A dysfunctional conversation about climate change among evangelical Christians, annotated

This is taken from a real Facebook conversation. I’ve changed the names to protect the innocent and the guilty. My comments are in italics.

Curious Jane is a young evangelical, on the progressive side of the spectrum. But she’s a progressive fish in a conservative sea. Here she tries to swim against the current.

jane

ORIGINAL POST

Curious Jane: For people who don’t believe in climate change… help me understand why? I am genuinely curious. I just can’t wrap my brain around denying the fact that our presence here has an effect on the environment and why wouldn’t we want to decrease our negative impact.

Kudos to Curious Jane! She knows her Facebook Friends include lots of evangelicals (from conservative to openly gay) and she’s going right at them. She’s concerned about climate change and she seems honest in her question.

COMMENTS

Biz Karen:  What’s now referred to as Climate Change used to be called Global Warning.
The article below may help to shed some light for you.  Call it whatever we like to suit politics & agendas, the fact remains we’ve been charged by God to care for the Earth (Genesis), so yes, we should take an interest in doing what we can, as best we can.
That said, Revelation also tells us there will be a new Earth, all things will be made new. The Earth is included in the Fall, and in a state of decay – this does not abdicate our responsibility, however. Just as grace does not give us leave to behave in whatever way we like.

https://theecologist.org/2018/aug/21/how-margaret-thatcher-came-sound-climate-alarm?fbclid=IwAR2YokSk_Txc6olUpJmdoZ6d0r5L8lem0icoliqvIMl_-2vLaXHefextQys

Whoa, we open with the classic evangelical theological roller coaster. We should behave morally, but it’s irrelevant, but we really should, ish. Biz Karen then provides a link. The link is strange—having nothing to do with Christian beliefs and hardly the kind of thing one would share to “shed light” on this issue. It’s from a fringe publication—a poorly-written piece about Margaret Thatcher promoting climate change as a tool to promote nuclear power plants. I think it’s supposed to be an example of people promoting climate change to advance a personal agenda. Who know where Karen got this from.

Curious Jane: I am not really sure I understand the article, or what it’s point is. I agree with both of the latter points though. The idea of that we will have a new earth is an interesting concept, one i hadn’t considered, but that makes sense. But as you say, that doesn’t give us a right to do what we want. And I think historically Christians have used the idea of “dominion over the earth” as a way to justify their lack of consideration for it.

Jane is on point here, 3 for 3: the article is bizarre; the “new earth” shouldn’t affect our behavior; and the “dominion” notion has been a grossly abused concept in the past. Go Jane!

Biz Karen:  Yup. Re the article – it’s basically that the concept of GW was not scientifically supported, and in large part created to aid Margaret Thatcher’s election as a woman in a man’s world…. Simply put.

Wow, Karen is 0 for 2 here. Her strange summary doesn’t match the bizarre article.

Curious Jane: Gotcha! Thanks for the breakdown!

Oh oh.  Jane is slipping, yielding to niceties instead of holding Karen’s feet to the fire. Maybe she’s giving up on Karen’s ability to answer her question in the first place.

Biz Karen: Curious Jane ya know, that’s what Auntie’s are for.

Well, you can’t choose your relatives.

Walter: I think why people shut off to this topic on the right is because every proposal to help curb emissions is just a way to push socialism. If you read the Green New Deal that’s what it’s core is. Now if they expanded their view to include nuclear and carbon capture tech I think they would get a lot more people who don’t turn off immediately at the very thought of changing away from fossil fuels.

Walter coming in with the Fox News talking point: socialism. It’s how Republicans seek to demonize every possible government intervention. It’s how conservative American dis more developed societies in Europe. And it’s also a massive generalization. Seriously, the police department, the military, agricultural subsidies, clean water regulations, the roads, the aqueducts, education—all could be called “socialism”. But not really. Government programs and regulations do not a socialist country make.

Let’s make the case for government intervention in this case. Econ 101 tells us that climate change is a classic negative externality problem. The true consequences of using oil are not reflected in the price at the pump. The market is not sending us the right signals, so we have no incentive to change. This is why we tax cigarettes or outlaw child labor—the government is intervening to fix the market, to stop the free market from doing something we don’t want. AOC only calls it the Green New Deal (echoing Roosevelt’s “New Deal”) because she recognizes our whole economy is built around carbon fuels and must change. That’s a big lift. To do that, we need a whole lot of intervention, so that the cost of CO2 emissions is reflected in the marketplace, so that alternatives are developed, and so that the poor don’t get screwed during the transition to alternative energies. Rather than demonize this transition (because Big Oil feels threatened), the GOP should help craft it. At least they should debate alternatives, rather than demonize any proposed solution.

Curious Jane: In what ways does it push socialism? (I don’t know anything about it, so again a genuinely curious question)

Jane should probably redirect Walter back to Christianity and Jesus here—the radical Jesus that openly suggested massive land reform and the forgiveness of debts every 50 years (talk about socialism!). But instead she calls him out on the socialism claim. Okay.

Curious Jane: Also, people completely deny its existence or that the climate is changing at all. Most of these people are Christian, or Christian affiliated

Ah, here we go! Back to signal! It’s like Jane listened to me. Why are Christians, who are supposed to love and especially care for the vulnerable, holding this position that contributes to real harm? And let me remind everyone that this is a conversation that could only happen in America among white conservative Christians. Nowhere else in the world is this even a debate. That’s how far down a fucked-up road Jane is on here. But she’s trying to turn the car around.

