The Climate in Emergency

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


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The Anxious, Jealous Guardians of Our Democracy

Some weeks ago, I explained the process by which an incoming president’s political appointees are vetted and confirmed by the Senate. Given my deep concern over President-Elect Trump’s nomination for head of the EPA (I had thought he might choose Myron Ebell, but he actually chose a different climate-denier, Scott Pruitt), I advised readers to first contact the members of the committee that would vet the nominee, and then to contact their senators.

I expected that the nomination process for the Trump administration would not begin until after the inauguration because that process is begun by the president. Since Donald Trump is not president yet, I had thought he would have to wait.

I was surprised.

(I do not mean to suggest any anomaly on his part. I may well have misunderstood.)

Full Senate confirmation hearings appear to have begun, meaning that the committee process has already been completed for some of the nominees. Unfortunately, I have not been able to track that one down, yet—I don’t know which committees have finished their work and I don’t know how to find out.

Clearly, the thing to do is to hurry up and call as many people as possible. If you don’t know whether a Senate committee has met yet, call them anyway. Senate staffers are nice people, and they do not make fun of constituents who call up sounding disorganized. Unfortunately, I’m kind of afraid of telephones. Honestly, calling people makes me anxious. I call my mother and, if I’m traveling, my husband, and that’s about it. For the sake of my country and my planet I will rise above my fear and make the calls, but it takes a lot more time and emotional energy than it should.

Seriously, don’t be like me. Make the calls. These people aren’t scary. I called Senator Cardin’s office today. I tried to call his Salisbury office, which is closest to my house (and therefore more likely to be responsive to me), but kept getting sent to voicemail, so I called the DC office and got through. I stumbled through my words a bit, apologized, then said:

“I want to ask the Senator to please do whatever he can to block the more extreme of Trump’s appointments, especially Scott Pruitt. There is no way a climate denier should be EPA head.”

The staffer said she would add that to the tally and make sure to tell Senator Cardin. I thanked her and we wished each other good day. That was it.

If you don’t know how to contact your senators, just look it up online. It’s easy. Phone calls are more important than emails or petitions (do that, too, though), because even though all contacts from constituents are tallied, if you speak to a staffer yourself, he or she is more likely to make sure the Senator hears of your call. All senators have DC phone numbers. Many also have other offices and those numbers should be listed on the individual senator’s website, if he or she has one. Go to.

I’ve been seeing lots of exhortations to call in about other nominees as well, though I’m not going to talk about that in this blog. I did find a schedule of the confirmation hearings, here.

I am pleased to see these signs of political involvement. I am not pleased that virtually none of these exhortations are aimed at protecting the environment—and the environment, remember, is about public health, social justice, economic vibrancy, and national security. All that depends on Planet Earth, and all that is being ignored, by and large, by the nation’s nascent political resistance.

Which is especially problematic, given that a strong argument can be made that preventing climate action is exactly why Donald Trump ran and exactly what he intends to focus on while in office.

Virtually everyone he is surrounding himself with has ties to the fossil fuels industry. He has the support of the Heartland Institute, an anti-climate group which is largely funded by the Koch Brothers. He has the support of the Russian government, which is entirely dependent on fossil fuels for its wealth and power.

The social issues—women’s rights, LGBT rights, racial justice, immigrant and refugee rights—may have been the flashpoints of the campaign, but they are clearly peripheral to Mr. Trump and his advisers. He makes a lot of noise that way and pisses people off very effectively, but he has made no progress whatever towards any policy proposals that would actually help any of the groups supposedly aggrieved by women, gay people, trans* people, black and brown people, or newcomers of any stripe. It’s not like an impossibly expensive wall is actually going to have anything to do with protecting jobs or lowering the crime rate, even if it is ever built. In other words, while Donald Trump can certainly hurt the less-than-fully-enfranchised, and probably will, no one is going to directly benefit from his doing so–and if nobody (no supporters, no donors, no political allies) benefit, then what is the political point? Why bother?

