Copied below are Letters to the Editor of the Winchester Star in their original unedited form. The letters were in response to submissions by local climate change deniers.  Permission is granted to copy these letters and I hope you'll enjoy them.



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                    NOT A MOMENT TO LOSE


Sirs:


As my friend and colleague Dr. Bernard Swope has promised the Star a series of articles on climate change, I would like to offer the alternate point of view of a committed environmentalist.  As far back as 1988, then NASA climate scientist James Hansen testified to Congress about global warming and greenhouse gases.  Since then, thousands of articles have appeared in peer reviewed scientific journals and the vast majority –97% by some estimates—of these published reports confirm the view that climate change is real and primarily caused by man-made greenhouse gases.  This is not to claim infallibility for these researchers, but when the overwhelming majority of committed scientists invite us to share their perspective on the state of the climate, it smacks of pride if not arrogance to deny their conclusions.  Groups concurring with the view that climate change is real include NOAA, the USGS, the American Meteorological Society and American Association for the Advancement of Science, American Geophysical Union, the American Chemical and American Physical Societies, and the editors of Scientific American, along with a majority of national scientific associations from all over the world.


Man-made carbon dioxide is the preeminent factor responsible for global climate change, increasing in atmospheric levels from a preindustrial level of 280 Parts per Million to a current level just over 400 PPM—the highest level in 600,000 years.  There is no concern whether this causes tomatoes to grow better or that exercise will make us short of breath:  these atmospheric concentrations of CO2 and other greenhouse gases can significantly alter how much solar heat our planet absorbs.  The CO2 in our atmosphere is there to stay, and it is estimated that many generations will pass before levels would spontaneously subside.   According to the World Meteorological Association, 13 of the 14 hottest years on record have occurred since 2000, and NASA and NOAA confirm that 2014 was the warmest year on record for our planet.  Those of us who remember the hot summer drought a few years ago, with parched crops and dry wells, look to the specter of ever increasing summer heat with growing trepidation.  The most prominent temperature changes, however, currently occur in the polar areas of the planet where ice formations that were stable for thousands of years are melting.  These formations lock up an incredible amount of water which could eventually affect low lying areas of the planet.

 

Global climate change is a real and present danger and is primarily catalyzed by human pollution with greenhouse gases.  Summer heat emergencies, loss of coastal lands, forced population migrations and spread of tropical diseases, threats of extinction to endangered species, loss of coral, boreal, and other sensitive environments, along with crop failures and ever more unpredictable weather events will be a legacy to the dismissive attitude of skeptics today.  The extractive industries have a strong financial incentive to keep producing carbon fuels and inevitably CO2, and-- much like the Tobacco industry after the Surgeon General’s report-- forging doubt is a major tactic in their corporate campaign to discredit climate science.  Their efforts to disparage the conclusions of legitimate researchers depend on perverse manipulation of human psychology and fear to promote pseudoskepticism.  But just because we don’t know everything about climate change doesn’t mean we don’t know anything.  Like it or not, humans are the primary stewards of the beauty and diversity of life on our planet.  Our ethical and moral responsibility includes reducing greenhouse gases and slowing the rate of climate change. 

We haven’t a moment to lose.

 

Charles Hagan, MD


3/3/2015


GREENLAND AND A RUNAWAY CLIMATE


I’ve received many encouraging comments regarding my letters on climate change and it has prompted me to offer another on some very basic components of the climate crisis.  One concern is that a changing climate may not want to stop changing.  There are positive feedback loops which climate scientists fear could cause our planet to pass a ‘tipping point’ where the climate would suffer runaway changes far more powerful than anything mankind could do to stop a catastrophe.  Here are a few:


·         The Albedo effect:  As snow and ice continues to melt away at the polar latitudes of our planet, dark rock and seawater are exposed which absorb sunlight at a greater rate, increasing the amount of solar energy our planet absorbs.

·         The Permafrost effect:  As thousands of acres of permafrost become thawed in the North, rotting peat and vegetation release even more carbon dioxide.

·         Methane:  Under particular conditions of low temperature and high pressure, methane is bound to ice in a hydrated form under the polar oceans.  Now that the poles are warming, incredible amounts of these methane clathrates are being released.  Methane is also released by fracking and natural gas extraction projects.  Methane is a greenhouse gas some fifty times as potent as carbon dioxide.

·         Forest Fires:  As the crisis continues, thousands of acres of woodlands, chaparral, peat bogs, and boreal forest now newly decimated by pine bark beetles burn out of control, releasing more carbon dioxide.

·         The Human factor:  As mankind suffers more and more summer heat emergencies, air conditioning units are run at full capacity in the overheated cities.  The majority of these units are powered from coal-fired electrical generating facilities which—you guessed it—release even more carbon dioxide into our atmosphere.

 

Currently the majority of climate scientists would allow that the idea of a ‘runaway’ climate seems quite remote at present, however; one of the problems with this is that despite the enormous amount of data pouring from so many branches of scientific endeavor there is still so very much that we just don’t know.  Don’t forget that the ‘experiment’ here is our own home planet and the only place we can live. Could it be that previously unappreciated factors might introduce a nasty surprise into our future predictions?


