Tag Archives: climate change

Despair All Ye Who Enter Into the Climate Change Fray

A New York Magazine story on climate change is making the rounds on the internet, frequently being shared by people characterizing it as a “terrifying” “must-read.” “It is, I promise, worse than you think,” writes David Wallace-Wells, who goes on to tell his readers that even the most anxious among them are unaware of the terrors that are possible “even within the lifetime of a teenager today.”

What many readers seem to be overlooking is how frequently words like “may” appear in the text of Wallace-Wells’ article. “May” is in there seven times; “suggest” six times, “possible” and its variants a few more. Wallace-Wells is, of course, referencing the positions of scientists, whom he says have become extra cautious due to “climate denialism,” steering the public away from “speculative warnings” that could be debunked by future scientific progress, weakening their own case and giving weight to their opponents.

As Jack El-Hai wrote for Longreads in April of this year, science editor Peter Gwynne is still dogged by an article he wrote for Newsweek more than 40 years ago, “The Cooling World,” which predicted — wrongly, as it turns out — another Ice Age. The prediction at the time was supported by evidence, he claimed, that was mounting so quickly, “meteorologists are hard-pressed to keep up with it.” The evidence Gwynne relied on has since been disproved — a phenomenon not uncommon a field as relatively young as climate study. As El-Hai noted:

The study of the world’s climate was still primitive in the 1970s. Few meteorological scientists then knew how to interpret trending temperature information, and the cause of climate changes was mysterious. The information that climate researchers had collected was incomplete and easy to misread. The biosciences have advanced by huge leaps since then, and many more scientists now study the climate.

Gwynne’s article was used for decades as fodder by those who trade in what Wallace-Wells dubs “climate denialisms,” showing how those determined not to believe in a certain scientific finding can benefit from the natural trial-and-error of most scientific inquiry.

After Wallace-Wells’s piece was published, climate scientist Michael E. Mann took to Facebook to criticize his story. (He also claimed Wallace-Wells interviewed but didn’t quote or mention him). Mann is equally critical of “doomist framing” and “those who understate the risks” of climate change, and argues that Wallace-Wells’ article includes “extraordinary claims” without “extraordinary evidence” to back it up.

About the risk of catastrophic methane released by melting permafrost, for example, Mann says the science “is much more nuanced and doesn’t support the notion of a game-changing, planet-melting methane bomb. It is unclear that much of this frozen methane can be readily mobilized by projected warming.”

Mann also highlights Wallace-Wells’ referencing of “satellite data showing the globe warming, since 1998, more than twice as fast as scientists had thought.”

“That’s just not true,” writes Mann. “The study in question simply showed that one particular satellite temperature dataset that had tended to show less warming that the other datasets, has now been brought in line with the other temperature data after some problems with that dataset were dealt with… The warming of the globe is pretty much progressing as models predicted… which is bad enough.”

Mann’s position is that the evidence supporting the notion that climate change is “a serious problem that we must contend with now” is overwhelming enough without a doomsday narrative that he fears has a “paralyzing” effect and makes people feel hopeless, potentially deterring efforts to mitigate the human-caused harm.

There’s an argument to be made in defense of Wallace-Wells’ meltdown-style writing, however. As Atlas Obscura staff writer Sarah Laskow noted on Twitter, the exploration on which he embarks is hardly novel — New Yorker writer Elizabeth Kolbert won a Pulitzer this year for a book on the topic, The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History. Yet, Wallace-Wells’ story got readers’ attention in a way that seemed to suggest it was news they’d never encountered before.

For scientists like Mann, it’s true that the evidence easily at our fingertips is compelling enough to warrant immediate mitigating efforts. But not everyone is a scientist like Mann. As El-Hai noted in his piece on Gwynne’s disproved Newsweek article, a U.S. Senator held up a snowball on the Senate floor in 2015 as part of an argument that global warming isn’t real. Today, Antarctica is poised to shed one of the largest icebergs ever recorded, while the Trump administration is abandoning international climate agreements, undoing dozens of environmental regulations dealing with everything from methane to grizzly bears to chemical spills and using the agency meant to protect the environment to launch a program challenging climate science. In light of all that, it’s just as easy to sympathize with Mann’s concern about making people feel so hopeless they believe there’s nothing left to be done, as it is hard to blame Wallace-Wells for despairing.

