Saturday, December 31, 2016

Before the Flood

I really did not want to see Before the Flood, even though I teach several courses that relate directly to it. I pictured myself viewing it like a kid (or me) at a scary movie, watching through little gaps between my fingers as I try to shield my eyes from the screen. I have watched An Inconvenient Truth and its sequel a few times, and even with Al Gore's dry presentation, I found it nervous-making, at least.
Melting Arctic ice. Some parts of the film actually are pretty frightening.
So when I heard that a real film-maker had produced something very convincing about climate change, I knew that I had to see it and would want to avoid it, at the same time. Given the dramatic potential of climate change, I feared being sucked into an experience that would manipulate audience emotions with dramatic music and images of peril.

Thankfully, this film does none of that, and I managed to watch it three times in a ten-day period, without being scarred.

Leonardo DiCaprio documents his travels as the U.N. Ambassador for Peace over a two-year period. Of course, I felt compelled to map his travels for him:

 He speaks in grown-up terms to a broad audience about the physical evidence for climate change and the possibilities for mitigation and adaptation, though students I showed it to found attention to remedies insufficient.

The variety of places included in the film exemplify the many important ways in which climate change is experienced -- from the disruption of crops to the rising of seas to the disruption of Hollywood film planning. Among the more interesting remedies is a more concerted effort to build batteries. The earth receives far more solar power than is needed to provide all the electricity we need -- even in New England, solar power is providing almost all of the electricity my family uses over the course of the year. This is only possible because our summer surpluses are "stored" on the grid. For solar to be a comprehensive solution, advanced batteries must be more widely available, and DiCaprio explores how this could be done.

DiCaprio could have focused more of the film on mitigation and prevention if he were making it for any audience other than a U.S. audience. But in this country, a significant amount of any discussion of climate change must be spent (squandered) on establishing that it even exists, despite mounting evidence that it does.

In my own classes, I have learned to spend relatively little time on climate denial for two reasons. First, I do not have to undertake similar apologetics for other topics, even if the topics are uncomfortable. Second, moving the discussion from scientific questions to matters of opinion is likely to use quite a lot of class time, and to do so ineffectively.

When I showed students an early draft of this blog post and asked for their suggestions, though, several suggested that I include the screenshot above -- it is a map of the relationships between semi-academic or even faux-academic organizations and their funders. The funding does not necessarily negate the findings of these think tanks, but it does suggest that skepticism would be better placed on the skeptics than on the scientists they doubt. Or harass and threaten, as DiCaprio details in the case of a scientist whose family was bullied by deniers.

Lagniappe -- not just Miami

DiCaprio's conversations with local planners in Miami are among the more persuasive sequences in Before the Flood. While members of Congress can respond to campaign donors, local officials have to respond to rising water. The increasingly frequent "sunny-day floods" in Miami are impossible to ignore, and are a very good reason to watch this film.

Shortly after I watched the film, I found a similar story from my former home in Maryland, where I studied and worked on the Chesapeake Bay in the 1980s ... and where I enjoyed a skipjack sail last summer. Baltimore Magazine recently published The Sea Also Rises, about the loss of low-lying areas in the Chesapeake Bay.

When I think of areas that are particularly vulnerable to rising waters, of course, I think of Miami, New Orleans and Louisiana generally, Bangladesh, and island nations such as Kiribati. But I should have thought of the unique geography of the Chesapeake Bay. Known by indigenous people as Great Shellfish Bay, it remains an important fishery, but the fish, crabs, and oysters are under pressure from suburban sprawl and its effects on both the quality of water and the concentration of runoff. The bay is quite shallow -- less than 40 feet deep over most of its area.  If a map of the entire 200-mile-long bay were printed on a sheet of paper, its greatest depths could be represented by scratches that would not go through the entire thickness of the sheet. Because the Chesapeake estuary is a post-Pleistocene flood of a series of river valleys, its coastline is incredibly intricate -- 8,000 miles of water front surround a 200-mile body of water --  a real boon to realtors!

I'm not sure whether that 8,000-mile figure includes islands, but it is certainly the case that islands are an important part of the human geography of the Bay. And it is the water rising around these islands that is the focus of Ron Cassie's excellent reporting.

