The Climate in Emergency

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


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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.

——————–

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.


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Syria

The Syrian refugee crisis is starting to get scary. I mean, obviously the Syrian refugees themselves have been terrified for a long time, that’s why they have become refugees, but what I mean is that this is not a run-of-the-mill humanitarian disaster. This one has the potential to change the world, but not in a good way. The people are running from violence, primarily, and also poverty. For four years, now, people have been coming out–more than four million already. Mostly they go to neighboring countries, but many–more than three hundred and fifty thousand this year so far alone–make their way into Europe. Some are now being sent on to the United States.

To put this in perspective, Syria’s total population is now less than 24 million people, meaning that about one in every seven people in that country has recently left. Forced migrations on this scale leave scars that last for generations and radically change the cultures that take in the migrants–I’m thinking here of the Irish Potato Famine, which killed a million people and displaced a million, far fewer than in the Syrian crisis, but then Ireland was a much smaller country at the time. The whole world was much smaller. Almost two hundred years later, the Irish Diaspora continues to enrich the rest of the world–and the great-grand children of Irish refugees continue to take their history personally. I do, anyway.

The fact that I’m talking about Syria here suggests that climate change is involved somehow–and indeed it might be. The connection is that from 2006 to 2011, parts of Syria were in a very serious drought. Huge numbers of farmers were forced off their land and into the cities looking for work. The Syrian government severely mishandled the crisis, triggering the present civil war. The drought, of course, is just one more event made more likely by climate change. No less an entity that the US Defense Department warns that climate change is a destabilizing influence, capable of creating exactly the sort of mess currently exploding in the Middle East and into Europe.

The climate-deniers have, of course, cried foul, questioning the science of the drought attribution point by point. It is a mistake to argue science with those whose real objection is cultural or ideological, so I’m not going to offer a detailed rebuttal–but the point is not a direct causal chain, anyway. The point is that large areas of the Middle East and Africa are extremely poor, huge numbers of people living just above the poverty line–if anything goes wrong, they fall off into the abyss. Climate change simply makes it more likely for things to go wrong.

For rich countries, like the United States or most of Europe, a serious natural disaster (and we’re having two at present, the California drought and the related western fires) hurts us but does not destabilize us. We have enough of a safety margin that we can not only continue to take care of our own, we can simultaneously offer aid to other countries and take in refugees.

The reason the Syrian crisis is scary is that its scale hints at the possibility of a world where we will no longer be able to do that, where even if the United States remains comparatively rich, the number of things going wrong will rise so high that we will no longer be able to take our stability as a country for granted. Fourteen years ago today, many Americans made the unsettling discovery that we are not immune from attack. I did not–I never thought that our country was special in that way. It’s true we don’t get attacked very often, but that’s not because we live in a protective bubble. It’s not because we’re immune. But I gotta say, I’ve gotten kind of used to this national stability thing.

For weather to contribute to a civil war is nothing new. Weather and climate have always been one of the drivers of history–as James Burke elegantly demonstrated almost twenty years ago. Where crops fail and where they succeed, where floods and fires occur and where they do not, even something as simple as where the weather is pleasant, all these things have always been one of the several facets of historical events. The only thing that has changed is that weather, that thing that has always shaped events, is becoming ever more chaotic.

And the problem is that as long as we keep pumping greenhouse gasses into the sky, there will be no new normal to adapt to. Stability will not be available.


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Nothing to Complain About

So, President Obama has announced his latest climate-change response plan and certain conservatives have already begun trying to make said plan go away. Neither fact is really a surprise. Mr. Obama is doing a good job of framing climate action in terms of various quality-of-life issues (health care, energy costs), as he should, and while the plan will not do more than make a small dent in the problem, it’s the biggest dent we’ve made yet–so that’s a big deal.

There are three main issues here–the plan itself, what it does and does not do; the connection between the plan and the upcoming 2016 election; and what the conservatives are doing to try to undermine the plan. I’m starting with that third option.

It’s obvious why the fossil fuel industry, especially the coal industry, is up in arms right now; the objectives of any serious climate action plan must include putting fossil fuel out of business. That doesn’t have to include the people of the industry going out of business–they can and should shift their investments elsewhere–but we can’t really expect most of them to be happy about it. More interesting is the argument the resistors are raising, that shutting down the fossil fuel industry is bad for the economy as a whole, and specifically a bad financial deal for ordinary Americans.

