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Life on the "Barbie"

Sydney Harbor

No, not the doll. The backyard grill.

 

Used to be that Australians were best known for that iconic Tourism Commission commercial where Crocodile Dundee promised Americans to "slip a shrimp on the barbie." Today, it's the Australian people themselves who are getting broiled.

 

Bushfires, as they're referred to Down Under, have been raging across the country for months, fed by a severe, ongoing drought, high winds, and summer temperatures in excess of 100 degrees Fahrenheit. As many as 140 fires have been blazing in the past few days. Six lives and more than 700 homes have been lost. A megafire north of Sydney—"it's too big to put out"—that has been burning since early November, has transformed the "Emerald City" sky into an unhealthy and depressing palette of orange and gray and ocher.

 

This unfolding disaster is happening in a country whose government is in the same state of denial about climate change as the Trump administration. Prime Minister Scott Morrison has suggested that some types of climate change demonstrations should be outlawed, and has refused to meet with firefighters who are desperate for more resources to battle the flames.

 

As reservoirs run dry in Australia, and tough water restrictions are imposed, we can be thankful that according to our president, we have nothing to worry about over here, other than our need to "flush the toilet 10 times, 15 times, as opposed to once."

 

Taking a short break from hurling invective about the impeachment inquiry, the noted germophobe-in-chief elaborated on his concerns by saying, "You go into a new building or a new house or a new home and they have standards, only you don't get water. You can't wash your hands practically, there's so little water comes out of the faucet. And the end result is you leave the faucet on and it takes you much longer to wash your hands…They end up using more water. So (the) EPA is looking at that very strongly at my suggestion."

 

Presumably our president's suggestion is to roll back regulations on low-flush toilets and controlled-flow faucets. Sadly, arguing for our use of more water on an increasingly water-starved planet, doesn't reach the standard of a high crime or misdemeanor. It's merely inane and shortsighted, but what else is new?

 

            Breaking NewsTime has named Greta Thunberg as their "Person of the Year." More on that next week.

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In Case You're Missing It...

Our Man in Appalachia

The media's attention is focused on Washington, where the impeachment hearings are entering a new phase, and on London, where the 70th anniversary of the NATO alliance is being celebrated, affording the president yet another opportunity to hobnob with the queen, as well as to be ridiculed by our European allies and depart in a huff. (There was no hobnobbing with Boris Johnson, at his request, or with Prince Andrew, a man the president seemingly "doesn't know.")

 

Lost in the shuffle is the far less entertaining current meeting in Madrid. More than 50 world leaders—our president not among them—are gathering for the 2019 United Nations Climate Change Conference, running from December 2 to December 19. The conference comes on the heels of the latest annual UN climate change assessment, which states, "The summary findings are bleak."

 

According to the report, global greenhouse gas emissions have grown by 1.5 percent per year over the past decade. The report warned that to avoid the worst effects of climate change by 2050, such as more intense droughts, stronger storms, and widespread population migration and hunger, emissions must decline by 7.6 percent every year from 2020 onwards. This formidable challenge was summed up by the UN Secretary-General at the opening ceremony in Madrid—the planet is "close to a point of no return."

 

Much to the surprise and chagrin of the Republicans in Congress, the Democrats are finding time to tend to important business beyond the "star chamber" proceedings of the House Intelligence and Judiciary Committees. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi flew to Madrid to tell the world, "By coming here we want to say to everyone we are still in, the United States is still in," and that, "Our delegation is here to send a message that Congress's commitment to take action on the climate crisis is iron clad." Brave words, but Article Two of the Constitution is broad and contentious, and it's unlikely that the House, by itself, would have the power to override the dictates of a short-sighted Chief Executive.

 

Do you suppose it's merely a coincidence that our president took the formal step to remove the United States from the Paris climate accords, effective November 4, 2020. FYI, election day is November 3. Beware the possibility of the "first major accomplishment of the second Trump administration."

 

So there's a lot more at stake in the ongoing impeachment proceedings and the upcoming election—for the senate as well as the presidency—than whether the current sizable derriere will continue to hold court in the oval office. The results could potentially determine the fate of the planet.

 

                                        - For those of you who are wondering, we ate the last of 2019's tomatoes yesterday, December 3.                                            Not as good as warm off the vine, but far tastier than store-bought.

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Is Venice Drowning?

Why are they smiling?

Photo: The Atlantic

Do you need to ask? Venice, "La Serenissima", is no longer so serene. In fact, between the increased frequency of the aqua alta or extreme high tide, the hordes of smiling, carefree tourists who descend on the city every day, and the prospect of rising sea levels brought on by climate change, the city is in a state of crisis, currently and permanently.

