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.

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

The international climate report in three diagrams: The world at a crossroads

On October 6, 2018, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) issued its Special Report on Global Warming of 1.5 °C (known at “SR15”), looking at the benefits of keeping global warming under 1.5 °C, as compared to 2.0 °C, and the potential pathways to get there. The report was commissioned after the Paris Agreement of 2015, which subjected nearly every nation in the world to voluntary goals for reducing greenhouse gas emissions. We are already at 1.0 °C and climbing, so this is a late-in-the-game analysis.

The results, based on the latest science, are sobering. While past IPCC reports were known for being rather conservative, largely due to political pressure, this one is more direct, practically screaming for a radical reduction in fossil fuel use (which must fall to near zero by 2060 even with a technological breakthrough in carbon sequestration). When it was approved, participating scientists cried tears of joy that their report, dire as it is, was allowed to be published as it was.

The full report, a little over 1,000 pages, is available in chapters here.  It provides important details regarding the effects of climate change from region to region.

A 34-page summary for policy-makers is available here.

But even that summary is full of technical jargon that most politicians and members of the public would find cumbersome. Here I’ve taken some of the most important diagrams from the summary and modified and annotated them.  Here is the report in three diagrams:

[CLICK TO ENLARGE]

IPCC1

 

IPCC2

 

IPCC3

 

California apocalypse again: Large wildfires increasing with climate change

smoke

Sunset from the Central Valley, looking toward the Coast Range through the smoke of a million trees.

As I write this, helicopters are passing overhead in a dim gray-brown sky. The sun is a pink orb over the western horizon. It is 97 degrees at 7pm. The people of California sit like frogs in a slowly boiling pot.

Average temperature for July and August, here in Davis, is 93 degrees. But in the past 34 days, it was only below that six times. July 2018 was the hottest month in the history of the state.

Such climate change was predicted, with great accuracy, by both oil companies and government scientists back in the 1980s, and even earlier.  The consequences of this included more extreme weather, more drought, shorter rainy seasons, earlier snow melt, longer fire seasons, and larger fires. All that is coming to pass in such dramatic fashion that new records are set each year.

[CLICK TO ENLARGE GRAPHS]

Note: There were more mega-fires in November, 2018, shortly after I wrote this. These graphs are updated in a more recent blog post “Hell in Paradise: Why the Camp Fire was the largest climate-induced mass mortality event in modern history”

CA fires1In 1988, scientists were excited– and alarmed– to see the first indications of a warming climate. Now, graphs illustrating climate change need no statistical analysis. They are obvious to a child, ramping steeply up with each passing year.

CA fires2

A conservative talking point seems to be that this dramatic increase in fires is not due to climate change, but to poor forest management. While this has been an issue for over a hundred years, this question was the prime focus of Westerling et al 2006 in Science, where he concluded that longer hotter summers and shorter drier winters were indeed to blame. There were increased fires even in areas without poor management– or any management at all. Where there has been poor forest management, climate warming has acted as a “force multiplier” to make fires even worse. One could only imagine how easy it would be to write that paper now, twelve years later, with plenty of new eye-popping data points.  Thirteen of California’s 20 largest fires have occurred since Westerling sent his paper to the publisher.

Perhaps the best illustration of the combined effect of poor forest management and climate change comes from this 14-minute Ted talk given by Paul Hessburg in 2017.

Using a useful forest diagram, he explains how Native Americans regularly burned underbrush and maintained an open forest/meadow ecosystem that effectively prevented large wildfires. In the late 1800s, with the ethnic cleansing of Native Americans, the advent of cattle that ate the grass, and the US Forest Service suppressing fires and logging the largest trees, our forests changed from a mosaic of tough old trees surrounded by natural fire breaks to a solid crop of young growth. Add drought, heat, and an ignition source, and you see the results above.

CA fires3

The solution, regardless of how much you attribute large fires to climate change or management, is the same. We need to re-create the balance of the past thru the protection of large trees and prescribed burns. We need to create meadows and healthy forests. Some Native communities in northern California are planning to do this.

This all assumes that we get enough rain in winter and cool temps in summer to allow re-growth. Otherwise, the current fires may be transforming California’s mountain habitats into something resembling the mountains of Nevada and Arizona in the span of a decade.

