Repost: Geoengineering is dangerous, irresponsible, and unavoidable

This was originally posted in February of 2016, before I came to Freethoughtblogs. I’m reposting it here because I think it’s worth having around, and because it’s relevant to a post I’m currently working on relating to global dimming

Over the last couple decades, the world’s business and political leaders have gradually come to understand that climate change is something that cannot be ignored. Every year, the immediacy and severity of the problem have become clearer. Sea level rise, seasonal changes, and even evolutionary changes in response to the rise in planetary temperature have all made it clear that the entire planet is changing around us, and that ignoring it could have devastating results.

Living, as we do, in a society that values money so highly, some of the responses have been predictable. In particular, businesspeople like Bill Gates have been pushing the idea of geoengineering as a solution. Geoengineering, in this context, is a catch-all phrase for deliberately tinkering with Earth’s climate and the mechanisms that affect it. The problem with this is that the term is so broad it’s almost useless. It can apply to things like planting more trees, and it can also apply to colossal structures in space to reduce incoming sunlight.The image is a diagram showing a cut-out of a section of Earth's surface, with visual representations and text describing different geoengineering methods. The methods described are: Reflective aerosols, cloud seeding, and space mirrors (all under the heading Solar Radiation Management); forestation, CO2 capture from air plus storage, CO2 capture from fossil fuels plus storage, and ocean iron fertilization (all under the heading

One of the most commonly discussed geoengineering solutions is iron fertilization of the ocean. The basic idea is simple – iron is a limiting nutrient in the ocean, so putting iron particles in the ocean will stimulate the growth of photosynthetic plankton, which will pull CO2 out of the atmosphere. The idea is that when the plankton die, a sizable amount of their mass will sink to the bottom of the ocean taking that carbon with it.

It’s not really clear how well this works in practice. Some studies have indicated that it would work, while others indicate that it might not have much effect, and some people have raised concerns that it might actually result in eutrophication and dead zones.

Newly published research now indicates that because iron is not the only low-availability nutrient in the ocean, the algal bloom from iron fertilization in one part of the ocean might pull other nutrients, like nitrates and phosphates, out of the water, starving plankton farther downstream along the oceanic currents.

It’s tempting to simply wave away geoengineering as a bad idea that we should bury and be done with. There are countless ways that it could go horribly wrong, especially when enacted by billionaires like Gates and his ilk, who have little to no understanding of the ecosystems with which they want to tamper. With the possible exception of planting more trees and creating more wild spaces (which would, without question, work), pretty much every proposal for geoengineering has the potential to have devastating side effects that could make life on Earth much more difficult.

There’s one compelling reason not to throw it away altogether. The reality is that we are already engaged in geoengineering, and there is no question that the path we’re currently on will end badly. Like it or not, humanity has become a force of nature. The size of our population and the scale of our technology mean that we exert a global influence of the chemical makeup of our planet’s oceans, atmosphere, land masses. Currently, we are engaged in the kind of geoengineering that Svante Arrhenius calculated was possible over a century ago – raising the planet’s temperature by increasing greenhouse gas concentrations.

For the sake of our own long-term survival, not to mention the rest of life on Earth, we need to come to terms with the fact that our species exerts a global influence, and we need to take deliberate control of that influence. We are already geoengineers, we’re just not taking responsibility for it. It’s past time to do more than simply work on reducing our fossil fuel use – we need to think about how we manage the surface of the planet we live on, and how we can manage it for the benefit of all life on Earth – ourselves included.

Because right now, we still seem to be pretending that we can just stop having a planetary impact, and with our population headed for 10 billion in just a couple decades, that is the one option that is no longer available to us.


Unfortunately, life costs money, and my income from this blog has yet to meet minimum wage for the time I put into it. If you can afford to, please consider pledging a couple dollars per month or so through my Patreon. This will help me continue creating and improving this blog by keeping a roof over my head, and food in my carnivorous pets so they don’t eat me. Crowdfunding requires a crowd, so if you can pitch in a little, it would help a great deal!

Oceanic temperatures are rising and oxygen is in decline. What does that mean for sea life?

As the name of my blog implies, I have some interest in the amount of dissolved oxygen in the ocean. It’s not a subject about which I have any particular expertise, it’s just something that can have a dramatic effect on aquatic ecosystems, and which relates to one of the possible long-term “nightmare scenarios” for global warming.

When it comes to the basic facts of climate change, there are a few things that are really quite straightforward, despite the overall complexity of the issue. The properties of CO2, as described by Foote in 1856 mean that an increase in CO2 levels in the atmosphere will cause an increase in global temperature. The only question is how much. Arrhenius answered that question in 1896 with a general calculation of how much affect a given change in CO2 would have on Earth’s overall temperature. So we know that increasing CO2 levels increases the planet’s temperature, and we know roughly how much we’ll get from a given increase. There’s uncertainty there, in part because of the complexity of Earth’s climate system. Amplifying feedback loops can increase greenhouse gas levels, and suppressing feedback loops might decrease them. But overall, if the atmospheric CO2 level goes up, the temperature must also rise.

Likewise, if the temperature rises, water will be able to hold less dissolved oxygen. This is also something we’ve known for a long time, although I’ve had more trouble tracking down the earliest research on it. The earliest references I’ve found were poorly cited, but in the 1940s. If anybody has more detail on that, I’ll welcome the addition!

So it’s no surprise that temperatures are rising, and it’s no surprise that we’re starting to see dissolved oxygen decline as a result, and models have given us a possible time frame from the progression of that trend. The question I want to start exploring is: What effect will the gradual decrease in dissolved oxygen have on sea life?

We can start with dead zones. A dead zone is an area in a body of water in which the dissolved oxygen levels have gotten too low to support most multicellular life. There are a number of these, increasingly well publicized, around the world’s coasts. Most are caused by human activity. Not all of them exist year-round, but the effects of annual oxygen depletion outlast the depletion itself. These are typically caused by eutrophication (an increase in limiting nutrients) as a result of farm runoff flowing into the sea. The one that forms around the Mississippi delta every spring for this reason is probably the most famous one in the U.S. The influx of fertilizer causes an algae bloom, which can cause a brief increase in oxygen during the day, but then at night, respiring algae suck the air out of the room, so to speak. If they are able, fish will leave the area. If they can’t, either because of the size of it, or because they can’t tell which way to go, they will die. Less mobile animals tend to simply die.

It’s important to note that these dead zones are not caused by an increase in temperature, and the oxygen levels rise after the nutrient influx stops, and the algal bloom goes away. The decrease in oxygen due to rising temperatures may start showing in seasonal patterns, but it won’t be as dramatic. The network of currents throughout the planet’s oceanic system move water around too much to allow for a global state of anoxia at any point in the near future. As I wrote at the beginning of my blogging career, there are ways in which a majority of the ocean could end up as a dead zone. That scenario is one of the possible major factors in the biggest mass extinction in the geological record. Rising temperatures would contribute to that happening, of course, but they couldn’t cause it by themselves without first causing a dramatic change in global oceanic currents would be needed to stop mixing between layers of the ocean.

