The Climate in Emergency

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


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As If

A few weeks ago, I sent an email to my teacher.

To be clear, I’m not currently taking any classes, nor am I in a training program of any kind. There are simply some people who remain one’s teachers no matter what. I have two, and I sent an email to one of mine the other week, more or less just to say hi.

He asked how I was. I confessed I was not well; multiple people I care about have cancer and a president named Trump. He made the appropriate sympathetic noises (we’ve never talked much about private matters with each other) and then reminded me that “especially in politics, this too shall pass.”

I suspected him of being blithely ignorant, though of course I didn’t say so. The forces that would see the Earth burn so they can make a buck seem to be winning, and he tells me it will be ok? Yes, this, too, SHALL pass; in twenty million years, biodiversity and climate stability will likely have recovered, but that’s supposed to be comforting?

Actually, it is comforting. As I think I’ve said before, I find great comfort in Ursula K. LeGuin’s line, “No darkness lasts forever, and even there, there are stars.” The character who speaks this line is talking about the literal end of the world. “There” refers to the land of the dead. That no matter what we humans do, the Earth will probably be able to repair itself in a few million years is a kind of good news.

Beyond that, “this, too, shall pass” is not necessarily a note of hope in the ordinary human sense. The idea is not necessarily that things will get better (though they may), but simply that things are transitory, that the current situation is not the only context, and not the permanent context, that can apply. I have heard it suggested that the way to really internalize and believe “this, too, shall pass” is to make a point of saying it when things are going well.

As a Buddhist might, I can take refuge in the simple truth of impermanence.

I suspect my teacher would be on board with all these interpretations, but could he also have meant what he initially seemed to mean, that yes, indeed, things will be alright? This isn’t the end of the world?

Back when he was more obviously engaged in teaching me, I became fairly sure this man was always right, that things he said were true because he said them. Even before I finished grad school, I’d modulated that stance somewhat. Yes, he could be wrong (though it does seem to be rare), but it was more interesting, and ultimately more educational, to begin with the presumption that he wasn’t. The principle here is a bit like that of a Tarot deck or a zodiac–the process of figuring out how the oracle applies to your question is a wonderful source of insight, whether the oracle actually applies to your question in a literal sense or not. Rather than wondering is my teacher right? I made a practice of asking myself what if he is right? What can I see from the perspective he is offering me?

(I mean this principle within certain limits, of course. Clearly, treating individual human beings as totally infallible could cause problems)

So, I decided to return to that practice and ask myself what if things aren’t as bad as I fear that they are? What does the world look like if the anti-environment plutocracy we now face is simply transitory?

The thought echoed one I learned many years ago–when faced with a challenge, don’t ask whether I can succeed. Assume that I can, and seek to discover how.

And from my teacher’s vantage point of hope and optimism I looked out and saw…a spaghetti pile of possibilities that I find utterly overwhelming. I don’t know about you-all, but I find it very difficult to choose among equally valid options. Faced with a to-do list of five quick items and an afternoon to do them in, I not infrequently end up spending the whole afternoon playing on Facebook because I can’t decide which one to do first. Occasionally I have actually asked my husband to pick a task for me. He complies with good humor.

So, I seem to be paralyzed now, not by the awesome awfulness of Trump (who, after all, will pass, one way or another), but by the difficulties of my own brain. But while awesome awfulness seems like a very big problem to tackle, I have at least some hope of learning to operate my own grey matter. It’s a start.

What about you? What lies in the way of your own action? What does the world look like if you assume you’ll succeed?


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The Longest Day of the Year

Today is the summer solstice. Right around the time I post this, actually (12:24 PM, Eastern Daylight Time), the Earth will reach the point in its orbit when the North Pole points most directly at the sun. If you were standing at the North Pole, you would see the sun make a complete circuit of the sky, without dipping noticeably towards the horizon at any point (though in fact it must dip because the Pole never points directly at the sun). At lower latitudes like mine, we get the longest day of the year*.

Fifteen hours and twenty-six minutes at my latitude, not counting twilight.

