Tuesday, June 23, 2009


"Thou cunning’st pattern of excelling nature,
I know not where is that Promethean heat"

— Othello. Act v. Sc. 2.

Here in the bottom of Tennessee, where the next county south is in Alabama, we have been watching the summers grow steadily hotter. When we arrived here, a band of ragtag hippies in 1971, the climate wasn’t as bad as rumors would have it. We were up on the rim of the Nashville Basin, and the reason the place is called Summertown is because it was where top-hatted and corseted city folk would come in the summers to cool off. There was once a resort hotel down by the rail track, and particularly when the Swamp Fever was bad in the lowlands, the little highland town could expect to see a goodly number of wealthy tourists, people who would buy homemade corn ‘shine, quilts and wood furniture.

The climate we had in 1971 is now up near Lexington, Kentucky. The local summer heat of ‘09 was what folks down in Nashoba County, Mississippi, had regularly in 1971.

At my house we swore off air conditioning in 1993 when we went to solar electric, choosing window fans and living roofs to keep us cool, especially at night. We have some picture windows that are replaced with large screens every year in May only to go back every October. We have some vents to the cellar, with a fan, to draw up the chill of the earth.

It’s still cool enough to work, or bike, or run around in the mornings, and when there is a breeze, usually before or after a rain, but days like we’re having this week are rough. Now it’s over 95°F every day, and humidity is well above 90 percent. There is no breeze, so you just learn to live with a layer of sweat. Clothing is minimal. Even taking a cold shower only lasts a couple of minutes, then you are all soaked in hot sweat again. At night it is still above 80°F at midnight, dropping only to the mid-70s by morning. By 8 am it is back above 80 in the sun. The sheets are stained with sweat and have to be washed more often.

We have taken to rising at sun-up, breaking for food at 8 am, working until noon, then taking off in the heat of the day, going for a swim, or just hanging out in the shade somewhere, trying not to work up a sweat. Even simple chores like weeding the garden or cleaning the house begin to bring on flushed foreheads and heavier breathing as the body’s air conditioning struggles to hold to 98.6. Our Amish neighbors are tougher than we are, but they vanish from the fields most afternoons now. It is too hot for the horses.

Reading the new federal report on “Global Climate Change Impacts in the United States” we are particularly struck by the descriptions of what the temperature change will likely be by the time our grandchildren, just recently beginning to walk and talk, are middle aged. The report says:
The number of very hot days is projected to rise at a greater rate than the average temperature. Average temperatures in the [Southeast] region are projected to rise by about 4.5°F by the 2080s, while a higher emissions scenario yields about 9°F of average warming (with about a 10.5°F increase in summer, and a much higher heat index).
It is not easy to grasp those numbers, because we assume that global averages and daily or hourly temperature changes are equivalent, and they aren’t. Since 1970 our average temperature in this region has risen 2 degrees, which is roughly the same change for the Southeast as occurred between now and the last time glaciers extended below the Great Lakes. So, just to begin with, 2 degrees is huge. It is the difference between southern Mississippi and Nashville, Tennessee. Trying to grasp what “about 4.5°F by the 2080s” will mean, never mind 9°F… fuggeddaboudit.

One thing we can surmise is that farming will be harder. The report says:
Because higher temperatures lead to more evaporation of moisture from soils and water loss from plants, the frequency, duration, and intensity of droughts are likely to continue to increase.
That really only shows half the picture. If summer rains and the groundwater or rivers dry up, it will be hard to sustain field crops. If it is consistently above 95°F, corn will not generate ears, or the kernels will wilt on them. Above 102°F, soybeans will not set bean pods, or the seed will shrivel and die. Even our shiitake logs will lose the mycelium that makes the mushrooms grow.
Some crops are particularly sensitive to high nighttime temperatures, which have been rising even faster than daytime temperatures. Nighttime temperatures are expected to continue to rise in the future. These changes in temperature are especially critical to the reproductive phase of growth because warm nights increase the respiration rate and reduce the amount of carbon that is captured during the day by photosynthesis to be retained in the fruit or grain.
Snap beans will fail if nighttime temperatures are consistently above 80°F.

Lower soil moisture and higher temperatures leading to intense wildfires or pest outbreaks (such as the southern pine beetle) in southeastern forests; intense droughts leading to the drying of lakes, ponds, and wetlands; and the local or global extinction of riparian and aquatic species.