One of the more vexing questions regards the huge ice formations of Greenland, some of which are thousands of feet thick.  Over the past few years it has gradually become recognized that these formations are melting much faster than was originally predicted—as much as 600% faster by some estimates.  Originally assumed that the ice would melt much like a chunk of fender ice in a driveway, it is now appreciated that these formations have complex patterns, with pockets like Swiss cheese, channels and moulins that serve as conduits deep into the glacial formations, and meltwater serving as a lubricant at the base which significantly speeds up the movement of some glaciers into the sea.  One unexpected mechanism is that arctic ice sublimates or evaporates on the top surface, leaving millions of tiny dust particles which accumulate on top of the formations like pepper on meringue.  As mentioned above, this changes the albedo, or solar absorbency, of the formation and seems to contribute a heretofore unappreciated energy to the rate of melting.


Well, the interior of Greenland is some 2,500 miles from Winchester, so who cares?  It turns out that a lot of people should care.  Britain and much of Europe are kept temperate by a massive ocean current known as the North Atlantic Current.  This enormous heat engine starts off the shores of Greenland with the freezing of sea water into (salt-free) polar ice; the remaining seawater retains the extra salt, becoming denser, and sinks. The resulting plunging current—much larger than the Amazon River-- crosses the bottom of the Atlantic south-westward and wells up into tropical currents such as the Gulf Stream, and then returns on the surface currents, carrying heat energy from the tropics all the way to London, which sits at the same latitude as Winnipeg, and Rome, which is as far north as Chicago.  A shift in the formation of polar ice could dramatically affect this vital current, and while the possibility at this point in time is generally considered quite remote, the ultimate fear is that a huge influx of fresh meltwater from Greenland could turn the North Atlantic Current completely off.  Similar sudden changes in Europe’s climate have occurred before, and the rate and extent of the changes are highly variable-- but it seems certain that such a profound climate event would not be good news to the millions of people living in Britain and Europe. That’s why climate changes in Greenland now feel so much closer to home.


Our climate is an angry beast and we are poking it with a stick.  We may in all seriousness come to a point when the changes to the environment go beyond anything mankind can do to reverse them.  Our generation may well be the first one to recognize these sober facts and the last one to be able to do anything about it.

 

Charles Hagan, MD


 4/4/2015


                                              SKEPTICS


In an earlier letter I set out the basics for understanding the real and tangible danger to our planet and future generations presented by climate change.  But despite the overwhelming scientific evidence supporting the idea that climate change is real and primarily catalyzed by man-made greenhouse gases, I’m continuously bumping into people who are agnostic if not downright hostile to the idea that our climate is in serious trouble.  Who are these skeptics and what makes them tick?


Some folks just like to argue.  I was caught unprepared by a friend who exclaimed “There are more Polar Bears now than ever before!!”  That can’t be-- my wife & I went to Churchill, Manitoba and saw the bears ourselves.  Amazing creatures they don’t hardly eat at all in summer—their food & energy stores come from hunting seals on the ice and now that the autumn ice is later every year the mothers look gaunt and the cubs even worse.  But it turns out my friend was right.  Wildlife managers throughout the North looked at the situation and changed the game laws, shortening the Polar Bear hunting seasons and reducing the limits!  The bears—obliging mammals that they are—responded by making more cubs but that doesn’t really have any bearing on climate change, now does it?   Volcanoes create more CO2 than humans?  Sorry—not even close.  Wobbly planets & solar cycles make for temperature changes?  Sure, but the American Astronomical Society has endorsed the American Geophysical Union position that ‘Human caused increases in greenhouse gases are responsible for most of the observed … global warming… over the past 140 years’.


Another category of skeptic seems to be guys with too much testosterone.  I have a cousin like this.  “We’re gonna just keep driving our SUV’s with 12 mpg and tell those foreigners they can keep their mass transit and bullet trains and we won’t insulate our homes and our military will dominate third world countries and we’ll take their oil!!  This is not an especially nuanced approach to our climate problems.  I did my (peacetime) service and have been accused of being a little chauvinistic at times myself, but—really?  Perhaps we could try to solve these problems with our cerebral cortex and scientific discipline more, and a little less with fight/flight reflexes and the rage neurons of our limbic system?   A variant of this seems to involve skeptics believing it’s all just a political game.  Their scorn and mockery are based on political motives, instead of science.  Be careful here!  Serious people are telling us that, over the long term, our penchant for playing politics could result in an unlivable world.  I am reminded of Shakespeare’s Henry V to the Dauphin’s ambassador:  “Tell the Dauphin his jest will savor but of shallow wit when thousands weep more than did laugh at it.”


There are a lot of distracted people out there who would just like not to talk about climate change.  A nurse once told me “You may right about all this Dr. Hagan, but I have to tell you that I have three sons in soccer this year.  I won’t be out demonstrating for the climate”.  And who can blame her?


