The Climate in Emergency

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


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Honor Roll

I’m re-posting this one from last year, with minor edits. I have not found any new species to add to the list, though unfortunately that doesn’t mean there aren’t more that belong on it. There is a leak in the world and life is running out of it…

Yesterday was Hallowe’en, of course. A rollicking, morbid carnival, a celebration of the mortal flesh through sugar, alcohol, sex, and fake blood (if you don’t believe me about the sex, look at the women’s costumes available in stores), a blurring of identity and the thrill of things that go bump in the night.

I could write about the impact of the holiday on global warming, but that’s been done. I could write a scary story about our possible future, but that’s been done, too.

But, basically, I’m not all that interested in Hallowe’en anymore. I’ve grown out of trick-or-treat and I’m not frightened by blood, fake or otherwise. I’m more interested in the older traditions of taking a day to honor and remember the dead. This is therefore a Day of the Dead post, a Samhain post. I want to mark and honor the dead of climate change–not as a scare tactic or a self-flagellation of guilt, but simply as an act of witness. Because it is the right thing to do.

There are several possible ways to go with this. I could focus on individuals who have died of climate change, but linking global warming to particular deaths is very difficult. The result would also be too similar to my recent post comparing the mortality rates of climate change and Ebola. Instead, I want to honor whole species that have died. I’ve often thought that reading a list of recently extinct species names, the way the names of individuals lost to some accident or disaster are sometimes read, would be a powerful way to add an ecological dimension to Samhain. I’ve never done it, in part because finding such a list is difficult. Compiling a list of the extinct is hard, since we don’t always know a species exists before it stops existing again, and because it’s hard to be sure a whole species is really gone and not holding on in some remnant population somewhere. What lists exist seldom turn up whole on Internet searches, perhaps because many of the species on the list are plants and animals most people have never heard of.

Still, I intend to observe the Day of the Dead by formally noticing our planetary losses.

Looking for Smoking Guns

Which species, if any, have gone extinct because of climate change is a bit complicated.  I addressed the question in some depth in an earlier post, but it comes down to the difference between ultimate cause and proximate cause; if you fall off a cliff, the ultimate cause of your death is your poor footing, while the proximate cause is your impact with the ground. The problem is that the connection between those two causes is rarely as obvious or straight-forward as in that example.

Climate change as the ultimate cause of extinction might be linked with any number of proximate causes. Some of them are: drought; habitat loss (think polar bears and sea ice); the extinction or relocation of an ecological partner; and new competitors, pests, or diseases that take advantage of warmer weather. Of course, most of these problems can have other ultimate causes as well. Climate change is not likely to be the species’ only major problem–consider the paper birch, which is dying out in parts of New England because of a combination of exotic diseases, climate change, and probably the advanced age of the relevant stands (the species requires bare soil to sprout, such as after a fire or logging, and there happened to be a lot of that in New England decades–hence, a lot of aging birches). Against this complex backdrop, it is hard to say for certain which extinctions actually belong at global warming’s door.

Some years ago, scientists announced the extinction of the Seychelles snail, the first species known to go extinct because of climate change. Fortunately, a previously unknown population of the snail turned up recently–it’s not extinct at all (though presumably still in grave danger). Many writers have treated the snail’s resurrection as some kind of embarrassing “oops” for climate scientists, which of course it is not; the species took a huge hit because of global warming, and the fact that it’s still hanging on is great news. Confirming an extinction is very, very hard–a bit like looking for the absence of a needle in a haystack. Mistakes are inevitable, and welcome.

The golden frog and the Monteverde harlequin frog are sometimes cited as victims of climate change as well. The proximate causes of the golden frog’s demise were habitat loss due to drought and also the chytrid fungus, which could be exacerbated by climate change. Chytrid has extinguished or gravely endangered many other amphibians world-wide, so at least some of them might be considered victims of climate change as well–as could various non-amphibians, including some no one knows about yet.

But there is another way to look at all of this.

Climate change itself has a cause, and that cause has other effects. As I explained in another previous post, our burning fossil fuel has destabilized the biosphere as a whole by altering how energy flows through the system. Climate change is one consequence of that destabilization, but systemic biodiversity loss is another. That is, no matter what the proximate cause of an extinction is (whether climate itself is directly involved), the ultimate cause of this entire mass-extinction event is fossil fuel use.