Oil companies have researched climate change for 50 years– accurately

Long before climate change was controversial, before Al Gore’s Inconvenient Truth, before the public was even aware of greenhouse gases and sea level rise, the oil industry Oaklandtimelineknew pretty much what we now know today. They have been studying, researching, and modeling climate change as a result of their greenhouse gas emissions for over 50 years. Their research was in concert with the scientific community and decades ahead of public knowledge of the problem. Their predictions were typically exactly in line with the rest of the scientific world, and actually more aggressive than predictions by the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC).

The evidence is all laid out in the First Amended Complaint by the City of Oakland and State of California in their climate change lawsuit against BP, Chevron, ConocoPhillips, ExxonMobil, and Shell.

The case was recently dismissed, but more like it are sure to come. The full complaint, which also includes a nice summary of climate change and its future impacts on the City of Oakland, is available at this webpage (scroll down to 04/03/2018 Complaint).

A recent piece in the New York Times Magazine lays out how the government knew all this too, back in the 1980s, when Republicans and the oil industry agreed it was a problem, but then did nothing.

Here I re-post from Oakland’s First Amended Complaint the section on Big Oil’s knowledge and research of climate change:

DEFENDANTS HAVE PRODUCED MASSIVE AMOUNTS OF FOSSIL FUELS DESPITE HAVING FULL KNOWLEDGE FROM THEIR IN-HOUSE SCIENTIFIC STAFF, OR FROM API, THAT FOSSIL FUELS WOULD CAUSE GLOBAL WARMING.

For decades, Defendants have known that their fossil fuel products pose risks of “severe” and even “catastrophic” impacts on the global climate through the work and warnings of their own scientists and/or through their trade association, the American Petroleum Institute (“API”). Defendants, large and sophisticated companies devoted to researching significant issues relevant to fossil fuels, also were aware of significant scientific reports on climate change science and impacts at the time they were issued. Yet each Defendant decided to continue its conduct and commit itself to massive fossil fuel production. This was a deliberate decision to place company profits ahead of human safety and well-being and property, and to foist onto the public the costs of abating and adapting to the public nuisance of global warming.

The API is a national trade association that represents the interests of America’s oil and natural gas industry. At all relevant times, Defendants, their corporate predecessors and/or their operating subsidiaries over which they exercise substantial control, have been members of the API. On information and belief, the API has acted as Defendants’ agent with respect to global warming, received funding from Defendants for the API’s global warming initiatives, and shared with Defendants the information on global warming described herein.

Beginning in the 1950s, the API repeatedly warned its members that fossil fuels posed a grave threat to the global climate. These warnings have included, for example, an admission in 1968 in an API report predicting that carbon dioxide emissions were “almost certain” to produce “significant” temperature increases by 2000, and that these emissions were almost certainly attributable to fossil fuels. The report warned of “major changes in the earth’s environment” and a “rise in sea levels,” and concluded: “there seems to be no doubt that the potential damage to our environment could be severe.” Similar warnings followed in the ensuing decades, including reports commissioned by the API in the 1980s that there was “scientific consensus” that catastrophic climate change would ensue unless API members changed their business models, and predictions that sea levels would rise considerably, with grave consequences, if atmospheric concentrations of CO2 continued to increase.

The API’s warnings to Defendants included:

  • a) In 1951, the API launched a project to research air pollution from petroleum products, and attributed atmospheric carbon to fossil fuel sources. By 1968, the API’s scientific consultant reported to the API that carbon dioxide emissions were “almost certain” to produce “significant” temperature increases by 2000, and that these emissions were almost certainly attributable to fossil fuels. The report warned of “major changes in the earth’s environment” and a “rise in sea levels,” and concluded: “there seems to be no doubt that the potential damage to our environment could be severe.”
  • b) Between 1979 and 1983, the API and Defendants, their predecessors, and/or agents formed a task force to monitor and share climate research, initially called the “CO2 and Climate Task Force” and later renamed the “Climate and Energy Task Force” (“Task Force”). The API kept and distributed meeting minutes to Task Force members. Task Force members included, in addition to API representatives, scientists from Amoco (a predecessor to BP); Standard Oil of California, Texaco, and Gulf Oil Corp. (predecessors to Chevron); Exxon Research and Engineering and Mobil (predecessors to or subsidiaries of current Exxon); Shell; and others. In 1980, the Task Force invited Dr. J.A. Laurman, a “recognized expert in the field of CO2 and climate,” to make a presentation. Attendees to the presentation included scientists and executives from Texaco (a predecessor to Chevron), Exxon, and SOHIO (a predecessor to BP). Dr. Laurman’s written presentation informed the Task Force that there was a “Scientific Consensus on the Potential for Large Future Climatic Response to Increased CO2 Levels.” He further informed the Task Force in his presentation that, though the exact temperature increases were difficult to predict, the “physical facts agree on the probability of large effects 50 years away.” He warned the Task Force of a 2.5 ºC [4.5 ºF] global temperature rise by 2038, which would likely have “MAJOR ECONOMIC CONSEQUENCES,” and a 5 ºC [9 ºF] rise by 2067, which would likely produce “GLOBALLY CATASTROPHIC EFFECTS.” He also suggested that, despite uncertainty, “THERE IS NO LEEWAY” in the time for acting. API minutes show that the Task Force discussed topics including “the technical implications of energy source changeover,” “ground rules for energy release of fuels and the cleanup of fuels as they relate to CO2 creation,” and researching “the Market Penetration Requirements of Introducing a New Energy Source into World Wide Use.” The Task Force even asked the question “what is the 50 year future of fossil fuels?”
  • (c) In March 1982, an API-commissioned report showed the average increase in global temperature from a doubling of atmospheric concentrations of CO2 and projected, based upon computer modeling, global warming of between 2 and 3.5 ºC [3.6 to 6.3 ºF]. The report projected potentially “serious consequences for man’s comfort and survival,” and noted that “the height of the sea level can increase considerably.”

On information and belief, Defendants were aware of the industry Task Force and API findings described above, which were distributed by the API to its members. Each Defendant (or its predecessor) was a member of the API at relevant times, or had a subsidiary that was a member of the API at relevant times. Each subsidiary passed on information it learned from the API on climate change to its parent Defendant (or Defendant’s predecessor) and acted as the agent for its parent company, which remained in charge of setting overall production levels in light of climate change and other factors.

On information and belief, each Defendant was also actually aware (at the time they were made) of public statements on climate change described above, including the 1979 National Academy of Science findings and Dr. Hansen’s 1988 testimony. Because these statements were centrally relevant to Defendants’ ongoing investment of billions of dollars in fossil fuel production and billions of dollars in profits, and because Defendants employed experts charged with evaluating climate change and other energy and regulatory trends, Defendants were in a superior position to appreciate the threat described in these statements. Defendants’ representatives attended congressional hearings on climate change beginning as early as the late 1970s.

In addition to the API information, some of the Defendants produced their own internal analyses of global warming. For example, newly disclosed documents demonstrate that Exxon internally acknowledged in the late 1970s and early 1980s that its products posed a “catastrophic” threat to the global climate, and that fossil fuel use would have to be strictly limited to avoid severe harm:

