Tag Archives: climate change

“All Hell Breaking Loose – The Pentagon’s Perspective on Climate Change” by Michael T. Klare

All Hell Breaking Loose: The Pentagon's Perspective on Climate Change

237 pages plus notes (69 pages) and index, 2019.

I had some difficulty reading this book, despite my very strong interest in the topic. The author, for good reasons, relies heavily on government generated reports full of acronyms and unfamiliar terminology. Maybe this is why to me, the writing seemed “flat” and dull. I was determined to read it anyway. It took me around 6 weeks. I need to return to the last chapter, “Going Green – The Pentagon as Change Agent”. I’m glad I persevered.

All Hell Breaking Loose is organized around increasing severity of military challenges, moving from humanitarian emergencies, which the military is excellently equipped (and quite willing) to handle, through three more categories of conflict (unstable states, global shocks and, most dangerous of all, great power clashes) up to domestic climate disasters and climate change threat to US military facilities. I had trouble focusing until I got to domestic climate disasters. Then I was reading about Hurricane Sandy and other storms that menaced ME and the people and places I love.

To me, the message about the future presented by this book can be summarized by one word – HARDSHIP. It will be difficult to live in a changed and changing world. Setting priorities will be challenging. Providing for human needs will be complicated. The only thing that will become easier is exploiting the resources of the far north, and already the Great Powers are bristling uneasily in the Arctic.

Complicating our understanding of the impacts of climate change is the fact that other things are changing at the same time. Two of the big things are globalization and urbanization. Globalization means America’s concept of “our interests” reaches further than before. How close are we to saying that “everything” that happens “everywhere” is America’s business?

I’m also trying to figure out how to factor in demography, the study of population, and the concept of a “demographic transition” that may be a one way street. See Empty Planet, which I wrote about on August 15, 2019. Another book I need to go back to! Recent news articles analyze the demographic transition in Japan and China.

All Hell Breaking Loose provides valuable perspective on the American military and its role in our culture. As an institution, it seems to me to be more far sighted than some other institutions, like our legislative system with its emphasis on the election cycle. Klare describes what he calls the “military’s strategic predicament”. Their job (described above as winning “great power clashes”) is to protect the US against foreign enemies by use of arms. What will happen when “too much” of the military is occupied with humanitarian emergencies and propping up failed states? What will happen when a concatenation of disasters prevents response to a serious military threat?

This book was published in 2019 but doesn’t take into account  the changes associated with the Trump presidency. Klare points out that the military has not backed off from dealing with climate change – they have simply changed their language, referring now to “extreme events”. How long will they be able to stay on this course?

Recent news articles detail a meeting held on July 20, 2017 at which US Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis and other high officials attempted to tutor President Trump on the role of the military in foreign affairs. (See Washington Post, January 17, 2020.) The attempt failed. Trump angrily called the country’s highest military officers “dopes and babies”. “You’re all losers”, he told the generals. The meeting so shocked the participants that they agreed not to discuss it publicly, but (inevitably) information was ultimately released.

I wonder what would have happened if the meeting had been organized by Ash Carter, whose book I reviewed (twice) on November 11, 2019. I was impressed by Carter’s description of how he “managed” the announcement that all military restrictions by gender on positions and job titles were at an end. Could he have found a way to speak so that Trump would listen? I wonder what he would have recommended to the high officials who failed in “educating” the President?

As usual, I looked up author Michael Klare. He’s an emeritus professor at Hampshire College in Massachusetts who has written an impressive number of books and articles. Neither his Wikipedia entry or his Hampshire College website is particularly up to date. He writes for The Nation and other periodicals. He’s covered a topic I’m interested in, the issue of undeclared wars. Before All Hell Breaking Loose, he published The Race for What’s Left: The Global Scramble for the World’s Last Resources in 2012.

I recommend this book and this author to those seeking insight into our current dilemmas, both political and environmental.

Climate Up Close – A New Organization

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Climate Up Close is a very small, recently formed organization trying to bridge the gap between scientists and concerned citizens. It consists of 4 young scientists (two PhDs and two grad students) and a communications strategist. They’ve generated an event which they offer to community organizations. Judging from their website, I think they’ve presented their program about a dozen times. They volunteer their time and accept contributions to cover travel expenses.

I attended a presentation on January 4. It was sponsored by a religious congregation in central Philadelphia. Publicity was scanty but the turnout was high, with about 80 people in attendance. By way of introduction, comments by three prominent non-scientists (2 politicians and an author) were shown. Each was judged to be WRONG based on the best currently available science. Climate Up Close wants to improve the quality of public discourse on this topic.

