7 minutes out of a city boy’s desk life

Movie still

I’m a city boy. Didn’t leave my Melbourne until my teens and then only briefly. Didn’t hike until my sixties. I reside in front of two screens most of my days.

Well, today naturalists Erv Nichols and Sandra Noll have graced me with a seven-minute YouTube glissando of bliss. Migrating with the Sandhill Cranes was made in 2018 – how did I miss it? They follow six hundred thousand massed Sandhills, greeking and calling, soaring on thermals, all the way from America’s southwest up to Alaska above the Arctic Circle. I cried.

Climate economics drives me wild

Noah Smith article extract

I’m an actuary not an economist, but when economists produce garbage, it’s usually easy for me to spot. That William Nordhaus won the 2018 Nobel for his modeling, so full of bad-faith assumptions, seems unbelievable.

If you have any interest in the debacle of climate change economics, have a close read of Noah Smith’s brilliant article “Why has climate economics failed us?” In it, he eviscerates the field, ascribing its uselessness to four factors:

  • “Simply not publishing enough research
  • Putting out models that are frankly just bad
  • Ignoring tail risks
  • Obsessively focusing on carbon taxes”

At the end of the article, Smith stresses that “the failures of the past cannot be allowed to persist into the future,” and he provides seven suggestions. A lengthy sequence of comments also holds some interest, though inevitably some of it is in bad faith.

If I were younger, I’d pitch in and assemble some good-faith economists and put together some models that can properly contribute to our deliberations of the climate emergency. As it is, I seethe.

“Beautiful and false”

Emma Marris article image

In The Atlantic, Emma Marris has penned a long, beautifully written article (“The nature you see in documentaries is beautiful and false“). I read it twice over today, glad to find something to propel me back into my Cranes project. “It isn’t just the sounds that make these films feel more than real,” she writes, among the many points used to illustrate her thesis. “They use the absolute highest-resolution cameras available, what Chang calls ‘military-grade lenses.’ The images on any modern television are thus crisp as fuck.”

Well, yes. I can appreciate the argument, I can appreciate her telling points. But as counterpoint, I’ve begun feeling that human beings should retreat from remote nature trips, should perhaps retreat to watching the documentaries she decries. We can’t, in all conscience, burn the carbon our travel entails, just so we can crowd out the animals and birds we point our cameras at. To be fair, Marris is not against travel documentaries per se, she’d prefer we’re dealt up nature documentaries that employ a “still-gorgeous-but-not-mythical approach,” and to be fair, I’d prefer that as well. But in the end, the nature documentary genre will exhibit the same jaw-dropping spectrum between the best and the worst that every other genre of human entertainment shows. Certainly, it seems to me, better we watch Planet Earth III than Farmer Wants a Bride.

Emma Marris’s weighty article is, of course, doubly germane to my 15 Cranes project. Should I spend the money, release the carbon, and disturb the remoteness as I have intended, in order to merely “see” or “witness” all fifteen species. Can I not ponder the world’s cranes using documentaries and the wonders of the Internet? What is the “right” thing for me to do and what should I do?

Salutary unexpected advice

A manager at Vox.com solicits pitches for biodiversity writers:

We’re looking for future-forward stories on the science, politics, and economics of the global biodiversity crisis, geared toward reckoning and responding to this multidimensional crisis, not just cataloging species loss. We’re looking for stories w/ focus on intelligent responses, accountability, recentering Indigenous science/stewardship, and why a radical rethinking/prioritization of conservation is needed. We’re *not* looking for stories simply about cute wildlife/pretty nature, or focused solely on mass extinction or losing individual species. After all, biodiversity is about abundance, healthy functioning ecosystems, and cultural diversity too.

On the surface, my book project is “cataloguing species loss” and “about cute wildlife.” But of course it needs to be much more. I need to be able to dig into the Cranes not as objects or even as harbingers, but to wrap them around our planet as a skein of life, a skein that embraces me and my generations to come. That sounds pretentious but it needs to speak as an expression of practicality. I am, in a sense, investigating my purpose.

On my shoulders

Richard Betts article

Key Met scientist Richard Betts writes in Carbon Brief that “Atmospheric CO2 now hitting 50% higher than pre-industrial levels.” We’re now at 417 ppm of carbon dioxide, half again what the Earth’s atmosphere held in pre-industrial times, namely 278 ppm.

