The Climate in Emergency

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


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Your Tuesday Update: They Did WHAT?

Apparently, the Supreme Court just blocked President Obama’s plan to regulate and reduce carbon emissions. I know, I’m upset, too.

But the situation may not be as dire and unreasonable as it seems.

First of all, Mr. Obama’s plan is not dead–this is not the final ruling. The legality of the plan is being challenged in a lower court by a group of states worried about economic harm and the Supreme Court has simply decided that the plan can’t go into effect until the legal question is settled. Disappointing, especially since time is of the essence when it comes to climate action, but to my layperson’s view the principle here seems sound:

If the plan might hurt people (cost them jobs, etc.), then it should not go into effect until we are really sure it’s legal in the first place. After all, if these states are right, it will do their citizens little good to be vindicated after the regional economies have collapsed. This is just the same Uncertainty Principle that environmentalists usually like.

Of course, the net effect of climate action will be economic and social benefit, whether certain people recognize that or not, and we can only hope the courts ultimately recognize that. But the real problem is not what’s happening in the courtroom but what’s happening in the election booth. We need state governments and a Federal legislature that support climate action. And we need a pro-climate President, both for the sake of the presidency and because whoever sits in the Oval Office next will likely appoint four Supreme Court justices–and this recent upsetting decision to block the President’s effort to save the world? The decision was split precisely along ideological lines.

We need a pro-climate Supreme Court.

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Looking Back

It’s time for our New Year retrospective again–here is a summary of the climate-related stories that caught my attention in 2015. I do not claim that this is an exhaustive or representative list. It’s in no particular order.

Looking over this list, I feel no particular optimism, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t any. I have a cold at the moment, which might make it difficult to remain up-beat.

Extreme Weather

The American Northeast became ridiculously snowy (although not unusually cold). California’s drought continued, as did drought in places like Texas and, for part of the summer, the Eastern states of the US. All of those places except California have also seen catastrophic flooding. Wildfires swept the Northwest of the US, from Oregon to Alaska and in to Western Canada. Several firefighters died. The planet as a whole set another heat record, and many new local heat records were set as well—few if any cold records. We saw some insanely powerful hurricanes and typhoons as well, all in the Pacific. Some of this wild weather is clearly due to our being in an El Nino, but climate change may play a role as well. It’s not either/or.

Fossil Fuels

The public process by which new offshore areas, including parts of the East Coast, could be opened to oil exploration has begun.

After years of largely symbolic political maneuvering, President Obama finally said No to the Keystone Pipeline.

A number of oil trains crashed. Same as last year. I hate that those two statements go together.

Shell Oil pulled out of its attempt to drill for oil off the coast of Alaska—which looks like a victory, but it is likely to ramp up pressure to be allowed to drill in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge instead.

Electoral Politics

The US Presidential campaign is now well underway. And while the Democratic candidates at least are all climate-sane, the media has not been treating that aspect of their campaigns as important. I’ve been covering this issue because we have to win this next election, “we” being the climate sane, and the Democrats look like the vehicle to do it. This blog is neutral on all other issues.

ExxonMobile

We have learned that the energy giant knew about global warming decades ago, despite its more recent denialist rhetoric. Given that I knew about global warming decades ago, too, and I was a child whose father simply read a lot, I don’t see how this is a surprise. Still, there have been called to prosecute the company for fraud and I support those calls.

Paris Accord

The world’s leaders got together and decided that destroying the world would be a bad idea. Ahead of the summit, we in the US organized a series of demonstrations in support of a strong climate agreement and nobody noticed. I sound cynical and facetious. Actually, I am cautiously optimistic about the Paris climate accord. I am only cynical, at present, about the American political process necessary for meaningful action on the subject.

The Pope’s Letter

Pope Francis released an official open letter to his Church (called an encyclical) quite correctly describing climate change as a serious problem with a moral dimension.

Jellyfish Blooms

For the second year in a row, large numbers of jellies were seen in Maine waters, suggesting a deep ecological imbalance that is possibly climate-related—except nobody knows for sure, because we have no baseline data on jellyfish populations.

Syrian Refugees

Syria has blown up in all sorts of horrible, awful ways, from a massive refugee crisis to the formation of a really scary international terrorist organization that likes to behead men and sell girls as sex slaves in the name of God. And yes, climate could have played a role. These stories go back before this year, but it was in 2015 that they became dominant in American news (finally).


