Mass Extinction

Note: This post is relevant

A recent report has garnered some attention for its declaration that we have entered Earth’s sixth Mass Extinction – the first since the disappearance of the dinosaurs. They also state that humans, as a species are at risk of going extinct.

I’ve got lots to say about all this, but right now I want to address how we know what we know.

Most people not involved in the study of plant and animal populations don’t have a very clear idea of how scientists come to conclusions like this. There’s no reason they SHOULD, but having an idea of how we know what we know can act as a defense against those who say things like this are all made up.

When I was in college, I spent one week on some islands in the Bahamas (terrible, I know), studying a population of iguanas. I was part of a group of around 10 people led by a biologist who had been doing this for 20 years. This species only lives on three islands, and was almost extinct when he started studying them.

20 years later, with the help of the Bahamian government, they were doing quite well, and he had a massive amount of information about the iguanas, how long they lived, how many there were, what their breeding habits were, and so on.

This was achieved by spending between two weeks and a month on the islands about once a year.

This same biologist was doing similar studies of turtles in a couple places in Indiana, Nebraska, and probably a couple other places I’m not remembering.

I also spent time in Tanzania, and talked to biologists there who were studying everything from plants to elephants.

I also talked to scientists at the New England Aquarium that monitor fish and sea turtles populations all along the East Coast of the United States.

When I worked for a state department of natural resources, I spent two summers doing similar work to what I had done with the iguanas and turtles, this time with snakes. There were fewer of us studying many more populations, so it took us a full summer to cover about half the significant habitats in the state.

I also did some filing work for that department, going through the records of citizens reporting in about animals they had seen.

Now I regularly interact with people who are doing the same thing with bird species – counting them, weighing them, and monitoring how their populations have been changing for the last 50 years.

I’ve also been talking to people who’ve collected plant and bird records from scientists and hobbyists going back in to the 1800s.

This is just the tangential experience of one person, who studied biology as an undergrad in one college, and worked for a couple science-related organizations afterwards.

In the U.S. alone, there are thousands of colleges and universities that do similar kinds of research at different levels. Every state has an agency that ALSO hires scientists to do research. Every state also has people who closely monitor wildlife for their own reasons – hunters, birdwatchers, reptile enthusiasts, frog enthusiasts, fishermen, and so on.

Many of the colleges I mentioned ALSO do research in other countries all over the world, but all of those countries also have their own researchers and institutions doing their own work.

This work involves individually counting lizards, or snakes, or turtles, or birds, insects, or fish, or mammals, or plants, or sometimes number of flowers ON plants.

On every continent, in every country, in every habitat in all conditions of all seasons, there are thousands of people constantly monitoring the myriad of organisms we share our planet with – and in some cases rely on.

All of these people also share their data, and publish it, and cross-check it, and add it in to common databases that cross international boundaries. All of this work goes back generations, and as the human population has grown, so to has the number of people studying the world we live in, as well as our capacity to do so.

That is how we know that species are going extinct. That is how we know that the climate is changing – because for every person I mentioned who’s studying life on earth, there’s also someone studying the planet’s past, and someone studying the chemical composition of the atmosphere, and someone studying how those chemicals behave in different conditions.

The entire planet is changing all around us, and everybody who’s watching can see it.

Priorities, or: My issue is (not really) more urgent than your issue

I’ve said many times that climate change is different from other topics of activism, because it is, more than anything else, one issue that will affect all other issues. Do you care about war? Climate change will make war more likely. Do you care about “the environment”? Climate change is affecting ever ecosystem on the planet. Do you care about civil rights and social justice? The elevated stresses of food shortage, high temperatures, and economic troubles will exacerbate the kind of tribalism that fuels prejudice. The list goes on.

The problem I find myself facing is that I can’t honestly say that any of these issues are separable – either from each other or from climate change. If there’s a war going on in your area, that is a far more immediate concern than where your energy is coming from, or whether you can work on reducing atmospheric greenhouse gas levels. If you’re struggling to make ends meet, you’re not going to have time, energy, or money to spend on political change, or even on self-education about the complexities of climate science. If you fear for your life every time you see a police car, that’s an issue of immediate and unavoidable importance.

All of these are issues of vital importance. They all matter. They all need to be worked on for their own sakes, AND they all need to be addressed as part of acting on climate change. The problem is that we only have so much energy. There are a few human dynamos out there who manage to be really and truly active in every issue they care about, but for mosts of us, that kind of energy is beyond our grasp. In addition, all of these issues (and many that I haven’t discussed) deserve the full attention of smart, dedicated people, not a fraction of that attention.

And so we are left with a classic conundrum. We can’t address the serious obstacles to climate action without addressing money in politics. We can’t address money in politics without addressing low voter turnout. We can’t address low voter turnout without addressing voter suppression efforts. We can’t address voter suppression efforts without addressing institutional racism, and the chain goes on. I could have made the same series of connections with a dozen issues, and the reality is that NONE of these issues can wait till other things are solved.

