The Climate in Emergency

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

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How About that Weather?

Recently, a friend of mine posted a picture on his Facebook page, commenting that he “didn’t know it was that bad.” I didn’t, either, though I did suspect it, and it does not seem to have made the news at all. I’m talking drought figures. Frankly, I am confused by the legality of re-posting pictures online, so I usually don’t. In the interests of avoiding a thousand extra words I’m making an exception and providing the picture. Please, if you own this one and don’t want it here, let me know and I’ll take it down.


The legend at the top indicates this is a map of how many more inches of precipitation different parts of the United States would need to get to “PDI -0.5.” A bit of poking around online reveals that PDI is probably the same thing as the Palmer Drought Severity Index, or PDSI, and that -.5 means is more or less the drier boundary of normal for a given area. According to this map, then, as of June 6th, to get to Normal, parts of California would need 9-12 inches of rain, which is a problem because that’s about as much as what that area gets all year.

But we knew California was in trouble. That’s not the surprising part.

The surprising part is the serious drought in the East. Southern Florida apparently needs 12 to 15 inches of rain to get to normal, parts of Vermont, and some parts of the Southern Appalachians need 6 to 9 inches. Where I live, in Maryland, needs up to 3 inches, which might not sound like a lot, but we did just get a solid week of rain. Much of the rest of the East is at least mildly dry. It’s not that any of this is severe (Florida is very rainy, so a proportionately mild or moderate deficit still has a lot of inches), it’s that people act like it’s invisible. I have heard no mention of it on the news, heard nobody (except the friend who posted the picture) talking about it, and I have not found anything discussing any of this online.

According to another graphic on the same site, much of the Eastern US has gotten about half to three-quarters of its normal amount of rainfall so far this year. Another site, one run by the USDA, lists Maryland as having no drought as of June 2nd, with some areas merely “abnormally dry” the week before. The disparity could be due to the use of different methods–calculating the severity of drought is somewhat complicated, since it depends on knowing not only how much moisture a place has but also how much it needs. The dates on the two sites (June 2nd vs. June 6th) could also be relevant.

Personally, I’d go with the site that says Maryland has a bit of an issue. It has been a dry spring. with some parts of the state (like ours) getting no rain at all for weeks on end in April and May. We have also had some fantastic rainstorms, most recently a series of interrelated storms that lasted almost a solid week, but much of that water probably ran off without soaking in–heavy rains on dry soil tend to slide off. I spoke with a farmer who said her neighbor found completely dry soil just a few inches down after the first big downpour of that rainy week.

Which brings up another reason why the reports of Maryland’s drought could be wrong–measured by actual inches of rain as compared to what we typically receive, we could be ok. Measured by soil moisture and groundwater recharge, we might not be; the thing is, Maryland currently has no effective way of checking whether its groundwater is being recharged.

All of this is, of course, weather rather than climate. And in the grand scheme of things, my state’s drought is, at worst, still mild. But the situation is still worth noting for two reasons. One is that this is what climate change looks like–larger, more intense rainfalls less often. It’s not dramatic for us Easterners this week, but it is vaguely, eerily, different from what we’re used to, and we should notice. More importantly, a society that isn’t in the habit of noticing the weather, either as individuals or through the news media, leaves itself vulnerable to being told lies. Like when pretty much everybody except the Eastern US was horribly hot last winter and various climate-denying wags asked “where’s global warming” because the East happened to be snowy.

Personal, casual observation of the weather is not, of course, a reliable measure of climate, that’s why we have climate scientists and data collection protocols and big, giant computers, etc. There are important patterns that just aren’t visible without analysis. But if we abandon looking for those patterns we can see, the step into a dangerous apathy becomes very short.






And in Comes O’Malley

Martin O’Malley has just thrown his hat in the Presidential ring, a move that surprises no one who has been watching his career. His presence also makes the race a bit more homey for me, since he has just completed two terms as Maryland’s governor and that is my state. Unfortunately, he’s a relative unknown outside the state, and the buzz so far is that he’s not going much of anywhere this time around. A recent cartoon depicted the “O’Malley Bandwagon,” being drawn by a rocking-horse. But he’s young enough that he could easily try again, perhaps with a cabinet-level position in the meantime to round out his resume.

