Hands Off Habitat!

Simmonds et al article

It’s time to gird our hearts to rebel on habitat destruction. A couple of days ago I mourned, the result of reading the remarkable paper (and covering article) by Jeremy Simmonds and three other Queensland scientists. Why mourn? Well, in my neck of the woods, the southern part of Australia, our bird species, both the “endangered” and the backyard ones), have lost well over half of their original habitat. This in a theoretically sparsely populated nation like Australia!

We all know how this happens even in today’s more environmentally conscious era. Land is needed so land is cleared. Conservationists battle some land or sea loss, using conservation laws, but the land destroyers chip away “in the name of necessity,” citing “low impact,” often gaming the system. Habitat loss appears incremental but it’s inexorable.

Surely now is the time to mark out a line: from now on, no more loss of habitat. None! Humankind must make do with what it has and surely it can do that. Even innocuous land clearing must be resisted.

Surely what we need is the equivalent of an Extinction Rebellion. Of course XR addresses habitat and diversity loss, and species extinction, within its ambit of the consequences of unaddressed climate change, but its bigger goals to do with emissions must stand paramount. What I visualise is something focused on precisely habitat loss, a calculus of square kilometres carried out by scientists.

Under legislation called for by such a movement, the onus of proof would not be on the negative impacts on “biodiversity” or this or that species. No, the onus of proof would be on the land clearing applicant – he/she/it would need to prove any land cleared has de minimis impact on all non-human species. Such a movement would defend all land under threat.

What might we call this movement? Land Moratorium? Land Protectorate? Hands Off Habitat? Expulsion Rebellion? 

Species extinctions: Is clarity needed?

Fred Pearce article

A couple of months ago, a British journalist who wrote a number of climate-change-related books over the noughties and into the 2010s, Fred Pearce, penned a trenchant piece titled “Global extinction rates: Why do estimates vary so wildly?” It’s an apt question and one I’d asked myself when I began researching, in the clumsy way amateurs do, the survival prospects of the fifteen Cranes species. Like Pearce, there seemed to me a disjuncture between oft quoted warnings of the current global extinction rate being “up to 100 times higher than the background rate” and my initial study of the IUCN data (the most authoritative), which shows only rare identified extinctions. So I read Pearce’s article with interest.

Unfortunately, the journalist isn’t about to proffer an opinion but merely to canvas the wide range of estimates. By his telling, observed, documented species losses are most infrequent; there may or may not be a gross understatement in the total number of global species often quoted as 1.9 million; modelled extrapolations bring up those assertions of frequent, accelerating extinctions; the whole field is a mess of imprecision.

As of now, I’m in limbo. It’s clear that even if documented extinction rates remain low, average numbers in almost all non-human species have declined and are now declining at faster rates, to the extent that we might be hovering on a precipice of clear vanishings of species. Humankind is undoubtedly bludgeoning and squeezing out the other species. But I am not alone in wanting more precision. And precision only comes about with governments acting with haste to fund concerted, wide-range studies. More science is needed.

The abyss with Roy Scranton

Roy Scranton article

Amongst the more-or-less climate change doomsayers (I say “more or less” because there’s a gradation from doom with hope to the worst extreme), Roy Scranton, novelist and essayist extraordinaire, ranks as depressing but weirdly uplifting. The thing is, he writes so passionately, the writing itself offers bizarre tangential hope.

The day I turn to his “We Broke the World” article in The Baffler, which I’ve kept lurking in a cupboard, my Melbourne sky is blue. I’m alone and lonely. The previous evening I went to my fourth Extinction Rebellion meeting and came away elated but, inevitably, also daunted. So what will Roy tell me this time?

He kicks off with a bravura scene asking me to stare at myself in a mirror and imagine my absence, my extinction. Nigh impossible, he tells me, and unpacks why, together with one of this idea’s consequences:

And so just as we are phenomenologically and cognitively biased toward presentism, which comprises both a strong belief that the future will be much like the present and a tendency to forget how different the past was, so are we biased toward what we might awkwardly call “presence-ism,” which is to say, a belief that whatever exists is and was and will keep on being. This fundamental cognitive bias against thinking non-existence makes certain problems challenging for us to comprehend. One such problem is the idea of extinction. … It takes a strenuous act of imagination to envision the massed herds and flocks of wild animals that once thundered over land now paved with highways and box store parking lots, dotted with cellphone towers, and crisscrossed by diesel-chugging tractor trailers and buses and SUVs.

What Scranton has dragged me to is, of course, the latest IPBES report, released at the end of May, a policy maker summary of its (global) assessment report on the state of Earth’s species. I took a look at the report in July, jotting down notes like ” Global warming fucks everything up. 5% of species could go extinct at +2 degrees, at +3 degrees this is 16%.” My Cranes-centered viewpoint had me gathering facts. What will Scranton conclude, I now wonder?

Scranton tears into the “absurdity almost depraved” of the IPBES science-administrators calling for “transformative change” (hence Scranton’s article title) akin to worldwide revolution. “Failing this,” he says to me, “we all face—all humanity—within our lifetimes and the lifetimes of our children—a catastrophic collapse of the biosphere upon which human life depends.” Our presence-ism and presentism points us towards nihilism. After expressing some scientific caveats that can hardly assist, “it’s hard not to come to the conclusion that we’re all totally fucked.”

But there’s a conclusion after the conclusion. Perhaps we can contemplate reality squarely, perhaps we can battle “reactive cycles of rage, depression, bargaining, and denial.” Perhaps I can. Andres, Scranton pleads, return to that mirror, meditate with observance, and “practice saying goodbye.”

Right now, Angel Olsen croons her song “Tonight” from her remarkable album All Mirrors. I put on my shoes and head off to write, to read and write.

Some look out two years, others like me accept responsibility out to 2100

Scott Morrison speech

I wasn’t as upset as some to hear Scott Morrison’s odd diatribe against climate protestors (see this Age article). What is refreshing is the explication of his moral horizon. It’s natural to expect humans to show great variability in short-termism versus long-termism. Having recently, after much angst, settled on a horizon of 2100, when my youngest grandchild’s children get to middle age, I saw a very much truncated view from our Prime Minister. Digest, if you like, these extracts from his speech yesterday:

Environmental groups are targeting businesses and firms who provide goods or services to firms they don’t like, especially in the resources sector. … They are targeting businesses of all sizes, including small businesses, like contracting businesses in regional Queensland. … It is a potentially more insidious threat to the Queensland economy and jobs and living standards than a street protest. … Let me assure you this is not something my Government intends to allow to go unchecked. Together with the Attorney-General, we are working to identify mechanisms that can successfully outlaw these indulgent and selfish practices that threaten the livelihoods of fellow Australians, especially in rural and regional areas, and especially here in Queensland.

Do you sense any horizon beyond right now or maybe one or two years hence (that is, election time)? I don’t. Younger generations pay heed. This is one government not on your side. Let’s work towards a change.

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.

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.

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.