Tag Archives: climate change

The Sense of an Endling

Elena Passarello / Animals Strike Curious Poses / Sarabande Books / March 2017 / 12 minutes (3,100 words)

Illustrations from “The Last Menagerie” by Nicole Antebi.

The last Woolly Mammoth died on an island now called Wrangel, which broke from the mainland twelve thousand years ago. They inhabited it for at least eight millennia, slowly inbreeding themselves into extinction. Even as humans developed their civilizations, the mammoths remained, isolated but relatively safe. While the Akkadian king conquered Mesopotamia and the first settlements began at Troy, the final mammoth was still here on Earth, wandering an Arctic island alone.

The last female aurochs died of old age in the Jaktorów Forest in 1627. When the male perished the year before, its horn was hollowed, capped in gold, and used as a hunting bugle by the king of Poland.

The last pair of great auks had hidden themselves on a huge rock in the northern Atlantic. In 1844, a trio of Icelandic bounty hunters found them in a crag, incubating an egg. Two of the hunters strangled the adults to get to the egg, and the third accidentally crushed its shell under his boot.

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Oh, Give Me a Home Where the Woolly Mammoths Roam

Ross Andersen’s Atlantic profile of Nikita Zimov and his quest to re-create a Pleistocene ecosystem that will slow the thaw of Arctic permafrost, ultimately slowing global warming — it’s like Jurassic Park, but with a basis in science and no man-eating dinosaurs. Impressive and captivating, it’s a piece worth reading, not least for a fascinating explanation of how grasses went from being slimy ocean plants to covering huge swaths of the planet.

For the vast majority of the Earth’s 4.5 billion spins around the sun, its exposed, rocky surfaces lay barren. Plants changed that. Born in the seas like us, they knocked against the planet’s shores for eons. They army-crawled onto the continents, anchored themselves down, and began testing new body plans, performing, in the process, a series of vast experiments on the Earth’s surface. They pushed whole forests of woody stems into the sky to stretch their light-drinking leaves closer to the sun. They learned how to lure pollinators by unfurling perfumed blooms in every color of the rainbow. And nearly 70 million years ago, they began testing a new form that crept out from the shadowy edges of the forest and began spreading a green carpet of solar panel across the Earth.

For tens of millions of years, grasses waged a global land war against forests. According to some scientists, they succeeded by making themselves easy to eat. Unlike other plants, many grasses don’t expend energy on poisons, or thorns, or other herbivore-deterring technologies. By allowing themselves to be eaten, they partner with their own grazers to enhance their ecosystem’s nutrient flows.

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The End of (Almost) Everything and (Almost) Everyone

smokestacks and air pollution

Writing in The Baffler, Laurie Penny explores what it will mean for the civilization to collapse slowly, because of climate change, rather than in a single nuclear bang.

For anyone who grew up in the Cold War, the apocalypse was a simple yes-no question: either it was coming, or it wasn’t. Many people I know who grew up before the end of the nuclear arms race describe this as oddly freeing: there was the sense that since the future might explode at any point, it was not worth the effort of planning. Climate change is  species collapse by a thousand cuts. There will be no definite moment can say that yes, today we are fucked, and yesterday we were unfucked. Instead the fuckery increases incrementally year on year, until this is the way the world ends: not with a bang, not with a bonfire, but with the slow and savage confiscation of every little thing that made you human, starting with hope.

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When Boredom Yields Treasure: The Hermit Who Inadvertently Shaped Climate-Change Science

He also understood that the male broad-tailed hummingbird’s wings make a whistling sound, and indeed Barr had tracked the bird’s return each spring. Together with Barr’s weather and snow melt, Inouye was able to show how climate change’s impact on a single flower might mean the end of broad-tailed hummingbird migration in the region.