  • a) Exxon management was informed by its scientists in 1977 that there was an “overwhelming” consensus that fossil fuels were responsible for atmospheric carbon dioxide increases. The presentation summarized a warning from a recent international scientific conference that “IT IS PREMATURE TO LIMIT USE OF FOSSIL FUELS BUT THEY SHOULD NOT BE ENCOURAGED.” The scientist warned management in a summary of his talk: “Present thinking holds that man has a time window of five to ten years before the need for hard decisions regarding changes in energy strategies might become critical.”
  • b) In a 1979 Exxon internal memo, an Exxon scientist calculated that 80% of fossil fuel reserves would need to remain in the ground and unburned to avoid greater than a doubling of atmospheric carbon dioxide.
  • c) In a 1981 internal Exxon memo, a scientist and director at the Exxon Research and Engineering Company warned that “it is distinctly possible” that CO2 emissions “will later produce effects which will indeed be catastrophic (at least for a substantial fraction of the earth’s population).”
  • d) A year later, the same scientist wrote another memo to Exxon headquarters, which reported on a “clear scientific consensus” that “a doubling of atmospheric CO2 from its preindustrial revolution value would result in an average global temperature rise of (3.0 ± 1.5) ºC [2.7 ºF to 8.1 ºF].” The clear scientific consensus was based upon computer modeling, which Exxon would later attack as unreliable and uncertain in an effort to undermine public confidence in climate science. The memo continued: “There is unanimous agreement in the scientific community that a temperature increase of this magnitude would bring about significant changes in the earth’s climate, including rainfall distribution and alterations in the biosphere.”
  • e) In November 1982, an Exxon internal report to management warned that “substantial climatic changes” could occur if the average global temperature rose “at least 1ºC [1.8 ºF] above [1982] levels,” and that “[m]itigation of the ‘greenhouse effect’ would require major reductions in fossil fuel combustion.” The report then warns Exxon management that “there are some potentially catastrophic events that must be considered,” including the risk that “if the Antarctic ice sheet which is anchored on land should melt, then this could cause a rise in sea level on the order of 5 meters.” The report includes a graph demonstrating the expected future global warming from the “CO2 effect” demonstrating a sharp departure from the “[r]ange of natural fluctuations.” This graph is attached hereto as Exhibit 3.
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  • f) By 1983, Exxon had created its own climate models, which confirmed the main conclusions from the earlier memos. Starting by at least the mid-1980s, Exxon used its own climate models, and governmental ones to gauge the impact that climate change would have on its own business operations and subsequently took actions to protect its own business assets based upon these modeling results.

Exxon’s early research and understanding of the global warming impacts of its business was not unique among Defendants. For example, at least as far back as 1970, Defendants Shell and BP began funding scientific research in England to examine the possible future climate changes from greenhouse gas emissions. Shell produced a film on global warming in 1991, in which it admitted that there had been a “marked increase [in global temperatures] in the 1980s” and that the increase “does accord with computer models based on the known atmospheric processes and predicted buildup of greenhouse gases.” It acknowledged a “serious warning” that had been “endorsed by a uniquely broad consensus of scientists” in 1990. In the film, Shell further admits that by 2050 continued emissions of greenhouse gases at high levels would cause a global average temperature increase of 1.5 to 4º C (2.7 to 7.2º F); that one meter of sea level rise was likely in the next century; that “this could be disastrous;” and that there is a “possibility of change faster than at any time since the end of the ice age, change too fast, perhaps, for life to adapt without severe dislocation.”

The next section is entitled,

DESPITE THEIR EARLY KNOWLEDGE THAT GLOBAL WARMING WAS REAL AND POSED GRAVE THREATS, DEFENDANTS PROMOTED FOSSIL FUELS FOR PERVASIVE USE WHILE DOWNPLAYING THE REALITY AND RISKS OF GLOBAL WARMING.

The document also includes this graph:

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The graph compares the greenhouse gas emissions trajectory necessary to prevent global warming from exceeding a 2º C increase over the pre-industrial temperature (IEA 450 from International Energy Agency) to BP, Exxon and Shell’s projections of total worldwide future emissions that they use to make long-term business plans.

Wikipedia provides a nice history of climate change research. Global warming as a result of CO2 emissions was first described in 1896. The theory attracted more attention in the 1950s. The term “greenhouse” was used in a government report in 1965. However, it was not until the mid-1970s that a scientific consensus began to emerge on the level of global warming associated with CO2 emissions. The oil companies not only followed it closely, but developed their own models that corroborated the science. The dangers of global warming did not attract public attention until 1988, long after Big Oil had thoroughly studied it and knew of its impacts.

Birders detect dramatic changes as Davis climate warms

[A version of this was originally published in the Davis Enterprise.]

In 2002, the cover of The New York Times Magazine featured a silhouetted man standing on frosty mauve ice and staring through binoculars into a rosy polar sky. The title read, davis1“Watching the World Melt Away: The future as seen by a lonely scientist at the end of the earth.” The article was about seabird biologist George Divoky and his decades of work studying the black guillemot, a high arctic seabird, on Cooper Island off the coast of Barrow, Alaska. The guillemots were struggling to feed their chicks. Their preferred food, Arctic cod, lived at the edge of the sea ice. In the past, this was five miles from the island. Now it was thirty. Divoky, moreover, found himself sharing his tiny island with several hungry polar bears stranded by the vast expanse of open water. At the time, the story was one of the first concrete examples of climate change impacting an ecosystem in way that was easily seen and understood.

