Community science: A way to help

I recently touched on the concept of ecosystem services, and I wanted to expand on that a little today, and highlight an opportunity for people in Florida (and everywhere else) to help out.

To be very brief, ecosystem services are the ways in which the other forms of life that surround us help humanity simply by going about their lives. Bats eat insects that might otherwise spread disease or damage crops. Earthworms aerate the topsoil and move nutrients around. Whales literally stir the oceans by being huge and moving vertically in the water column. Insects pollinate crops. Plants produce oxygen, and so on.

Another key concept here is that of biodiversity. Biodiversity generally refers to the number of different species in a given area (species richness), as well as the health of those populations. At first glance, it may seem that a healthy ecosystem has each species in its niche, but in general if you remove one, others will adapt to take advantage of the gap.

Humans have been managing our surroundings in one way or another for many thousands of years, and as I’ve said before, we have no way to stop doing so. Our only choice is to try to do it in a way that will promote biodiversity and ecosystem resilience. Doing so would be impossible without a clear understanding of the current state of our ecosystems, how we are affecting them, and what results come from our efforts to change those effects.

Specialization has allowed humanity to achieve amazing things by using diverse skills in concert. The downside is that we rarely know a whole lot about specialties other than our own. This ignorance creates a gap that can be exploited by dishonest actors, or even honest folks who just get the wrong idea. That means that whenever there’s an article about a species going extinct, there’s always someone asking the reasonable question, “how do they know?”

The answer isn’t too hard to find, of course, but people often lack the time, energy, or interest to go looking. In brief, we know what’s happening in our ecosystems because thousands of people of all levels of expertise spend their lives catching and counting plants and animals, checking their bodies for industrial byproducts and other pollutants, and so on. It’s a painstaking, sometimes dangerous task, and also very rewarding.

In college I participated in a couple animal surveys, including one that was responsible for saving a species of Bahamian rock iguanas. Every year, conditions allowing, a team of biologists and students spends about a week trying to catch, identify, and measure every single member of the population. Often the breeding season is also monitored, using different methods. It’s hard work, but it’s how we know how the population is doing, what threats it faces, and so on.

I’ve been part of similar efforts monitoring freshwater turtle species, and grassland snake species, and I’ve worked with scientists doing the same for insects, bats, plants, and birds. In my childhood I spent many hours playing in the Middlesex Fells around Boston MA while my father counted native and invasive plants for his graduate degrees.

I also worked with groups who organized every day members of the community to help in those efforts.  Every year, millions of people of all ages help ecologists by reporting sightings of birds, flowers, insects, frog calls, and so on, as opportunity or hobbies dictate. Those reports can be part of an organized study, or they can be made directly to relevant government agencies. In the latter case, there will be someone like me who goes through the reports to determine their likely accuracy. One common example is that a “cobra sighting” in the American Midwest is almost certainly a terrified Hognose snake trying to look scary.

I’m writing this post because Tegan came across an opportunity for folks in Florida to help with such a project, and it’s something I keep forgetting to write about.

Since I wasn’t sure what was up with this dude, I did what I always do whenever I see something weird going on with a wild animal; I called my local Fish & Wildlife! This might sound like a crazy reaction to seeing a splotchy turtle but I actually learned something extremely important that I would love for my followers (especially those in Florida) to know about too. After calling F&W I spoke with the turtle specialist for quite some time, as it turns out there is an unknown pathogen killing softshell turtles in Florida, and biologists are desperate to find the cause. They need our help to do this! The biologist that I spoke with says they’re relying on civilian reports to find cases for further study, so it’s incredibly important to spread the word and make sure people know how to report any abnormal appearance or behavior in turtles that they see.

Fortunately my splotchy turtle (I call him Uncle Walter) doesn’t seem to be sick based on his presentation or behavior! The turtle experts examined his photos and at this point they agree he is probably just piebald, though they asked me to keep an eye on him and make sure his condition doesn’t change. I’m so happy that I am armed with knowledge I can use to monitor him and his friends in the face of this worrisome unknown illness.