In 2010, for example, this house became the last house to be lost to the waters rising around Holland Island. A significant portion of the island has disappeared since I took a course on the Bay as an undergraduate.
I'm getting older, but not enough older that this much of an island
should have disappeared since I was in college.
Lagniappe -- China database

The film includes pollution monitoring in China as one example of the many ways in which people around the world are taking responsibility for addressing climate change. I decided to track down some details for readers of this blog.

The organization profiled is the Institute of Public and Environmental Affairs (IPE), which is described in some detail on social-entrepreneurship website of the Skoll Foundation. The Institute hosts a real-time map of pollution sources of various types, shown in both English and Mandarin.
Dec 7 snapshot of air sources from IPE.
Some of these sources contribute directly to climate change; some also compound the damage to public health caused by climate change, and others are simply environmental problems that warrant attention and abatement efforts, regardless of any climate connection.

Friday, December 30, 2016

My Fellow Americans...

Although described by Huffington Post as squashing the question, author and NPR correspondent Tom Gjelten is gracious in his conversation with a C-SPAN listener who called in to suggest "vetting" migrants from Puerto Rico. Gjelten ignores the racist undertones of a call that begins by praising migrants from Norway and then goes on to suggest that migrants from Puerto Rico need extra screening. Rather, Gjelten patiently explains the difference between migration and immigration -- people from Puerto Rico cannot immigrate to the United States because they are already here.

Gjelten takes it easy on the caller for two reasons. One is that his style is naturally inclusive, and he is used to conversations with people of many different ideological persuasions -- so he glides past the "good" immigrant memories in order to get to the teachable moment.. The other reason might be that he knows the breadth of geographic ignorance in the United States, even regarding our own country.

The status of the Commonwealth is unusual, and even as a geographer I sometimes need reminding of the details. It is a semi-colonial place that has partial representation, full citizenship, limited taxation, and almost no autonomy. It is a complex relationship that is explored in cogent detail by actress and comedian Rosie Perez in her film ¡Yo soy Boricua, pa'que tu lo sepas! (available on Netflix DVD and elsewhere).

For more on Puerto Rico, see our 2010 Celebrating the States entry (from our year of marking the entrance of each state or state-like entity into the United States) and our posts about a Puerto Rico-related film and book. For comparison, I also suggest our post about my home town, which also has a semi-colonial relationship to the United States.

Finally, feel free to enjoy some of the photos we took during our first visit to Puerto Rico, in May 2016. We had won a stay in a villa near San Juan at a school auction over a year earlier, and were glad to be able to enjoy several parts of the island as a family. Of course we included a coffee farm! And we did not need our passports.
Photo from my first visit to the island. See the full collection of
Hayes-Boh photos from Puerto Rico 2016 

Sunday, December 25, 2016

Your Cheatin' Climate

Lipstick on the collar
Strange phone calls and hang-ups
Working late far too often
Business travel with an attractive co-worker
You get the picture...

No one of these things proves an affair, but a pattern draws suspicion. Hire a PI, and the pattern is confirmed. Hire 100 PIs, and 97 of them agree. This still proves nothing, but the next strange event will be hard to ignore.

I watched the Leonardo DiCaprio film Before the Flood three times in the past couple weeks -- twice with classes and once with my spouse (and fellow climate-change scholar). At the end of this period, our New England weather was swinging wildly -- not setting record highs or lows for these December days, but coming close. And more importantly, changing extremes from high to low on a daily basis.

This results from oscillations in the flow of the jet stream that are more meridional (N-S) than zonal (E-W). Changes of this kind have been anticipated by climate scientists for decades, and in fact are the main reason the term "climate change" came to replace the original nomenclature.

No single week of temperature swings in a single place "proves" that our climate is unraveling. But such swings are consistent with the finding that the changes that were starting to become evident during my graduate-school days are now quite well established. At this point, our climate is Michael Douglas as Dan Gallagher, and that lipstick really should not be ignored.