We know what to do about it. You know what to do about it. If you’re an American citizen, VOTING is a major and necessary step. But this is the festival to honor the dead, and we should take a moment to do that–to remember that these are not just numbers, political statements, arguments, but actual animals and plants, whole ways of being, that will never exist again.

I did find a list of historical extinctions. You can look up the whole thing here. It is far from comprehensive, but even so it’s still too long for me to copy over all of it. I’ll just focus on those from the list that have been lost since my birth.

Pinta Island Tortoise

Chelonoidis abingdoni

Last seen, 24 June 2012

Vietnamese Rhinoceros

Rhinoceros sondaicus annamiticus

Last seen, 29 April 2010

Christmas Island Pipistrelle

(a bat)

Pipistrellus murrayi

Last seen, 27 August 2009

Chinese Paddlefish

Psephurus gladius 

Last seen, 8 January 2007

Yangtze River Dolphin

Lipotes vexillifer 

Last seen, before 2006

Po’o-uli

(a bird in Hawaii)

Melamprosops phaeosoma

Last seen, 28 November 2004

Saint Helena Olive

Nesiota elliptica

Last seen, December 2003

Vine Raiatea Tree Snail

Partula labrusca 

Last seen, 2002

Pyrenean Ibex

Capra pyrenaica pyrenaica 

Last seen, 6 January 2000

Sri Lanka Legume Tree

Crudia zeylanica

Last seen, 1998

Nukupuu

(a bird in Hawaii)

Hemignathus lucidus

Last seen, 1998

Western Black Rhinoceros

Diceros bicornis longipes

Last seen, 1997

Aldabra Banded Snail

Rhachistia aldabrae

Last seen, 1997

Zanzibar Leopard

Panthera pardus adersi

Last seen, 1996

Swollen Raiatea Tree Snail

Partula turgida

Last seen, 1 January 1996

Golden Toad

Incilius periglenes

Last seen, 1989

Antitlan Grebe

Podilymbus gigas

Last seen, 1986

Alaotra Grebe

Tachybaptus rufolavatus

Last seen, September 1985

Eungella Gastric-brooding Frog

Rheobatrachus vitellinus

Last seen, March 1985

Kaua’i ‘O’o

(a bird in Hawaii)

Moho braccatus

Last seen, 1985

Christmas Island Shrew

Crocidura trichura

Last seen, 1985

Ua Pou Monarch

(a bird in Polynesia)

Pomarea mira

Last seen, 1985

Amistad Gambusia

(a fish, in Texas, USA)

Gambusia amistadensis

Last seen, 1984

Conondale Gastric-brooding Frog

Rheobatrachus silus

Last seen, November 1983

San Marcos Gambusia

(a fish, in Texas, USA)

Gambusia georgei

Last seen, 1983

Kama’o

(a bird in Hawaii)

Myadestes myadestinus

Last seen, 1983

Guam Flycatcher

(a bird in Guam)

Myiagra freycinet

Last seen, 1983

Aldabra Warbler

Nesillas aldabrana

Last seen, 1983

Galapagos Damselfish

Azurina eupalama

Last seen, 1982

Marianas Mallard

Anas oustaleti

Last seen, September 1981

Southern Day Frog

Taudactylus diurnus

Last seen, 1979

White-eyed River Martin

(a bird in Thailand)

Eurychelidon serintarea

Last seen, 1978

Little Hutia

(a rodent in Honduras)

Mesocapromys minimus

Last seen, 1978


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Um–YAY!

I was just scrolling through my email in-box and social media accounts, not expecting to see very much, when I clicked on something I thought was probably spam. It wasn’t.

You know that whole struggle I’ve been talking about for a year to get the Atlantic taken out of consideration for oil and gas exploration? The subject of this post and this one and this one and this one? Well, we just won.

To quote from the celebratory letter I just received from Oceana:

Today is not only an incredible day for the oceans, but also for democracy. It’s proof that good old fashioned grassroots organizing makes a difference.  Local leaders make a difference, no matter if you are a private citizen, business owner or elected official, without you this would never have happened.

