Why Not Climate Change?





Despite its nastiness, the presidential election has served to educate the American public in several unexpected ways. The influence of a male-dominated culture on women has been exposed and the impact is still growing much to the dismay of the Donald, Bill Cosby and thier kind. The tragic targeting of Afro-Americans by law enforcement was important before the election but it it has now grown into an important political issue and a national movement.  Last month a spokesperson for the National Association of Police Chief offered a seemingly sincere and unprecedented apology.

But one thing this election has not highlighted is the growing and increasingly frightening impacts of global warming.  Last month the the New Yorker published a devastating account of scientists working on the Greenland ice sheet that describes the catastrophic changes already underway. A New York Times piece did something similarly alarming last year, including one of the more interesting graphics of scientific data I’ve even seen. Like the New Yorker piece it describes the increasingly porous Greenland ice sheet and its horrifying implications. For those concerned about the impact of rising global temperatures, including me, the melting of the Greenland Ice Sheet is like the Godzilla of climate change, a scary monster about to devour our world as we know it.



Are we pretending climate change is simply another issue among many and of little consequence to our own lives?  As a scientist and conservationist, this is more frightening than the issue itself.

Or do we simply fear a discussion itself?  Do we see it as  some post- apocalyptic movie, The Road, Mad Max or more hopefully Wall-e.  Is this how we see our inevitable future and dare not look at it? Or maybe we see the earth as a car with no brakes speeding towards a concrete wall, the inevitable crush of steel and bone a certainty we cannot avoid. Perhaps it’s all too hard to even imagine.

The polling data suggests a more complex picture.  Despite the earnest warning of doom by environmentalists and the stupid rhetoric of the alt-right, the American public has already acknowledged the reality of the earth’s rapidly changing climate and our complicity.  But they also think, despite overwhelming personal experience, that the threat of flooding, wildfires, drought, more frequent storms and tornadoes, more frequent hot weather, more deluge rain events, won’t affect them personally. But these data also suggests a ray of hope.  And  maybe hope for the future  is the best pathway for us take.


 Whistling in the dark

For some time now, most americans have believed the issue of climate change both important and real (see the graph below) .  As you might suspect, when looking deeper one sees  in Climate Change the political faultlines that fracture our lives in all issues of importance. While the country as a whole thinks Climate Change is happening,  as one would expect, republicans drag down the average.  Still despite all the rhetoric from the  leadership,  most rank and file republicans believe  Climate Change to be true.   I find encouraging given the rhetoric that casts science in general as suspicious and climate change as a conspiracy.


climate change graph

Nearly 70% of Americans believe Climate Change is happening


So why are we not discussing it in our most important presidential election in living memory?  Putting ignorance aside, a  more likely reason is the false hope of both democrats and and republicans that climate change will not affect them personally. According to the Yale University’s Program on Climate Change,  one would think we rest happily in the comfort that climate change will only affect others. No matter where you go in the country, people delude themselves that climate change won’t affect them.   Even in my home town where there is plenty to worry about.


climate change map

Americans who believe Climate Change will not affect them



Living in Harms Way

I live in an area that felt the brunt of Hurricane Sandy and like most of my neighbors, just received notice that FEMA (Federal Emergency Management Agency) intends to change our  flood classification.  My home on the Cohansey River in Cumberland county NJ will go one notch closer to the coastal flooding zone. Our home insurance will surely increase. So I, rest assured,  am not one who thinks the changing global climate will not affect me.

Yet in the communities along Delaware Bay, all of which have suffered the same FEMA problem, only  a small minority, 35%, think Climate Change will affect them.  Why?  Climate change and it evil coastal minions -sea level rise, increasing frequency of storms, higher storm surge – have already taken a toll on the Delaware Bay shoreline and the relatively poor coastal communites that desperantly cling to it. Hurricane Sandy glares as the most frightening example.



The eye of Sandy

The storm threatened our homes with wind and flooding when the  enormous eye of the Sandy drifted over the bayshore.  A supreme silence followed it.  My wife Mandy and I knew it was the eye and expected the rest to be similar.  Until then the wind, rain and fury were bad, but not life threatening.  Than a fist of westerly wind battered our home.  It literally shook.   Sitting in our living room, we worried about the house, staring in particular at the one expanse of window I did not cover with plywood.  It flexed in than out as though some giant stood outside drawing in a breath.  The scene could not be forgotten.  Outside the same wind savaged the bay coastline leaving towns like Fortescue and Reeds Beach ravaged.  Nearly 70% of the horseshoe crab breeding beaches were lost in those back-of-the-eye westerlys.



The road to our house flooded when the dike on the right overflowed at high tide.

One can argue Hurricanes have always come and gone in this area, but Sandy was a special one. Known by meterologists as a post tropical hurricane, or one that birthed in the warm tropical waters of equatorial Atlantic but than spends this energy in the lower latitudes.  Instead it entered into the warmer than normal middle Atlantic and it gained energy.  Like a fallen evil force it rebuilt itself and went on to smashed the coasts of NJ and NY, devastating large portion of the mid Atlantic Coast. Sandy was only the second post tropical storms on record.

