Wednesday, February 28, 2018

Reading New Thoughts: Lifton’s Climate Swerve and the Proper Attitude Toward Climate Change

Disclaimer:  I am now retired, and am therefore no longer an expert on anything.  This blog post presents only my opinions, and anything in it should not be relied on.

One of the major issues among the “good guys” in climate change is, what attitude should we take towards the future in our political maneuverings?  Should we focus on the bright spots, the signs of hope, such as solar technology, knowing that we may be accused later of deception because these do not meet the needs of mitigating carbon pollution effectively?  Should we be brutally realistic, at the risk of persuading people that nothing effective can be done?

I find that Robert Jay Lifton’s “The Climate Swerve” provides a boost, more or less, to my own view of what we should do.  Based on his experience as a psychiatrist and physician fighting against nuclear war, he identifies 3 “psychologies” that dominate discussion of an oncoming catastrophe:

1.       Denial.  We are all familiar with climate deniers.

2.       Psychic numbness”.  In this case, we “numb” the idea of nuclear war or climate change so that we can function in daily life without extreme anxiety.  The result of psychic numbness is that we feel that there is nothing we can do about the situation, and so we do very little.

3.       Facing the truth head-on.  The point here is that because we no longer self-deceive, this does not necessarily lead to extreme anxiety that makes one unable to function.  Instead, says Lifton, it leads to “realistic hope.”  That is, in terms of anxiety, in the long run some hope is better than none.  

Thus, Lifton’s “climate swerve” is a global “swerve” – a global change of direction in thinking, towards psychology (3) as discussed above.

Note that this analysis is not the usual glib, other-oriented, sickness-focused psychoanalysis.  Rather, Lifton is talking about a global set of non-patients and personal experience.  Also, he is talking about the long term:   While climate denial is usually evidence of the usual psychological problems right now, psychic numbness is akin to what most of us do often in our lives, and its costs often outweigh its benefits only in the long run.

Facing What Truth?

Climate change differs from nuclear war in one key way:  In nuclear war, the catastrophe is immediate and total, while in climate change, the largest effects in the catastrophe are always in the future.  That means that in facing the truth, we need to face two things:  (1) What is the sequence of catastrophe in “business as usual” climate change, and (2) What are the effects of our efforts to mitigate and adapt instead of “business as usual”?

I find that the best analogy I can come up with for climate change’s sequence of catastrophe is an image of an enormous rock rolling down hill, picking up speed and momentum (I wrote a “children’s tale” short story about this once).  At first, it only kills a few shepherds high on the hill; but next it will kill the poor folk partway up the hill that cannot afford the housing of the well-off and rich; and then, finally, it will roll over us, the relatively well-off and rich.  Crucially, however, the earlier we push back against the rock (mitigate, slow the rate of carbon emissions), the easier it is to stop it, and the higher on the hill it stops.  In other words, no matter whether we’re talking now or 50 years from now:

·         Some of the disaster to come is has already happened and will continue to happen; but,

·         A far greater amount is already built into the system; BUT,

·         A far greater amount than that is not yet built into the system; AND,

·         The more we mitigate now, the less of that not-built-into-the-system “business as usual” catastrophe will happen.

The details of the sequence of the “business as usual” catastrophe are still far from completely clear.  The best analysis I can find is a 2007 book called “Six Degrees.” I hope to write about that book at some point, but the main point to bear in mind is that the sequence of events still seems to be following that book’s horrifying projections, although each step they lay out may require more than 1 degree C warming over the long term. 

What about how we are doing?  What constitutes facing the facts about our efforts to mitigate?

Right now, I have argued in blog posts, CO2 readings at Mauna Loa tell us that all our previous efforts, if they have had an impact on carbon emissions, have had an insignificant one.  I ascribe part of this to a well-known IT law:  the actual implementation of a new technology or approach is actually far slower than what we perceive superficially from the outside.  Even with the best will in the world, the details of implementation slow us down drastically.  The other reason, of course, is the extensive denial and psychic numbness out there that lead to pushback and lack of implementation.

The other important point about our efforts to mitigate is that they are hindered by our institutions and our attitudes towards them.  History shows that looking for a purely market-based solution is not only far from optimal but a fantasy about a “free market” that never existed.  Governments and the global society are hindered by past assumptions, and especially in the legal system, about what can be done in a democratic government to face climate change.  A “face the facts” view of what is going on says that institutional efforts to combat climate change have an orders-of-magnitude greater impact on mitigation than individual efforts, and that these institutional efforts have barely begun. 

