The Climate in Emergency

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


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Are Koalas Extinct?

A close-up of a koala whose facial expression appears vaguely amused yet accusatory. The koala, like all koalas, has gray fur, a round, teddy-bear-like head, and a large but flat black nose.

Photo by Laura Barry on Unsplash

A few weeks ago, scary links spread across social media to the effect that koalas are “functionally extinct” as a result of the recent catastrophic fires in Australia. Of course, reality is often more nuanced than Facebook posts, and “functionally extinct” is a technical phrase that doesn’t necessarily mean what it seems to.

So are koalas really just about extinct now?

The short answer is no, they’re not, although the species may indeed be in bad shape and climate change is largely to blame.

Koalas and Functional Extinction

The scary social media posts either referred to, or actually linked to an article in Forbes that quoted the Australian Koala Foundation as saying the species may be “functionally extinct,” and that 1000 koalas may have died in the fires and that 80% of the animal’s habitat may be gone. Since its initial publication, the article has been edited to sound less alarming and to reflect the fact that some experts think the situation with koalas might not be as bad. Several other publications have also issued articles on the subject (such as this, in the New York Times) that attempt to walk back the panic a bit and provide some additional context.

But what does “functional extinction” mean, and is it really correct to calm down about koalas?

What Does “Functional Extinction” Mean?

The original Forbes article defines “functional extinction” as meaning a population no longer plays a role in its ecosystem and is no longer viable. These are actually two, ecological irrelevancy and non-viability, very different situations, and while they can obviously occur together, they can also occur separately–and neither means that the species is “basically gone,” as in a hopeless situation or a foregone conclusion.

Functional Extinction

Properly speaking, “functional extinction” refers only to the first problem described in the Forbes article; that a species can no longer participate ecologically. In fact, a species can be functionally extinct even when its population is still big enough that its existence is not seriously threatened–instead, functional extinction means that other species in the same ecosystem react as though it is already gone and they die out.

A large, round seed or nut sitting in the top of a glass containter that has a round body and a long, thin neck. The container is partly filled with water and sits on a whitish table top. The seed has sprouted, and has a long, thin root reaching into the water and a few small green leaves coming out the top. It is difficult to be sure, but it looks as though it could be the seed of a chestnut tree.

Photo by Daniel Hjalmarsson on Unsplash

A good example of functional extinction is the American chestnut*, which is by no means extinct, but which was devastated by an accidentally introduced disease some decades ago. Some trees proved resistant, and the root systems of young trees often survived and still send up shoots that sometimes manage to produce a few nuts before succumbing to the disease again. There are also well-organized efforts underway to breed blight-resistant American chestnuts, and I have in fact seen a blight-resistant seedling (it was given as a retirement gift to a noted naturalist at a party I attended). The species is likely to survive–but anything dependent on American chestnut forests is likely already gone.

Insects and birds and bears and whoever else once ate parts or products of this species must now do without.

So not only does “functionally extinct” not mean “almost extinct,” the concept is important precisely because it applies to species that may still be relatively abundant–and yet its decline is causing other extinctions around it.

Koalas themselves are not currently listed as “endangered,” or even “threatened,” only “vulnerable,” and although that assessment was conducted in 2014 and may now be outdated, it’s also possible it’s still accurate–the current status of koalas is apparently a matter of debate, since they are difficult to accurately count in the wild. But that doesn’t mean the species isn’t functionally extinct, nor does it mean that Australia is not in the process of losing something important.

What depends on koalas?

Population Viability

A large flock of small, dark birds flies against a blue sky. The birds are mostly in the bottom third of the image, clustered around a bright spot that might be the sun, so the blue is visually dominant. The birds are hard to see, being very small, but an expert birder would be able to tell they are not passenger pigeons; they may be rock pigeons, the familar bird of cities.

