Climate Change Up Close


Photo by F Delventhal

Photo by F Delventhal


If you’ve ever wondered how much little things really matter, consider the mountain pine beetle. Roughly the size of a grain of rice, the glossy black insect lives only about a year, but a female beetle can travel as far as 30 miles to find a pine tree, where its larvae can hatch and eat the inside of the bark. A throng of beetles can ravage a pine as tall as an eight-story building, as the tree first oozes sap, then its needles turn rusty red. In the past decade, in the pine forests that bristle across the U.S. West and Southwest, from Alaska to southern California, millions of acres of pines have died in one of the worst pine beetle epidemics anyone has ever seen. Foresters have suspected for more than two decades that an explosion of insects was in the cards, based on predictions for global warming. … But global predictions for climate change, though consistent on large-scale trends, weren’t specific enough … [Read more.]

EPA Cuts and a Math Problem

Today Obama announced carbon cuts for existing power plants. Many environmentalists are cheering this move, but even these limits leave society in a kind of climate-change limbo. The rules will chop emissions by 30 percent over 2005 levels by 2030. A paper published last year by Dutch scientists estimates that countries like the United States need to cut carbon by as much as half below 1990 levels by 2020 just to have a decent chance of staying within a 2-degree Celsius threshold of warming. For the past couple of weeks, I’ve spoken with climate scientists modeling the impacts of global warming all over North and Central America. They are now able to paint an ever more specific, vivid, and dire picture, via advances in climate modeling. The hotter we get (the further above 2 degrees), the more dramatic and frightening the future looks—more fires, more forests dying off in the Rockies, more water shortages, higher sea-level rise. Is it enough for the rest of us to begin doing our own calculations about the risks, choices, and sacrifices we’re facing?

The Meaning of Water

A couple of years ago, when I led the production of a water conservation issue for YES!, we ran a story about centuries-old systems of water management called acequias. Acequias are not merely an engineering feat: They are a cultural system that has allowed communities to negotiate the right to use water. In the Southwest, acequias brought together Spanish traditions and indigenous spiritual values about the sacredness of water.

Yesterday in the Los Angeles Times, Cindy Carcamo reported that drought has put acequias in danger. Some farmers are switching to drip irrigation. The shift may make sense in drier conditions, but let’s hope that it doesn’t diminish the values and traditions that guided water use in these communities. Community problem-solving will be important on an ever-hotter planet—especially when it comes to water.

The Farm of the Future Mimics Nature

Today, Tom Philpott has an excellent #longread in Mother Jones about how no-till and cover crops could save farms in times of drought. The vivid writing would make any one want to join Philpott’s band of “soil geeks,” and I am as enthusiastic about earthworms as any gardener. Of course, some parts of the world may not be viable for farming on a hotter planet—not even at the hands of the most careful farmers and land stewards. This includes some areas of Australia that I visited recently. I’ll be writing more soon about what happens when farming gets too tough.

How Many Degrees of Separation?

Yesterday, The New York Times Justin Gillis parsed the way the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has reported the more conservative and the scarier predictions for global warming. Are scientists so fearful of public criticism that they are downplaying the most disastrous possible impacts? Gillis argues we should know what the risks could be.

Few people can imagine what a few degrees Celsius means, and why it’s so dire. Last year, The New York Times mapped out one scenario: what major U.S. cities would look like if sea level were five feet higher in 100 to 300 years. Boston’s Logan Airport nearly disappears; most of Galveston, Texas, is under water, along with 94 percent of Miami Beach. Is this the future cities need to plan for, or something worse or milder, and how soon?