When the administration was asked to consider input from East Coast stakeholders and local residents – they did. When the administration was asked to listen to fishing and tourism interests along the coast – they did. When the administration was asked to support local constituents instead of Big Oil – they did.

As of today, 110 East Coast municipalities, over 100 Members of Congress, more than 750 state and local elected officials, and  roughly 1,100 business interests have all publicly opposed offshore drilling and/or seismic blasting, citing threats to marine life, coastal communities and local economies….All of your hard work and voices have been heard. Every single call, email, letter to the editor, press conference, rally, sign on letter WORKED. Every single community gathering mattered in this historic fight, from organized statehouse meetings and community rallies to strategic stakeholder meetings and strategy meetings in town halls or church basements.

The related issue of seismic testing continues–these tests, which pose a serious threat to marine life, have not yet been banned in the Atlantic, and the whole question may recur on the next five-year planning cycle, but as the email-writer pointed out, “this is a day for celebration.”

I know most of the issues in this fight, which has centered around pollution, might seem a little far afield of climate change, which is the sole focus of this blog. However, if fossil fuels can’t come out of the ground, they can’t be burned. This is an example of think globally/act locally. The threats to the entire planet are scary, but a little diffuse. Most of us do not have the power to act on a global scale anyway. But we can act on local or regional scales, and what the fight against climate change looks like on the ground is often a long serious of arguments about things like the possible impact of pollution on a single salt marsh or the type of street lights installed in a single neighborhood. Win enough of these, and we win the world.

The other reason I’m psyched right now is that this is evidence that getting involved matters. It’s easy to get discouraged and cynical, to believe that “they” are simply in charge, the game is rigged, and none of us have a chance to make a difference. But none of that is true. Sometimes the system does work. Other times it can be changed. And we do have friends and allies who can jump in this fight with us, including not only the many people who got involved in this particular fight at ground level but also many of the Congress-members we lobbied and President Obama himself. There are victories.

Don’t let anyone tell you there aren’t.


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Your Friday Update: How Much Energy Is Enough?

This is less an update and more a concern.

Much of the conversation about renewable energy revolves around the assumption that our energy needs as a society are somehow fixed. Critics claim that renewables cannot mobilize enough energy to replace fossil fuels–at least not any time soon–as though there is some minimal level that wind and solar et al must achieve before we can switch over. There is no such level. We don’t have to use this much energy. We could just turn the machines off. Maybe we won’t have to–maybe we’ll be able to support something very like our accustomed lifestyle with renewable energy. But the high-energy lifestyle is optional. Continuing to use fossil fuels forever is not an optional.

Supporters, meanwhile, insist that renewables can produce all the energy to meet demand–as though renewables and fossil fuels together comprise a zero-sum game, were every joule of energy produced by solar is a joule not produced by burning coal, or whatever else. And that’s not true, either. What is to prevent demand from simply growing, so that we use just as much fossil fuel as we ever have (as long as it lasts, anyway) and then we use renewables also?

History suggests that we humans seldom if ever feel that we have enough of anything. No matter how much money, time, or collectible knickknacks we have, most of us will happily take more if it’s available.

I’m not saying it’s bad to increase renewable power generation. I’m saying that doing so is not itself going to be enough. Alternatives are not enough. We also need economic structures and legal policies that specifically discourage the use of fossil fuels–one or another model of carbon pricing might do nicely.


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Back to the Future

Now and then, someone complains that environmentalists want to “take us back to the stone age” and I feel compelled to explain why this is not anything we have to worry about. The time has once again arrived.

We’re not going back to any previous time period. History doesn’t work like that. For better or worse, the past is over. We will not somehow fall backwards five thousand years, five hundred years, or even fifty years, forgetting all we have learned and undoing all the changes we have made in the process. For example, turning off the machines of the Industrial Revolution will not reassert the 1700’s and make smallpox magically reappear.

But ending human-caused climate change might well involve adopting some practices from the past. Our lives might come to resemble the way people lived before the Industrial Revolution, or even before the development of agriculture, in certain key ways. And that isn’t a bad thing.

