What the New IPCC Report Says About Climate Migration

In case you’ve been living in a cave under the Empire State Building for the last decade (as a flight attendant I flew with recently quipped about the art of seatbelt fastening), you’ve probably heard about the new Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) Report.

The primary claim? Even 1.5 degrees Celsius of warming will require profound changes to the way we humans live. The other big takeaway is that the difference between just .5 degrees Celsius of warming is profound.

I am surprised that everyone is so surprised.

In a world that’s just one degree Celsius warmer, we’re already seeing people desert their island homes, coasts endure unprecedented storms, and conflicts erupt over drought. Way back in 2009, the president of the Maldives fought to cut global emissions calling even two degrees Celsius of warming “suicide” for island nations like his own. While the science is not necessarily new, the level of confidence and consensus from a conservative body (the IPCC) raises the stakes.

I wondered immediately what this new report had to say about migration caused by climate change. The term “migration” makes dozens of appearances throughout the report. The IPCC says that farmers are moving due to climate change and people are retreating inland or leaving islands due to rising seas.

The IPCC is cautious in binding climate change with violence, but it does conjure up some key evidence. We know, for example, that a one-degree-Celsius temperature increase (which we’ve already sustained) and more intense rain increases conflict by 14%. And since violence can also lead to migration, the assumption is that we’re looking at even more people moving directly or indirectly as a result of climate change. 

environmental migration
Credit: Gallup, 2011

Commendably, the IPCC treats migration as a way of adapting to climate change. This is not to be overlooked. At a time when migration is often discussed in negative terms, we need to remember that if your environment can no longer provide you sufficient water, food, a habitable, reasonably safe climate, and a livelihood, your choice is often between moving or, frankly, death, which is not a choice at all.

The report says that migration, in fact, is already used as a way to “protect livelihoods” from climate impacts. The IPCC argues that when people are unable to migrate in order to adapt, “adverse” outcomes arise. This reminds me of the concept of “trapped populations” that researcher Basundhara Tripathy of Bangladesh shared with me. In rural areas of Bangladesh, men move away to the city for work, while the women are left behind, fearing the lack of social protections available in an unfamiliar urban environment.

The IPCC does caution that it’s not sure (read: medium evidence, low agreement) whether migration actually makes sense from a financial standpoint. In other words, the migrant often finds herself or himself low on the socioeconomic totem pole at their destination. Furthermore, they may not even be able to reach their destination due to “low political and legal acceptability.” Could they be head-nodding toward Europe’s barbed wire fences and xenophobia? Or Trump’s continuous political and verbal attacks on immigrants and refugees alike?

Ultimately, while the IPCC makes numerous references to how climate change will spawn migration, it concludes that its understanding of the connections between climate change and migration are “limited.” In other words, it’s complicated and we need more research. This is no surprise, given how difficult it can be to determine migration motivations (when they’re often manifold and complicated) and track migration pathways, when many of them are often forged illegally.

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Wildfire Season in Utah

wildfire utah

For what seems like the 10th time this summer, smoke fills our skies here in Utah. The nearby mountains grow hazy. We are coughing and our eyes turn red–so does the sky. The sunsets are ironically beautiful, obscuring the not-so-beautiful truth about why the West is on fire every summer.

Why? Out west, we are drier, we are hotter, and we are even hotter real estate for beetles that devour and kill our pine trees, rendering them fuel.

Kamas wildfire
Eerie skies above Kamas

Of course, fires are part of many ecosystem cycles and are not inherently bad. It doesn’t help, however, that for years, the Forest Service vilified forest fires (looking at you, Smoky!), which generated landscapes chock-full of fuel in the form of dense forest and brush. It also doesn’t help that we now build en masse in these forests, and that people venture into them and set off fireworks or fail to extinguish their campfires.

As I sit in my log cabin backing a hill that gives way to the High Uintas, I am well aware of the fact that I am writing inside of a tinder box. If a fire dances down the brittle, dry hill behind me, our house stands little chance.

Should we move? To do so seems preemptive and crazy. The other problem with this question is the follow-up query of: Where? If we want to live in the mountains, then we are most likely in wildfire terrain. Deserts and coasts have their own fair share of climate change ills ahead. So, for now, we shut our windows, stay put, and pray for rain.

Intellectual Evolution: Is this a thing?

Can we think–our believe–our way out of this mess?

