The Climate in Emergency

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


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Still Can’t

I’m having a rough time. Some of you know why. I sat down to write a post today and an hour later nothing has been accomplished. So here is a re-post instead.

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Tilting Windmills

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My friend says she’s sometimes not sure activism is worth it anymore, because the world is about to end. I don’t share that problem. My problem is I don’t know how to choose among the many possible forms of activism, when I believe they might all be fruitless anyway. Six of one one, half a dozen of doing not much. Also, sometimes I get so anxious I can’t do anything at all.

A few days ago, my friend posted to Facebook, attempting to start an “informal dialogue” about how to cope with climate change psychologically. How to deal with the often paralyzing and exhausting fear that awareness brings, especially when the surrounding society offers so often the tempting narcotic of pretending it’s not happening, or is happening only in a distant and mild way. As if we had fifty or a hundred years to sort all this out. As if climate change weren’t especially important. It’s lonely, as she said.

I thought I can help! I have a blog about this very thing! But, when I looked, I saw no entries that really suggested a solution. And when I searched online, while I found confirmation that the discipline of psychology is, indeed, tackling the issue, I saw nothing of particular immediate benefit to me.

Enter the Man of La Mancha

Coincidentally, into my doom and gloom, came an email from another friend about something totally different. Among other topics, he referred to some of his own environmental work as “tilting at windmills.” Of course, that’s a reference to Don Quixote, the classic figure of fiction who deluded himself into believing he was a heroic knight and who attacked windmills, believing them to be fairy-tale giants. My friend is doing nothing in any way similar–the giants he is attacking are all very real–but he has a self-deprecating sense of humor.

But what occurred to me when I read his email was the following:

Alternative Energy Revolution

From: https://xkcd.com/556/

 

If you can’t see the comic I’ve pasted for whatever reason, it starts out with a picturesque landscape of modern wind turbines silhouetted against a peach-colored background. In subsequent panels, two people (rendered as stick figures, this is XKCD, by Randall Monroe, and he mostly does stick figures) admit that the turbines look disturbingly like the tripodal monsters from certain sci-fi stories–and the turbines promptly grow legs and become exactly such monsters, ravaging the landscape. Their huge legs pound the ground with calamitous thunder. The terrified humans despair–but a voice calls “stand aside!” and there, on a hill, lance at the ready, stands DON QUIXOTE!

The “mouseover text” is “The moment their arms spun freely in our air, they were doomed–for Man has earned his right to hold this planet against all comers, by virtue of occasionally producing someone totally batshit insane.”

When my friend mentioned “tilting and windmills” I also thought of Quixote’s story from the character’s own perspective. To others, he seems simply to be having a mental health problem–and that is part of the truth, as the book makes clear. But the deeper, more complicated part is that Quixote is attempting to live by the rules of a vanished, and perhaps always fictional world, a world characterized by honor, nobility, and bravery such as most people now ignore. He is not so much fighting against windmills as fighting for the proposition that there is something worth fighting for, that a man on a horse and with a sense of honor can make a difference in the world.

In the actual book, that fight is a losing proposition. Quixote’s attempts to be a hero all backfire, he helps nobody, and ultimately he regains his sanity and disavows all interest in the romantic stories that used to fascinate him. It is Randall Monroe’s contention, however, that crazy Don Quixote is still out there somehow, and that there will come a time in which we need him.

When we need precisely someone who is crazy enough to believe that he or she can make a difference, despite all evidence to the contrary.

Is the real question, then, how do we maintain ourselves as the right sort of “batshit insane”?

Some Provisional Answers

I’m hardly an expert on how to solve the world’s problems. There are days I can barely manage to clean the cat box. I’d be much more comfortable if I could have Googled up some DIY tips on how to fight the good fight, recommended by a successful activist with a background in psychology besides. But that didn’t happen. So, instead I’m presenting a couple of ideas of my own. After all, I’m going to be forty next week. I figure that after forty years (less one week) on this planet, I’ve learned a few things worth sharing.

1. You Can Only Do What You Can Do

A primary struggle for me is finding myself mysteriously unable to do things. I mean I intend to do it, I plan to do it, I mean to do it, and I don’t. “It” could be anything from losing weight to cleaning the toilet, but the most relevant example is the expansion of this site that I began soon after the election and have not yet completed. Why not?

