Year 4, Month 11, Day 30: Yep Rack, Doodli-doo-dah!

The Seattle Times is one of many papers reporting on Christiana Figueres’ words to coal producers:

WARSAW, Poland — In a speech Monday in Warsaw, the United Nations’ top officer on climate change warned coal-industry executives that much of the world’s coal will need to be left in the ground if international climate goals are to be met.

Christiana Figueres, executive secretary of the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change, spoke to industry leaders at the World Coal Summit, which the Polish government called somewhat incongruously to run at the same time as an important U.N. climate conference led by Figueres.

Poland relies on coal for nearly 90 percent of its electricity, and the government has upset the European mainstream by spurning efforts to slow the use of the fuel.

Figueres told the coal executives that they were putting the global climate and their shareholders at a “business continuation risk” by failing to support the search for alternative methods of producing energy.

So I dug out the “oldest thing in the world” letter, gave it a few tweaks, and sent it on its merry way. November 19:

For a moment, ignore the terrifying mathematics of climate change, and contemplate the mind-bending miracle manifested in the fossil fuels we burn so casually. Every therm from these sources is long-preserved sunlight from eons before humans emerged on Earth. Half a billion years ago, the Carboniferous era’s trees grew tall on the the sun’s light before they fell to the slowly accumulating forest floor, where over millions of years they gradually turned into oil and coal.

People everywhere regard the very old with reverence. Ancient documents, buildings hallowed by the passage of centuries, or songs transmitted through countless human generations — all these are rightly understood as reminders of our species’ long and inspiring saga. So how can we justify the casual consumption of sunlight a thousand times older than humanity?

Irresponsibly burning coal is not just an environmental catastrophe. It’s a grave insult to the antiquity of our planet.

Warren Senders

Year 4, Month 7, Day 6: Well, You Needn’t

The Times-Colonist (B.C., Canada) talks about “adaptation”:

Lemons are growing in North Saanich, and they are just a taste of some of the new crops that are popping up in B.C. as the temperature gets warmer. As average temperatures go up, farmers and gardeners are trying species that are usually found in subtropical or Mediterranean countries.

At Fruit Trees and More Nursery in North Saanich, Bob Duncan gets hundreds of lemons from his tree. Over on the Lower Mainland, Art Knapp nurseries have seen a 20 per cent increase in sales of species like olives and figs.

Global warming is often debated in the big picture, but the details of gradual changes around us bring the debate down to earth. The devastating march of the pine beetle is one effect of warmer temperatures that is clearly visible across vast areas of B.C.’s forests. New crops close to home are another sign of the change.

The Pacific Climate Impacts Consortium expects that by the 2020s, the mean temperature in the capital region will rise by .9 degrees Celsius. That will increase the median number of frost-free days by eight. More than a week of extra frost-free days is a big difference.

Across the province, the mean temperature is predicted to rise by a full degree and frost-free days to rise by 10.

Over the longer term, by the 2080s, temperatures in the capital region are predicted to rise by 2.5 degrees and frost-free days by 20.

A climate like that opens new possibilities for crops that were once inconceivable here.

Pollyannas. June 20:

“Adaptation” to climate change sounds pretty inviting. After all, who wouldn’t like a longer gardening season? But from a larger perspective, the consequences of a runaway greenhouse effect are hardly benign. Countless species are finding their habitats changing far faster than evolutionary processes — which almost invariably means extinction. And when one life-form vanishes, the others which depend on it will find their survival compromised as well.

Our current economic system is predicated on the commodification of every available resource: fuel, food, water, and even air (the wealthy breathe freely, while the poor live downwind of coal plants, refineries, and factories). While this allows us to enjoy strawberries in midwinter, it hides the crucial fact that any tear in the intricately woven fabric of earthly life ultimately affects the fate of us all. “Adaptation” all too often is a euphemism for something far simpler, quicker, and more final: dying.

Warren Senders

Year 4, Month 6, Day 19: How Come I Never Do…What I’m S’posed to Do?