In the Anthropocene, is human adaptation obsolete? Will humans continue the process of evolution? Or have we swapped genetic adaptation for technology? This is a question I’ve been thinking about a lot. I also have to wonder whether a species needs to adapt if it can profoundly change its environment through, say, geoengineering?

Many would argue that this line of thinking is naive. If humans are good at one thing, it’s self-deception! We are great so at telling ourselves stories. But in so doing, we may be deceiving ourselves about our ability to alter our environment in the long term. Climate change and depleted resources (hey, peak oil) also throw a wrench in humanity’s plan to defy Darwinism.

Charles Darwin

WWDS (What Would Darwin Say)? Originally, Charles described adaptation and speciation as applicable to all organisms. But for thousands of years—as the late Stanford historian Lynn White reminds us in his famous article “The Historical Roots of Our Ecologic Crisis”—humans have not just been adapting to their environment. We’ve also been physically altering it on a massive scale, from engineering rivers to deforesting large tracts of land. To at least some degree, we’ve removed ourselves from Darwin’s environmental “web of complex relations.”

White argues that the human M.O. of treating nature as a treasury of resources made just for us originates with, you guessed it, religion. The Judeo-Christian creation myth put forth a human-nature binary that led to the despiritualization of the natural world. With the decline of pantheism and animism, no longer did the majority of the world view rocks, trees, and animals as beings and spiritual vessels. And consequently, as White perfectly puts it, “… no creature other than man has ever managed to foul its nest in such short order” (1204).

From a survival-of-the-fittest standpoint, this ethos has benefitted the human race, at least until now. Our population has skyrocketed from around 300 million people when Jesus walked the earth to 7.6 billion and counting. Joining population in its upward march are life expectancy, for example, and quality of life. There’s no debate about the fact that we are the dominant species on the planet, even if we are technically outnumbered by bacteria.

If the Biblical tenet of human dominion over nature has helped homo sapiens succeed, could this belief be considered intellectual adaptation? Despite the fact that it clashes with the principles of other religions, humanity’s “I-It” Buberian relationship with nature is now widespread globally regardless of religious alignment.

How might intellectual adaptation work? A set of beliefs—be they Christianity or democracy—develops during a generation and is passed down to future generations. Parents raise their children to believe the ideology as reality. Writers codify the ideology, rendering it part of the record, even fact.

Over time, the origins of the ideology blur, allowing it to become even more fundamental to a society. In the case of religion, it becomes more than natural fact; it assumes the position of divine and universal truth. In its new position as sacred truth, the ideology becomes the bedrock upon which systems are built. It bloats and spreads and entrenches deeply in society. This is what the ideology of humanity’s reign over nature has done.

Yet unless we soon somehow geoengineer our way out of climate change or develop a way to reestablish harmony with our planet, I argue that this ideological adaptation will ultimately be to our detriment. In that case, what purpose, if any, did it serve?

Though we humans may have collectively stepped into the role of Manager of Nature, our current predicament serves as clairvoyant reminder that we cannot fully excuse ourselves from or control the larger natural systems at play, from a virus to the wildfires that now rage in the West.

It’s time for another intellectual adaptation. Whether driven by religion or ecological awareness, an evolution in thought is in order. Our very survival as a species may depend upon it. The first intellectual adaptation moved us into the position of planetary engineers, growing stronger, older, wiser. The next must leverage the wisdom and skill we’ve gained, while moving us into a place of careful balance with the planet.

The Pope Gifts Trump Light Reading on Climate Change

Pope Francis and Trump
He may be smiling here, but the Pope was a frowning Franciscan for much of his photo ops with the Trumps (Photo Credit: White House)

The images from Pope Francis’ recent meeting with President Trump and his family are priceless. Inexplicably donning black dresses and veils as if for a funeral, Ivanka and Melania stand with stricken expressions beside the grinning President. A healthy distance to his left, slumps Pope Francis, a dour frown on his face. It’s a color-coded portrait of good and evil in the same frame.

During the visit, the two leaders exchanged gifts. Trump offered a set of books by Martin Luther King, Jr., while the Pope slyly bestowed Trump with his 2015 encyclical on climate change. Whether or not this will change Trump’s perspective on compromising the environmental fate of the world remains to be seen.

