Posts Tagged 'Climate'

I Dream of Winter

snowtreesWinter this year consisted of two brief cold snaps and a couple of snowfalls. One storm was substantial, but it had no follow-through, and was preceded by spoiling absurdities of municipal and media hype. Yesterday, when I took this photo on Union Street, we’d had a little bit of snow, but it was mostly gone by the afternoon. I wants my money back! It’s not over yet, at least according to the calendar, but skunk cabbage don’t care, it’s coming up. It was the hottest February on record. But we’ll break that next year, or the year after.

Sweet Spot Soured

Neither too close nor too far from the sun, Earth has been described as a “Goldilocks planet” because it’s just right. The term is also used for similar planets, those of the over 2000 exoplanets now discovered that are situated just right, too. More formally, planets in sweet spot orbits are in the “circumstellar habitable zone.” No sign yet of other inhabitants, though. No, it’s just us with our porridge heating up.

Of course, it isn’t just about location, location, location. Venus is closer to the sun, so it gets more solar energy, but it’s also shrouded in atmospheric gasses that act like the green-house effect on steroids. Average temperatures there are 864F/462C. The atmosphere is some 95% carbon dioxide. Heat gets in, as through plates of glass in a greenhouse, but doesn’t escape as radiation because of the blanketing effects of the glass-lake atmosphere.

When I think about global warming, Venus is always on my mind. Not a perfect analogy, and by far the worst case scenario, but still sobering. Because, you know, physics. Back here on Planet Home, CO2 is just a trace element. It makes up 0.04% of the atmospheric gasses, which are mostly nitrogen (78%) and oxygen (21%). This percentage is also measured in parts per million, PPM: CO2 is currently 400 parts per million, and as you know, it’s been rising since we were all born. The climate action campaign 350.org was named after the limit stated in 2007 as the tipping point.

Now, it has been much lower, for most of human history, and it has been much higher, back long before us: half billion years ago it was 7,000 parts per million.

We humans have been humans in the Goldilocks period of CO2. But not even 1% of the atmosphere!? It certainly seems ridiculously insignificant, doesn’t it? But this tiny amount goes a long, long way because it is such a powerful greenhouse gas. It’s effect is outsized, because its helping to cook the atmosphere.

Here’s the thing: the warming will continue even if we shut off all carbon inputs into the atmosphere now. Its effects are building even without additional CO2. Physics again. Damned physics. The ice will continue to melt, affecting some 20% of the population as coasts and cities flood. But of course we’re nowhere near cutting off all carbon inputs. We’re aren’t even doing much to prepare for what is coming. This country, in particular, with its small population and huge appetites, is for all intents and purposes controlled by the carbon industry. It will not provide leadership.

But do we think the refugee crisis in Europe is bad now? Do we think that political rage is high now and fascists like Donald Trump can feed off it? Do we think that terrorism and chaos have reached their limit? The effects of global warming suggest we ain’t seen nothin’ yet. And I do mean we.

Sorry to start your Monday off with this. It’s entirely too early to drink.

Last Ocean

Weller_Antarctica031The Last Ocean by John Weller, published by Rizzoli.

This year, I’m going to try to be systematic with my natural history reviews. I begin with a remarkable book of photography.

Darwin knows, there’s a lot of nature photography out there on-line, in print, and on TV (and DVD etc.). A lot of it is lovely, but as this blog hopefully argues overtly and covertly, such exotica shouldn’t keep you from exploring the local with your own eyes. Of course, Antarctica is a place few of us will probably visit. And these photographs by John Weller are rather jaw-dropping. There’s a slide show on his webpage to give you an idea; the book itself is oversize and worth looking at in its paper format, a very different experience from the screen.

This is predominately a picture book, but the text is definitely worth reading. I was particularly struck by the passages on the mechanics of very cold water and the importance of the southern ocean to the world’s deep ocean currents; the explosive sound of Weddell Seals, nearly strong enough to burst human eardrums, and evidently used to stun prey; and the transformation of the region by climate change and resource exploitation, for in the Ross Sea the toothfish industry is doing the same thing fishing fleets have done for ever, stripping the world of a particular species. The Dry Valleys, a Martian-like region usually kept clear of snow, were a revelation: in this near lifeless zone, the mummified bodies of seals which wandered in centuries ago still influence the delicate balance of the microbiota.

The Martian analogy is telling: we spend a lot of time and enthusiasm looking into space, but we don’t know enough about, or care enough for, the life surrounding us here.

Foggy Old Town

Nothing quite says “harbor” like a foghorn. This freakishly warm December has been producing intense fogs in the archipelago of New York City. Up here on the Harbor Hill Moraine, visibility has often been reduced to less than an avenue block away. It’s just about an avenue now as I write; a large antenna on the corner of 40th and 5th Ave is my marker of that distance. The harbor, six avenues away, is completely shrouded, represented only by the long boom of the occasional foghorn. At just after 6 this morning, a very loud horn repeatedly boomed. I assume it was one of those appalling, floating environmental crimes known as cruise ships.

For these photos from the other day, I was down at Bush Terminal Park. It cleared rapidly after these shots, but the uphill cloud — fog is basically a cloud at ground level — settled on the apartment surrounds well into the afternoon.

IMG_5387

fog

Arctic Longing

UnknownWhat an amazing and awe-inspiring book. I’ve long heard about Barry Lopez‘s Arctic Dreams but have only just got around to reading it. I was nudged by a fellow conspirator, Erin of the Familiar Wilderness on the other end of the Long Island. And now I want to read it again. Combining human and natural history with beautiful prose, Lopez’s subtitle “Imagination and Desire in a Northern Landscape” captures his mission. Originally published in 1986, just a couple years before James Hansen testified before Congress about global warming, the book now reads like a premature elegy. Lopez was already noting the radical transformation of landscape and indigenous culture under the onslaught of – well, what can only be called, from the perspective of the far north, southerners. But the Great Melting was on very few people’s minds then. Indeed, in the 1970s, a mainline scientific assumption was that, based on historical patterns, we were cruising along in an interglacial era, and the Ice Age would return, oh, some time in the future. (A formidable story of my youth was A.C. Clarke’s “The Forgotten Enemy,” about the return of the glaciers.) So by default, in the whiplash-rapid Anthropocene, Lopez’s book is becoming a record of a lost world.