To my friends here in Florida- if you see ANY wild turtle that looks sick, weak, distressed, or abnormal please contact Fish and Wildlife immediately using the information provided below! To my non-Fl friends, if you have any contacts that enjoy herping or just outdoor activity in the state please let them know about this as well. Our turtles are very dear to us and reporting possible illness is the best way we can help find what’s killing these animals.

These projects are everywhere. While I was working for the Wisconsin DNR I was able to see some data that’s exempted from things like the Freedom of Information Act, not because of anything related to national security, but because making the exact locations of endangered species easy to find leaves them open to harm from the illegal pet trade, animal parts trade, and people whose quest for riches is blocked by laws protecting those species.

These projects are everywhere.

If you are reading this, the odds are very good that if you do a search for “citizen science” or “community science”(a term I prefer), a local species you like, and your area, you’ll be able to find something. If that doesn’t work, you can contact local nature centres, natural history museums, or universities, or look for hobbyist clubs. If you go through all of that and can’t find anything, let me know and I’m willing to bet I can find something.

Responding to climate change, and to human destruction of the ecosystems we rely on requires a massive amount of information. Science at it’s best is a collective effort, and with the ubiquity of cameras and recording equipment, helping that effort has never been easier. If you can’t see, you may be able to help with frog or bird call surveys. If you can’t do any field work, there are always data that need to be processed, or you could count animals via video, and you can always help to publicise these projects. If you have the time, energy, and interest, go see what your options are!


If you want to help pay for the content of this blog, cover the costs of my recent move, and feed my pets, please head over to the Oceanoxia Collective on Patreon. My patrons are a wonderful group of people who give according to their abilities that I might live and work according to my needs. I’m grateful for every one of them, and you could join their ranks for as little as one U.S. dollar per month!

Forests for food: ecosystem management for a brighter future

When Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans, much of the blame for the disaster that followed rightly went to neglected or inadequate infrastructure, and the structural racism that allowed known problems to linger until they brought devastation on the low-lying minority communities of that city. Most of that death and destruction could have been prevented, had those with the power to do so cared more about human life than about money.

The region’s “natural” infrastructure got a bit less focus. Salt marshes and mangrove swamps once lined far more of the Gulf Coast than they do today. Industrial and commercial activity have both steadily cut away at those ecosystems, carving channels for ships and poisoning the water with oil and gas wells. The result was that the natural breakwaters that used to protect low-lying populations like New Orleans are mostly gone, so when a storm surge rises, there’s no tangle of vegetation to slow its momentum and reduce its power to overwhelm the human structures farther inland.

In our careless destruction of the ecosystems around us, we are also robbing ourselves of the benefits we derive from so-called “ecosystem services“.

Other such services include things like the oxygen generated through photosynthesis, the food we take from wild populations, the pollination provided by bees and other insects, the parasites eaten by insectivores, the water cleaned by wetlands, and so on.

It’s pretty common for people to take these services for granted. They’ve always been there, and it can be easy to feel like they always will be.

These days, however, it’s increasingly obvious that not only are we losing them at an alarming rate, for some, like natural protections against storm surges, they’re effectively almost gone.

If we want humanity to survive, we are faced with either attempting to replace these services with human constructs, or with cultivating and protecting them, restoring at least some of what has been lost, and living in a manner that encourages those ecosystems to thrive.

This is no small task, as we’ve done a lot of damage and the rapid warming of our planet will do still more in the coming years. It may well end up costing us as much as the technological and societal changes -like ending fossil fuel use- that are already at the centre of environmental discourse.

Now that we are effectively a force of nature on the surface of this planet, our survival depends on planning for the deep future. I think this is one reason the concept of a food forest has appealed to me since I first encountered it.

Food forests are basically what they sound like. A planned and cultivated forest ecosystem filled with plants that produce food for human consumption. Nut, fruit, and sugar trees for the upper stories, berries and things like grape vines lower down, and various edible greens, roots, and mushrooms at ground level.

