The Climate in Emergency

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


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A Break for Puffins

“How’ve you been liking the hot weather?”

I turn around and spot the man sitting on the rock at the edge of the parking lot. He works at the restaurant across the way and he comes here to take his smoke breaks. We say hi to each other every time he does. He’s one of those strangers who’s almost a friend.

“I don’t like it, much,” I say, of the weather. I’ve been either under- or over-dressed all day.

“Yeah, it’s funny,” he says, “yesterday it was warm in Bar Harbor, but cold here. Today, it’s hot here, but it’ll be cold in Bar Harbor.”

Bar Harbor, I should add, is not that far away, yet he could be right. I’ve known it to rain in town but stay dry just three miles away.

“You know, I’ve heard the Gulf of Maine is 11 degrees warmer this year than normal?”

“Yeah, I know,” he tells me.

“It’ll be a bad year for puffins,” I add.

“Oh?”

“Yeah, when the warm water comes in, so do warm-water fish, which are a little bigger and rounder. The adult puffins can catch the warm-water fish just fine, but the chicks can’t swallow them. So, in years when warm-water fish species predominate in the Gulf, every puffin chick in Maine starves to death.”

“That’s really sad.”

“Yeah, it is.”

“That’s really sad.” He seems to really feel for these puffin chicks. “But there’s nothing anyone can do about it.”

“Well, stop global warming.”

“Yeah, but we can’t do that,” he protests.

“Yes, we can,” I counter. “Not immediately, because of atmospheric lag, but you know, nothing is so bad that it can’t get worse? By the same token, nothing is so bad that we can’t keep it from getting worse.”

“Yeah. I like puffins. I have paintings of puffins hanging in my bathroom. I tell people, these are real birds. They’re not made-up! I’ve only ever seen a couple of them.”

“I’ve never seen even one,” I admit. “Where did you see them?”

“It was last year. They took us on a cruise—among the islands.”

“Neat.”

“Yeah. You know, I’ve seen another Maine bird? I can’t remember what it’s called, but I can remember the sound it made, at night, in the water….It sounded like a frog, you know—a, a, bullfrog? Where I’m from, we have another frog that makes weird sounds, it’s called something else. It sounded like a frog, but my friend said, no, that’s a bird.”

“Can you imitate the sound?”

“No, but I can hear it in my head. I saw it, and it was a bird. It was dark, and sort of duck-like….”

“A loon?”

“Yes! That’s it! A loon!”

“They winter with us, in Maryland,”I told him. “They’re here in the summer and with us for the winter. They do make lots of sounds.”

“Cool! Well, I gotta go. It’s been nice talking to you.”

“Nice talking to you,” I tell him, and mean it, and I watch him head back into the restaurant through the back door.

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I Have a Dream

Some days ago, I heard someone on NPR (I forget which program) assert that a central weakness of the environmental movement is its lack of tangible vision. Martin Luther King, Jr., this radio person reminded listeners, invited us to imagine, to anticipate, black children and white children joining hands in sister-and brotherhood. The image is specific, personal, and easy to see as real.

In contrast what sort of vision is “take care of the Earth”? What does that even mean? No one, this commentator said, is giving us a goal we can really grasp.

I beg to differ, because here, as tangible as you like, is my dream.

(Before I get into the poetic part, I should say I’m talking about a future in which fossil fuel use has ended, largely through a dramatic reduction in our collective energy use, plus the use of alternative energy sources. The human population has shrunk dramatically through peaceful attrition, allowing widespread reforestation and a reduction of our collective use of all resources. Most of the reduction of consumption involved the wealthiest socioeconomic groups, while the least-wealthy have become less impoverished. Environmental regulations and ethics are robust, and conservation and restoration are prioritized at all levels of both public and private activity. MLK didn’t need to provide such a preface, because everybody in his audience knew what he meant.)

Close your eyes and open them in the future, where we’re all going. I dream of what you experience as you move around.

The climate of your childhood is with you still, and you will keep that familiar climate as you grow old. If it snowed on Christmas when you were little, it will snow on Christmas again. If you chased lightening bugs through the cool of a summer evening, the Junes of your great-grandchildren will have that same purple, shining cool.

When the weather grows extreme—and it will, on occasion—you may rest assured that things will return to normal afterward. If a city has stood on a seaside plain for a thousand years, you may expect it to stand for a thousand more. If a farm has belonged to your family for seven generations, know that rising seas will not sow your fields with salt, nor will warming skies bake your soils dry. The same carefully husbanded heirlooms will grow for your progeny for seven generations more.

The air smells good—everywhere. The water tastes clean in all places. All rivers and ponds and beaches in the world are safe for swimming, and if you fish, you may eat what you catch without fear.

And you will catch fish, you will fish and hunt and gather fruit and honey, if you please, for the table of the Earth will groan with permanent Thanksgiving, its bounty not literally infinite but so long as you receive with gratitude, humility, and care, it might as well be. You will have enough. All of you will.