There are all sorts of reasons why people like Scot Walker are wrong, but the most interesting is that they’re pulling off a neat trick–presenting the personal financial concerns of industry leaders as if they were the concerns of ordinary Americans. The standard line is that stressing an environmentally irresponsible industry, such as fossil fuels, is bad for the economy as a whole–prices will go up, jobs will be shed, etc. But jobs are shed anytime there is a major shift in the structure of the market–but the change is not always framed as a problem.

Changes in international trade resulted in America losing most of its manufacturing sector, a horrible, horrible thing for America’s working class, its labor unions, and the local economies of many cities and towns. The rise of the Internet (and the rather inexplicable assumption that online content ought to be free) has largely gutted professional print journalism in this country and forced major changes on both book and music publishing.  The conservative leaders expressing such concern for the little guy now when the fossil fuel industry is threatened didn’t make much of a peep when those other industries took a hit.

I’m not saying the collapse of a major industry isn’t something to talk about, since some economic changes really do have disastrous results. My point is that not all of them do–the collapse of buggy-whip manufacturing in the face of automobile use is an oft-cited example (I have no idea how accurate that example is). Maybe a better example is that electric light supplanted both kerosene and coal gas, without actually doing the oil and gas industries as a whole much harm. The people who made and sold those fuels simply moved on to other products. Modern workers and investors can and will do the same–there’s plenty of money to me made in renewables. The economy as a whole is going to be fine.

But Joe Sixpack is a more empathetic figure than the Brothers Koch, if we’re going to talk about somebody’s financial woes.

Some may argue that climate action is different, because this time the government is weighing in on which industries should survive and which fade away. That, too, is disingenuous at best. The US government always has a hand in the economy–ours is not a purely free-market economy. Even law enforcement may be seen, in some cases, as a form of economic meddling–as when, in the early Labor Movement, industrialists were allowed to use force to enact their will, but when workers used their own power to protest, law enforcement attacked them. Defining “the peace” so as to frame one side of a conflict as “disturbers of the peace” is a well-established tactic for picking sides without appearing to do so.

And in any case, we do heavily subsidize the fossil fuel industry–by some estimates, US residents pay over two thousand dollars per capita per year, in order to keep that industry going,

How big those subsidies are, and how they compare to the subsidization of renewables, is a little hazy. For example, should “subsidy” mean only direct payments and tax breaks, or should it also include instances of the tax-payer having to clean up the industry’s messes? Also, when comparing subsidies for renewables to those for fossil fuels, should we look at absolute dollar amounts (by which measure fossil fuels get more money) or should we look at dollars invested per BTU of energy realized (by which measure renewables get more money)?

But the important point is we are subsidizing fossil fuels, and if we stopped doing that, we could easily meet our current emissions reductions targets simply by letting market forces take their course.

As long we keep paying those subsidies, I really don’t think the Kochs et al. have anything to complain about.

 

 


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Green Fragility

I’ve been reading recently about “white fragility,” a phenomenon where white people refuse to listen to black people talk about racism unless that talk is carefully couched in terms that don’t make the white people feel bad.

The feeling bad part is understandable. It is difficult to stand accused of complicity in the entire racist system and not start sputtering “wait a minute! But I voted for Barack Obama. Doesn’t that count for something?” And, indeed, whether and how different people are culpable for racism is an interesting and important question. But then there are people saying “hey, my son is dead now and nobody seems to care. Why is this conversation about YOUR feelings all of a sudden? My baby is dead!”

I could write a lot about this, but other people (who know a lot more about it than I do) already have and you should go read their work. My topic, at least for this blog, is climate change. And the thing is, I see fragility here, too.

I want to be very clear that I’m not trying to steal the thunder of those who are talking about race. Instead, it is their work that has given me new and better language to discuss a problem I’ve been seeing in other contexts for a long time.

I see it in the self-described environmentalists who refuse to hear any suggestion that their behavior should change unless that suggestion is couched in the most gentle and complimentary terms. I see it in the behavior of environmental activists who have, for decades, struggled to shape their message into something reassuring and positive for fear of “making people feel guilty.” I see it in the writings of environmental educators who have insisted, for decades, that switching out a few light bulbs can and will save the Earth when the reality is the moment requires a lot more of us.

It’s not that how a message is delivered shouldn’t matter–having a righteous cause is not an excuse to treat other people badly, and the effective activists are the ones who can develop ways for allies to get involved and feel good about getting involved. All that is true.

But.

If someone ran up to you and shouted “You idiot, your house is on fire!” would your first response be to chew them out for calling you an idiot? Or would you sniff around for smoke?

