The Climate in Emergency

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

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April First

Today is April Fools’ Day, so perhaps I should have written a joke-post full of climate-denial drivel painted on thick. Unfortunately, the danger of somebody not getting the joke is just too great. Instead, I’m simply going to ask a question; why do we believe some things and not others? What makes a statement sound plausible–to you, say?

Rather than making fun of “gullible fools” as is traditional today, I invite each of you to consider how you yourself might be fooled? Under what circumstances might you be taken in?

Actually, I’ve noticed that a desire to not be taken in may be itself a potential weakness; “this is information they don’t want you to have” and “wake up, sheeple!” are both really common ways to present outlandish ideas.

A stick-figure lectures on conspiracy theories

An excerpt from XKCD

So, how sure are you that climate change isn’t a vast, liberal conspiracy? Or, more precisely, presented with two groups of people each asserting mutually contradictory sets of facts (this is critical–these are not differences of judgment or analysis, which might be fairly called differences of opinion, this is factual disagreement), how do you know which one is wrong? Or do you?

Answer that one and you’ll be better equipped to talk to people who just happen, quite innocently, to be wrong.




California Methane Leak

As you may already be aware, California is leaking.

More specifically, a giant natural gas storage facility just north of Los Angeles is leaking, and the amount of methane coming out of this thing is huge. It’s been going on since October and is likely to go right on until March. My Facebook feed has been filling up with dire warnings about Armageddon, but the nightly news has been strangely quiet.

So, what’s the story with this leak, how bad is it really, and is it really being nationally ignored?

It’s easy to find a detailed description of the problem online, so another detailed exposition seems superfluous. Here is just a quick summary to get us all on the same page.

The storage tank in question is actually the space in the rock where a huge pool of petroleum used to be. Industry pumped the petroleum out and sold it and then decided to use the empty space for temporary storage of natural gas. Basically, the owner, the Southern California Gas Company (or SoCal Gas) wanted to be able to keep a lot of inventory on hand so as to be able to respond quickly to changes in price and demand. This is a storage tank bigger than anything humans could actually build and it is accessible only by a well sunk deep in the rock.

SoCal Gas has a lot of these things, but the Aliso Canyon facility is the second-largest in the Western US. 86 billion cubic feet of capacity–that’s a cave that, if actually cube-shaped, would be almost half a mile on a side. It’s almost a mile and a half underground.

I’m not sure whether anyone knows when the leak started, but SoCal Gas found it on October 23rd. Since then, the rate of leakage has varied, and apparently it’s only measured occasionally, so no one knows exactly how much has leaked, but it’s probably around 50,000 kilograms per hour, or about 7% of the nation’s total natural gas emissions. Big.

Natural gas, remember, is mostly methane, a powerful greenhouse gas. The term is used to specify methane from fossil sources, as opposed to biogas.

Methane is not toxic (though if you tried to breathe too much of the stuff you’d suffocate for lack of oxygen), so the main threat here is through the greenhouse effect. But the gas in the storage facility is mixed with mercaptan, the stuff used to give gas a recognizable odor. So the whole situation quite literally stinks, and while mercaptan is not considered dangerous, is it very mildly toxic and area residents (human and otherwise) are experiencing symptoms like headaches and nausea–and for some, more serious symptoms. Small amounts of other chemicals, present in the gas (including benzene, which is seriously dangerous) may also be contributing factors.

No one knows exactly why the well is leaking, but SoCal Gas might have been able to shut the thing off if they hadn’t decided to remove rather than replace a critical valve (and lie about it) back in 1979. For this and other reason, the company is now being sued within an inch of its life. Governor Brown has declared a state of emergency, but did so in such a way as to make sure that neither taxpayers nor ratepayers would pick up the costs. California is not playing around on this one.

SoCal has tried to pump mud down into the access well to plug the leak, but that has not worked. Now they are drilling a second well that is supposed to intersect the first–for reasons I do not understand, this is supposed to make the leak easier to plug. Drilling a well that deep will take a long time, which is why the leak might not be plugged until March.

The whole situation is bizarrely reminiscent of the Gulf oil spill, both in terms of its scale and in terms of of the technical detail of plugging the well. But there are some important differences, too–notably, methane is invisible and non-toxic, making this leak insidious. Once the well is plugged and the mercaptan disperses, it will be easy to pretend the whole thing is over. There will be no tar balls washing up on scenic beaches, no disturbing fish and dolphin kills from this one. But the methane will remain in the atmosphere, warming the planet further, for roughly a century.

So is this climate Armageddon?

Not really in any way it wasn’t before. This leak is huge, for a single leak, and it is enough to have a real impact on what strategies we use to bring our emissions down; to meet our goals, we’ll have to work even harder, now. But at the same time, the US alone is producing lots more methane–from other, smaller natural gas leaks, from landfills, and from the guts of our huge herds of cattle. And even adjusting for its greater power as a greenhouse gas, methane still only produces less than a 6th as much warming as carbon dioxide does because there is so much less of it. The real heavy-hitter is still carbon dioxide.

The bottom line is that this leak is not the end of the world all by itself, but plugging it up isn’t going to save the world by itself, either. It’s just another few straws on an already badly overloaded camel. And that could explain the relative lack of news coverage.

It’s true that the California leak rarely makes the major news outlets. I have not done an exhaustive study on the subject, but a search of online records and the memories of my social media contacts does suggest it’s not being treated like front-page news by anybody. If you don’t follow environmental news specifically, and are not connected by social media to anyone who does, you might well miss the story completely. But it’s not being blacked out, either–CNN and NPR have both covered the story on their websites, though I am not clear yet whether either did so on air, and there are plenty of articles in the online/print media, including some on mainstream sites.