The winter solstice, in December, gets more attention. I have written about it here, myself. There are songs and lights and stories and a big fuss generally made, but there is an absence of fuss today. It’s a curious thing, and it’s not because there are just more holidays in December. The winter solstice gets Yule (on the solstice itself), Christmas, Hanukkah, and several others. The summer solstice gets Litha (on the solstice), St. John’s Day (on the 24th), Juneteenth, Father’s Day–this year, Laylat al-Qadr also falls around now, although the Muslim calendar moves with respect to the Gregorian calendar of the secular world. And yet who can quickly articulate the transcultural themes of this solstice?

The problem, I suspect, is that while the winter solstice lends itself to celebrations of hope and renewal (the return of the light), at the summer solstice, the light is about to start going way. This day reminds us that all good things are temporary, all triumphs limited, all joy shadowed by the eventuality of loss. It’s just not an appealing source of metaphor.

And yet.

Only in silence, the word

Only in darkness, the light

Only in dying, life

Bright the hawk’s flight

On the empty sky

So begins A Wizard of Earthsea, by Ursula K. LeGuin, one of my favorite books of all time. It is generally marketed to children, but I think that is because reading it first in childhood gives you the best opportunity to have the time to read it the 257 times (at least) necessary to fully understand everything in its slim and deceptively simple pages. I am hardly the only one to see depths in this book, and I’ve talked about her work at length in this blog.

A Wizard of Earthsea is the first of a series of six books (five novels and a collection of short stories). Structurally, these look to be two interlocking trilogies, rather than a sextet, since the first three differ radically in theme and mood from the latter three. The third book, the culmination of the first trilogy, most fully explores the idea introduced by the epigraph I’ve quoted–that life and death are reciprocal and inextricable. As I wrote in a previous post:

In The Farthest Shore, a wizard casts a spell for immortality and accidentally–though, without caring about it much–unbalances the entire world, creating a  “hole through which life drains out,” as some of the characters describe it. Essentially, he makes a serious attempt to cast off the limits imposed by both biology and physics, which is exactly the same thing we’ve been using fossil fuels for. I do not know if Ms. LeGuin intended it this way, and I suspect she did not, but the book makes an interesting allegory for climate change, with personal immortality standing in for the more complex suit of powers we look for from technology–a story of the pursuit of a good thing causing ruin because it is taken to absolutes.

One character asks why a person shouldn’t want immortality. His companion, a very wise man, replies:

–Why should you not desire immortality? How should you not? Every soul desires it, and its health is the strength of its desire. But be careful; you are one who might achieve your desire.

–And then? [the other asks]

–And then this: a false king ruling, the arts of man forgotten, the singer tongueless, the eye blind. This! This blight and plague on the lands, this sore we seek to heal. There are two, two that make one, the world and the shadow, the light and the dark. The two poles of the Balance. Life rises out of death, death rises out of life; in being opposite they yearn to each other, they give birth to each other, and are forever reborn. And with them all is reborn, the flower of the apple tree, the light of the stars. In life is death. In death is life. What then is life without death? Life unchanging, everlasting, eternal? What is it but death–death without rebirth?

Ms. LeGuin may not have intended to write about climate change–but given the depth of her subject matter, it’s fair to say her topic included environmental issues, and she clearly knew about climate change at the time she wrote it, because she described the concept in a novel published three years earlier.

To avoid environmental disaster, we must accept and respect limits. Not that sustainability involves everybody “freezing to death in the dark,” the straw-man attacked by some, nor does it really involve accepting any greater limits than any other lifestyle does–the limits are real, and we run up against them no matter how we live. But the pro-industrial, fossil-fuel dependent way of life to which many of us have become accustomed is predicated on the assumption that all limits can be transcended, so that if going after what we want creates problems, we assume that if we pursue our desires harder, those problems, too, will be solved. And that isn’t how the world works.

Acknowledging limitation allows us to make intelligent choices about how we will use the resources we actually have. Since we must bear some cost, let’s live our lives in such a way that it is a cost we can bear with a clear conscience, not something we must pretend does not exist, or something we’d rather shunt off to be borne by the people of some other country, ethnic group, generation, or species. Since the long days of summer are few, this solstice tells us, let us choose to spend them outside playing in sprinklers, or sitting in the shade with a cool drink.

