I have come to accept the bittersweet nature of my mountain trips. I venture into the heights for solace from the political, social and ecological demise that is raging across the planet. While camping at 7,000 feet in the central Cascade Mountains, I take in the view of the grand east face of Glacier Peak from atop Fortress Mountain. I gulp in the thick stars above. I find solace in the fact that those who are wrecking the planet will never be able to desecrate the stars.
However, while marveling at the glaciers glowing in the morning sun on Glacier Peak, their rapid retreat is starkly highlighted by the barren Earth below, where they once resided.
My last trip was on October 20, and from the summit, a 360-degree view revealed no less than four wildfires still burning. It was well into the fall in the Pacific Northwest, yet smoke still covered vast swaths of the state and was rapidly filling in the valleys below me.
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While hiking out later, the after effects were inescapable. Portions of the forest I hiked through bore the scars of previous wildfires, and served as a warning of more to come.
The biggest news in the corporate media regarding climate change since my last dispatch has been the UN report stating that we have 12 years left to limit a full-on climate change catastrophe. To avoid this fate, we would need to spend those 12 years curbing global emissions dramatically. Essentially, there would need to be a government-mandated plan across the globe that would enable us to limit warming to 1.5 degrees centigrade (1.5°C) rather than the 2°C goal of the 2015 Paris climate talks. Eliminating that extra .5 of warming would save tens of millions of people from sea level rise inundation, and hundreds of millions from water scarcity and a myriad of other catastrophic impacts. Limiting warming to 1.5°C would, scientists have said, require a radical rethinking of virtually every facet of modern society, including an abandonment of our entire fossil-fuel based economy. However, currently, we are headed for at least a 3°C increase by 2100, with no mass government mobilization in sight.
Meanwhile, the warnings that the catastrophe is already upon us continue.
A recent study in a paper published August 31 in the journal Science warned that for each degree of rise in global temperature, insect-driven losses to the staple crops of rice, wheat and corn increase by 10-25 percent. Given we are already at 1.1°C warming, we are already seeing these losses, which are sure to increase. “In 2016, the United Nations estimated that at least 815 million people worldwide don’t get enough to eat,” the University of Washington Press wrote of the study. “Corn, rice and wheat are staple crops for about 4 billion people, and account for about two-thirds of the food energy intake, according to the UN Food and Agriculture Organization.”
At the same time, scientists are deeply concerned about the fact that non-pest insect numbers are declining rapidly. Bees, moths, butterflies, ladybugs and other insects are far less abundant, and scientists around the world warn that these insects are crucial to as much as 80 percent of all the food we eat. “You have total ecosystem collapse if you lose your insects,” University of Delaware entomologist Doug Tallamy told the AP. “How much worse can it get than that?”
Meanwhile, in the realm of sea level rise, things are irreversibly catastrophic. A recent study of Antarctic ice sheets shows them to be far more sensitive to temperature increases than previously believed. The study showed that when global temperatures were only slightly warmer than they are currently, sea levels were 20-30 feet higher than they are right now. “It doesn’t need to be a very big warming, as long as it stays 2 degrees warmer for a sufficient time, this is the end game,” David Wilson, a geologist at Imperial College London and one of the authors of the new research told The Washington Post.
Equally disturbingly, lakes in the Arctic are literally bubbling and hissing: They are releasing methane in large quantities as the ground underneath them thaws. Methane is a greenhouse gas 100 times more potent than carbon dioxide on a 10-year timescale, and the widespread release of methane was a key driver of the Permian Mass Extinction event which annihilated more than 90 percent of life on Earth.
Meanwhile, the Arctic sea ice is melting rapidly. Ice extent reached its annual minimum recently, which is normally when the ice would begin reforming rapidly, particularly right in the middle of the Arctic Ocean. Instead, the ice continued to decline.
To underscore how governments are not doing enough to mitigate climate change impacts, Brazil, a major greenhouse gas emitting country, recently elected right-wing extremist Jair Bolsonaro as president. To say he is anti-environment (in addition to homophobic, racist and sexist) would be a gross understatement. Known as the Trump of the Tropics, his plans include disempowering federal environmental agencies, opening up Indigenous reserves in the Amazon to mining and farming, and building hydroelectric dams in the rainforest, where deforestation, already at crisis levels, is set to explode.
Impacts of human-caused climate disruption across the terrestrial plane are becoming increasingly stark.
A recently published study in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences revealed that global insects are in a crisis, and the problem is even more widespread than previously realized. While previous studies had revealed a 45 percent decrease in invertebrates like bees and beetles in the last 35 years and another study showed a 76 percent decrease in flying insects in the last few decades in German nature preserves, the new study shows a startling loss of insects now extending into the Americas. The report cites climate change as the cause. “This is one of the most disturbing articles I have ever read,” David Wagner, an expert in invertebrate conservation at the University of Connecticut told The Washington Post of the study.
