Climate of Uncertainty

35521701131_938f2e3112_oIn popular discussion, uncertainty serves as a wedge—a point of weakness with which you can destroy an idea you don’t like. So it isn’t that surprising that the selfish and self-serving use scientific uncertainty as a wedge as well; it doesn’t work in the scientific literature, but it does work in the minds of the public. We hear “uncertainty around climate change” and, for many of us, it means “we don’t know.”

The simplicity is appealing—after all, we know something or we don’t. Can you really half-know? Well… yes. Even that simple question shows us the difference between our gut feeling about knowing, and how it actually works. There is a great range of nuance in the idea of uncertainty, and when scientists say that something has uncertainty, they mean something much more specific than what most people think of as uncertain.

The language of science requires us to embrace uncertainty in order to understand it. Science is all about shrinking uncertainty, not to zero, but to the smallest reasonable range that evidence and method can support. The whole endeavor of science is to presume we don’t know, and then eliminate things we can be sure are wrong. Not to be certain about what is true, but to arrive at an approximation we can work with.

That means in order for us to have a discussion about so nuanced and evidence-heavy a topic as climate change, we need to go out of our way to understand uncertainty. The good news? We already do—we just need to think about it in different terms.

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What if it Wasn’t Us?

We_Can_Do_It!What if the future of our country, our businesses, our economy, our children, and our friends and family were under threat? What if a natural disaster, requiring our concerted response, put us to the test? And what if, to fight back, we had to innovate, cooperate, act carefully and wisely, solve problems together, and save the world? What if that was America’s challenge, and within our power, and just a matter of will?

I mean, what if that was America’s challenge, but it wasn’t our fault?

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Under What Conditions?

bush_library_oval_office_replicaI do not support Donald Trump. But what if I did? He legitimately won the election under our democratic system; only a quarter of the country voted for him, but that is the system we have. His rhetoric is divisive and untethered from evidence, but that is the rhetoric we decided was acceptable. The choices he makes, whether we like it or not, will shape our country and possibly the world for many years to come.

One thing I am sure of is that being politically divided and unwilling to change our views is a self-reinforcing feedback loop. It’s easy to use division to justify more. But I don’t want to do that. I want to have solidly-evidenced political positions.

I don’t plan to say “oh, give him a chance,” because our country already decided to give him that on November 8th, and because I do not personally expect him to become any more respectful or honest as president than he was in the year preceding the election. Nor do I intend to shut up about what I disagree with, because critiquing the government is patriotic and quashing dissent is undemocratic.

So he’d have my critique even if he already had my support. But what would he have to do to get my support? Under what conditions would I say “Well, I didn’t expect it, but he’s doing a good job”? If my opposition to Trump is partisan, there will be no such conditions. But if my opposition to Trump is based on his policies and actions, I should be able to say under what conditions I would change my mind.

Here they are:

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Quiet Collapse

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American Chestnut

What happens at the end of a system? The American Chestnut used to be one out of every three trees in eastern hardwood forests; now there are a few blighted remnants, a few resistant individuals hiding in the far corners of what few forests remain uncut. The system has moved on, to a sparser, less self-sufficient balance. But what happens when the system can’t adapt? What does it even look like to us, human beings who struggle to think in systems and who shift our baselines faster than natural systems move?

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Spring Rain

Flooding at farm on Route 2A

Spring in New England has always felt like a tug-of-war between winter and summer. Some years, April brings harsher winter weather than March, even harsher than we’ve had since December. Other years, it feels like summer arrives early and April is more like a June without shade. Most years, regardless, there is a cascade of clean snowmelt off the peaks and mountainsides, flushing the forests and brookbeds of winter’s accumulated detritus. Most years, the melting snow is a cue for us to wake, and stretch, and explore.

This year there is no snow to melt.

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Climate Denihilism

climatechange_viaADBThe overwhelming scientific consensus is that human-caused climate change is real, ongoing, and extremely dangerous. For those who missed the most recent data point, February of 2016 was the hottest temperature anomaly in recorded history. That, on top of us having racked up most of the hottest overall years on record during the past decade. And yet, somehow, there are still intellectually dishonest people who stand up and argue that climate change isn’t happening, or maybe isn’t so bad, or maybe will just not be a problem because we’ll adapt (or something, and who needs those ecosystems anyway).

It’s enough to make you want to give up. What’s the point in trying to stop climate change when we keep electing people who are happy to disbelieve it? Isn’t it basically inevitable at this point? Realistically, we’ll be lucky if we can all agree that it’s real before we pass the point of no return, let alone do anything about it.