Walter:  Jane, it covers housing for all, jobs for all, focuses on “historically marginalized” communities and social justice etc. I’m just saying that if the politics were removed from the argument you would see a lot more people finding common cause. People on the right feel like admitting global warming is a threat means they have to sign onto leftist resolutions to that problem. I believe we are having a huge affect on the climate, but I don’t believe wind and solar fix it.

Okay, so Walter is a bit of a conservative troller, fishing with baited hooks on multiple issues. Look Walter, forget social justice if that irks you (as a Christian). No one is stopping the GOP from running on a platform committed to developing carbon capture technology. In fact, that would be a far more legitimate position than denying the problem exists. And that’s the main reason this problem is “political”. Denial. Which is a political strategy developed by Big Oil, embraced by James Baker and the GOP in the 1990s, and funded by the Koch Bros and others now.

But the real truth, the real answer to Jane’s question why Christians deny climate change, goes back a few years before she was born. I lived thru it. In the the 1970s there were many conservative Christians who were Democrats- like most of the South. Jimmy Carter was the first candidate to say he was “born again”. But since the 1980s conservative evangelicals have been in bed with the Republican Party (largely due to one issue, abortion), and the Republican Party has been in bed with Big Oil, and Big Oil has pursued promoting climate change denial since the 1990s (even though they very much believe in it and accurately modeled it decades ago). So that’s why conservative evangelicals now deny climate change. Because they are told to.

Curious Jane: But maybe wind and solar may help? Being aware of the issue may help? What are the republicans doing to address the issue?

Go Jane! #FightingSpirit

Walter:  Jane, I think it’s definitely a big piece. And I don’t think the republicans are doing much at all. Sadly. But we have seen US emissions drop by 15% in the last 20 years because of the clean tech in natural gas plants. Nuclear plants have zero emissions. Sadly no one wants to come together and compromise. So it’s all gonna get worse 😕

Walter is caving in; he’s coming across the aisle, now supporting solar and throwing shade on the GOP. Fact check on the 15% decline in emissions: Walter is correct. Emissions have declined about that much, entirely because of the switch from coal to natural gas by electricity generating plants (really a bit of luck there for all of us—it was driven by new discoveries and economics and could just as easily have gone the other way). However, CO2 emissions from transportation (e.g. cars and planes) hasn’t changed at all—and it’s now the biggest piece of the pie. I’m not sure what compromise Walter has in mind. The current Dem proposals are insufficient to address climate change, and the GOP wants to roll them back. Seems to me we need a Green New Deal (of some kind); compromise between the current Dems and current GOP is insufficient to address the problem.

Curious Jane: It just seems like people and/or politicians feel like they can’t compromise because they would be compromising their values, or “giving in” to the other side. And they rather get nothing done then give in

Oh oh. Walter caved so now Jane is caving. Jane, there is no compromise on the table. In fact, there’s precious little on the table at all because the GOP officially denies the problem exists. They are probably the ONLY major political party in the world that takes that position.

Walter:  Jane exactly!

Oh oh. Love fest now. Walter has lured her in, a strategic psychological masterpiece. Jane has caved to the “two sides to every story” religion (aka “bias towards fairness”) and now Walter is tying the noose.

Big Dan: Jane I think it’s a mistake to say nothing is being done. There have been great strides in improving our environmental impact in the United States over the last 30 years or so. But the radical propaganda does not include this because it doesn’t fit the narrative. The United States is much less polluting than almost all other industrialized nations. The socialist controlled nations are much worse. Frankly the most environmentally horrible places in our own country are the most socialist as well.

Here comes Big Dan to shake things up. He sounds like Trump on Facebook, with a fully-automatic blast of inaccuracies to overwhelm the reader. Fact checks: All wrong. Clearly this guy has never been to Europe, which generally has stricter environmental laws. CO2 emissions per capita in Europe are about half those in the US.

Big Dan: to finish my thought (got distracted-sorry) some of us on the right are opposed to the leftists solutions precisely because we care deeply about the environment and are certain they will result in making it much worse.

An unsupported and bizarre statement.

Big Dan: I do not deny climate change. I am extremely skeptical that is it man made or that we could stop it if we tried.

I understand when people live in the cities it can seem like we have an affect. And we can locally. But the world is a very big place and nature is so powerful. The effects of solar energy absorbed by the ocean water alone is mathematically exponentially larger than all of manmade energy use.

The idea that we’ve not even explored the ocean, but we think we can steer the climate is just beyond me.

In my profession we use temperature monitoring devices all the time. And the numbers we are told on climate change are still less than 5% of the factor of error in measurement devices. I’ve literally sent guys out to read gauges, write them down, and then compare them. 5 guys will vary 3 degrees F off of the same gauge.

If you were to watch the way I live out in the country, I think you would be able to see that I am conservation minded. But I don’t see the political solutions as being effective in anything but tyranny. You will find the most socialist nations are also the most polluting.

Wow, basically Fox News diarrhea here, with mentions of “tyranny” and “socialist” and a stunning disregard for science (and with that, a stunning disregard for human life). Also, the hubris of “I know more than the scientists do” is also stunning. But don’t forget, many of these people have been primed for taking on scientists via their “creation science” battles. This is just an extension. Trump v National Weather Service is just another manifestation.

