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CONTENTS OF VOLUME 15, 2021, of Your Ecological House
#15-26, Dec. 26, 2021 Gen-R: Today’s youth must regenerate the planet
#15-25, Dec. 9, 2021 Weather, Fair and Foul
#15-24, Nov. 24, 2021 Treating nature right — and wrong
Is this underlined heading a link?
Each generation will reap what the former generation has sown — Proverb
It’s settled history. The “Greatest Generation” grew up during the Great Depression of the 1930s and defeated global fascism in WWII. They bucked up under some of the worst economic deprivations in history and made the necessary sacrifices on the battle front and the home front to crush the most powerful war machine ever assembled and preserve democracy. Journalist Tom Brokaw wrote of them, “it is, I believe, the greatest generation ever produced.”
Putting aside my predilection for the accomplishments of my own “boomer generation,” which were largely cultural, I still take issue with Brokaw’s assessment. I believe “the greatest generation ever produced” will be the upcoming generation because it is today’s youth who are tasked with saving the entire planet and the human race it sustains.
As daunting as the challenges of Brokaw’s candidate for the “Greatest” title were, they pale in comparison to those confronting the environmental cataclysm that will determine whether civilization, as we have developed it for four millennia, will survive.
If this seems melodramatic, consider those challenges. First, if global heating is allowed to progress unabated for another two or three decades — that is, well into the adulthood of today’s adolescents and children — it will almost certainly cause runaway climate change. The remaining safeguards against this — the capacity of oceans to store excess heat and global-scale carbon sinks — are in rapid, close-to-terminal decline. Once their fail-safe thresholds are passed, the air will quickly become too hot to breathe and most land will become barren.
But although it’s key to all other environmental problems, global heating is not alone. A wide variety of pollutants are devastating environments, as is the overharvesting of living resources. These factors, working synergistically with climate change, are propelling the planet’s sixth extinction, which is a threat to the survival of all species, including ours.
Addressing these challenges will require a fundamental shift in the way humans interact with each other and the planet. Our current political and economic systems are simply not up to the task, nor can they be tweaked to do what is required at scale and in time. They must be remade.
This can happen in one of two ways: either global civilization and the biosphere collapse, leaving, perhaps, vestiges of former systems in local pockets; or, there is a “soft revolution” on a global scale that radically revises our approaches to each other and the earth.
At a minimum, this soft revolution must address the consumerism that fuels much of the global economy, and it must curb population growth through the empowerment of women. New standards of actual needs and material status will have to be agreed upon, and critical decisions about the appropriation of resources must be made on a holistic, scientific basis. Additionally, immense restoration programs such as reforestation and soil remediation must be undertaken.
It is virtually impossible for today’s adults, the people currently in power, to implement these changes: they are too invested materially and psychologically to make more than modest revisions. The onus of the soft revolution sits directly on the shoulders of today’s youth.
So, I have dubbed them Gen-R (as opposed to Gen-X, -Y, etc.). The “R” stands for regenerating, repairing, reviving and renewing our earthly home. As they come into power — young people form the largest global population demographic (33% and growing), and Greta Thunberg is now old enough to vote in Sweden — Gen-Rs will become the planet’s dominant cultural “influencers” and will choose the next generation of politicians and administrators.
Will they choose wisely? Will Gen-R become the Greatest Generation?
They must, or they could be the last generation at our ecological house.
#15-25, Dec. 9, 2021
Weather, Fair and Foul
You don’t need a weatherman to know which way the wind blows — Dylan
It was a coldish December morning here in Oregon’s Willamette Valley. By 9:30 a.m., the thermometer had barely edged above 40ºF. But it was sunny, and windless. I had planned to bundle up and go for a bike ride, taking advantage of the break in the past week’s intermittent and somewhat unpredictable rains. After all, one should enjoy nice days when one can, especially in winter, and this was a nice day.
In fact, it was a bit too nice.
Looking outside, I told my wife that while we have enjoyed what has so far turned out to be a mild winter, I’m worried. Winter in Oregon shouldn’t be this mild. It should be colder, wetter, windier.