Fossil fuel use gives us a huge amount of energy. Most of the “advances” we have seen in the past two hundred years have not been the result of scientific and social development alone but have also involved a dramatic increase of the amount of energy we harness. Cars don’t go faster than horse-drawn carriages because they are technologically more advanced (although they are) but because they use a lot more fuel. Of course, horses eat hay whereas cars eat gasoline, so it’s hard to make the comparison, but just as a mental exercise consider why we don’t design cars to run on hay.

Basically, hay isn’t a very energy-dense fuel and so a hay-car would need an impossibly large fuel-tank. There probably isn’t enough hay in the entire world to fuel even a modest fleet of hay-cars anyway.

And the massive energy-use is part of the problem. As I’ve explained before, destabilized weather and dramatic biodiversity losses are just what we can expect from using more energy than the biosphere we live in can handle. An enhanced greenhouse effect is the way fossil fuel accomplishes these disasters, but if we invented an alternate way of using too much energy, an alternate path to the same disaster would develop.

So, in the climate-sane future, we’ll use advancing technology to live better on less energy. Greater efficiency will allow us to keep some of our high-energy luxuries, but others will have to go; better rather than more will be the watch-word of the day.

For example, turning night into day across entire cityscapes as we do requires a lot of energy. Even with more efficient lighting, cities that never sleep might have to go. But when people go home at night they need not illuminate their houses with whale-oil lamps as in days of old—they can use LEDs run off batteries charged by rooftop solar cells during the day. LEDs don’t require killing whales and they don’t set fires when they fall over. For the same small amount of energy, they unquestionably do a better job producing light.

But can we look forward to more as well as better?

We can—if we think about what it really means to have plenty. We’re used to thinking of plenty in absolute terms, where a person with thousands of dollars has more wealth than a person with hundreds of dollars. By this logic, a person who wants to have more must go about getting more. And if there isn’t more to get (the approximate situation of modern humanity), that person is stuck.

But in real life we know that’s not how plenty actually works. We know that a person who earns only a few hundred dollars in a week can be in a much better position financially than someone who brings in several thousand if the latter has a lot of unavoidable bills and a large amount of debt. What matters is not so much what you have so much as the relationship between what you have and what you need. It is possible to achieve a state of plenty even with a falling level of income by reducing expenses to the point where saving money is easy.

Think about the difference between a working professional trying to support three children in private school, a stay-at-home spouse, and a home big enough for the whole family, and the same person as a widowed empty-nester living in a small apartment with a modest pension and able to finally go visit Paris.

We can do that as a species in the distant but foreseeable future by radically shrinking our population.

How many people Earth can support is definitely subject to debate. There were certainly those who expected us to have fallen into chaos and horror due to resource shortages by this time and, by and large, they were wrong. I suspect that getting off fossil fuel will require shrinking our numbers (hopefully by attrition), but it’s possible that I am wrong. But trying to identify the maximum number of people who can cram themselves onto the planet—how little we can get by with per capita, in other words—is poverty-thinking. Let’s think about plenty instead.

If our species were, once again, very small—perhaps a few million of us scattered all over the Earth—our per capita Earth-shares would each be very large. So long as we kept our numbers contained and our needs modest, we’d all have more in the way of natural resources than we could ever hope to use. And we’d have some valuable things that money just can’t buy these days. For example, anyone who wanted adventure and freedom could walk out into the wilderness and just keep going as long as they wanted. And that beauty you see in National Parks and on nature specials on TV? It would be everywhere, basically for free.

True, such small population sizes might involve some sacrifice. You couldn’t go see a show on Broadway because New York couldn’t exist. In fact, population sizes like what they had in the Paleolithic might require something of the lifestyle of the Paleolithic.

But that wouldn’t be so bad. Historically, when stone-age peoples have met with so-called “advanced” cultures, they have fought very hard to retain their supposedly “primitive” way of life—these fights continue still. It’s not that these people want to maintain themselves as museum pieces, resistant to change forever—they generally accept steel tools, guns, snowmobiles, and whatever else makes their lives better by their own definition. The point is that there are aspects of Paleolithic (e.g., pre-agricultural) life that are worth more than life itself to the people who have it.