The image shows a map of Earth with

From Livescience article linked to the image: Low-oxygen zones are spreading around the globe. Red dots mark coastal locations where oxygen has plummeted to 2 milligrams per liter or less, and blue areas mark zones with the same low-oxygen levels in the open ocean. (Image credit: GO2NE working group. Data from World Ocean Atlas 2013 and provided by R. J. Diaz)

So what are we likely to see in our lifetimes?  The speed of warming has been increasing over the years, and that will continue until some time after we start treating climate change like the global emergency it is. Barring major changes in how fertilizers are used in agriculture, dead zones at river deltas will continue to be a thing, and are likely to get worse with higher temperatures.  The hypoxic zone in the equatorial Atlantic has given us a look at the first effects of decreasing oxygen:

An expanding zone of low oxygen, known as a hypoxic zone, in the Atlantic Ocean is encroaching upon these species’ preferred oxygen-abundant habitat, forcing them into shallower waters where they are more likely to be caught.

During the study, published recently in the journal Fisheries Oceanography, scientists tagged 79 sailfish and blue marlin with satellite tracking devices in the western North Atlantic, off south Florida and the Caribbean; and eastern tropical Atlantic, off the coast of West Africa. The pop off archival satellite tags monitored horizontal and vertical movement patterns. Researchers confirmed that billfish prefer oxygen rich waters closer to the surface and will actively avoid waters low in oxygen.

While these hypoxic zones occur naturally in many areas of the world’s tropical and equatorial oceans, scientists are concerned because these zones are expanding and occurring closer to the sea surface, and are expected to continue to grow as sea temperatures rise.

“The hypoxic zone off West Africa, which covers virtually all the equatorial waters in the Atlantic Ocean, is roughly the size of the continental United States, and it’s growing,” said Dr. Eric D. Prince, NOAA’s Fisheries Service research fishery biologist. “With the current cycle of climate change and accelerated global warming, we expect the size of this zone to increase, further reducing the available habitat for these fish.”

Less available habitat can lead to more fish being caught since the fish are concentrated near the surface. Higher catch rates from these areas may give the false appearance of more abundant fish stocks. The shrinking availability of habitat and resulting increases to catch rates are important factors for scientists to consider when doing population assessments.

This is probably going to be the primary effect we see in our lifetimes. Just as fish are shifting ranges and patterns due to temperature preferences, they’ll also move in response to changing oxygen levels, and to the activities of other fish. Combined with the ever-present threat of overfishing, this could lead to a number of fishery collapses in the near future, affecting the global food supply at the same time as our agricultural systems are struggling to adapt to changes in weather patterns and water availability.

Another interesting result of this is that the migration of fish away from hypoxic areas could actually accelerate the loss of oxygen and change the rate of ocean surface warming by decreasing the amount of water mixing due to sea life moving up and down the water column:

What’s more, their study found that the marine biosphere—the chain of sea life anchored by phytoplankton—invests around one percent (1 terawatt) of its chemical power fortune in mechanical energy, which is manifested in the swimming motions of hungry ocean swimmers ranging from whales and fish to shrimp and krill. Those swimming motions mix the water much as cream is stirred into coffee by swiping a spoon through it.

And the sum of all that phytoplankton-fueled stirring may equal climate control.

“By interpreting existing data in a different way, we have predicted theoretically that the amount of mixing caused by ocean swimmers is comparable to the deep ocean mixing caused by the wind blowing on the ocean surface and the effects of the tides,” Dewar said.

In fact, he explained, biosphere mixing appears to provide about one third the power required to bring the deep, cold waters of the world ocean to the surface, which in turn completes the ocean’s conveyor belt circulation critical to the global climate system.

Findings from the FSU-led study (“Does the marine biosphere mix the ocean?”) will appear in the forthcoming issue of the Journal of Marine Research, adding the role of major power broker to phytoplankton’s already impressive credentials.

Scientists for some time have known that the highly sensitive plants act as reliable signals of environmental changes at or near the ocean surface through sudden declines or rapid growth—and they have suspected that phytoplankton affect as well as reflect climate change when large, sustained plant populations gulp carbon dioxide from the atmosphere during grand-scale photosynthesis.

But along with the new calculations that point to the marine biosphere’s bigger-than-expected role in ocean mixing and climate control, Dewar and his colleagues also suggest that human and environmental decimation of whale and big fish populations may have had a measurable impact on the total biomixing occurring in the world’s oceans.

The biggest danger the oceanic ecosystem faces from warming water probably isn’t going to be a decrease in dissolved oxygen, but rather damage to the plankton that forms the base for most of the oceans’ food webs. That may be compounded by big fish like tuna being concentrated away from hypoxic zones, but the decline in available food would be a problem even without changes to oxygen levels.

The plankton decline will also probably give us an increased number of headlines about declining oxygen production from the oceans, as the article I linked indicates. That said, the bigger danger from that, in my estimation, is not that we’ll run of of oxygen to breathe, but that we’ll lose the ecosystem service of CO2 uptake provided by phytoplankton.

The global terraforming experiment we’re currently running is a bit mind-boggling, really. When we get over-the-top headlines, they’re sensationalist in focus, not in scale – concerns about running out of oxygen this century, or the scenario that gave birth to the title of this blog aren’t reasonable in our lifetimes, and for that I’m grateful. The reality, however, is just as dramatic, and while it’s hard to predict exactly how things will play out, I think it’s safe to say that it will continue to feel like we’re caught in a cycle of escalating chaos.

Because we are.


Unfortunately, life costs money, and my income from this blog has yet to meet minimum wage for the time I put into it. If you can afford to, please consider pledging a couple dollars per month or so through my Patreon. This will help me continue creating and improving this blog by keeping a roof over my head, and food in my carnivorous pets so they don’t eat me. Crowdfunding requires a crowd, so if you can pitch in a little, it would help a great deal!

The logistics of ending capitalism: Will the Revolution be funded?

Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez has been an exciting figure for a number of reasons, but I think the biggest one is her commitment to relying on small-dollar donors, and a “sneakers on the ground” approach to campaigning. On the one hand, it’s nice to feel that we have some legislators who don’t owe anything to the aristocrats, but I think it goes beyond that.

All those big-dollar donations don’t just mean that the politicians “owe” their donors, they also represent a huge amount of time spent begging for that money. That’s time not spent talking or listening to constituents. That’s time not spent studying the topics on which they’re passing laws. That’s time not spent writing legislation. That’s time not spent researching the people they’re going to be talking to in congressional hearings.

It’s been refreshing, over the last couple years, to see members of Congress like AOC, Katie Porter, Ilhan Omar, Ayanna Pressley, and others asking difficult, informed questions of agency heads, corporate executives, and other folks brought in under the guise of helping Congress inform themselves about the laws they’re crafting and passing.

I don’t think it’s a coincidence that those questions seem to be mostly coming from the more left-wing members of the Democratic Party, while those to the center and the right tend to make for less interesting viewing, less pressing questions, and more empty grandstanding. Part of that is about priorities, of course. Politicians further to the right on the political spectrum don’t have the same goals for the nature and effectiveness of the U.S. government.

