Trump is in charge at a critical moment for keeping climate change in check. We may never recover.
By BILL McKIBBEN
President Trump’s environmental onslaught will have immediate, dangerous effects. He has vowed to reopen coal mines and moved to keep the dirtiest power plants open for many years into the future. Dirty air, the kind you get around coal-fired power plants, kills people.
It’s much the same as his policies on health care or refugees: Real people (the poorest and most vulnerable people) will be hurt in real time. That’s why the resistance has been so fierce.
But there’s an extra dimension to the environmental damage. What Mr. Trump is trying to do to the planet’s climate will play out over geologic time as well. In fact, it’s time itself that he’s stealing from us.
What I mean is, we have only a short window to deal with the climate crisis or else we forever lose the chance to thwart truly catastrophic heating.
In Paris in 2015, the world’s nations pledged to do all they could to hold the rise of the planet’s temperature to 1.5 degrees Celsius (2.7 degrees Fahrenheit). It was a good idea since, though we’re still half a degree short of that number, we’re already seeing disastrous ice melt at the poles, the loss of coral reefs and the inexorable rise of the oceans. But at current rates of burning coal, gas and oil, we could put enough carbon in the atmosphere in the next four years to eventually push us past that temperature limit.
The planet’s hope, coming out of those Paris talks, was that we’d see such growth in renewable energy that we’d begin to close the gap between what physics demands and what our political systems have so far allowed in terms of action.
But everything Mr. Trump is doing should slow that momentum. He’s trying to give gas-guzzlers new life and slashing the money to help poor nations move toward clean energy; he and his advisers are even talking about pulling out of the Paris accords. He won’t be able to stop solar and wind power in their tracks, but his policies will slow the pace at which they would otherwise grow. Other presidents and other nations will have spewed more carbon into the atmosphere, but none will have insured, at such a critical moment, that carbon’s reign is extended.
The effects will be felt not immediately but over decades and centuries and millenniums. More ice will melt, and that will cut the planet’s reflectivity, amplifying the warming; more permafrost will thaw, and that will push more methane into the atmosphere, trapping yet more heat. The species that go extinct as a result of the warming won’t mostly die in the next four years, but they will die. The nations that will be submerged won’t sink beneath the waves on his watch, but they will sink. No president will be able to claw back this time — crucial time, since we’re right now breaking the back of the climate system.
We can hope other world leaders will pick up some of the slack. And we can protest. But even when we vote him out of office, Trumpism will persist, a dark stratum in the planet’s geological history. In some awful sense, his term could last forever.
Bill McKibben is a founder of 350.org and teaches environmental studies at Middlebury College.
Tax cuts and executive orders can easily be reversed. The effects of climate change policy cannot. Here’s what we could lose for good.
By RICHARD CONNIFF
Heroic acts to preserve our national heritage often take place off the battlefield. In the 1890s, for instance, a handful of people, mostly friends of Theodore Roosevelt, stepped forward to protect the American bison as it was about to be butchered into extinction. Likewise, the conservationist Rachel Carson and her followers saved the bald eagle and other species from poisoning by pesticides in the 1960s and ’70s.
We cannot, of course, expect this type of heroism on behalf of wildlife from the Trump administration. On the contrary, the challenge is to figure out which of the many species the administration is gleefully stripping of protection now stands in the most immediate danger. Will the greater sage grouse go extinct as the administration works to unravel a compromise protection plan already agreed on by all parties? Will freshwater mussel species vanish because coal companies are once again free to dump toxic waste in streams?
Among the many species the Trump administration could erase from the annals of life on earth, a couple of small birds in Hawaii stand out: The akikiki (Oreomystis bairdi) and akekee (Loxops caeruleirostris) are honeycreeper species inhabiting a remote mountain forest on the island of Kauai.
Like almost all of Hawaii’s native wildlife, they’re vulnerable to invasive species. Rats, for instance, can find their nests and eat their young. But these birds were safe until recently from at least one introduced pest. Their mountain habitat was just a little too cold for mosquitoes. Over the past 10 years, though, as the planet has warmed, the mosquitoes have arrived — bringing avian malaria with them.