Photo by Rowan Heuvel on Unsplash

“Population” doesn’t necessarily mean “species.” Most species consist of multiple populations that interbreed with each other to greater or lesser degrees, and one population can become non-viable or even extinct and leave the rest of the species doing just fine–or, a species can go extinct one population at a time, or all at once if one population is all there is.

The study of population dynamics is a whole branch of conservation science and I’m not going to get into most of it here (I don’t know most of it!). The relevant point is you can have a species that still has living members but is almost certainly going to go extinct. In fact, the species could actually still look quite large and yet be non-viable. For example, passenger pigeons could only breed in very large colonies. The phrase “hunted to extinction” evokes images of heartless gun-toters searching out every last member of a dying species, but that’s not what happened to the pigeons. Instead, they were so ridiculously abundant that no one saw any reason not to harvest them freely, and then they were slightly less abundant, and then all of a sudden there just weren’t any more–because the still-huge flocks had dropped below the threshold necessary for the birds to breed. Another, perhaps more common, scenario is that habitat loss fragments a species into lots of little, genetically isolated populations, each of which is too small to sustain itself. The species might have tens of thousands of members, but if they are scattered across hundreds of tiny refuges able to breed only with their cousins, the situation is dire.

They are like a person falling from the top of a sky-scraper. In one sense, they are fine until they hit the ground, but in another sense they are obviously not.

Extinction can take a long time, especially in species where individuals are long-lived, and a few individuals can persist, unable to breed at replacement, for decades or more, and yet their loss is more or less assured. The concept of the non-viable population is another important one for conservationists to pay attention to, for it, too, points to a type of catastrophe-in-progress.

An yet “non-viable” doesn’t mean “doomed” or “hopeless.” Species have been pulled back from the brink before. Sometimes the falling man is rescued.

Are Koalas Functionally Extinct or Non-viable?

A koala clinging to a tree with a baby koala sitting in her lap. The mother is curled up so her face is hidden, but the baby is looking towards the viewer. Both have mostly gray fur and large, round ears. The baby is a miniature of the mother.

Photo by David Clode on Unsplash

Are koalas functionally extinct? The Australian Koala Foundation says that they are, but it’s important to recognize that the group made the announcement in a press release (calling for political action to protect the species) back in May. So no, the fires probably haven’t pushed koalas to the brink–they were there already. As to what the fire has done to them, we really don’t know. It’s too soon for anyone to have done a real assessment.

The leader of the Foundation, Deborah Tabart, appears to conflate functional extinction with non-viability, but from her statements quoted in the New York Times (the same article I linked to earlier) it is clear she considers both to be true.

Both the Forbes article and the piece in the NYT make clear that some experts disagree with the Foundation’s assessment, apparently due to a perceived lack of data on the subject. I’m not in a position to weigh in either way–though I will say that “hey, there MIGHT be more koalas than you think, they’re hard to count!” is not really a comforting argument.

In any case, the Foundation has put the results of their assessment online for public review. Here is the link.

The real reason (again, based on the NYT piece) that Ms. Tabart’s assertions are controversial is not that she might be wrong but that she might be misunderstood, that people might think the koalas’ case is hopeless and stop fighting for them. Public perception is an important issue, but if koalas ARE either functionally extinct or non-viable as a species, then we do need to know so we can do something about it.

Koalas and Climate Change

That koalas are in trouble is not in any serious doubt, despite their not being officially listed as endangered. There are several reasons. First, millions were shot for their fur in the few decades before and after 1900. More recently, habitat loss has become the critical factor as more and more of Australia’s native eucalypt forests are cleared. More than 80% of their original habitat has been lost. And deforestation not only limits the total amount of space where the animals can live (and hence limits the total number who can live), but also fragments the survivors into increasingly isolated small populations. Living near human development also leaves the animals vulnerable to being hit by cars or attacked by dogs.

But koalas are also considered one of the world’s ten species most vulnerable to climate change; not only are they very specialized animals (specialists categorically handle environmental disruption badly), but Australia’s climate is among the fastest-changing in the world.