Sunday, December 04, 2016

Breaking with Reagan

I became a geographer as an undergraduate, while Ronald Reagan was president. His lack of international experience and his commitment to simplistic views of geopolitics was worrisome, and also amusing. This poster went on my wall in those days, and I moved it from place to place for years. The original, tattered print is probably buried in my office somewhere; I was fortunate to find a clear version on Kelso's Corner, the blog of Washington Post cartographer Nathaniel Vaughn Kelso (the actual artist is named Horsey).
Those who know me know that I could digress -- and I probably will in class next week -- about many parts of this map. But for now I will focus on just one corner of the map -- the outsized island labeled "Our China" -- better known as Taiwan or more archaically as Nationalist China.

Of the two, Taiwan is by far the closer to the United States in terms of political outlook, but mainland China is far more important in economic terms, as a major supplier of many billions of dollars in products each year. Even before trade became so important, its military might meant that U.S. presidents were loathe to speak very honestly about our relationship with Taiwan, generally pretending not to recognize it.

So even though Ronald Reagan was perhaps the staunchest anti-communist president we ever had, he participated in the awkward diplomatic charade of pretending not to recognize both Chinas as the same time. In fact, he refused to speak to Taiwan's president, even though he had a deep ideological affinity for Taiwan. None of Reagan's successors have changed that practice..

Until this week.

Technically, of course, it is still the case that no president of either party has yet parted ways with the Gipper in theory or in practice. But a president-elect has done so, and knowledgeable diplomats are aghast. Even those who wished to change the policy have been alarmed by the cavalier way in which it was done. The exception seems to be the intransigent John Bolton, who might actually have orchestrated Donald Trump's latest faux pas.

Writing about the call and its aftermath, Evan Osnos of The New Yorker concedes that it might very well be time to end the charade and admit our de facto recognition of Taiwan. But the approach was reckless, creating substantial new risks.  Osnos explains how entertainer-turned-politician Trump may actually have walked into a trap. He writes:
I spoke to a former Republican White House official whom Trump has consulted, who told me, “Honestly, the problem with Donald is he doesn’t know what he doesn’t know.” It turns out that is half of the problem; the other half is that he has surrounded himself with people who know how much he doesn’t know. 
As evil as John Bolton's intentions usually are, he is quite smart, and certainly able to realize an opportunity in Trump's lack of background in foreign policy. His influence is all the greater, given that Trump has waived off most of the actual policy briefings he has been offered. Osnos notes that this is exactly what George W. Bush did as he entered office -- when he ignored intelligence on preparations then being made by one Osama bin Laden.

Or perhaps it was not ignorance at all, but a very simple conflict of interest. Osnos writes:
Trump and his family are currently trying to win a lucrative contract with a Taiwanese city: “A representative from the Trump Organization paid a visit to [the city of] Taoyuan in September, expressing interest in the city’s Aerotropolis, a large-scale urban development project aimed at capitalizing on Taoyuan’s status as a transport hub for East Asia ...

Saturday, December 03, 2016

Practical Geography

I always knew that the U.K. had a lot of pubs, but I did not realize it was quite this many. Go ahead, count them:
To understand which parts of these islands are in the UK and which are not, I recommend
a five-minute tutorial on the UK by CGP Gray
Done counting? It is quite a few, is it not? Some but not all are mentioned in Bill Bryson's book Little Dribbling, which I have written about recently here and here. I expect to have maps of some of those pubs in the spring, when my geography seniors will be mapping some aspects of the book.

The snapshot above was created for the benefit of those whose computers or phones might not support exploration of the actual map. It is included in an article that finds this pub map somewhat reassuring. One comment suggests -- humorously -- that the map reveals something about alcoholism in the UK. I am no expert on pubs, but the ubiquity depicted here reinforces my notion that pubs are at least as much about community as they are drink.

The default view of the actual dataset is an area of London that includes several dozen pubs, centered on a Yahoo! office. I chose to explore Glasgow, which will be a destination for me in the next few years, possibly for a family wedding and definitely to explore the place from which the first Bohanan (Buchanan) migrated in 1734. (Andrew Bohanan was 25 when he was pressed into naval service, perhaps as he overstayed in a pub one night; he promptly went AWOL when he reached Boston. Yes, I am an 11th-generation undocumented migrant. But I digress.)
When the time comes, I will need to do "research" in several pubs, but I think I will start with the Iron Horse, handily located as it is near Buchanan Street and Buchanan Gardens. In addition to a pint or two of ale, I will also be seeking the family recipe that we always keep at our house.

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