As a result, the akikiki and akekee face likely extinction in the next five to 10 years. That makes this the critical moment when heroic action could save them. One strategy is to collect eggs and raise enough of them in captivity to rebuild the population in the wild. (If this doesn’t sound heroic, try climbing a 40-foot-tall extension ladder in a high wind on a mountaintop to pick eggs from a nest at the feathery end of a tree branch and bring them down intact.) Another strategy is to introduce large numbers of male mosquitoes carrying the wrong strain of a symbiotic bacterium called Wolbachia. The eggs that result from the mating of mosquitoes with mismatched strains are infertile, causing the mosquito population to crash — and giving the birds a chance to recover.
Why bother? Before humans arrived 1,000 years ago, Hawaii was home to 113 bird species found nowhere else in the world. Fewer than 42 remain today, and all but 11 are threatened or endangered. Saving them is about saving something far richer than our sun-and-fun aloha fantasy of Hawaii.
But it will take federal funding, and adequately staffed agencies to manage the work of recovery. Instead, those agencies are now warning conservationists that, under the proposed federal budget, the necessary resources are unlikely to be available to save two small and seemingly insignificant honeycreeper species.
There’s never been much room in Donald Trump’s world for heroism, except in matters of getting and spending. Laying waste the lives that past presidents, Democratic and Republican alike, have regarded as an essential part of America’s greatness? For this administration, that’s not even a line item.
Richard Conniff is the author of “House of Lost Worlds: Dinosaurs, Dynasties, and the Story of Life on Earth” and a contributing opinion writer.
By CAITLIN LOOBY
I was sitting on the patio of the Cafe Caburé looking across a dirt road into the densely forested Bajo del Tigre Reserve. A car drove by, kicking up a dust cloud. These are not the clouds you look for in the damp, verdant cloud forests of Monteverde, Costa Rica. But it had been a really dry year.
A gust of wind traveled upslope toward the cafe, and the brown cloud dissipated. I reached for my sweatshirt. Although this was the tropics, I was 4,600 feet up the mountain. The air was comfortably cool.
Then a clear, metallic call cut through the wind. A Froot Loops-colored beak protruded from the tree line. Tourists and birders jumped out of their chairs, eyes pressed to their binoculars.
“Look! To the left, it’s the keel-billed toucan. Can you see it?”
I heard the shouts but was focused on something else: the shocked and distressed faces of locals and other scientists like myself.
The toucan was not supposed to be there.
For the last decade, I have made regular visits to Monteverde to study the soil in the surrounding cloud forest, situated on the Pacific side of the Cordillera de Tilarán.
Clouds have a significant effect on what happens high up in the mountains. Less sunlight hits these forests, and in the cooler, wetter conditions that prevail, processes like decomposition operate at a slower pace than in lowland rain forests. These forests are packed with species found nowhere else.
But things are changing in Monteverde. The cloud layer is moving up the mountain. Warmer temperatures in the lowlands are causing clouds to form higher up than they should, and the forests that were once enveloped in these mists now suffer long dry spells. This is affecting not only the animals and plants, but also the soils I study. As the damp ground dries, dead plants break down faster, releasing carbon dioxide into the atmosphere.
In these changing situations, species either adapt, move or die. That’s why the keel-billed toucan we saw was so high on the mountain. The toucan was moving up as the climate below warmed.
Of course, this is a problem not just in Costa Rica. Uphill migrations are happening throughout the tropics right now. Tropical plants and animals tend to tolerate only very narrow temperature ranges. Small deviations are a big deal. So mountains can provide temporary relief for lowland species as temperatures warm. That is, until they get to the top and there is nowhere else to go.
This can lead to local extinctions, as species vanish from certain areas. And although these local extinctions do not always lead to global eradication, they do give us a good indication of how a species might fare overall in the future.
We don’t just have studies that indicate such movement is taking place, you can see it happening, even during a meal on a patio.
My interrupted lunch was three years ago. Now the keel-billed toucan hangs out 460 feet higher up the mountain. There is only 1,000 more feet to the top.
Caitlin Looby is a Ph.D. candidate in ecology and evolutionary biology at the University of California, Irvine.
The Clarreo Mission
By ADAM FRANK
The instrument labs at NASA’s Langley Research Center in Hampton, Va., have been staffed with some of the world’s best climate scientists and aeronautical engineers. State-of-the-art equipment stands tuned and ready for testing. Everyone is eager to get going on a scientifically critical endeavor: to measure, via satellite, the earth’s radiation budget — the balance of incoming radiation from the sun and outgoing radiation from reflected sunlight and infrared heat.