In the first 45 minutes, four topics were covered:

  • The state of climate science. What’s “settled”? What’s open to question? Levels of confidence.
  • Climate Context – history
  • Climate Change – what contributes?
  • Impacts, projections and modeling – sea level rise, storm intensity, heat waves, etc. “Tipping points” and instabilities.

After this fast moving lecture, questions were solicited. The Q/A format was to collect questions, group them and then let the scientists respond. Inevitably, some concepts came up that may have strained non-scientists, like “signal-to-noise ratio” and the distinction between water vapor and water in the gas phase (atmosphere). By and large, I felt the explanations were admirably clear. The speakers resisted the temptation to branch out beyond their expertise, into fields like economics. (I wanted to ask demographic questions.)

I didn’t blow my cover, keeping my Masters level background in atmospheric chemistry to myself. Regrettably, I was unable to stay for informal discussion afterwards. I had plenty of questions.

I was accompanied by a non-scientist friend. I think she followed much of the science, but her primary reaction was enjoyment of the energy and confidence shown by the presenters.

Climate Up Close has a excellent web site, but I couldn’t find them on Facebook.

Climate Up Close is a wonderful example of how people can reach out in the public interest without a big budget or lots of organizational structure. I’m very grateful that these highly educated specialists are making the effort to talk to ALL of us.

East coast climate change and sea level rise – Motts Creek NJ, Ocracoke NC and Chincoteague VA

I live 18 miles from the beach in NJ. I’ve kept an eye on sea level rise for a long time, having rented a home on Brigantine Island for two years (1976 to 1978) and lived here in the Pinelands coastal plain for forty years, since 1978. I would have evacuated once from Brigantine, but the storm came through when I was out of town. What I remember in the aftermath was the salt hay all over the streets and lawns, and a population explosion of crickets. My current residence is more than 40 feet above sea level.

What do I think is going to happen along the East Coast as sea level rises?

Let’s start with a very small community. You won’t find Motts Creek listed as a municipality in New Jersey. It’s a neighborhood Galloway Township. I’m sure most Galloway residents never heard of it. Two friends of mine lived there in the past, both in rentals. A single road juts out into the salt marsh, and leads to Motts Creek Inn. The Inn thrives on being accessible by boat. On my recent visit, in November, the Inn was open but very quiet. A septic pumping truck sat in the parking lot. We passed about two dozen homes on the way in. Some have been elevated on pilings, and others appear to have been abandoned after Hurricane Sandy in 2012. I estimate the year round population to be less than 100. I believe new construction along Motts Creek Road stopped around 30 years ago, when NJ wetlands were protected. Motts Creek properties are desirable for their boat docks, fine view and bird watching potential and undesirable for mosquitos, flies and flooding. I believe the area is unsewered and served by septic tanks. What does the future hold? I assume federal flood insurance still protects property owners. It’s hard to imagine Galloway Township and New Jersey going to great lengths to protect Motts Creek. I expect it will be lost to sea level rise before too many decades pass.

Ocracoke is on my mind because I just returned from spending Thanksgiving week on the Outer Banks of North Carolina, in the town of Nags Head in a rented beachfront property. Ocracoke is a barrier island south of Nags Head. It’s reachable only by (car) ferry. I found population figures of 948 in 2010 and 591 in 2014 (both from Wikipedia). Ocracoke is unincorporated, but the federal government grants it the status of a “census-designated place”. (I have no idea what this means.) It does suggest Ocracoke has a little more “official” status than Motts Creek. Ocracoke was first permanently settled in 1750, has had a varied economy (shipping, fishing, tourism) and was home to a distinct dialect (accent?) sometimes referred to as High Tider. My point? Ocracoke has a culture. Something substantive will be lost if it is abandoned. (This can be said of many places, up to and including New Orleans.)

On September 6 of this year, Ocracoke was savaged by Hurricane Dorian. The storm surge was 2.5 feet higher than any previous storm, and the water rose fast. Some residents had evacuated, and all those who remained managed to survive. I picked up a copy of the Ocracoke Observer when I was in Nags Head, wanting to see what the community had to say about itself, since I couldn’t go and visit it.