I’ve tried on a lot of explanations, mostly revolving around quirks of my brain that really do make a lot of things harder for me, but none of those explanations suggested a solution. I suspect I’ve simply been engaging in my own version of what my mother does–calling herself lazy when she finds she can’t work more than anyone humanly could (she’s retired now, but still busy with four grandkids and a big house and yard, plus volunteer commitments). Both of us are under the persistent delusion that we have super-powers, and we set goals and priorities for ourselves accordingly.

I mean, here I am, working as a free-lance writer to pay the bills, plus maintaining three unpaid blogs and writing multiple novels all at once, and I’m down on myself for not also building this site into a major online resource for activists?

Maybe if I sat down and made an honest assessment of what I can do, and then re-prioritized, I’d be more successful at meeting my goals.

I’m not just talking about time management, here. I’m talking about energy. I’m talking about money. I’m talking about resilience in the face of stress. I’m talking about physical and mental health. I’m talking about ability, which, yes, does vary. All of this varies, from person to person and from day to day, often for reasons we do not and cannot know. To some extent we may be able to change our reality–I may be able to do things tomorrow that I can’t do today–but we can’t just wish it away.

If you only have ten minutes a day to devote to saving the world, then accept that and make your ten minutes count. Develop a plan you can actually enact.

2.Don’t Ask Whether You Can Do It–Ask How

I realize this point and the previous one look like contradictions, but I’m actually addressing two different aspects of “can.” There is choosing an achievable goal, and there is choosing a workable method.

For many years I confused the two. When I despaired of achieving something and people told me to believe in myself, I thought they meant I should make like the Little Engine That Could and motivate myself to the top. And that just made me feel worse, because while strong motivation can indeed unlock hither-to un-guessed-at possibility, I knew that real limitations exist also. Sometimes, even the Little Engine can’t.

Maybe that’s what they did mean–the idea that attitude is everything is a very common fallacy, and it results in people not only feeling terrible for not being good enough, but also torturing themselves with the thought that somehow they must not have wanted it badly enough.

But eventually somebody nudged me into realizing that there is a better way to think about goals; don’t ask whether the goal is attainable, assume that it is–then ask what method is workable.

Maybe the Little Engine can take a different way up the mountain.

There is no logical reason whatever to waste time and energy wondering whether we can still prevent climate change disaster. We know that this goal is worth everything we can throw at it, and that if we are to succeed, we must throw everything at it. We will get up that hill or we will die trying, because the alternative is to die without trying and that is worse.

The real question is how are we going to try getting up that hill?

3. Just Pick Something

Ok, but how are we going to attack that hill? Let’s be honest; there are days when each of us thinks we may be facing a no-win scenario, here. And when you believe that you’ll fail no matter what you do, how do you pick a thing to try to do anyway?

I have lots of experience with this conundrum, because I have a really hard time making seemingly arbitrary choices. There are days I do no housework at all because I can’t decide whether to clean the kitchen or the bathroom first. Based on my extensive experience, I can offer two suggestions:

  1. Pick something. If it doesn’t matter which you pick, then you can’t pick wrong.
  2. Once you pick, do something to make it seem less arbitrary, like investing money in your choice, or commiting to a friend you’ll stick with it.

4. The World Usually Doesn’t End

This one’s pretty simple. Yes, it seems plausible that everything we hold dear is about to be destroyed, especially this week, as the leaders of two nuclear-armed nations engage in what might even charitably be termed a pissing contest. But the end of everything has seemed plausible before and the world didn’t end. It usually doesn’t.

5. Don’t Dis Despair

Another friend of mine insists that despair is a useful state, not to be resisted. I don’t really understand this. I trust him to be wise, however.

I do know that temporarily giving into despair can be useful if only in that it allows a rest from the work of resisting despair. Rage, cry, curl up in a fetal position, and then pick yourself back up and get on with things again. I also know that giving up on one thing can be the first step to trying something else–a different, more workable method, perhaps.

How to…?