This undertaking is known as the Clarreo mission (for climate absolute radiance and refractivity observatory). Its aim is to better understand the nature and dynamics of climate change. The mission’s preliminary stage is set for 2020, with a payload of earth-observing instruments to be placed aboard the International Space Station. The data gathered will allow researchers to test climate models with previously unavailable accuracy. The next stage will probably be a separate Clarreo satellite.
Unless Clarreo is scuttled. In the Trump administration’s proposed budget, it gets the ax, along with three other climate missions.
This might appear to be a loss that, however lamentable, could easily be reversed in a few years if a more science-friendly administration comes along. But science cannot stop and start on a dime. Research projects take years or even decades to prepare. Cutting off funding for a branch of science has a series of cascading effects — including harming other branches of science — that can require many years to undo.
Any productive field of research needs to pursue multiple promising avenues at once, continuously, over long periods of time. Graduate students who are training today become the researchers who complete a project a decade from now. Work in one field (like climate science) ends up driving and benefiting from work in others (like computer science and engineering and public health). If you pull the plug on one field of research, getting it back up and running is not a simple matter of plugging it back in.
Consider the legacy of “Lysenkoism” in the Soviet Union. In the 1920s, the agronomist Tofim Lysenko rose to power within the Russian scientific establishment. Rejecting Gregor Mendel’s theory of genetic inheritance, Lysenko claimed that plants could be “taught” to have new characteristics, which subsequently could be passed down to future generations. Though his theories flew in the face of scientific evidence, with Soviet state backing Lysenko was able to implement his ideas, with disastrous results for crop yields.
The Soviet Union rejected Lysenkoism by the 1970s, but Russian biology, having missed the revolution in genetics that swept the world during the intervening decades, has still not fully recovered. Since 1958, the United States has had 39 Nobel laureates in fields associated with molecular biology; the Soviet Union and Russia have had none.
It’s a lesson we ignore today at our peril. The canceling of Clarreo and other climate missions would damage our ability to study global warming for decades, hobbling our capacity to prepare for its dire challenges — and infecting the whole of America’s scientific enterprise.
Adam Frank is an astrophysics professor at the University of Rochester, a co-founder of NPR’s 13.7 Cosmos and Culture blog and the author of “About Time: Cosmology and Culture at the Twilight of the Big Bang.”
By FERRIS JABR
A two-hour drive east of Los Angeles, there was once a desert oasis known as the Devil’s Garden where woolly clusters of pincushion cactuses flourished alongside pungent creosote bushes and all manner of sword-leaved yucca. In the early 1900s, as Southern California’s population surged, and a fascination with unusual desert species intensified, tourists and gardeners pillaged the local Eden. To create nighttime beacons for fellow visitors, some people even set fire to one of the tallest plants around, the Joshua tree, a member of the yucca tribe with meandering, almost tentacular branches erupting in spiked green crowns.
This botanical ransacking sickened Minerva Hoyt, a Pasadena gardener and civic activist. She began designing elaborate exhibits of live cactuses for garden shows in New York, Boston and London. And she continually petitioned the government to protect desert wilderness. In 1936, thanks to her efforts, President Franklin Roosevelt established the 825,000-acre Joshua Tree National Monument, most of which became a national park in 1994.
Today, the creatures Hoyt loved are endangered by a much more insidious force. The Joshua tree is now consumed by an invisible blaze of unparalleled magnitude. Researchers project that by the year 2100 temperatures in the American Southwest will rise by as much as five degrees Celsius (nine degrees Fahrenheit) and annual rainfall will decrease substantially. Some studies predict that a three-degree Celsius increase in average temperature in the next century will eliminate 90 percent of all Joshua trees and up to 98 percent of the trees in the national park. “I think things look really bad for Joshua trees,” says Christopher Smith, a biologist at Willamette University.
Adult trees can survive several years of low rainfall, but young trees “don’t have nearly the same root system or water storage capacity, so long droughts toast them,” says Cameron Barrows, a University of California, Riverside, ecologist. At some lower elevations of the Joshua tree’s range, which are hotter and drier, there are hardly any baby trees at all.
The Joshua tree’s relaxed pace of life further hinders its survival. Joshua trees live for centuries, waiting until about age 20 to start producing seeds. They move slowly across the desert, relying on rodent middlemen to collect their seeds and cache them in nearby patches of dirt. And they depend on a single pollinator, the snow-furred, aeronautically challenged yucca moth. All these factors make it difficult for the trees to escape to higher and cooler climes.