The worst category of skeptics are folks I refer to as the larcenous villains.  Often associated with the fossil fuel extraction industries, these curmudgeons have sold the legacy of our entire planet for their thirty pieces of silver.  Imagine two brothers –we’ll call them Chuck and Dave—who have made billions from fossil fuel exploitation and see no reason why we shouldn’t pay them even more.  They have spent millions of dollars to cast doubt on the work of dedicated researchers without giving any real contribution of their own.  They maliciously create confusion in the face of overwhelming evidence to cause what Scientific American’s Michael Shermer terms pseudoskepticism. Their tactics have been worked out since the days of Tobacco and the Surgeon General:  Deny, until you can’t deny any more.  Then argue the data.  Intentionally cloud the issues and create distractions.  Buy talk show hosts and legislators and have them produce absurd public performances. Reduce the debate to personal ridicule and call your opponents unpatriotic.

The final category of skeptic seems to include people who have an inkling that something terrible is happening to our planet and our future, but somewhere in their brain a switch gets thrown and that’s just the end of it.  No!!  This just can’t be!  I have a soft spot in my heart for these folks.  There’s no point debating them-- it’s like telling a 3 year old that there’s no Santa Claus.  Don’t do it.


What really fuels skepticism on a subliminal level is the subconscious feeling that we are helpless to respond to the threat of climate change—that our future is cast and our great-grandchildren are without options.  This is what we need to fight.  We’re a nation of heroes, from the Founding Fathers through Normandy and the Manhattan Project to Apollo lunar missions, and although fundamental changes in our energy future are sure to be difficult at times, Americans can do what needs to be done.  Climate change and the need to curtail greenhouse gases present simultaneously one of the greatest threats to humanity and an opportunity to meet one of the most daring challenges to our lives, our future, and our planet.

 

Charles Hagan, MD


4/7/2015


An Ocean of Climate Woes



Our oceans, like the rest of our planet, are feeling the slow, subtle, yet very significant effects of climate change.  Since the middle of the 19th century thermometers have allowed accurate temperature recordings, and over the past 50 years or so numerous investigators have reported that the surface waters of our oceans have, overall, increased on average by about ¾ of a degree Celsius.  Doesn’t seem like much; how much energy does that represent?  Well—there are about 510 million square kilometers of ocean surface water and if we go down just 20 meters that’s 2% so there are 10 million cubic kilometers of ocean surface water; a billion cubic meters per cubic kilometer each weighing 1000 kilograms and a kilo of water warmed .75 degrees has about 3000 Joules, so—the answer in Joules is about 300 with 20 zeros.  Big number; do we have a large unit of energy for comparison?  Indeed we do; the Hiroshima bomb detonated over Japan was about 62 TeraJoules (that’s 13 zeros).


So the amount of energy that our ocean’s surface waters have absorbed due to climate change in modern times can be estimated (using nothing more than high school math) to be the equivalent of about 480 Million Hiroshima bombs.


And not without consequence.  If you enter the phrase Puffin Snuff into your search engine it will quickly take you to a Mother Jones article about an unfortunate Puffin colony in Maine.  When the waters of the Gulf of Maine suffered unprecedented warming the teardrop-shaped herring that Puffins feed their chicks were replaced by disc shaped hake minnows, which the chicks couldn’t swallow.  The result was the collapse of the colony and death for most of the Puffin chicks.


The increased concentration of carbon dioxide in our atmosphere also contributes to climate changes’ evil twin—ocean acidification.  Carbon dioxide dissolves readily in sea water and associates with H2O to form carbonic acid.  The resultant drop in ocean pH since the preindustrial era suggests an approximate 28% increase in the hydrogen ion concentration of sea water worldwide—which could double in the next century. And much like our atmosphere, the carbon dioxide will remain deposited in ocean waters for many generations. This is bad news, especially for the myriad ocean species of shellfish and mollusks with calcium carbonate anatomy.  The natural biological form of calcium in these creatures is calcium aragonite.  As the oceans grow more acidic, the amount of calcium aragonite available to these organisms declines as a basic function of their biochemistry.  This may affect numerous species of ubiquitous shellfish and foraminifera that are the fundamental building blocks for our ocean’s food chain.  Thus, physiologists and marine biologists believe the decrease in carbonate ions might be catastrophic for organisms which play an important role in the food chain and are essential for the maintenance of biodiversity.  The sea is an important niche of human activity, from seafood gourmets, coral lovers, scuba divers and whale watchers to marine biologists and people the world over who live on or near the oceans.  Red algae and jellyfish are not a substitute for the diversity of our oceans. 


The climate change beast is out there.  It can’t be reasoned with, it can’t be bargained with.  It has no emotions; it doesn’t feel pain, pity, or remorse, and it simply will not stop-- EVER-- until we as a species find the collective will to act against it.

 

Charles Hagan


5/31/2015

     CLIMATE CHANGE AND TROPICAL DISEASES


All over the world and across the USA, concerned citizens are observing the sinister and far-reaching effects of climate change.  Extreme droughts, wildfires, and crop failures compete with colossal storms, floods, and changes to ocean ecology to reaffirm the dire projections of our science community on the seriousness of global climate changes caused by carbon dioxide and other man-made greenhouse gases.