The fact of the matter is that fragility is not unique to the racial context—and it probably is not unique to white culture either. Somehow, we seem to see reality as optional, as though it were possible to make suffering go away by ignoring it. And when the scale of a problem is huge—and climate change is even bigger and more dire than racism—facing it feels almost existentially difficult. There is no way to relieve the sense of guilt, no way to earn a gold star for a job well done, because the job isn’t going to be done. The world is going to demand all we have and then keep on demanding more.

None of us is ever going to be good enough, measured against these (and other) issues.

The thing is, we have no time in which to argue about our personal self-worth. I don’t mean not to stand up for yourself if a person with a great cause happens to also be a jerk. I mean make a personal commitment not to make your recognition of reality conditional upon how you feel.

Your house is on fire. Stop worrying about whether or not someone else thinks you’re an idiot and put the fire out.


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Fire

Ok, now Canada is on fire. As of two days ago, at least, British Columbia had all of its firefighters working, and still needs more help. Alberta’s resources are likewise becoming strained and the province has invited in firefighters from Mexico to help–the teams from Jalisco have partnered with Alberta before and the two groups have coordinated their training programs.  Saskatchewan and Manitoba are also struggling with many major fires, and the smoke has triggered serious air quality warnings in parts of the United States. Virtually all of the US is now smoky to some degree; I saw a thin, grey-yellow haze in Maryland last week. This is not the first time I’ve seen continent-wide smoke, but it’s still a startling thing.

When disaster strikes, it’s reasonable these days to wonder how the problem relates to climate change.

I wrote a few weeks ago about the fires in Alaska. The international boundary between Alaska and Western Canada is essentially a figment of human imagination, so it’s not surprising that most of what I wrote about fire in Alaska also applies on the other side of the boarder. I have not been able to find much in the way of detail on the ways global warming might be causing these fires (or, more precisely, making them more likely); generally, the farther from the equator an area is, the more its climate is changing–and the changes involve not just increasing average temperature, but increased extremes. That includes more extreme droughts and heat-waves, which promotes more fires. So, while there are other factors in play, fires in Alaska and Canada are getting worse, and climate change is one of the reasons why. Fire is the new normal in Western Canada, that much is clear.

What is even clearer is that these fires also exacerbate climate change, not only by releasing huge quantities of carbon dioxide but also by accelerating the melting of permafrost–that will eventually release huge quantities of methane, a very powerful greenhouse gas. Then we could fall into a nightmare scenario, where more warming melts more permafrost, releasing more methane, which causes more warming….

The ironic thing here is that as sensitive as Canada is to climate change, the Canadian government has been very poor at doing anything about the problem. Canada has one of the highest per-capita greenhouse gas emission rates in the world, it pulled out of the Kyoto Treaty, is not on track to meet its Copenhagen obligations, and is allowing the exploitation of the tar sands at horrible environmental and human cost.

Not to pick on Canada; it’s not like it’s the only country in the world that needs to get it’s act together on climate.

What strikes me in all of this is that we live in extraordinary times and by and large fail to notice that fact. Much of a continent lies veiled in smoke, half of Canada is rapidly exhausting its firefighting capacity, and science can tell us to expect more of the same. And yet, many people go on with life as before, continuing to talk about whether global warming will happen at some future point!

Recently, I’ve been watching The Abolitionists, on The American Experience. I can’t help but think that the timing of this rebroadcast is not a coincidence but instead represents a partial response by PBS to the deaths of Freddie Grey and others like him and to the recent violence against a string of black churches, beginning with the shooting in South Carolina. It is startling to watch the courage, dedication, and, in some cases, short-comings of the abolitionists against the context of current events.

However, I am also struck by how familiar the impatience of people like Frederick Douglas, Harriet Beecher Stowe and John Brown seems to other contexts. While other people in their society either insisted slavery wasn’t that bad or seemed content to let the trajectory of history “bend towards justice” with glacial slowness (apparently many white abolitionists were primarily concerned with the souls of white slaveholders and saw the welfare of actual black people as a kind of foot-note to the movement), they became insistent that slavery end now. Every minute of delay, they knew, was another minute of suffering and pain for millions of people. They were conscious of an emergency, and, each in their own way, acted on that knowledge.

Yes, I’m comparing slavery to climate change.

Some readers may accuse me of appropriating somebody else’s fight, of attempting to use the imagery and energy of the resurgent civil rights movement for my own ends. That’s a reasonable charge and I respond to it, with respect, thus; first, climate change is a social justice issue, since it hurts the disenfranchised first and most deeply, and second, the intersectionality of various issues leads to common and interrelated problems, so why not recognize the solutions as related as well? The fact of the matter is that human beings should be braver and more intellectually honest than they are, whether in light of churches burning in the South or forests and tundra burning to the North. I find the abolitionists inspiring. They rose to the occasion of their lives, and so should we.