Done right, such an ecosystem requires little labour to maintain, and where conventional farming often depletes the soil, leaving the land less productive for future generations, a food forest can potentially feed people for centuries or more without the need for massive use of fertilizers or pesticides.

I want to be clear – this is a trade-off. I don’t know the exact numbers, but a system like this is going to produce a lower density of food per acre than a monoculture field. Machine-based harvesting wouldn’t work, or wouldn’t work as efficiently. This is not a form of agriculture designed to produce vast amounts of a single crop like wheat, corn, or soy.

I think the ideal arrangement would be a mix of unmanaged wilderness, conventional farmland, and various kinds of food forest. The concept also isn’t limited to a conventional “forest” – similar planned ecosystems are possible in a wide variety of conditions,  and may not always include things like larger trees. While food is a central part of such an ecosystem, it’s multi-purpose.  It provides habitat for wildlife, a communal place for recreation, a tool for public education, and the cultivation and maintenance of ecosystem services.

This is not a new concept. Not even close.

When I say a well-managed food forest can feed people for centuries, that’s because such forests have already done so. Perhaps the most famous example is an ancient forest in Morocco, but in reality this form of agriculture has been found in all sorts of places. European cultures, as part of their obsession with the imagined superiority of their “race”, dismissed the possibility that Native American cultures, for example, pursued their own forms of agriculture and land management, simply because they didn’t conform to how the colonists thought such activities “should” look.

What this really comes down to is this: our current global society operates largely on the assumption that humans are somehow separate from the rest of life on this planet – that because we are different in how we interact with our surroundings, we do not depend on the ecosystems we inhabit. I’ll delve more into ecosystem services and things like food forests in the future, but with the alarm about declining wild bee populations alone, I think it has become abundantly clear that that perceived separation was always as much of a lie as the white supremacist dismissal of these forms of ecosystem management.

As indicated by some of the sources I have linked, work has long been underway to both raise awareness of these practices and to expand existing food forest projects – both new, and very, very old. In ecology, diversity tends to mean strength and resilience. I think that’s a guideline we would do well to follow if we want humanity to have a future worth living in.


If you want to help pay for the content of this blog, cover the costs of my recent move, and feed my pets, please head over to the Oceanoxia Collective on Patreon. My patrons are a wonderful group of people who give according to their abilities that I might live and work according to my needs. I’m grateful for every one of them, and you could join their ranks for as little as one U.S. dollar per month!

COVID update: Why masks and distancing matter, and why we need to change how things are run

It’s surreal. I’ve been isolating with Tegan and the critters since March. It was pretty easy, because nobody was hiring, and neither of us was able to get wage labor until Tegan got a minimum wage gig in August almost by accident. The animals both love having us around all the time, and we humans still enjoy each other’s company. It’s not a big apartment, and given the infectiousness of this virus, and the long period of asymptomatic contagiousness, we figured that if one of us got it, both of us would. Apparently not. I got tested yesterday, and my result was negative.

Even so, the evidence at this point is pretty clear – even if a mask and distancing don’t prevent you from getting the disease, they will make it far more likely that you’ll have a light case. For those who aren’t clear on why, here’s a basic breakdown:

When the virus enters your system and begins to hijack cells for reproduction, it starts a timed contest. The “goal” of the virus is to infect every cell it can, to reproduce as much as it can, and to spread to as many other people as it can before your body either wipes it out, or dies. The “goal” of your immune system is to develop antibodies that can destroy the virus before it infects you badly enough that you die.