One factor that is sometimes overlooked is the spread of tropical disease.  Climate change marches hand in hand with the spread of some of the most pernicious diseases in human history. Foremost on the list are ‘vector borne’ diseases such as malaria, yellow fever, and dengue fever which are spread by mosquitoes.  The increasing temperatures associated with climate change not only allow these diseases to spread to new, more northern latitudes-- including the USA and Britain-- but also to ascend to higher elevations in mountainous areas such as Kenya, Papua New Guinea, and Tanzania.  The most important temperature changes are the minimum nocturnal temps that allow the vectors to thrive, while maximum daily heat increases allow the warmer atmosphere to hold more water for mosquitoes and also shorten the incubation time for the parasite within its vector.  Early evidence suggests a northern movement of mosquito-borne St. Louis encephalitis and equine encephalomyelitis here in the States.  Invasive species such as the Asian tiger mosquito have spread into the USA and throughout Britain and Europe, along with the threat of new diseases such as West Nile Virus and Chikungunya, with its debilitating joint pain, fever, and ocular and neurological complications.  Future projections suggest that vector-borne tropical diseases may spread beyond Maryland in the States and in Britain as far north as Scotland.


Paradoxically, climate associated droughts may change a population’s immunity and resistance to disease, making a community more vulnerable at the next wet cycle.  Drought is associated with food insecurity and also meningococcal meningitis, particularly in Africa.  Water scarcity can affect hygiene and increase louse-borne diseases such as typhus, relapsing fever, and even bubonic plague.  Lack of sanitation can trigger epidemic cholera, typhoid, and diarrhea.  Exposure to dust storms, smoke, and elevated ozone levels during droughts is associated with pneumonia, asthma, chronic pulmonary diseases, and increased infant mortality.  


Near our border with Canada, concerned scientists are watching the expanding range of the deer ticks associated with Lyme disease.  The Center for Disease Control reports a dramatic increase in this highly variable and unpredictable disease in the Northeast over the past 15 years, along with other tick-borne diseases such as potentially deadly Rocky Mountain spotted fever, which has increased some 25% in the past decade.  Both of these diseases are common to Virginia.  With no respite in sight for the unremitting temperatures, the northerly limit for ticks continues to creep into Canada and is projected to reach the waters of the Hudson Bay before the end of the century.  An unexpected victim of this climate fueled expansion may be the North American Moose; these gentle creatures are especially vulnerable to tick predation and diseases and, not unlike the Polar Bear, may someday become an icon for species lost due to climate change.


Neil deGrasse Tyson has said “The good thing about Science is, it’s true whether or not you believe it.”  For those waiting to act against the climate crisis a legacy of new diseases also awaits in a hotter, more unpredictable, and less hospitable world.



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ARE CARBON INVESTMENTS A “BUBBLE”?



In the first half of the seventeenth century, British and European gardeners became fascinated with a new, elegant, and breathtakingly beautiful flower: the Dutch tulip.  The commercial value of tulip bulbs became an item of increasing speculation.  Investors of all sorts flocked to the tulip bonanza—often with lucrative contracts promising a share of bulbs from the next harvest.  By 1637 a single bulb could demand 4,200 guilders in an era where a craftsman might earn 300 guilders a year.  However, after February of 1637 the tulips abruptly crashed; the value of the bulbs fell 90% and their legal contracts became unenforceable.


Asset speculation is a part of human behavior.  Whether applied to the Crash of 1929, the Tokyo real estate bubble, the Dot Com crash, or the sub-prime mortgage debacle, all these events have factors in common:  in a social environment of lax laws and regulation, fanatical speculators turn maniacal in their obsessive pursuit of the seemingly infinite ascent of their commodities’ value, until a sudden epiphany restores rationality and redirects the herd’s behavior.  Then the devil takes the hindmost, sacrificing those unable to adapt quickly enough to meet reality. 


Most of us can remember the turn of the century-- an era when sober, conservative investment counselors consistently recommended investment in carbon and fossil fuels.  I can remember that my parent’s portfolio was built on a foundation of oil, coal, and gas utilities which they believed could weather any economic storm.  But with the new century comes a new paradigm and recognition of a previously unappreciated and foreboding threat to the environment of our entire planet.  It’s now becoming clear with ever increasing authority and ever improved accuracy and refinement that the burning of fossil fuels is associated with increased atmospheric levels of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases which are changing our earth to a hotter, more unpredictable, less livable planet.


Just how bad is the situation?  As Yogi Berra observed, it’s difficult to make predictions.  But the changes to our planet’s climate have proceeded far more rapidly than originally predicted, especially at the Earth’s poles, and scientists have confirmed that adapting to the storms, floods, droughts, forced refugee migrations, and crop failures associated with climate change can be best accomplished if the planet warms no more than 2° Centigrade.   As writer Bill McKibben has explained, the fossil fuel industries have about 2,795 Gigatons of carbon in the ground, that’s the fossil fuel asset that they can take to the bank and reflects the value of their corporate stock.  The problem is, if our earth is to stay within the 2° limit, then no more than 565 Gigatons of that carbon can be burned in the next few decades.  It appears that we have nearly five times as much coal and oil in the ground as can be safely burned.  In McKibben’s words: “You can have a healthy fossil-fuel balance sheet, or a relatively healthy planet – but now that we know the numbers, it looks like you can't have both.”


So what happens to the other 2,230 Gigatons, and who gets left holding this $20 Trillion bag of what is now known as stranded assets?