The LA Times runs a good piece by Greenpeace’s James Turner. It’s worth reading the whole thing, but here’s a taste:

A friend recently returned from a camping trip in the Sierra Nevada. His eyes shone as he described the opalescent sky, the vitality of wildlife in spring and the fun he’d had playing with his two young daughters during the mellow evenings. It had been a really good trip, an experience to treasure, he said.

I casually asked how long it took to get there. “Oh, it wasn’t too bad,” he said, and then caught himself, as if he’d said something wrong. “But we took the minivan this time, which I suppose means we weren’t so in tune with nature after all.”

I felt slightly hurt. I am an environmentalist — I work for Greenpeace. Did he think that makes me some moral arbiter of fun, sternly passing judgment on those who ignore the perils of climate change to enjoy a weekend in the mountains?

Of course, it wasn’t really about me. What my friend expressed was climate guilt, a feeling that many of us who care about environmental issues experience every day. I am not immune. We feel guilty about driving cars and watching TV and turning on lights, as if that makes us personally responsible for this gigantic threat that looms over us.

Philosophy. Nuremberg. June 3:

It’s certainly true that oppressive feelings of personal and collective guilt are a deep burden — and one which conscientious environmentalists often shoulder, as James Turner notes. Such responses are all too common in the struggle against global climate change, a planet-wide problem for which any who benefit from the accomplishments of industrialization must bear some blame.

Membership in a technologically advanced culture conveys many advantages, including access to vast quantities of information and knowledge. The first warnings of the climate crisis were sounded in the 1950s, but since that time successive generations of politicians and citizens have elected to postpone grappling with the issue. It is not we who will determine our collective guilt, but our descendants.

We can absolve ourselves only by assuming ever-greater levels of responsibility: for our lifestyle choices, for our readiness to engage in public discussion of climate, and for the political choices we make.

Warren Senders

Year 4, Month 6, Day 13: Don’t Just Do Something…DO SOMETHING!

The Louisville Courier-Journal runs an opinion column from Eugene Robinson, which originally appeared in the WaPo, if memory serves me well. It’s good stuff:

WASHINGTON — President Obama should spend his remaining years in office making the United States part of the solution to climate change, not part of the problem. If Congress sticks to its policy of obstruction and willful ignorance, Obama should use his executive powers to the fullest extent. We are out of time.

With each breath, every person alive today experiences something unique in human history: an atmosphere containing more than 400 parts per million of carbon dioxide. This makes us special, I suppose, but not in a good way.

The truth is that 400 is just one of those round-number milestones that can be useful for grabbing people’s attention. What’s really important is that atmospheric carbon dioxide has increased by a stunning 43 percent since the beginning of the Industrial Revolution.

The only plausible cause of this rapid rise, from the scientific viewpoint, is the burning of fossil fuels to fill the energy needs of industrialized society. The only logical impact, according to those same scientists, is climate change. The only remaining question — depending on what humankind does right now — is whether the change ends up being manageable or catastrophic.

Yup. May 31:

Eugene Robinson has it precisely right in his opinion column of May 27. If our culture is to successfully address such pressing issues as human rights, economic justice, and the complex phenomena of terrorism, we require certain simple fundamentals: a resilient infrastructure, clean air to breathe, unpolluted and uninterrupted water, and food sufficient to our needs. The climate crisis threatens all of these things.

From the threads of a relatively stable and benign environment the great tapestry of our species’ achievement has been woven. Let the warp and woof of human civilization begin to crumble and the images carried on that tapestry will vanish utterly, with unimaginable speed. A resilient and interdependent ecology, the product of many thousands of years of evolution, can be destroyed in a few seconds by the uncaring blade of a bulldozer; a runaway greenhouse effect will work the same destruction on a planetary scale.

Climate change is not just AN issue. It’s THE issue.

Warren Senders

Year 4, Month 5, Day 24: Born A Poor Young Country Boy

Have you hugged a tree today? The Portland Press-Herald:

Unless people dramatically cut the amount of carbon dioxide they’re putting into the air and water through industry, farming, landfills and fossil fuel consumption, Maine’s largest manufacturing industry will be damaged in ways scientists can only begin to predict.

That’s the conclusion reached by experts who are studying how climate change is likely to affect Maine’s more than 18 million acres of forests.

