The Climate in Emergency

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


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A Christmas Re-Post

Today is Christmas.

Perhaps you don’t celebrate Christmas. Many people don’t–it isn’t my primary winter holiday, either, though I join the celebrations of family and friends. But WordPress tells me that the vast majority of pageviews come from the United States, so chances are Christmas is on your mind today, whether you celebrate it personally or not.

There are the TV adds, the holiday specials, the new holiday movies, the incessant Christmas carols in public spaces. For example, I’ve heard “Little Drummer Boy” at least three or four times already without having sought out the song even once and I’m basically a homebody who ignores popular culture whenever possible (except as relates to climate change and a few other political and scientific issues). I am aware that some people harbor a special hatred of that over-played song.

But I kind of like it.

Actually, I really like it. That song has been known to make me cry whenever I really pay attention to the lyrics. Minus the rum-pa-pum-pums  and traditional lyrical line-breaks, here they are:

“Come,” they told me, “a new born King to see. Our finest gifts we bring to lay before the King, so, to honor Him when we come.”
“Little baby, I am a poor boy too. I have no gift to bring that’s fit to give our King. Shall I play for you on my drum?”
Mary nodded. The ox and lamb kept time. I played my drum for Him. I played my best for Him.
Then He smiled at me, me and my drum.

I mean, seriously, picture this. There’s this little boy who has this fantastic experience–mysterious grown-ups appear from some exotic place and tell him of this amazing baby–this King whose birth was announced by angels and by a new, very bright star, the subject of prophesies about the redemption of the whole world. The drummer boy probably doesn’t understand most of it, but he understands this is a Big Deal, and when the grown-ups urge him to come with him to worship and honor the newborn King, he eagerly agrees.

Except what can he give? He has no money, no expensive gifts. He’s poor and he’s just a child–compared to all these Wise Men and other important people, what can he do? He doesn’t know how to do anything except play his drum and maybe he can’t even do that very well. Poor little drummer boys just don’t get to go visit kings. It isn’t done.

But then the child gets to see the baby, and he sees this King is actually a poor little boy just like him. They aren’t that different. And the baby is looking up at him, expectant. The drummer boy just has to give something. So he does the one thing he can do, knowing it can’t possibly be enough. He plays his drum and he plays it just as well as he can.

And it makes the baby smile.

We’re all like that, in one way or another. Most of us probably feel inadequate most of the time–I certainly do–and, frankly, in the face of global warming, we are each inadequate, at least by any reasonable definition. We don’t have enough money; we don’t have the right skills; we don’t have the cooperation of friends and family (or Congress); or we have other, competing responsibilities; or grave problems of our own to cope with. These are entirely valid excuses, real stumbling blocks, and arrayed against us is the full power and might of some extremely rich people who do not want us to get off fossil fuel at all, ever. We’re running out of time.

And yet, sometimes the universe isn’t reasonable. Sometimes one person can change the world. Sometimes one’s best turns out to be good enough after all.

May it be so for you. Merry Christmas.

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Thanksgiving

The following is a re-edited version of my Thanksgiving post from last year. It’s still timely.

“It’s that time of the year again,” warns a cynical-sounding blogger, “when warmists try to link Thanksgiving and climate change.”

Nice rhetorical trick, isn’t it? The thing is that of course anything in human life can be linked to climate change because everything we experience either depends on climate in some way or influences it. Most writers seem to cluster around one of two main narratives: Thanksgiving as an opportunity to talk about climate change and agriculture (as in turkeys could get more expensive as feed prices rise because of recurrent drought); and Thanksgiving as an opportunity to talk about communication (as in what you have to do with your climate-skeptic relatives). These are excellent points and I’m not going to try to make them all over again.

Instead, I want to talk about gratitude. I want to talk about abundance.

Have you ever thought it strange that we give thanks by eating a lot? If anything, American Thanksgiving sometimes seems more a celebration of greed and gluttony, with a perfunctory discussion of life’s blessings thrown in among the other topics at the dinner time. And yet, it is precisely abundance that serves to remind us of what we have to be grateful for. Thanksgiving provides the illusion of infinite, inexhaustible resources because there is more food on the table than the assembled eaters can consume. It is that illusion we use to evoke and celebrate our abundance.