Part of it, though, goes back to the time spent fundraising. AOC isn’t just naturally more knowledgeable about those subjects. She and her colleagues are so effective because they actually put in the time studying the subjects, and listening to experts, and crafting useful questions. Their approach to funding their political campaigns doesn’t just give them the rhetorical benefits of Left populism, it also buys them the time that’s needed to actually be effective at their jobs.

I think there are lessons there for people beyond the realm of politics. As I and my readers have mentioned before, the use of working-class power costs us more, and is more diffuse that the use of capitalist power. It takes more time, effort, and sacrifice to bring our power to bear and to keep it focused on the tasks at hand. That makes the “easy” solution of taking capitalist funding very, very tempting. On the surface, at least, money given by some large capitalist entity, be it an organization or an individual, can make things a lot easier. It can mean much-needed resources going towards good causes. It can also, however, have a corrupting effect beyond the conventional story of people getting greedy, and losing sight of the mission.

Massive funding from a small number of “well-meaning” wealthy sources can mean that, on the surface, there’s a sense that time and effort spent securing those big donations gets a better return for the cause, and that can, with the best of intentions, result in starving the aspects of our organizations that not only seek funding from “the people”, but that also put those organizations in constant contact with those people.

And in time, becoming reliant on the support of the capitalist/aristocratic class is more likely than not to turn into the kind of subservient patronage relationship we see all to often in Congress.

The issue of material resources is massively important for any revolution worth having, regardless of whether that revolution is violent or nonviolent. Unfortunately, where those resources come from seems to matter beyond vague notions of purity.

This video from Space Commune digs into these questions in a way that I think makes it required watching for anyone who believes that people should be able to govern themselves:


Unfortunately, life costs money, and my income from this blog has yet to meet minimum wage for the time I put into it. If you can afford to, please consider pledging a couple dollars per month or so through my Patreon. This will help me continue creating and improving this blog by keeping a roof over my head, and food in my carnivorous pets so they don’t eat me. Crowdfunding requires a crowd, so if you can pitch in a little, it would help a great deal!

A new temperature record, why hot years matter more than cold ones, and threat multipliers.

By now, most of you have probably heard: a town in Siberia recently reported a temperature of 100.4°F/38°C.

A small Siberian town north of the Arctic Circle reached 100.4 degrees Fahrenheit on Saturday, a figure that—if verified—would be the highest temperature reading in the region since record-keeping began in 1885.
“This scares me, I have to say,” environmentalist and 350.org co-founder Bill McKibben tweeted in response to news of the record-breaking reading in Verkhoyansk, where the average high temperature in June is 68°F.

Washington Post climate reporter Andrew Freedman noted Sunday that if the reading is confirmed, it “would be the northernmost 100-degree reading ever observed, and the highest temperature on record in the Arctic, a region that is warming at more than twice the rate of the rest of the globe.”

“On Sunday, the same location recorded a high temperature of 95.3 degrees (35.2 Celsius), showing the Saturday reading was not an anomaly,” the newspaper reported. “While some questions remain about the accuracy of the Verkhoyansk temperature measurement, data from a Saturday weather balloon launch at that location supports the 100-degree reading. Temperatures in the lower atmosphere, at about 5,000 feet, also were unusually warm at 70 degrees (21 Celsius), a sign of extreme heat at the surface.”

The World Meteorological Organization said Sunday that is “preliminarily accepting the observation as a new extreme” as it conducts a more thorough review of the Verkhoyansk reading.

With all the chaos and misery of the last four years, it’s hard not to feel as if we’ve entered into the “climate catastrophe” era I always feared. It has always been clear that the climate has been warming faster than most scientists have predicted (despite what the science deniers keep saying), and I’ve always known, in the back of my mind, that global warming and associated chaos would be the “setting” for the second half of my life. It was a gloomy enough prospect that I generally focused on the slim hope that it could be avoided, but I don’t think it’s a secret that I’ve been expecting we’d keep falling short of the various changes needed.

In light of this grim new record, I think it’s worth revisiting a post I wrote back in 2016 while I was applying to join Freethoughtblogs: 

Earth’s systems are already out of balance. The comparative equilibrium we saw during most of the last 10,000 years meant that the amount of ice we had was roughly the amount of ice we were likely to get and keep at our current temperature and greenhouse gas level. When we increased the average temperature, that balance was shifted, and ice started melting in response to the increased temperature of the climate.

The “lull” between 1998 and 2015, which was not much of a lull, still saw accelerating ice melt, permafrost thawing, and sea level rise, because we had already raised the temperature enough to make those inevitable, based on our understanding of physics. Even a year that was down to the 1990 or 1980 temperature level, on average, followed by a return to 2000s temperatures, would have fairly little effect. The melting would have slowed, without stopping, and then sped up again when the temperature returned to the decadal “norm”.

But a dramatically hotter year – like this El Niño year – is a different matter. It injects a bunch more heat into the system, which means faster ice melt, and so lower albedo for the coming year, and more permafrost melt, and so more greenhouse gasses for the coming year, and more water evaporation, and so more greenhouse gasses for the coming year.

A single, unusually cold year, does not do much when we’re still above the temperature at which the current ice sheets formed, but a single hot year can create a spike of warming factors, which will cause even more warming in the years to come.

If we had not been emitting fossil fuels, it’s possible that the dip in global temperatures in the late 1960s/early 1970s would have led to more global cooling, and even an ice age – we’re certainly due for one – but we had already started the slowly accelerating process of global warming. We already had warming momentum, even back then, so we had a temporary cool period, and then when we came out of the 1970s, the temperature skyrocketed.

We’ll have more warming “pauses” in the future. That is a virtual certainty, but unless we re-balance the planet’s temperature budget by reducing greenhouse gases, the planet will just keep warming until it reaches a new equilibrium. Because of feedbacks like the albedo and the melting permafrost, even if we stop emitting CO2 now, the planet will keep warming for thousands of years, and the new equilibrium will be far, far hotter than anything our species has ever encountered.

There are a number of ways we could respond to this, but our best bet is to stop contributing to the problem, prepare for the changes we know are coming, and develop a strategy for deliberately managing the planet’s greenhouse gas levels.

That said, there is one way in which I am an optimist on this. I still believe that, through science, technology, and massive social and economic change, we can weather the coming storm, and even thrive as a species, while helping the rest of the planet recover from the damage we’ve done. That said, I believe it’s safe to say that we can now no longer avoid a period of chaos and hardship unlike anything humanity has ever experienced. That’s one of the biggest reasons that it’s so important to address injustices like those created by white supremacy. We’ve got a lot of work to do, and we don’t have time for this bigoted bullshit. The global fascist/white supremacist movement is acting massively amplify every other problem we face, kinda like climate change…


Unfortunately, life costs money, and my income from this blog has yet to meet minimum wage for the time I put into it. If you can afford to, please consider pledging a couple dollars per month or so through my Patreon. This will help me continue creating and improving this blog by keeping a roof over my head, and food in my carnivorous pets so they don’t eat me. Crowdfunding requires a crowd, so if you can pitch in a little, it would help a great deal!

Juneteenth, the movement cycle, and the long struggle for liberation.