The upside: this is no global warming rant by a left wing conspiracist, as many a climate scientist is perceived to be. Pope Francis even kicks off his encyclical gently, noting that his namesake, St. Francis of Assisi, “reminds us that our common home is like a sister with whom we share our life and a beautiful mother who opens her arms to embrace us.”

Who doesn’t want to be embraced by a beautiful madre? Certainly Trump would be eager for such maternal cuddling. Given the President’s respect for the Pope, he may be open to his message on climate change–and even to his concern for the refugees displaced by climate change.

“There has been a tragic rise in the number of migrants seeking to flee from the growing poverty caused by environmental degradation,” Francis remarks, noting that these migrants are not legally considered refugees.

Pope Francis
Forget about girl on fire–the words in this Vatican-made meme are on fire as they celebrate the Pope’s climate change encyclical.

If Trump is of sound mind (arguable), he might even perceive Pope Francis’ not-so-subtle tactic embedded in the gift and grow angry. Why is the Pope trying to manipulate him into making bad deals for America with what is essentially a long, boring list?

“He’s a showboat,” I picture Trump muttering under his breath as he flips through the encyclical. “A factory-fresh white Lamborghini. A not-so-great Versace suit you get ketchup up. A slice of cream cheese cake with 24 karat gold sprinkles on top. Look, that’s what he is. You know that, I know that, even Catholics know that.”

A “Potential Apocalypse” Lurking in Antarctica?

Ross Ice Shelf
Going, going, gone? (Photo Credit: NY Times)

160 feet. That’s how much sea levels could rise if the entire Antarctic ice sheet disintegrated.

What would that mean for the world? We’re already witnessing the sinking of small island nations thanks to a warming ocean and the melting of glaciers at both poles. But if the Antarctic ice sheet melts, we’d see an increase in ocean volume dramatic enough to alter the entire world map.

Even wealthy cities like London and New York that can afford sea walls and other coastal defenses would be calling uncle by the turn of the next century. The ocean would swallow and destroy the world’s greatest metropolises, perched strategically by water.

flooding
More of this to come (Photo by Johndal)

Recently, the New York Times published “Antarctic Dispatches,” a three-part series on this disaster brewing in Antarctica. Reporter Justin Gillis toured the icy continent on a Columbia University expedition. He calls the prospective melting of Antarctica “a potential apocalypse, depending on exactly how fast it happened.”

Antarctic ice melting
Image Credit: NY Times

This wouldn’t be the first time humans have experienced massive flooding (a subject covered extensively in Brian Fagan’s The Attacking Ocean, which I’m currently listening to on CD in my car).

When the Ice Age drew to a close thousands of years ago, the melting of ice sheets that covered Russia, Europe, and North America flooded some of the places that our hunter/gatherer ancestors called home. These deluges may even explain the common trope of flooding in mythology ranging from Hindu lore to Noah and the Ark.

But when this flooding occurred many thousands of years ago, there were but a few million primitive humans inhabiting the Earth. These mobile communities had plenty of space to which to relocate.

When oceans redraw our coasts now, they impact a world filled with 7.5 billion-and-counting people, who are by comparison immobile and made further immobilized by borders and immigration restrictions. It’s no longer so simple to pick up and go.

Today, the Greenland and Antarctic sheets are among the last remnants of the Ice Age, but they might not be around for long.

After presenting stunning visualizations of ice flow patterns, Gillis is kind enough to end on a hopeful note: it’s not too late to sharply cut greenhouse gas emissions and avert some of the forecasted melting. While we are already locked into a certain amount of warming that will increase sea levels, we could avert the fate of nearly 200 feet of sea level rise in the next couple centuries.

Blaming the Media, Blaming Ourselves

When things don’t go our way, we lay blame. It’s our way of understanding and rationalizing what happened. Grasping who or what is responsible for undesirable outcomes makes us feel like we have better control of future outcomes. We’re striving to learn from our mistakes.

When we elected Donald Trump on Tuesday, we blamed ignorance. We blamed white men. We blamed the Republican Party. The Democratic Party. The electoral college. The polling process. The two-party system. And a lot of us blamed the media.

The media, we argue, gave Trump undue coverage. It may have been negative coverage, but as the old saying goes, succès de scandal, or “there is no such thing as bad publicity.

We also blame the media for inciting violence, ignoring climate change, and providing biased information on just about everything. But what responsibility does the media really hold?

