Ornithologist’s odyssey

Maps from North on the Wing

A birder’s reading delight, ornithologist Bruce Beehler’s “North on the Wing: Travels with the Songbird Migration of Spring” savours his 2015 four-month odyssey from southernmost U.S.A. to blighted woods deep in Ontario. I sipped the book, treasuring a rare look at the world through a naturalist’s honed eyes. Beehler was chasing thirty-seven species of warbler (amongst other more general aims) but I watched out for his sightings of my bird of interest, the Sandhill Crane. Let me extract them here:

Autumn migration here is famous for its Bald Eagles, Sandhill Cranes, and many species of waterfowl. … Standing on a dike cloaked in early-morning mist, I listened to abundant birdsong. Cranes were bugling. … At 8: 20 p.m., two Sandhill Cranes bugled. … Then a statuesque Sandhill Crane posed for me, allowing me to photograph him from various angles.

The three-hour drive from Duluth was punctuated by a close encounter with a Sandhill Crane family foraging at the very edge of the highway. In front of me, a large truck roared by the group, and its slipstream toppled the two rusty-colored and fuzzy young into a grassy ditch. The parent cranes appeared nonchalant about this.

Day after day I hunted the tall, bog-fringing spruces … A few pairs of tannin-stained Sandhill Cranes nested in some of the larger boglands, and their bugling sounded in the distance from time to time. This haunting voice, heard mainly at a far remove, is the song of the wild.

I’m writing this on a cool spring day about to warm up. Australia’s annual Backyard Bird Count runs for this week and shortly I’ll head onto my apartment’s balcony to do my requisite twenty minutes of birding and recording. But what I long for, courtesy of Bruce Beehler’s magic, is to head for the airport and fly to America and hire a car and go see, for my very first time, those statuesque Cranes.

(The maps above are from Beehler’s book and show his amazing journey.)

Extreme heat anyone can go see

Steven Mufson article

As the number one global gas exporter, Qatar’s pact with the devil offers us all a window into the future. The tiny Middle Eastern nation of 300,000 locals is the world’s worst per capita emitter and in return has already warmed by 2 degrees C, double the global average. Qatar pokes out of Saudi Arabia into the Persian Gulf’s fast warming waters, hence the country’s reaping of what it sows. But, as Washington Post writer Steven Mufson puts it in his brilliant article, “Facing unbearable heat, Qatar has begun to air-condition the outdoors,” Qatar promised no emission cuts at Paris 2015 and believes “global warming poses an engineering problem, not an existential one.”

My only stay in Qatar has been a two-hour layover in the bizarre one-airline airport of Qatar Airways. Reading Mufson’s eye-opener, what struck me is that even if we all begin to cut air travel for carbon footprint purposes and thereby theoretically reduce airlines’ profit margins, Qatar Airways would be impervious. A vanity project, it can just keep reducing prices forever. Perhaps what is needed is a global boycott of Qatar Airways (and Emirates, Etihad, and Air Brunei).

Mufson chronicles the barely believable. Soccer stadiums, markets, outdoor cafes . . . all are being air-con’d at fantastic cost and the onset of an evil cycle: we emit most and now we’re hottest, so let’s emit more to cool down.

I recommend reading the entire fulsome article. I’m sure we’ll hear more about this extreme heat laboratory. You too might detect a hint, behind the article’s smooth words, that, analogous to Miami’s untenable battle to stem the rising water, Qatar could well be one of the first rich countries abandoned as uninhabitably hot.

In awe of scientists

Gardner & Wordley (2019)

Biologist Charlie Gardner and zoologist Claire Wordley have written a stunning short call to action in one of the Nature journals (it’s easy to Google). Their paper, “Scientists must act on our own warnings to humanity),” begins with the bedrock idea of BAU global warming of 2 to 5 degrees by 2100 (the lower estimate clearly an outlier) leading to “the complete loss of sea ice, tropical rainforests and coral reefs, and [we] will suffer heatwaves, droughts and storms that may render much of the planet uninhabitable and cause devastating human suffering and conflict.”

“Normal” avenues of political action have not “worked at the necessary scale.” NVDA has worked with other important moral causes. Citing the current major movements (in particular Extinction Rebellion, of which they are members), they conclude: “The scientists who alerted the world to the climate and ecological crises have a moral duty to join the popular movements demanding political action.“

A week after facing my own anxieties to become an XR arrestee, I read this heartfelt yet rational polemic with tears of gratitude. We owe a generation of scientists so much! That they now turn to activism inspires awe!

The Five Fs: How to classify a climate denier

Only in the last year has it become clear in public discourse that the climate deniers are Luddites, that is, old thinking with no future. Having spent two decades arguing with deniers, or last mentally rehearsing arguments (I’m timid when it comes to confrontation), I am now formally shifting to disengagement. Specifically, when encountering anyone unprepared to acknowledge a climate emergency and to discuss how, in practical terms, we reduce emissions, I ignore him or her, and move on.

I’ve developed a ritual for this purpose. Firstly, I classify the denier according to the Five Fs:

  • Feeble-minded
  • Fearful
  • Feckless (only willing to take responsibility for own actions in this life)
  • Fat (focused on protecting own life and wealth)
  • Fucker (clearly evil, e.g. fossil fuel company executive)

Classification done, I ignore.

Personally, I find this process cleansing. Try it.