Crazy Amy: New world Order= old world
+ 💀. A very few people I know who are fervent evangelicals or witnesses are
EXCITED about the end of the world as they believe that this is according to the Book of Revelations and they are anticipating the rapture etc. It’s a piece to the Armageddon puzzle and they can’t wait to finish it. They help it along, believing it is part of the grand design.

…  um… speechless… so people are idling their Ford F150s in their driveways to bring Jesus back? And the human misery and starvation?  We’ve entered a dark cult here.

Curious Jane: I don’t think they have anything to do with finishing it 🤔🙄

Thank you Jane—and nice emojis with “blegh” and “rolling your eyes”

Crazy Amy: Jane, tell them that 😂

So, does Amy really know people like this? We haven’t heard from them directly. I’m thinking the Fox ditto-heads speak for most conservative Christians and Amy is referring to a lunatic fringe beyond the usual repulsive perimeter.

Douglas: Jane, I think mankind has evolved into man-unkind. Very un kind to the invironment thus affecting the ecology. It’s not ignorance but rather ‘arrogance’ that’s responsive for the degradation of our environment. The industrial revolution, dangerous weapons of war, paradoxically the elite are the perpetrators! Does this make sense?

Okay, Douglas is enough on-point that we think he might not be a Christian, certainly not a conservative one.

Curious Jane: Yes it does! Thanks for your thoughts Douglas.

And Jane is once again at home with her core values.

Dude Guy: Apparently Facebook only lets me post one picture per comment. So we’ll start here:  It should be noted that nobody of note denies “climate change”. As we understand it – the earth’s climate has been changing since the Earth was created. It has been in a constant stage of flux for a few billion years now, and humans are but a blip on the timeline, with our carbon footprint being an even smaller part of that. This chart demonstrates CO2 levels across various epochs in the Earth’s history. As you can see, it rises and falls irrespective of human interaction

[There’s a graph showing ups and downs over the last 4 million years, well beyond the period of Homo sapiens.]

This is the global mean temperature … [Another graph, see below.]

Carbon dioxide makes up about .0004% of our atmosphere, or about 405 parts per MILLION molecules in the atmosphere. Climate.gov reports that this is a record high… but that’s actually a lie…

Oh jeez, cut!  This is all a shitload of faux science built on the main conservative talking point: the climate is always changing. Fact check 1: climate usually changes at a geologic snail’s pace—and human civilization evolved in a very narrow window of it and we have evidence it’s prone to collapse outside of that window—and we’re outside that window now. Fact check 2: his “science” is all wrong and ludicrous and at odds with the scientific community. I spared you most of it. But here’s one of his graphs (left) next to one from a reputable source (right).

And don’t forget, climate change is many times more intense in the Arctic. Native communities across Alaska are suffering from massive climate change and conservative white Christians in America are acting as shills for Big Oil. This is really repulsive—there’s no other word for it. Ten years ago I told my conservative Christian friends that climate change was the biggest crisis facing the church. They are failing miserably.

CLICK TO ENLARGE

dys climate graphs.jpgCurious Jane: Thanks for all the info! I appreciate a scientific response 🙂

Whaaaaaat?  Jane, say it ain’t so. Are you just being nice?

Crazy Amy: Jane….not scientific….it’s called marketing.

I think Amy is critiquing Dude Guy here.

Curious Jane: That’s what all this is… marketing! It’s all political. Everyone just wants what they want.

That’s all i have learned from this. People have taken this issue and made it political.

Jane’s Dorothy-back-in-Kansas moment, but she’s mistaken. Again, Jane is caving in here to the “two sides to every story” thing, the go-to for Americans in uncomfortable situations. This is dysfunction. Jane, it’s political because one side not only doesn’t want a solution, they deny there’s a problem. Because they are selling oil. Plain and simple. When the earth’s climate really is changing in ways that will devastate life as we know it, when a truck is bearing down on you at full speed and you’re stuck in the middle of the road, there aren’t two legitimate sides. Wake up, Jane!

Curious Jane: Also, Dude Guy, regardless of your science, we should still take care of this earth and try to reduce our negative impact.

Ah, Jane is skeptical of his “science”. Curious Jane remains curious. This is good. Dude Guy never replies.

Biz Karen: Read: Climate Gate by Brian Sussman, Meteorologist!

LOL, vomit. I’ll let the readers look this one up themselves.

 ____________________________________________________________

We’ve come to the end. It’s no longer a question of whether Jane can shine light in the darkness of the church; it’s clear she won’t convert them. The question is, how long can she last?

Good luck, Jane. With friends like these, you’ll need better allies if you really want to follow Jesus.

In addition to Bill McKibben and Al Gore (both climate leaders motivated by their Christian faith), here are some organizations I suggest:

Sojourners          

Evangelicals for Social Action

 Young Evangelicals for Climate Action

 

Finally, Jane, check this out:  The Evangelical Climate Initiative. Climate Change: A Call to Action

Buying Greenland: Destroying the planet to make some money

Trump’s apparently serious bid to buy Greenland seemed like something out of The Simpson’s or SNL. It is not. It reveals something far more treacherous, like a ploy concocted by the villain in a superhero comic.

villian.jpg

Setting aside the massive hubris of white privilege, that land and indigenous people can be bought and sold by colonial powers (and Trump has mentioned trading some US land away to make the deal), and setting aside the question of how to pay for it (perhaps by ignoring Congress and diverting funds from another source, like he did for his wall), his proposal means he believes in climate change and wants to profit from it—from the suffering of billions and the destruction of earth as we know it.