Sac Valley winter avg temps SH

Sixteen years later, birders in Yolo County are now witnessing those kinds of changes at our latitude. Winters are suddenly filled with species previously associated with warmer climates to the south, while some other winter visitors no longer come this far south. In the summer, new species are arriving from more arid regions and have started nesting locally.

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Orchard Oriole in Davis, December 2017

A shift of a few degrees may not seem like much, but a winter above freezing makes autumn fruit and berries available longer, resulting in a plentiful food supply. This past December, birders were astounded to find eight species of warblers and three species of orioles in the county at once. Normal would be three and zero, respectively. These birds are neotropical migrants, spending the summer nesting in the northern United States and Canada, and wintering in Southern California, Mexico, or Central and South America. In the last few years, Cassin’s vireos, black-throated gray warblers, and blue-gray gnatcatchers have been present at many locations throughout the cold months. It is now possible to find hooded orioles and western tanagers year-round. Last winter, rarities like orchard oriole, northern waterthrush, and palm warbler turned up and stayed for weeks or months. The prevalence of unusual over-wintering migrants has enabled birders to rack up quite a winter list. Holly Coates shattered previous “big year” records by tallying 200 species in Yolo County by March 20 this year.

neotrop migrants graphThe Putah Creek Christmas Bird Count, an annual effort to count all the birds in a 15-mile diameter circle near Winters on one day each December, has tracked winter bird populations since 1971. In recent years, the number of neotropical migrants found on the count has swelled. These include warbling vireo and Wilson’s and Townsend’s warblers, in addition to the species mentioned above. Perhaps the most dramatic shift in the count data has been with the turkey vulture. With the absence of tule fog, these birds, which rely on warm thermals to give them some lift, have gone from sparse, rarely more than 15 birds on a count through 1985, to over 150 individuals per count in each of the past eight years.

turkey vulture graphA warming climate is expected to create more increases than decreases in bird life in Yolo County. This is because species diversity is greatest in the tropics. As bird ranges shift north, we expect to see more arrivals than departures. Among the departures are some northern species that are growing scarcer in winter. Most notable is rough-legged hawk, a tundra species that journey south to agricultural areas to eat rodents in winter. They have, however, become decidedly hard to find in recent years, perhaps finding the Willamette Valley and other more northern valleys suitable for their wintering grounds. Another species to watch is the beautiful cedar waxwing, which descend on fruits and berries in the winter months. The more they can find food in the north, the less likely they will come this far south.  They are erratic from year to year, however, so it is too early to identify a trend.

Though less dramatic, our hotter summers have brought some changes as well. Great-tailed grackles have expanded up the Central Valley from the Salton Sea. Say’s phoebes, which previously nested only south of the Delta in the Central Valley, moved into Napa and Solano Counties in 2014. Perhaps they are focusing on certain species of insects. This spring, Michael Perrone found them nesting in Davis and Joan Humphrey discovered them feeding young in Woodland, representing first nesting records for the county.

The Yolo Audubon Society is currently revising its Checklist of the Birds of Yolo County, a useful little booklet that will list all 369 species recorded in the county, each with a bar chart showing their abundance through the year. The last version, published in 2004, had a special section called “Recent Changes” highlighting the wetland restoration projects at the Yolo Bypass Wildlife Area and Davis Wetlands. In the coming 2018 version, the Recent Changes section will focus on two big issues: the expansion of orchards and our changing climate. Perrone, author of that section, states that “winters have become milder. In particular, prolonged periods of cold, all-day tule fog have ceased, giving way to sunnier weather.” Davis birders may not be standing on the edge of the continent looking at retreating sea ice, but nevertheless, in the last few years they have witnessed dramatic changes in bird distributions. A look at the graphs, moreover, suggests these changes began before that article about Alaska was published.