In 2015, the nonprofit conservation group WildEarth Guardians petitioned the United States Fish and Wildlife Service to list the Joshua tree under the Endangered Species Act. The group was supposed to receive a response about the next step in the process six months ago. It is still waiting.
On top of a bureau in my bedroom I keep a small amber bottle filled with what look like miniature guitar picks, each as smooth as a river pebble and as black as charcoal — the seeds of a Joshua tree. I got them many years ago on a family vacation in Southern California. I wish I could say I see the bottle as an ark, but it seems more like a reliquary. In this vial sit the parched remains of yet another species soon to be extinguished in pursuit of ourselves.
Ferris Jabr is a science writer.
By SYLVIA EARLE
When I first met a horseshoe crab, technically Limulus polyphemus, on a New Jersey beach many decades ago, my 3-year-old mind sympathized with what appeared to be the animal’s struggle to find water. I picked it up and returned it to the sea, then realized there were more, dozens, apparently stranded and in need of my assistance. Fortunately for them, my mother intervened, explaining that they needed to come high on the beach to lay their eggs and that — much like sea turtles — on the next very high tide, baby horseshoe crabs would emerge from buried eggs and be released into the sea.
By the light of the full moon in May, as oblivious to humans as most humans are to them, legions of wondrous, glossy-brown horseshoe crabs will be emerging from the sea within sight of New York skyscrapers and on a few special sandy beaches from Maine to Yucatán, repeating their ancient rhythms of regeneration. Females the size of half a soccer ball, with slightly smaller attendant males, will take advantage of higher-than-usual tides to lay millions of jade-green eggs in moist sand, much as their ancestors are likely to have done for hundreds of millions of years.
Icons of antiquity, with fossil relatives dating back nearly 500 million years, they are one of only four species that hold the genetic codes for an entire class of organisms, the class Merostomata, a category of life comparable to the class Insecta, with at least a million individual species.
The current populations of Limulus must overcome extraordinary challenges if they are to continue to make a place for themselves in a rapidly changing world. In the past century, horseshoe crab nurseries have largely been displaced by the many ways people have transformed coastal beaches and marshes with landfills, sea walls and marinas.
Loss of critical habitat tops the list of concerns, but human predation is a close second. Although not targeted as food by American consumers (after all, they are related to spiders and scorpions and have astonishingly blue, copper-infused blood), the rare Asian species are prized as a tasty specialty in certain markets. Horseshoe crabs are valued for use in certain medical tests, and for this thousands are gathered and their blood collected before they are released. Many more thousands of females are taken by the truckload to be quartered for bait to attract eels and conchs that are mostly destined for export.
Numerous sea birds owe their prosperity to the seasonal appearance of horseshoe crab eggs, a vital source of sustenance at a midway point for migrations from South America to Arctic nesting sites. Concern for declining populations of at least nine species of egg-eating birds, especially the red knot, motivated lawmakers in several states to enact protective measures, mostly aimed at limiting the number of horseshoe crabs that can be taken, for the birds’ sake. But what about the fate of the horseshoe crabs themselves? In the past century their numbers have declined sharply, a trend that puts them in the company of much of the natural world, from coral reefs and blue fin tuna to pangolins and pandas.
Species come and species go, but never since a mighty asteroid struck the earth has the magnitude of loss come close to what is now occurring to the only place in the universe that is just right for horseshoe crabs — and humankind.
We have a chance to shift from the present trend of consuming wild places and wildlife for shortsighted short-term use to an era where our actions are aimed like a laser at securing an enduring place for ourselves within the natural systems that make our lives possible. With care, in the next million years or so, horseshoe crabs and human beings may still be sharing space on earth.
Sylvia Earle is an oceanographer and president of the nonprofit environmental group Mission Blue.
The Thwaites Glacier
By RICHARD ALLEY
West Antarctica’s Thwaites Glacier is a remote and otherworldly river of compressed snow and ice that flows through a vast ice sheet two miles thick to the Amundsen Sea. The ice of Thwaites, like the ice of most cold-region glaciers, doesn’t break off immediately upon entering the sea, but forms a floating ice shelf that remains attached to the coastline and slows the flow of additional glacier ice to the sea.