This year we had two more, Hermine and Mathew that punished the coast of Florida, South Carolina and North Carolina. Post tropical storms are a result of climate change, pure and simple. This is global warming in action.

Take a look at Hurricane Hermine as it is reborn in the bosom of the mid Atlantic. Keep in mind it lurked just on the doorstep of Delaware Bay.



Since we moved into our town along the Delaware Bay we have had a series of serious weather events, all unprecedented in thier own way.  In July 2010 a Derecho, a weird thunderstorm that grows like a malignant sore, eventual forming a deep band of an ever-expanding storm of  lightening, thunder, wind and rain.  At our home we saw a half-hour nighttime light show that left us blinded much of the time and pelted us with horizontal torrent of rain.  The storm tore up trees laden with summer foliage damaging electric lines to the extent that we lost power for 7 days.

Not long after, Hurricane Irene drenched the state with water causing the destruction of many early 20th century bridges and dams.  For months afterward, leaving our house required a deft local knowledge to avoid all the blown out bridges.  Than Sandy, the mother of local catastrophes, descended upon us.   Finally last winter a freak northeaster took out much of the beaches restored by the coastal community in the aftermath of Sandy and lifted bay tide levels to near record levels.





And yet the prevailing view in this area is climate change won’t affect them personally!  Its delusional when you think of it.   Unfortunately it’s a widely shared delusion.

In fact most people in our country are under some serious threat especially those near the coasts, along waterways, as well as those who depend on water in dry lands or subject to fire in fire prone western areas.  In other words most of the population of the United States is threatened according to Global Climate, a federal  interagency group whose mission is link cutting edge climate science and the public.




As illustrated in the map from Climate most people in the country will be affected by impacts of Climate Change.


Looking on the Bright Side of Climate Change


So at least in this blogs view, when it comes to the planet or even our home area we are doing the equivalent of ignoring the credit card balance while spending with abandon.  We know the costs are rising, we know hurricanes, tornado, fires and  floods are increasing in frequency.  We know all this and hope if we don’t look closely it will go away, or not happen to us. Lets keep spending until we hit the limit.

Add to that the fact that the issue has become imbued with partisan contention, the death knell of reasonableness and problem-solving.  It must be a wonderful comfort for our leaders to pretend there is a pro and con, and thus requires endless blather.   Prevarications abound. Maybe it is a plot to distract us from alt-right issues like global conspiracies to take away our freedom. Why decline into worry about the future of humanity,  when we can play Trumpian games. But lets face the facts, we allow it.




But I also fault scientists and the environmentalists.  Most of our discussion focuses on convincing the public, politicians and policy makers of the reality of climate change. As in this post on the Union of Concerned Scientists website where the focus is all on the negative economic impacts. There is, of course, no argument to this but it leaves one wanting more.

Perspective is everything. Shouldn’t we be talking more about how responding to impacts will always be a losing game.  Why not think about how our world would benefit if the solutions to climate change actually unfolded in a truly awsome way. Clean energy could mean every home is an independant producer of energy at little cost to the occupant. They might even make money. Cars that spew nothing. New, elegant and creative infrastructure that stops the castrophic destruction of our towns and cities.  The restoration of flood controlling wetlands, storm absorbing coastal marsh and CO2-consuming old age forests.  Offsets for industrial greenhouse gas would pay landowners to  essentially managed their lands for wildlife.  We could stop responding to damaging hurricanes with billions of repairs and instead put people to work developing storm resistant tidal gates, roads and coastal shorelines. It would cost, but the benefits to our economy would quickly be absorbed through increased growth and reduced damages (and insurance payouts).

This is my perspective. I want the Delaware Bay, its marshes, beaches, fisheries and wildlife to be secure in the face of rising sea levels  and all it portends!

And it’s possible to do so.


 Climate Change and the Past and Future of Delaware Bay

The Delaware Bay, like many of our natural landscapes suffers a mulititude of problems to be sure. Most, however, are self-inflicted wounds. Take the bay’s marshes. Many have lamented the advanced rate of erosion of barrier beaches and marsh on the bay, pointing to the year-on-year loss of truly scary amounts of marsh. Take a look at the loss at Egg Island Point, the most remote and largest contigous marsh area on the bay. Its easy to see that the marsh has changed dramatically since 1930. The shore has eroded, creekbanks and ponds have expanded. It looks like the melting glazier in Greenland.






Now look at the Delaware Bay Shoreline near Dennis Creek. especially in the  western  portion of the photo.  In the 1930’s most of the area was farmed for salt hay. On the far left one can see with the slider that between 1930 an 2012, an entire salt hay farm was sweep from its moorings and by 2012 it had become the bay’s largest mudflat.  Nearly a mile of bay shoreline was lost.  Was this Climate Change in action?




The surging waters generated by the forces of Climate change played a role, but the  abandonment of the centuries old practice of farming salt hay played a central role.