And it it is an illusion. There is no such thing as an infinite resource; use enough of anything for long enough and eventually you will run out. Even “renewable” resources are only sustainable if you use them slowly enough that they can replenish themselves. We know from sad experience that it is indeed possible to run completely out of precious things that once seemed all but limitless. Passenger pigeons, for example. And in fact we are running out of pretty much everything we need for life and everything we need to give life beauty and meaning. Often, the depletion is hidden by ever more efficient usage that keeps yields high even as the resource itself runs out. We see this with fisheries, with soil health, with oil…. It’s not that we don’t have enough of what we need yet (hunger is usually a distribution  problem, not a supply problem; there are more overweight than underweight humans right now). The problem is that we are using so much that the world is warming under the pressure.

Want a visual? Check this out:

See how big we are, relative to the rest of the biosphere? Humans already use more than the entire ecological product of the entire planet. That is possible because we are, in effect, spending planetary capital, reducing Earth’s total richness a little more every year.

I’m not trying to be gloomy for the sake of gloominess, I’m talking about the physics of the environmental crisis, the details of how the planet works. I’ve gone into detail on this before, but the basic idea is that the planet has an energy budget and that when part of the planet (e.g., us) exceeds this budget, the planet as a whole destabilizes. The biosphere actually shrinks and loses energy and diversity. One way to describe global warming and all its awful permutations is as a complex system being pushed into an entropic state.

We got into this mess by treating the entire planet as the thing a Thanksgiving feast is meant to simulate; literally endless bounty. And because we did that, our descendants will have a smaller, leaner table to set than our ancestors did–and the more we use now, the leaner that future table will get.

Does that mean we shouldn’t celebrate Thanksgiving? Of course not.

Real, literal feasts are never actually about unlimited consumption. We know perfectly well that the Thanksgiving table may groan, but it’s not actually infinite. It just feels that way, and it is that feeling that is important. The illusion of physical abundance is a needed reminder of the truth of spiritual abundance–which is the actual point of the holiday, the thing we’re supposed to be celebrating on a certain Thursday in November.

The psychological power of the illusion of abundance does not depend on vast resources, something families of limited means understand well. By saving up and looking for deals and cooking skillfully, it is possible to produce a sumptuous feast that feels abundant and actually sticks within a fairly modest budget. The spiritual value is accomplished.

That’s what we have to do as a species. We have to find a way to live within our ecological means–the first step is to get off fossil fuel–and yet work with what we have so skillfully that what we have feels like more than enough. By staying within a budget we can stop worrying about running out, which is true, if paradoxical, abundance. Then the planet will have a chance to heal. The biosphere will grow again. And it is possible, just possible, that our descendants will live to see a more bountiful feast than we will.

And that will truly be something to be thankful for.


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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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The Real Time Bandits

This is a re-post from the Original Climate Emergency Blog

Dr. Jane Goodall thinks you are a thief. Considering the physics of global warming, she may be right. And it turns out that standing accused of theft may be the least of our problems.

In 2009, during a lecture at Oxford, Dr. Goodall said that the popular quote about how “we borrow the world from our children” is a lie, since we have no real plan to pay our descendants back for the environmental destruction that we cause. Instead of borrowing the world from the future, she says we are stealing the world. These are powerful words, chosen to make the point that environmental destruction is a moral issue, a crime with victims, a fit subject of outrage. But is the crime in question literally theft? Or is this a metaphor meant only to indicate the moral stakes involved?

Theft means that the victim loses what the thief gains. If I run a red light, hit your car, and cause $2000 worth of damage, then I am at fault and you are my victim, but I’m not a thief because your loss is not my gain. It’s not like those two thousand dollars magically appear in my bank account. Air pollution itself is like a car crash, because while the perpetrators may be making money from their polluting activities, the loss of air quality itself is of no benefit to them. Yet there is one circumstance in which pollution is very much a theft.

Climate change means stealing real estate from the future.