Meanwhile, more and more people are slowing awakening to the climate crisis and the energy landscape is definitely changing.  Political pressure for carbon caps and taxes continues, and universal and binding agreements on climate are planned for the United Nations Climate Change Conference in Paris in November this year. Solar projects in Austin and Palo Alto deliver electricity at under 5 cents per Kilowatt hour. Solar and wind electricity projects accounted for about 50% of new U.S. electricity generated in 2014; there are now more jobs in Solar than in coal mining.  Although the fossil fuel industries are ‘all in’ with their quest to extract profits from the ground, the much touted Canadian tar sands actually employ fewer Canadians than their beer industry, and coal based power utilities are losing money both here and in Europe.  While our own state continues to take a frustratingly slow approach with renewable energy sources-- accounting for only 10% of production last year, other states have adopted a far more enlightened view of energy needs in the 21st century: North Carolina was nearly 26% renewable last year.  Oregon, Idaho, Maine, Nevada, Washington, South Dakota, and Iowa all exceed 90% of their energy needs with renewables. Rockport, Missouri is the first 100% wind city in America, and Hawaii is scheduled to be 100% wind by 2045.  On May 11, 2014 Germany –not noted for its balmy climate—generated 74% of its energy with renewables. The Vatican now runs on Solar and Costa Rica supplied 100% of its electricity needs for 100 straight days with Solar last year.  Warren Buffett has sold his Exxon stock and crude oil is down nearly 40% due to multiple factors. Fossil fuel divestment is a growing trend, with over 180 institutions withdrawing over $50 Billion due to conflicting philosophies on climate change.


The climate change crisis is evolving from a theoretical problem which might pose a challenge to the next four or five generations to a real and present danger threatening the stability of our world right now.  Those blindly insisting that the energy needs of the future must be met by fossil fuels –or that constituents cannot ‘afford’ to change-- may come to the point where reality imposes a significant shift in political, investment, and indeed moral philosophy.  Change comes hard, and in the aftermath of every bubble, thousands of investors are left pathetically bewildered, wondering ‘what were we thinking?’ and surveying the ruins of assets that were designed to last a lifetime.  In the fast changing politics of energy and the sober environmental realities for life on this planet, it may be time to consider whether the devil is once again preparing to take the hindmost.



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               A SHENANDOAH SANS TREES??


Millions of acres of boreal pines destroyed.  Sequoias in California dying from drought.  The scorched trunk of a lone Juniper in a surreal landscape of torched chaparral.


These images haunt innumerable reports detailing the sobering effects of climate change on forests all over the world.  As we witness the devastating effects of the persistent drought on our American Southwest, environmentalists are compelled to ask: if a quarter of the world’s forests are already in trouble, could the slow, insidious effects of climate change some day threaten our beloved mixed hardwood forests in the Shenandoah Valley?


The physiology of tree transpiration is a very complex subject.  Minute stomata on the underside of a tree’s leaves regulate the passage of water vapor out of the leaf tissue while allowing  CO2 to diffuse into the leaves for photosynthesis.  Although increased levels of CO2 can be beneficial for plants in some context, that benefit doesn’t compensate for the damage associated with severe climate change.  The forests of the world are thought to take up about 25% of the CO2 released into the atmosphere each year, however; a sick forest may return even more CO2 back into the atmosphere and burning woodlands are a significant ‘positive feedback loop’ for climate change.  As Dr. Nate McDowell, Director of the Los Alamos Environmental Research Park, expressed to environmental author Jeff Tietz, “The more forests die, the less carbon they take out of the air, the warmer it gets, the more forests die.  It’s a thermostat gone bad.”


The enemies of tree transpiration are heat and drought.  Water is drawn up from the roots thru microscopic tubes called xylem by a complex process of capillary and hydrostatic pressure. Each species of tree has evolved to live within a relatively narrow range of temperature, and shifts in averaged temperature as little as 2° Centigrade can affect the plant’s viability.  The leaf stomata respond to excessive heat and close, reducing water loss but also reducing the photosynthesis required to produce vital sugars and carbohydrates.  In a drought situation, the trees’ sap begins to thicken and some of the physiologic functions of the sap begin to fail, including the production of insecticidal hormones and chemicals designed to protect the tree. Eventually the sap becomes too thick for effective transpiration, and the hydrostatic continuity of the water column within the xylem is breached with the formation of vacuum gaps and tiny bubbles-- now the tree is in big trouble. Desperate survival mechanisms such as leaf drops cannot compensate for the drought damage, and the plant suffers increased attacks from insects sensing its plight. Not unexpectedly, trees adapted to northern climates such as Sugar Maple, Paper Birch, White Cedar, White Pine, and Spruce have less heat tolerance than plants already adapted to southern summers.  “The pessimist’s case is that every tree is tuned to deal with only a very specific range of drought stress and evaporative demand” according to Dr. Park Williams, bioclimatologist at Columbia University’s Lamon-Doherty Earth Observatory. “And as warming continues, trees constantly see new records being set in terms of evaporative demand, and eventually they’re all carried outside of their range of survivability.” 