It’s not hard to understand the mastermind of Trump. His strategies are as transparent as a third grader’s plotting to steal cookies. At the Arctic Council meeting in May, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo dismissed climate concerns and instead highlighted “new opportunities for trade” created by the melting ice, the “opportunities and abundance” created by an ice-free Arctic. In preparation for the Arctic summit, Pompeo was probably briefed about the economic opportunities of an ice-free Arctic Ocean—not just the shipping lanes but also the massive reserves of oil under the seabed. And perhaps that briefing mentioned Greenland, with massive reserves of coal and uranium and an estimated 13% of the world’s undiscovered oil reserves.

Pompeo shares the information with Trump. Trump offers to buy Greenland. Ca-ching.

They’ve also figured out that Greenland is melting. And it is melting much faster than climate scientists predicted. A new report by NASA revised its estimate of sea level rise from Greenland alone from 3 feet to 5 feet over the next 200 years. During a heat wave last month, it melted at a rate that it was not predicted to reach until 2070. While billions will be underwater, Trump sees opportunity and abundance.

greenlandice.jpg

A dramatic photo of pooling meltwater on sea ice off Greenland. July, 2019.

In the same way he has hijacked the Republican Party and wed it to a small and diminishing demographic (rural white men), he has wedded his personal investment strategy to “disaster capitalism”, a plan to make money off the destruction of the earth. Along with all of Big Oil and the Republican Party, he has a financial conflict of interest with curtailing CO2 emissions. If Greenland was part of his investment portfolio, he’d also have a conflict with solutions to climate change. He’d even have a conflict with a magic technological breakthrough that sequesters carbon. He’d need the ice to melt.

He has become the diabolical villain of superhero cartoons. The desire to make money off the destruction of the earth is not only an impeachable offense, it disqualifies him from any responsible role on the planet. He is a threat to all humanity and the world.

The only superhero to thwart him is us, the unorganized millions. It’s time to stop tweeting about his hair and his wife and his rudeness and his gaffes. It’s time to think strategically and take to the streets. It’s time to make his life a living hell before he does that to the planet.

My backyard fountain and the birds that come to it

I’ve been asked quite a lot about my fountain and pond (in Davis, California) and why it is so successful in attracting birds. Here are some, I think, key elements:

  • The first is the sound of falling water. Birds hear this and come to investigate. The pond is rather simple. It all begins with an amoeba-shaped pre-fabbed pond liner, about 18″ deep. A small electric pump and hose carries the water about 3 feet up, where I feed the hose through a knot-hole in a piece of wood. From there, it falls into a plastic garbage can lid, and then pours thru a small cut into another garbage can lid, and finally into the pond itself. Each fall creates more trickling sound. I’ve put a flexible pond liner under the “waterfall” so that any water that wicks under the garbage can lids still ends up in the pond. The two lid pools are 1-2″ deep for bathing. Finally, all this stuff is covered up with rocks and driftwood.
  • Second, it’s all about context. The pond is essentially in a green grotto with lots of vertical structure above it, meaning that birds can come into a high tree, descend to a medium tree, and descend again to a shrub near the fountain, and then finally into one of the pools.  They do serious recon about where they drink and bathe; an individual often takes several minutes to come in. I think the horizontal structure — what’s 15′ away from the pond, matters less than what’s above it; they come down from above.

  • At the same time, they need some visibility and escape corridors in case a cat or Cooper’s Hawk comes. I’ve trimmed all the bushes around it 18″ off the ground so any stalking cat will be clearly visible. A Cooper’s Hawk is largely thwarted by all the vegetation.

With all this cover, the pond is mostly in the shade. That’s good for controlling algae growth, but bad for taking photos. But in my experience a birdbath out in the open sun attracts only a few species. I have installed a couple iPhone holders so I can do some live video feeds (e.g. Facebook Live) of the birds coming in. I’ve also situated the pond so I get a clear view from my kitchen table, from right here as I type this on my laptop. My binoculars and camera are beside me in case anything interesting comes in.

Finally, there is the issue of my house, which has windows that birds can fly into. See this post about how to prevent birds from flying into your windows. 

I’ve recorded over 40 species using the pond. Here are some of them.

0V2A5983.JPG

Wilson’s Warblers

0V2A2400.JPG

Audubon’s Yellow-rumped Warblers

0V2A0971.JPG

Myrtle Yellow-rumped Warbler

0V2A5966.JPG

Nashville Warbler with a Western Tanager

0V2A5998.JPG

MacGillivray’s Warbler

0V2A0139.JPG

Black-throated Gray Warbler

0V2A9007.JPG

Yellow Warbler

0V2A8996.JPG

Orange-crowned Warbler

0V2A9335.JPG

Tennessee Warbler– this bird appeared while I was working from home on a conference call. Needless to say, I managed a photo.

