I watch a five-minute video put together by the International Crane Foundation. I imagine doing what they portray, joining a small crew of birders in a hide on the Platte River during the annual migration of millions of birds, including thousands of Sandhill Cranes. Then, I’m urged, lift your binoculars and lo, there’s a bigger bird. It’s a Whooping Crane! When (if?) I go to the Platte River, will I be lucky enough to see a Whooper? The end of the video shows just-released latest Whooping Crane numbers: there are 808 birds in this species, which once was close to being wiped out. Since there are over 800,000 Sandhill Cranes, I guess my chances of seeing a Whooper are one in a thousand. A dream worth having.
A water expert, John Matthews, blogs for the Observer Research Foundation: “How to prepare for unpredictable climate events to ensure water sustainability.” He frames his discussion in terms of what he calls “stationarity,” or the existence of a stable world for predictive purposes. Let me reframe that for my purposes. For any planetary phenomenon which we need to predict in the light of global warming, the past (i.e. past data) is useful but not the end of the story. On a planet that for human purposes has been stable and slow-changing, the rapid warming we’re engendering, however, small changes in, say, temperature, can quickly take us into the unknown. The past data no longer predicts the future. We need to develop models based on scientific principles that can take our comprehension into the new Anthropocene era. Of course, such models are what have been built over the last four decades, and they’re now pretty hot shit.
This issue of the past being an imperfect predictor of the future is what renders the slippery bullshit of semi-deniers such as Bjorn Lomborg as exactly that, bullshit. Lomborg is forever saying, “look, things haven’t gotten worse in the past, so they won’t in the future.” We know (and he knows) that he’s just deflecting attention, just deferring action. Ignore slippery bullshit, folks, and trust the models.
One could explode in anger, one could. The latest from the company most easily categorized as satanic, ExxonMobil, claims to cut something to do with emissions by 15 to 20% from 2016 to 2025. Read Emily Pontecorvo’s Grist article “Exxon’s ’emission reduction plan’ doesn’t call for reducing Exxon’s emissions” to get the skinny. The skinny: it’s spin, spin, spin.
One always believes in dialogue, in negotiation. But in 2020, as it was in 2000 and 1980, the fossil fuel giants exist for only one purpose, making money by burning fossil fuels, so they are the intractable enemy. Oppose, permit yourself some righteous hatred … then, when the world wakes up and the politics shift, bring ExxonMobil and the rest to heel.
How onerous it is to undo humanity’s damage to species. Read this stirring account (“The life and times of Arete and Bomnak – The Khingansky cranes grow up“) on the ICF website of a remote Russian couple’s 30-year reintroduction into the wild of 106 captive-reared Red-Crowneds and 62 White-napeds. Read about the triumphs of confirming (by drones and geo-tagging) of successful migrations to Korea of a handful. Hope-brimming but yes, also deeply troubling.
My paraphrase: First, recognize that getting effective action on climate doesn’t depend on getting every citizen to be climate-concerned; for example, consider smoking policy action: only 50-60% of citizens were on board. Second, there are going to be climate-insincere politicians. Recognize that a climate-sincere politician is going to put a price on carbon or enact regulations that phase out coal, gas, petrol, and diesel. Climate-insincere politicians do educational and research stuff but say carbon taxes or regulations are too prohibitive. They set distant targets (yes, targets are good) but never do anything; with a target, we need to see policies towards the target. Finally, climate-sincere citizens need to be strategic and work hard against the election of the most climate-insincere politicians, rather than being purist, splitting the vote, and enabling the bad guys to get elected.
“Hundreds of volunteers are helping to map the Great Barrier Reef” on BBC News. Scientists and even tourists will take snaps of coral and other volunteers will use them to do mapping. I’m struck by the analogies with trying to save species highly threatened by humanity’s encroachment and global warming. We breed birds in captivity, release them, tag them, survey them … rinse and repeat, hoping the almost-extinct population recovers enough to thwart extinction. This work is noble. So too is paying close attention to the Reef, regrowing minuscule patches, surveying…
But pay attention to the differences. We don’t know when climate change will kiss the Orange-Bellied Parrot goodbye, but we have models that tell us most coral reefs will disappear in the 2030s as seas inexorably warm up. Birds can move and adapt; coral reefs sit and wait. So, for sure, let’s try and save pieces of the reefs. But here in Australia, we should at least publicly put the Great Barrier Reef on a schedule of highly threatened lifeforms. Perhaps it’s time to begin closing down the tourist industry around it and treat it as a scientific project?
My paraphrase: The answer is not easy. We give money to someone who does something that reduces emissions from what they otherwise would have been. For example, a hydro plant instead of a coal plant, or trees where there are none. But it’s hard to prove what would or wouldn’t have happened had you not paid. There are people who try to verify this but the proof problem remains. Also, there’s the permanence problem: will it endure (carbon emissions do endure)? I’m a skeptic but two offsets (expensive per tonne of carbon) are guaranteed: direct air capture of carbon and BECCS (grow plants, process them for fuel, and bury the emissions). Regarding policy options, I recommend not allowing offsets to be more than a small percentage.
My paraphrase: Requires minimum percentage of vehicle sales of electrics or hydrogen fuel vehicles (doesn’t specify tech). Grows over time. Gradual, giving consumers and manufacturers time to adjust and for infrastructure to be developed. Not dramatically different (in this sphere) to a carbon tax.
Ealier this year, I chanced upon Deep Time Reckoning: How Future Thinking Can Help Earth Now by Vincent Ialenti, which describes his three-year study of Finland’s patient striving towards the world’s first deep, deep storage cave for spent nuclear fuel. I’d visited the Finnish site and know a bit about the whole thing, so I figured I didn’t need to study the book. Way too many books, too little time … I set Deep Time Reckoning aside.
Ten days ago, I read an article by Ialenti in the Guardian: “The benefits of embracing ‘deep time’ in a year like 2020.” This article cast an entirely new slant on the matter. One of the Finns’ “techniques can be particularly useful for escaping the stresses of today’s rampant short-termism,” writes Ialenti. “It involves tapping into the power of analogy to envision distant future worlds.” Of course! Finland’s long-range engineering project falls right into the type of “right” thinking we need to do, according to Roman Krznaric in The Good Ancestor: How to Think Long Term in a Short-Term. This is what I need to think about for this project about the fate of the Crane species in the Anthropocene era.
I have plucked Deep Time Reckoning out of the reject pit and will report back. Do you think of the distant future? Can you “future think”?
My paraphrase (please don’t rely upon it): Greenhouse gases don’t decline because of government spending. Fossil fuels are cheap, so either tax carbon or regulate emissions reductions. Post-Covid spending should tilt towards decarbonizing but it’s not central.