So, how to keep it together in the face of climate change, or at least fall apart in a useful way? I’m not entirely sure. I haven’t found anyone who can tell me. But at least part of the solution, in my experience, involves the following:

  1. Honor your own situational and personal limits
  2. Choose ambitious, pie-in-the-sky goals and practical means of reaching those goals
  3. If no course of action looks better than any other, choose randomly
  4. No matter how bad things look, remember the world usually doesn’t end
  5. And if you do get caught up in despair, give in to it occasionally–you might find something useful down there in that pit.

That’s what I’ve got. Let’s see how it works.

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Giving Thanks

Here is my Thanksgiving post. I wrote it several years ago, but 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? Discrediting us by saying that we’ll even link climate change to Thanksgiving? The truth, of course, is that of course anything in human life can be linked to climate change, because everything we experience depends on climate somehow. It’s in the air we breathe, the water we drink, the wind that may be gentle or catastrophic as occasion allows. Climate is already everywhere, and as it changes, so must everything else.

We “warmists” didn’t make that pat up. It’s just physics.

But yes, tis the season to write holiday-themed posts. 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 how to talk 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 table. But gratitude is fundamentally a reaction, not an action–it is very difficult to be grateful without something to be grateful for. At Thanksgiving we revel in abundance in order to remind ourselves of everything we have to be grateful for.

What is abundance? An online dictionary provides the definition “a large amount of something,” but that’s not quite it. “Abundance of dirty dishes” sounds, at best, sarcastic, if not outright ludicrous. And while there might indeed be a large amount of sand in the Sahara, few people would describe it as a land of abundant sand, because, really, who cares how much sand it has?

To really count as abundant, something must be a) what we want, and b) what we aren’t worried of running out of.

The Thanksgiving table qualifies. You can eat as much as you want, no holds barred, and there will be left-overs. The Thanksgiving table is not infinite, it is not literally inexhaustible, but it has an almost magical quality of feeling that way. It is precisely that illusion that allows food to symbolize all the other good things in our lives, everything for which we might be grateful.

Of course, there is no such thing as a truly 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 that gives 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. Fishing fleets use ever more powerful technology to find and capture every last fish. Ever-deepening wells chase falling water tables. Oil companies prospect in nearly inaccessible areas that would have been too expensive to bother with a generation ago. For the most part, we humans aren’t going without, yet–hunger is usually a distribution problem, not a supply problem; there are more overweight than underweight humans right now. But already the world is warping under the pressure of our need.

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, diversity, and stability.

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. They are about abundance–about the way the illusion of inexhaustibility makes us feel. 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 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.

We can do the same thing as a species. We have to find a way to live within our ecological means–the first step is to get off fossil fuel–but we can 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, and thus achieve a 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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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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The Fault Lies Not in Our Stars

I recently happened upon an article about a prediction that today would see massive earthquakes caused by a planetary alignment. Apparently, Nostradamus predicted something of the sort as well. The author (quite correctly) explained that the movement of other planets does not and cannot cause earthquakes–he quoted a “contrary view” (contrary to the earthquake prediction) that the gravitational influence of the moon is much greater than that of the other planets, and that because its orbit is elliptical, the moon’s gravitational influence on us varies every month. Since we do not get massive earthquakes as the moon moves around, there is no way the other planets could cause earthquakes.

Well and good.

But the author went on to state that in his “opinion,” the sun has a stronger effect on earthquakes than other planets or the moon. And that is a very odd word to use in this context–“opinion.”

I do not mean to make fun of this man, or the several people who commented on the article. They are all obviously thinking carefully about important issues, and they all apparently care about the truth, reject fear-mongering, and support critical thinking about what they read and hear. What they’re not doing, though, is thinking scientifically. Lots of people don’t think scientifically–I’m willing to bet that even most scientists don’t think scientifically all of the time. There are, in fact, some things science is no good for. But I’ve encountered a lot of misunderstandings about what science actually is and these misunderstandings make public discussion of issues like global warming much harder.

Science is a process.

It is not a world view. There is no reason, for example, that telepathy is not scientific. It’s true that science has found no evidence confirming the existence of telepathy, and it seems unlikely at this point that it ever will–but it has found evidence that some animals can sense electrical signals from the muscles of other animals, which sounds at least as fantastic, if you think about it. The history of science is full of things that intelligent, reasonable people considered impossible turning out to be true. World views, lists of things understood to be true or not true, possible or impossible, are the result of science, or of the other processes humans have developed for understanding our world. It’s not what a person thinks that makes him or her a scientist, but how.