Unfortunately, the International Panel on Climate Change has already predicted a 2° Centigrade rise in average global temperatures as a ‘best case scenario’ – and this would require a 40% reduction in greenhouse gas emission by 2050.  Many climate experts fear we may already be poised to shoot past the 2° level and that a practical assessment for the future of our local woodlands needs to consider the possibility of a 3° environment—or worse.  While temperature changes in the north may be stunning-- 4° C in Canada and 8° above the Arctic Circle by 2050 according to a University of Waterloo study—there are no specific projections for the Shenandoah Valley, although the state of Virginia has warmed about 0.86-1.01° C in the past 40 years. The average summer temperature in Virginia already matches comparable temperatures of Chaparral environments at about 73° Fahrenheit (22.9° C) but the Chaparral’s rainfall is significantly less—15-40” annually.  While temperatures are sure to rise, the average amount of rainfall projected for the Southeast should remain fairly stable and averages about 38” here.  This respite may be only temporary, however; residents of the Valley know that the vagaries of our local weather can include cruel and persistent summer droughts, and there have been four major droughts statewide since 1900.  In an environment where the trees are continually stressed by heat to the limits of their endurance, a prolonged drought might produce a final knockout punch that the trees could not withstand.  In a scenario not unlike the horrors of southern California, our tinder-dry forests could then be subject to conflagrations and a mass die-off during a very short period of catastrophic weather.  Collateral damage would predictably include the understory wildflowers such as the Trillium and Bluebells that delight woodland wanderers in spring, along with a host of sensitive avian and mammal species.


Residents of the Shenandoah Valley list the beauty and diversity of our cherished forests as one of the primary reasons they chose to live here.  For our forests to remain standing for our grandchildren and their heirs to enjoy will require more than passive indifference to the coming climate crisis.

 

Charles Hagan

11/19/2015

                     WHAT IS GOING ON HERE??


After what is now the hottest year in human history, scientists and behaviorists are perplexed. Why is it that folks who have been wiped out by a climate-related disaster—a catastrophic drought, devastating wildfire, or unprecedented flood—appear to be even less likely to speak out against climate change than people who are untouched?  And why are people who are uncertain about the overwhelming evidence of climate change more convinced than most of the imminent dangers of asteroids, zombies, and aliens?  As the climate crisis continues to warm up, environmentalists and psychologists are compelled to ponder, ‘What’s going on here?’


The human brain isn’t designed to be rational; the human brain is designed to survive. Primitive neural networks which have evolved since the days of the reptiles channel visual and other sensory input into the brain’s amygdala, part of the caudate nucleus which carries on pattern recognition and matches it to memories associated with fear conditioning.  This all happens as fast as a blink, and accounts for the startle responses we all have when a garden hose in the grass or a trash can in the dusk take on the appearance of an animate threat. The fight or flight reflexes are activated before we are even conscious of any threat, and the body is prepared to react well before the cerebral cortex concludes that there actually is a threat or not. 


Unfortunately for Earth, the very real and significant danger that climate change poses to the future of humanity flies underneath the radar of these threat recognition reflexes.  In an example of the ‘boiling frog’ experiment where the frog does nothing to escape if heated up very slowly, this threat may not manifest itself to significant levels for about another fifty years—by which time it will be mostly too late to do anything about it. The delay for consequences to climate change lies largely outside of the time range of human threat recognition, and requires rational assessment of the potential threat by the cerebral cortex without the catalysis of limbic activation.  This logical assessment can be readily obtained by looking at the tremendous consilience of multidisciplinary evidence provided by the science community, but again—for many it’s just too far into the future to register as any real threat.


Other psychological factors also confound the need to take action against climate change.  In ominous situations it’s easier for humans to act if there is an identifiable villain from outside our social circle; we are very good at confronting the Hitlers and bin Ladens of our world.  But in the climate change crisis we are the villains-- we all contribute to greenhouse gas pollution and no one is exempt from the expectation that we could reduce our carbon footprint.  People tend to excuse themselves individually from behavior that we as a societal whole clearly need to reduce to make the future adjustments that carbon conservation will require. Even committed environmentalists have a sense of guilt when asked to account for their long distance travels and other carbon indulgences.  As Pogo Possum says: “We have met the Enemy—and he is Us.”


Psychologists tell us that indulgence in fictional or fantasy scenarios can actually distort a subject’s perception of reality.  In 2004 Michael Crichton’s fictional bestseller State of Fear involved a plot of climate conspiracy annotated with extensive charts and datasets supporting the author’s perspective as a climate denier. President George Bush loved the book and Crichton was invited to the White House, but the data presented in the book was widely criticized by quoted scientists who charged that it was misleading and distorted. The American Physical Union complained that “State of Fear has changed public perception of scientists, especially researchers in global warming, toward suspicion and hostility.” NASA’s James Hansen commented that Crichton “doesn’t seem to have the foggiest notion about the science he writes about”, and journalist Chris Mooney described it as “pure porn for global warming deniers.” Since then climate conspiracy theories have been continuously advanced by skeptical media, but the facts tell a different story than the fantasy.


In the aftermath of a major climate disaster, people instinctively pull together to form a community of survivors.  Here the desire to re-establish some semblance of normalcy can actively suppress the partisan issues of climate outrage.  People rarely change their outlook and plans in the aftermath of a climate catastrophe, seldom relocate, and often rebuild on the same floodplains or shorelines.  It’s more comforting to think of a climate catalyzed disaster as a one-of event not expected to recur.  Environmentalists who wish to promote awareness and the need to address policy issues after such disasters may find themselves becoming social pariahs to folks who just want to invest their hopes and resources into rebuilding their lives. 