King Carbon still hungers to devour the North Slope; circumpolar nations are now jockeying to strip what they can from the de-iced Arctic Sea. The ignorant and/or mendacious still mouth nonsense about the “wasteland” of the tundra, and celebrity sociopaths like Sarah Palin whip up the lynch-mob-minded cretins who enable her with her fascist porn about executing wolves from helicopters, but the human story of the north transcends all these enemies of the planet, and hence, inevitably, humanity.

Ending The Endless War

Last year was the the hottest year since modern record keeping began in 1880, capping all the other recent record-breakers. And it’s NOT going to get better. If you were born in 1985 or after, you’ve never experienced a year in which the global temperature has been below the 20th-century average.

And then there’s methane. Mother of Alessandro Giuseppe Antonio Anastasio Volta (who isolated Franklin’s “flammable gas”)! Methane is a much more powerful greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide. For the length of human civilization, most of the CH4 on the planet has been frozen and out of the way, no bother at all to, say, Sumerian seal carvers, Medieval shepherdesses, Arabic astronomers, Incan princesses, Nri-Igbo traders, Australian song-line cartographers, or even lardy Americans bellowing from their couches at corporate sportainments on their big, big screens. Most of the gas has been locked up in the permafrost and at the bottom of the polar oceans in the form known as methane hydrate. But now our warming-by-CO2 planet is unleashing the CH4, adding it to the blanketing layer of atmosphere-trapping heat. And it will be astonishingly bad for humanity.

I call it the methane bomb ~ not with fire, and certainly not with ice… but with a fart?

The Arctic Methane Emergency Group — contemplate that name for a moment — is calling for a re-freezing of the Arctic to prevent this eruption. I think we can safely say that that’s a non-starter now, and if it ever is a starter it will be too late. The feedback mechanisms we have set in motion are no longer a matter of turning things on and off, even if we could. We’re hit 400 ppm of CO2 (not so long ago, 350.org put where they wanted to draw the line in their name). Among other effects, the AMEG gets to the rub of what is often confusing about radical climate disruption when they note that the methane bomb’s effects will be “disruption of jet stream behaviour, with abrupt climate change leading to crop failures, rising food prices and conflict in the Northern Hemisphere.” Because it’s not the planet that’s ending, not for a long time yet, barring a meteor collision. What’s going to end is the world as we know it, the world as the last 10,000 years of humans have known it. Yes, rising waters, fiercer storms, greater flooding, harsher droughts, — and yes, more snow when, as happened off New England this winter, very warm ocean water (unusually warm ocean water, soon to be the norm, not so unusual), pumping more moisture into the atmosphere, meets cold air from the north — but the really terrifying and terrible changes will be the resulting political ones, the human ones. Considering that the world is already a chaos of conflicts, beset by refugees, terrorism, overweening authoritarianisms, and the rapid movement of disease, lighting a massive fire under current conditions must obviously make things infinitely worse. (Remember, we’ve seen weather-related economic migration already within the US itself; they were called “Okies” by the Californians who wanted to keep them out; I called one of them my mother.)

Rebecca Solnit, who is one of the essential writers of our time, has a short essay in the February Harper’s that is mandatory reading. (It is, however, subscriber only, but this is a necessary publication amidst so much corporate shit, so don’t tell me you aren’t subscribing already.) She writes of the war being waged against Earth; she dates it as a kind of continuation of the Second World War (I might argue it’s older, but certainly it became fiendishly modernized in the last half century with plastics, pesticides and nuclear power). A servant of the oil and gas industry, the carbon lobby suicide squad that for all intents and purposes currently owns a significant part of our country, is quoted here on the “endless war” against the Earth and all its Earthlings. But it’s not endless; it’s going to end, sooner or later. That time should be ours to decree. Later will be very much worse for today’s children and their children.

King Carbon is as wrapped up in our economy and lives, our entire civilization, as slavery once was. Capitalism, with its bottomless maw for finite resources, can’t be permanent, which is why it desperately wants to devour other worlds. What this means, though, is that, like slavery, these things can be ended. Thomas Jefferson, for all his blindness, rightly called the Missouri crisis the “fire bell in the night” that “awakened me and filled me with terror” for the firestorm to come. Jefferson heard it late in the game; it had been ringing already for two centuries before the fire came, always louder and louder. We have rather less time now to heed the screaming klaxon.

People’s Climate March

The march is tomorrow, Sunday, starting at Columbus Circle at 11:30.

I’m posting this today because tonight at midnight I will be going on an fossil fuel fast, attempting to use the least amount of power as possible, including everything connected to the internet. Trying to shrink my small urban footprint even smaller; this is purely symbolic, but I feel marching isn’t enough. I figure I’ll leave the fridge plugged in, but not open it. Otherwise, everything’s being turned off; I’m even avoiding public transit.

So, I’ll be in the march tomorrow, but… really, what political efficacy will a march to nowhere have? It’s police-approved and corralled, not allowed to go anywhere near the UN, whose meeting later in the week is the ostensible reason for the march. The energy corporations have nothing to fear here. The “Flood Wall Street” after-party, so to speak, on Monday, is a much more direct challenge.

March organizers explain the march here.
For a more critical take on why a politics-free march may probably achieve little, read this.


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