Revolutions of all sorts have a common problem. It’s one thing to build popular support for a change, it’s another to actually get the power to create that change, and to make it last. Many of the struggles that underlie the current uprising in the United States are ones that have been going on for multiple lifetimes, in one form or another, and while there have been successes, they’ve often been less than was hoped for or promised, and followed by failures and rollbacks. This wasn’t the post I planned on writing for Juneteenth, but there are lessons from the end of slavery that we would be wise to consider in the context of today’s struggles.

Slavery ended after centuries of uprisings, struggles, and activism. The efforts to address the injustices of slavery were halted almost immediately, and the laws and economy of the United States were arranged to force the Black population to stay as third-class citizens, or to use the prison system to enslave them again. These efforts were accompanied by a generations-long campaign of terrorism and pogroms waged by the white population against the black population, led by the KKK, and supported by many who never wore a white hood. Along with that came an intensification of the anti-black propaganda that had been used to justify slavery, and was now served to justify any and all injustices perpetrated against the Black population.

It is very, very hard to take any power from the powerful. For all people like to talk about how the wealth of today’s billionaires is somehow fictional because it’s mostly tied up in stocks, the difficulty of getting changes that put even a fractional amount more power in the hands of the people shows just how real their fortunes are. They really do wield Feudal levels of power and influence, on a global scale, and they are prepared, as they always have been, to use that to hold on to what they view as “theirs”, and to create a society in which each of the lower tiers of power take that same approach to whatever lesser degrees of power they can attain.

That dynamic is why so many have taken the path of bloody revolution. Any minor gains made are rolled back by the power that is left to the aristocracy, as they dream about how much more power they used to have. It’s not hard to feel that the only solution is to take away all of their power, and to take away their lives, either through death or through imprisonment. I don’t want that, I just don’t want them to have any more power than anyone else. I want democracy. I want a system in which accumulating personal wealth isn’t necessary to pursue a fulfilling life. I want a system in which accumulating personal power is either impossible, or close to it.

We’re a long, long way off from that. I believe it’s attainable, but it seems so far away that I doubt it will be achieved in my lifetime. That means that we’re in this for the long haul. Even if we make changes that are big enough and fast enough to head off the worst horrors of a warming planet, we will need to hold that ground, not just against the capitalists seeking to regain their hegemony, but also against an increasingly hostile planet. Climate change has been described as a “threat multiplier”, and I think that will prove true for the threat posed by the aristocrats and oligarchs of the world as much as any other.

The struggle against white supremacy is inextricably tied up in the struggle against global capitalism. The two are used to reinforce each other, as they have been for centuries. The working classes are powerful too, because there are more of us, and because we form the foundations of the power of the aristocracy. In a very simplistic equation, we have more power, but it’s harder to use. The wealth of the “elites” is a ranged weapon that can be used without real risk to its wielder. They pay others to take their risks. The power of the working class is in our hands, and while we can use it to achieve great things, the risks we take are our own. A punch can be effective, but it can easily injure the one who throws it. That’s what creates the imbalance – using our power comes at a greater cost, and greater risk, and that creates an imbalance.

Part of that power imbalance is the way the corporate media will largely ignore uprisings or protests until there’s violence involved, and then they’ll focus on the violence until someone decides it’s not “new” enough. It feels like coverage has already started to shift away from the efforts for real change, and politicians who are supposedly on “our side” have started declaring victory due to the promise of very minor reforms. The weight of society is set against change, and while sometimes it can feel as if we’ve gained momentum, we’re still engaged in an uphill struggle. For those of us who want to realize the dream of democracy and justice for all, I think it will always be an uphill struggle, as there will always be some trying to control others, at every scale of society. As the protests dwindle, and fade away, there will be a concerted effort by some to claim that they “won” and so there’s no need for more protests in the future, and by others that they “lost” and so all future protests are doomed to failure or unpopular. The general refrain is always that while past struggles for change might have been justified and good, present and future ones are almost always bad, unpopular, and the work of extremists.

Hopefully this will result in more sustainable change and activism than the first wave of the Black Lives Matter movement, and understanding what’s going on from a systemic perspective should help us make that happen. This video takes an analytical look at movements, the predictable patterns in how they progress, and how to use that knowledge to guide our efforts.

This pattern can be found not just in the short-term uprisings seen through things like Occupy Wall Street or Black Lives Matter, but also in much longer time frames. Today we celebrate one of the greatest victories in the centuries-long fight for freedom, justice, and equality. Not the end of the the American Civil War, or the Emancipation Proclamation that helped win it, but the end of industrialized, birthright slavery in the United States. It was not a total victory, but it moved us closer to justice, and made possible the victories gained since, and those still to come.


Unfortunately, life costs money, and my income from this blog has yet to meet minimum wage for the time I put into it. If you can afford to, please consider pledging a couple dollars per month or so through my Patreon. This will help me continue creating and improving this blog by keeping a roof over my head, and food in my carnivorous pets so they don’t eat me. Crowdfunding requires a crowd, so if you can pitch in a little, it would help a great deal!

A writer’s perspective on primal instincts, human nature, and capitalism

At the end of eighth grade, my class took a trip to Nova Scotia, in Canada. I don’t remember exactly where we stayed, and I don’t even remember a whole lot of the trip. I remember bits and pieces of the cruise we took up there from Maine, of playing Manhunt (a sort of combination between hide and seek and tag) around the buildings we were staying in, a campfire near the shore, and a Mortal Kombat-style arcade game involving dinosaurs. There’s one memory that stands out more than the others, and it was the first time I told a ghost story and the experience really clicked with me. The story I told was The Red Lodge, by H.R. Wakefield. It had been published in a collection called “More Tales to Tremble By”, and it had stuck with me for a variety of reasons. Reading it later, as an adult, revealed it to be… less good than I remembered. I don’t know anything about Wakefield, but the narrator of the story comes across as both an author insert character, and as cartoonishly pretentious. My telling was not verbatim by any stretch, just as close to the original as I could construct by memory. I told the story to my classmates, including a few spooky moments with silhouettes and faces in windows, and during the silence after I finished, there was a noise, and two shadows appeared on the frosted glass window of the outer door. If memory serves, it was a couple chaperones coming to join the storytelling, but for a moment it was as if the specters from my story had manifested in reality. It was the moment when I discovered my love of storytelling.

For a long time, my storytelling and fiction writing focused on various horror stories. I had some friends who’d get together weekly in college for ghost stories, and I periodically have Halloween parties that center around sharing various spooky and supernatural stories. When I started trying to learn fiction writing as a craft, I started with horror. As I worked, I came to think of writing in terms of the emotions it could conjure in the reader, and to think about various techniques. Ideally, I want to guide my readers through a landscape that doesn’t just contain a narrative of events, but also a variety of emotional experiences. I can’t really say how skilled I am at my craft, but I think it’s safe to say that with practice and study, I’m better than I was a decade ago. That’s not much, but it’s progress I can see, and I feel good about that.

One of the things I’ve learned is that some emotions are much easier to conjure and manipulate than others.

Using only words on paper (or a screen, or braille), how do you generate a feeling of surprised elation? How do you make someone feel hope? It’s easy to write about someone feeling those things, but to actually reliably make a reader feel them seems more difficult, at least for me. Satisfaction, awe, comfort, the feeling of doing something for the first time – humanity is blessed with a nearly endless spectrum of ways to experience the world, and some of them are very difficult to replicate outside of simply living the events that create them.