Let’s say you got the virus because some science-denying asshole coughed and sneezed directly in your face. You got a huge dose – your starting population of the virus is in the tens of thousands, and its starting position is in your mouth, nose, and eyes. Viruses grow exponentially in the body – one cell produces many particles of the virus, and because those are starting inside your body, the odds are that most of them will infect other cells and repeat the process. You go from a population of 20,000 to 20,000,000 very, very quickly, and from there to the hundreds of millions, and then billions. By the time your immune system has the ability to really respond, huge portions of your body are infected, and with COVID-19 that means not just your respiratory system, but your circulatory system, nervous system, and multiple organs. Billions of your cells each pumping out thousands upon thousands of new virus particles. This isn’t great for your health, because the virus population is using your resources to do all of this, and those resources are then unavailable for normal bodily functions.

The virus is not what kills you, though. The problem is that the immune system doesn’t kill the virus directly, it targets the virus’s means of reproduction – infected cells. So, your body develops the ability to detect and destroy infected cells, some time after your initial exposure, and then it sets about doing that. The question then is – how many of your cells are infected? If the number is too high, then your immune system will basically be doing the equivalent of amputating a limb that has gangrene to prevent the rot from spreading to the rest of your body. It’s probably better than dying, but it comes with its own dangers. Specifically, it’s amputating one cell at a time, and it’s doing it in your lungs, your heart, your blood vessels, your nerves, and so on. The extent of your viral infection determines the extent to which your body destroys itself to purge the infection.

It’s a bit like doing a controlled burn to eradicate an invasive species like honeysuckle (in the US) – if it’s just in a small area, that method might well work, but if – as is the case in much of the United States – there’s honeysuckle throughout the forest understory, then you’re likely to destroy not just the invasive species, but the rest of the forest as well.

Now let’s say you contract the virus from your significant other or room mate, but you’ve had windows open and kitchen and bathroom vents running, you wear masks most of the time, you stay in separate rooms, and you never interact directly (can you tell I’m bitter about my current situation?). Now, instead of 20,000, your starting virus population is 1. Or more likely 100. Now your body has a better chance of developing and carrying out its response before the virus has infected too many of your cells. Now, instead of hundreds of billions of cells that need to be destroyed, there are just billions, or a few hundred million (out of hundreds of trillions in your body). Your body can take that hit pretty easily. It’s not good, and it’s not fun, but neither is it lethal, and depending on what cells are infected, it might not even have lasting effects.

By taking all those precautions, you’ve gone from your body melting down your lungs and veins, and killing you to eradicate your viral population, to doing pretty minor damage that you may not even notice, in an asymptomatic case.

So, back to my situation if I do catch the disease from Tegan, does that mean I get to interact with her again? No. Not while she’s still sick. See – you don’t stop being vulnerable to infection once you’re infected. It’s not an on/off situation. Let’s say I tested positive, but I don’t have any symptoms. Good. All of my caution has paid off, and my viral load is in the hundreds of thousands. I might get a bit of a cough or a fever, and if I’m unlucky I could have lasting damage to some parts of my body, but I’m not going to be in danger for my life.

And then, since I’m “already infected”, I go to take care of my wife, who’s worse off than I am. And every time I go into the bedroom, my viral population gets a boost. It might even get virus particles that have evolved to be better at invading cells (like the new variants now spreading across the globe). Now I’m going from a manageable, or even asymptomatic viral load, to a dangerous one, and at the same time, I’m adding to Tegan’s viral load, and increasing the odds that her immune system will do serious damage. I might even introduce a new variant to her.

And so I sit in a chilly room with wind blowing through the open door, and a vent running in the kitchen. I don’t go to comfort her, even though we could both use a hug. If I need to give her something, I leave it in the hall, and go back into my part of the apartment. If someone delivers a package, I tell them to set it outside the door, and wait till they’re long gone before I open it to get what they left.

Infectious disease is a numbers game, and knowing that, we can adjust our behavior to cut off the viral supply lines.

As I was writing this, I noticed that a great deal of what I was saying also applies to how countries deal with a pandemic. Fortunately, we’re not just killing everyone who tests positive, but the more people test positive, the more there are to infect others, and the greater the total amount of viral particles there are in any given location. A park on a breezy day may seem safe – and it is safer than an enclosed space – but if everyone in that park is infected, they’re giving off a cloud of viral particles, like cigarette smoke, that is more or less likely to reach other people, depending on how many are producing that cloud.