And some aspects are all that climate-sane future humanity would have of the Paleolithic, anyway. We can’t go back, and wouldn’t have to. Some communities might indeed be hunter-gatherers, or subsistence farmers or pastoralists. Horses and oxen and human feet might replace cars and trucks for most purposes. Leather, wood, and bone might replace metal and plastic for daily use. But we’d still have steel when we needed it—there’d be plenty of it available for recycling, just mine a landfill. And we’d still know how to make things like vaccines, antibiotics, and radios. Probably, technological advancement will continue and our hunter-gatherer descendants will be able to do things like replace their internal organs with synthetic ones when they fail.

Just something to imagine next time someone starts talking about the stone age.


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BOEM Scoping Part 1: Comments Needed

Last week, I attended a protest and an informational event in Annapolis, Maryland. The objective was to keep oil and gas exploration away from our shores.

It is a seldom-discussed fact, but for people who live on the Eastern Seaboard of the United States, large-scale oceanic oil spills are a disaster that happens somewhere else, to someone else. Tragic, and we’re glad to donate money and outrage to the cause, but not really our problem. I don’t mean to sound smug, it’s not like we’re above disaster (we do seem to be developing a problem with hurricanes), it just usually happens elsewhere and we don’t really think about why.

Turns out, the reason we don’t have oceanic oil spills it quite simple; we don’t have off-shore oil and gas exploration, as per US energy policy. And that is about to change. Hence the protest.

The Situation

Where and how energy development takes place in America’s oceans is the purview of the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, or BOEM. According to one of the handouts I picked up at the meeting,

BOEM promotes energy independence, environmental protection, and economic development through responsible, science-based management of offshore conventional and renewable energy and marine mineral resources. BOEM is responsible for resource management, including leasing, economic analysis, resource evaluation, and environmental analysis.

BOEM is engaging a wide range of stakeholders to gather as much input as possible for consideration of potential new leases in Alaska, the Gulf of Mexico, and the Mid- and South Atlantic.

By “South Atlantic” they mean the sea off the coast of Georgia and South Carolina.

While it may sound odd for a single agency to simultaneously promote both fossil fuel exploitation and environmental protection, it’s worth noting that the alternative–what existed prior to BOEM’s creation–was a piecemeal permit process without any formal means of large-scale planning or public input. As long as fossil fuel exploitation is allowed to exist, there must be agencies capable of limited and shaping the process in accordance with the public and environmental good.

BOEM operates according to the Outer Continental Shelf Lands Act (OCSLA), which states (again, according to the handout) that

The Secretary of the Interior must prepare an oil and gas leasing program every five years showing the size, timing,  and location of potential leasing activity and precisely as possible. The process beings with a Request for Information and culminates with a final program, with drafts and comment periods in between.

The OCSLA process receives input, not just of from the public, but also from an environmental impact assessment, as required by the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA). In essence, each program defines the areas within which oil and gas leasing can even be considered. The area is divided into small plots and only a small number of those plots are actually made available for lease. Then, before a company actually does anything to the plots it leases, it must do another environmental impact assessment. Oil and gas exploration involves sonic testing, which is harmful to marine life and therefore requires a permit–and the permitting process is again separate from the OCSLA process.  BOEM does not enforce any of the conditions of its various leases and permits, but the Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement, or BSEE, can and does. The BSEE can, if necessary, shut an extraction operation down completely if it violates the law. At least on paper, then, there are a lot of safeguards in place to ensure that the oil and gas industry operates without inflicting undue harm on anybody or anything.

The proposed 2017-2022 Gas and Oil Leasing Program includes parts of the Gulf of Mexico, some of the waters off the coast of Alaska, and areas off the coast of Georgia, South Carolina, North Carolina, and  Virginia. Maryland’s waters are not included, but we’re uncomfortably close to areas that are. BOEM is currently conducting a “scoping process” preparatory to the first environmental impact assessment. That means they are accepting public comment to find out what our concerns are–what we’re worried might happen if drilling in these areas goes ahead. Then, they can address those concerns when they do the assessment. BOEM called the meeting in Annapolis, along with meetings in other affected regions, in order to let the public know how to use the comment process. The comments themselves must be made online or by mail.