Broadcast media simply cannot cover as many stories as print/online media can. There aren’t enough hours in the day. And this genuinely does not sound like the top-tier disaster that some people are making it out to be. I don’t think anybody’s trying to keep this quiet in any deliberate way. Instead, I think we’re witnessing the silence of a mainstream journalism that still doesn’t consider the environment generally, or climate change specifically, very important.

Maybe we need to call or write in again and ask them to cover this? Because while the California leak is bad, media undercoverage of a major issue is far worse.

The other thing that’s far worse is that this is not the only large methane storage facility there is–and while California at least is taking steps to improve safety, at the moment we don’t know when the next leak will come or how big it will be.

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Looking Back

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

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

Extreme Weather

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

Fossil Fuels

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

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

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

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

Electoral Politics

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


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

Paris Accord

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

The Pope’s Letter

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

Jellyfish Blooms

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

Syrian Refugees

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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This is what Democracy Looks Like

So, over the weekend, people all over the world came together to demonstrate how important climate action is to them. In Washington DC, only a few hundred people showed up.

Two of them were my husband and I.

We couldn’t get anyone from our area to carpool with us. Nobody seemed to have even heard about the event, and I would not have heard of it except I went looking for the information essentially on a hunch that there might be an event. The RSVP button on the organizer’s website didn’t work. We couldn’t find the regional carpool in Annapolis. We drove to the New Carrolton subway stop, parked, and took the train in. Then we walked around the city for a while, not entirely sure if the meeting point was really where it was supposed to be.

Finally we realized that among the hundred or so tourists milling around on Pennsylvania Avenue, two dozen seemed clumped around a banner that said something about fossil fuels. Almost equal numbers milled around what looked like semi-permanent kiosks dedicated to world peace and Jehovah’s Witnesses. It wasn’t an awe-inspiring site.

We joined the climate group and introduced ourselves and the organizers gave us posters to wave and cards printed with information for another demonstration that may or may not happen two weeks from now (apparently they haven’t decided yet). Gradually, more people started trickling in, until by the time the organizers started lining us up for photos, the crowd looked about two hundred strong. Eventual police estimates were between five and six hundred, and from inside the crowd at least we seemed like a pretty big group.

We walked around the blocks that contain the White House, eventually returning to our starting point. Our group contained men and women, young and old, able-bodied and otherwise…as far as I could tell, all but one of us were white, which I found disappointing (I don’t think people of color were excluded in any way, but the homogeneity suggests some kind of failure to communicate). Organizers led various chants and songs, and eventually the pep-rally aspect of the whole thing lightened my mood and for a while I forgot to be dismal about the low turn-out.

Afterwards, we emailed the organizer about the low turn-out and learned that actually more people showed up than she’d expected. She regarded the event as a sideline to the main demonstrations in Paris.

That I consider a serious miscalculation. For one thing, most of us can’t get to Paris, so if we’re going to stand up and be counted, we have to do it closer to home. For another, in the United States, our delegates in Paris (including our President) aren’t the problem. They already understand that climate is important. It’s our congress and our news media that still need to get the message–things are moving in the right direction, but we need to keep pushing. As long as Congress is dominated by climate deniers, Mr. Obama will be strictly limited in his ability to make any climate agreement stick. We really could have used a turn out of a few hundred thousand.

There were other US demonstrations, of course, including some that did much better than DC’s, but none were really huge, and DC, being our nation’s capital, should have been one of the big ones. And we have seen that kind of turnout before–organizers who intend to draw tens or hundreds of thousands generally do, because time and again I’ve seen them successfully plan logistics for the correct order of magnitude of crowd. For example, in the two DC events we attended on the Keystone Pipeline, there were portable stages set up on the Mall for rallies. Those things must be expensive, and the organizers would not have taken the plunge if they weren’t pretty sure enough people would show up to justify it. Police also need accurate estimates for crowd size so they know how many officers to deploy and how long they will need to block off traffic from the route. This week’s event was planned to be small (megaphones rather than sound systems for the rally, moving roadblocks rather than the entire route being closed to traffic at once) and it didn’t disappoint in that regard.

Who decided it would be a good idea to demonstrate a small interest in climate in our nation’s capital?

Sometimes I think that that old joke is true, that Democracy is a system by which everybody gets what the minority deserves. But while I was mulling over such thoughts, my husband had a much more concrete concern. He missed a specific chant he remembered from last time.

“How did that go? Something about what Democracy looks like?”

He said this a few times, wistfully complaining about the chant he’d liked. I jogged his memory, and together we remembered the wording.

“SHOW ME WHAT DEMOCRACY LOOKS LIKE!” he shouted, after a while.

“THIS IS WHAT DEMOCRACY LOOKS LIKE!” I responded, though I don’t quite have his vocal power. We repeated the call and response a few times, and on the third repetition three or four people around us joined me on the response. After that, fifty or sixty joined. When my husband stopped to rest his voice, someone else took up the call, this time remembering the second variation–“tell me what Democracy sounds like/this is what Democracy sounds like” and alternating between the two.

The chant died away but then bubbled up again from another part of the marching column. From then on, our chant alternated with others in regular and chaotic fashion:





And on and on. We were tickled that we’d managed to add something, that something we started just by shouting was taken up by others and rippled up and down a crowd of people we didn’t even know.

And see, that is one of the things that Democracy looks like; start something, and the people around you may start doing it, too, a pretty soon it gets bigger than you. It can happen.*




*Ok, technically speaking, successfully starting a chant is an example of mob dynamics, but the event reminded me that it’s possible to have an influence on things. So, not democracy, but the sort of optimism democracy engenders and requires. Cheered me up, anyway.


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Your Friday Update

Hi, all,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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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.