The lack of response in the US and the UK (probably other countries too, but I haven’t paid as close attention to them) has done just that. It has increased the viral loads of those countries, and consequently increased the viral load of infected individuals. Even now, isolation and masking are still saving lives, and helping to control the pandemic and many other infectious diseases. This basic math is the same for every infectious disease. COVID-19 is worse than most because, like with the honeysuckle I mentioned earlier, it’s an invasive species. It has no “natural predators” in our bodies to slow it down, and it has no “natural habitat” in our bodies that it will focus on and stay in. It’s in new territory, in every human it encounters right now, and so it’s going where it can, to the greatest extent that it can, and it turns out that it can go just about everywhere inside us. Eventually, the global population will have some level of resting immunity to this kind of coronavirus. I think it’s unlikely that it will ever go away completely – it’s going to be more like the common cold or influenza – but it will get less lethal, because it will be harder for the new variants to grow out of control as they do now, because we’ll have at least some defenses against things that look similar.

I’ll end by saying – not for the last time – that a pandemic like this is why it’s so important to have societies that understand and accept science, and that value the lives and wellbeing of the general population over, say, profit for the ruling class. Say what you will about Vietnam, but the evidence is clear – quarantining infected villages, and ensuring that those under quarantine had all the food, shelter, and entertainment they needed was effective. The leaders of the Communist Party of Vietnam may be wealthier than the general population, but that gap is (a) not as big as it is in capitalist countries, and (b) did not lead them to put their own wealth ahead of the lives of their population. Doing the right thing in a pandemic is not profitable for the ruling class. It’s an investment in the population at large. It costs money to inform people they’re under quarantine, and to provide them with meals, and to ensure that they’re able to quarantine without losing their homes, healthcare, or food.

This is not likely to be the last pandemic in my lifetime (assuming I die of old age). This will come up again, and if most of the world is run by and for capitalists, we’ll go through all of this again, even though we know how to stop it. The same is true for climate change. We know what we need to do to both slow the warming of the climate, and to adapt our societies to survive the warming we cannot avoid, but doing so will not be as profitable for the ruling class as the status quo. As long as the profit motive is the primary guiding principle of our society, we will fail to adequately address climate change, and we will fail in our responses to every pandemic that comes along.

Stay the course. Wear a mask. Keep your distance. Listen to the scientific and medical communities, and organize so that we can actually deal with the problems that face us.


If you want to help pay for the content of this blog, cover the costs of my upcoming move, and feed my pets, please head over to the Oceanoxia Collective on Patreon. My patrons are a wonderful group of people who give according to their abilities that I might live and work according to my needs. I’m grateful for every one of them, and you could join their ranks for as little as one U.S. dollar per month!

Proxy measurements can provide warnings of what’s to come

What does “sea level” mean? How do you go about measuring it? Those with any experience in large bodies of water know that “level” is rarely a realistic description. Even without the moon distorting the Earth and driving the tides as it orbits us, swells and waves mean that most ocean surfaces are constantly moving up and down. Beyond that, areas with a large amount of dense matter – like mountains and ice sheets – will pull water towards themselves, causing higher sea levels in their gravity wells, and lower sea levels in other areas.

Measuring sea level requires taking thousands of different sorts of measurements all over the world, and for all that complexity, sea level represents just a tiny fraction of what’s happening in the oceans, let alone global climate change as a whole.

So how can we measure the rate of climate change? What does that even mean? Calculating the rate at which heat is being trapped, based on greenhouse gas levels, is pretty straightforward. We’ve known the basics of that for over a century, and it’s how we have headlines like “Earth is heating at a rate equivalent to five atomic bombs per second“. The problem is that that heat doesn’t necessarily stay as heat. There are a myriad of ways in which thermal energy can be converted to kinetic or chemical energy, on top of things that are hard to measure like deep ocean temperature changes.

