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)
Check out this sublime rendition by Amanda Palmer (for wonderful Brain Pickings) of the Mary Oliver poem “When I Am Among the Trees.” If you’ve ever camped in a remote spot far from car and Scomo, you’ll know this exquisite, oh so soft feeling. Sweet poem wonderfully told. I need to get back some wilderness, find time to be not “busy.”
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!
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 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?
David Suzuki seems to have been present all my life as a voice of reason and intelligence. I needed a fillip and this came through on the 6th: “Deniers deflated as climate reality hits home.”
Brilliant SMH/Age science journo Peter Hannam wrote yesterday about a highly technical article just out from Griffith Uni researchers Joao Morin, Mark Herner, and Fernando Andutta. Here’s the original article. $8 for a layperson to even rent it out, with no means of storing it for future re-evaluation, is too expensive, so I’m reliant on Hannam’s interpretation and analysis, but that’s good enough for me because this research is stunningly difficult and still most uncertain. The conclusions refer to end-of-century unabated-emissions assumptions – call them imprecise! – but it’s the best we can do.
Here’s the Hannam skinny as crudely restated by me. Over the century warming-world-induced stronger winds mean that the nastier big ocean waves will occur 5-15% more often and will be 5-15% nastier and will shift direction. The reason I’m interested is that annual sea level rises of a few millimeters won’t soon swamp my hometown of Melbourne. But what seems to also happen is more frequent, more vicious storm-like surges that f**k up a shoreline as “oncer” events. The Griffith Uni tyros predict bigger whacks more often. Different surge directions in particular redistribute sand and shoreline in big licks. It seems North Atlantic shorelines might be pummelled less while my southern Australian beaches will change or vanish.
By itself this is all frustratingly vague to me – will shores near my grandchildren be inundated over, say, a decade or two? – but that’s the complexity our scientist-heroes face.
And Hannam points to a NSW coastal weather warning for “dangerous” and “rather rare” surges over the three days from tomorrow. Will Victorian beaches wilt similarly? My weather forecast checks don’t clarify but I’ve asked someone in the know and will watch out.
Intellectually and emotional pursuing the future fate of fifteen bird species, a fate that must necessarily consider extinction, within the notion of the Anthropocene, a notion that encompasses human extinction, is terrifying. At its core might might be four questions. Will Cranes survive? So what? Will my grandchildren (or great grandchildren – what is the apt timeframe?) survive? So what do I do?
You think it easy to ponder extinction. Not so. Just asking those four questions clearly raises major ethical issues, for only in a perfect heaven can one guarantee everyone life forever.
Thomas Moynihan’s “The end of us,” published August 7 on Aeon, posits that only since the Enlightenment, perhaps the mid 18th century, have we humans even been able to consider species extinction (Moynihan deals with human extinction) and that this renders the extinction concept as one marking human maturity.
I was in a Nijmegen cafe, redrafting a chapter on 1950s reactors, when I turned to his well-written paper, and the leap from the former to the latter made me impatient. Surely the extinction “topic” first crescendo’d in the 60s/70s/80s, after Carson, Ehrlich, and cruise missiles? Surely any sense of philosophical “maturity” about extinction remains murky, in spite of damned fulsome knowledge, because some of us believe in obligations to future generations whilst most could not care less?
I’ve not treated Moynihan fairly, I know, but was and am asking a different extinction question to his. What that question is remains fuzzy.
(Image is from Aeon’s website article, just a screenshot)
Back on July 27, journalist Guy Kelly’s “The biologist in a race against time to save the Great Barrier Reef” came out in the Telegraph Magazine, and I noticed it today (edited a bit) in the Good Weekend magazine of my paper back home, The Age. British (but now in Sydney) biologist Emma Camp and one of the world’s foremost climate change/coral reef experts spoke to, of all things, an explorers’ conference:
Climate change is compromising not just the Great Barrier Reef, but reefs globally. Warmer, more acidic, low-oxygen seawater is fundamentally affecting the biology of the corals, and this is compromising whether they’ll be able to exist in the future. In just three years, over a third of the Great Barrier Reef has been lost.
Camp turns out to be both pessimistic and optimistic. She is exploring the idea of grafting on coral evolved to exist in more acidic water, which sounded to me, as I read it, intriguing but most speculative. As Guy Kelly explores her scientific world, she ends up summing up:
The best case scenario in 50 years is that we have coral reefs that are still biodiverse, serving their function, and we have an even healthier marine environment than we do now, respecting biodiversity not just for its value to us as humans. The worst case scenario is that we’ve lost coral reefs as we know them. I don’t want to tell my future grandchildren that this was a privilege I had, but they won’t, and it was all because we didn’t do enough.
I reflected that my ongoing task is to clearly identify the truth about the world’s coral reefs (Guy’s article has a graphic showing the world’s eight major coral reefs, our Great Barrier Reef being the largest). I suspect the truth is more or less suppressed simply because of tourism impact. I think I’ll turn to the IPCC next.
Our heroes: those battling inaction at home and those frenetically seeking to amass the evidence to compel action, i.e. our scientist-heroes. Check out arctic geologist Kristin Laidre on her way home from the far north:
Returned from field work in Greenland studying narwhals at 75N wearing t-shirts during a heatwave w/ glaciers calving off massive chunks, on the way home passed a wildfire burning on the coast & returning to US flew over endless melt pools. Climate change is real.