 

The city is built on hundreds of thousands of wooden pilings that connect and shore up more than 100 small islands that dot the Venetian lagoon in the Adriatic Sea. The roughly quarter million residents are vastly outnumbered by thirty million annual visitors, many who arrive on hundreds of giant cruise ships, some of which tie up only yards away from the Doge's Palace. Every day, they add about 16 million pounds of "live weight" that batters the streets in a city that needs no additional help in slowly subsiding into the sea.

 

As Venice sinks, the waters rise. The aqua alta now strikes the city with increased frequency—from 10 to 60 times a year—and increased severity—as much as six feet above normal. The future is even bleaker, and not just for Venice. According to a recent study published in the journal Nature Communications, rising sea levels could impact three times as many people by 2050 as previously thought, and all but drown some of the world's great coastal cities. Bangkok, Mumbai, Shanghai, and Alexandria can now be added to the list of usual suspects, such as Miami, New York, and Boston.

 

The knock-on effects will be horrendous, principally on population migration patterns. If people and politicians in Europe or America think they have a problem now, imagine what it might be when tens of millions of people are literally left homeless? 

 

Serious fiction usually tiptoes around the problem of climate change, but Gun Island, a new novel by literary award-winning writer Amitav Ghosh, confronts the migration issue head on. It's the story of displaced people, some of them literally from India and Bangladesh, and one of them more philosophically and temperamentally from Brooklyn. Ironically, the colorful cast of characters all end up in Venice, where so many Bangladeshis work the menial jobs. There, they bear witness to the aqua alta and the appalling cost to humanity of a changing climate. 

 

If you read Gun Island, I guarantee it will make you think.

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The Tomato Whisperer

Late Harvest, October 31, 2019

I come from generations of farmers on both sides of my family. So as soon as I bought a house outside New York City, it was natural for me to begin tending a vegetable garden. For years I could count on a killing frost here in northern Westchester County no later than the first week of October. Last year, it arrived on October 29. This year it was November 1. We gathered in the last of the tomatoes to ripen indoors on Halloween day.

 

Global warming, right?

 

So how to explain that when I woke up yesterday morning, less than two weeks later, the temperature was 17 degrees? And by midday, it was only up to a balmy 28? And my lettuce and chard is hanging on for dear life, despite being covered by thick sheets of plastic?

 

Because it's climate change.

 

The polar vortex has made an early appearance this year, and two-thirds of the nation is in its icy grip. While wildfires are still burning in California, the coldest temperatures ever recorded in November have been reported in Louisiana, Mississippi, Virginia, Illinois, Indiana and Michigan. Snow is on the ground in 49 of the 50 states, including the peaks of the volcanoes in Hawaii. Florida has no snow, but it does have wind chill temperatures as low as 20 degrees.

 

Short-term weather should never be confused with long-term climate. But these extreme cold snaps have become more frequent and severe in recent years. So have heat waves, torrential rains, and destructive tornadoes and hurricanes. And so have knock-on effects like devastating floods, the aforementioned wildfires, and longer and longer growing seasons in my vegetable garden.

 

Scientists have been loath to link a "weird weather" event like the current cold snap to a changing climate. But even that is gradually changing. As a backyard farmer, and a commonsense layman, the link seems indisputable. I listen to the tomatoes.

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Au Revoir, Paris...

... or as many people say, "Good-bye and Good Riddance"

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

It was easy to miss with the growing uproar over impeachment, but last Monday was a sad day for our nation and our planet. The Trump administration kept a campaign promise by formally notifying the United Nations that the United States would withdraw from the Paris agreement on climate change. In that accord, the US agreed to cut heat-trapping gases 26% below 2005 levels by 2025.

 

The withdrawal will not officially take effect until a year from now, but that is irrelevant. No further action will be taken to reduce emissions, and the stable genius in the White House will undoubtedly attempt to take actions to increase them, such as continuing to challenge California's right to set stricter tailpipe standards for automobiles.

 

Secretary of State Pompeo issued a statement saying that the agreement would be an "unfair economic burden imposed on American workers, businesses and taxpayers." He made no mention of the existential burdens the withdrawal will impose on every country and every person on the globe, especially those not yet born.

 

Former Vice President and climate crusader Al Gore countered with, "No one person or party can stop our momentum to solve the climate crisis, but those who try will be remembered for their complacency, complicity, and mendacity in attempting to sacrifice the planet for their greed."

 

Gore also noted that a new president would be able to reverse the decision in 30 days or less. "This decision is ultimately in the hands of the voters," he said.

 

Sounds like marching orders to me.

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Is California Burning?

from the NY Times

Seriously, do you have to ask? In case you were wondering, the wildfires that are currently ravaging the state have as much to do with climate change as they do with the ineptitude of Pacific Gas & Electric. PG&E has been serving California since early in the last century, and yes, their equipment is getting older and more prone to failure. But an errant random spark is harmless, or the fire it starts is easily controllable, unless higher temperatures and reduced rainfall have turned shrubbery into tinder and the hot, dry Santa Ana winds come howling out of the Nevada desert at hurricane force, topping out at more than 80 miles per hour and spreading glowing embers like a Cuisinart without a lid. 