Most of the heat the planet has been absorbing has gone into the oceans, but even so, scientists have been detecting biological and physical changes all over the planet that are driven by the rise in temperature.

And that brings up another question – how much does a given change in temperature actually matter? For humanity’s purposes, there are two main lines of inquiry to look at. The one that tends to get the most focus, for obvious reasons, is the effect on day to day and year to year temperatures. Will heat waves get worse? Will rainfall change? These are important questions to answer, but they might be less important than questions about the non-human parts of the biosphere.

How will a given change in temperature affect the wildlife where you live? Some of that will be a matter of precipitation or heat tolerance – same as with humans – but some will be increased pressure from new species moving into areas that used to be too cold, or too wet for them to survive. The temperature change we’ve seen thus far has already been affecting ecosystems all over the planet. Figuring out what those changes are, and what, precisely, has been driving them, can help us understand what is likely to happen as the planet continues to warm.  These “proxy” measurements won’t tell us what temperature the planet is, but they will help us draw a connection between the heat we know has been trapped by rising greenhouse gas levels, and the changes we’re seeing on the ground. That’s how you begin to build a projection of “if CO2 levels rise to Xppm, it will probably have Y result”. We can’t see or feel the change in atmospheric gas levels, but we can see and feel follow-on results of that change.

Every time a research team runs a model to try to calculate how all these lines of data will interact, they tend to run a pretty wide set, allowing for different scenarios. The “worst-case” and “best-case” models bracket the most likely outcome, based on the data currently available, and the current understanding of those data. The problem here is that the current global changes are unlike anything that has ever happened in recorded history. Every year we enter new territory, which means that historical data are always going to be less reliable.

That’s why proxy measurements are so important. “Bio-indicators” like migrating birds and flowering plants give us insight into what climate change is doing right now to those species whose lives are most closely attuned to climate conditions.

Ice melt is another such proxy – it lets us see how fast energy is being absorbed and “spent” on converting solid water into liquid. Even if our historical data continues to point to the planet being on a “middle of the road” trajectory, if the ice is melting in line with a worse trajectory, then we need to check our numbers, and think hard about what’s headed our way.

Melting on the ice sheets has accelerated so much over the past three decades that it’s now in line with the worst-case climate warming scenarios outlined by scientists.

A total of 28 trillion metric tons of ice was lost between 1994 and 2017, according to a research paper published in The Cryosphere on Monday. The research team led by the University of Leeds in the U.K. was the first to carry out a global survey of global ice loss using satellite data.

“The ice sheets are now following the worst-case climate warming scenarios set out by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change,” lead author Thomas Slater said in a statement. “Although every region we studied lost ice, losses from the Antarctic and Greenland ice sheets have accelerated the most.”

Ice melt from sheets and glaciers contributes to global warming and indirectly influences sea level rise, which in turn increases the risk of flooding in coastal communities. Earth’s northern and southern poles are warming more than twice as fast as the rest of the planet. In 2020, a year of record heatArctic sea ice extent hovered around the lowest ever for most of the year.

As I’ve mentioned before, I think it’s reasonable to feel badly about news like this. The world on which most of us were born no longer exists, and beyond finding ways to take direct action, I think we also need to be thinking hard about what human life on Earth looks like, and how it will have to change. Food production is one obvious area of focus, but so is basic habitation. Science fiction as a field has spent decades imagining how humanity might survive on a variety of alien planets. Temperature extremes, toxic atmospheres, hostile wildlife – a lot of it involves putting ourselves in a situation where, despite all of our advanced technology, we’re required to once again struggle for survival against a lethal and indifferent world. Keeping homes cool is already shifting from a matter of comfort to one of survival, and that change is likely to accelerate. Higher temperatures are going to mean more dangerous air pollution, even without things like increasing wildfires or even crematorium smoke as new diseases cause mass death.