I am writing, writing a big book on nuclear power. I am writing and I take a break and read Betts’s succinct, visual article. Its import doesn’t sink in for a while, then it does. In fact it’s a curve that poleaxes me, the curve showing the rise year by accelerating year from 1750 to now. Where am I, an Australian born in 1955, on that curve? Let’s say that at age 25, in 1980, one might assert that Andres Kabel was a fully functioning global citizen. Well, roughly interpolating on the chart, two-thirds of the human-caused carbon increase has taken place during the period since 1980.

Please, Andres, make sure you grasp this. You preached that you are principled, a rational humanist, a “good guy.” For four decades, that’s what you held dear. You aggrandized that you were preparing your children and grand-children for the future world, you were optimizing the future world for them and their descendants ongoing. Instead, by inattention and inaction, you and your generation plummeted Earth to a +1C world teetering on the edge of 1.5C, gazing towards 2C or 3C, or a catastrophic 4C situation.

It was me. I am to blame. I’m bereft again and again and again.

My apprehension of my Anthropocene

CSIRO website

CSIRO’s Climate Change in Australia website has just been refreshed in a way that encourages exploration. Politicians should assign their staff to study what they’re entrusted with dealing with. But here in Australia it’s hard to see anyone in our two dominant political parties paying much attention at all (at least until Extinction Rebellion moves them onwards?) In the meantime, I’ve begun my naive, amateurish, slow, browse.

This is the way we need to think. We’re trying to keep the world—in all its complexity of land areas versus ocean areas—to +1.5C. When the world is at this level, global temperatures will oscillate above and below this level, but we can talk about this +1.5C world. Are we there yet? No, and probably we won’t get there until sometime after 2030. But there may be a year or two of these “+1.5C world” years before then, maybe even in the next few years.

In Australia? Well, we’re warming, on our land mass, at 1.4 times the global pace. And in 2019, that fierce incandescent year, we, as a nation, experienced what will be typical in our upcoming +1.5C world.

Where I live in Melbourne? Even in 2019 the fiery temperatures were in Northern Territory, Western Australia, and New South Wales. I haven’t been through a +1.5C year. But I shall, I shall, and before too long.


Sonia Shah article

The brilliant Sonia Shah has a startling New York Times article, “Animal Planet” (which in all likelihood will be behind a paywall for you), delineates something startling, a 3-year-old, multi-million-dollar satellite surveillance project (on the ISS) called ICARUS (International Cooperation for Animal Research Using Space). Solar-powered tracking tags are attached to a wide variety of animals and birds. These transmit to a receiver on the space station. Apparently, the emerging data upends all notions on animal/bird elasticity of movement and migration. What does this suggest for the 15 Cranes species? The official website is opaque on what species are tracked but a global map doesn’t suggest that any Cranes are monitored. Ultimately, though, this kind of tech effort will help elucidate the chances of Cranes surviving the Anthropocene era. If only I could understand the answer to that question.

Report on collapsing ecosystems

Australian ecosystems

38 Australian scientists have done a huge survey and characterized the continent in terms of 19 different ecosystems, and then assessed each of the 19 under a range of survivorship criteria. Adam Morton of the Guardian has done his usual sterling service by summarizing the scholarship, if an article suits you better. Me, I decided to focus on Australia’s Cranes. The southern population of Brolgas is tiny, threatened, and doesn’t really live in an ecosystem; it just survives courtesy of private farmers. The much larger and thriving population of Brolgas, and the smaller but apparently coping population of Sarus Cranes, inhabit, if I understand the research paper correctly, just one of the nineteen Australian ecosystems, namely the “Australian tropical savannah” across the Far North to northern Queensland. Quite substantial numbers of Brolgas and Sarus Cranes also migrate annually to the Atherton Tablelands inland from Cairns, which looks like it falls under another ecosystem, the “wet tropical rainforest,” but mostly these Cranes come for farmers’ leftover grains and probably are not dependent on forest. Anyway, Ecosystem #2, the tropical savannah, is vulnerable to 10 of the 17 possible climate change pressures, and is vulnerable to abrupt, smooth, and fluctuating collapse profiles. That doesn’t inform me about exactly what will happen to our Cranes, but hey, it does say the Anthropocene will test the two species. No surprises, then.

Binocular dreams

Whooping Cranes

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.

The past is no longer the future

John Matthews article

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.