Another recent study, also in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, showed that more than 300 species of mammals have been driven to extinction by human activities. The study showed that even if humans ceased destroying wilderness areas and ended poaching and pollution within 50 years, and extinction rates fell back to normal levels, 5-7 million years would be required for the natural world to recover from what we have done to it. “We are doing something that will last millions of years beyond us,” Matt Davis, a research leader at Aarhus University in Denmark, told The Guardian. “It shows the severity of what we are in right now. We’re entering what could be an extinction on the scale of what killed the dinosaurs. That is pretty scary. We are starting to cut down the whole tree [of life], including the branch we are sitting on right now.”
In the US West, a region iconic for its vast expanses and the freedom to roam in the wilderness that comes with them, some people refer to themselves as “prisoner[s] of the environment” (as reported in this piece in The Guardian) due to increasingly unhealthy air quality from wildfire smoke, water shortages and drought. Many residents are now wondering whether they should move.
Longer, hotter fire seasons, increasingly warm temperatures, less snowfall, changes in plants, and shorter winters are in the process of fundamentally changing Yellowstone National Park in the next few decades. “That conclusion is pretty much inescapable,” John Gross, ecologist with the National Park Service’s Climate Change response program, told USA Today. “It’s really more a question of the when and how it occurs than if.”
And it’s not just Yellowstone. The recently published study, “Disproportionate magnitude of climate change in United States national parks,” has shown that the parks have warmed twice as fast as the US average, and could well see the worst impacts of climate change. This is due to the fact that vast portions of national park areas are located at higher elevations, in the arid southwestern US, or in the Arctic. The iconic trees of Joshua Tree National Park may soon find their environment uninhabitable. Glacier National Park will eventually be free of glaciers. And many other national parks could be left virtually unrecognizable by climate change.
Meanwhile, as permafrost continues to thaw and water seeps deeper into mountain crags, increasingly severe storms (thanks to climate change) will destabilize mountains and increase the risk of landslides and rockfall.
Speaking of permafrost, a recent report showed that coastal erosion in the Arctic is intensifying climate change. As the coast there eroded during the end of the last glacial period (20,000 years ago), dramatic amounts of the frozen CO2 were released into the atmosphere. Now, this feedback loop — with climate change causing melting, melting causing CO2 release, and CO2 release exacerbating climate change — is beginning to occur again.
A recent study in Canada’s British Columbia showed that climate change is pushing alpine animals higher up mountains, as well as into extinction. The study showed that both plants and animals are shifting upslope 100 meters for every 1°C in temperature increase.
It’s not just plants and animals being forced to higher ground.
Some humans in the US are also moving to higher ground, as the era of mass climate migration has begun. The Great Migration in the US, a period during the 20th century when roughly 6 million black people fled the Jim Crow South for cities elsewhere, was the previous largest internal migration in the US. One study showed that by the end of this century, sea level rise alone could displace 13 million people, six million of those in Florida alone. That number doesn’t include people fleeing drought and wildfire-prone areas, nor those having to move for lack of water, or ensuing violence. Making matters worse, another leading climate scientist warned that 15-20 feet of sea level rise is possible within the next 70 years. That amount of sea level rise would mean the end of, literally, every major coastal city on Earth. The number of people displaced would be in the hundreds of millions, as New York City, Boston, Miami, Lagos, Jakarta, Shanghai, Mumbai, New Orleans, vast swaths of Boston, and Ho Chi Min City would all be underwater.
A recent report from Yale 360 argued that the current system of rating hurricanes needs to be scrapped, because it fails to account for how climate change-augmented hurricanes are now carrying far more powerful storm surges, often moving slower, and bringing flooding from rainfall that the current system cannot account for.
If all of this information makes you feel despair, you are not alone. Another recent study warned of “catastrophic” mental health changes that are tied to climate change, including high levels of stress, anxiety and depression.
As usual, climate change-induced disruptions are glaringly apparent in the watery realms of Earth.
A massive iceberg is now poised to break off Antarctica’s Pine Island Glacier. The iceberg is notably larger than the one that broke off the same glacier a year ago, which was 4.5 times the size of Manhattan.
In the US, given how many millions of people live in coastal flooding zones, with more looking to move to the coast, no one is required to even tell you if your future home is likely to flood. According to a recent study by the Natural Resources Defense Council and Sabin Center for Climate Law, “[i]n 21 US states there are no statutory or regulatory requirements for a seller to disclose a property’s flood risks or past flood damages.” The other 29 states have varying degrees of requirements to disclose this information.
In the low-lying coastal nation of Bangladesh, an entire country already beset by regular flooding, there is now an ongoing rural exodus into cities that is literally reshaping the country. With 163 million people, Bangladesh is the world’s most populous delta. There, riverbank erosion alone displaces between 50,000-200,000 people annually, and the capital city of Dhaka is absorbing between 300,000-400,000 people — mostly climate migrants — each year.
On the other side of the spectrum of climate change-induced water disasters is drought.