We moved here from the now-desiccated realm of California just 17 years ago. Initially, we found Oregon winters to be pretty much as we expected: long periods of gray skies that depressed some people and enhanced the sales of sun lamps; rain, rain and more rain; and even some serious snowstorms down here in the valley. (Rain in the Valley is expected to turn to snow in the Cascades — at least it used to be so.)
One December morning, early in our tenure here, I measured the snow that had piled on top of my truck from a storm that started the previous afternoon: 17 inches. A year or two later, our annual holiday party, which typically drew 50 or more friends during the course of the evening, had two attendees. A snowstorm had blocked the area’s roads, and only our next-door neighbors trundled across our yard, leaving deep footprints in the snow, to share some enhanced eggnog. Just five years ago, I bought my wife some heavy-duty hiking boots with spiked soles so she could walk safely on our icy streets.
She’s worn them only once.
Since then, the winter weather has changed, fundamentally, it seems. Precipitation has decreased, temperatures have risen, the number of “outdoor days” has increased. Life is a little easier, for almost everyone. Everyone but the local farmers.
That’s because our casual perception that the winters are drier and milder is backed by meteorological measurements: The Willamette Valley has suffered drought for four years, and “severe drought” during 2021. In August, Larry O’Neill, the state’s climatologist, told Oregon Public Broadcasting that much of the state is experiencing “extreme” and “exceptional” drought, with the worst precipitation measurements since the U.S. Drought Monitor began publication 20 years ago, and probably the worst in a century. There have been massive fish die-offs; reservoir levels and stream flows have plummeted; rangeland had dried up, forcing ranchers to sell off cattle. And there is insufficient irrigation for many crops.
What’s worse, recovery from the 2021 summer drought is dependent on plentiful rain and snow during this autumn and winter — and that ain’t happening.
Who knows? Weather is famously capricious, and perhaps we’ll get 17 inches of snow in 18 hours next week. But unlike weather, climate is long-term — it is measured in decades and centuries. And there is little expectation that the overall climate will change for the better in the foreseeable future. O’Neill calls our dangerously dry weather the “new normal.”
A friend, who is well aware of climate change, nonetheless confessed she is enjoying this winter’s mild weather, as am I. But there is talk of Oregon’s forests turning to savannah, its mountain snowpack disappearing, its agriculture failing. Perhaps, like a sugar high, what feels good at the moment isn’t really that good for us at our ecological house.
#15-24, Nov. 24, 2021
Treating nature right — and wrong
The epidemic psychosis of our time is believing we have no ethical obligation to our planetary home — Thedore Rozak, The Voice of the Earth
It seemed like a good idea at the time. The time was 1912 when the Chilliwack Progress, the newspaper serving the rapidly growing town of Abbotsford, British Columbia, and the adjacent Fraser Valley, published an editorial reflecting the opinion of many of the region’s farming, ranching and development interests. Their opinion was that “The [Canadian] Dominion [and private] lands in and around Sumas Lake [in the heart of the valley] are useless and unsuited for homesteading.”
What should be done?
“The reclamation of these…lands would be a great boon [as the] now useless lands…would be rendered fertile and productive.”
Specifically, the federal government should drain Sumas Lake and its intermittently flooded, surrounding lowlands to vastly expand a small, flat area known as the Sumas Prairie. Public pressure mounted, funds were allocated, and a century ago engineers indeed “drained” the lake. The fact that this displaced Native Americans who had lived for millennia along the water’s edge was ignored at the time and soon forgotten by everyone except their descendants, who speak of it to this day.
But, along with the fate of the Native people and the ecosystem that supported them, a bothersome technical issue was also ignored, or at least any voices of caution raised against this particular bit of “progress” were overruled. The problem was, the surface of Sumas Lake was lower than the level of the nearby Fraser River, the longest in British Columbia, and water invariably flows downhill. So, technically, the lake wasn’t drained, but had its water pumped out, drying the fertile lake bottom and surrounding lowlands. The pumps, of course, had to remain in place, because whenever the Fraser overflowed, Sumas Prairie had to be pumped anew.