The hummingbird relies on nectar from the glacier lily—so much so that it synced its migration to arrive in Gothic just before it blooms. To adjust to warmer springs, however, the lily now flowers 17 days earlier than it did four decades ago. In two more decades it’s likely the broad-tailed hummingbird will completely miss the glacier lily’s nectar. This widening seasonal imbalance is called phenological mismatch, and has become a major concern as scientists learn more about climate change. In Gothic, this will impact not just broad-tailed hummingbirds, but also butterflies, bees, hibernating mammals, and the animals that depend on all those animals. These same dynamics will play out across the Rocky Mountains, and similar alpine ecosystems across the world.

At The Atlantic, J. Weston Phippen reports on Billy Barr, a man who moved into a remote part of the Rocky Mountains in search of solitude over 40 years ago. To avoid boredom, he documented snow levels, animal sightings, and the date flowers first bloomed. “…collectively his work has become some of the most significant indication that climate change is rearranging mountain ecosystems more dramatically and quickly than anyone imagined.”

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The Changing Face of Reindeer Herding

Mr Ingold wrote about the importance of the word talo. Roughly translated, it means house. But it also has a deeper meaning. When Finnish herders are raised in a talo, it is not simply that they grow up in one place. “A house,” explains Mr Ingold, “is a total establishment, an organic unity of place and people, cumulatively built up through the work of generations.” It is not something that can be shaken off. When Aarne says that herders are “born” to do it he is not being flippant. Like his father, he feels he had little choice. Nor does he regret that. Raisa explains that “this is what we want to do. There’s a richness to this wild way of life.”

That remains true even as threats from climate change, logging and other signs of expanding human footprints impinge on their vast emptiness. But throughout the centuries herders have adapted to changes wrought from outside. They have embraced GPS tracking, all-terrain vehicles (ATVs) and drones.

The Economist goes into the frigid north to examine how climate change and economics have endangered the centuries-old relationship between Finn and reindeer.

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Are We Too Late to Save Antarctica?

World leaders have converged in Paris this week for COP21, the United Nations conference meant to foster a global consensus on climate change. As is often the case with these events, it feels incredibly late. Back in 2008, Julia Whitty wrote in Mother Jones about her trip to Antarctica. Her reflections on the fragility of the landscape — from fast-melting icebergs to dying penguin colonies — feel eerily prophetic, with a layer of nostalgic patina already forming in the edges.

There’s talk aboard the Endeavour of climate change, including from a vocal contingent of naysayers quoting mythical studies. One woman repeatedly cites a fictional cluster of 19,000 denialistas hunkered down in German institutes of higher learning, until someone asks her to prove it. There are also a surprising number of middle grounders leaking equal parts confusion and skepticism about “this global warming business.” The two groups manage to exhibit all five stages of climate-change denial: There’s nothing happening; we don’t know why it’s happening; climate change is natural; climate change is not bad; climate change can’t be stopped. The true believers discover each other mostly through shared incredulous silence.

Yet all come together when we happen upon an ancient ice floe topped with a single sleeping emperor penguin. It’s a juvenile that has just completed its inconceivable genesis in the dark of the Antarctic winter, perched atop its father’s webbed feet, tucked into the brood pouch, enduring 100-knot winds and subzero temperatures. The young bird utters three soft braying calls as we approach, then stands. The motor drives on a hundred cameras whine. Everyone whispers to no one in particular, as all are joined by an invisible thread of respect woven into the collective consciousness by March of the Penguins. You can almost hear the Morgan Freeman narration hang in the air.

Directly ahead lies heavy pack ice, the dividing line between ships and penguins. We turn back, leaving the young bird to its solitude.

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Can We Sustain Our Coffee Habit?

[Dr. Stephen] Gliessman argues that these resilient coffee forests will be able to survive climate change. “It is the low elevation robusta variety of coffee and the coffee that is grown in large monoculture, full sun plantations (the bulk of the coffee traded on the open commodity market) that will not be resilient.” Single species plantations are more susceptible to disease and pests linked to climate change from lack of genetic diversity, and rising temperatures will make it impossible to grow even low-quality robusta at lower elevations.