But Mr. Trump has made a very specific, and very doable promise to undo President Obama’s climate policies, something that will have direct and immediate benefit to the fossil fuel industry and everybody who is significantly invested in it.

Remember that Donald Trump was a leader of the Birther Movement, a major plank in the Tea Party, which was in turn largely bankrolled by the Koch Brothers—who are deeply tied to the fossil fuel industry and have a history of supporting climate doubt.

Why would a movement organized around cultural and economic complaints be bankrolled by oil barons?

Could it be that dog-whistling up the racist animosity of the nation was an effective means of mobilizing an electorate capable of getting a climate-denier into office? Is it entirely coincidental that when a black man becomes the first US President to really take climate change seriously, oil barons begin immediately funding and organizing racists who espouse a deep distrust of the Federal government? A black man attacks climate change and attempts to hand the baton to a woman (who does have an excellent record with the League of Conservation Voters, remember) and the actual next president is a misogynist, racist climate denier–does this sound like a coincidence, or is it somebody’s idea of a plan?

Racism and its associated deplorabilities was the bait offered for one aim and one aim alone: to stack the White House, Congress, and eventually the Supreme Court with corporate-friendly climate deniers.

For any of you who dislike Donald Trump for reasons other than his climate hostility, climate hostility is now precisely the reason for all your other worries. That is why they won.

And it worked. We lost this round because too many people took their eye off the ball. We minimized and marginalized the importance of climate change, something the people who seek to prevent climate action have never done. They took the issue seriously and presented a consistent, organized, and strategically intelligent front. That’s how they won.

We can win in turn by being equally serious and savvy, by not taking our eyes off the ball, either. By making those phone calls, by attending those protests, by running for office ourselves.

I’m watching President Obama’s farewell address right now. The title of this post is a phrase from his speech. You may like him or dislike him, that’s not my concern, but our chance right now lies in taking on the challenge he has issued—to believe that yes, we can change the world.

The world is changing regardless. It’s up to us now to shape those changes.


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Retrospective

Hello. Sorry this post is a few days late.

I set out to write a retrospective of the year, as I have for at least some of the other years of this blog. But I noticed something funny, when I looked over my writings of 2016. In brief, there wasn’t a whole lot to retrospect.

Most of my posts this past year were opinion pieces, science explainers, or climate fiction–or politics. There was a lot of politics. I covered very few actual events.

Of course, there was weather. Remember that hurricane in January? The cyclone that literally blew around in the Pacific (as in its track made a circle)? The terrible flooding in Britain and then the rest of Europe? The fires? No, I did actually write about fire last year, but I remember the fires in the Smokies, anyway. Yes, fire counts as weather in the same way that flooding does, for one is a symptom of too much rain and the other a symptom of too little. But increasingly, I’m getting reluctant to write about weather here, because it’s always the same story. Climate change increases the frequency and severity of extreme weather, here is extreme weather happening, please stop causing climate change. Over and over again. And again.

There was the California methane leak, which I wrote about in January. It was finally sealed towards the end of February, a little earlier than some experts had feared. Two months later, some area residents still had not returned, worrying about lingering contamination. Some still had health problems, probably caused by poisoning from some combination of mercaptan, heavy metals, and benzene, all of which were present in the gas plume from the leak (methane itself is not toxic, but it is a dangerously powerful greenhouse gas). I don’t know what has happened since, how the lawsuits have turned out or if there have been any policy changes involving methane storage, because the newsmedia seem to have totally lost interest.

There was the oil and gas exploration policy process, which we more or less won. Not only was the Atlantic excluded from oil and gas exploration, so was the Arctic. How long any of that will last in the new political climate seems unclear, though.

There was the Dakota Access Pipe Line, which I’ve mostly avoided writing about because it’s not my story to tell, but it is an important and ongoing issue.

And there was the disaster that is Donald Trump and the new Republican Congress.