Using resources means controlling land. The fact that all wealth is ultimately access to real estate is hidden by the complexity of our global economy, but if everyone had to live wholly within impenetrable biosphere bubbles, then rich people would have bigger bubbles. In reality, all the land that would be inside a person’s biosphere bubble is scattered all over the world, but interested consumers can at least get a rough idea of how much land they are using by calculating their ecological footprint. For example, if half a pound of carrots requires a square foot of land to grow, then a person who eats twenty pounds of carrots per year has forty square feet of carrot patch somewhere in the world. It isn’t necessary to know where that land is to know that a certain lifestyle requires a certain number of acres. For more on how ecological footprint estimates can be used for sustainability planning, check out Our Ecological Footprint, by Wackernagel and Rees. According to their calculation, oddly enough, the total ecological footprint of human activity is now bigger than the actual planet.

The extra acreage has to come from somewhere, and it comes from both the past and the future. The reason has to do with the physics of energy.

Almost all energy on Earth ultimately comes from the sun, which means that the Earth has a maximum energy budget set by the amount of sunlight that falls on the planet’s surface over time. In practice, the Earth’s income is less than this maximum because not all the sun’s energy is absorbed. Using energy, whether by eating, burning fuel, or anything else, means taking advantage of acres of solar collection. Fossil fuel stores the solar energy that originally fell on swampland millions of years ago. Burning those fuels allows us to access acres of ancient sunlight. Burning fossil fuel releases carbon dioxide which will eventually have to be sequestered again. Carbon sequestration is another service provided by the land, and we have released so much that we do not have enough land to do the job. Sequestration is the same process as energy storage, and the process takes a long time. The extra carbon that our world cannot sequester will be passed on to the world of future generations. It is as though we have gone into debt by spending our energy faster than we can make it. The debt must be paid, if not by us than by our children and grandchildren—and their children and grandchildren, and so on into the future. It is possible to use land for more than one thing at the same time (the same forest can sequester carbon, provide habitat, and prevent flooding), but by committing future generations to manage their land primarily for carbon sequestration, we have definitely limited their options. The remaining acres missing from our ecological footprint belong to the future, and we did not ask their permission to use their land. This is, quite literally, theft. And it is ongoing, and we could stop it any time we like if we just decide to use less energy.

It is not only theft from the future. The fact that the total human ecological footprint is bigger than the planet means that there is no part of the planet that is not being used by somebody somewhere. Now, some countries have footprints bigger than their national territories, while others have footprints smaller than their land. Since there is no unused land, this is a zero-sum situation; the “extra” land in poor countries is being used by rich countries, even if only for carbon sequestration. Nor is this land paid for, because, since all wealth is ultimately land, a truly fair trade should not change either country’s footprint size. There are some complications here, obviously, but the overall picture is that many so-called “developing” countries are poor, not because they have not finished developing, but because the wealth of their land is being exported at steep disadvantage; in simple terms, wealthy countries have more resources because they have stolen them.

There is one more worrying permutation of the size of the human ecological footprint. Normally, communities of organisms that use up their resources suffer famine. A slight overdraft might only cause breeding failure for a few seasons in a small area. A major overdraft of ecological resources will cause a long and deep famine, possibly killing off the entire community. Animal and plant species have evolved different ways to deal with the limitations to their resources; basically, they can either respond to early signs of resource depletion by using less, or they can flee when the famine hits and start over somewhere new. But if the available space humans use is the entire planet, then there is obviously nowhere else to go. And with our resource base temporarily expanded beyond the size of our planet, through the use of resources taken from both the future and the past, we will continue to feel as though we have plenty until long after we have actually committed ourselves to famine. We cannot steal land from other time periods forever.

Our present and our future now depend on our collective ability to realize that we are hitting our limits even though it still feels as though we have plenty. Weather a critical mass of human beings are willing and able to choose thoughts over feelings remains to be seen.


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The Climate of Food

This is a re-post from the original Climate Emergency Institute blog, but I have edited and rewritten it significantly.

Most of us know, intellectually, that food depends on climate.

