Tag Archives: climate

Smoke Days

At first it was the smell of burning leaves, a very nostalgic smell for me,  evocative of Indiana in October, back when I was a kid and you could still burn leaf piles. I had never experienced that smell in California before, in eighteen years of living here.  I chalked it up to the weirdness of city living: with so many people, who knows what odd things someone might be doing somewhere.

Half an hour later, the sounds of helicopters made it clear that it wasn’t a renegade neighbor burning a backyard leaf pile. A text from my wife around the same time filled in the remaining details: there was a grass fire about a mile from our house, next to a highway. She seen it while driving to an exercise class and called it in. Soon I was watching online video with the local news channel: ten fire vehicles lined up along the side of the road next to a charred football-field sized patch. The 1991 Oakland fire was a smallish grass fire that was put out and then sprang back to life, a fact that is now deeply ingrained into fire management here. Oakland fire personnel were walking through the surrounding area with hoses, saturating it. Most likely some of them would be there for hours, watching vigilantly for any rekindling.

As the day progressed, the fall-in-Indiana smell turned into a New-Delhi-smog smell. That smell evokes fond memories of India; but also memories of upper respiratory infections on two separate occasions when I passed through Delhi. That acrid smoke was from strong winds had started not just that little Oakland fire, but from the now-infamous Camp Fire. A huge smoke plumes trails off of it, like a long gray scarf of doom blowing across the state and out into the ocean.

Continue reading Smoke Days

We Were In Denial That a Trump Presidency Could Happen. What Else Are We Denying?

“I’ve been criticized for advocating a politics of fear, which is correct. That’s not a criticism. That’s sanity.” Noam Chomsky, Oct. 11, 2016.[1]Noam Chomsky and The Bicycle Theory, NYT

I’m writing this is because I am afraid. There’s a lot of reasons to be afraid of a Trump presidency, but here’s my top two: (1) nuclear war; and (2) environmental disaster.[2]Yes those are also Chomsky’s top two. What can I say? I think he’s a smart guy. Both are immense, looming problems and have been for a while. But a Trump presidency increases the odds the former and will increase the rate of the latter. But more importantly, his candidacy highlights how simple and intuitive it is to deny that something horrible can happen.

Denial About The Possibility of A Trump Victory. I talk to my mom at least once a week. This Sunday, two days before Trump was elected, I talked about how I was very worried about the 30% prediction for a Trump win by FiveThirtyEight. She said she wasn’t so worried: “I just can’t imagine that people would vote for someone who is so inappropriate and has offended so many people.”

I don’t want to pick on my mom particularly, but her words seemed emblematic a widespread mood, especially in cities where there aren’t many reminders of the existence of conservatives. My Facebook feed on Monday was filled with people ramped up and getting ready for jubilation. I’m a worrier. I worried that:

(1) the fact that 30% odds are about the same as an NFL kicker missing a 35-yard field goal.[3]I can’t find the citation for this because fivethirtyeight has published like 1,000 posts since then, but this article on NFL kicker stats will have to do Which is to say, it’s not most likely, but often enough to be worried.

(2) the camera pan of 2012 at the Mitt Romney victory party, with stunned faces of lots of pale white guys in blue blazers that had been expecting victory and seemed unable to psychologically accept defeat. The self-reinforcing reassurances that everything would be ok felt too similar.

Denial comes pretty easily to humans. One of the most influential books I’ve read was Ernst Becker’s The Denial of Death, which won the Pulitzer Prize for nonfiction in 1974. I read it in college, about seventeen years ago now. It wasn’t assigned; a professor just mentioned it in passing. While I was in the library to do something else I picked it up and started reading. I vividly remember not doing whatever that other project was, sitting down, and just turning page after page. It’s one of the primary reasons that, after being raised a Catholic, I no longer believe in God. But it also deeply impressed upon me that each person is psychologically wired to avoid thinking of their own death, or anything else that is deeply difficult and abhorrent.

A Trump presidency is a reminder that bad things happen, even when you wish they wouldn’t. We cannot be complacent. I don’t mind dying myself eventually, but I would be really put out if the species died off because we were unable to face facts.

What else are we denying?