From the beginning of English settlement in the early 1700’s farmers diked the tidal wetlands  of Delaware Bay to add more area to their farms.  Some used the land to make crops, but most cut only salt hay.  It had a lot of uses mostly because it was virtually rot proof and arrested freezing.  Workers would spread it over concrete in frosty weather and stuff it into coffin mattresses to retard rot,  Cattle grazed it.



The Coombs salt hay farm on Delaware Bay near Cedarville.


Some areas of the Delaware Bay were well suited, because of the abundant high marsh or patens marsh, so named for it dominant plant species Spartina Patens.   A patens marsh floods only during the highest high tides, usually around full and new moon.  It easy to cut hay on Patens marsh because it is relatively firm for a marsh.  In fact the last remaining salt hay farm on the bay still cuts high marsh.

Not satisfied with natural patens marsh, colonial farmers started diking marsh to  keep out the tide.  This allow spartina patens to grow in more tidally flood marsh – Spartina Alternifora – and for longer tide-free periods.  It also stopped the marsh from being replenished from sediment entrained in the tidal water.  The added exposure to air also increased decomposition of underlying marsh muck.  As a result marshes fell in elevation.  Over hundreds of years, most of the Delaware Bay marsh lowered in elevation so that the diked marshes were as much as 2 feet lower than surrounding natural marsh.  All went fine  while there were dikes.

And then there were no dikes.  Farming marsh became unprofitable in the 60’s and slowly dikes were overwashed or broken through by an increasing frequency of storms and the relentless increase in sea height. Now we are gaining about 4 mm a year.   The process hastened when state agencies and conservation groups took over marsh ownership and then did nothing to manage the impact of the dramatic ecological shift underway. This is what happened to the marsh  in the  slider above .  When the dikes were abandoned the marsh was lost.  Once it was lost so was the beach.

So.  We can look at this messy history as a sign of climate change or see it for what it is — a combination of unfortunate circumstances exacerbated by Climate Change.  More than that however, it is a chance to use this our more complete understanding to remake the bay marsh, improving its productivity for fish and wildlife in the process, and providing a front line defense against the inevitable impacts of climate change.  Its possible, because healthy marsh unaffected by salt hay farming can accrete in elevation equal to the increases in sea level rise. At this point we can say, once fixed, the Delaware Bay marsh could outlast the impact of climate change.

But there are many obstacles.  Money is a big one.  To restore the elevation in a marsh will require millions.  This is practically pocket change compared to beach renourishment on the Atlantic, but would represent a sea change in funding for marsh restoration in the mid-Atlantic.  But why not include this work with all the other work aimed at repairing  our natural infrastructure in response to climate change?


So Why Are We Not Talking About Climate Change?


It fair to say the most obvious reason is our leaders are playing us for suckers.  The dysfunctional response  to Climate Change is just another aspect of that.  Why do we have intelligent members of congress arguing against the entire scientific community while ignoring clear warning signs that the consequence of this ignorance will be grave?  Its stupid, but unfortunately not the only case of idiocy in our electoral mudfest.

But we, all of us to some extent, are treating climate change  like it is a bill to be paid, that we just cannot pay.  There is truth to this but not in the way one might think.  A survey conducted by Center for Policy Integrity of economists estimated the high costs  not of action, but of inaction.

  • On average, economic experts predicted far higher economic impacts from climate change than the estimates found in older surveys of economists and other climate experts. Respondents predicted a global GDP loss of roughly 10% if global mean temperature increases by 3°C relative to the pre-industrial era by 2090 (this increase approximates a “business as usual” emissions scenario).

In other words  the economic damage will result from our not acting, not because of the costs of acting.  Ironically we will put our children and our grandchildren in grave debt by not acting, and  they may not be able to pay.    Actually there could be no cost to acting because it will be the first step towards a truly new future. Creativity, productivity, longevity will result when we embrace the problem.   I wish the president could mobilize us in this way , just as President Kennedy proclaimed  landing on the moon as a national goal.  President Obama is trying but were not listening.

Take the first step and vote for action on Climate Change this election. But afterwards stay on top of your congressional representative and senators and insist on action to deal with climate change.

I like to say Catholics are doing thier share, partly because I was raised Catholic.    Pope Francis wrote Laudato Si, a theological justification for action on climate change, and a call to the clergy to do what they can.  Than he created the Climate Covenant, a global movement to encourage clergy to take actions in substantive ways.  Slowly it shifts the perspective of Catholics as it is clear in the polling.

But its not all activism.  Its also investment in our our actions, homes and lives.  I find it all very exciting.

Look at how Elon Musk and his company Tesla, are disrupting the home energy market.  Early this year he made a daring move against market wisdom by buying Solar City, one of the largest providers of solar power.  Musk’s contrary move was judged risky.  But he had more in mind.  Just a few weeks ago he stunned market analysts with a  new solar technology, solar roof shingles.  They were  so similar to regular shingles that those invited to see them didn’t know the roof they were staring at was generating solar energy.


So Musk’s companys now offer an all electric  car,  a home storage battery that can store solar power for night time use and unobtrusive solar roof shingles.  If you own the whole package you will be living off the sun.

That what we can look forward to in the new climate economy.