But I think that’s a pretty dangerous point of view.

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The Value of Your Vote

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Women lining up to vote in Seattle in 1911

Common wisdom is that you can’t complain if you don’t vote, but that your vote doesn’t really count for much outside of a swing state. As it often is, the common wisdom is wrong. Since many of us are going to the polls in the next few weeks, and many of us a week from today, I thought I would take a minute to explain why your vote matters (even if it doesn’t always count).

In many states, the presidential primaries are held alongside a whole host of other elections. In my home state of Vermont, for example, my primary vote probably won’t swing the presidential primary one way or another, but it absolutely could swing a more critical election.

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The Naked Ground

P1010021Around this time last year, I parked my car, put on my snowshoes, and climbed the steep mound of snow at the edge of the woods. It was cold, but not terribly so, and the light crust across the surface was just enough to make a pleasant whoof with each sinking step. At lower elevations, the snow inside the forest’s edge was only a foot or two deep, but as I climbed higher it increased to three and more. On the high benches above the valley, a comfortable four-foot thick blanket hid most everything.

I spend a lot of time off trails, wandering and traveling in less-beaten, less-accessible places. The rolling topography of New England woods is flattened by a blanket of snow—transformed, really, into a different sort of terrain. Between wind, storms, glaciers, and time, the less accessible parts of the forest are generally strewn with logs and branches, covered with loose soil and leaves, and scattered with heaps of exfoliated rock. The combination of deep snow, moderate crust, and a few soft inches on top makes jumbled forests into new, glorious highways—for animals, and for people who know to take advantage.

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Ecological Jenga

jenga_viaKellyTeagueOne quality of human societies is that we shape our environment to fit our needs. Sometimes we do this intentionally, such as when we clear land for agriculture or human occupation. Sometimes we do it as a byproduct of our actions, such as greenhouse gas emissions leading to runaway warming of the global climate. In the past, human societies have endured, or collapsed, or adapted, depending on how much their environment could withstand change.

I think this begs the question, how resilient is our global ecosystem? How much can it handle? What are the limits?

Those with a narrower view tend to dismiss environmental concerns as frivolous, uneconomical, or overblown. The earth has always carried on, they sometimes argue, and even if it doesn’t, we can invent technologies to replace and improve on anything an ecosystem can do. Yet I wonder.

Ecosystems around the world have evolved to be both diverse and redundant, with animals and plants and insects and microbes all functioning together to support the system. Most of that diversity and redundancy is structural—the evolution of an ecosystem, like the evolution of any given species, does not tend to generate and maintain traits with no purpose. I don’t mean that an ecosystem is designed with a place for everything and everything in its place, but rather that diversity and redundancy in a natural system are present because regular stress on the system requires them. They are buffers that protect the system from failure.

From the human perspective, redundancy is usually perceived as an abundance of parts—a river full of salmon, a forest full of old growth trees, a sky full of passenger pigeons. This leaves us with the comforting sense that however many we take away, there are more than enough; the system will not falter.

That can be true on a small scale, but global human society does not act on the small scale. We have an economic engine dedicated to mobilizing resources, and it is very good at it. If a resource is found, there is an effectively unending line of people ready to use it and transform it into human economic capital. But that engine is very bad at asking questions of stability; if a resource is abundant, we use it rapidly and heavily without concern for the broader system. That old individual view, that taking a few doesn’t matter, seems to have evolved into the idea that natural systems can be processed and repurposed by humans without consequences.

Unfortunately, the data says otherwise. The declining biodiversity of forests and the strangled flow of major rivers are examples of what happens to natural systems when their natural buffers are carted off for human purposes. Current complex systems science shows us that the natural systems we rely on are being driven to the edge of catastrophic failure. Ecologists and complex system scientists call this “overshoot,” a state in which the key ecological foundations of a system are exploited much faster than they can regenerate.

Put more simply, we are playing ecological Jenga. Globally, systematically, we are stealing away the foundations of critical natural systems to build a human superstructure on top. Yet questions about that same foundation receive more derision than consideration; with a curious bootstrapping logic, we convince ourselves that the titanic edifice of human society is unsinkable.

That ideological position is so much stranger in the face of the evidence. We have known for some time that we are drawing down natural capital much faster than the rate of replenishment. In the U.S., California is a poster child for depletion of water. In Canada, Alberta is scraping off their largest intact natural forest to dig up tar sands. In the tropics, slash-and-burn agriculture is depleting nutrient-rich topsoil that took thousands of years to form.