Nuclear weapons have sort of drifted out of public consciousness throughout my lifetime. Growing up in the 1980s, I was terrified of nuclear weapons. I lived in northwest Indiana and I remember looking at blast-radius maps[4]I have no idea how I saw them, without the internet and trying to think about what my odds would be of survival if the Russians launched nukes. Wargames was perhaps the scariest movie I ever saw. And then it was all glasnost and dot-com boom and by the time I graduated from college in 1999 it was not something I thought about much anymore. But I should. We all should. The USA and the Russian Federation each have about 1,700 strategic nuclear weapons (the big ones that can take out a major city) and about 6,000 more that are reserves or stockpiles. The numbers used to be much higher, but it still enough to destroy the world multiple times over. We’ve made some motions towards having fewer such as the new START treaty, but the vision and the momentum should be towards zero.[5]The Nuclear Security Project and Global Zero are the two most significant initiatives. What sort of species keeps devices that can annihilate its habitat? And puts a hotelier in charge of them? Like with most things, it is hard to be clear on what Trump thinks because of his inconsistency, but he’s said that it might be fine for more countries to get nuclear weapons, and that he wants “unpredictable” in nuclear decision making.[6]NBC News: What Does Donald Trump Really Think About Using Nuclear Weapons?

The lesson I take is that if we survive the next four years (hey, we made it through the whole cold war including the Cuban Missile Crisis) pushing hard to come to treaties where all relevant powers scale down to zero weapons is the only sane option.

Global Warming is more in the news and forefront of our minds, but my feeling is that the average American isn’t really worried about it. It’s not very tangible; it doesn’t prevent a person from going on with ordinary daily life. I think even the average liberal Democrat is like “We should do something about that, but we will probably come to our senses soon. Someone will fix it. ”

It is like having termites in your house but not worrying about it because it still works, right? You can still sleep, cook, and stay out of the rain. The difference with Global Warming is that we can’t rebuild another house if we lose this one.

Here’s MIT, which, speaking as an entire institution, wrote: “Humanity’s current carbon-intensive path imposes risks on future generations, including the risk of catastrophic outcomes . . . . The need for action is clear, because the consequences of inaction could be catastrophic.” [7]MIT Plan for Action on Climate Change, see pdf link at topThat’s something written by committee,  from the school that started the fields of electrical engineering, aeronautical engineering, and nuclear physics.[8]Boston.com It’s not one scientist at MIT writing that, it’s all the scientists at MIT writing that. They know what they are talking about. Trump, of course, says he wants to “cancel all wasteful climate change spending”[9]Trump Finally Said Something Concrete About Climate Policy“, HuffPo, 11/6/2016, and just picked a climate change denier to head his EPA transition. [10]Trump Picks Top Climate Skeptic to Lead EPA Transition“, Scientific American, 11/9/2016

What Do We Do?

I wish I had a better call to action to put here. It’s hard to try to put an action plan together for enormously bad stuff that might happen to everyone when you are only one person. I’m struggling with it myself. My immediate plan, and suggestion, is to write it out your thoughts and concerns, using your own words. Share them on Facebook. Be shameless in trying to influence others. Force others to contemplate what might happen. Express your opinions and concerns. Don’t be afraid to argue. Donate money to candidates and organizations that get it. Read Chomsky, Monbiot, and McKibben (and more McKibben). On nuclear weapons, there’s Schlosser[11]I haven’t actually read this yet, but just got it today after coming across it while I was writing. That’s a start.

References   [ + ]

1. Noam Chomsky and The Bicycle Theory, NYT
2. Yes those are also Chomsky’s top two. What can I say? I think he’s a smart guy.
3. I can’t find the citation for this because fivethirtyeight has published like 1,000 posts since then, but this article on NFL kicker stats will have to do
4. I have no idea how I saw them, without the internet
5. The Nuclear Security Project and Global Zero are the two most significant initiatives.
6. NBC News: What Does Donald Trump Really Think About Using Nuclear Weapons?
7. MIT Plan for Action on Climate Change, see pdf link at top
8. Boston.com
9. Trump Finally Said Something Concrete About Climate Policy“, HuffPo, 11/6/2016
10. Trump Picks Top Climate Skeptic to Lead EPA Transition“, Scientific American, 11/9/2016
11. I haven’t actually read this yet, but just got it today after coming across it while I was writing