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We Agree Not to Destroy the World

Last week, the climate conference in Paris sign an historic agreement–historic in the sense that is was signed, and might make some difference, something that was far from guaranteed. The agreement is largely non-binding and leaves emissions reduction targets up to each country to set for itself. The agreement will not go into effect until a critical number of countries ratify it, something that actually could take a couple of years (assuming it happens at all). The chance of the world reducing emissions enough to limit global temperature rise to under two degrees Celsius is obviously pretty small.

But our chances did just get better.

Here is a summary of the agreement itself. Yes, it’s mostly an unenforceable statement of intention, but it does include a few firm guidelines. And note that it includes a mechanism to set progressively more stringent goals–we’re not locked in to only the current agreement, we have instead the basis of further progress going forward. In addition to the multilateral agreement that the conference existed to create, the event also saw the creation of a number of important side agreements, such as the International Solar Alliance and Mission Innovation  (both aimed at increasing renewable energy capacity), plus commitments by cities, regions, organizations, companies, and private individuals. This is not inconsiderable.

My Facebook feed has been full of links and posts about the inadequacy of the conference, both in terms of its process (tribal peoples and other ethnic minorities were apparently excluded) and in terms of its results. I do not intend to refute any such criticisms, only that attacking the conference is neither necessary nor helpful. Earlier, I called on everyone to not let “great” be the enemy of “good.”  But that argument has another side, not just what we shouldn’t do, but what we should.

The thing is, this agreement is probably the best we could have gotten, for now, and it’s far from clear that even this will stick. A big part of the problem is the dominance of climate denial in American politics. The reason that the current agreement is not legally binding is that the United States Senate would not ratify a climate treaty. A minority of other countries, such as Australia, the UK, and Canada, have similar problems. We’re the hold-up, we’re the reason the agreement can’t be great, but only good. And by “we” I mean everyone who votes for climate deniers or who, through inaction, allows climate deniers to be elected. In the US, the climate-sane must take both houses of Congress and the White House in this coming election.

If you don’t like the Paris climate agreement, don’t complain about the conference that drafted it; get involved in politics and win some elections.


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On the Paris Climate Talks: A Literary Interlude

First, my apologies for not posting yesterday; I sometimes have anxious or depressed episodes and they make it difficult to focus enough to work. This has not been a good week. Of course, if one is going to be anxious, this would be the week, given that the world’s leaders are discussing whether to avert the end of the world and at the same time the presumptive Republican front-runner for the US Presidential election is doing a really good imitation of Hitler. I don’t know whether the fact that I’m not crazy to feel like this makes me feel better or worse….

Anyway, we’re kind of waiting to see what comes out of Paris, although there is a petition to sign (please!) asking certain recalcitrant national leaders to quit dragging their feet on what really looks like a viable deal.

While we’re waiting, I’m thinking about a novel by Ursula K. LeGuin, The Farthest Shore. Her writing is excellent, not just because it is extraordinary in terms of craft, but also because much of her fiction going back to the late 1960’s seem to imply an understanding of climate change. Her sci-fi books, set in the distant future, often have an overtly environmentalist message and refer to Earth having warmed significantly since our time. One, published in 1969, clearly describes the natural greenhouse effect (yes, there is one; what we’re causing is in addition to that) and repeatedly links environmental catastrophe specifically to industrial revolution. Her fantasy novels frequently address spiritual and magical themes that could be read as ecological principles. I don’t know if Ms. LeGuin actually knew about anthropogenic climate change in the late 1960’s, but it is possible; some scientists were beginning to investigate the matter, and of course the idea was first discussed in the nineteenth century.

In The Farthest Shore, a wizard casts a spell for immortality and accidentally–though, without caring about it much–unbalances the entire world, creating a  “hole through which life drains out,” as some of the characters describe it. Essentially, he makes a serious attempt to cast off the limits imposed by both biology and physics, which is exactly the same thing we’ve been using fossil fuels for. I do not know if Ms. LeGuin intended it this way, and I suspect she did not, but the book makes an interesting allegory for climate change, with personal immortality standing in for the more complex suit of powers we look for from technology–a story of the pursuit of a good thing causing ruin because it is taken to absolutes.