But how is he on climate change? What would it be like if he did win?

Martin O’Malley is like the other two Democratic hopefuls in that we don’t have to rely on his campaign promises to guess how he’d do on climate as President–he has already shown his colors as Governor of Maryland. And his colors are surprisingly green. He has been called a climate hawk, and his interest in the environment isn’t just political. It’s entirely genuine. He’s taken some heat from climate deniers of late, who pounced on his assertion that climate change is a “business opportunity,” as if he were some kind of opportunist. Of course, that isn’t what he meant–he meant that actually doing something about climate change is not only the the right thing, but also the profitable thing. And he’s exactly right–there’s nothing fiscally responsible about environmental disaster.

Under Mr. O’Malley’s leadership, Maryland really stood out on climate and related issues. He has set goals of reducing the state’s greenhouse gas emissions (from 2006 levels) by 25% by the year 2020 and by 80% by 2050. He brought the state into the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative (RGGI), a functional carbon pricing program that raises money for energy-efficiency programs that can lower residents’ utility bills. He released the Maryland Climate Action Plan, in 2008, championed the Greenhouse Gas Emissions Reduction Act of 2009, and started Maryland’s Zero Emissions Vehicle Program and got the Maryland Offshore Wind Energy Act passed, both in 2013.

Then there’s the goal of diverting 65% of our waste from landfills by recycling and composting, in order to reduce methane emissions. There’s the tree-planting program designed to deepen carbon sinks. There’s the expansion of rail lines in Baltimore and in Maryland’s D.C. (reduces car traffic and related emissions). Public buildings follow highest International Energy Conservation Code from the International Code Council. Residents who cut peak-time electricity usage get discounts on their bills. Mr. O’Malley held ClimateStat meetings every quarter, where he was genuinely enthusiastic about the proper presentation of data.

Has all of this worked?

So far, yes. Maryland’s greenhouse gas emissions have gone down, and although much of the decrease was actually due to the Great Recession and other such factors, the state has done somewhat better than the country as a whole–even as its population grows faster than average.

How many of these programs will hold in the face of our new, pro-business, Republican governor, Larry Hogan, is anybody’s guess, but Mr. O’Malley could have taken steps to try to slow reversal of his policies; what many environmentalists see as his one major failing, his issuing of strict guidelines for fracking (as opposed to not considering fracking at all), can be seen as an attempt to make it harder for Governor Hogan to write his own, loose guidelines (in fact, Maryland remains under a moratorium on fracking, which Mr. Hogan agreed to not veto).

Mr. O’Malley does have a somewhat deserved reputation for verbal awkwardness (he’s a bit of a geek, though he also plays in an Irish rock band called O’Malley’s March) but he can talk the talk on climate change, too. He brought up climate change in his very first Presidential campaign speech and features the issue prominently on his website. He has publicly acknowledged that Maryland is feeling the effects of climate change already. He has unequivocally opposed the Keystone XL Pipeline, in part on climate grounds. Of national energy policy, he has said “An all-of-the-above strategy did not land a man on the moon. This is a systems engineering challenge, as was landing a man on the moon,” and that reducing greenhouse emissions should be the explicit goal of American energy policy.

Mr. O’Malley is the real deal on climate, and he is a careful, strategic politician. Whether he manages to be a serious contender for the White House this time around or not, he will be one in the future. Speaking strictly as the author of a single-issue blog on climate change, I am very much ok with that.





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Vote Here

I spend a lot of time urging people to vote on climate. Perhaps urging is not enough, however? Who is running, what the various candidates’ voting records are, even how to register and where to vote might not be obvious to everybody. This being a midterm election, there isn’t as much media attention on the individual races and it is all to easy to just sit the whole thing out.