What hope are we left with?  This one:  that eventually our best institutional efforts will kick into overdrive and actually mitigate climate change significantly. 

Solar Vs. Fossil: One Step Forward, Two Half-Steps Back

I find that one way to summarize this view to myself is to put it in terms of the computer industry’s Agile Manifesto, where saying one thing should be put before another is saying not that the latter should not be done, but rather that I value the former more highly:

·         Realistic facing of present and future facts of climate change catastrophe before blind hope.

·         Institutional change before individual change.

·         Mitigation before adaptation.

·         Agility before flexibility (I’m not sure whether this should be included, but it would be a good way to improve our institutions to fight against climate change better).

How to end this?  Well, there’s always T.S. Eliot’s “As Wednesday” on psychic numbness:

“Because I do not hope to turn
Because I do not hope …”

First, face the facts of turning.  Then, understand the small hope in those facts.  Then you can hope to turn.

Saturday, February 24, 2018

Reading New Thoughts: Struzik’s Firestorm and How Climate-Change-Driven Wildfires Affect Us All

Disclaimer: I am now retired, and am therefore no longer an expert on anything. This blog post presents only my opinions, and anything in it should not be relied on.

Note: My focus in these “reading new thoughts” posts is on new ways of thinking about a topic, not on a review of the books themselves.

Edward Struzik’s “Firestorm: How Wildfires Will Shape Our Future” adds, it seems to me, three important points to my understanding of climate change:

1. We are on the verge of an era in which wildfires more massive than we have ever seen produce harmful effects of which we have seen only glimpses: shattering of ecosystems, traveling of mercury pollution around the world, blackening of ice that hastens melting and sea level rise, and of course death and destruction.

2. Understanding of climate change’s reality “on the ground” is no longer limited to scientists and environmentalists, but is a fundamental reality of firefighters who must anticipate each season’s worsening challenges.

3. We are near a breaking point in terms of our overall societal response to wildfires, as evidenced by the fact that the majority share of US and Canadian budgets for forestry management is now being devoted to firefighting rather than planning, researching, and holistic approaches to forest management that would mitigate the upcoming effects cited in (1).

Upcoming Global Harmful Consequences of Wildfires

One virtue of Struzik’s Firestorm is that it goes into extensive detail about the actual effects of wildfires, on the forests, on neighboring humans and ecosystems, on human-generated toxins such as mercury which past resource extraction has left in the forests, and (via airborne carriage of wildfire byproducts) on geographies as far removed as British Columbia from New York and Alaska from Greenland. He tells us also of efforts to contain these harmful consequences, including pre-emptive “back-burning”, forecasting and planning to fight fires in locations such as Banff, and strengthening building codes and evacuation procedures in places such as Alberta near the oil sands.

The overall picture is of an entire region – the forests of western Canada and the US, certainly echoed in Australia and northern Russia, and probably echoed in areas such as Indonesia – increasingly subjected to wildfires whose massive intensity and destructiveness is hard to express. Two key factors drive this future of massive wildfires: the legacy of forest management that for a century did not burn these forests and thus increased the power and ecosystem destruction of these burnings, and climate change that is bringing increasing drought, greater energy for the wildfires, and new invasive species that combine with wildfires to exacerbate the resulting damage.

What harmful effects should we really be concerned about above all? As I understand it, deaths from being trapped in a wildfire, horrible as they are, are the least damaging of these. The following seem of greater import:

· Death from ingesting or breathing the byproducts of wildfires, at a distance from the fire itself. Struzik cites the French fires that caused the deaths of thousands of Parisians in the early 2000s. Upcoming wildfires are likely to produce more intense and therefore more deadly byproducts, and to affect regions much further away than the distance between two regions in France.

· The destruction of northern ecosystems (e.g., trees, caribou, polar bear) and replacement by impoverished more southerly ecosystems prone to erosion and collapse (tundra). In other words, the new ecosystems not only decimate existing northern species but replace them with more temperate ecosystems that are far less functional (and therefore less arable) than the temperate ecosystems we have now. To put it bluntly, if humanity looks to survive in the future on the bounty of Canada and Siberia, wildfires are going to make that far more difficult.

· There is a strong danger of increased carriage of black soot (black carbon) to areas of existing land and sea ice in the Arctic (apparently, not in the Antarctic). This may well speed up Greenland land ice melt and Arctic sea ice seasonal melting significantly, thus turbocharging that part of sea level rise. So far, this seems less of a factor, but with the increasing power of wildfires, all bets are off.