In the US, a crisis at Lake Powell, between Utah and Arizona, is looming as the ongoing long-term drought impacts plaguing the Southwest are reaching farther and farther upstream. Water rationing has reached far upriver as places in Colorado have had to ration water due to diminishing snowpacks and the ongoing drought.
In New Mexico, water reservoirs are nearing bottom as they have been used to help people survive the record drought of 2018, but now they are nearly dry, prompting worries about how to deal with the future, for which only increasing widespread drought is predicted. For example, by late September, the largest reservoir in the state was at only 3 percent capacity.
Down in Australia, an ongoing drought is hotter and drier than anything people in the impacted areas have ever known, and it is getting worse. “It’s quite unusual to get over 40C here but this last summer and the last couple of summers have been so scorchingly hot,” a sheep farmer there told The Guardian. “You can see the water being sucked out of the dams, sucked out of the soil, sucked out of my life and you can’t plan for that.”
After another summer of rampant wildfires across the US West, several continue to burn well into the fall. Since my last dispatch, a Wyoming wildfire forced evacuations from hundreds of homes and forced the closure of a highway south of Jackson. By mid-September the wildfire had scorched at least 40,000 acres.
At the time of this writing, wildfires continued to burn in Oregon, Idaho, Washington, Colorado, Utah and Nevada.
A recent report discussed how wildfire tornadoes, record sizes and temperatures of wildfires, and other seeming anomalies will become phenomena we can expect regularly going into the future, thanks to climate change.
Record-breaking warm temperatures beset Anchorage, Alaska, in September, along with unusually dry weather.
Of the record-breaking high temperatures there, climatologist Brian Brettschneider told the Anchorage Daily News, “we are absolutely smashing, obliterating, September records.” The average maximum daily temperature in September at the time of that report was 65.9 degrees Fahrenheit, more than 3 degrees warmer than the next closest September. On average, the typical average high temperature for the month of September there is 55°F.
High-temperature records were set across the state that month with Palmer, Kodiak, Seward, Kenai, Cordova and Valdez all setting records.
High-temperature records continue to be set around the world on a regular basis, yet in the US, the impacts are clear. Late October saw another record-breaking heat wave hit Southern California, with Los Angeles hitting 102°F.
Denial and Reality
In a recent interview, Donald Trump, who had called human-caused climate change “a Chinese hoax,” said it is real, “but I don’t know that it’s manmade.” He also said the climate will “change back again” — whatever that means.
Meanwhile, the ongoing denialism continues unabated in his administration. Climate change information was removed from an important planning document for a national park in New England, with the rationale that it was deemed a “sensitive” topic.
The North Carolina government did not like the science about sea level rise, so literally passed a law banning policies based on such forecasts. The state, of course, is still recovering from flooding from Hurricane Florence.
Meanwhile, Trump’s EPA has abandoned restrictions against hydrofluorocarbons, a chemical that has been linked to climate change. OPEC announced it is predicting a massive increase in oil production over the next five years — enough so that it will offset CO2 reductions from electric cars. On that note, it was recently exposed that the state of Texas, already the leading emitter of greenhouse gasses in the US, has approved 43 petrochemical projects along the Gulf Coast since 2012 — projects that add millions of tons more of greenhouse gas pollution.
Stunningly, despite the terrifying weather events and dire predictions of what’s to come, it has come to light that the Trump administration is aware of and accepts a projected 7-degree rise in global temperatures by just 2100. This came out in a draft statement issued by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, which was written to justify Trump’s decision to freeze federal fuel-efficiency standards for cars and trucks built after 2020. “The amazing thing they’re saying is human activities are going to lead to this rise of carbon dioxide that is disastrous for the environment and society,” Michael MacCracken, who served as a senior scientist at the US Global Change Research Program from 1993 to 2002 told The Washington Post. “And then they’re saying they’re not going to do anything about it.”
The Trump administration’s stance on climate change is essentially that we’re doomed, so what’s the point in cutting greenhouse gas emissions?
With regard to the alarming UN climate report, the White House basically shrugged it off, claiming that emissions in the US have dropped since 2005. This is a true statement, but does not explain the reason for that, which is a historic shift away from coal-fired electricity and toward renewables and natural gas.
Fortunately, reality is striking back.
A group of 17 bipartisan state governors representing states that comprise half of the total US GDP has vowed to both fight climate change and fight Donald Trump on the issue. They recently pledged $1.4 billion to support electric cars and institute new policies geared toward reducing greenhouse gas emissions.
Stunningly, even Bloomberg, a business news outlet, is running stories with titles like “New Climate Debate: How to Adapt to the End of the World.”
And of course, the language coming out of the UN is a sign that the international community is beginning to understand the full weight of climate change’s implication.
Alas, this realization has not yet been met with the policy response it deserves. The author of a key UN report on the dangers of breaching the 1.5°C global warming limit recently said that the world is “nowhere near on track” to keep warming below even that already arbitrary level.