I’m not talking here just about people who are completely unfamiliar with the political process; it’s embarrassing to admit, but more than once I’ve found myself in the voting booth looking at candidates I’ve never heard of, for offices I don’t understand–I know about Congress races and so forth, but what exactly is the Judge of the Orphans Court? Also, while I’ve always considered environmental issues when voting, this will be the first year I look up candidates’ stance on climate change even in races where the issue never came up in the campaign. I can’t be the only person not certain where to go for that kind of information.

So, let’s do this. I’ll go through the process for my own district, plus a few others for variety, and maybe the whole thing will seem a little simpler and clearer for everybody else. I am American, so I’ll focus on American voting, but hopefully voters in other countries will be inspired.

The voting process

I’m in Maryland, and Maryland has a handy-dandy website where I can type in my name and zip code and get my registration record, polling place, whether I’ll need to show ID (I will not), and even a sample ballot. If I weren’t registered already, I could get registered through this site. Every other state I’ve tried has some version of this site, though they are not all equally useful and not all feature exactly the same information, but generally if you do an Internet search on “how to vote in [my state]” you’ll get your choice of websites at your service. You’re looking for the following information:

  • What day is the election?
  • Where is your polling place?
  • Can you vote early? How?
  • Are you properly registered?
  • Do you need to bring identification or your registration card to vote?
  • Who is running for what office in your district?

If getting to the polling place is difficult, look into absentee voting or see if a volunteer group can help with transportation.

Again, some of this might seem obvious, but it’s embarrassingly easy to overlook something–like an ID requirement–and not be able to vote. It’s also possible for something important to change, like the location of your polling place. Or, your registration could have been purged through a weird clerical error. It’s important to check.

The general election is Tuesday, November 4th, by the way. That is 19 days from today.

The candidates

I looked up a sample ballot for my voting district using the website mentioned above. It lists the following races:

  • Governor/Lt. Governor (they run together, on one ticket, in Maryland)
  • Congressional Representative (no Senate race in Maryland this year)
  • both houses of the State Legislature
  • Comptroller
  • State Attorney General
  • County Commissioner
  • Sheriff
  • Judge, Court of County Appeals At Large (two of them, each up for a vote of confidence, rather than running against competitors)
  • State’s Attorney
  • Clerk of the Circuit Court
  • Register of Wills
  • Judge of the Orphan’s Court (the instructions say to vote for any three out of a pool of four candidates)

Plus there are two Constitutional amendments up for approval. Neither has anything to do with climate change.

Arguably, a lot of these candidates don’t have anything to do with climate change, either. I mean, Register of Wills? Of course, it’s important to research all of these races, otherwise we leave part of our power as citizens in a democracy unclaimed–and today’s Register of Wills could be tomorrow’s Senator. And sometimes unexpected people can strike a blow for climate sanity–District Attorneys, for example. But no, I’m not going to write about every candidate for every race. Instead, I’ll just focus on the gubernatorial and Congressional races.

To be clear, I’m not campaigning for anybody, and I’m not going to discuss the candidates’ records on anything other than climate.

The League of Conservation Voters compiles score cards for Congresspeople, as well as for Congress as a whole. That is a good place to start. Each score reflects the number of environmental votes, as defined by a large panel of environmental experts, plus co-sponsoring bills during periods when no such votes reached the floor. The League divides “environmental votes” into several categories–“climate” is one of those categories, but so are “clean energy,” “dirty energy,” “drilling,” “air pollution,” and “transportation,” all of which are obviously part of the climate issue as well. If there is any way to subdivide an individual’s score by category, I have not yet found it, but it is clear that climate-related issues contribute significantly to the overall score and that an individual’s climate score cannot be larger than his or her overall environmental score.

So, the incumbent candidate for Congress in my district is Representative Andy Harris. His score for 2013 is 0. A big goose-egg. His lifetime score is 5%. Our senators, Benjamin Cardin and Barbara Mikulski have excellent records, but neither is up for election this year.

But what about Mr. Harris’ challenger, Bill Tilghman? (“Tilghman” is a common Maryland name; the “gh” is silent) Or anybody campaigning as write-in candidates?  Are any of the alternatives better?