The clearest danger is from heatwaves and drought. One area lost a quarter of its koalas in one heatwave in 2009 alone. Drought and heat together stress the trees and reduces the moisture content of their leaves; koalas not only depend on eucalypt leaves for food, but also for moisture (though the animals will drink if water is available). Heat-induced water stress is the primary factor that will shrink koalas’ range in the coming decades. Some conservationists are arranging supplemental drinking stations for koalas and other wildlife, and the animals do use the stations, but it isn’t known yet whether the extra water will help with survival.

But then there is fire. Fire can kill koalas directly, and the animals can also starve to death in the time it takes a burned-over forest to green up again. Eucalypt forests do burn sometimes, and koalas evolved with fire, but several things are different now. First, the badly-fragmented nature of koala habitat means that now if an area loses its koalas due to fire, koalas from other places can’t come in and repopulate the forest as it grows back. But the other new thing is climate change; by allowing much larger, more devastating fires, it has increased the scale of destruction to where a single fire event could become an existential threat to an entire species–this year alone, Australia’s north coast has lost a third of its koala habitat. That’s not the only region that has burned, either. Where will the animals who survived those fires go? What will they eat until the forest grows back?

About Those Scary Posts….

It’s easy to get panicked seeing those social media posts, which seem to imply that this year’s fires have burned up so many koalas and so much of their habitat so as to suddenly doom them. The truth, as always in more nuanced, and panic does not help. But while a careful reading of the situation is always helpful, it is not necessarily very encouraging in this case.

Koalas are not doomed, and it is far from clear how bad their situation is, but it is clear it’s dire, not least because the threats to the species are complex and can’t be solved with a single stroke of a pen (as might be possible if hunting were still the primary threat).. We’re talking climate change, land use policy, economic development, human lifestyle issues, all of which depends on the principled cooperation of many, many people for any hope of progress. And if koalas are in danger, than so is everything else that depends on the same habitat and anything that depends on koalas.

And as of today, Australia continues to burn.

 

*The chestnut example and several other un-cited portions of this post are based on material I learned in grad school.


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What Walls Between Us

So, about this wall.

In case you don’t know (I do have overseas readers, and I assume American politics are not front and center of your daily lives), the United States currently lacks a functional Federal government. For reasons beyond me, if one Federal budget expires before the next one is approved, the US government suddenly becomes unable to spend any money. Most of its functions shut down, those few workers considered absolutely necessary work without pay, and chaos gradually descends on the country until Congress and the President quit playing chicken and pass a new budget.

Seriously, I don’t understand–why doesn’t Congress pass a new law saying that if the new budget is not approved on time, the old one stays in force until replaced? It’s not like government shut-downs save anybody any money. Nobody really wins, except (maybe) at chicken.

Anyway.

The issue this time is the wall that Mr. Trump promised his followers and now can’t admit was only a rhetorical device. Democrats–and some Republicans–do not want to approve money for the wall, arguing that it will do nothing to stop illegal immigration (most of what Mr. Trump says about border security is factually incorrect) and that the money is better spent on other issues.

While I’m personally concerned about many aspects of the situation, the one I’m most qualified to talk about is the one I see getting little attention in the news.

Basically, voices are being raised to the effect that Democrats ought to compromise and fund the wall in order to get the government back on–the assumption being that while there is strong evidence that the wall would be a pointless waste of money, the wall itself would only be useless. And that’s not true.

Long border walls are environmental disasters.

What’s Wrong with a Wall?

A continuous wall along the US/Mexico border would cause a whole series of environmental problems. Here is a brief review of a few of them.

Construction

Building a long wall would be an enormous construction project, especially in remote areas that lack roads, storage facilities, and other necessary infrastructure, all of which will have to be built. That’s a lot of disruption in the wilderness–cutting of plants, compaction of soils, increased erosion, dead wildlife–which will be all the worse because the Department of Homeland Security is exempt from environmental laws. That means if the wall is routed through the last breeding ground of some endangered species, so what.