Ocracoke was CLOSED. That’s an advantage of recovery on an island! Officials can shut the door. The island reopened to the public on December 5. Some observations:

  • The concept of post-storm planning has been around for years, but it really hasn’t been implemented anywhere. So Ocracoke is making its recovery up as it goes along.
  • Ocracoke is re-building. This is a point of pride and determination. But how much of whose money should be invested in restoring a place that’s in the crosshairs? Should a house be rebuilt more than once?
  • How different can a place be before it’s a new place? How do we value a “community” with little or no year-round population? Is a house on Ocracoke a “home” or an “investment”?
  • Some people and businesses are doing better (8 weeks out) than they initially expected. Others are finding that the damage was far worse than they thought.
  • Why, in a community with low population, where everyone knows each other, was it necessary to impose a curfew and alcohol sales ban? Hmmm…
  • Ocracoke got lots of help from various efficient and hard working non-profit volunteers, and the community is grateful.
  • If Ocracoke had to depend on its “own” resources, I don’t think it would survive. With state and federal help, I expect it will.

Regardless of how Ocracoke moves ahead, the whole Outer Banks (and New Jersey’s barrier islands) need some rethinking. How long will we continue to build and rebuild upon sand? Nags Head and Kitty Hawk are CRAMMED with businesses and rental properties. To me, evacuation looks like a major challenge. Nice place to visit. I wouldn’t want to own there.

On to Chincoteague. Of the three areas discussed here, this is the one to which I feel most emotionally attached. Yes, I read Misty of Chincoteague as a child. I first visited in the 1970s, going back almost every year since, always in the off season, usually October or November.

We went, initially, to enjoy nature at the Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge during the fall bird migration. What a wonderful place! I’ve walked the beach and bicycled around the ponds and hiked the trails. Sometimes butterflies are abundant. We see turtles and the rare Delmarva fox squirrel.

Chincoteague is a “real place”, a municipality in Accomack County, Virginia. The population peaked at 4317 in 2000 and dropped to 2941 in 2010. The US Census thinks it dropped a little more as of 2018. Many residents leave in winter. Oddly, the name Chincoteague wasn’t attached to the community until 1943 (Wikipedia).

Chincoteague has numerous assets – the federal Wildlife Refuge, a small fishing fleet, extensive ecotourism, and the famous (and controversial) wild ponies. Yes, a place to value and, perhaps, preserve. But it’s isolated, with a single long causeway. And it is excruciatingly LOW. It has no “high ground”. Wikipedia lists its elevation at 3 feet. Yes, just one meter.

Chincoteague already rebuilt once, after the 1962 northeaster called the Ash Wednesday Storm by which it was completely submerged. I believe that every house from before 1962 was elevated by several courses of cinderblock. A smaller community on Assateague Island, to the east, was abandoned, with a few houses being floated across to Chincoteague on barges.

I’ve studied Chincoteague carefully on my many bike rides up and down the narrow island. Most interesting to me is the fact the very highest land in Chincoteague is occupied, not by housing, but by graveyards. Old graveyards, perched on the long sand dunes that run north/south along the island.

In Chincoteague, plans for the future are being laid. Most conspicuous (and occasionally contentious) are plans for the federal land. The Refuge visitor center has been rebuilt. The bridge on the main access road to the island has been rebuilt, much higher. My last visit was in 2017. I was impressed by a new farmers market and a cultural society. The City has a Mayor and a website. Chincoteague may struggle, but I think it’s here to stay. Keeping my fingers crossed!

My point? It won’t be possible to save every house and every community as the sea level rises. We need to think and talk about future decisions NOW, and the conversational net should be cast as widely as possible.

“The Ice at the End of the World – An Epic Journey into Greenland’s Buried Past and our Perilous Future” by Jon Gertner, Part II

Scott 1107- International Geophysical Year- MNH 3c 1958- unused mint stamp

This post honors the International Geophysical Year. The wonderful IGY “Planet Earth” documentary series made me decide (at age 13) to become a scientist. My work never resembled that of the IGY, but the inspiration was invaluable.

(See October 14 for review of Part I.)

Part II of The Ice at the End of the World is entitled “Investigations”. It begins in 1949, the year I was born. I grew up in the Fifties, with the Cold War looming. As geophysical research (interrupted by the Depression and World War II) resumed, it was driven (or at least financed) by the perceived military need to guard against aggression from Russia across the frozen North Pole.

So much had changed during the almost 20-year hiatus in research enforced by the Depression and World War II. Airplanes and helicopters enabled access to remote sites. Better shelters and protective clothing were available.

After WWII, some scientists were still assuming that earth might soon enter a new Ice Age (including “deadly glaciers”), and that cooling might threaten civilization.