0V2A2602.JPG

Western Tanager

0V2A5898.JPG

Black-headed Grosbeak with Wilson’s Warbler

0V2A0100.JPG

Varied Thrush

0V2A0521.JPG

An unusual strawberry blond Purple Finch in front of a regular one

IMG_6544.JPG

Hooded Oriole

0V2A9147.JPG

A White-crowned Sparrow defends a bathing spot from a Western Tanager

0V2A9763.JPG

Hermit Thrush, typically the last visitor of any winter evening

0V2A2646.JPG

Swainson’s Thrush

0V2A8748.JPG

American Robin and Cedar Waxwing

0V2A9747.JPG

intergrade Northern Flicker

0V2A6675.JPG

Spotted Towhee

0V2A0127.JPG

Slate-colored Junco

0V2A9756.JPG

Sooty Fox Sparrow in front of a Yellow-rumped Warbler

0V2A5880.JPG

One more Western Tanager

Not shown: Anna’s Hummingbird, Wild Turkey, California Scrub-Jay, Northern Mockingbird, Ruby-crowned Kinglet, Bushtit, Townsend’s Warbler, Hermit Warbler, House Finch, Cassin’s Finch, American Goldfinch, Lesser Goldfinch, California Towhee, Golden-crowned Sparrow, Lincoln’s Sparrow, House Sparrow… and probably some others.

 

A marsh in Richmond: what a restoration project taught me about racial bias, white privilege, and environmental justice

IMG_8286The people of Richmond did not like our choice for a restoration project; they wanted a different one. They called us racist. At first, we were perplexed. Eventually, I realized they were right.

As a natural resource economist for the California Department of Fish and Wildlife, it was my job to assess injuries to wildlife and habitat due to pollution events, and to seek compensation, thru restoration, to “make the public whole.” Working with partners from the US Fish and Wildlife Service, NOAA, and other state and federal agencies, we enjoyed our work— suing oil companies and using the recovered funds to do habitat restoration. We were “the trustees”; we represented the people and the natural resources and acted on their behalf. We were the Lorax; we spoke for the trees. We had been as innovative as we were successful, pioneering seabird restoration on breeding colonies in Canada, Alaska, Mexico, and even New Zealand to benefit bird species killed by oil spills in California. Those were the only places they nested, so we did what made the most biological sense.

In 2012 we began assessing damages to Castro Cove in San Pablo Bay near Richmond. It had been contaminated by oil, mercury, and lead associated with the adjacent Chevron refinery. To compensate for the injuries (in addition to cleaning up Castro Cove), we proposed to restore saltmarsh wetlands at Cullinan Ranch, part of San Pablo Bay National Wildlife Refuge, about ten miles to the north. We immediately met opposition from locals. They wanted the settlement funds to stay in Richmond; Cullinan Ranch was too far away.

We have project selection criteria set in federal regulations. Top of our list is always nexus— we aim to restore the same type of habitat and species that were injured. But there are also other things to consider: feasibility, partnering funds to make the project bigger, cost (bang for the buck), etc. When it came to evaluating restoration options, Richmond had little to offer. The refinery was merely one of several industrial or former industrial sites along their bay front. Contamination issues were everywhere. A poster child for environmental injustice, Richmond is also poor and predominantly non-white. We thought Cullinan Ranch was a good solution.

The people of Richmond wanted us to spend the funds restoring Breuner Marsh. This was a 238-acre parcel just north of Castro Cove wedged between the bay and the railroad tracks. Across the tracks was Parchester Village, a housing tract built after World War II to house African Americans enticed to move there and work in the nearby factories. It was one of the few places offering FHA home loans to non-whites. They came primarily from Louisiana, a land of marshes. They would cross the tracks and enjoy the wetlands as a place to hunt and fish. To this day, Parchester Village remains predominantly black. Whitney Dotson, and his father Reverend Dotson, have been fighting development proposals there, by a man named Breuner, for decades.

Initially, we, the natural resource trustees, fought the people of Parchester. The Cullinan project exceeded the Breuner project by most criteria. It was already part of a protected refuge. It had ten feet of elevation gain to buffer sea level rise. And the project, modifying the levee system, promised to restore 1500 acres; it had serious bang for the buck. And we asserted that ten miles away was no big deal.

But the distance was a big deal, and we didn’t understand why. I did not understand that other subcultures in the US don’t hop in their Prius and drive an hour to see a rare bird like me. They don’t throw their kayak on their Suburu and head for the boat launch. Nor were the people of Richmond, working two jobs and long shifts, going to drive to Cullinan, which had little parking and no bus service. They wanted to protect and restore their own marsh across the tracks from their neighborhood. They knew, better than we, that using our criteria, places like Marin County across the bay, one of the wealthiest counties in the nation, would win every time. No prior contamination? Check. Partnering funds? Lots. Contiguous with other protected areas? Of course.

When the people we are supposed to be compensating are complaining about our proposal, that’s a red flag that perhaps our criteria are biased, our evaluation is wrong, and that their values are not the same as our values. And they are the ones who matter. As trustees, we were supposed to ensure the compensation of the impacted people. We are obligated to see the world through their lens.

IMG_8341

The $14 million dollar project has re-contoured the wetlands and planted native grasses, as well as extended the Bay Trail with a paved bike path, parking lot, and restrooms. When I visited recently, two Golden Eagles, normally rare next to the Bay, skirmished over a kill in the grasses. 