Carbon

Exactly what the carbon footprint of Trump’s wall might be depends on the final design and it’s actual length (there is a lot of wall on the border already), but it’s sure to be huge. That’s because the wall would likely be made out of either concrete and steel or steel alone, and both are very carbon-intensive materials. I’ve seen estimates as high as 7.6 million metric tons of CO2.

And that’s not counting the carbon cost of construction, or of changes in infrastructure necessitated by the presence of the wall, like re-routing traffic.

That’s a big climate impact, for a wall that won’t even accomplish its intended purpose.

Location

The wall is scheduled to go through multiple wildlife sanctuaries, environmentally sensitive areas, a famous butterfly sanctuary, and other places that shouldn’t be destroyed. And destroyed they would be–remember, we’re not just talking about the wall itself, but also the construction zone around it, a literal swath of death.

While construction zones do generally re-wild afterwards, there are places that are unusually sensitive or unusually important that either require special damage mitigation or shouldn’t be constructed in at all. The wall will not respect such places. It will simply follow the border.

Flooding

Border walls, and even fences, cause flooding. We know that because there is a lot of border wall up already, and it has caused floods. Even if the wall has an open design that allows water to pass, floating debris will soon clog up the openings and block water.

Divisions

Walls are very bad for wildlife. Not only do walls cause problems for individual animals, who may have food on one side of the wall and water on the other, for example, but walls divide breeding populations. Not only might a small population go extinct because of inbreeding, but if it does, the area can’t be re-colonized if the remaining populations are on the other side of the wall.

There is a whole area of ecology concerned with the size, shape, and location of animal habitat, and the message is clear; two small places (with a wall between) simply aren’t as good as the one big place was before the division happens. When boundaries go up, the number of species goes down.

There are 93 endangered species threatened by the planned border wall. There may be others that are doing fine now, but will be endangered by the wall.

Extinction can take a long time, sometimes decades. While some might hope Trump’s wall will be taken down again fairly soon, before it can do much damage, walls can divide wildlife even after they no longer exist.

During the Cold War, the border between East Germany and West Germany was heavily fortified, and animals avoided the border–not only could they not cross it, but the border must have been very noisy and frightening. That wall doesn’t exist anymore. The border doesn’t exist anymore, hasn’t for thirty years.

But at least one species of deer still acts as though it’s there.

Roe deer learn ranging patterns from their mothers and only rarely depart from traditional patterns as adults. They evidently don’t question why the traditions are what they are, they just do as they’ve been taught, and they teach their young to do the same. So even though no roe deer is left alive who actually saw or heard the fortification, the deer keep acting as though the boundary is still real. If that division damaged the deer in any way, the damage is still being done.

Sometimes when you cut something, you can’t put it back together.

The Wall and the Climate

It’s also worth noting that while the wall itself would cause environmental disaster, it is also ostensibly intended to solve a problem caused by environmental disaster.

Today’s immigrant crisis is new, not because more people are coming north (actually, fewer people are), but because these aren’t young men seeking better-paying jobs. These are families with children trying to stay alive. Many of them are not even illegal immigrants–they’re asylum seekers. They’re running from various forms of crisis, from the personal (domestic abuse) to the societal (gang violence), but a major part of the problem is agricultural and economic collapse caused by drought and other extreme weather in Honduras and its neighbors.

What’s causing the bad weather? Climate change, of course.

No one willing to take their children  from Honduras to the United States on foot is going to be stopped by a wall. The level of desperation implied by such an act cannot be underestimated. Probably, nothing can stop them, not unless the United States becomes not worth living in, either. Until and unless that happens, there will be more of them. And more. If we were in their shoes, we’d do anything to survive, too.