And yet, the convenience of the grocery store makes it easy to forget the connection between food and Earth. The fact is that even well-off people in affluent countries are vulnerable to climate change through food. How many people will go hungry, and which people go hungry, depends on the decisions we make, both individually and collectively, now.

Predicting food availability

Predicting food security is not simple. Climate is, after all, only one of a whole group of interacting factors, from land management to economic policy, that together dictate how much food there is to go around.

Generally, more carbon dioxide means faster plant growth, and longer growing seasons in temperate areas should also increase yield–except that increased droughts and floods, plus more weeds and pests, will decrease yields. Livestock populations are also hit hard by extreme weather, and warming water plus ocean acidification will generally decrease seafood catches. Whether the net effect is an increase or decrease in food production will vary by region. Globally, there will likely be a net decrease in yield–the size will depend on whether we actually start reducing our emissions in a meaningful way soon. At the same time, the human population will likely continue to grow for several more decades at least, meaning we will need more food than we do now. To what extent new farming practices and other issues will influence the food supply is impossible to say.

But food security is about more than food supply.

Food does no good unless the eater receives it. For many of us, even many farmers, that means buying it. The price of food is complex, depending as it does on a complex global economic system and on lots of intersecting national and international policy. Drought in the United States can cause spikes in food prices (and therefore famine among the very poor) in the Middle East. Unstable food prices can cause political stress and even violence in poor areas–whether humans will respond to food stress by starting wars that cause further food insecurity is anybody’s guess.

The United States will likely do fairly well, at least initially. Our food production is not likely to suffer much, except in the worst scenarios, for a very long time, because our climate is temperate and much of what we grow is currently either exported or fed to livestock. More importantly, our collective wealth is likely to protect us as global food prices rise. But food prices will rise, since the food distribution system is global–drought in Africa, for example, could reverberate across the economies of the entire planet. And there are plenty of poor people in the United States for whom higher food prices will mean they cannot pay rent.

When the future gets here

Sometimes it sounds as though we face some impending, sudden apocalypse–like we’re going to wake up one day and find global warming has arrived.

Actually, we have been causing climate change for decades already, and it is already affecting our food supply. That we don’t notice is, in part, good-old-fashioned denial. But weather is variable, and that variability makes the underlying shift in climate harder to perceive–and more dangerous. It is not, after all, the average days that cause problems but the occasional extreme. If only one day in a year is hot enough to kill cattle, those animals are dead. The entire rest of the year is a bust.

What we’re looking at is not a sudden, dramatic collapse but rather an increasing incidence of local or regional disasters, all of which are connected through the global economic and political networks.

Not all of those disasters involve food production directly; for example, without certain key bridges, food does not move into or out of New England. As we have seen in recent years, New England’s bridges are vulnerable to the extreme weather of climate change. A major hurricane could absolutely endanger food security, even if not a single crop were lost. Similarly, a war over water rights in the Mideast could trigger spikes in oil prices, which would in turn raise food prices in the United States.

How we eat climate

If our vulnerability comes as a surprise it is not because the information isn’t available. Major newspapers, magazines, and websites report on the direct and indirect implications of climate change fairly often. And yet climate is still not at the center of our national agenda.

As a culture, we’ve lost the habit of thinking about the links between ourselves and the planet. We have not lost the links themselves. We say we no longer live off the land as our ancestors did, but that’s just not true. Where else could we live? What else could we eat except food that grows on the land or in the sea? What else could we drink except water that once fell from the sky?  The truth is we will never live anywhere but on the land, and we can’t get far away from nature; the laws of ecology have world-wide jurisdiction just like the laws of physics do. We drink nature, we breathe nature, and we eat nature. If something goes seriously wrong with nature, we will no longer be able to eat.

It is possible we will not run into catastrophe in this country; plausible scenarios are not prophesy. But it is also possible that we will be in real trouble. Our country can adapt to global climate change, and as a major industrial power, we can do a great deal to make sure that the climate does not change much more to begin with. We can do neither on a dime. If we do nothing until the food supply starts to break down, then Americans will get hungrier. And hungry Americans will have a reason to be very angry.