People Start Seeing Climate Change In Their Jobs

To me, one of the striking things in Struzik’s book is the extent to which western firefighters are having their noses rubbed into the fact of climate change. Granted, this awareness is centered in those firefighting coordinators who must plan for each season’s likely wildfires. However, Struzik suggests that any experienced wildfire fighter recognizes the differences from 20-30 years ago – and certainly some awareness should be rubbing off on newbies.

To me, this puts the debate about climate change on a whole different level. Generally, firefighters are part and parcel of communities; they can’t be written off as “outside” environmentalists and scientists. And climate change is not something they can face or not face as part of being a well-rounded person outside of their jobs – handling climate change is now an integral part of their jobs. At the very least, this ought to change somewhat the conversation from caricatures of “us vs. them” or “effete soft-hearted eggheads” vs “hard-headed real-world types.”

The Wildfire Breaking Point

If there is a sense of urgency in Struzik’s Firestorm, it lies primarily in his worries about our responses to the increasing threat over the last 30 or so years. He documents how very recent fires such as the one near Fort McMurray came very close to being far, far worse in terms of lives lost and destruction of valuable property. He suggests that although there has been a massive increase in the knowledge of how to manage wildfires for the best combination of destruction followed by ecosystem repair, minimal long-term impact on human and plant/animal environment, and long-term solutions to the increasing pressure of humans on forest environments, these have been far from widely applied in the field. Instead, asserts Struzik, lack of government and other funding means that, more and more, long-term strategy is coming in a poor second to simply managing to contain the next season’s fires.

Inevitably, then, unless things change, the system will reach a point where each season, the costs of wildfires will mount catastrophically, because not only do budgets not cover all the firefighting needed but the accumulated “debt” of things undone in previous seasons will add to the destruction. In other words, to get back to anything approximating today’s halcyon days will require far more planning, back-burning, and ecosystem repair than is required now – if it can be done at all.

The answer, I think, is that, like Struzik, we need to see our efforts with regard to wildfires as an integral and inevitable part of our climate-change spending. There is far less argument about adaptation than mitigation, and, unfortunately, probably far more spending on adaptation than mitigation. Wildfire strategy is primarily an adaptation strategy – it affects carbon pollution, but much less than fossil-fuel combustion. Therefore, there should be much less resistance to this type of approach and spending. One hopes.

Wednesday, February 21, 2018

Climate Change 2018: That Was The Year That Wasn't

Disclaimer:  I am now retired, and am therefore no longer an expert on anything.  This blog post presents only my opinions, and anything in it should not be relied on.
We begin our experience of climate change in 2018 with the legacy of 2017, a year that was in many ways the worst so far.  It began with a new US President committed to reversing the minor gains against carbon emissions that the “lead dog” US had already achieved, and with unprecedented off-season Arctic sea ice melting.  It ended with massive out-of-season climate-change-driven wildfires in California, four hurricanes together packing unprecedented force and causing thousands of deaths (Puerto Rico) and close-to-unprecedented physical damage (in dollars), apparent increases in US carbon emissions after 2 years of declines, and unprecedented Arctic warmth in December.  And those are just the lowlights.
In the year since I retired, I have had the chance to read extensively if capriciously in climate change literature, and I hope to share some of those books’ insights with readers in later posts.  Here, I want to briefly note some of the key initial climate change trends of 2018:
·         Atmospheric CO2 continues its relatively rapid pace of increase

·         Arctic sea ice is at a historic low for this time of year, and global sea ice at an all-time low

·         Solar energy cost gains are counteracted by inadequate country emissions pledges and US backsliding

CO2 Increases:  The Broken Record

The important thing to remember about atmospheric CO2 measurements is that they tell us how we are really doing.  You will see all sorts of encouraging (and discouraging) developments that should affect carbon emissions over the course of the year, especially the ones that claim to measure whether global emissions are up or down.  However, global emission measures are flawed by self-reporting and incomplete data, which may increasingly underestimate the emissions.  Atmospheric CO2, measured since 1959 at Mauna Loa in Hawaii, provides not only a measure of overall emissions but also a reality check as to whether our efforts at curbing human and human-related emissions are bearing fruit.
In February 2018, as it seems I have said many times before – so many times that I sound like a broken record – atmospheric CO2 continues to increase at an unprecedented pace, all things considered.  Initial indications are that 2017 CO2 increased by 2.11 ppm, less that the 3 ppm the previous two years.  However, this is a drop of about 0.9 ppm from 2 El Nino years, while the only comparable El Nino year in the past, 1998, saw a drop of about 2 ppm the next year.  Meanwhile, with February ¾ done, the increase for this month appears to be about 2.4 ppm.
The result is that it is almost certain that atmospheric CO2 is about 408 ppm, up 8-9 ppm since 2015.  While this is less than I feared 1 ½ years ago, it still suggests that we will reach 410 ppm some time around the end of this year and 420 ppm in 2022 – and we have already seen the drastic effects of breaching 400 ppm.

