elected together, but I’m covering them as a pair because the easiest way to describe the two is to contrast them with each other. The Attorney General is the state’s lawyer and the state has only one. There are many State’s Attorneys, one per county, and each serves as his or her county’s lawyer. The Attorney General does not supervise the State’s Attorneys, nor do the various State’s Attorneys necessarily coordinate with each other, since each is elected separately by his or her own county (or by the City of Baltimore, which in some ways functions as its own county).

Both offices are involved in deciding how laws are enforced, and so are potentially very important from an environmental perspective; they get to decide whether the book gets thrown at polluters or at protesters. All US states have an Attorney General, though his or her duties vary somewhat, but only a minority have State’s Attorneys.


The Representative in Congress, the State Senator, and the House of Delegates are all legislative positions. I don’t know why the ballot lists “House of Delegates,” rather than “State House Delegate,” or something similar. Both the State Senate and the House Delegate are members of the State Assembly, the legislative body of Maryland. The Representative in Congress is, of course, the one we send to Washington. Maryland sends Senators to Washington, too, of course, but neither of ours are up for election this year.

The County Commissioners are also legislators–and executives, a combination of governmental functions usually kept separate. Not all states have them, and it is possible for a state to have Commissions in some of its counties but not others. Some states refer to the same position by different terms, such as “Supervisors” or “Chosen Freeholders.” Some states that do have county-level governments use different systems that separate out the executive and legislative functions into different offices. Where county governments exist in whatever form, they have responsibility for various land management functions including pollution control, parks management, and sometimes planning and economic development.

In other words, a lot of environmental issues hinge on the County Commissioners or their equivalents. Though not all of those issues have direct bearing on climate, some do, either in terms of lowering emissions or in terms of preparing for seal level rise and other such problems. These are not people to ignore.


The Comptroller is the state’s treasurer and accountant. They hardly ever make the news, and many people don’t even know how to pronounce the title (the “p” is silent). However, this is the person in charge of the state’s money–not someone to ignore, either. The Comptroller can even suggest fiscal policy and the State Assembly can and sometimes does draft law on the basis of these suggestions. Some Comptrollers, such as New York’s, even have environmental initiatives that address climate change.

Judges and Related Positions

The Court of Special Appeals is Maryland’s intermediate appellate court, which means that it hears appeals from trial courts  but its decisions can be appealed in turn to the state’s version of a Supreme Court, the Court of Appeals. The judges are appointed, not elected, as vacancies appear, but each judge must stand for an uncontested election after appointment and then at ten year intervals thereafter. Judges who lose one of these votes of confidence are then replaced by a new appointment. The judges represent specific court circuits or serve “at large.” There are fifteen in total, though they usually hear cases in panels of three. This year, two such judges, both “at large” are up for confidence votes.

The Orphan’s Courts exist at the county level in Maryland (though not all counties have them) and deals with both wills and the guardianship of minors. Its judges are elected for four year terms and one is up for election in my county.

The Register of Wills is likewise elected for a four year term, one per county,

The Clerk of the Circuit Court is also a county-level position and essentially handles judicial paperwork, including archiving documents and helping litigants file the proper forms.

All of these apply to Maryland courts. Other states have their own systems for electing or appointing judges and other court officials. Of course judges sometimes can decide cases that bear on climate change, and it is possible to make policy from the bench to some extent, but much of their work–while very important–does not bear on our topic.


Sheriffs in Maryland are responsible for enforcing the law, providing security in courts of law, and administering correctional facilities. Depending on the area, the Sheriff may work alongside the organized police force or may be the only law enforcement around. This state has 24 sheriffs, each elected in his or her jurisdiction. The duties of sheriffs vary from one state to another.

I have, for the most part, left out links to my research sources here, because I used a combination of multiple websites and my own prior knowledge on almost every office and citing such combinations is complicated. Looking up the positions on your sample ballot for your own area is not complicated–an internet search for “what does [this office] do in [this state]” should do it.

Now, the only thing left is for you to go VOTE on November 4th!