In his book Don’t Even Think About It; Why Our Brains are Wired to Ignore Climate Change, climate psychologist George Marshall offers an in-depth analysis of how humans separate what we know from what we believe. We cultivate a sense of denial about things too painful to contemplate.  He concludes that for many people climate change is simply too close to Death to deal with comfortably. As environmentalist Bill McKibben has stated: “We are grieving for what we are doing and our own inability to deal with it.  We all know we are going to die, and we used to be able to cope with the thought that our life was contributing to something larger that would survive us.  Now even that has been taken away from us.”


The tiny glimmer of hope that arises from this discourse lies in the realization that, when dealing with Death, our brains find no answers in rational analysis but rather hope in the emotions based on faith. George Marshall quotes the psychologist Ara Norenzayan:  “Climate change appears to be hopeless because people will never be prepared to make a sacrifice because of the rational calculation.  But this is not the case in religions, which contain sacred values that are so fundamental that they are nonnegotiable.  They cannot be bought or sold, and people will make any sacrifice to defend them”. 


By initiating a fellowship of Believers, climate advocates can create an environment where activists can express their struggles with belief and doubt.  In the moment of choice the faithful can truly proclaim their commitment, and in outreach and evangelism the movement can grow.  Those committed to promoting climate awareness and action can experience the same epiphany, affirmation, sharing, and dedication as the religious faithful and create their own community of conviction, forgiveness, and belief.  It may be that the path to solving the climate crisis lies not in rational discourse even though the rational evidence is overwhelming. For those asking ‘What’s going on here?’ there may finally be an answer: ‘In faith all things are possible. ‘



Charles Hagan

1/28/2016

                                  OUR LAST, BEST HOPE    
                                    

James Holland’s letter to the STAR this past Monday, in which he charged that the climate change argument forwarded by Nick Snow ‘reeks with deception’, cannot be left without comment. 

First, Holland observes that climate variations have occurred naturally for thousands of years.  Holland knows, or certainly should know, that this disingenuous argument ignores the fact that humans and a host of other species may be unable to adapt to the predicted rapid changes in climate conditions and that a significant fraction of all species on Earth may be faced with extinction in the next few decades.  There is nothing natural about this phenomenon.

Next comes an arrogant and dismissive rejection of the need to reduce carbon pollution and labeling international efforts to curtail carbon emissions and greenhouse gases as ‘stupid’.    This reminds me of a story:  A man isn’t feeling well and his doctor finds a lump.  “This looks very serious”, the doctor says, “and it might be cancer.”   The fellow doesn’t like that and sees another doctor, in fact he sees ninety five other doctors and they all say the same thing.  Then he finds a doctor who says “Oh, I wouldn’t be too concerned.  Why don’t you just check back in five years and we’ll see how you’re doing?”  The fellow leaves the office smiling and tells his wife “Finally!  A doctor I can agree with!!”

Science is the most effective predictive discipline in human history.  The climate crisis doesn’t require 97% agreement, or 60%, or even 30%.  When dedicated, legitimate scientists voice concern for the future of our planet, it is simply foolhardy to reject their concerns. Finding a handful of contrarians that you can agree with doesn’t change the situation.

And being obstructionist and argumentative doesn’t help either.  Holland knows, or should know, that ‘colorless, odorless’ carbon dioxide may be a very bad thing for our planet.  We all know that people exhale carbon dioxide.  When will contrarians be willing to admit that CO2 and other greenhouse gases are capable of altering the physical properties of our upper atmosphere and are capable of changing the rate at which our entire planet absorbs heat, as described by Svante Arrhenius in 1896 and confirmed and expounded upon by countless scientists ever since?  Those same greenhouse gases, one should note, are up there to stay.  The changes we see and fear are only the beginning—so how much more pollution should be allowed to accumulate on top of these record levels?

Holland wants us to reject the idea that ‘every hurricane, tornado, flood, …  & forest fire is due to man-made climate change’.  But Climate change does not result in any one of these.  Climate change results in all of them.  In the aftermath of the hottest May in human history, we are witness to horrific wild fires, devastating floods, and drought stricken agricultural areas that are described as ‘like farming in Hell’.  One needs only to open one’s eyes to see the effects of Anthropogenic Global Warming, or Climate Change-- call it what you will there’s no deception--on our planet all around you.

Contrarians used to claim there was no global warming.  Then they tried to say it was a natural cycle, or that it was not from man-made pollution.  The final evolution of the contrarian debate is that we cannot economically afford to give up fossil fuels, even though there is more renewable energy on our planet than humanity could ever need or use. This argument will also succumb to common sense.  We need energy security but we also need a planet upon which to enjoy it.  Philip K. Dick once wrote, "Reality is that which, when you stop believing in it, it doesn't go away."  Let's hope that our citizens can see reality and the urgency needed to fight climate change and reduce greenhouse gases:  our last, best hope for Earth.




6/21/2016  


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LEFT BEHIND?



My wife looked up from the paper the other day and said, “Wow!!  Why are the citizens of the Shenandoah Valley so far behind the rest of the world in addressing Climate Action and Renewable Energy??”