But this minor annoyance was overlooked. Although some pumps had to run more or less continuously — and more of them ran during wet periods — nature had clearly been conquered, and the land was settled. By 2021, Sumas Prairie and the Fraser Valley accounted for 50% of B.C.’s dairy and poultry production, feeding some 5.5 million people. It’s also home to about 3,000 permanent residents and countless migrant farmworkers.
During the century that humans were enjoying the fruits of progress in Sumas Prairie, a rapid and dangerous change in the earth’s climate also progressed. Barely understood by all but a handful of the world’s scientists when Sumas Lake was being pumped dry, barely measurable until the late 1950s, carbon dioxide from fossil fuel combustion entered the atmosphere at an accelerating pace, engendering the “climate chaos” we are now seeing all around us.
Those two forms of progress converged dramatically in mid-November, when rainstorms dumped more than a month’s worth of water in 48 hours on the B.C. region. The resulting flooding left 18,000 people stranded, with the area around Abbotsford and Sumas Prairie hit particularly hard. There, an evacuation order included 121 dairy and poultry farms. Thousands of animals died; one rancher lost 40,000 chickens, and entire herds of dairy cattle were destroyed. Although rescue efforts are underway, many more animals are expected to die, and those that are rescued are often sick and must be euthanized. Additionally, hundreds of homes and farmsteads and millions of dollars in infrastructure are ruined.
Going forward, if we choose to take lessons from this and similar calamities worldwide, we’ll need to begin at the most fundamental level, and change our basic attitudes toward nature. We must entirely abandon the “control nature” paradigm and quickly adopt the “work with nature” paradigm. We must challenge every idea, held by ourselves or others, that nature exists to give to humans without their giving back at our ecological house.
#15-23, Nov. 11, 2021
Fight climate change on all fronts
We shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills… — Winston Churchill, House of Commons, 1940
As I write this, the fate of the major federal climate mitigation/social spending legislation called the “Build Back Better” (BBB) act remains undecided. Commitments have been made to pass the bill, once budget officials verify its projected costs. We can hope that those pledges were made in good faith, and the bill will pass without significant modification. We should know soon.
However, as I pointed out in my last column, even if things go smoothly, important climate mitigation measures have already been dropped from the original BBB proposal. Key incentives, and disincentives, designed to induce the nation’s power producers to move quickly away from fossil fuels and toward alternative energy sources, were removed, along with other global heating mitigation provisions. But weakened as it is, the BBB still incorporates a good many positive measures, and, if passed, will be remembered as a landmark piece of climate legislation — the nation’s first major attempt at addressing climate change.
I concluded that column by urging people to continue fighting the political battles needed to take climate legislation to the next level, regaining what was lost in the first round of BBB negotiations and then pressing for even more ambitious climate measures. Fight by pressuring politicians directly with letters and phone calls and at town hall meetings, by educating, advocating, attending demonstrations and generally raising Cain.
But the political battle is just one of several fronts upon which the climate war must be waged. The climate crisis is ubiquitous, and must be addressed on many levels — personal, societal and economic — simultaneously. The good news is that while gaining political traction can feel slow, frustrating and taxing, the multi-faceted campaign needed to address the crisis gives each of us opportunities to work on any one of several aspects of the problem, or more than one, depending on our time, energy, expertise and interest.
In upcoming columns, we’ll explore some of these opportunities in detail. We’ll see how progress on climate issues can be made on several fronts, including at one’s home; working on divestment campaigns to curb institutional investment in fossil fuel extraction; investing in promising climate mitigation and resilience technologies; supporting atmospheric carbon capture and storage efforts, especially tree planting and soil remediation; advancing assorted educational efforts; and promoting climate justice by participating in or contributing to organizations working toward those goals.
Note that working “domestically” — from or on your home, from where your life is centered — tops the list of climate-action opportunities. During its first few years, from 2007 to 2012, this column focused almost entirely on low-tech “green” improvements, such as adding insulation and installing gray water recycling systems, that you could make to your house (thus, the column’s name: Your Ecological House). This approach to “environmentalism” was based on my supposition, which in retrospect was somewhat naïve, that if enough people made their homes and their lifestyles more environmentally friendly, saving the planet was on the horizon.