In my experience, the easiest ones are things like fear and disgust. Our reactions to threats are pretty universal, and pretty near the surface because they generally come from a need for some immediate action. Get away from the scary thing. Wash off the gross thing. It could hurt us. It could make us sick. Pretty much everybody has had some version of those feelings, and they tend to generate strong memories.

That means they’re also very easy to use in politics. It’s why various forms of fear-mongering tend to work so well, and why there’s so much focus on what some like to call “base instincts” or “primal instincts”. Triggering emotional states that demand immediate action puts other instincts and needs on hold, and if you can maintain those feelings in a group of people, it’s far easier to get them to move in the direction that you claim will make those feelings go away. It’s a nasty tactic, because it always works, and because there are real problems in the world.

It’s particularly vicious when it’s used by the people who create those problems in the first place. In atheist discourse, it’s sometimes said that religion convinces you that you’re poisoned (when you’re not), then offers you the fake cure to the fake poison. There are a lot of ways in which modern politics are similar to that, except that very often the “poison” isn’t fictional. The economic hardship that people suffer is very real, but we live in a system that makes it difficult to tell what exactly is causing it. That means that the people who constantly push for policies that make life worse for most people can then turn around and blame that misery on a convenient scapegoat, while offering a “cure” that, more often than not, will only make things worse.

Modern conservative politics, in the US and the UK, at least, amount to a vampire telling the villagers that their strange neck wounds and feelings of weakness are caused by a disease that makes them produce too much blood, and so the solution is bleeding, and the vampire will take the excess blood away as a service.

And maybe the exact nature of the problem changes. Maybe, in time, people notice that it doesn’t seem to be a disease, so they’ll find something else. We used to think it was a disease, but now it’s those new, different-looking people who’ve moved to town. Sure, the problem pre-dates them, but there were always travelers coming through before, and strangers living in the nearby forest, so maybe it’s THEM causing the problem. The solution is to give all the different-looking people to the vampire, and he’ll deal with it from there. And when, after all the strangers are gone, and anyone who looks different has been eliminated, or scared off, well, the problem’s still there. Maybe it’s a disease. Our ancestors thought it was a disease, and it sure seems like things were better in the past, so maybe we should rely on their traditional wisdom, and return to the old ways, and start that bleeding ritual.

And so it keeps working until the people realize that no matter the exact nature or explanation of the problem, the solution proposed by the local ruler always seems to result in a lot of blood being given to him, in one form or another, and maybe that is the problem.

Maybe we should try doing without that ruler.

And that’s when the spell can be broken.

I think we’re close to such a moment now. The pandemic has created a situation in which the “leaders” who have been offering cures like “do capitalism harder” or “give more money to rich people” are now pushing us towards the even more immediate and scary danger of a plague. It looks like their intentions aren’t so “pure” after all, and maybe those nasty weirdos who’ve been ranting about vampires for all these years have a point.

And as many of us stay home, and isolated, we’re discovering that we’ve got other primal needs that go beyond the immediate desires for food, shelter, safety, and sex. We need community. We need other people, not just to fight against immediate threats, but because community is part of what it means to be human.

There’s an old saying, with which everyone is no doubt familiar – money doesn’t buy happiness. These days it’s often used to tell poor people that they shouldn’t look to material wealth to solve their problems. After all, there are plenty of unhappy rich people, so we should all seek happiness through other means. Try to just enjoy your work more. Maybe find a hobby during all that free time you have. Get more sleep. Meditate. Practice a religion. Find happiness in some way that doesn’t mean rich people become less rich.

That saying is true. Money does not buy happiness. Having your material needs met does not buy happiness. What it buys is the freedom to pursue happiness. It buys us time to think about what actually does make us happy. It buys us time with other people, to use for things other than merely struggling to get by. It buys us time to ponder life, and practice skills, to enjoy music, and to play games.

It buys us time to tell stories, and to hear them told.

When we spend all of our time and energy simply on getting money, that’s time and energy we don’t have for pursuit of happiness. We live in a world of astounding abundance. We grow more food than the global human population is capable of eating. We have so much material wealth that we simply throw away things when they are less than perfect. And at the same time, people have to work endlessly just to make ends meet. It’s a contradiction. Something is wrong, and everyone can tell, so explanations are constantly created, and justifications offered. And as the whole population suffers, and seems to be constantly moving from one fear to the next, the aristocracy is reaching ever-loftier heights of prosperity and excess.

And the plague has shown us that as well. As hundreds of thousands have died, and millions more grow ever closer to destitution, a tiny handful of people have been adding incomprehensible amounts of wealth to their hoards, and their servants have been working hard to make those easy emotional plays. They want us to be afraid, and disgusted, and angry. They want us to believe that conflict, terror, greed, and rage are the essence of humanity, and that we can only make the bad feelings stop by making the “bad people” go away. Immigrants, people of a different color, “anarchists”, “antifa” – anyone who seems to be causing disruption, they must be the cause of all that misery you were feeling.

If we just get rid of them, things will get better.

Removing the socialists didn’t help? Well, they must have had allies. They sure did seem to like those union types, so we’d better get rid of unions.

Removing the unions didn’t help? Well, we’ve always said the immigrants were a problem, and there’s still a lot of them around.

Removing the immigrants didn’t help? Who’s next? Who’s really causing all our problems?

Yes, I’m talking about that poem.

Yes, we’re talking about fascism.

This is the natural progression as the hoarding of necessities creates artificial scarcity. It seems like there’s not enough to go around, even though there’s more now than there ever has been, so the problem must be that someone’s taking it all. It must be those mean people who’re always saying that they’re being mistreated. Everything seemed fine before the strange people at the bottom of the boat started complaining about leaks.

And so we’re distracted from those emotions that can lift us up, as a species. We’re distracted from what makes us human, and told that what really makes us human is our aggression, and our lust, and our greed, but since that’s not all YOU want out of life, because YOU are a good person, well, it must be those other people who aren’t like US. WE just want to live our lives, but THEY are constantly demanding more. THEY can’t get past their primal instincts. THEY will never be satisfied, so the solution is to remove them.

But it’s a lie. Its the new musician blasting loud notes in your ear and telling you it’s the essence of music. It’s the pulp horror writer telling you that the disgust and fear they can make you feel is the essence of storytelling.

Those are valid and important emotions. They are real instincts that are absolutely part of being human. They can be used to save lives, to educate, and to entertain. Just as some people enjoy pain in sex or in athletic pursuits, so to can we enjoy fear, disgust, anger, and greed.

But in constantly telling ourselves that those are the core of humanity, and that a society driven by those instincts will be better for everyone, we are denying most of what we are. The Tumblr post that inspired this essay puts it well:

https://nonlinear-nonsubjective.tumblr.com/post/618759256643174400/people-talk-all-the-time-about-primal-instincts

I believe that the pursuit of happiness should be a right afforded to all sentient beings, as much as possible, and throughout history it has always been those other, less “urgent” instincts that have brought us closer to that goal.