Black people will not and should not wait to fight back against the systemic war that has been waged against them in this country since before the American Revolution. Women will not an should not ignore the problems of rape, harassment, and prejudice in our society. Non-heterosexual and non-cisgendered people will not and should not shelve their fight for equality and safety in a system that still allows for them to be treated as less than human. And almost none of the people I just mentioned fall into any one of those categories. The fact that white, cisgendered men like myself are the only group that does NOT have to actively fight for the right to live in peace shows just how important all of these battles are, and how important it is that we help our fellow humans even in struggles that do not directly benefit us.

And action on climate change cannot wait. It has waited for too long. It is now over 50 years since we knew enough to start taking action with confidence that it was the right course. I can think of well over a dozen examples, off the top of my head, of plant and animal species that are changing radically in response to the planet’s rise in temperature, on every continent on the planet. This is happening now, and it has only just begun

So what should those of us who are pouring our energy into climate change be doing about all this? Well, to be honest I don’t know. Not really. But I have an educated guess. In my opinion, the single most important thing we can do is make it easier for others to help out. We can pour our efforts into making it clear what can be done in people’s daily lives. We can work to make the science accessible and understandable for as many people as possible. We can make sure to tell people about ways THEY can take action. We can experiment in our own lives and spread the results of our experiments. We can write letters to politicians and pass them around for other people to sign and send in. We could even do things like writing scripts for those who want to call congresspeople – to get a clear, concise message across.

It’s good to engage in demonstrations, but I fear that our power structure has gotten all too good at shunting such protests to the side, and ignoring them. We have to recognize that climate change, and the actions required to address it, not only represent a challenge to the most profitable industry on the planet, they also represent a challenge to the quasi-religious rule of free market fundamentalism, and the actually religious philosophies that say that God is in control, and that the world will end soon by God’s hand, so none of this matters, or if it does, we should be HELPING bring about the end, so we can all get to our afterlife and enjoy heaven. These ideological forces are much, much harder to fight against than a set of business practices or confusion about climate science, or misinformation about the actions that can be taken. There are entire worldviews that are directly contradictory to the reality of human-made climate change, and those are what stand between us and a better future. And we need to make it as easy as possible for as many people as possible to fight against those ideologies.

A reminder on terminology

This one comes up a lot, so I thought I’d copy and paste a recent answer here. Deniers will often bring up the shift, in news and political media, from talking about “global warming” to talking about “climate change”, as if this was something orchestrated by the political Left, just in the last few years.

Climate change has been a term used in the scientific community since at least the 1930’s, Daniel. It’s been the most common term, used by scientists, since at least the 1960’s.

Global warming was adopted in the popular press because it’s a simpler concept, and it catches attention. The shift to using “climate change” in the popular press and in politics came about because of a memo Frank Luntz sent to the GOP, telling them to use “climate change” because it sounds less scary.

The change in terminology ONLY happened in the popular/political press, and it was a change initially designed to serve the rhetorical purposes of the denial movement.

One hundred years of “I told you so”

Climate scientists have been under attack since before I was born, and those attacks have not lessened one bit as the evidence for man-made climate change has grown clearer and clearer, along with our understanding of just how much danger it presents. When Svante Arrhenius wrote about the influence of CO2 in our atmosphere in the 1890s, it was a hypothesis, grounded in a solid understanding of chemistry and physics, and backed up with calculations that hold true today. A century later, the IPCC second assessment was out, and climate scientists knew with a high degree of certainty that rising CO2 levels were causing the entire planet to warm at an alarming rate.

And the denial movement, funded by companies with a direct interest in continued use of fossil fuels, was in full swing, attacking scientists and their reputations, fostering political polarization around the issue, and pushing the Republican party farther along the path to full-fledged denial of reality. Today, publicly accepting the reality of climate change, as a GOP candidate, is tantamount to political suicide.

This post serves little purpose, except as an outlet for my frustration. According to everything we know, right now, we are facing conditions of the kind that have spelled doom for countless species in eons gone by. Beyond that, it has been clear for a long, long time that climate change will be one of the biggest drivers of war in the 21st century. More drought, more floods, higher seas, and more heat waves will all lead to food shortages, refugees, desperation, and chaos. It’s not hard to figure out why the Pentagon is worried.

And yet we still have people saying, with each disaster, and each new war, or new atrocity, “now is not the time.”

Here’s the thing – they’re right.

The time was before I was born. The time was 1996. The time was any time in the last fifty years. The time was before it was too late to stop the planet from warming. It’s long past time to be talking about climate change. Right now what we should be doing is taking action.

For the rest of this century, there will always be a disaster ongoing. Always. For the rest of this century, there will always be a crisis in urgent need of our attention. The predicted threats to national security, to economic stability, to human existence – they are beginning to become a reality, and will only get worse for the rest of my life.

This problem should have been handled. It could have been handled before I became aware of it. But instead, over 100 years after the first calculations of CO2’s relationship to planetary temperature, I’m finding myself in the position of saying “we told you so.” I’m too young for that. My generation should not have had enough time with this problem unsolved to say that. But for the rest of my life, and the lives of everybody else on this planet today, “we told you so” will be a refrain. And if anybody dares to say “now is not the time”, we can tell them, “you’re damned right, so why are we still talking about this? Why aren’t we DOING something?”