Look, people, we’re going the wrong way. We need a climate-sane government and we don’t have one yet. We don’t even have much of a popular movement in that direction. The pushback against Mr. Trump seems largely organized around women’s rights, LGBT rights, the civil rights of racial and cultural minorities, especially immigrants…but what no one is saying that if Mr. Trump disassembles President Obama’s climate legacy, members of all those groups will be directly and terribly affected. Climate change is a women’s rights issue. It’s a civil rights issue. It is an economic issue. There is no way to win on any of those other fronts if we lose on climate change.

And yet 2015 gave us a series of climate marches last year to which virtually nobody showed up. Not surprisingly, 2016 gave us an election cycle in which the issue was hardly  raised. We now have a Congress who has no particular reason to believe there is any political will to support climate action.

I am more than ready for 2017 to pleasantly surprise me.


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Whose Back Yard Should Get a Pipeline?

Weeks ago, I set out to write about the conflict at Standing Rock. I failed, more or less, and wrote something of a stub article. I promised myself I’d cover the topic at more depth, and I have fallen short again. That I’m posting this article a day late is partial indication of that. The fact of the matter is that I usually approach writing this blog as a teacher–albeit one who is often learning the material just now myself–or as a storyteller, and it is not my place to teach this topic. Standing Rock is not my story to tell.
I am not not Native* and five or six hours of research on the Internet is not going to equip me to write as if I were.

I can tell you why I keep wanting to–what’s happening at Standing Rock looks to me like another movement of one of our country’s great fault lines. Yes, the story is about environmental justice, but it is a mistake to see this only as a story about a group of people in need of clean water. Yes, this is a story about race, but the history involved, the mechanisms of oppression, the nature of the injury, are distinct. This is one of the stories that liberal white kids are raised to believe lie safely in the past, but it does not. What is happening at Standing Rock, and why, constitute a giant arrow pointing towards something the rest of us have been trained not to even see. I want to use the resources I have to make that arrow bigger, more insistent.

But Standing Rock is not, strictly speaking, about climate change.
I read an article a while back asking non-Native allies to please keep their focus on the issues of sovereignty and water rights, instead of co-opting the pipeline fight for an anti-fossil fuel agenda. I see a distinction between co-opting and finding common cause, but surely it’s  distinction that can easily be lost and that should not be lost. Yes, I continue to cover pipelines here because oil and gas transportation is part of the climate change picture, but pipeline fights are usually centered around land and water rights, not around climate per se. To ignore the immediacy and centrality of those other causes is to co-opt, to use, other people. To find common cause, one must start by asking “how can I help you?”
A friend of mine recently asserted, on Facebook, that anyone celebrating the most recent anti-pipeline victory is a hypocrite, on the grounds that if the pipeline does not go here it will go somewhere else. NIMBYism, in other words. He is missing the importance of that fault line, the relevance of the ongoing history of American conquest, but otherwise he has a fair point–moving a pipeline and its associated leaks from here to there is not really an improvement unless it triggers a certain very important question.

Should a pipeline really go in anybody’s backyard? How can we construct a society that doesn’t involve picking somebody to throw under the bus of Progress?

I wrote about NIMBY (Not In My Back Yard) some time ago, in another context, and concluded that NIMBY is indeed bad when protesters want a problem moved to somebody else’s yard (such as people who prefer a coal plant they can’t see to a wind turbine they can see). But in and of itself, protecting one’s own interests is not wrong.

I tend to think that if anybody really put the matter frankly, this entire fossil fuel project would look like a really bad deal. Hey, let’s destroy whole mountains, pollute rivers, blow up small towns when oil trains explode, gum up birds and fish and poison coastlines when offshore well heads break or oil barges wreck, and warp the atmosphere so that sea level rises and a lot of people have their homes flattened by hurricanes, all so that a small minority of people can get rich and the rest of us can pretend we have a couple of spare planets available.

Sure.

We, in fact, make this deal by how we spend our money and how we vote and we do it because the chance of any of those awful consequences happening to us are very small. Most of the people who benefit from fossil fuels don’t experience injury from them directly. The costs are borne by a small number of people somewhere else. When those people object, they are called nimbys, basically for not being team players. The logic, it seems, is that what benefits a large number of people is worth the loss of life and livelihood of a few, especially if it’s not clear who those few are going to be–we don’t know where or when the next oil spill will happen, only that it will happen somewhere, sometime. Fossil fuel is like a reverse lottery, where everybody buys a ticket and whoever holds the winning number has their property stolen and distributed to everyone else. It looks quite fair from a certain perspective.