A similar conflict arose in Mississippi after the Deepwater Horizon oil spill. At a contentious public meeting between the predominantly African American public wanting one type of restoration and white agency scientists proposing another, one exasperated woman stood up and asked, “Why are you all white?” When the government officials told me about this, they were scoffing. But it’s a great question. We all know the answer. They got their positions in government because they had college degrees. This in turn was highly correlated with a good high school and a good neighborhood. The money that financed all that started with their parents or grandparents, who probably began accumulating their family’s wealth after a subsidized college degree and home loan thru the GI Bill, or an FHA home loan, or maybe even a free plot of Native land via the Homestead Act, all programs that built the white middle class—and largely excluded people of color. The odds of a black person qualifying for one of these government positions were slim. That’s why that panel of restoration experts was all white. And they brought their cultural values with them.

In the end, we caved in and split the funds between Cullinan and Breuner (begrudgingly). I went to the Breuner Marsh project dedication ceremony, which featured speeches by both Whitney Dotson and Representative George Miller. There I learned everything I should have known earlier. That the people of Parchester Village had been fighting to save that marsh for decades.

They have since renamed the marsh; it is now the Dotson Family Marsh.

whit! Sorting out the call notes of western Empidonax flycatchers

After a flurry of migrant Empidonax flycatchers this April in California, a number of us engaged in a discussion about their whit! call notes. Specifically, could we tell Willow from Dusky from Gray just by the whit? Personally, I’m not there yet. I usually only hear them a few times a year, which is insufficient experience, and I suspect there’s individual variation as well as the tricks that wind, humidity, and distance play on sound. But what about analyzing their sonograms with a good recording?

I looked at the very best on-line recordings from the Macaulay Library (collected via eBird, and there’s a collection of the best ones at Peterson Bird Sounds) and from xeno-canto. (Warning: the horizontal axis is different between their sonograms. Xeno-canto sonograms fit about two seconds in the space where Macaulay fits one second of recording, thus compressing the sonogram. Here, I stretched the xeno-canto sonograms horizontally to adjust for that.)

Willow whits

Dusky whits

Gray whits

It appears that Willow, with a good recording, is distinctive, with up to three harmonic tones and that downward slope after the upward slow. To the ear, the Willow whit is softer and sweeter than the others. Dusky and Gray, on the other hand, are both dry sharp whits, and virtually indistinguishable on the sonograms. Gray is more likely to go up to 10 kHz or higher, and that echo line on the first Gray sonogram was consistent on all the calls, at least for that individual recording. For the record, Least was similar to Dusky and Gray, although the triangular dark shadow to the right of the main call tended to be thicker and larger.

iPhone whit

iPhone recording

To the right is a typical iPhone recording, probably a Dusky. Based only on this sonogram, just a shadow of the good ones above, it could be any of the species. The take-home lesson is that one could probably diagnostically identify a Willow whit from a sonogram with a very good recording. The Dusky and Gray whits are too close to call.

Our discussion also focused on spring migration timing and incorporated Hammond’s (as many of these birds are silent). Again, I turned to eBird for some trends.

CLICK TO ENLARGE

whit map

Spring migration for western Empids. These maps are based on 2017-18 data. I excluded a few outliers in each case. Nevertheless, these dates represent the earliest arrivals. Most birds were a week later than the dates shown.

The results are that Hammond’s is the earliest, followed by Gray and then Dusky. For all three, however, there was a pulse of records during the last week of April. Willow is a full month behind the other two. In fact, even in southern Arizona there were very few Willow records before May 10.

Kaufmann empidsMuch has been written about Empid identification. Here’s a link to the Rowland 2009 article in Birding. My personal favorite is the chapter in Kenn Kaufmann’s Advanced Birding. The diagram at left is from the old version; the new one is even better, showing variations within species.

For the Hammond’s/Dusky challenge in spring, I put together the diagram below. These identifications were confirmed by calling birds, which are easily separated (Hammond’s says peep rather than whit).

HammondsDusky

Finally, if you’re still confused, there’s this infamous meme:

empid meme

Spring Migration in the Central Valley

0V2A2892

Compared to fall, spring migration is fast and furious. It ramps up thru April, peaks in early May, and then ends abruptly. Birds don’t stay long; they’re in a hurry. Rarities rarely last more than a day. And there are fewer birds than in the fall, winter mortality having taken its toll. But, like this Lazuli Bunting, the birds are in their best dress.

In 2010, after ten years of collecting data on morning “warbler walks” in my local patch in Davis, the Central Valley Bird Club Bulletin published my results. You can read the whole paper here:

Hampton, S. 2010. Passerine migration patterns in Davis, Yolo County—2000-2010. Central Valley Bird Club Bulletin 13(3): 45-61.

Last fall, I posted a re-visualization of the data from that paper with regard to fall migration. Here is the spring version.

I’ve divided it into two graphs, one for more common species (peaking at 1 to 4.5 birds per survey), and another for less common migrants (less than 1 per survey).

CLICK TO ENLARGE.

DavisMigrants1spring

CLICK TO ENLARGE.

DavisMigrants2springThe same caveats apply:

  • A “survey” here is basically a morning walk lasting about 35 minutes.
    This was for my little route in north Davis (where the eBird hotspot is “North Davis Farms Subdivision”). For other locations in the Central Valley, even nearby ones, I would expect the numbers and relative abundance to vary a little. For example, I see a lot more flycatchers at Babel Slough and Grasslands Park than are reflected here.
  • Putah Creek near Pedrick Rd, a current favorite of birders, generally has more birds than is shown here because it’s a larger area, birders spend more than 35 minutes when they visit, and the habitat is slightly different.
  • A large portion of the birds in my data are “heard only”.
  • For additional details, see the full article linked above. I’m happy to provide my Excel spreadsheets of this data to anyone interested.
0V2A2610

Some species are more common in spring than fall. These include Hermit Warbler (above), Townsend’s Warbler, and Swainson’s Thrush (with a very narrow migration window in mid-May).