Every moment of delay before a real solution is a moment lost.


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An Even More Inconvenient Truth

Yesterday, our TV news and internet news feeds erupted with tales of rioting in Baltimore. As a Marylander, this seems decidedly more personal than the events in Ferguson last year and the other recent incidents of justifiable, if entirely unhelpful rage. Also, I have a friend in Baltimore. He could get hurt in the riots. He is also black, so how Baltimore police treat black men is not an abstract issue for me. From any direction, this is a news story that hits home.

Let me just say it; for these officers to claim that they don’t know how Freddy Gray developed life-threatening injuries while in custody is an excuse unworthy of two-year-olds.

This is, of course, a blog on climate change and not on civil rights, but I would be remiss if I did not acknowledge current events. Also, there is an overlap between this topic and ours. As I discussed during the protests after Michael Brown’s death, part of the overlap has to do with the necessity of radical protest. Here is some of what I said then, edited for space:

A few days ago, I read the entire text of the Letter from Birmingham Jail for the first time.  It is the response, by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., to an open letter written by a group of white clergy condemning civil disobedience actions in Birmingham, Alabama. The Statement of Alabama Clergymen calls for the illegal protests to stop, praises the police for their non-violence in handling the protestors, and says that outsiders (by which they meant King and his associates) should stay out of it. Instead, the black people of Birmingham should be patient, obey the law, and work for their rights exclusively through the court system. They would get their rights respected someday. In essence, King replied that someday isn’t good enough.

This same week, I’ve read an article in The Atlantic, by Charles C. Mann.

Mr. Mann’s basic thesis is that nobody really knows how to talk about climate change [among other charges, he says that “extremists” should stop being so strident]. The charge that environmentalists should stop shouting “emergency” is an old one. We are told that we are scaring away potential allies, making people “feel guilty,” and if we only tone things down a bit we might make more progress.

The thing is, historically, change hasn’t worked like that. Dr. King knew this. To the call that his movement should exercise patience, he replied,

“We know through painful experience that freedom is never voluntarily given by the oppressor; it must be demanded by the oppressed. Frankly, I have yet to engage in a direct action campaign that was ‘well timed’ in the view of those who have not suffered unduly from the disease of segregation. For years now I have heard the word ‘Wait!’ It rings in the ear of every Negro with piercing familiarity. This ‘Wait’ has almost always meant ‘Never.’ We must come to see, with one of our distinguished jurists, that ‘justice too long delayed is justice denied.'”

The men whom Dr. King addressed in his letter were self-described liberals who at least nominally supported racial justice, but they cared about public tranquility more. For them, the atrocities of racism must have seemed far away and abstract. In contrast, the social unrest, the protests, the disregard of law, must all have seemed very frightening and very real for them. Like the writer, Mr. Mann, they faced a choice between the solidity of the world they knew and the welfare of “distant, hypothetical beings.” They chose the former.In their letter calling for an end to public protest, the group of white clergy tried to paint their choice as a reasonable response to a strategic mistake on the part of Dr. King and his colleagues. They claimed that the civil rights demonstrators could not rightly call their actions non-violent because their protests incited violence against them. Dr. King rightly called them out on that particular piece of nonsense as well.

The other main point of overlap is that climate change is also a civil rights issue. Extreme weather, of the sort that climate change exacerbates, kills the disenfranchised first. Part of the problem is that poor people tend to live in vulnerable areas by default, such as those parts of New Orleans that everybody knew would flood eventually. Part of it is that the poor often lack the resources to leave before disasters and rebuild after them. Heat waves kill more people in poor urban neighborhoods, because such places have fewer shade trees and no air conditioning. But disasters also provide cover for the worst of privileged human impulses to come out; in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, there were white people who quite literally hunted black people. Many of those murders were never even investigated.

The greatest beneficiaries of fossil fuels will never see their sons hunted through the streets of a ruined city. They will never lose everything they have to a monster storm because they have multiple houses in multiple regions and can simply move. They will never lose their homes and livelihoods to eminent domain exercised in service to an oil pipeline or see their families die slowly of cancers caused by water polluted by shale oil exploitation. All these things are happening to people who lack the means to mount effective protest while the captains of industry raise billions of dollars to buy the upcoming presidential election.

I deplore these riots in Baltimore. They are quite literally self-sabotaging. But I applaud the urgency that fuels them. We need more of it right now.