I’ve believed for about a decade now that the planet is almost certainly going to keep warming for the rest of my life, even if I manage to have a very long life.

That melting ice released CO2 into the atmosphere. The thawing permafrost is doing the same. The tiny amount of warming we’ve already seen has been enough to cause measurable changes across the entire surface of this planet, and many of those changes are going to make the warming speed up, or at least continue even if humanity stops adding to the problem.

So, we need changes, not just to how we interact with our atmosphere, but also to how we conduct our lives day to day. The floating neighborhoods of The Netherlands are a good example of this – they know sea level rise is going to be an escalating problem, especially with so much of their population already living below sea level. They could have just responded by building up their dikes, or moving people to higher ground, and while those options are definitely still on the table, having residential areas designed to simply float up as the water rises is one way to literally stay on top of the problem.

This is one of the reasons I keep leaning on local organizing as a catch-all starting point for dealing with climate change and political problems (insofar as the two can be said to be separate). The lifestyle changes needed for the Netherlands will be useless in most of California. The changes needed for California won’t help people in Alaska. The changes needed in Alaska won’t help people in Vietnam. What changes are coming to where you live? Should you be thinking about how to deal with killer heat waves as a community, or is air pollution a more pressing issue? Has there been an increasing problem with flooding from the ocean? If so, should you be focusing on how to keep your homes dry, or on how to ensure that there’s safe food and water available when the flooding happens?

At best, we can be sure that the worst-case scenarios are still a very real possibility, and that means that regional differences – and regional organizing – are going to matter a whole lot more going forward.


This blog is currently my only source of income. If you’d like to support the work I do, feed my dog, or help offset the costs of our upcoming move, please head over to patreon.com/oceanoxia, and join the Oceanoxia collective. My patrons have kept my household fed and housed during this crazy year, and while I’ll continue looking for wage labor, I really like writing for you all, and would love to be able to continue dedicating most of my time to that endeavor. If you have the means and the desire to do so, please give according to your ability, that I might survive, according to my needs!

Battles ahead – it will never be “too late”

Unsurprisingly, the sundry would-be Republican candidates for president have been less than inspiring this election season. One might think that with two candidates from Florida – a state that’s already starting to struggle with sea level rise – we might see at least hint of sanity from the national figures of Grand Old Party. One would be very wrong to think that, and if one really did, I would hazard a guess that one has not been paying attention.

Um, yeah. Climate denial is no surprise here. Peter Sinclair has more on the situation in Florida from rawstory and from his own video over at climatecrocks.com, but I wanted to talk about something slightly different.

Take a look at this video of Marco Rubio fielding a question sent in by the mayor of Miami (a Republican). Listen to the talking points:

Right-click and inspect element for transcript, or click here for full debate transcript

Some time ago, someone pulled together five stages of climate denial, which are unpacked well in this Guardian article by Dana Nuccitelli:

Stage 1: Deny the Problem Exists […]
Stage 2: Deny We’re the Cause […]
Stage 3: Deny It’s a Problem […]
Stage 4: Deny We can Solve It […]
Stage 5: It’s too Late […]

It’s pretty normal to get some combination of stages one through four in any given remark by a climate denier, and as Nuccitelli’s article shows, we’ve gotten pretty good at rebutting those arguments. Rubio mostly focused on Stages 2 and 4 in the video, with a nod to Stage 1. What I want to focus on in this post is “Stage 5”, because it’s an argument that makes a direct attempt to create despair. Let’s look at her discussion of Stage 5:

[Read more…]

Oceanoxia 2.0: Introductions

From the webcomic XKCD: W stick figure is shown sitting at a desk typing hard on a computer. From out of the frame, someone says

I have to fix this!

This blog was born of frustration in 2010.