“Staggering”

Elizabeth Pennini article

It was spring in Melbourne when I began to work through the landmark study on bird species losses published just a fortnight earlier, “Decline of the North American Avifauna.” First I read Elizabeth Pennisi’s deft summation in Science a day after the main paper’s release. One feature of Pennisi’s review is that she interviewed lead author Ken Rosenberg, a Cornell ornithologist and conservation scientist, and what struck me is the importance of the work of modern climate science heroes like Rosenberg. Rosenberg and his nine coauthors brilliantly used diverse datasets to put together an America-wide perspective on over five hundred species of birds.

“I frankly thought it was going to be kind of a wash,” Rosenberg confided to Pennisi, meaning that more resilient birds might have risen to make up for those in decline. But instead he provided amazing documentation of an almost across-the-board picture of the impact of humanity on the creatures of the skies. “It’s staggering,” Rosenberg said, of the fact of nearly a third of bird species expunged in the last four to five decades.

In the end, “I am weirdly hopeful,” Rosenberg said. As I turn to the main report, I’m not confident I’ll feel any hope at all. Be that as it may, I commend Elizabeth Pennisi’s overview.

(Image from the article)

Three degrees!

Climate change globe

On the day before daylight savings commenced in Melbourne, the beginning of spring and a summer we can no longer predict, I read an article that shook me. Former Moscow bureau chief of The Washington Post, Anton Troianovski has teamed with one of my heroes, Chris Mooney, also of the Post, on a tour de force investigative report, “Radical warming in Siberia leaves millions on unstable ground.” In the furthest east slab of Russia, no one questions the science. “Scientists say the planet’s warming must not exceed 1.5 degrees Celsius,” write our reporters, “but Siberia’s temperatures have already spiked far beyond that.”

My cousin lives in Krasnoyarsk, a huge, bustling Siberian frontier city in the middle of nowhere but much more somewhere, three thousand kilometres southwest of Yakutsk, the city on the Lena River explored by Troianovski.

The region of Yakutia is called home by five million people and climate change is ravaging their lives. My part of the world has warmed about a degree Celsius but there, they’re already seeing three degrees. Three degrees! The permanent permafrost is thawing, rivers rise,  arable land has fallen fifty percent, herds of cattle and reindeer are down twenty percent, and country folk flee to the cities. Fires rage. Mud slides wash away houses. Pasture turns to swamp. One plus: a booming trade in mammoth tusks emerging after 10,000 years underground.

Of course I knew the far north was warming faster than my home but the extent staggers me. I closed my eyes and picture Krasnoyarsk, its mix of glitz and squalor, its lazy massive river. What is happening there? I emailed my cousin, heart in mouth.

(Image from article, original source Berkeley Earth)

Dollar valuing of extinction-threatened species?

Ben Taub New Yorker article

In the September 17 issue of New Yorker, Ben Taub’s sparkling article “Ideas in the sky” profiles Jonathan Ledgard, a modern iconoclast and journo (and novelist!) who conceives hairy, wild ideas that he then evangelicizes. I commend the article.

But here’s my favorite Ledgard idea: Project Linnaeus seeks to have people put a financial valuation, via corporate mediation, on specific species approaching extinction. Ledgard:

I don’t want to get to 2050, when Elon Musk and his libertarian chums are eating dog food on Mars, and then for them to look back on Earth and see that we’ve lost fifty per cent of our life-forms. There’s a significant minority—or maybe a majority—of human beings who are biophiliac. They like living things. And that hasn’t been priced correctly.

I’m a corporate child. What an intriguing, if hapless, idea!

Stuffed cranes

Three stuffed cranes in a store

In Amsterdam we stumbled across a store, shut at the time, that features stuffed animals and birds. To my amazement, I saw what I believe are a Sarus Crane, a Black Crowned Crane, and a Grey Crowned Crane, one from Asia or Australia, two from Africa. Two of the species are vulnerable, one endangered. I suppose the only saving grace that sprung to my mind is that these three threatened species must have some front-of-mind awareness in the Western world. But immediately I was seized by repugnance. The three birds must surely have been killed in situ and smuggled into Europe. To do that, then stuff them, then sell them … they’re under threat, hey! As to the buyers…

A desperate sadness seized me.

I’d never heard of attribution science

Anthroposphere article

I had never heard of what is being called “attribution science” until I read “How Weather Lost Its Innocence: An Illustrated History of Extreme Weather Attribution” by Kai Kornhuber and Amy Howden-Chapman, which came out on August 12. Paraphrasing, probably blithely, until recently it’s been impossible to numerically (rather than broadly quantitatively) ascribe climate change risks to … well, climate change. But now modelling is reliable enough, and events are crystal clear enough, to allow comparison of what happens now, with wildfire or a heatwave or a hurricane or flood, with what would have occurred (the “counterfactual state”) had emissions stayed low.

This kind of scientific work properly began after Europe’s 2003 heatwave. “Now,” write the authors, “fifteen years and 30 ppm of additional carbon dioxide later, the number of attribution studies has sharply increased, alongside the frequency of record-breaking extreme weather events due to largely unmitigated emissions. Today, climate attribution analysis exists in various forms … Thus, the question repeatedly posed to scientists during an extreme event – ‘Was this heat wave fuelled by climate change?’ – can be answered with increasing confidence. With extreme weather attribution, weather has lost its innocence.”

At first after 2003, attribution science papers took over a year to emerge after any big event. Now, attribution is being done almost in real time. TV weather presenters will increasingly be challenged to use such numbers on their shows! Legal actions are already being initiated.

Why aren’t my friends talking about this, I mused over the couple of hours I accorded the well-written overview by these authors? I closed my eyes and pictured an accelerating wave. Once we do begin to accord attribution science a place in regular discussion, surely political action will follow? Surely?