Unfortunately, life costs money, and my income from this blog has yet to meet minimum wage for the time I put into it. If you can afford to, please consider pledging a couple dollars per month or so through my Patreon. This will help me continue creating and improving this blog by keeping a roof over my head, and food in my carnivorous pets so they don’t eat me. Crowdfunding requires a crowd, so if you can pitch in a little, it would help a great deal!

White Supremacy and COVID-19 – some thoughts, and an excellent video from Mexie

The United States of America is approaching its third week of mass protests against police brutality, white supremacy, and at least some aspects of capitalism. These protests came after a much, much smaller wave of armed protests against the measures taken to mitigate the COVID-19 epidemic, and the decision by some states to “re-open”, and largely end pandemic-related restrictions on business and leisure activities. While many at anti-racism protests have been wearing masks, passing out hand sanitizer, and trying to mitigate the spread of the disease, there’s still some fear that the protests infect more people. Similar fears exist for the customers and workers at the various businesses that are resuming their operations.

The Republican push to return to business as usual seems to be a mix of valuing life less than profit in general, and of valuing minority lives least of all. The pandemic has been disproportionately affecting Black, Latino, and Native American communities, and under a scenario closer to “business as usual”, those communities are going to be far less likely to work from home. The government could, in the name of public health, pay people to stay at home, or pay businesses to rehire those they’ve laid off, and give those people paid time off. Many other countries around the world are doing this, and a number of politicians – particularly in the left wing of the Democratic Party – have been calling for this.

The Republicans control the Senate and the Presidency, however, and have a dogmatic ideological opposition to any form of government aid. For the Republican states that are ending their lockdown restrictions, one of the big drivers seems to be finding a way to avoid increasing unemployment insurance payouts. Their stubbornness will have predictable results. Places like hair salons and restaurants will struggle to attract enough customers to pay their bills, millions will continue having trouble finding work, and even when they do, they will be forced to risk their lives for what are virtually guaranteed to be inadequate paychecks. The current trajectory, for the United States, seems to be towards at least doubling the death toll by the year’s end, along with a massive economic collapse. None of this will cause any real problems for the wealthy people making these decisions, and for many, it will be an opportunity to increase their hoards by “buying low” while mass death, joblessness, and homelessness hammers every sector of the economy.

It seems they feel that their “rational self-interest” is best served by catastrophe, coupled with their ever-expanding efforts to make it harder for people who object to actually do anything about it through the electoral system.

There’s more to be said about this than I could possibly put into one post right now. The last few months have shown a constant stream of examples of how white supremacy hurts our society, how it is still at the core of capital and power in the United States, the double standards that exist in what actions are and are not allowed based on race and political cause, and the lengths to which some people will go to maintain, celebrate, and actively promote white supremacy.

I think there’s a case to be made that capitalists in the United States and the United Kingdom are using, or planning to use, this pandemic to increase their wealth and power using the “Shock Doctrine”. A key element to resisting that, to repairing that damage, and to working toward a more just society, is understanding the role played by things like white supremacy.

As usual, Mexie has done an excellent job in discussing how white supremacy plays a central role in the American economy, and in the way this plague has been playing out. Just as climate change is a systemic issue that affects every level of society, the same can be said of white supremacy and systemic racism. It is everywhere, and affects every aspect of people’s lives.

Check out her video, and if you can, support her work.


Unfortunately, life costs money, and my income from this blog has yet to meet minimum wage for the time I put into it. If you can afford to, please consider pledging a couple dollars per month or so through my Patreon. This will help me continue creating and improving this blog by keeping a roof over my head, and food in my carnivorous pets so they don’t eat me. Crowdfunding requires a crowd, so if you can pitch in a little, it would help a great deal!

 

How racism and injustice interfere with climate action

I’ve cared about environmental problems for my entire life. One of the things that led to my stunningly successful early social life was yelling at other kids for “hurting trees” by breaking sticks of them when I was in kindergarten. Predictably, as a white guy, I didn’t really think about race or racism much growing up. It wasn’t that I wasn’t taught about those issues at all, just that they generally seemed like something in the past. When I started to really focus on climate change, I fell into the trap of feeling like issues such as racism and sexism needed to take a “back seat” to the climate issue, because that affects literally everyone on the planet. With the future of humanity at stake, it sucks that some people have to deal with discrimination and offensive language, but they should just get over it until we’ve got this environmental stuff under control.

I wish it didn’t need saying, but it does – I was wrong. I had that entirely backwards.

There are three major reasons for why that was wrong. The first is that as with so many other excuses that lead to “we’ll deal with bigotry when this more important stuff has been solved”, there’s no end point. There are always going to be ways in which we can improve our interactions with the rest of the biosphere. Ending the use of fossil fuels will solve some problems, leave other problems untouched, and create new ones. Switching to nuclear power means dealing with a vast increase in both the generation of nuclear waste, and the amount of uranium and thorium mining. Increasing reliance on solar power is already causing problems through the sand mining industry. There will never be a point at which our environmental problems are “solved”, so telling people that their struggle for justice should wait until that’s “dealt with” is actually telling them to never expect justice for themselves or their descendants. That’s a non-starter, and frankly it seems like a great way to convince people to not give a shit about the cause that YOU say is “for everyone”.

The second – and probably more important – reason is that people need justice. Chronic injustice poisons societies. It creates justified resentment and anger, it creates division, and it provides opportunities for bad (and pretty much always wealthy) actors to use propaganda to further divide society for their own benefit. It also makes it far easier for “well-meaning” people to push problems onto others, rather than actually solving them. Many of the “solutions” to the environmental crises of the 20th century involved things like moving the biggest sources of pollution to places like China, and having the people there deal with horrific air quality, or shipping vast quantities of trash to other parts of the world. Here in the US it meant that poorer people – disproportionately black and Native American – have been literally poisoned. They’ve had to live nearer to sources of pollution like pipelines, factories, power plants, and highways, and suffer the myriad health consequences of that, while middle and upper-class white folks got to enjoy an increasingly clean and green world, and feel that the environmental problems were being solved. I should also mention that poor white people have also been at the receiving end of this.

And that meant that most of those problems did not get solved. The injustice continued, got worse in some ways, and the environmental problems simply got relocated.

The third reason is what that message says about the goals of those spreading it. It says that the purpose of environmentalism isn’t for everyone to be able to live a good life and allow their descendants to do the same, but rather for one subset to have that good life, at the expense of everyone else if that’s what it takes. If we’re not in this to lift everyone up, then we’re not just being shitty to the people we’re pretending to help,  we’re also obstructing the very goals we claim to care about.

On this blog’s original WordPress home, I have a quote under the blog’s title:

“If you want to build a ship, don’t drum up people to collect wood and don’t assign them tasks and work, but rather teach them to long for the endless immensity of the sea.” – Antoine de Saint Exupéry

If we tell people their struggle for justice must wait until all the other big problems in the world are solved, we’re not just telling them to give up on finding justice for themselves. We’re assigning them to tasks and work, while telling them that they will never get to go on that boat, or if they do, they’ll be locked in the hold without the ability to witness the sea, or have a say in where the boat is going. And if something happens, they’ll be the first to drown. With an offer like that, how could they possibly refuse? It’s basically the same deal Black Americans have always been forced to take – to work their entire lives for the benefit of people who tell them they’re bad for even wanting things to improve for themselves.