Then the Great Arctic Ice Melt occurred in the summer of 2012, and I realized that individual actions and incremental progress were insufficient to slow the advance of destructive climate change. If we are to survive, we need collective action — by governments, but also by groups of people — NGOs, youth movements and the like.
Yet if individuals are to participate in such collective actions, they must be strong and centered, or they risk burnout. Also, they must allow themselves some “wins,” because fighting the bigger political and institutional battles at times can, as previously noted, be, exhausting and depressing. So we’ll start, in our next column, by exploring the person/planet relationship at your ecological house.
#15-22, Oct. 28, 2021
Live to fight global heating another day
Never, never, never give up. Winston Churchill, commencement speech, 1941
There has been a great deal of consternation among climate activists about cuts to the climate mitigation/social spending legislation making its way through the U.S. Congress. And well there should be.
Reporting from Washington indicates that the initial proposal, which was valued at $3.5T, is likely to be cut by almost half, eventually passing the various legislative and lobbying hurdles at $1.9T. This means that a great many of the proposed climate mitigation and resilience programs will be scrapped or cut so deeply that they will do little to help America meet its emissions reduction targets — either those proposed by the Biden administration or those already agreed to as part of the Paris Climate Accord.
Specifically, a central provision called the Clean Energy Performance Program (CEPP) which focuses on the production of electricity, will almost certainly be cut from the final bill. The CEPP would reward power producers who reduce emissions by 4% per year with grants and fine those who don’t, creating strong incentives to shift toward renewable energy technology.
In the administration’s original proposal, the CEPP was central to reaching its goal of cutting U.S. emissions by 50% by 2030 (as well as adding seven million clean-energy jobs and $1T in new revenue to the U.S. economy). But if, as expected, the CEPP is removed from the bill, meeting those emissions targets will be very difficult, if not impossible.
But it gets worse, because as ambitious as the administration’s emission reductions proposals might appear, they are actually inadequate to address the rapidly developing climate crisis. In part that’s because our emissions to date have already “baked in” a certain amount of temperature rise. CO2 persists for at least a century in the atmosphere, and our accumulated “legacy” emissions have already committed us to a global temperature rise of at least 1.8ºC, and likely 2.3ºC. (We currently stand at 1.1ºC, or about 2ºF, above pre-industrial averages — and the results can be seen all around us.) So, any additional emissions could rapidly push us toward passing irreversible tipping points and setting off chain reactions that humans can’t control.
Meeting the administration’s goal of reducing U.S. emissions by 50% by 2030 and 100% by 2050, then, won’t keep us out of trouble unless we simultaneously extract legacy CO2 from the atmosphere — a task that’s barely being addressed.
Additionally, global emissions, and the burning of fossil fuels that releases them, are projected not to decrease but to increase dramatically during the next decade. Despite the agreements reached in the Paris Accords — which are themselves inadequate to meaningfully slow global heating, and in any case are not being met by most countries — the International Energy Agency reports that only 2% of world government spending has been invested in clean energy, while fossil fuels were subsidized by $5.9T in 2020 alone. Global fossil fuel production by 2030 is slated to be double the amount that would be consistent with the Paris Accord’s 1.5º target.
Looks like we’re “baked in,” alright.
But here’s the thing.
World-famous climatologist Michael Mann recently explained that every 10th of a degree in temperature rise matters when assessing the dangers of global heating. While it has become clear to climate activists that many important provisions will be cut, or cut out, of the administration’s current proposals before they’re passed (if they’re passed), that doesn’t mean the fight ends there. Every new climate disaster can be a trigger for us to persuade —write, demonstrate — and continue to press politicians to act.
To survive, we need to take what we can get today, then fight for the next reform at our ecological house.
#15-21, Oct. 28, 2021
Doing the math on climate costs
I can’t think for you, you’ve got to decide — Bob Dylan
OK, fellow citizens: it’s time to play “Do the Math.”
Even casual followers of the news have heard that there’s a debate in Congress over the cost of a proposed social spending/climate remediation bill, the “Build Back Better Act.” The bill, as approved for markup (fleshing out) by both the Senate and the House, was initially valued at $3.5T, most of which, as part of the proposal, would be raised via increased taxes on corporations and wealthier individuals. The money would be spent over 10 years.