Faster all the time: The basics of sea level rise

I was lucky to be out of town for a week during “the greatest statewide heat wave ever recorded in California.” When I arrived in Seattle, I was quickly informed that they had just set a record of 55 consecutive days without rain—and that the record would still be increasing had it not been for 0.02 inches late one night a few weeks earlier. Seattle has also set a number of heat records the past four summers. The same people that bragged about this “beautiful weather” scoffed that I believed in climate change. They asserted that no sea level rise would occur during our, our children’s, or our grandchildren’s lifetimes because, 1) Puget Sound was not really part of the ocean; and 2) those NOAA flood maps are “bureaucratic bullshit”.  These same people live on the water in homes that are a few feet above current maximum high tides. Days later we all swept ashes off decks while marveling at the sun, which was reduced to a rosy red disc by smoke from a record 68 large uncontained fires burning across the West.

Astounded by the number of homes, roads, and railroad tracks located just toe-dipping distance above Puget Sound, I set out to learn about sea level rise, talking to experts and reading published studies and reports from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) .  Here are the basics.

  • Increases in sea level lag quite a bit behind climate change. We set the record for the warmest year on earth in 2016, breaking the record from 2015, which broke the record from 2014. For something as variable as weather, which has all kinds of ups and downs, this kind of consecutive record-breaking suggests runaway global warming. It is dramatic. But not so with sea levels.
  • Sea level rise is a function of several different factors:
    1. Thermal expansion: This happens because, like air or most anything else, water expands when it is warmer, taking up more space. As ocean temperatures increase, they bulge up a bit, and the sea level rises. This can be quantified with pretty good precision and is already occurring. In fact, this explains nearly all of the sea level rise currently underway.
    2. Antarctic Ice Sheet: While melting ice in the Arctic Ocean affects weather and ocean currents, it doesn’t add to the sea level because the ice was already in the ocean to begin with. An ice cube that melts in a glass of water does not change the water level. But glaciers that are on land, like in Antarctica, will flow into the sea when they melt, thus adding to sea levels. They are like an ice cube perched on the edge of the glass, melting into it.
    3. Greenland Ice Cap: While not as big as the Antarctic Ice Sheet, the Greenland Ice Cap will melt faster. In fact, it is already becoming the next big contributor to sea level rise.
    4. Other glaciers and other factors: Smaller glaciers from Alaska to New Zealand are melting, and also adding to sea level.
  • Sea level rise is underway, currently at a rate of 3.2 mm/yr (about a foot per 100 years). It has already risen 2 ½ inches since the year 2000, and 6 ½ inches since 1900.
  • The rate of sea level rise is increasing as ice melt from Greenland, Antarctica, and other glaciers begin to contribute. The standard practice is to estimate total sea level rise by the year 2100 as compared to 2000. Because the rate is increasing, it will certainly be more than the one foot described above, because ice melt from Greenland, Antarctica, and other places is just beginning. However, estimating that increase is difficult. The 2013 report from the IPCC estimated total sea level rise by 2100 at 1 foot to 3.2 feet, depending upon assumptions about CO2 levels. Because Greenland and other Arctic glaciers are melting faster than anticipated, the IPCC report has come under criticism from scientists, who have now adjusted their estimates up to 1.7 feet to possibly 6 feet by 2100. (Revision from November 2017:  A new study estimates sea level rise at 6 to 11 feet by 2100.)
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The projected range of sea level rise, depicted in scale over a waterfront home.

  • The rate of sea level rise will continue to increase at an increasing rate for several hundred years. The Antarctic Ice Sheet and Greenland have a lot of ice, and melting takes time. This melting, which is only just beginning, will increase with time, but may still take hundreds of years to really pick up steam. This appears to be “virtually certain”. The Antarctic Ice Sheet is now considered to be “past the point of no return”, with large scale melting “unstoppable.” Still, the exact timing is unknown. It will begin slowly but then suddenly increase rapidly, possibly during this century. This caveat is included in all predictions. The “conservative” estimate is that ocean levels will rise 3 to 10 feet by the year 2300, depending upon future CO2 levels and temperature increases. At that point, however, it will still be rising at a rate more than double the current rate. It thus appears that a total sea level rise over 10 feet, largely if not entirely due to anthropogenic CO2 emissions, is inevitable in the long run.
  • In the next few decades, sea level rise will be mostly felt during acute events, such as during high tides or large storms, or a combination of the two. This will, unfortunately, cause my friends in Puget Sound to attribute their flooded living rooms to unusually high tides or large storms, but not to rising sea levels.

To examine flooding in Puget Sound under various levels of sea level rise, you can surf a map and toggle the level of sea level rise at this interactive website.