We are already watching our hardwood forests fall of their own accord. Last year it was the oaks. This year it’s the hickories. Loblolly pine, a species that favors the sandy soils of Mississippi, was planted abundantly back in the late 1970s, when we worked as tree-planters and had lots of leftover stock, and also the forest service and ag-extension agents gave them away for free. Those are now thriving, happy to have the climate they most favor come their way. Loblolly will now move up into Kentucky, Pennsylvania, and New York, even as the sugar maples, spruce, beech, and wild plum go extinct.

What will it be like for our grandchildren, we wonder, when we have 120-135 days per year above 90°F and perhaps a third of those topping 100°F? By mid-century, extreme heat events that used to occur every 20 years on average will have become annual affairs, like the drought in Atlanta. It is by no means certain that there will be energy to run air conditioners by then, but perhaps there will if the radioactive sediments are dredged from behind TVA’s dams and the plants that make nuclear fuel and weapons — and consume so much of TVA’s power in the process — are closed.

Migration is an option. Our granddaughter has an aunt in Alaska who might take her in, not that Alaska will be exactly paradisical. Already droughts are becoming more common, forest fires spreading, lakes shrinking, and coastal storms increasing. Still, they may still be able to make a bean crop there by mid-century.

Right now it is approaching midnight on a Saturday night in June. The summer solstice is about an hour away, and after that our nights will start getting longer. The temperature is 89°F. Solar-powered fans keep the air moving but our MacBook is way too hot to rest wrists on. I’m feeling the need for another shower.

This post originally appeared in Energy Bulletin on June 21, 2009.

Friday, June 19, 2009

Doomer Porn

Global population, limits to growth, peak oil and climate change activists have been coming up with such similar contraction scenarios that they are beginning to echo each other.

At the same time, there is a tendency in each community to think of their cause as more serious or profound than that of the others. For instance, the global warming community is seen by peak oilers as blind to the effects of energy and economic collapse, most notably on greenhouse gas emission projections. Yes, they acknowledge, we will have to suffer some climate karma that is already in the pipeline, but it won’t be as bad, as shocking, or as soon, as peak everything and the tidal wave of collapse that follows.

As the stragglers who came to the Peak Oil Revival Camp meetings after having got religion with climate change, we confess to having never quite received that part of the Peak Oil gospel with an open mind.

And sadly, with each passing year, the evidence mounts that faith-based graspings were indeed misplaced. We really are doomed, and climate is a much bigger threat than energy and economic collapse.

If you lose your economic underpinnings, you could fall back on the economic development chart to where you were in 1930, or 1830, or even 1330, but you are still around as a species, assuming you don’t totally lose your cool and just nuke everything in sight on your way down.

In contrast, if you lose your climate underpinnings, it’s game over, man. You not only take down the higher vertebrates, homo included, but everything alive on this third rock from the sun, potentially even the microbes in deep caves and ocean depths. Earth, meet Venus.

Every so often, and it seems to be coming more often now, our really dire climate nightmare, the scary runaway scenario we depicted in Climate in Crisis in 1990, gets support from the latest scientific publications. This week there was another really big boost to our pride, if you can call it that.

First, let us back up a month to May 19, and the publication by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s study involving 400 supercomputer runs of the best climate change measurements currently available. Conclusion: the effects of climate change are twice as severe as estimated just six years ago and the median probability of surface warming by 2100 is now 5.2 degrees Celsius, compared to a finding of 2.4 degrees as recently as 2003. Moreover, the MIT group rated at 90% possibility a warming to 7.4 degrees by 2100 (and still accelerating). This, in spite of our feeble efforts at cap, trade, contraction and convergence.

A second report, by the Global Humanitarian Forum, found that 300,000 deaths per year are already attributable to climate change-related weather, food shortages, and disease. That could be called our baseline, or background count — of the 20th-century-long experience of less than a 1 degree C change.

All of these findings set the stage for the report released this past week by the Advisory Committee on Global Change Research, Global Climate Change Impacts in the United States (Cambridge University Press, 2009). The authoring team was headed by senior climate scientists at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and included half a dozen government agencies and laboratories and senior researchers from a dozen universities. Just reading the introduction is refreshing, because it cuts through so much of the b.s. that passes for public debate these days.