What I did not write about then is the fact that the lottery isn’t random and not all tickets win. Being poor, being Native, being a person of color, even being female, make a person more likely to be poisoned by a pipeline leak, killed by a heat wave, impoverished by drought, drowned by extreme weather, or left to pick up the pieces after a disaster. Conversely, the richer and otherwise more privileged you are, the more of the benefits of fossil fuel use you are likely to personally reap. Fossil fuel use has benefits and it has costs, but he people who pay the costs are seldom the people who see much of the benefits and they are seldom the people drafting energy policy for the nation.

We need to talk about whose back yards get trashed for whose benefit and who gets a voice in making these decisions. We need to acknowledge that anthropogenic climate change persists because fossil fuel still looks like a good deal to a lot of people–and that perception depends on a tacit agreement that the lives of everyone else don’t really matter very much.

 

 

*I understand that not everyone who might be called “Native American” actually likes the term. Generally, of course, it is better to be specific, and to say “Lakota” or “Miq Maq,” or whichever Nation one is actually talking about, but when one actually means all people whose ancestors have been on this continent for more than about 700 years…I know people who insist “we are Indians!” I know people who say “we are Indigenous!” And I know there are a lot of people I haven’t spoken to. But it sounds to me as though this is something people disagree on. I chose to write “Native American” because its literal accuracy appeals to me and because I understand it to be generally considered acceptable. If someone wants to correct me on this, please do.


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Waking Up to Trump

When I was small, I sat with my parents one night listening to election returns on the radio. My parents had told me whom they voted for (they both voted the same) and that they very much disliked the opposing ticket. They probably told me why as well, but I didn’t understand. As I watched them listen to the radio that night, I saw their faces frown. And frown and frown some more.

“What happens if he gets elected?” I asked.

“Remember that movie we saw last week?” my Dad asked, referring to a film about failed terrorists who were carried away kicking and screaming by the police. “Well, if he gets elected, that will happen to us.”

Let me explain that my parents were not terrorists, nor were they criminals. I believe my father was afraid that some serious and unConstitutional government over-reach might occur. Why he thought that overreach might grab us, I do not know, nor do I understand why he thought it was a good idea to pass these thoughts on to me. It doesn’t matter.

What does matter is what went through my mind when the candidate in question was elected.

“Oh no!” I thought to myself, worry rising quickly to panic. But as soon as I realized what my Dad’s words really meant–the end of life as I knew it–a kind of switch flipped in my mind and I calmed right down. I didn’t put the matter into words, but if I had, it would have been something like “well, that’s so awful it can’t possibly happen, therefore I don’t need to worry about it.”

I was, as I said, very small, but my impulse was a broadly human one. The temptation is going to be very strong to tell ourselves Donald Trump’s election can’t be ‘game over’ for the climate, that’s too horrible, so I’m not going to worry about it, much.

Well, it can and it might be–but at the same time we don’t have anything to lose by fighting like hell on this one, and we might just pull a miracle out after all. The question I want to address with this post is therefore ‘what does fighting consist of? What can we do now?’

We can think clearly about our objectives. We can examine our options.

We can come together to protest Mr. Trump’s election–not that doing so will oust him, but it will show solidarity to those who fear his presidency, many of whom are feeling very alone right now. And coming together is a good way to build moral and to network. A good place to start is the National Women’s March on DC, on January 21st. As far as I can tell, men are welcome, though the focus is women’s issues.