One character asks why a person shouldn’t want immortality. His companion, a very wise man, replies:

–Why should you not desire immortality? How should you not? Every soul desires it, and its health is the strength of its desire. But be careful; you are one who might achieve your desire.

–And then? [the other asks]

–And then this: a false king ruling, the arts of man forgotten, the singer tongueless, the eye blind. This! This blight and plague on the lands, this sore we seek to heal. There are two, two that make one, the world and the shadow, the light and the dark. The two poles of the Balance. Life rises out of death, death rises out of life; in being opposite they yearn to each other, they give birth to each other, and are forever reborn. And with them all is reborn, the flower of the apple tree, the light of the stars. In life is death. In death is life. What then is life without death? Life unchanging, everlasting, eternal? What is it but death–death without rebirth?

All of this is simply to put the quote I’m thinking of in context–the quote that gives me some meaning and comfort as I wait to hear back from Paris. As the protagonists sail towards their meeting with the wizard, which either will save the world or won’t, one of them sleeps while the other keeps watch and thinks about the future.

…..They will praise me more for that in afterdays than anything I did of magery….If there are afterdays. For first we two must stand upon the balance-point, the very fulcrum of the world. And if I fall, you fall, and all the rest…. For a while, for a while. No darkness lasts forever. And even there, there are stars….Oh, but I should like to see thee crowned in Havenor, and the sunlight shining on the Tower of the Sword and on the Ring we brought for thee from Atuan, from the dark tombs, Tenar and I, before ever thou wast born!”

He’s right; no darkness lasts forever, and even there, there are stars. The biosphere can recover from a major extinction–it takes ten million years, but it can do it, and has done it before. But there are things I should like to see, and so I hope for good news from Paris.


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Don’t Let Great Be the Enemy of Good on Climate

I’m feeling very guardedly optimistic about the climate conference in Paris. I believe that the key delegates, at least, are serious about coming to an agreement and that it is just possible it will be a turning point.

I am not encouraged by messages I see in social media condemning the agreement–that isn’t even written yet–as inadequate, complaining that the process and its leaders are hypocrites and sell-outs. Look, people; President Obama has had to fight tooth and nail to get any climate action through at all. And he has been fighting. No matter how imperfect he may be, he’s not our problem–he’s on our side. Congress is already doing whatever it can to undermine the process in Paris, though he’s already said he will veto them. Mr. Obama is the leader we’ve got.

Just as important, the Paris conference itself is far from certain to succeed, given that delegates are already dealing with a disagreement over which both sides say they will not bend. Yes, there is a corporate presence in the process that should not be there, and yes, last we heard,  nobody is really willing to cut emissions enough to get the job done. But do we want to get started in the right direction or not? Because this is our shot.

There is no good reason to protest against the delegates right now–in part because they’re busy doing their jobs and not paying a lot of attention to the protesters. I break with some authors who say we should not protest, however; we SHOULD take to the streets, it’s just that the delegates and their work should not be the target. At least in the United States, the target should be Congress, plus the Presidential candidates. We need to make up our minds to elect climate-sane candidates at all levels and we need to make it clear to our leaders that their employment depends on their taking the issue seriously. And we need to make clear to the news media that we want them to cover climate issues fairly and thoroughly so that more Americans will see evidence that this thing is real.

It’s time to step up to the plate, people.


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Thanksgiving

The following is a re-edited version of my Thanksgiving post from last year. It’s still timely.

“It’s that time of the year again,” warns a cynical-sounding blogger, “when warmists try to link Thanksgiving and climate change.”

Nice rhetorical trick, isn’t it? The thing is that of course anything in human life can be linked to climate change because everything we experience either depends on climate in some way or influences it. Most writers seem to cluster around one of two main narratives: Thanksgiving as an opportunity to talk about climate change and agriculture (as in turkeys could get more expensive as feed prices rise because of recurrent drought); and Thanksgiving as an opportunity to talk about communication (as in what you have to do with your climate-skeptic relatives). These are excellent points and I’m not going to try to make them all over again.

Instead, I want to talk about gratitude. I want to talk about abundance.