Only in silence, the word

Only in darkness, the light

Only in dying, life

Bright the hawk’s flight

On the empty sky

 

*Of course, I live in the Northern Hemisphere. In the Southern Hemisphere, today is the winter solstice, and the summer solstice occurs in December.


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The Story of Global Cooling

I’ve been hearing climate deniers talking about a global cooling scare in the nineteen seventies for a while now, and I finally got curious about where this narrative had come from–I didn’t think it had been made up whole cloth, but I hadn’t heard word one about it from any credible source, either. You’d think that if climate scientists had thought an ice age was imminent as recently as the seventies, at least some of the scientists I know would mention it occasionally?

So, I looked into it. And I found not one but two explanations.

In one story, Peter Gwynne, a science writer for Newsweek, wrote a short article on an idea some scientists were kicking around at the time–that a thirty-year cooling trend might continue and develop into a real ice age. The article was published on April 28, 1975, and attracted enough attention that other publications picked up the story with their own articles. Books and TV shows followed.

Scientific American, my source for this particular story, explains that the cooling trend is

now believed to be a consequence of soot and aerosols that offered a partial shield to the earth as well as the gradual retreat of an abnormally warm interlude.

And that

there also was a small but growing counter-theory that carbon dioxide and other pollutants accompanying the Industrial Age were creating a warming belt in the atmosphere, and by about 1980 it was clear that the earth’s average temperature was headed upward.

Scientific American acknowledges that the global cooling thing has no legitimate place in the climate discussion today, and reports that Mr. Gwynne himself is somewhat embarrassed by the anti-scientific uses to which his writing is being put. He does stand by what he wrote, given the limits of available knowledge at the time.

Ok, but there are a couple of problems with that story, starting with the fact that the greenhouse effect was not a “small but growing counter-theory” in the 1970’s–the effect of carbon dioxide on the climate has been known since 1859. The first calculations of the human role in climate change were made in 1896.

And it’s not like global warming was some far-out thing nobody was paying attention to back in the 1970’s, either. No less a person than the fiction writer, Ursula K. LeGuin had started making oblique references to climate change as early as 1969 (her novel, The Left Hand of Darkness, includes a flawless description of the natural greenhouse effect, as well as a reference to an alien planet that is hot because “an exploitive civilization wrecked its natural balances, burned up the forests for kindling, as it were.” Several of her later books also refer to the Earth itself getting warmer, too). Perhaps more starkly, the 1970’s were when Exxon was busy figuring out what it was going to do about global warming, of which its internal documents prove it was well aware.

Beyond all that, there wasn’t a 30-year cooling trend, except perhaps in a mathematical sense. According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), the period from the mid-1940’s to the mid-1970’s was cooler than previous years had been, but there was a lot of minor temperature fluctuation, not a consistent cooling. A cool period of relative stability is not the same thing as an oncoming ice age.

So, I did some more poking and found the second story.

Apparently, in the 1970’s, the greenhouse effect was well-known, but the cooling effect of sulfate emissions (“aerosols”) had just been discovered and it wasn’t clear yet which would prove dominant. A few climate scientists thought the aerosols might win out–between 1965 and 1979, 10% of the scientific papers on the subject predicted cooling, but 28% could make no prediction and 62% predicted warming. In other words, the coming ice age was a legitimate scientific idea for a while, but only a small minority of studies ever supported it.

I’m not actually sure, based on what I’ve read, whether anybody ever proved that sulfate emissions couldn’t have counteracted carbon emissions under some scenarios that were plausible back then. As history has actually played out, sulfate emissions have been dramatically reduced (they also cause acid rain), while carbon emissions have continued to climb. Aerosols still complicate climate predictions, but no one thinks they’re going to cause an ice age anymore.

There’s no cooling trend mentioned in there.