Now, let’s make a couple of assumptions, as we must in any mathematical simulation. First, let’s assume that the final iteration of the bill is cut to $2T, which seems to be what’s under discussion. Second, assume that 35% of that number is dedicated to climate spending — moving the electrical, transportation and other sectors toward net-zero emissions by 2050. That’s $700B, or $70B per year spent on climate mitigation and remediation. Third, suppose no new tax revenue is raised through the statute, so that $700B comes out of the Treasury’s coffers. (Note that even if there is no taxation in the bill proper, there will be increased revenue from taxes on the millions of public and private sector jobs the spending would create.)
Now, let’s look at the estimated cost of climate change in the coming decades — with “estimated” describing the principle caveat for any figures. Climate economic modeling, which expresses ranges of possible figures, is generally based on recent data projected into the future. In the case of climate problems, best- and worst-case scenarios are also dependent on assumptions about the amount of mitigation we invest in.
That is, if we do nothing to slow emissions, global heating and its related costs will increase more quickly. If we mitigate against it, we can slow it, significantly, and perhaps even begin to reverse it by mid-century or 2075.
Given those uncertainties, what is certain is that even with mitigation, climate change will have a profound effect on America’s and the world’s economy in the coming decades. In 2020, NOAA reports there were 22 weather/climate disasters that cost more than $1B each, totaling $95B in the U.S. alone. (So far this year, there have been 18 such events.) These events include hurricanes, severe storms (tornadoes, etc.), flooding, freezes, flash droughts and wildfires. The trend is rapidly accelerating. The 1980-90 period averaged five $1b events costing around $19B per year in the U.S. The worldwide cost of climate disasters in 2020 was $210B.
What are the projected costs of climate change? Let’s say we do nothing to rein it in, and the current numbers stay steady. Ten years of losses at today’s rate would cost us $950B by 2030, three times that by 2050. If the losses increase, as is widely modeled, those costs could easily be doubled by 2050.
What happens if we undertake the mitigations proposed in the Build Back Better bill? No one knows for sure, and the results could only be measured over decades. But if we were to succeed in cutting emissions by 50% by 2030 and 100% by 2050 — the original intent of the legislation — we could probably cut the worst-case scenario’s numbers by 50 to 75%. Meanwhile, for now, we should compare spending $70B per year on climate mitigation to $95B in predictable minimal climate losses.
We can make another comparison. The cost of our interventions in Afghanistan and Iraq combined totals around $4T. That averages $200B per year. You’ll have to decide whether it was worth it, compared to potentially spending $70B per year addressing the very real threat of climate change at our ecological house.
#15-20, Sept. 30, 2021
Where, and when, to invest in climate resilience
The direct risks from climate change are obvious — Barry Gardner, former British Shadow Energy and Climate Secretary
Because too few people seem to respond with sufficient concern, the mantra of many climate activists is worth repeating: “We are in the midst of a global climate emergency.”
That is to say, “We are in the midst of a global climate emergency.” There, I repeated it.
We are also on the threshold, at least here in the U.S., of devoting some moderately substantial — albeit still inadequate — resources to responding to that emergency. The question is, how best to deploy those resources?
In recent columns on “Reimagining Infrastructure,” I’ve argued that we must avoid throwing good money after bad by investing in climate-resilience solutions that would serve for a generation or two at the most. For example, protecting Miami from sea-level rise by building a wall along its shoreline would be putting a bandage over a wound that needs surgery. The seas will keep rising, eventually overwhelming any walls we build. The better, and, actually, inevitable solution for Miami and a great many other coastal cities is to abandon them entirely and move their populations inland.
How soon will these areas need to be abandoned, and how far from the current shorelines can new settlements be safely established? Ultimately, those answers depend not on economics or politics but on geophysics, specifically on the rate and extent of sea-level rise.