Have you ever thought it strange that we give thanks by eating a lot? If anything, American Thanksgiving sometimes seems more a celebration of greed and gluttony, with a perfunctory discussion of life’s blessings thrown in among the other topics at the dinner time. And yet, it is precisely abundance that serves to remind us of what we have to be grateful for. Thanksgiving provides the illusion of infinite, inexhaustible resources because there is more food on the table than the assembled eaters can consume. It is that illusion we use to evoke and celebrate our abundance.

And it it is an illusion. There is no such thing as an infinite resource; use enough of anything for long enough and eventually you will run out. Even “renewable” resources are only sustainable if you use them slowly enough that they can replenish themselves. We know from sad experience that it is indeed possible to run completely out of precious things that once seemed all but limitless. Passenger pigeons, for example. And in fact we are running out of pretty much everything we need for life and everything we need to give life beauty and meaning. Often, the depletion is hidden by ever more efficient usage that keeps yields high even as the resource itself runs out. We see this with fisheries, with soil health, with oil…. It’s not that we don’t have enough of what we need yet (hunger is usually a distribution  problem, not a supply problem; there are more overweight than underweight humans right now). The problem is that we are using so much that the world is warming under the pressure.

Want a visual? Check this out:

See how big we are, relative to the rest of the biosphere? Humans already use more than the entire ecological product of the entire planet. That is possible because we are, in effect, spending planetary capital, reducing Earth’s total richness a little more every year.

I’m not trying to be gloomy for the sake of gloominess, I’m talking about the physics of the environmental crisis, the details of how the planet works. I’ve gone into detail on this before, but the basic idea is that the planet has an energy budget and that when part of the planet (e.g., us) exceeds this budget, the planet as a whole destabilizes. The biosphere actually shrinks and loses energy and diversity. One way to describe global warming and all its awful permutations is as a complex system being pushed into an entropic state.

We got into this mess by treating the entire planet as the thing a Thanksgiving feast is meant to simulate; literally endless bounty. And because we did that, our descendants will have a smaller, leaner table to set than our ancestors did–and the more we use now, the leaner that future table will get.

Does that mean we shouldn’t celebrate Thanksgiving? Of course not.

Real, literal feasts are never actually about unlimited consumption. We know perfectly well that the Thanksgiving table may groan, but it’s not actually infinite. It just feels that way, and it is that feeling that is important. The illusion of physical abundance is a needed reminder of the truth of spiritual abundance–which is the actual point of the holiday, the thing we’re supposed to be celebrating on a certain Thursday in November.

The psychological power of the illusion of abundance does not depend on vast resources, something families of limited means understand well. By saving up and looking for deals and cooking skillfully, it is possible to produce a sumptuous feast that feels abundant and actually sticks within a fairly modest budget. The spiritual value is accomplished.

That’s what we have to do as a species. We have to find a way to live within our ecological means–the first step is to get off fossil fuel–and yet work with what we have so skillfully that what we have feels like more than enough. By staying within a budget we can stop worrying about running out, which is true, if paradoxical, abundance. Then the planet will have a chance to heal. The biosphere will grow again. And it is possible, just possible, that our descendants will live to see a more bountiful feast than we will.

And that will truly be something to be thankful for.


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Your Friday Update

Hi, all,

Because I wrote a full post on Tuesday, I’m just doing an update today. Specifically, I’m updating you on the upcoming climate demonstrations on the 29th of this month.

The idea is to hold coordinated demonstrations all over the world in order to demonstrate political will ahead of the Paris talks next month. As such, it is critical–the Paris talks must must must must result in a meaningful, binding agreement. Literally, the future of our species is at stake. So we all have to go and show our elected leaders that this matters to us.

The problem is that the organizers don’t seem to be doing very much. There are, for example, three separate demonstrations planned for Washington DC and two out of the three have no contact information listed for the organizers. My concern is that we will get hundred or even thousands of demonstrations that each attract a few dozen participants and that none will draw any serious media attention at all. That could be catastrophic.

So, your mission (and mine) is to pick a demonstration to attend, talk as many people into attending with you as possible, and also contact your local and regional newsmedia and ask them to cover the event. Then check to see if they do–if they don’t, write or call in and complain.

Also, contact your elected representatives and make sure they know you are going and why.

That should help. To find an event near you, click HERE.