At the time, I had been following climate science and climate change politics for a few years, and it was astonishing to me that so many people in the public debate seemed to think that a little sea level rise was the worst-case scenario. Sure, Gore’s “An Inconvenient Truth” had discussed what would happen if all of Greenland melted, but that has never been a genuine expectation for the 21st century, and the conversation six years ago was all about stopping or even reversing global warming by 2050. In other words, no danger of Greenland melting that much. Hell, at that point people were being called alarmist for talking about two feet of sea level rise. In some circles they still are.

So I wanted to provide some perspective. I wanted to show how alarming the future could be, if things really got bad.

The most obvious worst-case scenario is represented by the planet Venus, but I wasn’t sure if it was even possible to boost the greenhouse effect enough to broil Earth like that. The scenario I started with was one that has been proposed as a possible cause of the Permian-Triassic extinction, also known as The Great Dying. You can go look at my first blog post to learn more, but here’s a brief summary:

There are a number of factors at work that can create dead zones in anybody of water, meaning there’s not enough dissolved oxygen to support most life. Under those anoxic conditions, anaerobic bacteria can thrive, emitting hydrogen sulfide instead of carbon dioxide. This, in turn, makes the water poisonous to most organisms, and can spread the dead zone. It is theoretically possible for most or all of the planet’s oceans to end up like this, and if that did happen, that hydrogen sulfide could eventually leak out onto the land masses. This scenario would create a massive die-off in the oceans, followed by a less massive (but still huge) die-off on land. This is the pattern found in the fossil record from The Great Dying.

So that was the kick-off to my blog, and the inspiration for the title (Ocean+anoxia=Oceanoxia). After that post, I went on to describe, or partially describe other kinds of worst-case scenarios. I didn’t cover all of them, but I touched on a few.

Over the years since, I’ve been involved in communicating climate science in a few different ways. One, as indicated by the XKCD panel above, was in internet comments sections. Much of it was probably fruitless, but there were a few conversations that made me feel that I was helping to change minds.

I also helped form a “climate working group” with some of my friends in the New England Quaker community, in which I had been raised, and of which I was still a part at the time. We went around to various Quaker meetings in New England, gave presentations, and held discussions about climate change and actions that could be taken. In working on those presentations, I moved from a focus on the worst-case scenarios to a more balanced approach, touching briefly on how bad things could get, and then moving on to look into how good we could make things, if we really tried.

This last approach has stuck, to a degree. It’s hard to know whether we’ll get there, but from what I’ve seen of existing and emerging technology, we have the capacity to build a society that has control over its impacts on the planet, and has a higher standard of living for both humanity and the rest of life on Earth. That’s the goal, and if we don’t really try for it, I think there is a real possibility of human extinction. Big carrot, big stick.

For the past few years I’ve also been working as a science curriculum developer for a non-profit company that has me designing ways to help teachers cover the science of climate change. The teams I’m on have focused both on the biological impacts of climate change – what’s happening right now in the natural world – and on the array of potential solutions and adaptations that are available to us.

At this point, Oceanoxia has become a combination of things. Some of it is the original topic – the real doom and gloom stuff that’s always lurking under the surface of any discussion about climate change. Some of it is about the amazing technology we have, and what a wonderful civilization we could create, if only we took the time. Some of it is about debunking misconceptions and myths, or discussing politics, or misguided efforts to “fix” things. Some of it is about culture, philosophy, and psychology.

One of the most common complaints I hear from climate deniers is that no matter what happens, there seems to be a way to blame it on climate change. It’s an understandable complaint, but it seems to come from a failure to grasp the scale of what’s happening to our planet. Climate affects everything about life on earth. Not just ecosystems and their inhabitants, but also human culture. Our clothing, our architecture, our annual celebrations, our political upheavals, and even our languages – all of that is influenced, to some degree, by the climate. So when that climate changes, that means that everything else changes with it in one way or another.

This is a blog about climate change, which means it’s hard to say what any given post will be about. I’m excited to settle in to my new home on Freethoughtblogs, and I’m looking forward to the boost in motivation I get from any change in scenery. Welcome to Oceanoxia 2.0, and stay tuned!