The only good news in this scenario is that we have time to plan for an orderly transition to new locations — IF we pay attention to the geophysics. IF we look at the projections and the maps that show us how our shorelines will change in the short- and long-term — over horizons of, say, 10 to 50 years. With that knowledge, we can make informed choices about encouraging or discouraging more development along Florida’s southern shoreline — and where to encourage and subsidize new, inland development to accommodate an influx of climate refugees from our coasts.
Miami’s situation illustrates the kind of temporal horizons that should inform our climate-infrastructure spending. We need to predict, as well as we can, the pattern of current and future climate-change effects, and actually plan for them, not just throw money at the problem and hope it does some good.
However, the moderate pace of coastal sea-level problems — a little flooding this year, a little more next year — permits a planning luxury we don’t have in truly emergency situations, which are of two types: fairly predictable and maddeningly random.
Sadly, the loss of entire Western towns wildfires to has become fairly predictable. While we certainly can’t predict exactly where the next massive conflagrations will occur, we can say with a high degree of certainty that they will occur. And with so much of our population living in urban wildland interface zones, the chances that property and lives will be lost are quite high.
So, this is an immediate emergency we’re in the midst of. But by good fortune, it’s a problem we can largely address, as soon as we devote the needed resources to solving it. The U.S. Forest Service and numerous state agencies have drawn up plans to manage forest and rangeland fires with controlled burns, the thinning of combustibles around towns and other means. To date, these programs have been underfunded. That should change — must change — in the very near future.
What about those maddeningly random emergencies? We know there will be an increase in megastorms in the coming years. But we don’t know where and when they’ll hit. So, while we can do some flood mitigation in clearly vulnerable areas, we’ll also have to establish an elastic “unpredictable climate emergency fund” at our ecological house.
#15-19, Sept. 16, 2021
The do’s, don’ts and priorities of infrastructure spending
Ed. Note: This article is a case of my being overly optimistic, or hopeful. As it turned out, the Build Back Better act failed to pass congress, and that failure was one event that changed my entire assessment of chances or warding off off climate change now rather than and kicking the can down the road to the the next generation. Read about my more sobering assessment here.
I try to give the best bang for the buck — Jimmy Buffet
The money’s coming. Although the debates and disputes in Congress ain’t over ’til they’re over, they’ll be over soon, and the infrastructure money will start flowing from the federal treasury. It has to, or the country will start coming apart — or, more accurately, keep coming apart, but at an accelerating rate.
How much of that money will be earmarked for “climate resilience” and how much for other infrastructure repairs and improvements remains to be seen. But the amounts spent on each will be substantial, and the real debate will be about allocating the funds.
In recent columns on the subject of “reimagining infrastructure,” I argued that some infrastructure expenditures might be throwing good money after bad, at least in the long run. This is because we’ve already locked in a certain amount of climate change and its effects, which include progressive sea-level rise and long-term drought in America’s west.
Looking ahead, then, we can see that substantial investments in some areas of the country would, in the not-too-distant future, amount to throwing money down the drain. Specifically, trying to protect southern Florida, much of the Eastern Seaboard and the Gulf Coast from sea-level rise, or to provide enough water to maintain the current populations of Arizona and Southern California, are certainly quixotic efforts.
While measures can be taken — sea walls can be built, water can be conserved and wastewater can be recycled in arid areas — they will ultimately prove inadequate, as well as very expensive. What would work better, in the case of coastal communities, is to gradually, systematically move them inland. And rather than throwing vast amounts of money at trying to bring water to the desert, a scheme of phased abandonment of the area by most of its population is needed.
But this would take long-term planning and it would meet with a great deal of resistance from powerful vested interests. Try explaining the need to abandon Miami or Phoenix to the real-estate establishments of those cities. Also try explaining why — since their areas potentially are among America’s most blighted — they shouldn’t get the lion’s share of infrastructure monies to prolong the inevitable crash of their real-estate values and abandonment of their regions.
For example, shouldn’t Uncle Sam build a water pipeline from the Great Lakes to the Southwest — as has been proposed — so unabated development, unhindered by pesky water-use restrictions, can continue in that region?
And doesn’t it make sense that the federal government should prioritize building massive sea walls around Miami, which is in greater imminent danger from sea-level rise than, say New York, which is not yet under existential threat?