I’ve also linked lots of the bird literature specific to Yolo County at my Yolo County Birding website; see the list of papers in the lower right corner of that page.

On these graphs, I’ve left out the rarer birds, species that occur at a rate of less than 0.2 birds/survey (less than 1 out of every 5 surveys). These include Hammond’s and Dusky Flycatchers. It also includes Willow Flycatcher, House Wren, MacGillivray’s Warbler, Common Yellowthroat, and Chipping Sparrow, all of which are quite regular in the fall but rarely seen in spring migration.

Oceanography, plastic pollution, and Big Ag in the Amazon: What you can learn from the beach in the Yucatán

Yuc3

Plastics and rotting sargassum, Sian Ka’an Biosphere Reserve, Quintana Roo, Mexico

The beaches south of Cancun, Mexico were once famed for their talcum powder white sand and leaning coconut palms. Now they tell you a lot about the world.

Waves pile sargassum seaweed up to ten feet high along the waters edge while the sun cooks the rotting vegetation higher on the beach. I saw it about two feet high. It smells and traps baby sea turtles, preventing them from reaching the sea. And it’s not from Mexico. Sargassum is a floating algae, different from the seagrass that is anchored to the sea bottom offshore. Fed by warming seas and nutrients from agricultural runoff from the Amazon and other rivers to the south, sargassum has bloomed in recent years. Wind and currents bring it to the Yucatán Peninsula, where it has affected tourists’ enjoyment of the beaches.

CLICK PHOTO TO ENLARGE

But that’s not all. The beaches are littered with plastic garbage— mostly bottles and containers associated with beverages, personal care products, or automotive fluids. I couldn’t read the labels on most of them— they had clearly been at sea too long, drifting from too far away– but it appears most of them are not from Mexico either. Of the 47 labels I could read, here are the results.

CLICK TO ENLARGE

Yuc5map

I searched about 400 meters of beach at the Sian Ka’an Biosphere Reserve, south of Tulum, Mexico on the Yucatán Peninsula. There were about a thousand plastic containers. I could only read the labels on 47 of them. They came from all over the Caribbean, as well as Central and South America, and even West Africa and Asia.

The countries of origin based on the labels on the plastic containers are correlated with distance and currents. Cruise ships are an unlikely source– dumping plastics at sea has been banned for over a decade in the Caribbean.

Yuc1

Skin cream from Togo.

The disproportionate percentage of plastics from Haiti (mostly energy drinks) suggest this trash comes primarily from land-based sources, not cruise ships, and is correlated with poverty and the ability to address garbage. The high percentage from the US may be from local tourists or even Puerto Rico. Mexico is undoubtedly over-represented in my sample– those plastics come from the nearest and are likely less degraded and easier to read. Given that over 95% of the containers were so worn they were unreadable, it is likely they drifted from far away.

Yuc2

This beach, the lee of a point, was the cleanest one I encountered.

 

Two of the nation’s top birding spots threatened by the wall

Of the top 20 birding sites in the entire United States, based on the number of species reported on eBird, six of them are in south Texas. Two of them, Bentsen-Rio Grande Valley State Park and Santa Ana National Wildlife Refuge, are threatened by Trump’s proposed wall.

CLICK TO ENLARGE

RG border map

The map above, taken from an excellent article illustrating all of the natural resources at risk from California to Texas, includes the bird totals for the eBird hotspots associated with the at-risk parks and wildlife refuges. The wall is often constructed hundreds of yards north of the actual border (the Rio Grande River). It typically includes a swath of cleared land on each side of it.  At Bentsen and Santa Ana, the wall threatens to destroy critical remaining habitat and strand the parks in “no-man’s land”, preventing public access. Dozens of articles have been written regarding the impacts to everything from butterflies to ocelots.

Sabal Palm is unique, in that the natural area is south of the wall. Visitors pass thru the wall in order to visit the park. However, there is no guarantee this arrangement will be made at other sites. Should public access be denied at Bentsen, the park could revert back to the Bentsen family per a historical agreement. The national wildlife refuges are especially at risk. As they are already federal properties, the Administration doesn’t have to deal with acquiring private property. Thus, they are the easiest places to build.

 

 

The decline of Mountain Plovers in two graphs

I live in Yolo County, California, near Sacramento, where Mountain Plovers used to be an annual winter specialty. Searching for “dirt clods with legs”, we used to be able to find dozens of these unique shorebirds, sometimes over a hundred.

Those days are over. They are now “irregular”, meaning we don’t find them every year. We’ve struck out five of the last eleven years. Before that, we averaged a high count of 72 individuals. The first graph, built from records in the Yolo Audubon Society newsletter, emails to the Central Valley Birds listserv, and eBird, shows the high count each winter in Yolo County.

CLICK TO ENLARGE

MOPL Yolo

This second graph backs out a bit in space and time, looking at all Mountain Plovers worldwide, starting in 1980. They are a bird of the steppe, breeding mostly on the Great Plains between the Rockies and the flat lands, between the Canadian and Mexican borders. They winter in open country in a vast arc west and south of there, mostly in California, Arizona, New Mexico, and Texas.