As we busily remove the redundancy of natural systems that sustain us, the growing specter of climate change looms large. We are carefully pulling bricks from the base of our tower, scarcely noticing the wind of change ruffling our shirtsleeves. Systems evolved redundancy to cope with stressors, and the biggest stressor for an ecosystem is a changing climate.

Some say human ingenuity will avert any catastrophe. I think they’re right that it could, if we would just look honestly at the implications of our choices. If we could bring ourselves to take them seriously. If we could bring ourselves to alter those choices.

But the tower is getting taller, and the wind is getting stronger.

The science shows us that we can’t continue the game into perpetuity. Natural systems will reach points of change; many already are. Many already have. Some have collapsed.

So let’s hear it for human ingenuity, and let’s fix it. But I have a sneaking suspicion that ingenuity isn’t our problem now. We’re plenty ingenious. What we’re not, is honest.

A Local State of Mind

Local FoodLocal food became a thing so long ago at this point that we now have a thriving network of CSAs, a word to describe people who only eat local food (localvore), and a growing movement towards supporting small, local farms over massive agribusinesses. We also have the more subtle economic local movement encouraging us to shop at local businesses and support our local economies.

Yet, we also have some assumptions inherent in both of these movements that aren’t quite true, assumptions that maybe need a little more thought to parse out the truth. I prefer to eat local food, and I prefer to purchase from local businesses, but my understanding of these things has grown over time, and I don’t do it for the same reasons I used to.

For me, the first thing I realized about local anything is that, despite the fervor of some advocates, “local” does not equal “good.” On the whole (but not always) it is better to purchase things that have traveled less, since on the whole (but not always) those things can have lower carbon emissions. As someone who things climate change is the single largest problem humanity is facing/has created, that means I am drawn to local food and products.

But, I said can have lower emissions, not do. The actual carbon emissions of something depend radically on the practices of those who made it. That tomato from Argentina might actually have lower carbon emissions than the tomato you bought at a local farmer’s market, if the Argentine producers made a lot of tomatoes, shipped them mainly by train, and didn’t have to till very much (all things that reduce the average total emissions associated with a piece of produce). Likewise the carbon emissions of a small farmer may vary depending on whether they have to till the soil more often (releasing carbon), use more fertilizer (on rocky New England soil), and drive a (comparatively) small number of tomatoes to market in a (comparatively) fuel-inefficient truck over hilly roads.

This same problem applies, in varying ways, to some apparent benefits of local purchasing. For example, I like the idea of keeping the money I spend in my local economy, thus supporting my neighbors and community and fostering more egalitarian distribution of wealth. But, even though I might be buying from a locally owned store, that store might turn around and invest their profits in a portfolio that includes Wal-Mart stock and, to some extent, helps drive other local sellers out of business. Or that local business may have gotten a loan from, say, Bank of America, and paying down that loan may be funneling wealth out of the community.

There are more examples of this problem, but the point I am trying to stress here is that, while I support purchasing local food and goods and do so myself whenever possible, choosing a local option does not automatically mean you are doing what you think you are. You still have to check.

What buying local will do for you is make the task of checking up on things much more manageable. Every item we buy has a chain of impacts associated with it, a series of feedbacks that impact things far beyond the obvious. The longer that chain of impact, the more likely that there are unintended consequences somewhere along the way. In the late 1800s and early 1900s, a fad for colorful feathers in ladies’ hats decimated the population of hundreds of species of birds. The people buying those hats couldn’t check the provenance of the feathers, but their contribution to the overall demand was devastating.

So, when I buy local, I treat that as the beginning of my choice, not the end. I don’t buy the local tomato assuming that it has lower carbon emissions than the Argentine tomato; I buy the local tomato because in many cases I can find out. I can go to my local farm and buy a tomato from their farm stand and know how it was produced. If there’s something in that practice that I don’t like, I can look for somewhere better.

If I buy the Argentine tomato, the process is opaque: all I see is that a tomato is there, and generally where it came from. I don’t know whether someone drained a peat marsh or burned a plot of rainforest to plant that tomato. I don’t know if it spent most of its time on a container ship. I don’t know if it was sent to Louisiana and shipped north in a tractor-trailer. And I probably can’t know those things.

So I buy local, not because I assume it’s better, but because among my local options, I can choose who to support. I can decide what I care about, and use my purchasing to have at least a little bit of impact. I buy local because when I am buying things from far away, it isn’t money I am trading for that convenience: it is knowledge.