We can try to actually oust Mr. Trump, but it’s a long shot. Impeachment won’t work, he has to do something wrong while in office first (prior transgressions don’t count), and some of us would rather not wait. Anyway, removing Mr. Trump from office would simply inaugurate Mike Pence, who is not really any better. But it is possible for the Electoral college to actually choose someone else. That’s a long shot, and if it did work would trigger a serious backlash, but this is actually what the Electoral College is for–it’s a safety valve in case some unqualified, potentially disastrous person wins the election by charisma. So, there is a petition you can sign.  You can also contact individual electors and ask them to vote for Ms. Clinton (Or Ms. Stein, or Mr. Johnson, if you really want). Please be polite when you ask.

We can work to shield and support people made vulnerable by either Mr. Trump himself or his supporters–members of racial and religious minorities, refugees, LGBT folks, many women. We can work together to block Mr. Trump’s more disastrous appointments, orders, and other actions (and make no mistake, he has promised several disasters). We can play defense as hard and fast as we can. We can make progress where possible.

And we can be kind to each other.

This is not currently a nation of kindness, of communication. Many, perhaps most, Trump supporters feel disenfranchised, unheard, and denigrated, that’s why they voted for Mr. Trump. The Trumpers, in turn, are not–many of them–being kind. They are not listening.

Lest I be accused of justifying hatred, let me point out that the fear and rage that fed the Trump movement is misdirected and dysfunctional, and nobody who finds themselves on the wrong end of it owes anything to their abusers. Yes, abusers. But just because you’re paranoid doesn’t mean someone’s not out to get you. The mostly rural people who swept Mr. Trump into office are absolutely right to feel ill-used, because Mr. Trump and his ilk are ill-using them. And that is not fair and it is not right. I’ve written about this before, in the context of climate deniers and climate skeptics. Same problem. The point is this country is hurting every which way right now, and some people are hurting others in their pain. Collectively, we need to stop doing that. Unless you are currently fighting to be heard yourself, it’s time to really listen. And everyone needs to be kind.

I need to acknowledge that I’m not confining myself strictly to climate, though that remains my focus  overall. It is Mr. Trump’s promise to undo President Obama’s climate legacy that motivates me to write this post and do this research. But Donald Trump’s other transgressions are too serious and too frightening not to acknowledge. He is not a normal statesman and the opposition to him is not normal party politics. Even many within his own party are deeply frightened and offended by him. If you lean Republican, let me assure you that the political neutrality neutrality of this blog on issues other than climate remains intact. If you are a Trump supporter, let me say I will not attack you personally on this site and that I firmly believe Mr. Trump is not going to look out for your interests, either.

In subsequent posts I’ll get into detail and provide resources, links, to-do lists, especially for blocking, protecting, playing defense to win. Now, as my very wise husband just said, it is time for sleeping. And then tomorrow it will be time to wake up.


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Ideas Are Bullet-Proof

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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Je Suis Worried

Ok, so a couple of days ago a group of people variously blew up and shot up Paris in order to make everybody feel exposed and vulnerable. And in that they succeeded.

I always find these events frustrating and worrying, and not for the obvious reasons. No, I don’t get sad. There are too many people for the tragedy to feel real to me–if you want to get me to cry, tell me a story about one person in terrible circumstance, like a boy I saw interviewed some years ago–his family had fled a war-torn somewhere (Syria, I think) and he was in a refugee camp telling a reporter about the bomb that had gone off in the house next door–his neighbor’s head hand landed in the boy’s lap. Just the head. This poor little boy, telling his story, completely calmly. I will not forget that child. But tell me about 129 dead people and I don’t see the people, I see the number, 129. and I don’t get emotional about numbers. I also don’t feel especially vulnerable because it’s not news to me that there are people who want to kill other people and sometimes succeed. The world did not change for me this week.

But I am aware that the world is changing.

Everybody with a political bandwagon is trying to hitch it to Paris this week, including Mr. Trump’s bizarre insistence that more guns would have improved the situation. The governors of a number of states (including, sadly, mine) have tried to block the arrival of Syrian refugees, an act of reflexive xenophobia eerily reminiscent of our country’s reluctance towards Jewish refugees prior to WWII. People die from such policies. And predictably, we have calls for tightened security, increased militarism…I am worried that, as with 9/11, the Paris attacks will become an excuse to suppress dissent as unpatriotic–the thin edge of the wedge of fascism. That is one facet of my worry.