Here are three reasons why we cannot lay the blame for a Trump victory–or anything else–on the media’s doorstep:

  1. We aren’t paying enough for our media. Even public media like PBS or NPR are only funded in small part by the government, drawing additional resources from individuals and private companies. Most of our media companies are held by large mass media conglomerates. We consume information freely online or pay small subscriber fees for print resources, while the real costs are borne by advertisers.
  2. We don’t hold media to standards. Legally, the media can provide fallacious information. Since media is mostly privately funded, we can’t hold the media to funding-contingent ethical standards. While the media is answerable to its readership, it is by no means obligated to capture an even swath of issues, give multiple sides to a story, or pursue objectivity by the FCC or any other regulating agency unless we demand it through boycott.
  3. Media is increasingly bottom up. No longer do we listen to a few trusted media sources. Today, we often turn to social media and individual blogs and pundits for information. Certainly, there is no way to regulate the dissemination of half-truths, subjectivity, and lies through social media, nor would we want to wade into such dangerous territory.

The solution? The onus is on the individual to be a discerning consumer of media. Corresponding to the above issues of media culpability, we might:

  1. Increase public media funding. One avenue is to advocate for higher public funding for media so it’s less dependent upon corporate and ad funding. However, one might argue that this would make the media increasingly obligated to defend political status quos.
  2. Pursue media reform. If we want media held to standards, we might pursue legislation to do just that. Additionally, we should vow to suffocate media that traffics in fallacies, as well as media purporting to be objective yet clearly veering into subjective territory by declining to consume it.
  3. Act as stewards of knowledge on social media. We should pop our information bubbles by listening to voices that differ from our own so that we can understand them. We should also take it upon ourselves to debunk fallacies and spread sound information.

Just as we are responsible for the media that informs us, we are also responsible for this election. Only about half of this country voted. We wrote off Donald Trump and his supporters as a joke and an impossibility. We blindly trusted polls. We retreat deeper and deeper into our filter bubbles.

While some people likely voted for Trump because his bigotry appeals to them, the exit polls show that many voted for him because they wanted change–the same word that triggered the election of Barack Obama in 2004. If someone longs for change, they are unhappy and fearful.

 

Increasingly, I see Trump’s election as an act of desperation by his primarily white voter base. White people currently comprise 63% of the population, and by July 2011, minority births exceeded white births. Black Lives Matter has gained the nation’s ear, and millions of people are supporting the fight at Standing Rock. Gay marriage is legal and marijuana is becoming decriminalized around the country. We elected a black president for two terms. We have a long way to go, but we’ve made major gains.

I think Trump’s election shows that progressive causes are (slowly) winning (but then again, what happens quickly in this country?). Minorities are winning. The fight against fossil fuels is winning. And this terrifies the status quo of America and the less than 20% who qualify as rural–those who don’t know how to succeed in a new era of globalization, digital revolution, environmental reform, and heterogeneity.

We will move past this. We will elect a progressive leader again who endeavors to undo the harms that Trump will undoubtedly commit during his term. Some wrongs will never be righted–like the 3.4 billion additional tons of CO2 that his administration will unleash semi-permanently into our atmosphere.

For many, Trump’s election is a devastating setback. But let’s view it as a sign that equality and environmental protection are on the victory path, and that for some, that’s a scary thing.

 

 

 

Graphic Environmental Warning Labels (Originally Published in Truthout)

pesticide ad placement

What if every time you filled up at the pump, the image of a child displaced by climate change-caused drought confronted you? Would you make an effort to drive less, or at least be more aware of the tragic connectivity and causation inherent to the Anthropocene? Inspired by graphic tobacco warning labels, I explore how visualizing the impacts of our consumptive lives might impact behavior.

History of graphic warning labels

First introduced in 1985, graphic warnings on cigarette labels began to spread in the early 2000s in spite of industry opposition. The Bulletin of the World Health Organization records Canada as the first country to require graphic warning labels in 2001, with many more countries following suit, including:

  • Brazil (2002)
  • Thailand (2005)
  • Australia, which requires a rotation of two sets of labels every 12 months (2006)
  • UK (2008)
  • Taiwan (2009)
Philippines cigarette labels
Cigarette labels in The Philippines (Photo from Aotearoa Independent Media Centre)

Some of the countries with the largest graphic health warnings are Mauritius, Paraguay, Australia, New Zealand, Cook Islands, Belgium, Switzerland, and Finland.