It’s not just unjust and immoral, it’s also staggeringly unrealistic. It’s a complete fantasy to expect that people will just live, for generation after generation, without any real hope for the freedom to actually pursue happiness for themselves, or even for their children.

People have a need for freedom, justice, and self-determination. The drive for that has existed throughout human history, all around the planet. And just as endless justifications and systems of persuasion and propaganda have been devised to convince people to accept less than that, so have those systems and justifications always failed. People always rise up. People always demand the right to control their own lives. The time, effort, and resources spent on opposing calls for justice and freedom take away from all those causes that are, at one time or another, put forward as reasons why the fight for justice must be put on hold.

And that is what hurts all of us. If we’re working to “save the future”, then we need to work for a future that’s worth saving. Dealing with climate change, and our other environmental problems, is something that requires the cooperation of our entire species, and that means that we need that “better future” to be better for everyone. Justice, freedom, and self-determination are prerequisites.

Because when people demand those things, and those in power fight to maintain injustice and inequality, other things must be put on hold. From the Washington Post: 

Ayana Elizabeth Johnson is a marine biologist, policy advisor, and Brooklyn native. She is founder and CEO of the consultancy Ocean Collectiv, founder of the non-profit think tank Urban Ocean Lab and co-editor of the forthcoming anthology “All We Can Save: Truth, Courage, and Solutions for the Climate Crisis.”

Here is an incomplete list of things I left unfinished last week because America’s boiling racism and militarization are deadly for black people: a policy memo to members of Congress on accelerating offshore wind energy development in U.S. waters; the introduction to my book on climate solutions; a presentation for a powerful corporation on how technology can advance ocean-climate solutions; a grant proposal to fund a network of women climate leaders; a fact check of a big-budget film script about ocean-climate themes, planting vegetables with my mother in our climate victory garden.

Toni Morrison said it best, in a 1975 speech: “The very serious function of racism … is distraction. It keeps you from doing your work. It keeps you explaining, over and over again, your reason for being.” As a marine biologist and policy nerd, building community around climate solutions is my life’s work. But I’m also a black person in the United States of America. I work on one existential crisis, but these days I can’t concentrate because of another.

The sheer magnitude of transforming our energy, transportation, buildings and food systems within a decade, while striving to reach net zero greenhouse gas emissions shortly thereafter, is already overwhelming. And black Americans are disproportionately more likely than whites to be concerned about — and affected by — the climate crisis. But the many manifestations of structural racism, mass incarceration and state violence mean environmental issues are only a few lines on a long tally of threats. How can we expect black Americans to focus on climate when we are so at risk on our streetsin our communities, and even within our own homes? How can people of color effectively lead their communities on climate solutions when faced with pervasive and life-shortening racism?

Even at its most benign, racism is incredibly time consuming. Black people don’t want to be protesting for our basic rights to live and breathe. We don’t want to constantly justify our existence. Racism, injustice and police brutality are awful on their own, but are additionally pernicious because of the brain power and creative hours they steal from us. I think of one black friend of mine who wanted to be an astronomer, but gave up that dream because organizing for social justice was more pressing. Consider the discoveries not made, the books not written, the ecosystems not protected, the art not created, the gardens not tended.

It’s hearing police sirens and helicopters in my Brooklyn neighborhood and knowing those who sound them do not always aim to protect and serve. It’s walking the back roads near my mom’s home Upstate New York and being more scared of the local white kids in the pickup truck with the Confederate flag on the bumper — in a state that was never part of the Confederacy — than I am of the local black bears. It’s spending my weekend writing these words.

Here’s the rub: If we want to successfully address climate change, we need people of color. Not just because pursuing diversity is a good thing to do, and not even because diversity leads to better decision-making and more effective strategies, but because, black people are significantly more concerned about climate change than white people (57 percent vs. 49 percent), and Latinx people are even more concerned (70 percent). To put that in perspective, it means that more than 23 million black Americans already care deeply about the environment and could make a huge contribution to the massive amount of climate work that needs doing.

I did get tiny tasks done last week — emails, (virtual) meetings. Because we are taught the show must go on, I mustered the composure to conduct an interview about the importance of planting trees. But none of the deeper work got done, none of the work that could be a significant contribution to how we think about climate solutions and how fast we implement them. Instead of working, I was checking in on my people, staying informed, doom-scrolling.

Now I’m totally spent. Not from the day, but from the week, the month, the year, this presidential administration, this country that keeps breaking my heart. We are resilient, but we are not robots.

People of color disproportionately bear climate impacts, from storms to heat waves to pollution. Fossil-fueled power plants and refineries are disproportionately located in black neighborhoods, leading to poor air quality and putting people at higher risk for coronavirus. Such issues are finally being covered in the news media more fully.

But this other intersection of race and climate doesn’t get talked about nearly enough: Black Americans who are already committed to working on climate solutions still have to live in America, brutalized by institutions of the state, constantly pummeled with images, words and actions showing just us how many of our fellow citizens do not, in fact, believe that black lives matter. Climate work is hard and heartbreaking as it is. Many people don’t feel the urgency, or balk at the initial cost of transitioning our energy infrastructure, without considering the cost of inaction. Many fail to grasp how dependent humanity is on intact ecosystems. When you throw racism and bigotry in the mix, it becomes something near impossible.

Look, I would love to ignore racism and focus all my attention on climate. But I can’t. Because I am human. And I’m black. And ignoring racism won’t make it go away.

So, to white people who care about maintaining a habitable planet, I need you to become actively anti-racist. I need you to understand that our racial inequality crisis is intertwined with our climate crisis. If we don’t work on both, we will succeed at neither. I need you to step up. Please. Because I am exhausted.

For more from Dr. Ayana Elizabeth, check out her website at https://www.ayanaelizabeth.com

If we return to the metaphor of building a ship, we need one that works for everyone. Bigotry and authoritarianism lead to conflict and righteous mutiny, and even in those times where the powerful manage to crush dissent, their efforts make it harder for everyone do the work of sailing, or catching fish, or performing repairs. Bigotry hurts us all, and we’ve got important shit to deal with, so bigots need to get over themselves, and get out of the way so we can do the work that needs doing.

What kind of world? Global warming, extreme heat, and the shape of society

A new study indicates that one billion people could be forced to either live with “insufferable heat”, or to move to avoid it within 50 years. That’s with an increase in global temperature of just one additional degree Celsius. Because it’s a global problem, we often talk about global trends in temperature, weather, and so on. That makes a lot of sense, but it also makes it hard to gauge exactly what we should expect as the planet continues to warm.

Most people regularly experience shifts in temperature that can cover 10°C or more in a single day, so it’s easy to feel that a global change in temperature of less than 2°C is no biggie. If we use “common sense”, there are far bigger problems to deal with than adding a couple degrees to the top end of a daily temperature swing, right?