The “Impacts” report takes the projections for the coming decades to about as fine a grain as can be had, given the behavior of interrelated and reciprocating climate systems undergoing rapid destabilization. Here are some findings that really gave us a 1990 déjà vu feel, all over:
  • Warming over this century is projected to be considerably greater than over the last century. The global average temperature since 1900 has risen by about 1.5ºF. By 2100, it is projected to rise another 2 to 11.5ºF. The U.S. average temperature has risen by a comparable amount and is very likely to rise more than the global average over this century, with some variation from place to place.
  • Climate-related changes have already been observed globally and in the United States. These include increases in air and water temperatures, reduced frost days, increased frequency and intensity of heavy downpours, a rise in sea level, and reduced snow cover, glaciers, permafrost, and sea ice. A longer ice-free period on lakes and rivers, lengthening of the growing season, and increased water vapor in the atmosphere have also been observed. Over the past 30 years, temperatures have risen faster in winter than in any other season, with average winter temperatures in the Midwest and northern Great Plains increasing more than 7ºF. Some of the changes have been faster than previous assessments had suggested.
  • Likely future changes for the United States and surrounding coastal waters include more intense hurricanes with related increases in wind, rain, and storm surges (but not necessarily an increase in the number of these storms that make landfall), as well as drier conditions in the Southwest and Caribbean. These changes will affect human health, water supply, agriculture, coastal areas, and many other aspects of society and the natural environment.
  • Impacts are expected to become increasingly severe for more people and places as the amount of warming increases. Rapid rates of warming would lead to particularly large impacts on natural ecosystems and the benefits they provide to humanity. Some of the impacts of climate change will be irreversible, such as species extinctions and coastal land lost to rising seas.
  • Unanticipated impacts of increasing carbon dioxide and climate change have already occurred and more are possible in the future. For example, it has recently been observed that the increase in atmospheric carbon dioxide concentration is causing an increase in ocean acidity. This reduces the ability of corals and other sea life to build shells and skeletons out of calcium carbonate.
  • Additional impacts in the future might stem from unforeseen changes in the climate system, such as major alterations in oceans, ice, or storms; and unexpected consequences of ecological changes, such as massive dislocations of species or pest outbreaks.
  • - Unexpected social or economic changes, including major shifts in wealth, technology, or societal priorities would also affect our ability to respond to climate change. Both anticipated and unanticipated impacts become more challenging with increased warming.
  • In an increasingly interdependent world, U.S. vulnerability to climate change is linked to the fates of other nations. For example, conflicts or mass migrations of people resulting from food scarcity and other resource limits, health impacts, or environmental stresses in other parts of the world could threaten U.S. national security.
  • The European heat wave of 2003 [with >30,000 heat-fatalities] is an example of the type of extreme heat event that is likely to become much more common. If greenhouse gas emissions continue to increase, by the 2040s more than half of European summers will be hotter than the summer of 2003, and by the end of this century, a summer as hot as that of 2003 will be considered unusually cool.
  • There are also concerns regarding the potential for abrupt release of methane from thawing of frozen soils, from the sea floor, and from wetlands.
  • Recent findings indicate that it is very likely that the strength of the North Atlantic circulation will decrease over the course of this century in response to increasing greenhouse gases. This is expected because warming increases the melting of glaciers and ice sheets and the resulting runoff of freshwater to the sea. This additional water is virtually salt-free, which makes it less dense than seawater. Increased precipitation also contributes fresh, less-dense water to the ocean. As a result, less surface water is dense enough to sink, thereby reducing the conveyor belt’s transport of heat. The best estimate is that the strength of this circulation will decrease 25 to 30 percent in this century, leading to a reduction in heat transfer to the North Atlantic. It is considered very unlikely that this circulation would collapse entirely during the next 100 years or so, though it cannot be ruled out.
  • While very unlikely, the potential consequences of such an abrupt event would be severe. Impacts would likely include sea-level rise around the North Atlantic of up to 2.5 feet (in addition to the rise expected from thermal expansion and melting glaciers and ice sheets), changes in atmospheric circulation conditions that influence hurricane activity, a southward shift of tropical rainfall belts with resulting agricultural impacts, and disruptions to marine ecosystems.
While it would be comforting to sit back and bask in the revealed glory of 20-year-old predictions come true, we are instead left with a deep and abiding sense of foreboding that colors everything we say and do now. Finding ourselves trapped in a burning building, we have to search out and consider any potential escape routes, and quickly. We can ignore the deniers, because they are only impediments to us now. Our survival, and that of the experiment of life on a blue water world, depends on our ability to keep clarity and resolve as all around us the flames and smoke are rising.