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No Answer to the Wrong Question

This is a re-post of an article originally published on the old Climate Emergency blog. It’s a little out of date by now, but its central arguments are still quite relevant.

My thesis adviser likes to warn students against finding “a great answer to the wrong question.” He means, I think, that scientists should not rely on scientific method alone. Following all the right steps can still get you lost if you set out in the wrong direction to begin with. More generally, there is the danger run by anyone, scientist or otherwise, in missing the point, failing to grasp which aspect of a situation is really the one to watch–like collecting statistics on unwed motherhood, when you are actually concerned about is unprepared motherhood. Or, as many of us have recently done, asking whether the current batch of freakish weather is due to global warming.

Some weeks ago, my husband and I were taking a walk on a warm and lovely night in early December (which is not typically a warm and lovely month in our area), and he said something about global warming. Then he corrected himself, reminding both of us that, as he puts it, “weather is what you wear today, climate is all the clothes you’ve got in your closet.” Put it another way, climate is the tide, and weather is the waves. Asking which waves are due to tidal change is clearly silly; none of them are, all waves are influenced equally by the tide. And yet, it is often an unexpectedly high wave that alerts beachgoers it is time to move the umbrella and blanket.

2011 was a bizarre year, weather-wise, and 2010 wasn’t all that complacent, either. According the PBS Newshour’s December, 28th broadcast, 2011 brought record-breaking floods, heat-waves, and tornadoes to the United States, plus severe snowfall and drought. Typically, each year will have three to four major weather-related disasters. This past year we had twelve, breaking a previous record of eight set only three years earlier.

Unfortunately, according to a New York Times article published on December 12th, climate scientists are unable to provide a definitive answer as to whether the recent extreme weather is linked to climate change. Apparently, a combination of general economic woe and specific political hostility severely limits the research currently being done on climate change.

Political resistance to climate research is deplorable. Equating presidential interest in climate change with the creation of propaganda, as House Republicans have done (again, according to the Times article), not only insults the integrity of climate scientists, it also implies indifference to the long-term welfare of the American people. But “was 2011’s serious weather related to global warming” is the wrong question, and I suspect it is not actually the question climate scientists are interested in getting an answer for.

More probably, they want to know if 2011 was really unusual, weather-wise. It seemed unusual, but science was invented because what seems to be true often isn’t. An “unprecedented year of disaster” could be caused by a bored news media industry, biding time between election cycles. Less cynically, one might wonder if a large U.S. population simply makes it more likely that someone will be on hand when bad weather happens. Determining whether weather weirdness is really underway requires comparing equivalent data sets from multiple years and comparing the difference to what would be expected by chance. “Is the weather that seems unusual, actually unusual” is a good question.

“Is the weather we are getting consistent with our theories” is another question. Climate change theory predicts more extreme weather events, so if the weather were different than the current degree of warming suggests, maybe the theory would need to be reworked. Another good question!

Climate does not cause weather any more than the tides cause wind-driven waves (that tidal bores are also called waves is an unfortunate weakness of the metaphor). Neither is tide or climate irrelevant, as any beachgoer looking to keep a beach blanket dry knows. Climate is the local median from which the waves of weather depart; a higher median equals a higher wave, given waves of the same size.

But even though a year of weird weather may make a changing climate more obvious (such a year soaks your beach blanket), extreme weather does not embody climate more than mild weather does. “Is this storm climate change” is the wrong question. The right question is “is the climate changing?”

Not understanding the difference between these two questions results in the public hearing “we don’t know,” when the more relevant answer is “yes.”


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One Less Thing to Worry About

This is a repost from the original version of this blog–now, rewritten somewhat.

There are plenty of things to lie awake at night worrying about.

What if I lose my job?
What if I can’t pay my mortgage?
What if all my teeth fall out?

Some of these worries are sensible, as worries go (did I turn the oven off before I went to bed?) and some are less so (what if I just somehow don’t die of old age, so when the sun turns into a red giant and eats the planet, I’m still on it?). But be reassured that one thing you don’t to worry about is the possibility that we are all being held in bondage to intelligent machines, as the The Matrix movies.