Some of you may be poor, but your poverty will be a paucity of luxuries, not a lack of necessities. You will never worry about access to food or water or medicine. The halls of justice and of government will never be closed to you and the gates of academe will never be barred. No matter your color or your ancestry, your creed or ability, your risk of cancer or poisoning or want will never be greater than for your wealthier fellows, and that risk will be low and getting lower all the time.

Wealthy or poor, young or old, you will not have to travel long distances or endure expense and hardship in order to experience beautiful places and the company of fantastic, wild animals, for all places are beautiful and all lands and waters are rich with wildness. Should you want to travel, you will need no permit to seek the solitude of pathless places, for the forests and the prairies and the deserts will gape huge with possibility, and all places, both distant and urban, will be quiet enough to reveal the singing of a multitude of birds. The only sounds humans add to the landscape will be those that can improve on silence, and we will improve on silence often with our music and our words.

You might choose not to travel far, for transportation will never be both cheap and fast again—though either alone remains a possibility. What that limitation means for you is that the friends of your childhood will be the village of your parenting and the tribe of your old age. And yet no parochialism will limit you, no minority identity will isolate you, for you will reach across distances with radio, with microwave transmission, and with the internet. This world of yours is primitive in the best way, but in no other way could it be called so. Your technology keeps your future on its toes.

In this world of slow, deliberate movement, of precious, careful cargo, the products of your hands will be art, and the tools of your trade will be art, and the objects of your daily life will also be art, and nothing you make or buy or sell will be made to be thrown away. Your hands will be powerful and your mind strong, for should a tyrant arise among you the scope of the king’s jurisdiction or the industry boss’s beat will never reach farther or faster than your capacity to organize. You and your colleagues and neighbors shall have the world, for to the mighty you will be the world, no outsources will be economic, no offshoring will be available, and you will negotiate and win.

You will set your table with local fare in season, but neither will you fear the fortunes of the weather, for if the crops fail, or if the harvest already home is lost, help will come with the speed of clean electricity, the power of biodiesel, the focused intelligence of the latest, most complex computers possible. Your doctors will work wonders with medicines as yet undiscovered and surgical techniques as yet unsuspected. New organs will grow in nutrient baths, bones will be printed to order, new nerves will knit together across old scars and the lame will walk and the halt shall dance.

For the losses imposed by limitation shall be only that which you are happy to lose anyway, the ugly, the cheap, the slapdash. What is important to you to keep, you will keep and improve upon a thousand times. And in the opening created by that limitation shall grow the unlimited, and in the space after the ending of the un-checked, you shall have the endless. You gave given up the dross and slag and kept the treasure. Because you have let go your grasping after chaff, the good wheat is yours, forever.

There is no wound that cannot eventually heal. There is no moment that is not better than more dire moments as an opportunity to turn the world around.

I have a dream today.


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The Anxious, Jealous Guardians of Our Democracy

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

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

I was surprised.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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On Losing My Wallet

Ok, spoiler alert; I found my wallet after all. It was in the back yard, under some leaves, having fallen out of my pocket. But it had been missing for almost 24 hours, and as I’d last seen it while out doing errands, I was more or less panicking over the thought that it could have been stolen.

Yes, this does have to do with climate change.

See, there is something that feels so unfair about losing a wallet (which I seem to do about once per decade)–a momentary oversight, and suddenly I’m looking at weeks of difficulty and expense. I mean, yes, I know, it’s my fault, it’s my mistake that causes the problem, but the consequences seem so disproportionate.  And since there are so many times I almost lose my wallet, and then it unexpectedly turns up, that when I really, truly, do lose it, the loss is hard to believe.

I keep looking in places I already looked, hoping that it will turn up, that I will somehow be rescued from the situation.

These two elements, the sense of injustice and the semi-rational denial, should be familiar to a lot of people. There is a sense that the presidency of an odious and ridiculous climate denier just should not be allowed. There is a sense that we’ve worked so hard, we deserve to have some success–not to have to double down and work harder.

I don’t mean to imply the the presidential election turned out the way it did because of a simple moment of thoughtlessness. I don’t mean to imply that there are no relevant questions of blame, credit, or justice. The metaphor could be carried too far.

The important thing I want to emphasize is that the universe is not fair–nor is it unfair. A moment’s inattention or the turn of political will, these things have whatever consequences they have. And then we deal with them, for better or worse.

We have no time to denial. We have no time for insisting we don’t deserve this. We have no time for assuming that somebody will get us out of this fix. It’s time to get busy.

As I did when I called the bank and cancelled my debit cards. About twenty minutes later, I found my wallet. Sometimes the disaster doesn’t happen. Sometimes the miracle plays out. But those happy endings aren’t earned any more than the unhappy endings are. It’s just what happens. And we have to respond to what happens–with the limited information we have at the time–and keep working until the job is done.