Clearly these are problematic notions. The pipe dream, or pipeline dream, of shipping water from the Great Lakes to Phoenix and Los Angeles is dashed by the fact that Canada owns half the water in the lakes — and by many other complications.
In Miami’s case, prioritizing expenditures based on the
greatest short-term vulnerability to climate effects, rather than the best long-term use of the funds, is bad planning. Also, there is the question of fairness. Some have argued that Miami’s real estate is so valuable that protecting it should be prioritized. Tell that to the citizens of Jacksonville; or Norfolk, Virginia; or any of the hundreds of smaller communities along our coastlines — and prepare to see them in court.
Yet we don’t have nearly enough money to protect them all with sea walls and massive pumps. Moving most of them inland is the only viable option.
What’s needed is a long-term, nationwide plan for retrenching in the face of climate change. Which means we’ll need to make some hard decisions at our ecological house.
#15-18, Sept. 2, 2021
Leaving the “summer of our discontent” behind
Well, don’t throw in the towel yet, Agnes dear. Those tranquilizers may see us through yet. — William Faulkner, The Long, Hot Summer
Can we please put this summer behind us?
We get it. Climate change is here. Disruptions—R-Us.
Let’s see. July was the planet’s hottest month on record. Deadly heat waves killed hundreds in the Pacific Northwest and British Columbia. Most western states are experiencing severe to extreme to “exceptional” drought — as are many fragile areas of the world including the horn of Africa and northern Afghanistan.
As I write this in late August, more than 100 large wildfires are burning in the American West. One of them, the immense Caldor Fire, has forced the evacuation of the town of South Lake Tahoe, California, making 55,000 people flee. There have been widespread fires in Greece, Turkey, Siberia, the Amazon basin and elsewhere.
Dangerous, destructive flooding has hit the East Coast, the Midwest, Europe and India. Greenland experienced rainfall, as opposed to snowfall, for the first time in recorded history, and its ice loss may have already passed the point of no return. Sea levels are on the rise.
Hurricane Ida just ransacked New Orleans and New York, and the tornado season, like California’s fire season, is now year-round.
Finally, the early August IPCC report told us we have just 11 years to drastically reduce our greenhouse emissions or push global temperatures to 1.5ºC above pre-industrial levels — quite possibly pushing several climate systems past their fail-safe tipping points and the whole planet past the point of no return.
That’s the kind of summer it’s been.
Unfortunately, while we can leave this summer behind by turning the page on our calendars, we can’t simply turn the page on the climate crisis we’ve created. It’s ongoing. About the best we can hope for is that Mother Nature might give us a little relief in the coming months, and there will be a pause in the ongoing series of disasters that are threatening to wear us down. But we should brace ourselves, because weather events, good or bad, are the luck of the draw, and we’ve been busy stacking the odds against good weather outcomes. At this point, the best we can do is cross our fingers and hope for a couple of seasons of “normal” weather.
But while we can’t turn the page on the climate crisis, we can turn the page on our response to it. We can decide that we’ve had more than enough warning to finally take serious action. Part of that action, we hope, will be in the form of the infrastructure bills currently making their way through Congress. If passed, the legislation will include climate-change mitigation and adaptation measures.
Mitigation means dramatically reducing our greenhouse emissions by abandoning fossil fuels and embracing renewable energy. Solar electric power, electric vehicles, high-speed trains — the solutions exist, we just have to implement them.
It turns out that adaptation — revamping our infrastructure so we can deal with the climate disruptions we’ve already “baked into” the system — is trickier. The problem is that climate disasters, particularly local events such as storms, floods and wildfires, occur at seemingly random locations and times.
We know, for example, that drought in the Western U.S. greatly increases the likelihood of wildfires. But just where and when those wildfires will burn is unpredictable. The same is true for floods, tornadoes and so on.
But we can’t afford to “harden” the entire country’s infrastructure against possible climate disasters, and in some cases, we shouldn’t even try. (For example, we should start abandoning structures built in flood zones.) So, the challenge ahead is to decide where infrastructure expenditures will give us the best bang for the buck — a topic we’ll explore next at our ecological house.