We’re hoping that, based on our comments, BOEM will remove the Atlantic from the 2017-2022 program.

The Problem

The problem is that, no matter how safe a drilling operation is, an accident sooner or later is close to inevitable. The Mid- and South-Atlantic sections don’t begin until 50 miles off-shore, which might offer some protection to the coast, but also means that most of the lease areas will be in deep water–just like the Deepwater Horizon, in the Gulf of Mexico. Part of why that disaster was as bad as it was had to do with how far the damaged wellhead was under water. We’re looking at running exactly the same risk in the Atlantic.

Let’s say there is an accident.

We’re looking at a major economic and cultural hit, since a lot of communities in this region depend on the seafood industry, tourism, or both. We’re also looking at a major ecological hit, since both the Delaware and Chesapeake Bays are vulnerable. Just as an example of what’s at stake, the Delaware Bay is a critical stop for the Red Knot on its migration route. The birds “refuel” there by eating horseshoe crab eggs on quiet beaches. Red Knots already have Threatened status under the Endangered Species Act, in part due to the over-harvesting of horseshoe crabs. Now, if those beaches were oiled, as could happen if an oil well in the northern part of the proposed program area leaks badly, what will happen to those horseshoe crabs and those birds?

And even if everything goes perfectly, sonic testing is a routine part of marine oil and gas exploration. This involves blasting EXTREMELY LOUD noises at the sea floor, killing, maiming, or disorienting any marine life that happens to be in the way.

The Event

I went to the scoping meeting with Assateague Coastal Trust, and advocacy organization that stands up for the coastal bays of Maryland, Delaware, and Virginia. Although we knew the meeting would not include any formal opportunity to register our comments, we thought it would do some good for BOEM’s representatives to see and hear us. We arrived early so we and a group from Oceana, another organization, could have a rally out on the sidewalk. There were perhaps thirty of us, waving signs and toy windmills and waving at passing cars. Four people wore fish costumes (two striped bass, one weakfish, and one Atlantic sturgeon) and one wore a hazmat suit. Various reported spoke to us. Cars honked as they drove by. One of the Oceana people said our turn-out was much better than for some of the other scoping meetings that have already happened.

One of the BOEM people came out and told us it was fine for us to rally, but please don’t block the sidewalk or stand in front of the restaurant. We all scooted over cooperatively.

When we went in, the helpful, respectful treatment continued. They asked us to leave our signs behind the front desk, but we were allowed to carry our windmills in and wear our costumes. We got a lot of compliments on the fish. Everyone from BOEM was friendly and welcoming.

There were several information statements and we could wander around and ask questions at each station. We did so, and they answered our questions. They often asked whether their answers were helpful and clear. A few times some of them answered slightly different questions than what we had asked, a common evasive technique, but maybe they were simply trying to be clear when we asked questions that weren’t. Certainly, BOEM representatives frankly admitted to paying a lot of attention to the needs of the energy industry, something they surely would not have done if they were trying to greenwash themselves.

We didn’t see any members of “the public” at the meeting besides ourselves.

The Takeaway

I was heartened by how friendly and helpful the BOEM people seemed. I believe them to be genuine. At the same time, it seemed abundantly clear the BOEM will not say no to the fossil fuel industry as a whole. If the industry wants to extract fuel from the Atlantic, BOAM will use its authority to direct that activity into the least destructive channels possible. It will not say that “least destructive” isn’t good enough.

The truth is that fossil fuel extraction is a given in our society.

But the other truth is that if BOEM hears mostly silence from the public on conservation and a deafening roar from the industry, they will have little choice but to side with industry. They live and work in a political and economic reality that won’t go away by wishing. It’s possible that the BOEM people were so friendly precisely because they welcome the intervention of environmentalists. Many of them are probably environmentalists themselves, fighting a war on the defensive, with very few tools. They need reinforcements badly. We can provide reinforcement by commenting.

They’ll accept comments until the end of the month. Go to http://boemoceaninfo.com/ for information or to comment online.