Don’t get me wrong; if intelligent machines do take over the world, I wouldn’t trust them not to put us in bondage, but the thing of it is human beings make terrible batteries.

(If you have not seen “The Matrix” and want the first twenty minutes to be a surprise, don’t read any further. Go see the movie, then come back.

You ready?
Good.)

In that trilogy, it turns out that what we know as reality is actually a virtual-reality program used to keep human minds busy while their bodies are used as a power source for intelligent computers. It seems that war has broken out between humans and the machines, and that because the machines were, at the time, solar-powered, humans “scorched the skies,” blotting out the sun somehow with permanent thunder-clouds. To survive, the machines plugged humanity into their power-grid, raising whole generations in little pink tanks, harvesting the heat and electrical power of millions of bodies. The living, we are told, are fed on the dead, a gruesome, unwitting, cannibalism.

The reason we don’t need to worry about this is the Second Law of Thermodynamics, which states that energy cannot be recycled. Every time energy changes form, some of it is lost. For example, say you make electricity by burning fuel to run a steam turbine and then use all of that electricity to boil water, you’re never going to be able to boil as much water as the original power plant did.

In other words, this

Won’t work (as the author of the comic well knows).

This is why perpetual motion machines don’t work; all systems need fresh influxes of energy or they wind down, inevitably. It’s also why a gas stove has a smaller ecological footprint than an electric stove, if the electricity is derived by burning gas.

Most people have heard of the Second Law of Thermodynamics, since it comes up in some high school or college science classes, and occasionally in discussions of creationism as well. It isn’t an obscure concept, but somehow we aren’t used to thinking of it as part of our own lives. Perhaps we’re so used to thinking of “energy” in a metaphoric or metaphysical sense that we forget energy is literal, too.

Just the be clear on this, feeding a human population on their own dead indefinitely is impossible because each time one human ate another, most of the energy in the body would be lost. A 150 pound human needs to eat more than 150 pounds of food over a lifetime. Without sunlight (which the world of The Matrix no longer gets) the entire biosphere would lose its influx of energy and grind to a halt. No energy for the machines to harvest, and no food for the few human freedom-fighters.

Obviously, The Matrix Trilogy wasn’t intended as a physics treatise, but for all fiction must obey an internally consistent set of rules or the plot gets hard to follow. If a movie has talking animals or flying people, that’s fine, but if these elements appear with no warning in the middle of an otherwise realistic movie, it’s jarring at best. That the unexplained violation of the laws of physics it The Matrix does not seem to have distracted many people is worrisome.

The Second Law of Thermodynamics is central to many conservation issues. For example, an apex predator living on the meat of smaller predators needs a huge amount of land—enough land to grow enough plant matter that after five steps of energy loss there is still enough fuel left to support a breeding population of active animals. Without a visceral understanding of energy flow, it’s hard to think clearly about how much land really needs to be set aside for large predators.

Humans are also large animals, and we need a certain amount of land to maintain ourselves. We not only consume energy by eating, but also for heating, transportation, and everything else. Although as humans we can get very creative with what we use energy for and where we use it, our activities are limited by the total amount of energy coming into the planet as sunlight, and also by the energy needs of the other components of the biosphere; if we use more energy than our ecosystem can spare, the ecosystem begins to collapse, becoming less stable and less complex. The reason that the Industrial Revolution saw such a dramatic increase in the power at our disposal was not that humans suddenly got smarter, but that we began borrowing energy from the past.

Fossil energy is exactly that; energy that fell on our planet’s surface and was harvested by plants millions of years ago. Using more energy than the sun gives us per year is only possible when we take energy that the sun gave us in the past. Except that energy is already doing something; that ancient sunlight is busy sequestering carbon. Appropriating that energy to drive to the grocery store inevitably changes the atmosphere. There is no avoiding the fact that the kind of energy use we have become accustomed to is warping our planet and is temporary. Environmental sustainability means using less energy, period.

But, at least you don’t have to worry about “The Matrix” anymore.