Arctic Sea Ice:  What Does Not Stay in the Arctic

For this, the best I can do is quote Joe Romm and Michael Mann (  “2018 has already set a string of records for lowest Arctic sea ice … [but] what happens in the Arctic doesn’t usually stay in the Arctic”  because this low Arctic sea ice weakens and moves the polar vertex (wintertime circular winds around the North Pole), driving relatively cold air south where it impacts both northern America as far south as Florida and northern Eurasia.  So what we are seeing is both extreme cold from this disruption, and extreme warmth when the disruption is not operating (as now, when I am seeing temperatures almost 40 degrees F above normal near Boston).
This is part of a year-round disruption of once-normal Arctic wind patterns leading to “acceleration” of “slowing down of ocean currents, … weather extremes like droughts, wildfires, floods, and superstorms …  [and] faster melting of the land-based Greenland ice sheet, which in turn drives the speed up in sea level rise that scientists reported last week.” 
Nor should we be complacent about Antarctic ice melting.  As noted, Antarctic land ice melt is the key to huge world sea level rise, and melting of Antarctic sea ice that plugs the glaciers conveying land ice to the sea for melting is therefore a prerequisite for huge world sea level rise.  The fact that global (Arctic plus Antarctic) sea ice has reached a record low in the last few weeks indicates that Antarctic sea ice is also at a low point, and last year’s Antarctic sea ice data backs that up.

Solar Vs. Fossil: One Step Forward, Two Half-Steps Back

There is no doubt in my mind that the major encouraging news of the past year has been the driving down of the cost of solar-power generation and installation, to a point well below that of oil, natural gas, and coal.  Moreover, increasingly, despite the lack of adequate solar-battery technology to guarantee no-blackout solar plus wind, the increased production of solar batteries and their lowered cost does make regional almost-no-blackout solar-plus-wind cost-effective for the majority of power in most world regions.  These technological improvements should continue unabated in 2018, and they are now empowered by NGOs, some governments, and entrepreneurs to a surprising extent.
However, a new UN publication assesses the emissions pledges of governments at or since the 2016 Paris conference, and finds that 2030 fossil-fuel emissions will be up in 2030 compared with 1990 if these pledges are fulfilled, while 2050 fossil-fuel emissions will be up in 2050 compared with 2030.   Combined with projected rising population until about 2050 that leads to rising non-fossil-fuel emissions (e.g., cows with methane, deforestation), this pattern of pledges may lock countries more firmly into efforts that are inadequate for a 2 degrees Centigrade goal.  Therefore, like Alice Through the Looking-Glass, we are failing to run fast enough to stay where we are, and have effectively taken a half-step back.
Another half-step, I believe, comes from the extensive efforts of the Trump administration to undo Obama-era (and previous) regulations, incentives, enforcement, and measurement related to climate change.  Over the past year, for example, enforcement actions have apparently gone down 44 %, solar incentives are rapidly moving from positive to negative, regulations on things like LED lightbulbs and Energy Star labelling are undercut, and satellites key to measurement of things like Arctic sea ice are under threat or under repair from underfunding, while communication of the data suffers from extreme removal of climate change considerations.  No wonder the US appears to have seen a rise in emissions in 2017 compared to a decline in the previous two years.  And this Trump-administration effort continues to grow in scope in 2018.

Conclusion:  That Was the Year That Wasn’t

Way back when (1962-1963), a TV show took a satirical look at the news of the week with the title, “That Was the Week That Was.”  It seems to me, taking a cynical look at 2017 and our efforts to deal with climate change, that that was the Year That Wasn’t – wasn’t in net terms a real break from the “business as usual” of 2010 and before – while at least 2016 saw a major shift in reporting on climate change, some people’s and governments’ attitudes, and at least somewhat of a shift in emissions themselves. 
Will 2018 be another Year That Wasn’t?  Too early to tell.  But we couldn’t afford 2017.  And, to a greater extent, we can’t afford another year like it.