That is the only reason we keep reading through all this doomer porn, toss in our sleep, get grey hair, and curse the darkness.

And yet… the line we have adhered to for the past 29 years, although it has yet to come into general discussion, is that what is required is a change of culture, change of lifestyle, change of consciousness and change of direction. Growth is so 20th century now. We can forget that.

Just don’t forget that what we need to do to extricate ourselves is also going to make our lives vastly better, and still better for our children, although, for them, it will be quite a bit warmer for a while.

Monday, June 1, 2009

On the passing of a friend

This morning I tried to sleep until dawn but I couldn't. I tossed and turned and finally just got up. It was still dark but the sky was starting to gather light. I took my bicycle and rode out in the chilly dawn for about ten miles, and paused at the edge of a large field to watch the sun come up. At 5:25 am local time, Thomas Berry passed from this world. He left lives behind him here, and among them there is yet hope.

John Lane, Appalachian Voices: "When you were a child growing up in North Carolina, there were less than two billion humans on the planet. And as predicted, the world’s population rose to 6.5 billion in about twenty five years. This all happening in your lifetime. The South is the fastest growing region in the country. Can the South survive? Can we, as Southerners, survive this population boom?"

Thomas Berry: "I don’t guess I think we can. It would be very difficult to survive with that much population. It goes against all odds with regard to carrying capacity. And it’s here that religion has been at fault. Especially the Catholic religion--which has failed extensively in not paying attention to the decline of the natural world, and in this way it’s losing its own foundations, because the biblical world is thoroughly cosmological. Rituals are cosmological. They presuppose the universe. I was in a monastery for ten years. I didn’t even come home to Greensboro, where my family resided, during that time--between the ages of twenty to thirty. In the monastery, we’d celebrate dawn with prayers and meditations. And we’d celebrate the mid-day, and celebrate the early evening. At vespers, we’d celebrate the early evening, and then the late evening, which was wonderful! Then I’d get up at two-o’clock in the morning and I’d have these experiences with hymns that would be sung according to the time of day and seasons of the year. The whole of that monastic literature was woven into the cosmological cycle. The scriptures, the book-of-songs was thoroughly cosmological. In the normal Catholic world, a person cannot even study theology, or philosophy, or about the universe. This is a part of the comprehensive failure. To recover, we need new laws. We need new religions. New economics and new education. All four. None of the four can do it by itself."

Reverend Fr. Thomas Berry C.P., cultural historian and ecotheologian (although "geologian" or “Earth scholar” were his preferred descriptors) passed today. He was 94. I met him at an early Bioregional Congress, where he came, like me, to mingle and learn.

It is told that his sense of "the natural world in its numinous presence" came to him at the age of 11 when he discovered a new meadow on the outskirts of the town to which his family had just moved. "The field was covered with white lilies rising above the thick grass," he said. "A magic moment, this experience gave to my life something that seems to explain my thinking at a more profound level than almost any other experience I can remember."

It was not only the lilies, he said. "It was the singing of the crickets and the woodlands in the distance and the clouds in the clear sky. … This early experience has remained with me ever since as the basic determinant of my sense of reality and values. Whatever fosters this meadow is good. What does harm to this meadow is not good." By extension, he said, "a good economic, or political, or educational system is one that would preserve that meadow and a good religion would reveal the deeper experience of that meadow and how it came into being."

In his remembrance in the National Catholic Reporter today, Rich Heffern characterized Thomas Berry's message:

"We have a wonderful idea of God because we have always lived on a planet that is chock-full, every nook and cranny, with marvels and mysteries, dark beauty, happy encounters and splendid landscapes. How could we picture God in our heads as an ever fresh and creative daybreak, as a compassionate father or nurturing mother, as a wonder-counselor if we had never experienced these qualities in the people, land and life around us? What kind of God would we pray to if we lived on the bleak surface of the moon? We are literally killing off our religious imagination when we destroy the natural world."




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