MOPL cbc

All the Christmas Bird Counts nationwide, plus Mexico, averaged 728 birds per count thru 1994, but have never hit that mark since. Fewer than 200 individuals have been enumerated six of the last ten years. Adjusted for party hours, the graph basically looks the same.

Hell in Paradise: Why the Camp Fire was the largest climate-induced mass mortality event in modern history

fires Paradise

The Camp Fire was started by downed power lines, spread from a forest, and then became a structure-to-structure urban fire in which houses burned but many trees did not.

I grew up in southern California on the edge of the San Fernando Valley. Fires, usually fueled by Santa Ana winds on dry grasses in the hills, were a fact of life. I evacuated. I ran the pump to squirt water from the pool onto the roof. I helped neighbors on the edge of the hills water their roofs. Back in those days, in the 1970s, fires over 100,000 acres (~150 square miles) were rare. The worst fires destroyed 200 to 300 homes. Rarely, someone died. That was then.

fires infographic

Infographic prepared in 2013, before most of the recent mega-fires.

Twelve years ago, four researchers examined a comprehensive database of all large wildfires in western United States forests since 1970. They detected a signal and concluded that “large wildlife activity increased suddenly and markedly in the mid-1980s.” Looking at weather data and land-use history, they concluded the driving factor was “increased spring and summer temperatures and an earlier spring snowmelt”. Forest management, on the other hand, had “relatively little effect”. Published in the journal Science in 2006, they had found the “force multiplier” that climate change brings to the West. We all knew that forests had been mismanaged for nearly a century, and that too many homes and towns had been built up against wildlands.  But now there was a new factor driving fires—longer hotter drier summers. If you’re looking for numbers, the data show that fires really ramped up in 1987.  The so-called “force multiplier” of climate change was big—about 3 or 4. That is, wildfire frequency was triple in dry years when compared to moderate years, and quadruple that in wet years. Ominously, they noted the effect was non-linear, meaning that, in warmer years, fires really increased. Thus, the multiplier was not just a constant number—it increased with temperature and lack of rain. The Berkeley Tunnel fire, which was exceptional because it killed 24 people trying to evacuate and was the first fire in California history to burn over a thousand homes (it actually burned over 2,000 homes), occurred in 1991.

In the twelve years since the Science article, mega-fires, in terms of acres burned, structures destroyed, and people killed, have gone off the charts—literally. When it comes to fires that burn more than 200,000 acres (~300 square miles), destroy more than a thousand homes, and kill dozens, if not hundreds of people, climate change is not really a “force multiplier”, it’s an on-off switch. Such fires were very rare or non-existent before the year 2000. Now, they appear to be annual.

CA fires 2b

We’ve crossed a threshold, tripped a wire.  In 2017, after the astounding loss of 6,000 homes in Santa Rosa, we hoped that was an outlier, a blip in the data. A few months later, in December, when fires were previously unheard of, the Thomas Fire became the largest in state history. Barely six months later, the Carr Fire made Redding “the new Santa Rosa”. After that fire I posted a chart showing that 16 of the state’s largest 20 fires had all occurred in the past 20 years. We had a reached a “new abnormal”. Then, a few months after that, in November, when by all historical standards the fire season should be over, the Camp Fire literally wiped out the entire town of Paradise, population 26,000. Hospitals, high schools, stores, and houses, all gone. The death toll is without historical precedent. While that was burning, the Woolsey Fire became the largest and most destructive fire in the history of the Los Angeles area. At the present rate, next year the Paradise inferno will be surpassed by some hell unimaginable.

CA fires 2a

When I say the Camp Fire is the largest climate-induced mass mortality event in modern history, I’m not counting hurricanes. Hurricanes, even large hurricanes, have always occurred and always will. A Category 5 hurricane striking a major city is an inevitability. Yes, climate change has made hurricanes larger and more numerous, thus increasing the risk, but nothing like the change we’ve seen with fires in the West. Thus, attributing any one hurricane to climate change is like attributing a single specific cancer case to an environmental contaminant causing a cluster of cases.

CA fires 2c

When I say the Camp Fire was caused by climate change, I’m not saying that future destructive fires are inevitable. The fires will come, but we can do things to mitigate the

science-fires-1

Graphic from fivethirtyeight.com

destructive aspects. A full post-mortem on the Camp Fire and other recent mega-fires is of course required. Such analysis should look beyond the political rhetoric of Trump, exclusively blaming management practices in national forests. Most of these fires in these graphs, spreading across dry grass and oak woodland, had nothing to do with forests. Furthermore, in the face of massive tree death from drought, simply removing dead trees from forests has serious feasibility limitations. To quote a forest fire expert colleague, “Yes, fuels reduction is needed same as 30 years ago, but the mills are all full from the tree mortality supply, much of the fuels are not merchantable, and we are not going to cut our way out of longer fire seasons and deadly MegaFires.”

In the short run, we can’t stop the changing climate, the record low humidity and record high dry vegetation, or the longer summers. We can’t shorten the fire season, now 80 days longer than in 1970s. But we can modify power lines, conduct preventative burns, revise urban fire perimeter requirements, and re-evaluate evacuation routes. Those things won’t turn off the switch we’ve triggered, but they might at least save some homes and lives in the coming years.

CalFiredamage

The CalFire damage inspection map of Paradise. The latest interactive map can be found here