Good Question.  According to Wikipedia, Germany has created an innovative and successful renewable energy sector of wind and solar generation that is already in place.  Germany’s renewable energy sector employs some 370,000 people, most of whom owe their jobs to the governments’ progressive and farsighted Renewable Energy Sources Act.  During favorable days this past spring Germany supplied virtually 100% of the nation’s power with these renewable resources.


China actually leads the world in renewable energy production and generates as much wind, water, and solar power as all of France and Germany’s power plants combined.  The Chinese strategy for renewable energy not only embraces progressive ideals of greenhouse gas reduction and climate change abatement but also secures a foundation for energy independence and national security purposes.  China’s renewable sector is growing faster than its coal fired industry, and production of solar cells has expanded by a factor of 100 in the past decade.


In the United States, Washington, Oregon, Idaho, Nevada, South Dakota, and Iowa generate over 90% of each states’ energy needs with wind, hydro, and solar energy—producing the equivalent of over 100 million tons of coal fired power annually.  Regrettably, Virginia lags far behind with a renewable energy contribution just over 10%.


With carbon dioxide concentrations at the highest levels in six thousand centuries, the ominous threat of climate change ushered in a movement in 19 states for laws for Renewable Portfolio Standards.  These laws set goals for an eventual 50% mandatory renewable commitment in New York and California, 40% in Hawaii, 25% in Ohio and 18% in Pennsylvania.  Virginia’s renewable standard is a voluntary one, in deference to the ‘big business’ climate of the state, and sets up a utility-approved goal of 12% renewable energy by 2025.


Unfortunately Virginia, and particularly the Shenandoah Valley, suffers from an anti-science bias which reduces the compelling evidence for this slow, insidious, yet persistent and devastating environmental disaster into one of mere personal opinion.  Thus, citizens of our state and particularly our own valley live in a strongly biased environment—a Titanic steered ever more towards the iceberg of climate disaster by big business, radical right politics, physical and intellectual distance from other communities, and an anti-science mindset that leaves the future more to Providence than to any rational planning.   Indeed the head-in-sand stubbornness of contrarians begs the question:  Will a loving and benevolent Superior Power save us from the path of destruction that we seem Hell-bent upon choosing, or is Providence testing whether humanity is even capable of waking up and acting rationally on its own behalf?



                                                                                                                                            8/4/2016




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                                                 WHAT IS TRUTH?                        (Submitted 8/27/2016)


Bernard Swope’s “Wishful data” forum letter (Aug 24) cuts to the heart of the climate debate:  how do we know that something is true?

The rationale for empiricism is based on evidence.  At least four massive temperature data sets – from NOAA’s National Climate Data Center, NASA’s Goddard Institute, the Berkeley Earth project, and Britain’s HadCRUT Climatic Research Unit in Norwich demonstrate that our world is warming and have survived every conceivable contrarian argument. This warming is subtle in presentation but massive in content; most of the Earth’s warming has gone into the oceans with an energy equivalence equal to over 500 million Hiroshima atomic bombs.


An enormous consilience of tangible evidence has accompanied global climate change. Glacial melting, polar sea ice thinning, boreal forests and coral reefs dying, shifts in population range for fish, plants and animals, insect hatches and bird migrations, desertification, lowland flooding, crop failures, famines, horrific expansion of wildfires and droughts—these all add visible confirmation to the fact that climate change is a real and compelling threat to humanity.


In addition to the evidence we can see, there is a wholly different subset of evidence that lies beyond the human senses.  Infrared spectroscopy of carbon dioxide shows an impressive band of energy absorbance just below 2400 nanometers; this is the ‘greenhouse gas’ effect that physical chemists were able to demonstrate and confirm from as far back as 1896.  Modern satellite data shows a decrease in the gravitational effect of ice deposits in Greenland and Antarctica as the melting increases to record levels. Orbiting and oceanic studies, ice core mass spectroscopy, paleo-biology and geology, isotopic science—the list goes on and on in an every widening blanket of convincing data.


All this evidence points to the inescapable conclusion that our world is on the brink of a climate disaster.  A rationale based on evidence can make no other conclusion than action against climate change and abatement of greenhouse gas pollution is urgently necessary.


So why do so many people resist this tsunami of evidence that is so compelling?  Change comes hard.  Financial motives have lead the extractive industries to fight the kind of societal changes that would shift priorities away from fossil fuels and towards renewable energy.  The tasks ahead beg for addressing wealth inequality and wealthy contrarians sway legislative and political opinions with lucrative donations.  Investors are rightfully concerned that the huge deposits of fossil fuels owned by stockholders, retirement accounts and pension plans may become stranded assets. People worry about their jobs in the new paradigm of renewable energy.


Al Gore’s family raised tobacco until his sister died of lung cancer.  Contrarians face similar dilemmas when climate abatement requires a major shift away from fossil fuels.  As Upton Sinclair said, “It is difficult to get a man to understand something when his salary depends on his not understanding it.”  It is easy to see why contrarians want to wax poetic about the nostalgia of bygone times.  But climate change is real and we are only seeing the start of it. The delayed effects of this insidious disaster will be persistent and catastrophic. Our heirs will necessarily bear the costs of climate change abatement and the time to act is now: Now, Now, Now!!


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