A project spiralling downward

Vortex

All through March to September, my project of witnessing the Cranes amidst the unfurling Anthropocene era of climate emergency stayed in stasis. I’m determined to stay on top of climate change news, which is often troubling, while radiating hope by telling the story of ancient birds that struggle onwards. All my travel plans to see Cranes were of course put on hold by Covid-19, but until this month, I could hypothesise future adventures while doing avian research in the middle of other more urgent projects.

During October the dream slumped. So wracked is the United States by the pandemic I doubt I’ll get to see the Whooping Cranes and Sandhill Cranes of North America until 2023 at the earliest. And what chance of visiting Bhutan or South Africa, or indeed of spying Demoiselle Cranes migrate over the Himalayas? Even my Australian road trip from Darwin across to the Atherton Tablelands to marvel at Brolgas and Sarus Cranes, now tentatively set for June next year, feels a lifetime away.

And the climate news! Arctic ice is now all newly formed and thin and smaller in extent than ever. The Antarctic and Greenland ice sheets can be seen beginning to slip, melting, into the seas. Wildfires still rage in America, with winter approaching. Our Great Barrier Reef is officially half dead. Methane burps from the ground far up north. Cyclones form and rage with alarming frequency. The Earth’s regular winds and deep currents are altering. The Amazon is heading to become a treeless savannah. Throw in Trump, Putin, Bolsanaro, and Morrison, and hope of concerted global action remains slight.

Oh, I know good news also abounds. Coal is nearly fucked (but won’t be for a couple of decades), solar rules, China says it’ll be zero by 2060, Biden promises more than any U.S. president has ever come close to promising, Europe acts, our local councils act, awareness is high, and so on and so on. I know Melbourne will come out of lockdown and Extinction Rebellion can begin anew. I know, I know, I know.

And yet…

2020s and 2030s

Fires

Will the Cranes survive? The augurs, as we head towards the end of 2020, are both encouraging (look at the work the International Crane Foundation has done over half a century!) and discouraging. I made the mistake of reading the forensic article by Seth Borenstein, “Think 2020’s disasters are wild? Experts see worse in future.” Do yourself a favor: read it and be scared, in that proper way that prepares you.

I won’t cannibalise Borenstein’s article’s wonderful quotes but let me paraphrase in a broad fashion. What will the 2020s be like? Well, 2020 is what an improbable disaster movie made in 2000 would have portrayed, and by the end of the 2020s, we’ll look back at 2020 as the good old days. What will the 2030s be like? Much worse than the 2020s.

Cranes, one of Earth’s oldest set of birds, are enormously resilient. I’m only slowly learning how differently Crane species have evolved under varied environmental constraints. But one thing is common: they need wetlands, not all wetlands but a certain subset. Over the 2020s, wetlands will increasingly dry up, even before humanity’s ever-expanding reach actually drains the wetlands. Will the extra rain/flooding predicted add wetlands? I don’t think so. All up, though the ICF hasn’t said this, I portend blow after blow for all fifteen species of Cranes. With eleven of those species at least vulnerable to extinction, my heart, right now, is heavy.

Sandhill dreams

Sandhill Cranes by Charles Larry

This Cranes project … is it a chimera? I’m quarantining in Darwin, out of Melbourne lockdown for a while, but even when we are released into the Darwin population, we’re unlikely to see any Brolgas or Sarus Cranes, simply because it’s the tail end of the dry season and they’ll be hunkered down, either in the Atherton Tablelands in Queensland or the remote wilds of the Gulf of Carpentaria. And of course travel to see the other thirteen species in Africa, USA, Europe, China, Japan, Bhutan, etc. is a scary prospect with a global pandemic still raging.

So it was with an aching heart, leavened by gratitude, that I read Charles Larry’s wonderful, cogent, lyrical overview of Sandhill Cranes on the website of the Nachusa grasslands reserve in Illinois. This reserve has been honored with its first nesting pair of Sandhills, with two fledglings. I commend it to anyone drawn to connecting with our natural world.

I’ll never get to the Nachusa reserve, beautiful though it seems. My aim is to see the Sandhill (and the Whooping Crane) at the Platte River in Nebraska. Will that happen? In my quarantine compound I dream.

(Photo by the article’s author from his article.)

A simple & scary picture

Sean Kelly article

Sean Kelly’s Saturday article (“Cowardice: What Morrison and Albanese have in common on climate”) in The Age/Sydney Morning-Herald is the epitome of charged concision. Beyond Kelly’s major (and obvious to me) point that Morrison is not seizing the the climate emergency gauntlet in any shape or form, and that Albanese won’t rock Morrison’s boat because he sees that as a way to winning the next election, Kelly also chats to Will Steffen about the numbers.