I was pleased to note the reluctance of Bernie Sanders’ campaign let the recent Democratic debates focus on the attacks–it suggests that he, at least, is not interested in public exhibitions of patriotic fear. He even, quite correctly, identified ISIS (or, more properly, Daesh) as a side effect of climate change, something I’ve addressed here before. I was definitely not pleased that climate change did not otherwise come up in the debate (except that one of the other participants stated, correctly, that “we all believe in climate change”).

Last week, just out of curiosity, I decided to research what would happen if we stopped causing greenhouse gas emissions. What I found spooked even me. Basically, there is a large chunk of this problem that we don’t have the power to stop anymore. Seen against this background, the reticence of the debate moderators, the general failure of even many environmentalists to take the problem seriously, all of it is extremely worrying.

Seriously? Terrorism is a serious problem, but no matter how abusive humans get with each other, the future always contains hope–peace and security can always return. Climate change, by contrast, is casting a shadow thousands of years long. The decisions we make today will, for better or worse, shape the options of generations. Why isn’t dealing with this everybody’s top priority?

The pictures making the rounds of Facebook over the last few days have been calling attention to the recent attack on Beirut and the sad fact that American media does not treat the tragedies of brown or non-Christian people as quite real. The point is well taken. I saw a documentary recently on brain function that described an interesting experiment: human subjects were wired to brain sensors and then shown video of hands being stabbed with needles. The participants’ brains registered an empathic response; the pain centers lit up, almost as though they had been stabbed themselves. But when the hands were given labels, like “Christian” or “Muslim,” the empathic responses stopped, unless the label matched the participants’ own identity. In other words, a visceral response, the ability to respond to the pain of others as if it were our own, can be short-circuited by the thought “that is not one of my people.”

Je suis Paris, but je ne suis pas Beirut, apparently. Je ne suis pas Syrian refugee.

The Karmapa Lama, a Buddhist teacher similar in stature to the Dalai Lama has framed climate change as a moral as well as a scientific and technical crisis–specifically that we are seeing a failure of empathy, a refusal to believe that the people being touched by the problem are really real. Such people include those affected by the killer heat waves in Asia, the firefighters lost out west, and the victims of the civil war in Syria and of Daesh. How do you act when a loved one is under clear and immediate threat? What hope might hinge on a single person being willing to stop at nothing? We need to act that way now.

Je suis humanity. Je suis the atmosphere.


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Your Tuesday Update on Wednesday: For a Little Boy

I first posted “A Family Expecting” shortly after the birth of my nephew. I have re-posted it occasionally since then, but he’s getting old enough now that I figured the piece was due for  a major re-write. So, here it is, edited for length and clarity, and with a new ending. Please check out the original for the research links posted at the bottom.

Yesterday, my first nephew was born. He is small and wrinkled and has acne on his nose. He has wispy black hair and silvery-blue eyes. He knows the voices of his family and the scents and sounds of the hospital. He does not know about his home, going to school, or getting a job. He doesn’t know about casual friends, mean people, or birthday cake. He doesn’t know what the world will be like for him.

Neither do we, obviously, but if he lives to see his 89th birthday then his life will touch the end of the century, spanning the same period of time across which many climate models dare to predict. He comes from farming people in the Peidmont of the Mid-Atlantic. If he stays here and inherits his parents’ farm, as he might, then his life will also be the life of this landscape. What will he see?

This child will go home soon, and become the son of the land. He’ll rest in a cradle on the floor of a barn, his mother rocking him with one bare foot as she directs customers picking up vegetables in June. In two or three years, he’ll carry handfuls of squash guts as gifts for the chickens and a rooster as tall as he is will look him in the eye and decide he’s ok. He’ll listen to his parents worry about droughts. He’ll learn to hope the heavy rains don’t rot the tomatoes and that rising gas prices don’t break the bank. There will likely be more such worries as he gets older. Summers will be hotter. His mother will say it didn’t used to be like this, but grown-ups always say that.