Brazil cigarette labels
Warning labels in Brazil (Photo from the Brazilian Health Ministry)

Substantial evidence demonstrates that graphic warning labels are more likely to be noticed than text-only labels. Graphic labels are also more effective at motivating smokers to quit.

The United States has still not enacted legislation to require cigarette packaging to include graphic warning labels. In 2009, a federal law required the FDA to issue a final ruling on graphic labels by June 22, 2011. With no final ruling yet issued, the American Cancer Society and other medical and advocacy organizations filed suit against the FDA on October 4, 2016.

Graphic labels recontextualized

If graphic warning labels haven proven effective at targeting the disconnect between cigarettes and the health risks they pose, could a similar strategy bridge the gaping divide between other actions and consequences?

Katrina flooding
Natural disaster victims–like those pictured here in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina–will become more numerous as climate change accelerates. How can we draw connections between the agents and victims of climate change? (Photo by Marty Bahamonde/FEMA)

Could visualizing the human health, human rights, and environmental impacts engendered by our everyday actions affect behavior? Rob Nixon calls for the visualization of these issues–in particular, the spectacularization of these issues–in his book Slow Violence. “How can we convert into image and narrative the disasters that are slow moving and long in the making, disasters that are anonymous and star nobody, disasters that are attritional and indifferent to the sensation-driven technologies of our image-world?” he asks.

all environmental labels

Read the rest of the story on Truthout

My Name is Maya and I’m a Climatarian

Climate guilt is real, and it may affect up to 64% of Americans (aka the percentage of people in the U.S. in 2016 who are greatly or fairly worried about global climate change and probably have a carbon footprint significantly higher than zero).

In 2015, the New York Times named “climatarian” one of the words of the year (right after cat café), defined as:

a diet whose primary goal is to reverse climate change. This includes eating locally produced food (to reduce energy in transportation), choosing pork and poultry instead of beef and lamb (to limit gas emissions), and using every part of ingredients (apple cores, cheese rinds, etc.) to limit food waste.

However, “climatarian” (n) is not yet recognized by any of the major dictionaries, such as Merriam Webster or Oxford.

Therefore, I’m proposing a second, broader definition of this newfound term:

climatarian (noun) | ‘klīmit(e)rēən : a person who makes both day-to-day and major life decisions based around the prospect of climate change and its impacts; experiences often debilitating guilt regarding their contributions to climate change; and spends inordinate amounts of time worrying about catastrophic climate change

AS IN …

When Ricardo declined to travel to Paris because of the carbon footprint of the trip, Suzy accused him of being a climatarian

The Smiths opted to raise felines instead of children because they identify as climatarians.

Reilly is having difficulty completing her classwork because she is distracted by the prospect of runaway climate change destroying everything she knows and loves. 

You might be a climatarian if:

  1. The taste of shame overpowers even the strongest delicious flavors when you consume beef, pork, out-of-season produce, and unsustainably farmed fish.
  2. You agonize over simple decisions at the grocery store, baffled by whether you should prioritize local, non-GMO, organic, free-range, and/or cost.
  3. You try to hide the plastic bottle/disposable coffee cup that you bought in a moment of weakness from others.
  4. You love the show Tiny House, but don’t live in a small home yourself, and therefore experience a measured degree of self-hate while watching.
  5. You experience a minor panic attack when you’re forced to throw away the now moldy leftovers you forgot about in the back of your fridge because you haven’t gotten around to establishing a compost pile yet.
  6. Water World is one of your favorite movies!
  7. Netflix keeps recommending environmental documentaries like GMO OMG and Cowspiracy.
  8. You tell people you have a Costco membership because of the great deals, but really you’re starting to horde non-perishables in case of a potential climapocalypse.
  9. When you forget your reusable bags, you attempt to cram groceries into your purse or carry them in a carefully balanced pile in your arms to the amusement/pity of the cashier.

But if climatarians are going to try to affect large-scale change, they must dwell in this reality. Climatarians must strike a balance.

We can’t ask everyone to totally abandon their cars, go off-grid, and become subsistence farmers. But we can make a concerted effort to reduce our impacts as we fight for systematic change.

And so The Climatarian documents the daily struggle to live (and eat) in a way that contributes as little as possible to environmental injustices, the oppression of others, and, of course, climate change.