But in recent years, scientists have watched a new dynamic at work that, in the worst case, could drown coastal communities the world over. Warmer ocean waters are causing the Thwaites ice shelf to thin. Large parts have broken off. This warming is being driven by some combination of climate change, shifts in winds and currents caused by the ozone hole above the Antarctic, and the variability of other natural processes.
What will this mean? Like highway traffic merging from many lanes on multiple levels into a tunnel or bridge, thick inland ice squeezes both horizontally and vertically into the Thwaites glacier. Too much thinning and retreat along its 75-mile-wide front, where it meets the warming sea, would remove the merge, speeding up this traffic of ice and dumping more of it into the sea, where it will melt. Of all the glaciers in the world’s polar regions, Thwaites may be the most vulnerable to this runaway acceleration.
The world’s coastal planners are preparing for as much as three feet or so of sea-level rise over the next century in response to continuing, rapid planetary warming, but Thwaites could drain enough ice in West Antarctica to raise sea level by an additional 11 feet or so.
We may have already crossed the threshold for an irreversible collapse of this ice sheet, though the data is not conclusive, and there may be processes at work that we don’t fully understand. Given these considerable uncertainties, it is possible that the Thwaites ice sheet will remain nearly stable, or melt slowly enough to have relatively small or long-delayed impacts on coastal regions. But we don’t really know the worst-case for how fast Thwaites could go, and to add to the worries, some parts of East Antarctica and Greenland may behave similarly as the climate continues to warm.
Solid scholarship shows almost no chance that rapidly rising carbon dioxide concentrations in the atmosphere will create a new Garden of Eden, but some chance of rapidly breaking many things we care about. The impacts of warming may be slightly better or worse than we expect. Or much worse. In response to this warming, sea-level rise from melting ice and expanding ocean water is almost unavoidable. How high will depend, to a substantial degree, on what happens over the next few decades in the West Antarctic.
Richard Alley is a glaciologist and professor of geosciences at Penn State.
Water Under the Mojave Desert
By EMMA MARRIS
Southern California needs water. A company based in the Mojave Desert, of all places, is keen to sell it some. The company, Cadiz, grows lemons, organic raisins and other crops and has an estimated 17 million to 34 million acre-feet of groundwater under its property, just down valley from the Mojave National Preserve. The company figures it could earn more by piping water to Orange County than by just selling lemons.
The pipeline had been held up by an Obama administration judgment that required the project to undergo environmental review, even though its pipeline would be sited in a railroad right of way, which could have exempted it. On March 29, those memos were rescinded by the Trump administration’s Bureau of Land Management, potentially clearing the way for the project to go forward.
President Trump is famously anti-regulation. In this case, his stance may well end up sending 50,000 acre-feet of water a year from the desert aquifer to suburban lawns. Since this is more than flows into the aquifer each year, the sales would lower it over time — as much as 80 feet, which the company says will be the limit. The consequences aren’t entirely predictable, in part because the hydrology of the area is still somewhat mysterious.
The worst-case scenario would see springs in and around Mojave National Preserve dry up, depriving bighorn sheep and other animals and plants of water. Cadiz and a hydrologist at the consulting firm Aquilogic in Costa Mesa, Calif., say this outcome is incredibly unlikely and that the project will be very carefully monitored. A hydrologist at the United States Geological Survey’s California Water Science Center in San Diego, John Izbicki, says without more information about the springs, it’s impossible to determine the impact.
Even if no springs dry up, the project explicitly plans to draw down water that took thousands of years to accumulate. Michael Madrigal, president of the Native American Land Conservancy and a member of the Cahuilla Band of Indians, says that the indigenous community who call the Mojave home would oppose the project even if there were absolutely no impact on the surface. “If they are taking something that we can’t see, they are still taking it,” he said.
Cadiz plans to sell only 5 percent of the water over 50 years. If the company changes hands, however, or drought becomes acute, it is conceivable that much more could be removed down the line. If pumping stopped in 2067, the aquifer would very slowly fill up again. But the idea of California walking away from a source of water now is implausible. Imagine how much more valuable this water will be in the second half of the century.
Southern California needs water. But Southern California will need water even more in the future. Aside from any near-term risks to the desert, the plan would tap a resource our grandchildren may well wish we left alone.
Emma Marris, an environmental journalist, is the author of “The Rambunctious Garden: Saving Nature in a Post-Wild World.”