If this country is serious about not being over-run by climate migrants, we have only three options:

  1. Prepare ourselves to accept large numbers of migrants without disruption
  2. Help Honduras (and any other country in trouble) so that it can keep its own people healthy and safe
  3. Stop anthropogenic climate change.

President Trump  wants $5 billion for the wall. How far would that money go towards programs to shift our country off of fossil fuel?

Call your Congresspeople.


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A Deadly Threat to Our Very Existence

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

Thus begins Little Shop of Horrors, a movie I was completely obsessed with for about five years as a kid. No, I’m not sure why. Yes, this does get back around to climate change, I promise.

What I want to talk about is not the 1986 movie but the musical play it was based on. The two share characters, musical numbers, dialogue, and the script writer, Howard Ashman, yet they are fundamentally different works. I’ll get into the how and the why of that difference another time, on another blog, but for now let’s just say that the happy ending of the movie changes things.

The important thing is that the off-Broadway musical, but not the movie, works as a uniquely modern morality play, one with truly planetary implications. Was it intended to be such? Probably not–I’ve just watched an interview with Howard Ashman, included as a special feature on the DVD of the movie, and it seems as though he wrote the play simply as entertainment. Yet, as a fiction writer myself I can say that the creative process is largely sub-conscious and can include significance the writer knows nothing about. The allegory I am about to explicate is therefor quite valid because, even if it was not intended, it works.

A Synopsis

First, a summary of the plot so that we all know what we’re talking about.

The action takes place almost entirely inside a florist shop, inexplicably located in a truly terrible neighborhood. Not surprisingly, it’s in the process of going out of business. The staff consists of the owner, Mr. Mushnik; the floral designer, Audrey; and a shop assistant and plant geek, Seymour. The latter two are clearly in love with each other, though Audrey is dating a sadistic dentist who beats her regularly. Into this mess of woe comes a strange little plant and, surprisingly, its very presence draws in lots of paying customers. Suddenly, business is booming.

The catch, as Seymour discovers, is that the plant is carnivorous and demands human blood. At first, being small, it does well on a few drops at a time from Seymour’s own fingers. As it grows–and begins to talk and sing–it demands more. At first Seymour refuses to commit murder to feed it, but begins to waver when the plant offers him money, fame, and access to beautiful women. When the plant points out that Audrey’s abusive boyfriend actually deserves to die (and he does, the man is awful), Seymour agrees. The following day, the dentist accidentally over-doses on nitrous oxide and Seymour calmly watches him die and then drags the body home for consumption.

With the dentist dead, Seymour has no trouble becoming Audrey’s new boyfriend. Their relationship is actually quite touching and sweet. But Mr. Mushnik saw Seymour cutting up the dentist’s body, and promises to keep quiet about it only if Seymour runs away and leaves the lucrative plant behind. The plant quietly suggests another alternative, which Seymour accepts, and Mr. Mushnik, too, is eaten.

Seymour now has everything he said he wanted, but the guilt is eating him. When a businessman suggests taking cuttings from the plant and selling them worldwide, Seymour rebels. But before he can extricate himself from the situation, the plant tricks Audrey into coming within reach and grabs her. Seymour pulls her out of the plant’s mouth, but for some unexplained reason she dies anyway. Her last request is that Seymour feed her body to the plant, because then by taking care of it, he’ll really be taking care of her, too. He complies, but then, in a rage of guilt and shame, grabs a knife and allows the plant to eat him, intending to cut it up from the inside. The plant then spits out the knife.

Shortly thereafter, the business man returns and begins taking cuttings.

While the play is ostensibly a comedy, and generally received as such by audiences, it is one of the most profoundly and disturbingly tragic stories I have ever encountered.

A Morality Play?

When I was a kid, watching both the movie and, later, the play, I always assumed that the plant was simply a carnivore, no more evil than any of the quite real entities that do specialize in eating human blood, such as certain species of mosquito (which, by the way, kill huge numbers of people through disease transmission). As an adult, I’ve started thinking about the story again and I’ve changed my mind.

