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Tuesday, February 24, 2015

Missing the Big Picture

"That one death is a tragedy, a million deaths a statistic, is as true of animals as it is of human beings. It’s a lot harder to mourn a potential loss of an entire habitat — as is threatened now for birds like the chestnut-collared longspur — than it is to mourn a golden eagle struck down by a turbine blade, or a warbler scorched in a solar farm. The technology for wind and solar farms can still be improved, but they are among the few remedies we have to the biggest problem humanity has ever faced.'' 
To grasp climate change, you have to think in terms of species and their future. To know how things have already changed, you have to remember how they used to be, and so you may not notice birds disappearing from the skies, or hotter weather or more extreme storms and forest fires. You need to look past the sparrow and see the whole system that allows — or allowed — the birds to flourish. The swallows, the chinook salmon, desert tortoises, manatees, moose and us. Addressing climate means fixing the way we produce energy. But maybe it also means addressing the problems with the way we produce stories. Supporters of fossil fuel and deniers of climate change love to trade in stories like the one about Ivanpah, individual tales that make renewable energy seem counterproductive, perverse. Stories cannot so readily capture the far larger avian death toll from coal, gas and nuclear power generation. Benjamin Sovacool, an energy-policy expert, looked into the deaths of birds at wind farms (where the blades can chop them down) and concluded that per gigawatt hour, nuclear power plants kill more than twice as many birds and fossil-fuel plants kill more than 30 times as many. He noted that over the course of a year fossil-fuel plants in the United States actually kill about 24 million birds, compared to 46,000 by wind farms. His calculations factor in climate change as part of their deadly impact.

A northern rough-winged swallow with scorched wings found near the site of the Ivanpah Solar Electric Generating System in the Mojave Desert.
Over all, climate change tends to be reported as abstract explanations about general tendencies and possible outcomes. It’s a difficult subject to tell and to take in. The scientific side is complicated. Understanding it requires the ultimate in systems thinking: the cumulative effect of all of us burning coal and oil impacts things far away and yet to come. A lot of it is hard to see. If you didn’t pay attention to a species beforehand, you won’t have noticed its decline. There’s no direct, tangible way for you to know the ocean is 30 percent more acidic than it used to be, or that it is expected to rise several feet in this century and then keep rising. For a while our eyes were on the photographs of oil-soaked pelicans, victims of the 2010 BP blowout in the Gulf of Mexico. The devastation of the region is no longer news, but scientists, who track data for long unnewsworthy swathes of time, have found that the spill has killed more than 600,000 birds. It is still killing sea turtles and bottlenose dolphins and contaminating the seafood in areas where human beings fish. You have to look past what can be photographed — individual cases, incidents in the past — at the broad patterns. A recent Audubon Society report on climate change concludes: “Of the 588 North American bird species Audubon studied, more than half are likely to be in trouble. Our models indicate that 314 species will lose more than 50 percent of their current climatic range by 2080. Of the 314 species at risk from global warming, 126 of them are classified as climate endangered. These birds are projected to lose more than 50 percent of their current range by 2050.”"