The nation’s most heavily forested state, Maine is likely to be in for a rude awakening in forestry within the next 20 to 100 years, state specialists predict. Which trees will flourish, and where, will change — gradually over time — and imperceptibly at first to most observers.

Which trees might disappear — literally migrating to reach more congenial growing conditions — and what the survivors will need to protect them from an erratic climate and a host of predators are questions researchers are trying to probe, knowing how difficult such projections can be.

But the implications are huge. In Maine, forests translate into a lot of land, money and jobs.

It’s getting harder and harder for denialists to keep it up…not when there’s real money involved. May 12:

Humanity’s success and prosperity would have been unthinkable without the essentially benign climate which made agriculture possible, setting the stage for our civilization to develop into a complex and planet-wide web. We could not have become who we are without closely cooperating with Earth’s natural cycles over countless thousands of years.

No more.

By releasing eons’ worth of fossilized carbon into the atmosphere in a geological instant, humans have traumatized their environment, with planet-wide consequences, from Maine’s endangered forests, drought-withered Midwestern corn fields, or Bangladeshi farmland inundated by rising sea levels.

These impacts are symptoms of our decision to separate ourselves from the tightly woven fabric of Earthly life. Fighting climate change demands not just that we change our energy economy and find ways to sequester atmospheric CO2, but that we build a relationship with the natural world that is once again based on principles of cooperation, not of competition.

Warren Senders

Year 4, Month 5, Day 23: There Is A Fountain

The Moose Jaw Times-Herald talks about a visitor to their neighborhood:

“You’re probably sitting here thinking to yourselves, ‘Why us? This is so unfair. This damned thing is going to dominate my life.’ … Get over it.”

That was the tough sentiment veteran freelance journalist and historian Gwynne Dyer brought to dozens of Vanier Collegiate students when he visited the school Thursday to talk about the looming threat of global warming — a topic that he has become familiar with after years of interviews, research, and writing about the topic.

Dyer, who has built an extensive career out of freelancing as a reporter on international affairs and writing about war, geopolitics and climate change over the past several decades, told the story of his investigations into global warming and the measures that governments across the globe are taking to counteract the grim potential outcomes of runaway warming.

“Runaway warming is what will take you right up to five or six degrees higher average global temperature. You hit runaway warming and you lose control when you hit about two degrees higher,” he said. “We know what the planet looked like when it was about six degrees warmer, because there has been times in the past when it was. The last time was about 50 million years ago.”

But, Dyer said, the issue now is one that is man-made, and the result of reintroducing carbon dioxide that has been trapped in the form of fossil fuels into the “closed system” that the Earth has to deal with it, creating a surplus of the greenhouse gas that traps heat.

I won’t call this one of my best, but it’s got a useful point that I’m going to try and develop in other letters. May 10:

The entire span of recorded human history has taken place in a brief interlude of relatively benign planetary climate; in fact, it’s probably accurate to say that the moderate conditions of the past twelve thousand years are what has made human civilization possible, historical records and all. Now, however, the gravest crisis humanity has ever faced is threatening not just our infrastructure and our agriculture, but our entire conception of what it means to be human. The proud history of our species has been painted on the canvas provided by a stable and predictable climate; to unthinkingly tear that canvas asunder with our escalating emissions of greenhouse gases is to replace “history” as we’ve known it with a grim tale of decline: the saddest story ever told.

There is no more time to waste. Only by acting quickly, collectively, and intelligently may we instead make our history one of triumph and humility: the greatest story ever known.

Warren Senders

Year 4, Month 5, Day 18: Just Enough For The City

The Westerly Sun (CT) discusses post-Sandy reconstruction and its connection to climate change:

WESTERLY — On a cold, blustery day in April, Janet Freedman and Nate Vinhatiero stand gazing at Misquamicut beach. There is so much sand in the air, it’s like being in a desert during a windstorm. Freedman, a coastal geologist with the Rhode Island Coastal Resources Management Council, assesses the progress made since Superstorm Sandy hammered the area at the end of October 2012.

“I’m really impressed that they screened it all,” Freedman says, looking at the newly created dunes made from sand that had washed onto Atlantic Avenue. “If you’re doing dune restoration, you need to have all the debris out.”