A Village Falls into the Sea

Scientists study ice on the Chukchi Sea

In the middle of the map, climate change can feel like an abstraction. Is a warmer, wetter summer an anomaly in the weather pattern, or part of a greater change? Is this an early heat wave just a seasonal spike?

At the edges of the map though, the impact is very real. Solid ground is literally disappearing. At Sierra, Rachel Rivera visits Shishmaref, an island village north of Nome, Alaska, and witnesses the effect that global warming — and the resulting rising sea level — has had on this remote Native Alaskan settlement.

Long accustomed to living under the most extreme weather conditions, Inupiaq communities on Alaska’s Arctic coast are facing their toughest challenge yet. The Arctic is warming twice as fast as the rest of the planet. Average air temperatures are more than 6°F warmer than they were at the beginning of the 20th century, and the lack of reflective snow is causing both land and sea to absorb more solar heat. The sea ice, critical to the creatures that sustain human life here, is melting. Sea ice also serves as a natural buffer, shielding coastal communities from the direct impact of storms. Recently, Shishmaref has been subject to stronger storm surges and increased flooding. A storm in 2013 eroded 50 feet of the beach overnight—including part of the road next to the airstrip, the only way out if the village should have to evacuate.

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Rising Up Against Climate Change: A Reading List

Last Friday, I had the once-in-a-gosh-darn-lifetime opportunity to see Bill Nye—yes, the Science Guy himself—in a darkened auditorium of 1,200 people fist-pumping to his theme song and cheering for facts. He spent a significant chunk of the evening discussing climate change denial, the connection between climate change and terrorism, Donald Trump’s plan to slash funding for scientific organizations and initiatives, and the viability of Solutions Project. 

“Article I, Section 8 of the Constitution makes reference to the progress of science and the useful arts,” Nye said. “It doesn’t say for the repression of science. It doesn’t say ignoring the facts discovered by the means of science.” He’s optimistic about our future and disturbed by what he call’s the United States’ “can’t-do attitude.” His number one piece of advice for advocating for climate change awareness? “Talk about it.” So that’s what I’m doing in this week’s reading list.

1. “The Most Important Thing We Can Do to Fight Climate Change is Try.” (Rebecca Solnit, The Nation, March 2015)

Author and activist Rebecca Solnit urges us to commit to love and hope, not despair, in spite of our terrifying present:

“You have to be willing to imagine a world in which we recognize that what we’re called upon to do is not necessarily to sacrifice; instead, it’s often to abandon what impoverishes and trivializes our lives: the frenzy to produce and consume in a landscape of insecurity about our individual and collective futures.”

2. “Is it O.K. to Tinker With the Environment to Fight Climate Change?” (Jon Gertner, The New York Times Magazine, April 2017)

Picture this:

Ten Gulfstream jets, outfitted with special engines that allow them to fly safely around the stratosphere at an altitude of 70,000 feet, take off from a runway near the Equator. Their cargo includes thousands of pounds of a chemical compound — liquid sulfur, let’s suppose—that can be sprayed as a gas from the aircraft. It is not a one-time event; the flights take place throughout the year, dispersing a load that amounts to 25,000 tons. If things go right, the gas converts to an aerosol of particles that remain aloft and scatter sunlight for two years. The payoff? A slowing of the earth’s warming—for as long as the Gulfstream flights continue.

Solar geoengineering used to be akin to fringe science, perceived as weird or dangerous. David Keith, head of Harvard University’s Solar Geoengineering Research Program, remains cautiously optimistic about the potential of this fascinating field.

3. “A Reflection of the Current Crisis in California.” (David Goodrich, Climate Science & Policy Watch, September 2015)

David Goodrich, former Director of the United National Global Climate Observing System, is the author of A Hole in the Wind: A Climate Scientist’s Bicycle Journey Across the United States. This excerpt tracks Goodrich’s trek out West, observing increased wildfires, for which “climate change is the background music.”

4. “The Least Convenient Truth: Part I—Climate Change and White Supremacy.” (Bani Amor, Bitch, December 2016)

“Fuck inclusivity. If people who have had their land stolen from them and people who were stolen from their lands are not considered key in the economic management of their own environments, then solutions to their specific climate struggles will not be effective; they won’t address the problems at their roots. And when it comes to disaster preparedness for Black and brown people in coastal regions, staying alive is a matter of knowing their roots.”