 

Not convinced that climate change is the culprit? Correlation is not causation, but the following should make you think. According to NOAH, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the past five years have been the five warmest years on record. Also according to NOAH, only four times since the middle of last century has has the total area burned in a single year by wildfires in the United States exceeded 13,900 square miles, an area larger than Belgium. It just so happens that all four fire-prone years were in the same decade as the five warmest years—this decade. Can any rational thinker really chalk up the coincidence to an unfortunate run of "weird weather?"*

 

The thing about climate change is that it's not only the first-order effects like scorching temperatures and drought that do the damage. It's the so-called knock-on effects like the California wildfires that destroy property, disrupt lives (200,000 people have been evacuated from their homes in Northern California alone), and sometimes end them. And also the knock-on effects of the knock-on effects, like PG&E turning off electrical power to a million and a half customers for days on end in a futile attempt to prevent another errant random spark from ever happening.

 

What matters for today is that the brave firefighters get this Hell-on-Earth under control and that no more lives or property are lost. What matters for tomorrow is raising consciousness about how much suffering climate change can and will cause, even before temperatures and sea levels rise to life-threatening levels. Let's hope tragedies don't have to become commonplace before the public and the politicians start to take weird weather and its knock-on effects seriously.

 

*Weird weather is how the climate change denier in my novel, The Eleventh Grieve, explains away the increasing frequency and severity of extreme weather events and trends, such as the recent streak of "hottest years on record," or the nine tornados that ripped through Dallas, Texas last weekend at 140 mph, sparing lives but causing $2 billion in property damage.

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In Vino Veritas

"In wine lies the truth," although not in exactly in the way that the ancient Romans meant it. If birds and insects are "sentinel" species for climate change*, than a grape vine is the canary in the coal mine of the plant world. The telling details are documented by the wine critic of the New York Times in a recent article that every wine-lover should read.

 

Because of warming temperatures and changing weather patterns, winemakers are now cultivating grapes in places once considered inhospitable to the production of fine wine, such as "champagne" in England and Riesling in Norway.

Similarly, vintners in Portugal and Australia are relocating vineyards to higher altitudes and more northerly facing slopes in order to cut down on the excessive heat that makes wine dull and flabby, with little character.

  

But what about the fate of the grande cuvées and eminent châteaux of France? Ironically, climate change can have a beneficial effect on winemaking, at least in the short term. Despite devastating hailstorms and late frosts in Burgundy, vignerons in France are generally enjoying an unprecedented run of excellent vintages because they are no longer faced with the threat of cool weather that prevents grapes from fully ripening.

 

Nonetheless, in hidebound Bordeaux, winemakers are experimenting with grapes not currently permitted by law in the appellation, in anticipation of a time when cabernet sauvignon and merlot may not be the best grapes to produce the structured and cellar-worthy wines that made the region famous. But even if they succeed, will these nouveaux vins have the same bouquet and body or age as long?

 

So if you can't find enough bandwidth to worry about Atlantis-like inundations or Cuisinart tornadoes or any of the other weird-weather disasters coming our way, at least think of a dreary world of fine dining without fine wine**. Climate change preppers might want to stash a few bottle of their favorite vin extraordinaire in their cellar. And do it before the twenty-five percent tariff on imported European wines imposed by the connoisseur of cheeseburgers and First Teetotaler in the White House is felt at the retail level, probably by the start of the New Year!

 

*See last week's post   **More than likely sans meat, as well!

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The New Canary in the Coal Mine?

The Common Loon

The State Bird of Minnesota (and Washington, DC)

 

Credit:Robert Scholl/Alamy in the New York Times

During much of the 20th century, miners carried caged canaries into coal mines to serve as an early warning system for the presence of toxic gas, such as colorless and odorless carbon monoxide. Birds need immense amounts of oxygen to enable them to fly, so their anatomy has evolved to give them a double dose, once when they inhale and once when they exhale. If it's not oxygen but CO2 in the air, these "sentinel animals" feel the effects far faster than humans, giving the miners time to evacuate.

 

 Honeybees, whose populations have declined significantly in recent years, are considered a sentinel animal for pesticide use because they depend on agricultural crops for sustenance. Insects in general are sentinel animals for habitat loss, pollution, and invasive species. A synthesis by Australian scientists of 73 studies conclude s that 40 percent of insect species are threatened with extinction, and each year another percent is added to the total.

 

Climate change is also considered a factor in the loss of honeybees and other insects, although the relative impact versus other factors is difficult to quantify. Now, new research released by the National Audubon Society concludes that 389 bird species in North America, two-thirds of all our birds, are at increasing risk of extinction. And the scientists point the finger squarely at warming temperatures and other knock-on effects of climate change.