I did an Internet search on “Bill Tilghman Climate Change,” and found, where you can look up candidates by state. Beside party affiliation, current job, and a brief biography, the site lists each candidate’s official stance for several major issues, including climate. It isn’t clear where the site gets its information–presumably they ask the candidates, since the profile looks like a questionnaire. Their profile for Mr. Harris is consistent with his scorecard from LCV, but  several of the questions were left blank–this suggests that the site is accurate as far as it goes but does not provide a complete picture. The site also includes candidates who were eliminated in the primary, and does not cover races for state offices, but it still seems a good place to start.

Bill Tilghman looks good, here. He believes climate change exists, supports cap-and-trade, supports EPA regulation of businesses and tax credits for renewable energy research and development, and does not support offshore drilling. Good for him. Of course, there is no way to know how he’ll stick to all of this once in office, but he’s obviously better than a goose egg. On the other hand, further searching reveals he supports fracking.  Some environmentalists do support natural gas use as a lower-carbon transitional fuel, so Mr Tilghman may be quite genuine in his opposition to climate change.

I have not found any organized write-in campaigns for District 1, though of course any of us have the option to write in whomever we want.

The gubernatorial race is harder because there is much less information already compiled. Presumably national organizations, like League of Conservation Voters, take less notice of state and local positions. I returned to my sample ballot and randomly chose the Democrat, Anthony Brown. I searched on “Anthony G. Brown Climate Change” and found a voter information site run by our regional paper, The Baltimore Sun. This site also lists Mr. Brown’s competitors, of course, as well at the other state and local races. Great! Except this site does not address climate change at all. It might be a good source of supportive information, but we’ll have to look elsewhere.

Rather than looking for other voter information sites that might be more cooperative, I’ve tried searching for information on individual candidates. I don’t want to rely on the candidates’ statements about themselves, which will likely say more about what they think the electorate wants to hear. Mr. Brown is the current Lt. Governor, and is running as Martin O’Malley’s political heir. In his own campaign materials, Mr. Brown claims O’Malley’s environmental record while in office as part of his own and he is actively presenting himself as an environmental candidate on that basis. So, what is Mr O’Malley’s record on climate change? I haven’t found anything like an objective score card, but Mr O’Malley has spoken extensively about the seriousness of climate change, and has advanced a fairly aggressive plan to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 25% over the next five years. So that’s encouraging.

Larry Hogan literally has no environmental record at all, according to The Washington Post described his environmental plans as “gauzy at best,” during the primary race and has since endorsed Mr. Brown, who has himself criticized Mr Hogan on climate change grounds (and much else–the campaign is nasty on both sides), but none of this is especially objective. Mr Hogan is a businessman (he does not say what his business does, besides economic development) and is running largely on an economic message. Climate change is, of course, important relative to Maryland’s economy because so much of the state is coastal–we have escaped from recent storms with very little damage, but a major storm-surge could get extremely expensive. However, in the world of politics, “business-friendly” and “job creation” are often code words for opposition to environmental regulation. While the environment does get a mention on Mr. Hogan’s website, he does not appear to be campaigning as an environmentalist. There is a good chance, therefore, that he isn’t one.

Shawn Quinn is the third candidate on the ballot for Governor. As a Libertarian, he is probably a long shot, but his website is professionally done and this is not his first political campaign. He has not held political office before and therefore has no official record on climate change, but he does not mention the issue on his website. As a libertarian, he is very definite in his belief that the government should not be involved in people’s lives–he opposes Maryland’s efforts to reduce smoking, for example, as well as its subsidies to tobacco farmers. This stated reluctance to allow government to involve itself either in public health or in economic development probably means he would not provide leadership on reducing greenhouse gas emissions or developing alternative energy, either.

This is the kind of detective work I am talking about. Some races are covered by large environmental organizations who can provide analysis of candidates’ records on climate change, but otherwise we are generally on our own. Information might be fleeting, especially for challengers who have no prior political record, but it is often possible to at least eliminate some candidates from consideration if they fail to mention the environment at all (meaning that they don’t think they need the votes of environmentalists) or if their campaigns focus on issues that are traditionally at odds with climate change, such as business.

I’ll keep researching candidates for my own knowledge and will share anything notable I find.