Steffen’s picture is as clear as can be and I’ll lay it out even more brutally. The Paris Agreement is meant to keep us well under +2C (we’re at +1 now). +2C will slam humanity. The countries that signed Paris then volunteered emissions reduction plans that total up lower than necessary; if they meet these plans, we’ll be at +3C. These countries are not on target, no, no, no, and Australia is one of the worst; if everyone behaves like Australia, we’ll hit +4C … catastrophic. Looking at Australia, yes Morrison is correct that gas is better than coal and is a useful bridge, but that’s only using existing gas, not extracting more. Pumping up more gas from the ground will make +2C impossible. Ergo, Morrison and Albanese are both cowards.

Megafires are not academic

Forbes reporter/columnist Ariel Cohen had me back down a rabbit hole with his article “The age of the ‘megafire’ is upon us.” Recent news had reprised the grief I experienced at our 2020 megafires here in Australia, which Cohen aptly says “killed more than 30 people, destroyed 6,000 homes and businesses, and burned 20% of the country’s forest.” Cohen is an analyst, not prone to hyperbole, but he quotes scientists saying we’ll look back at 2020’s fires as a fond memory, and even he concludes with the same message: “What we are seeing on the West Coast and around the world will soon shift from an anomaly to the new normal. The age of the megafire is upon us.”

I’m also observing with pulsing dismay the irrational push to view all these megafires as just a target for better forest management, while discounting any global warming footprint. The rationalist in me, the actuary, combines with the writer to foretell slow inevitable cycles of people resisting the science, then getting burnt out and killed, before, before eventually (too late, too late) the reality sinks in. Right now, in my mourning state of mind, humanity might not respond/adapt to the age of the megafire for another decade. How can this be so?

“It’s time to retreat” from amped-up wildfires

David Wallace-Wells article

Another brilliant opinion piece by David Wallace-Wells in New York Magazine, “California can’t afford to wait for climate action.” Like many I’ve watched the reprise of Australia’s 2020 global warming wildfire hell in America’s West with horror. It was difficult to imagine when it happened here (albeit it far from me), it’s difficult now. The article is well worth a read. Wallace-Wells makes three points. First, even if (let’s say, if we’re feeling optimistic today, when) we cut emissions to zero, wildfires in California (and by extension, through Australia) will continue to worsen dramatically over the next couple of decades. Second, the landscape itself will survive but not so our sprawled habitations. Third, regardless of anything else, we need to do what we’re resisting doing, namely respond and adapt. And that may well mean, as Wallace-Wells quotes climate scientist Michael Oppenheimer tweeting, retreating. Laws need to be enacted to prevent people building in areas now rendered essentially uninhabitable by global warming.

Goodell & Hallam

Tears

It’s one of those days. Jeff Goodell issued a blistering warning to humanity a couple of days ago, his article “Climate apocalypse now” in Rolling Stone. Conclusion? “Maybe the real message that Mother Nature is sending with these storms and fires in the midst of the Republican National Convention is not to Trump, but to us. And it says this: You can have four more years of Trump, or you can have a habitable planet. But you can’t have both.”

I watched The Troublemaker again. A sob as I heard Roger Hallam: “I mean I’ve had hundreds, literally hundreds of conversations with people, where people said the same thing, right? I know and now I’m going to do something. … This is the archetypical stuff of life.”

A day. One of those.

Priceless

Whooping Crane L3-15

Whooping Cranes L3-15 and L5-15 hatched in captivity in Maryland in 2015. At year’s end, they were brought down to Louisiana and released into freedom. Five months later, a man and his young accomplice shot them. They recovered one carcass and cut off its legs in order to remove and hide tracking bands. Now, four years on, the man has been sentenced to parole, community service, a hefty fine, and $75,000 in restitution costs. The International Crane Foundation article on the matter contains four heartbreaking images (of which I use one) of L3-15 and L5-15 in water, in the air, and as a corpse. Such a disturbing tale, one I can’t shake from mind. As the sentencing judge put it: “I think these birds are basically priceless.”

Watching Hallam

The Troublemaker movie

It’s been a roiling day. A currawong roused me out of bed, a good start, but I was restless. I reviewed a book about birding, another positive step. An Edinburgh International Book Festival event featuring Frans Timmerman, an architect of the EU Green Deal, wasn’t boring, like I thought it would be, but perky. Then I began watching a documentary, just released, called The Troublemaker. Made by Sasha Snow, it’s a looke at Roger Hallam, cofounder of Extinction Rebellion. I’ve watched a number of “performances” of various sorts by Hallam and found him to be my sort of person: relentlessly analytical and courageous. I had no idea whether The Troublemaker would make an impression (a number of recent well-meaning climate change books/movies have been fine but not exceptional) or even a difference (I too seek the truth, don’t I?), but a stunning opening scene of global imagery segues into Hallam’s first words:

Like all middle-class kids, you’re brought up in a world that you think is good and fair and sensible. And, you know, it’s going to be a breeze. And then one day, you realize that it’s not like that. You think you’re great, you think everything is going fine, you think you rule the world. And suddenly, bang. … So it’s the greatest morality tale of all time.

Just like that, tears sprang forth and I gave a sob. Hallam encapsulates what I’ve known for three decades. I brace for the rest of the movie. Right now, I don’t need my life to be shifted even more than the last three years have done, but I’m braced for The Troublemaker