Further reading:

The Conservative Movement to Get the GOP on Board With Global Warming

That’s not how all hunters approach climate change. Randy Newberg, a hunter and advocate for hunting on public lands, has no qualms about acknowledging the problem. “If you spend as much time in the hills as I do, I don’t know how you could deny that climate is changing,” he says. Deniers exist, “but honestly, I call them the flat-Earth society,” he adds. Many hunters see climate change as a serious threat to the wildlife and public lands they want to protect for future generations. That’s what’s been driving the conservation movement for decades in the US, and it should not be a liberal or a conservative issues, says Newberg, who identifies as an Independent. “Maybe I’m naive and too idealistic for today’s political world,” he says, “but I struggle to understand how is it that clean air and clean water and productive lands are a partisan issue. To me, they’re an American issue.”

For now, the White House hasn’t been very responsive, but it might be just too early to tell, says Bozmoski. Some proposals coming out of Washington — like the carbon tax and the climate change resolution — seem to bode well. “It really stokes our optimism on the Eco Right, that our family has gotten bigger and more powerful,” Bozmoski says. At the same time, he says, it will take time for Republicans to come together and put forward a climate change policy — they will need to get over the divisions within their own party and develop an actual policy. That’s what groups like republicEn are there for, Bozmoski says. And he has high hopes. “The prospects for a coalition of lawmakers moving forward with a solution is better now than it has been in any point since 2010,” Bozmoski says. “There’s no more pussyfooting around climate change out of fear.”

At The Verge, Alessandra Potenza describes conservatives, young and old, who are working to rally Republican voters around the issue of global warming in a way that gets GOP policy makers to finally listen. They’re doing this on multiple fronts, addressing fellow conservatives’ concern for national security, economics, hunting and fishing, and trying to get them on the right side of history.

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In 1975, Newsweek Predicted A New Ice Age. We’re Still Living with the Consequences.

Antarctica

Jack El-Hai | Longreads | April 2017 | 6 minutes (1,500 words)

Last year was the hottest on record for the third consecutive pass of the calendar. Glaciers and polar ice melt, plant and animal species go extinct at a rapid rate, and sea levels rise. Clearly the consequences of climate change are immense.

Does anyone out there think we’re at the dawn of a new ice age?

If we had asked that question just 40 years ago, an astonishing number of people — including some climatologists — would have answered yes. On April 28, 1975, Newsweek published a provocative article, “The Cooling World,” in which writer and science editor Peter Gwynne described a significant chilling of the world’s climate, with evidence accumulating “so massively that meteorologists are hard-pressed to keep up with it.” He raised the possibility of shorter growing seasons and poor crop yields, famine, and shipping lanes blocked by ice, perhaps to begin as soon as the mid-1980s. Meteorologists, he wrote, were “almost unanimous” in the opinion that our planet was getting colder. Over the years that followed, Gwynne’s article became one of the most-cited stories in Newsweek’s history. Read more…

Kim Stanley Robinson’s Cheerful Novel of Climate Change

Kim Stanley Robinson is the rare sci-fi novelist that deals in utopias, rather than dystopias—government scientists are often the heroes of his novels, and their quick thinking and bureaucratic efficiency often save the day.

His latest book, New York 2140, takes place not at the moment of catastrophe—in the year 2100, sea levels rise and flood New York so that a majority of the city is 50 feet underwater—but 40 years later, as most city-dwellers do what they’ve always done, and simply gotten along with it. At New York Magazine, Robinson talks with Jake Swearingen about why he made a novel about climate change with a positive outlook.

I was expecting this very dystopian, grim novel. But it’s remarkably cheerful! It’s like one of Dickens’s happier novels, or Les Misérables where it’s this exploration of a city from the sewer system up, through all these different characters.

I thought of the book eventually as a comedy of coping, and to do that I picked a time, or perhaps 40 years after the disaster itself. If it was set in the midst of the catastrophic flood in 2100, the disaster would have dominated that work. It would not have been the comedy of coping — it would have been the disaster of refugee creation.

But I think, at some point, science fiction has to imagine the people who come after, when the situation will be natural, whatever it is. If that natural situation that they’re coping with is that new part of Manhattan that resembles Venice, there will be good parts to that as well as bad parts. There will be beautiful parts as well as moldy, horrible parts. So I wanted to convey that as part of the vibe of this novel.

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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 Mammoths 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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