A non-scientist reading this account needs to remember that, if you are looking for stability, NEGATIVE feedback is good, and positive feedback is troublesome. An example of climate related positive feedback is the reflectivity of ice. If ice melts, the (less reflective) underlying material absorbs more solar radiation, making the area warmer, so more ice melts. This is the kind of feedback loop that worries climate scientists.

One of the early findings (based on ice core analysis) of the Postwar era was that climate (or at least temperatures) could change SUDDENLY. Some changes shown by ice cores were so abrupt that initially it was thought the data was in error, due to faulty equipment or recording mistakes. Comparisons of multiple cores made it clear that really erratic behavior did happen. Climate scientist James White says “When it comes to climate change, speed kills”. About his early work on climate change, he commented “…I naively thought society would latch onto this and do something about it.”

We’ve known about climate change for a long time. Gertner lists the many scientists and publications that warned of the danger we face.

I, like many scientists of my generation, are now facing the issue translating what we know into public policy. This requires us to learn new ways of acting in society.

Recently, I’ve been asked (as a scientist) whether we are doomed. “Worst case” doomed means the end of life on earth. Sometimes I worry about that. At other times, I think life is highly resilient, and we may make it to a future.

Why haven’t I spoken out, agitated, demonstrated? I really don’t have an answer.

“The Ice at the End of the World – An Epic Journey into Greenland’s Buried Past and our Perilous Future” by Jon Gertner, Part One

The Ice at the End of the World: An Epic Journey into Greenland's Buried Past and Our Perilous Future

300 pages plus notes, sources, bibliography and index. Some photos and maps.

Part One (Explorations) of this excellent and highly readable book covers the years 1888 to 1931, when wanderlust and scientific curiosity led a handful of explorers to climb up onto the Greenland ice sheet. It was a land so little known that people fantasized about finding an ice free tropical oasis in the middle. Greenland had a small indigenous population that had been there fewer than 1000 years, and was visited by the occasional trader seeking furs and tusks. The first “explorer” was Fridtjof Nansen. Looking at his photo, you see either an intense intellect or a totally fanatic lunatic. Both those attributes were necessary in an explorer of the far arctic.

The indigenous Greenlanders lived around the edges of the island, successfully exploiting natural resources including those of the ocean. Others (outsiders) went there at their peril, learned from the indigenous residents only slowly, and often died, even if they stayed off the mighty ice sheet.

Part 1 of this book ends with the Wegener expedition of 1931. The intention was to establish a research base on the ice, in a central location. The project was dogged by misfortune and ended in the deaths of two scientists. Amazingly, data collected was used to estimate how much worldwide sea levels would rise if the Greenland ice sheet should melt entirely. The answer turned out to be remarkably close to what contemporary scientists now conclude – around 24 feet.

After 1931, the Great Depression and World War II shut down scientific exploration almost entirely, except for strategic military concerns.

Part 1 is the easy part. Part 2, entitled “Investigations”, covers the years 1949 to 2018. I expect this to be frightening. Much as I love science, I think it’s going to be difficult for me to read.

“Empty Planet – The Shock of Global Population Decline” by Darrell Bricker and John Ibbitson

Published 2019 by Crown Publishing, 240 pages plus footnotes and index.

This book (found at my public library) took me entirely by surprise, and caused me to look on climate change (and certain other social problems) differently, and with somewhat more optimism.

The authors discuss a future drop in human population, NOT (as has often been predicted) due to climate related calamity, but due to changes in human reproductive behavior. These changes comprise the “demographic transition”, defined in Chapter One, entitled “A Brief History of Population”. For eons, the human race simply struggled to survive. Following the retreat of the last Ice Age, agriculture allowed population to increase through a series of stages, beginning with high birth rate coupled with high death rate, moving through periods of imbalance and ending (in “developed” societies) with low birth rate, long life and low death rate. Bricker and Ibbitson believe the entire global population will arrive at the latter pattern within the next two or three generations. Hence, human population with stabilize relatively soon, and then continue to fall slowly.

Having grown up reading The Population Bomb and The Limits to Growth, I was startled by this book and read it very carefully. I’ve asked the opinion of friends and even my favorite demographer (a relative), and I eagerly await their responses.

Actually, I heard the warning call of this change a few years ago. In 2015, China reversed its “one child policy”. I was VERY surprised, and failed to recognize the significance of the change. Come to think of it, 25 years ago I heard a Russian woman described as a “hero mother” because she had TWO children. I didn’t understand what was behind this.

