Tipping points on the edge of consciousness

Umbra: tipping points

We read IPCC, we read Wallace-Wells, we read Scranton. We think we’ve built a thick enough hide. But a while back a reader of Grist’s pointy Umbra column asked for “the full list of climate tipping points.” I could barely read Eve Andrews’s (Umbra’s) response, in which she confirms the question is “inherently, existentially, and unavoidably upsetting,” defines what a tipping point is, and then hits us. IPCC 2018 identifies four: “the ice sheets of West Antarctica and Greenland; the El Niño and La Niña cycle; the circulation of water throughout the Atlantic Ocean; and the Southern (Antarctic) Ocean’s ability to absorb carbon.” Umbra’s ensuing essay discusses the scariness of tipping points, the uncertainties around how many degrees, and the semantics (it’s more than that of course) of hopelessness versus hopefulness. In the end, she offers this view, one that flushes me with dread and hope equally:

The “tipping point” that I believe we should look out for is the one at which we have no idea what’s coming, and we can’t possibly prepare for it. And make no mistake, some communities are already reaching something very close to that reality. We’re currently at 1 degree C of warming, but barring some swift and comprehensive change, our business-as-usual policies and practices have us on track for as much as 3.5 degrees C. In my mind, that means the tipping point we should all be looking out for is the one that tips the scales in the direction of timely and aggressive slashing of carbon emissions.

My intro to the Black Crowned Crane

Zakouma National Park

Absorbing mass data on all fifteen species of Cranes is tough, so I’m rewarding serendipity by gradually introducing myself to each unfamiliar species as it crops up in the news around me or in my reading. The August issue of The Bugle, the wonderful in-house magazine of the International Crane Foundation, features a stunning aerial photo cover of a triangular slash of an African lake in Chad (which, by the way, I know nothing about, almost as if it doesn’t exist, which I guess typifies the global exposure of a number of African countries), around which a couple of hundred Black Crowned Cranes stand and feed and dance. Hello, Black Crowned Crane, I whispered. It’s a resplendent bird of black body with white wings and a black-and-red-and-white head festooned by stiff straw-gold feathers.

“Zakouma, land of the Black Crowned Crane” is a long article by ICF President Rich Beilfuss, and it’s a missive of great hope. A map of northern Africa shows 13 actual or possible strongholds of this Vulnerable species in half a dozen countries, including Zakouma National Park in Chad. Beilfuss:

This spring, I had the pleasure of traveling to the wilds of Zakouma and counting the highest number of cranes ever recorded from the ground anywhere in Africa – 13,885 Black Crowned Cranes!

Since the ICF website enumerates this species, with imprecise knowledge, as 43,000 to 70,000 birds, we’re talking about a fifth to a third of the entire population!

I was heartened (and that doesn’t often happen these days) by the upbeat message:

The most exciting news is perhaps not the discovery of so many cranes, but the realization that the cranes are in such good (conservation) hands.

I can’t wait to see the Black Crowned Cranes for myself, perhaps in 2021!

Bjornerud agrees the Anthropocene notion

Environmental crises

A couple of days ago, I expressed gratitude for Marcia Bjornerud’s “Timefulness,” in particular its revelatory information on relative scales of time and activity. I was also reassured that she supports geologists calling our world today the Anthropocene Era. In the extract above, I show just how deeply she has examined the Anthropocene from various macro angles. And here’s what she says:

We are literally changing the configuration of the continents and remaking the world map. But does this matter on a planet that has seen so many geographies, constantly erasing old worlds and replacing them with new ones? It doesn’t to the Earth itself, which will eventually remodel everything according to its own preferences, either gradually or catastrophically. Over human timescales, however, our disruption of geography will haunt us. Soil lost to erosion, coastal areas claimed by the sea, and mountaintops sacrificed on the altar of capitalism won’t be restored in our lifetime. And these alterations will set in motion a cascade of side effects—hydrologic, biological, social, economic, and political—that will define the human agenda for centuries. In other words, thoughtless disregard for the work of the geologic past means we cede control of our own future.

Human time intersects geologic time

Mixing times

In her wondrous “Timefulness: How Thinking Like a Geologist Can Help Save the World,” geologist Marcia Bjornerud educated me on the scaling of Earth’s 4.5 billion years of existence. I read it during a time of inner turmoil, a time of weighing desk work against activism, a period crushed by competing projects. Bjornerud pierced my intensity with passionate prose and jewels of knowledge. For example, check out the table extract above. I was fascinated by the “residence time” of water, that is, how long it stays in a given place. In the atmosphere, it’s only nine days (really? water typically zaps in and out of our air over only nine days?), in rivers it’s two to six months, in glaciers it’s way over 100,000 years.

And this: we’re not only altering our home planet through carbon emissions, the scale of our impacts is huge in more prosaic ways:

The coal-mining practice of “mountaintop removal”—a deceptively surgical term—moves volumes of rock that rival the largest natural disasters. … Worldwide, humans now move more rock and sediment, both intentionally through activities like mining, and unintentionally by accelerating erosion through agriculture and urbanization, than all of Earth’s rivers combined. It can no longer be assumed that geographic features reflect the work of geologic processes.

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)