“Some people say coffee will have to move up in elevation to cooler areas, but those areas are where some of the only remaining forest exists. In my opinion, with climate change, there will be added incentive for farmers to diversify their coffee plantings … so that coffee once again functions as the shade loving, interior forest shrub species it originated as in the mountains of Ethiopia.”

Leif Haven writing at Eater about coffee’s environmental footprint and long-term viability on a warming planet.

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National Audubon Society v. Jonathan Franzen

It’s not clear what the Audubon Society did to piss off Jonathan Franzen. But the Audubon that emerges from Franzen’s essay is a band of once-scrappy conservationists who have grown content to peddle squeaky plush toys and holiday cards; we’ve seized on climate change, apparently, in a last grab at relevance.

In order to gin up that caricature, however, Franzen, who has no journalism experience that I know of, was forced to ignore or actively distort a great deal of inconvenient truth. In fact, the very examples he cites in his piece of the kind of retail, grassroots protections we should be offering to birds (and the very kind that would presumably be subsumed in a wave of climate neurosis) were spearheaded by . . . Audubon.

—From “Friends Like These,” a short response by Mark Jannot at the National Audubon Society to Jonathan Franzen’s New Yorker essay on the organization’s efforts to have bird-safe glass installed at the new Vikings stadium, and climate change’s effects on conservation efforts.

Is ‘Garden City’ Urbanism the Answer?

Could garden cities help fix these problems? Advocates think so. They argue that garden cities can deliver the humane, sustainable, equitable communities that people want and the planet needs, by slashing emissions, preserving green space, and encouraging neighborly interaction.

Today, garden-city projects are popping up from England to India to Cambodia. In particular, China, where construction rates have exploded since the early 2000s, has become a petri dish for garden cities. Among several planned communities is Heart of Lake, designed by Stern’s firm and currently being built on an island in Xiamen. “We are being asked to do interpretations of it in other Chinese cities,” Stern says.

But many, if not most, of these new garden cities and suburbs will look nothing like Forest Hills Gardens. They will be bigger, taller, and denser. Heart of Lake, for instance, will pack 2 million square feet of construction into a mere 25 acres and include high-rise apartments. It’s also unclear that these projects will adhere to core garden-city values, including community ownership and the mixing of social classes. What’s more, there is little data to prove definitively that garden cities are in fact the right solution for urban ills; firm figures on their environmental, social, and other impacts are hard to come by when no two projects look alike.

Amanda Kolson Hurley writing for Foreign Policy about the history of ‘garden cities,’ and their unlikely resurgence.

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Image: Wikimedia Commons

Climate Change and the Language of Mourning

There is the scientific and ideological language for what is happening to the weather, but there are hardly any intimate words. Is that surprising? People in mourning tend to use euphemism; likewise the guilty and ashamed. The most melancholy of all the euphemisms: “The new normal.” “It’s the new normal,” I think, as a beloved pear tree, half-drowned, loses its grip on the earth and falls over. The train line to Cornwall washes away—the new normal. We can’t even say the word “abnormal” to each other out loud: it reminds us of what came before. Better to forget what once was normal, the way season followed season, with a temperate charm only the poets appreciated.

What “used to be” is painful to remember. Forcing the spike of an unlit firework into the cold, dry ground. Admiring the frost on the holly berries, en route to school. Taking a long, restorative walk on Boxing Day in the winter glare. Whole football pitches crunching underfoot. A bit of sun on Pancake Day; a little more for the Grand National. Chilly April showers, Wimbledon warmth. July weddings that could trust in fine weather. The distinct possibility of a Glastonbury sunburn. At least, we say to each other, at least August is still reliably ablaze—in Cornwall if not at carnival. And it’s nice that the Scots can take a little more heat with them when they pack up and leave.

—Zadie Smith, writing about the language of climate change, the “new normal,” and all that we have lost in The New York Review of Books (subscribers only).

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