What do demographers measure, in addition to absolute population? Birth rate is crucial. How many babies does each woman have? “Replacement” is pegged at 2.1, to allow for the fact that not all children survive to become parents. At this point, it all starts to feel personal. I had two babies. So did my parents. But their parents had a total of 10 surviving children! What changed? American families left the farm. (The post World War II baby boom, in case you are wondering, was an aberration.)

Bricker and Ibbitson attribute falling birth rates to the education and subsequent increased employment of women, and to urbanization. They consider these changes unlikely to be reversed.

I think Empty Planet went to press just before the flareup of immigration as a “hot button” topic in the US. It would help if people on both sides of the issue would settle down and read this book! Immigrants and refugees are not identical. Most people, most of the time, prefer to live where they were born.

What do Bricker and Ibbitson project for the future? Both are Canadian, and their other collaborative publication (The Big Shift, 2013) deals with Canadian politics and culture. They expect the future big winners (nations able to maintain their populations and to innovate) to be Canada, the African states and (maybe) the United States. “WHAT?!” you squawk. Better read the book!

At some point, an entirely new concept is introduced – the post national state. I’m still trying to get a grip on it.

“Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge and the Teachings of Plants” by Robin Wall Kimmerer

Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge and the Teachings of Plants

This book came to me highly recommended by people whose judgment I regard with some skepticism. Why? Because I wonder if they take either science or nature seriously. There are lots of “wow” moments in science and in nature, but if you go that far (“wow, it’s so amazing!”) and then stop… what have you accomplished?

Maybe my scientific training has made me a snob. But I think nature is worthy of serious study, and I value science. I’m the kind of geek who is really happy that someone declared 2019 the “International Year of the Periodic Table”. I LOVE the periodic table! And I’ve studied it carefully. For six years, the time it took to earn two degrees in Chemistry. Sometimes there’s just no shortcut.

So I’m skeptical about quickie workshops in which people groove on nature for an hour at a time.

Robin Kimmerer has more than “paid her dues” scientifically, with Bachelor’s and Master’s degrees in botany and a PhD in plant ecology. She works outside the conventional scientific framework by teaching college courses in subjects like Traditional Ecological Knowledge and Creative Writing. She is a member of the Potawatami Nation, an Algonquian-speaking Eastern Woodlands indigenous tribe. She has studied her Algonquian heritage as carefully as she studied botany. Her passion is the integration of the two, scientific and traditional knowledge. Braiding Sweetgrass is a collection of essays about this endeavor.

This is a BIG book, generous in concept and broad in subject areas. I reacted differently to different subjects.

I LOVED the chapter entitled “Learning the Grammar of Animacy”! Kimmerer undertook to learn the Potawatomi language at a time when only NINE fluent speakers of the language were still alive.

“Our language, millennia in the making…The words that praised creation, told the old stories, lulled my ancestors to sleep, rests today in the tongues of nine very mortal men and women.”

So she has tried to learn it. Not a single word came to her through her family. She found the language difficult because, instead of dividing nouns into masculine, feminine and neuter (he, she, it), nouns are categorized as animate (person) or inanimate (thing). Personhood is attributed to many more objects than in English – almost everything “natural”, including water, fire, stone. “Inanimate” refers mostly to created objects – coat, car.

Additionally (and unlike English), Potawatami is a verb dominated language. Kimmerer found it wildly difficult.

“The simple phrases I’m learning are perfect for my dog. Sit! Eat!…But since she scarcely responds to these commands in English, I’m reluctant to train her to be bilingual. An admiring student once asked me if I spoke my native language. I was tempted to say, ‘Oh yes, Yes, we speak Potawatomi at home’ – me, the dog, and the Post-it notes.”

Anyone interested in languages should read this chapter!

A problem I have with Kimmerer’s approach to the natural world is that it seems to me that she attributes consciousness and intent to creatures and even ecosystems much more frequently than I do. I “love” nature, but I’m not so sure nature “loves” me back. Sometimes I don’t see relationship where Kimmerer does. I don’t think that parasites and hosts “intend” to do something for each other.

Another chapter I especially enjoyed was “The Three Sisters”, about agriculture based on growing corn, beans and squash together. Now I understand about the squash – it is a source of vitamins.

The last parts of the book discuss solutions to the current environmental dilemmas, including climate change. The emphasis is on restoration ecology. Kimmerer is less specific when she discusses the social aspects of our situation, but I am grateful that she shares her vision of hope.