 

As birds change their ranges because of a changing climate, at least eight states will see their official  "state birds" largely or entirely disappear. These include the brown thrasher in Georgia, the purple finch in New Hampshire, the goldfinch in Iowa and New Jersey, and the loon in Minnesota.And rising sea levels will do significant damage to birds who build their nests in sandy areas along the coast, such as the piping plover.

 

Benjamin Zuckerberg, an ecology professor at the University of Wisconsin warns, "there is a real concern that the rate of climate change is going to be beyond the ability of many species to adapt."

 

So does it matter? Well, not if you don't mind a new, updated edition of Rachel Carson's "Silent Spring." Or, as hotter temperatures creep northward, waking up to the shrill squawks of parrots and mynah birds.

 

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Cut Down Trees to Save the Planet? Why not, if it works?

 
 
 

Have a look at this eight-story condo. If you think it's just another ordinary apartment building, you'd be grossly mistaken. It's the Carbon12 tower in Portland, Oregon, the tallest wooden structure in the country. And it's a midget compared to the Mjosa tower in Norway, the tallest wooden building in the world. At 280 feet, that pride of Norway is only twenty-five feet shorter than the Statue of Liberty.

 

The secret? CLT, or cross-laminated timber—plywood on steroids—that allows architects to build tall, fire-safe, and earthquake-resistant buildings, and make them attractive to boot.

 

What about the trees? Trees are one of our great allies in combating climate change. The remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and store it in their wood. In a world that is distraught about the burning of the Amazon rain forest and the wildfires in California, how can we countenance building new structures from wood?

 

The answer, according to three experts in an op-ed column in the New York Times, is that wooden buildings are more climate-friendly than concrete and steel construction. One study found that building a five-story office building with wood had less than a third of the global warming impact than a conventional building of the same size. And eco-friendly Scandinavia is not investing in wooden buildings to accelerate the demise of the planet.

 

Plus, if wooden construction became the norm, the profit potential would incentivize better, renewable forest management and halt the conversion of woodlands to other uses, such as more housing sub-divs and shopping centers in a nation which is already residentially and commercially overbuilt. Another study estimates that with state-of-the-art management, the forests in northern New England alone could remove as much carbon from the atmosphere over twenty years as would be released by seven million cars.

 

So perhaps "Woodman, spare that tree!" is too simplistic. Worth thinking about, for sure, in an age sorely in need of new initiatives and solutions to combat the insidious advance of climate change.

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The Trumposphere Strikes Back

The same week that the United Nation's Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change sounded the alarm that the world's oceans are in grave danger, the Trumposphere was still fulminating about the speech delivered by 16-year-old Greta Thunberg at the UN's Climate Action Summit, denouncing the business-as-usual attitude of most politicians and business leaders.

 

The whimsically named Liberty Nation website thundered that Greta is the poster child for the way climate hysteria is damaging children, who should "sleep soundly… there are no climate monsters under the bed." To bolster its position that there is no scientific basis for climate change, the website cites two incidences of snowfall in the Sahara desert in recent years, and the modest increase in the population of polar bears in the Arctic (after stringent protective measures were put in place to preserve the species, but let's not mention that.) And lest we worry further, should climate change "turn out to be a problem, Bill Gates and others have invested in technologies that could render the whole world carbon neutral overnight, either with nuclear power or carbon capture." Go Bill!

 

Another Trumpohone, zero hedge.com, goes so far as to imply that Greta is nothing but a copycat. They correctly point out that in 1992, another young girl, Severn Cullis-Suzuki, then the 12-year-old daughter of a Canadian environmentalist, addressed the UN Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro. In her speech, she described being "afraid to breathe the air" and warned of mass extinctions. And look how well that turned out!

 

Author's Note: Severn is still a prominent environmental speaker and activist and vocal supporter of Greta.

 

And for good measure, Fox News's Laura Ingraham noted the resemblance of Greta with one of the youthful residents in a Stephen King movie, "Children of the Corn," cultists who murder anyone over the age of 18.

 

Moving on, for those of you who might be alarmed at the Panel's warnings about the impact of climate change on our oceans, here a couple of choice findings that you don't—or do—have to worry about…

 

…hotter ocean temperatures and rising sea levels are worsening storms like Hurricane Harvey, which devastated Houston two years ago

 

…the frequency of marine heat waves has doubled since the 1980s, devastating commercial fishing e.g. cod catches in the Gulf of Alaska had to be reduced 80 percent to rebuild the fishery after the latest heat wave

 

…pathogens are proliferating in warmer water, including bacteria that already sicken 80,000 Americans each year who eat raw or undercooked shellfish and other seafood.

 

Just saying, the hundreds of scientists who contributed to the report might be on to something. Sushi anyone?

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