The plant is just too clearly in control, and too clearly getting a kick out of its power, not to be held responsible for Seymour’s growing depravity. First the man sacrifices himself in a small way, then he kills for love and anger, then he kills for personal gain. Then he feeds the woman he loves to the plant, and then finally kills himself. The plant isn’t really after blood, is it? It’s after Seymour’s soul. And it wins.

In a classic tragedy, the hero loses, not because he (rarely she) is overwhelmed by superior forces or bad luck, but because he is destroyed from within by his own shortcomings, which are equal to, and tied up in, the very things that make him great. Seymour is very much a hero in this sense, except that it is his ordinariness that is both his appeal and his downfall. Who among us would not do as he does, were we in his shoes? Who wouldn’t spare a little blood to save our livelihood? And, having accepted the cognitive dissonance involved in nursing a little blood sucker, killing for love isn’t such a big step. Letting Mr. Mushnik go isn’t too big of a step beyond that. Faced with unbearable loss and guilt, of course he makes a last, desperate attempt to fix his wrongs, and thereby serves the plant’s interest yet again, destroying himself and leaving it free to propagate. To identify with Seymour is to admit that we, too, could be culpable in the end of the world.

Maybe we already are.

Don’t Feed the Plants

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

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

Silly, isn’t it? After all, carnivorous plants aren’t really a threat, are they?
The villain of the play may be fictional, but the human vulnerabilities it preys on are not. The reality is that we humans sweet-talk each other for blood regularly, with consequences just as stark and tragic as in this parable about a plant. It is that vulnerability that is the real subject of the final song’s warning.
But “plant” has a second meaning, as in “factory.” Is it too much of a stretch to interpret the warning quite specifically in terms of corporate industry? Global warming itself was not much on the public radar in 1982, when the play opened (though it was well-known by people who followed such things), but plenty of other environmental and social problems stemming from factories were in full view. Of course, those social and environmental ills are intimately connected to climate change, too–the same “plants” are responsible.
For us, as for Seymour, it has been a question of weighing costs in choices that seem like no choice. Of course he gave the plant his blood–what else was he going to do? His livelihood, and the good will of the only people in the world who even pretended to care about him, depended on it. It’s not like many of us have a real choice about fossil fuel, either. How else are we going to get to work? The availability of that energy has saved countless lives. But the price gets bigger over time. Are you willing to give up the life of one sadistic dentist? How about the boss you never cared for anyway? Or the health and safety of people you don’t even know–like, for example, the people of the Mikisew Cree and Athabasca Chipewyan First Nations, who have insanely high rates of cancer because of contamination from nearby tar sands development. Or the people of the Gulf Coast, where the oil industry (and other factors) is gradually destroying the wetlands on which both hurricane safety and the region’s fishing industry depend. Or the people of Oklahoma, who are coping with three hundred times the region’s natural rate of earthquake occurrence, thanks to the underground disposal of waste products from oil production.  Or the ongoing fight by the Standing Rock Sioux to protect their drinking water and sacred sites from a planned oil pipeline. Or the half of all North American birds that could be under threat from climate change by the end of this century. And on and on.
The question is, when do you stop paying the price? And what do you do when the choice you have is no choice, and ant rebellion could result in your feeding your beloved into that green maw-and blaming yourself?

Look, it’s a horrible story, and it’s all too true. So, if singing about a carnivorous vegetable helps you keep your spirits up, then go for it. Pick up a light-hearted metaphor and use that for your motivation. Get silly with it. Use comedy and camp and music. Next time Trump-the-Climate-Denier promises to make America great again by putting President Obama’s climate legacy on the chopping block, imagine him all green and viney. And don’t go leaping into his jaws with a knife, either (I’ll let you work out that metaphor yourself) because we know that doesn’t work. If we fight it we’ve still got a chance

Come on, look up the music on YouTube or something and sing it with me:

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