After We Win: Sewage Power

Very often discussions about renewable energy focus on solar and wind power, and other sources fall into the background. To be sure, these two will form a significant part of the new system, but they are not all there is. Aside from geothermal energy, tidal energy, and various forms of crop-based biofuels, we also have an abundant form of energy available that is directly proportional to the number of people living nearby.


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Playing with trains: grid level storage

One of the most important aspects of a society powered by renewable will be power storage. Fortunately, we don’t need to wait for new technology, and we don’t need to build huge chemical batteries. There are a number of grid-level storage options available that work off of potential energy alone.

Case in point: Advanced Rail Energy Storage – a company that stores energy by moving heavy trains uphill when there’s excess power, and letting them roll downhill again when more power is needed.

One of these things is not like the other: How global climate change is different from other social change issues.

“First they ignore you. Then they laugh at you. Then they fight you. Then you win.”
-Mohandas K Gandhi

“It always seems impossible until it’s done.”
-Nelson Mandela

Human-made global climate change different from every other social change issue in history, and behaving otherwise will lead to ruin.

The quotes at the beginning of this article are wonderful quotes, and the lessons they teach provide excellent advice for every human working to build a better world. So many of the problems we face stem from gargantuan power structures that work very hard to convey the message that change is impossible – that the way it is is the way it must always be.

The same is true for human-caused global climate change. Modern civilization has been built on fossil fuels, and the topic of energy production has become so entrenched in politics, that people feel their very identities are tied up in the issue.

The same has been true in the struggles for racial equality, and for gender equality, and for economic equality, and for a hundred other causes. It has also been true of the environmental movement that arose in the twentieth century. And while there is still much work to be done, all of these movements have made incredible progress. Slavery and segregation fell. Women have equal rights. Rivers are no longer catching on fire on a regular basis, and the edifices of unequal treatment and protections for homosexuals are crumbling fast.

Global climate change feels like the Next Big Struggle, and there’s a way in which it is. If only it were so simple. Global climate change is unique in that once we “win”, and the proverbial dust settles, we will be in the midst of an on-going warming event. Even if we get global fossil fuel emissions to zero in the next ten years, the warming that is already happening will have pushed every feedback loop scientists have been fearing into high gear. The arctic ice is already melting. The permafrost is already rotting. Vegetation is already suffering from heat and drought. Oceanic phytoplankton are already declining in number, and water is already evaporating more due to the rise in temperature.

Lately I’ve seen a number of posts, often by climate activists, with inspirational quotes about social change from people like Nelson Mandela, Martin Luther King Jr, and others, and all of these quotes have something in common – they’re about social change.

Climate change is a sticky issue because, of course, part of it IS about social change. It’s a problem caused by our collective action AND our collective inaction. It’s a result of a social, economic, and political status quo, and that makes it similar to the fights against Apartheid, slavery, segregation, women’s rights, gay rights, and other forms of bigotry, discrimination, and abuse. Ultimately, how we vote is what has allowed us to get to this point, and ultimately, public opinion will sway towards reality, and change will occur.

And as Nelson Mandela famously said, it will probably seem impossible right up until it’s “done”.

But that’s the problem with climate change – it will never be “done”. Not in our lifetimes, and not in the lifetimes of our children, or our grandchildren. Even if we get every person on the planet working together to end fossil carbon emissions, the problem will continue without us. But we’re years, if not decades away from that kind of collective effort, and we’ve already waited almost half a century beyond the point when we really had a pretty solid case that human activity is warming the planet.

Most people who have been paying attention to the issue have at least a faint idea that there are feedback loops that can come into play, but if you weren’t aware of this phenomenon, there are numerous phenomena that can be caused by a small rise in temperature that cause more warming in turn, which carries on in a chain reaction.

These feedback loops are already in progress, at this point. Our albedo is lower, there’s more water vapor in the air, the permafrost is melting and releasing methane, and we’ve already seen the Amazon Rainforest – one of the biggest terrestrial carbon sinks – have two droughts so severe that it became a carbon SOURCE.

That means that while the social change aspect of this is taking time, just like ALL social change, the planet is moving on without us.

Changing where we get energy and how we use it is not enough. It’s not nearly enough.

Beyond that, simply not possible if we don’t take into account that the planet has ALREADY CHANGED, and by the time we get our act together, it will have changed EVEN MORE.

We’re fighting amongst ourselves about whether there is a battle to be fought, or when it should be fought, or HOW it should be fought, or even whether there is an enemy to fight.

We’ve been fighting amongst ourselves for fifty years, but after all that fighting is done – after the social change is achieved – then the real fight will be just beginning. Then we have to figure out how to survive.

Edit: Here’s another way I put it in conversation with a friend – Think of it as being like cracks in the road. With racism, and with other such issues, we repair the cracks. We improve what the road is made of so that the cracks don’t happen as often, and aren’t as big. We do maintenance, and over time, we have better roads. If we ignore it, it gets worse, usually in different ways, but it’s all about the road.

With climate change, we’re working on the road, when the ground the road is built on is falling away.

This blog is mostly about how we can work on building a bridge under the road as the ground beneath it falls away, so that the whole road doesn’t collapse.