The how of science is that you start with verifiable facts, look for patterns in those facts, and then go look for more facts that either confirm or refute the patterns. You keep track of the facts you verified and the patterns you noticed and how they were either confirmed or refuted.

My favorite example involves baseball.

Randall Monroe, famous among nerds everywhere for the webcomic, xkcd, also has both a blog and a book called What If? in which he uses physics to answer frankly ridiculous questions. One such question was “what happens if you try to hit a baseball that is going 90% of the speed of light?” After deciding to ignore just why and how the hypothetical baseball accelerated, Mr. Monroe explains that because air cannot move out of the way of an object going that fast, the atoms of the air and of the ball would actually undergo nuclear fusion, causing a massive explosion. Also, the batter would be considered “hit by pitch” and could advance to first base, except for being dead.

Mr. Monroe acknowledges that he’s not sure this is exactly what would happen, and obviously the experiment cannot be performed. But the point is that he did not just think up a scenario that seemed plausible to him–he used what we know of physics to make an educated guess. He could, if he wanted to, defend his guess by citing his sources and constructing an extended “if-then” argument stretching all the way back to actual observations of the behavior of air molecules and subatomic particles. Other physicists could then either confirm or refute the plausibility of his guess by constructing arguments of their own. So we might not know for sure what would happen to a baseball pitched at 90% of the speed of light, we can use reason and experience to talk about what might happen with some confidence.

It’s worth noting that an experiment on a similar scale of outlandishness has been tried–when the first nuclear bomb was detonated, obviously no one has any experience with that type of explosion. Yet the physicists responsible for the bomb predicted fairly accurately what would happen–that the thing would explode, that it would explode upon deliberate detonation and not before or after, and that the observation bunker and the people inside it would not be destroyed in the process. That is an amazing degree of predictive power.

The simplicity of the scientific process means that arguments about science work differently than arguments about anything else (at least in principle–scientists are human beings, and as such are just as capable of unexamined bias and threatened egos as anybody else). You simply find out what other people have observed and what theories about those observed phenomena have been supported, and construct a reasoned argument, the same way you might build a tower of blocks. Your opponent in debate then either offers competing observations and theories or demonstrates that you made a mistake somewhere.

There is no reason why a scientist should ever qualify a professional statement with “in my opinion,” or “I feel that….” As a teacher of mine once said, we don’t care how you feel.

We don’t care what your opinion is, does the sun actually cause earthquakes? Has anybody checked? How do you go about finding out if the sun does cause earthquakes? (What you do is keep track of changes in solar behavior and see if any of the things the sun does or any changes in the relationship between the sun and the earth correlates consistently with changes in earthquake behavior–and yes, it has been done, and no, No, the sun does not cause earthquakes).

More importantly, is the earth warming up? Do certain gasses trap heat in the atmosphere? Are human beings increasing concentrations of those gasses to the point that it is changing the climate? Has anybody checked? How do you find out?

Yes, of course, lots of people have checked, and yes anthropogenic climate change is quite real.

And yet the public discourse on the matter proceeds, like that little online discussion I found about earthquakes and astrology, by statements of opinion and belief, and by confident appeals to various emotionally potent tropes (conspiracy, for example–somehow, the idea that some powerful organization is suppressing information makes an assertion seem more believable). And none of that is necessary. A climate scientist does not have to be likeable, popular, possessed of the same political and cultural affiliations as you, or able to argue well in the public sphere in order to be right. All he or she has to do is construct a sound connection between observation and prediction. And you can always check on the validity of that connection yourself, if you want to (you may have to get a science degree or its equivalent, but you are free to do so. The information is not secret).

It’s worth noting that the scientific process is the best means of figuring out how things work that human beings have ever come up with. There are issues it is no good for (like “what is the meaning of life” and “how do I be a good friend right now?”) but if you can read these words, then you have proof that science works.

So, let’s not allow anyone to drag the discussion into the realm of opinion, ok?