According to the IPCC, by the time he’s a teenager, temperatures in the Mid-Atlantic will average maybe two degrees higher than they did during his mother’s childhood. That does not sound like much, but averages rarely do. One degree can turn a pretty snow into a destructive ice storm.

Warming, in and of itself, will be good for the crops; only a local rise of about five degrees Fahrenheit or more hurts productivity. That’s unlikely to happen here until my nephew is a very old man. But the Great Plains may warm faster, enough to cause a problem; he could study the shifting agricultural economics in college. Or, he might prefer the shifting flights of birds, since many migrants head south based on conditions in Canada, and Canada will warm faster yet. Should be interesting.

Our area could either get wetter or drier. Parts of northern and central Mexico will almost certainly get drier, maybe dramatically so. These areas are dry already, so I imagine a lot more people will start heading north. My nephew will discuss the refugee problem with his friends, lean on his shovel in the morning sun, and wonder if the United States has a responsibility to keep Mexicans from dying when Congress is already deadlocked over how to pay for the flooding in New England. Seems you can’t keep a bridge built in Vermont, anymore. He takes off his sun hat and scratches his thinning hair.

Years pass. My nephew thinks about his upcoming fiftieth, and also about New York City, where three of his grandparents grew up. It’s turning into a ghetto. It’s not under water, exactly, though the highest tides creep slowly across abandoned parking lots in some neighborhoods, spilling over the older seawalls. The problem is this is the second time it’s been stricken by a hurricane, and now no one can get the insurance money to rebuild. The same thing has happened to New Orleans and Miami. Boston may be next. Those who can get out, do. Those who can’t, riot. They have a right to be angry. His daughter is pregnant with his first grandchild. My nephew cannot keep his family safe indefinitely, but he’s glad his parents taught him how to grow food.

My nephew turns sixty-five. He proud of his skill as a farmer, especially with the way the rules keep changing. The farm seems to be in Zone 8, these days. He’s got new crops and new weeds. He’s got friends in southern Maryland who haven’t had a hard frost in two years. Maybe this year they will; Farmer’s Almanac says it’ll be cold. Last year he and his wife took a trip through New England and let his kids take care of the harvest for once. They stayed at romantic little bed-and-breakfasts and took long walks in the woods, holding hands. There was white, papery birch-bark on the ground, here and there, the stuff takes a long time to rot, but he knew he’d have to go to Canada if he wanted to see one alive. It’s sad.

My nephew lives long enough to see more change than any prior human generation has, and that’s saying something. A lot of the change is environmental, but not all of it. Major technological shifts rework the country yet again, and the entire political and economic center of gravity pulls away from the coasts. He is aware of this upheaval intellectually, but viscerally he is used to the world he lives in. He lives well. He is loved and he is useful. No dramatic disasters befall him, the worst-case scenarios do not play out, but plenty of disasters do happen to other people. My nephew is sympathetic. He writes his Congress-people and gives generously through his church whenever he can.

But a lot of good that could have been done decades ago wasn’t.

I saw my nephew tonight. He’s at home now, wrapped in a blue blanket like an animate dumpling, slowly fretting against the swaddling. His wrists and ankles are as thin as my thumbs. He’s too young for baby fat. He doesn’t know what his future holds. And neither, really, do we.

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I wrote the above fantasy several years ago and many of my predictions have already come true. My little nephew has indeed learned about birthday cake (I hope he does not yet know about mean people) and does indeed share his farm with chickens, though he prefers the company of the goats and can imitate their voices. More darkly, Manhattan was hit by a major storm-surge (Superstorm Sandy) and Miami Beach now floods regularly due to sea-level rise. I don’t think he knows it, but the years of his  life thus far have seen consecutive global heat records broken, two successive record-breaking tropical cyclones (Haiyan and Patricia), rumors of “jellyfish seas,” a major climate-related refugee crisis, the possible California Megadrought, and dramatic, unprecedented fires in Canada, the United States, and Indonesia. Among other deeply worrying developments.

Come on, people, put your backs into it, whatever we make of the future, my nephew will have to live there.