Vinhatiero, an oceanographer who works for Applied Science Associates, an environmental consulting firm in Wakefield, explains that he and Freedman are primarily concerned with one major effect of climate change.

“We’re focusing on sea level rise, because for the south shore, that’s the most critical aspect of climate change,” he said.

As Freedman and Vinhatiero observe and record the lingering storm damage — and the scores of workers repairing and restoring the beach, homes and businesses — they and other scientists worry that all this work could be for nothing.

Not-so-clever apes, all of us. May 5:

There are several reasons that climate change is all too often excluded from discussions of post-storm reconstruction, despite its obvious relevance. First is that we humans are notoriously poor at thinking about the long term; in the aftermath of a devastating hurricane, people simply want their lives restored to normal as rapidly as possible. While our climate is indeed transforming with exceptional rapidity, most of its effects will be felt by our descendants, and most of us don’t give more than lip service to the lives of people a century or more from now.

Second is that Earth’s climate is a complex dynamic system to which simple rules of causality don’t apply. This means that the greenhouse effect will have different impacts in different parts of the planet, and that we can’t describe single events like Superstorm Sandy as definite consequences of increased atmospheric CO2.

Finally is the inconvenient fact that fossil fuel corporations wish to avoid a hugely expensive responsibility, so they’ve spent extraordinary amounts to influence our politicians and media away from any reasonable, fact-based discussion of climate change — because such discussion would inevitably turn to the central role of oil and coal in creating the climate crisis.

Warren Senders

Year 4, Month 5, Day 8: The Song Is You

The Deccan Chronicle (India) notices climatogenic changes in bird migration patterns:

Kochi: It was a tradition in Kerala to wait for the vitthum kaikottum (seed and spade) call of the Indian cuckoo, which was the indication for farmers to begin sowing operations as the rains would not be long in coming. But that was then. Today, new species of birds have descended on the state, some never sighted here before. And climate change is said to be the reason. “The Aquila type of eagle, not historically reported in Kerala, is now commonly found.

These are commonly found in the very dry areas of Gujarat, Rajasthan and Punjab and have migrated to Kerala. The sparrow type wheatear or buntings noticed in the dry areas of central and north-western parts of the country have also been spotted across Kerala in the last few years,” says professor at the College of Forestry of Kerala Agriculture University, P.O. Nameer.

This is a new phenomenon and the presence of these birds is an indication that they are equally comfortable in the southern tip of the country as in northern parts which were their original homeland.

Ornithologist R. Sugathan says these are indications of global warming. “Birds do not migrate or come for fun. When a moist deciduous forest changes into deciduous, shedding its moist tag, a new set of birds and animals takes the place of the old. This is obvious in the changing pattern of migration of birds to Kerala. Some of them are now found going to places in neighbouring Karnataka and Tamil Nadu in search of food and breeding grounds.”

Anthropocentric thinking takes a hit. Sent April 26:

News coverage understandably tends to focus on the human face of climate change. Whether it’s an island nation anticipating its own disappearance beneath rising sea levels, or a farming culture grappling with increasingly extreme and unpredictable weather, there is no shortage of people confronting the grim realities of global warming.

But our own species isn’t the only one affected. At all levels of scale, from microscopic plankton to giant sequoias, the great web of Earthly life is being torn and disrupted by the consequences of industrial civilization’s two-century carbon binge. When hitherto unfamiliar bird species come visiting, it’s as much an indicator of climate change as melting glaciers or drought-cracked farmlands. While the arrival of the Aquila eagle or the Stonechat may be a brief boon for birdwatchers, it is an ominous sign of things to come. It’s not only humans who’re becoming climate refugees as the greenhouse effect intensifies.

Warren Senders

Year 4, Month 5, Day 7: There Went The Sun

The Portland Tribune talks about coal. It’s bad stuff:

My greenhouse is covered with a thin plastic film. A few molecules of plastic are all it takes to make it 30 degrees Fahrenheit warmer inside than out.

When coal, gasoline and natural gas are burned, they produce carbon dioxide that traps heat just like the plastic film of my greenhouse.