Unfortunately, while averages are useful in many ways, they can also mislead when talking about an area the size of Earth’s surface. One example I really like is sea level. As with average global temperature, there’s a lot of discussion of average sea level rise as the planet warms, and that has led to a fair amount of confusion. Most people’s interaction with water levels happens at a small enough scale that gravity’s effects aren’t perceptible. You raise the level of water in a bathtub, and you can measure that change pretty evenly, accounting for a bit of sloshing. That doesn’t really apply to a “container” like the Earth, however, because despite a bit of weird controversy, the earth is not flat, and water isn’t “held in” by the sides of the oceans the way it is by the sides of a tub. This video from Minute Physics gives a good intro to the factors that go into the rather irregular “level” of the oceans around the planet:

Sea level is further complicated by things like the melting ice cap on Greenland, with is causing a dramatic loss of mass on top of that island. That means that the Earth’s crust is rising up as the weight on top if it is reduced. It also means that the gravitational pull from the ice mass is declining relative to other centers of gravity acting on the water, so the ocean is receding away from it in response. Both of these mean that sea level rise will be higher in other places, like the UK, not just because of melting land ice and thermal expansion, but also because the shape of the sea floor, and the gravitational pull on the water are also changing.

Simply calculating the global average sea level rise won’t give you an accurate picture of what that will look like in any one location.

The same can be said of average temperature. The tilt of Earth’s axis relative to the sun means that as we orbit our star, we get seasonal shifts in temperature. Those changes get more dramatic as you get closer to the poles, as the North or South of the planet get more or less direct sunlight, depending on the angle at which it reaches us.

Except that it’s not really that simple. I grew up in New England, for example. For those who don’t know, that’s a cluster of small states in the Northeastern corner of the U.S. – Maine, New Hampshire, Vermont, Massachusetts, Connecticut, and Rhode Island. I lived in Massachusetts and New Hampshire, mostly, and regularly visited relatives in Maine. As such, I experienced weather that got above 100°F (37.8°C) in the summer, and as low or lower than -10°F (-23.3°C) in the winter. That range in temperature also came with dramatic thunderstorms, the occasional tornado (which I was lucky enough to not experience directly), and also blizzards, ice storms, and frozen pipes.

If you were to only look at the average annual high and low temperatures for Boston, Massachusetts, you’d be expecting a range, over the course of the year, between a low of 44°F (6.7°C), and a high of 59°F(15°C), and you would be woefully unprepared for the heat of the summer, or the cold of the winter. You would not be expecting much in the way of snow or ice.

My current location, Glasgow, is much, much farther north. I’m at about the same latitude as Moscow, Russia, and north of most major cities in Canada. Despite that, it’s uncommon to see a full day below 32°F(0°C) here, even with winters that are much longer/darker than I’m used to, and I doubt I’ll see many days that pass 80°F(26.7°C) this summer. It’s a much milder climate all around, despite being so far north, because of the heat being constantly delivered to Western Europe by the Gulf Stream. The one place I’ve ever been to that has been historically cold enough year-round to have glaciers was the peak of Mt. Kilimanjaro, made that cold by elevation despite being just barely south of the Equator.

There are a lot of factors that influence the temperature all over the planet, and those extremes mean that as the average temperature of the planet continues to increase, not only will the extremes change, but the physics driving those differences are also likely to change. Wind and water move a great deal of heat around the planet, powered by those very temperature differences, as well as the way the planet spins. That constant motion means that the global increase in temperature will continue to be uneven. The average will rise, as it has been doing, but some places will barely notice a temperature change, while others will see such massive increases that life may become difficult, or even impossible: 

The human cost of the climate crisis will hit harder, wider and sooner than previously believed, according to a study that shows a billion people will either be displaced or forced to endure insufferable heat for every additional 1C rise in the global temperature.

In a worst-case scenario of accelerating emissions, areas currently home to a third of the world’s population will be as hot as the hottest parts of the Sahara within 50 years, the paper warns. Even in the most optimistic outlook, 1.2 billion people will fall outside the comfortable “climate niche” in which humans have thrived for at least 6,000 years.

The authors of the study said they were “floored” and “blown away” by the findings because they had not expected our species to be so vulnerable.

“The numbers are flabbergasting. I literally did a double take when I first saw them, ” Tim Lenton, of Exeter University, said. “I’ve previously studied climate tipping points, which are usually considered apocalyptic. But this hit home harder. This puts the threat in very human terms.”

Instead of looking at climate change as a problem of physics or economics, the paper, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, examines how it affects the human habitat.

The vast majority of humanity has always lived in regions where the average annual temperatures are around 6C (43F) to 28C (82F), which is ideal for human health and food production. But this sweet spot is shifting and shrinking as a result of manmade global heating, which drops more people into what the authors describe as “near unliveable” extremes.

Humanity is particularly sensitive because we are concentrated on land – which is warming faster than the oceans – and because most future population growth will be in already hot regions of Africa and Asia. As a result of these demographic factors, the average human will experience a temperature increase of 7.5C when global temperatures reach 3C, which is forecast towards the end of this century.

At that level, about 30% of the world’s population would live in extreme heat – defined as an average temperature of 29C (84F). These conditions are extremely rare outside the most scorched parts of the Sahara, but with global heating of 3C they are projected to envelop 1.2 billion people in India, 485 million in Nigeria and more than 100 million in each of Pakistan, Indonesia and Sudan.

This kind of looming danger is why I believe that our efforts to deal with climate change have to go beyond merely crunching the numbers on energy demand, emissions, and so on. That’s important work to do, but it must come along with massive changes in how we distribute resources, design cities, and decide who lives where and under what conditions. If we don’t move away from valuing property and profit over the requirements for human life and wellbeing, then the human death and suffering of this century will be beyond anything in human history.

It’s been pointed out many times that we technically grow more food than is needed to feed everyone on this planet. Despite that, there are people all over the world who either starve to death, or are chronically malnourished. The biggest reason for this is that distributing the food based on need is not profitable for the rich and powerful, and the global economy treats the wealth and power of the “elites” as more important than bare survival.

Over the last few decades, every crisis has come with a chorus of rich people pushing for general austerity and talking about how everyone must “tighten their belts”. At the same time, the planet’s richest have grown ever more wealthy, and action on climate change is constantly opposed because of the cost.

Millions will die from global warming this century because of that greed. It may be that that can be avoided, but it seems increasingly unlikely. Without moving away from the current global capitalist model, those deaths will be numbered in the billions. Extreme heat comes with a whole host of problems ranging from the colossal wildfires we’ve seen in Australia, to more volatile, deadly air pollution, to drought, flooding, and associated crop failures. Dealing with any of this will require that resources be distributed based not on misguided, capitalist notions of ownership and property, but on what is actually required to allow people to live, and to mitigate the damage done to the ecosystems on which we depend.

Harder times are coming, and we cannot afford to indulge an entire class of spoiled, greedy sociopaths who think they deserve to decide who lives and who dies.


Unfortunately, life costs money, and my income from this blog has yet to meet minimum wage for the time I put into it. If you can afford to, please consider pledging a couple dollars per month or so through my Patreon. This will help me continue creating and improving this blog by keeping a roof over my head, and food in my carnivorous pets so they don’t eat me. Crowdfunding requires a crowd, so if you can pitch in a little, it would help a great deal!