The way I see these two stories blending, I suspect that what really happened was that the end of the warming trend of the first third of the 20th century was taken (maybe correctly) as evidence of the cooling power of aerosols. Some climate scientists thought the aerosols could go on to trigger a cooling trend, but most did not. Peter Gwynne, being a writer who cared about science and about getting his writing published, chose to focus on the minority opinion, since that seemed more sensational at the time. He has admitted that the story “pushed the envelope a little bit,” in deference to Newsweek’s penchant for what Scientific American called an “over-ventilated style.”

The ventilation would have seemed harmless at the time, if the article was fundamentally accurate, as I’m willing to buy that it was. Nobody can represent the entire breadth of the scientific conversation on any one topic in just nine paragraphs. You have to choose which of all possible stories you’re going to tell, in order to tell any story at all.

That deniers have since pounced on his article for political and anti-scientific purposes is not Mr. Gwynne’s doing. Being co-opted is a risk all published writers run–it’s the Scylla to the charybdis of being utterly ignored.

Curiously, the one detail I thought would enter the discussion apparently didn’t, except as a note of context written long after the fact by one or another of my sources–astronomically speaking, we’re supposed to be in an ice age already.

The primary factor that dictated the glacial/interglacial cycle through recent geological history was the Milankovitch Cycle, an interaction between three separate variations in Earth’s orbit that together dramatically how much solar radiation we get at different times of the year. We’re at a point in the cycle where we should be heading into a new ice age, but aren’t because our carbon dioxide levels are too high.

The connection between that cycle and climate was confirmed in 1976, so it may be another thread of the “global cooling” story that none of my sources happened to tease out–but if not, there may have been good reason to ignore it.

The onset of ice ages is very slow. I have to cite one of my grad school classes here (Tom Wessels was the teacher–I’ve cited him as a source here before) as I haven’t been able to lay my hands on an appropriate link, but ice ages melt quickly (as in many hundreds of years) and grow slowly (as in many thousands of years). In fact, the warmest point of our current interglacial (before now, anyway) was thousands of years ago. No, the cooling was never enough to initiate continental glaciation on North America or Asia, but cooling was in progress.There is an excellent illustration of this cooling, and how long and consistent it was, here (yes, that is a web comic, but this one’s not a joke).

Sliding towards an ice age doesn’t look like anything special, it turns out. More or less, it looks like all of human history.

 


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On the Paris Climate Talks: A Literary Interlude

First, my apologies for not posting yesterday; I sometimes have anxious or depressed episodes and they make it difficult to focus enough to work. This has not been a good week. Of course, if one is going to be anxious, this would be the week, given that the world’s leaders are discussing whether to avert the end of the world and at the same time the presumptive Republican front-runner for the US Presidential election is doing a really good imitation of Hitler. I don’t know whether the fact that I’m not crazy to feel like this makes me feel better or worse….

Anyway, we’re kind of waiting to see what comes out of Paris, although there is a petition to sign (please!) asking certain recalcitrant national leaders to quit dragging their feet on what really looks like a viable deal.

While we’re waiting, I’m thinking about a novel by Ursula K. LeGuin, The Farthest Shore. Her writing is excellent, not just because it is extraordinary in terms of craft, but also because much of her fiction going back to the late 1960’s seem to imply an understanding of climate change. Her sci-fi books, set in the distant future, often have an overtly environmentalist message and refer to Earth having warmed significantly since our time. One, published in 1969, clearly describes the natural greenhouse effect (yes, there is one; what we’re causing is in addition to that) and repeatedly links environmental catastrophe specifically to industrial revolution. Her fantasy novels frequently address spiritual and magical themes that could be read as ecological principles. I don’t know if Ms. LeGuin actually knew about anthropogenic climate change in the late 1960’s, but it is possible; some scientists were beginning to investigate the matter, and of course the idea was first discussed in the nineteenth century.

In The Farthest Shore, a wizard casts a spell for immortality and accidentally–though, without caring about it much–unbalances the entire world, creating a  “hole through which life drains out,” as some of the characters describe it. Essentially, he makes a serious attempt to cast off the limits imposed by both biology and physics, which is exactly the same thing we’ve been using fossil fuels for. I do not know if Ms. LeGuin intended it this way, and I suspect she did not, but the book makes an interesting allegory for climate change, with personal immortality standing in for the more complex suit of powers we look for from technology–a story of the pursuit of a good thing causing ruin because it is taken to absolutes.