Green plants recycle carbon dioxide, but they can’t keep up with the amount that we put out. Two hundred years ago, atmospheric CO2 levels were 280 parts-per-million; now they’re more than 395 ppm. Every year globally, we burn 9 billion tons of fossil fuels. None of this is disputed.

The debate is about whether there are any consequences. Six years ago, the consensus among climate scientists was that man was accelerating climate change by burning fossil fuels.

The Earth’s climate has always changed, but never as fast as now. The change we are experiencing is a response to the coal and oil we burned 50 to 100 years ago. Our average temperature has risen 1.4 degrees Fahrenheit since the pre-Industrial Age. Sea levels are rising due to thermal expansion.

The scientific consensus is that a rise of 3.5 degrees Fahrenheit would be bad, but survivable. Even if we stopped burning carbon today, scientists forecast that we would blow past this mark just from what we’ve done during the past 50 years.

Each year that we continue our reliance on fossil fuels will add $500 billion to the cost of mitigation. Warmer oceans produce stronger storms, so New York is planning to build a seawall. The Clark County (Wash.) Health Department is planning for refugees coming from the hot southern states by 2030. The forecast is for the oceans and the Willamette River to rise 2 feet by 2050.

It’s all solar. The only difference is how long it’s been sitting around. April 25:

If humans are to make the transition from fossil fuels to renewables, we need to transform the way we think about oil and coal. For too long we’ve considered them an easily-extracted source of cheap energy (just dig a hole!), while ignoring all their costly externalities (health effects, oil wars, environmental pollution, climate change). This faulty accounting has to change, of course.

But something else needs to find its way into our thinking. Fossil fuels are the remnants of the ancient sunlight which shone on the dinosaurs; when we carelessly idle our cars we are burning solar energy that is hundreds of millions of years old. Just as we are outraged when ancient cave paintings are despoiled, so should we be repelled by the profligate destruction of one of our oldest planetary inheritances in the name of convenience. We’ll do far better if we harvest sunlight when it’s fresh.

Warren Senders

Year 4, Month 4, Day 30: Sink or Swim

The Japan Times introduces us to a polar explorer and total mensch:

RESOLUTE, NUNAVUT – Spending six months of every year in the Arctic, adventurer Tetsuhide Yamazaki sees the impact of global warming firsthand through the region’s thinning sea ice, the expanse of which has roughly halved in the last three decades.

The ice is “very thin this year,” Yamazaki, 45, said after confirming a thickness of 118 cm with a drill during his recent exploration of an area at the North Pole. Sea ice in the area is usually almost 2 meters thick, according to Yamazaki, who senses the ice grows thinner every year.

Born in October 1967 in Hyogo Prefecture and raised in a coastal town in Fukui Prefecture, Yamazaki decided to become an explorer when he was in high school in Kyoto after reading a book by well-known adventurer Naomi Uemura, who climbed Mount McKinley solo in 1970. The explorer was lost on the mountain in February 1984.

After graduating, Yamazaki worked in Tokyo to save funds for his first trip at age 19 — rafting the Amazon. But it ended in failure after his boat capsized. The following year, Yamazaki successfully rafted some 5,000 km down the river in over a span of 44 days.

This February, he camped on an ice floe in the Arctic at a latitude of 74 degrees north. The temperature was minus 41 degrees, and the inside of his tent was covered with frost that formed from moisture released from his body. The dogs drawing his sled were around the tent.

There’s a hero for you. April 18:

While a scientist can observe its impact very clearly in the Arctic, global climate change is no longer something only specialists can detect, but a phenomenon which affects us all, regardless of where we live. The interconnected web of Earthly life is far more sensitive to environmental factors than most of us can imagine, and climatic disruption is making itself felt in ways that will only become more severe as the greenhouse effect intensifies.

When flowers open a fortnight early, the insects that fertilize them may still be in their larval stages. When plants fail to spread their seeds, animals that depend on them for nourishment may have to seek food elsewhere. When agriculture reels under the impact of extreme weather or devastating drought, food prices go up.

For years we have thought of climate change as something that belongs to future times and distant places. Dr. Tetsuhide Yamazaki’s observations confirm: the consequences of industrial civilization’s fossil-fuel consumption belong to us all. There is no time left to waste, and no place left to hide.

Warren Senders