One character asks why a person shouldn’t want immortality. His companion, a very wise man, replies:

–Why should you not desire immortality? How should you not? Every soul desires it, and its health is the strength of its desire. But be careful; you are one who might achieve your desire.

–And then? [the other asks]

–And then this: a false king ruling, the arts of man forgotten, the singer tongueless, the eye blind. This! This blight and plague on the lands, this sore we seek to heal. There are two, two that make one, the world and the shadow, the light and the dark. The two poles of the Balance. Life rises out of death, death rises out of life; in being opposite they yearn to each other, they give birth to each other, and are forever reborn. And with them all is reborn, the flower of the apple tree, the light of the stars. In life is death. In death is life. What then is life without death? Life unchanging, everlasting, eternal? What is it but death–death without rebirth?

All of this is simply to put the quote I’m thinking of in context–the quote that gives me some meaning and comfort as I wait to hear back from Paris. As the protagonists sail towards their meeting with the wizard, which either will save the world or won’t, one of them sleeps while the other keeps watch and thinks about the future.

…..They will praise me more for that in afterdays than anything I did of magery….If there are afterdays. For first we two must stand upon the balance-point, the very fulcrum of the world. And if I fall, you fall, and all the rest…. For a while, for a while. No darkness lasts forever. And even there, there are stars….Oh, but I should like to see thee crowned in Havenor, and the sunlight shining on the Tower of the Sword and on the Ring we brought for thee from Atuan, from the dark tombs, Tenar and I, before ever thou wast born!”

He’s right; no darkness lasts forever, and even there, there are stars. The biosphere can recover from a major extinction–it takes ten million years, but it can do it, and has done it before. But there are things I should like to see, and so I hope for good news from Paris.


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Feeling Overwhelmed?

Earlier this week I opened up my Facebook account only to see that the western black rhino is now extinct. Below that was somebody’s post about their (yes, very cute) cats, several posts about various people’s dietary struggles, a post about melting permafrost releasing a “carbon bomb” of methane, another one about oceanic currently slowing down because of melting ice, and then some more cat memes.

What the hell, people.

I quote the novelist, Ursula K. LeGuin, speaking here in the voice of the Archmage, Sparrowhawk:

There is a weakening of power. There is a want of resolution. There is a dimming of the sun. I feel, my lords—I feel as if we who sit here talking, were all wounded mortally, and while we talk and talk our blood runs softly from our veins.

I don’t mean to be overly dramatic, but that does seem to be where we are at. Like the Archmage, I would be “up and doing,” but like him it is far from clear to me what to do. There is a sadness and a great fear…and with no clear direction to turn to address the problem, there are bills to pay and emails to answer and cute internet cat videos to watch.

No, as far as I know, the extinction of the western black rhino is not directly related to climate change, but there is a strong connection between global warming and species extinction in general, as I have discussed before. The planet as a whole is wounded by our unsustainable behavior and climate change is one major symptom of that wound. Biodiversity loss is another. The seriousness of the situation is overwhelming and yet most people, most of the time, seem utterly ignorant of it.

“Seem” is the operative word. I do not mean to speculate about what’s actually on other people’s minds. I’ve been known to share cat videos myself.

I can’t help but assume that my emotional reaction is not unique. I think a lot of people are feeling overwhelmed these days. So while yes, I do mean to sound a clarion (get moving!) I also recognize that confusion, despair, and the logistics of day to day life are all legitimate distractions.

So, how do we get un-distracted?

How do we face reality without getting overwhelmed? How do we keep the heat on politically? How do we plot effective strategies by which we can make our caring mean something?

Because the people who stand to gain from furthering climate change, the fossil fuel industry leaders, are not flailing about, feeling overwhelmed. They are raising money and drafting their strategies as we speak. And if they win the next national election, they will win the whole game.